Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.07.19 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.07.19

Philip Hardie (ed.), Augustan Poetry and the Irrational.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2016.  Pp. xiv, 327.  ISBN 9780198724728.  $125.00.  

Reviewed by Patricia A. Johnston, Brandeis University (

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Philip Hardie has now added another survey book to his long list of publications.1 Augustan Poetry and the Irrational is a collection of essays concerning the traditional late Republican and Augustan poets (Vergil, Horace, Catullus, Lucretius, Ovid, and Propertius), as well as later authors as interpreters of their works. The essays represent papers delivered at a conference of the same name, which in turn was inspired by E. R. Dodds' book of 1951, The Greeks and the Irrational.

In the introductory chapter of the book, Hardie presents a most interesting discussion of the perception of ‘rational’ Romans, particularly under Augustan rule, vs. the so-called ‘irrationality’ often attributed to the Greeks, but which he maintains is “an oversimplification … except in the case of certain periods of architecture: the other visual arts never eschew the representation of human passions. But what is …not so expected in the Augustan poets is that we find not just celebration of the mastery of irrationality, of the passions, of disorder and chaos, but something of an obsession with the danger, that passion and irrationality once suppressed will burst out once more. Furor is the key term here….” (4). “Furor can be subdued but not destroyed….When furor runs out of steam it is time for the Augustan poet to stop writing poetry, and it is with flat negatives that Horace signs off his lyric project in the last poem of Odes 4.15.17-20” (5).

This is certainly not a statement with which I would disagree. The collection as a whole brings an interesting focus on the basic struggle which led to the stabilization one associates with the Augustan age. Some of the papers focus Roman hostility, such as Elena Giusti (“My Enemy’s Enemy is my Enemy”), who focuses on “Virgil’s Carthage” with which she interweaves Euripides’ Bacchae in Aeneid IV. Rebeggiani then brings Orestes into the fray (“Orestes, Aeneas, and Augustus”), particularly in Aen. III. Labate then turns to witches in Horace’s Sat. 1.6 (“The Night of Reason: The Esquiline and Witches in Horace”).

In the next section of essays (Part 2), Hass (“Beyond ‘Cosmos’ and ‘Logos’: An Irrational Cosmology in Virgil, Georgics 1.231-58”) balances the basic feature of Augustan culture, which he sees as “a process by which ‘rational’ order overcomes ‘irrational’ chaos.” (97), and Schwindt and Gowers further consider the importance of numbers in Augustan poetry, with Gowers paying heed to the ratio portion of irrationality. (134).

The papers in sections 3, 4, and 5 are at least as complex, so that summaries do not really do them justice, The entire collection takes a valid look at the other side, however, of the widely accepted view of Augustan ‘rationality,’ which should be taken into account in any discussion of this phenomenon.

The papers are divided into the categories reflecting this emphasis. They are grouped under five topics: Part 1. Civil War: Expiation and the Return of the Repressed; Part 2. Order and Disorder: Counting and Accounts; Part 3. Reason and Desire, Part 4. Self-Contradictions: Philosophy and Rhetoric, and Part 5. Virgilian Figures of the Irrational. The titles capture well the scope and ambition of the volume:

Part 1. Civil War: Expiation and the Return of the Repressed
Elena Giusti, “My Enemy’s Enemy is my Enemy: Virgil’s Illogical Use of metus hostilis
Stefano Rebeggiani, “Orestes, Aeneas, and Augustus: Madness and Tragedy in Virgil’s Aeneid
Mario Labate, “The Night of Reason: The Esquiline and Witches in Horace”

Part 2. Order and Disorder: Counting and Accounts
Christian D. Hass, “Beyond ‘Cosmos’ and ‘Logos’: An Irrational Cosmology in Vergil, Georgics 1.231-58?”
Jürgen Paul Schwindt, “The Magic of Counting: on the Cantatoric Status of Poetry (Catullus 5 and 7; Horace Odes 1.11) ”
Emily Gowers, “Under the Influence: Maecenas and Bacchus in Georgics 2”

Part 3. Reason and Desire
Jane Burkowski, “Apollo in Tibullus 2.3 and 2.5”
Jaqueline Fabri-Serris, “The ars rhetorica: An Ovidian remedium for Female furor?”
William Fitzgerald, “Augustan Gothic: Alexander Pope Reads Ovid”
Donncha O’Rourke, “The Madness of Elegy: Rationalizing Propertius”

Part 4.Self-Contradictions: Philosophy and Rhetoric
Mario Citroni, “The Value of Self-deception: Horace, Aristippus, Heraclides Ponticus, and the Pleasures of the Fool (and of the Poet)”
S. J. Heyworth, “Irrational Panygyric in Augustan Poetry”

Part 5. Virgilian Figures of the Irrational
Severine Clément-Tarantino, “Caderent omnes a crinibus hydri: The Problems of the Irrational in the Juno and Allecto Episode in Aeneid 7”
Philip Hardie, “Adamastor and the Epic Poet’s Dark Continent”


1.   Key publications include: The last Trojan hero. A cultural history of Virgil's Aeneid (I. B. Tauris 2014); Rumour and Renown. Representations of fama in western literature (Cambridge 2012); Classical Literary Careers and their Reception, co-edited with Helen Moore (Cambridge 2010); Lucretian Receptions. History, the Sublime, Knowledge (Cambridge 2009); (ed.) Paradox and the Marvellous in Augustan Literature and Culture (Oxford 2009); Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, co-edited with Stuart Gillespie (Cambridge 2007); Ovid's Poetics of Illusion (Cambridge 2002).

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