Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.04.18 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.04.18

Martin Stöckinger, Vergils Gaben: Materialität, Reziprozität und Poetik in den Eklogen und der Aeneis. Bibliothek der klassischen Altertumswissenschaften, 148.   Heidelberg:  Universitätsverlag Winter, 2016.  Pp. viii, 281.  ISBN 9783825364625.  €45.00.  


Reviewed by Stephen Harrison, Corpus Christi College, Oxford (Stephen.Harrison@ccc.ox.ac.uk)

This book, a reworked Heidelberg dissertation, aims to show the symbolic value of gifts in Vergil, pointing to their roles in social systems and their narrative function. As the author says, the topic has been marginally touched by other scholars (e.g. in Neil Coffee’s work on reciprocity in Latin epic more generally in The Commerce of War, 2009), but there has been no synoptic treatment. This is one of many reasons why this fine book will be welcome to Vergilian scholars.

The introduction sets out the main areas of interest. This is not an antiquarian project looking at the Realien of gift-giving in Augustan Rome as reflected in poetry, but focusses on the three elements of the subtitle: the function of Vergilian gifts in social reciprocity, their generic inheritance from literary models in both Homer and Theocritus, and their role in literary structures and narratives. Here as elsewhere the author displays an impressive knowledge and application of literary and other theory (sociology and anthropology, Bourdieu and Mauss) and links up well with recent New Historicist and cultural-materialist readings of Roman literature.

The two chapters on the Eclogues look at the way in which the issue of gift-giving characterises speakers: Corydon’s promised extravagant gifts in Eclogue 2 are nicely viewed as symbolising the literary origins of his song as well as his psychological disturbance, adding the garland of epigram (rightly seen as a key source here) to the Theocritean pipe, and good parallels are made with the depressed self-presentation of the poet in Catullus 8 with its similarly futile repetitions. In Eclogue 3 the evident link between singing-competition and gift-exchange is well brought out in a detailed reading of the poem’s dynamics; here by contrast with the isolation of Eclogue 2, the contestants become closer through gift-exchange in the framework of competition. In both of these analyses it is perhaps regrettable that Andrea Cucchiarelli’s excellent 2012 commentary on the Eclogues (reviewed by Richard Thomas in BMCR 2013.05.09) was not used (and Italian work could be more extensively employed generally).

The material on the Aeneid begins with the interesting presentation of narratives as gifts in the context of guest-friendship: both Aeneas’ narrative of his own story in Books 2-3 and Evander’s account of Hercules and Cacus in Book 8 are attractively viewed as offerings to host or guest; in the case of Aeneas his story is rightly said to bring out the more intimate feelings of Dido for the narrator, while Evander’s narrative is nicely seen as delayed reciprocity for the gift-giving of Priam and Anchises which he recalls from the previous generation. One could make the additional point in the case of Evander that tales are a particularly important part of humble hospitality; in the absence of wealth words become more important as gifts (we might compare the narratives of Eumaeus in Homer or Hecale in Callimachus); for Aeneas his extravagant tale is an appropriate reciprocation for Dido’s extravagant hospitality. Good points are made on how Evander’s narrative sets up Hercules as a model for Aeneas, not just intradiegetically in the final battle against Cacus/Turnus, as is well known, but also extradiegetically in his future apotheosis for similar benefits to mankind, which will be celebrated in similar cult at Rome. Aeneas has nothing to offer for the moment, but he has much to give to Italy in the future.

The next chapter moves from narratives as gifts to gifts as narratives; given objects can be bearers of history and memory like Aeneas’ trophy from the Greeks in Book 3, while Aeneas’ offering of Mezentius’ armour as a trophy at the start of Book 11 turns Mezentius’ past impious obsession with spoils and wearing them into a more conventional religious piety (here the admittedly old and hard to find, but still valuable and widely cited, article by Hornsby ['The Armor of the Slain', Philological Quarterly 45 (1966) 347-59] might usefully have been deployed). Stöckinger does not speculate on why Mezentius’ trophy armour has twelve piercings; this may symbolise the twelve cities of Etruria which had united in rebelling against him (cf. 8.494), imagined as taking their revenge on his corpse in the time-gap between Aeneid 10 and 11. Thus gifts have their own biographies and baggage, but can also change function over time; a prime example is the sword given as a love-token by Aeneas to Dido which turns tragically into the means of her suicide, a movement clearly marked in the poem (4.647 non hos quaesitum munus in usus). In the prizes given for the games of Aeneid 5, there is an interesting discussion of the shield given to Nisus, suggesting that Aeneas is aware of its dubious origin in a sacrilegious theft from a temple of Neptune, mentioned by the poet-narrator (5.360) when he gives it as a prize to Nisus who has used unfair tactics in the race. Here more could be made of the proleptic value of the gift: its ominous nature evidently looks forward to Nisus’ future death in Book 9, when the play-war of the games turns into tragic reality on the battlefield. This is an example of the neat link made by Stöckinger between dolum and donum, suggesting that gifts are often dangerous or double-edged; good examples are cited of the robe of Helen presented by Aeneas to Dido (where even more could be made of 1.651’s reference to the dubious marriage of Helen and Paris, surely anticipating the relationship of Dido and Aeneas), and of course the Trojan horse, notionally a pious offering. Stöckinger makes an excellent detailed comparison between the Trojan horse and the story of Pandora as told by Hesiod: both are ‘female’ divine artefacts given as extraordinary gifts which cause immediate catastrophe and destruction.

The next chapter moves to the way in which gifts can stimulate narrative events; this is really where the ‘poetics’ of gift-giving of the subtitle comes in. The key case is the sword-belt of Pallas, which stimulates the death of Turnus (a shame here not to cite the classic treatment by Conte). One issue which could have been further explored here is that of the means and ethics of gift-transfer: the sword-belt is an illicit self-gift by Turnus, who might have lived had he dedicated it piously to the gods (as Aeneas does with Mezentius’ armour). The blood of Aeneid 5.328-33, emanating from a sacrifice to the gods but making Nisus slip in the foot-race, is another neat example of a pious gift turned to negative effect. A good point is made about the narrative function of the gift-giving between Aeneas and Latinus, inaugurating the Trojans’ arrival in Italy and apparently closing the story before Juno’s surprise intervention; one could also see this as an anticipation of what must happen after the poem when Aeneas and Latinus will be reconciled and Latinus will give Aeneas at least the gift of Lavinia in marriage.

Paschalis’ proposed play on the name of Dido as giver (Dido/didomi, Sidonia/donum) is supported here (not unattractively) by emphasis on Dido’s major donations of Book 1. Once again the reversal of gifts over time is nicely stressed: there is a tragic symmetry between the transformation of Aeneas’ sword-gift to Dido into her death-weapon (noted above), and the use of the sword he has been reciprocally given by Dido (cf. 4.261-2) to cut his ship’s cable in his anxiety to leave (an excellent point). It is also well observed how gift-reciprocity has broken down by the time Dido orders the destruction of all the monumenta (4.498) which remind her of her former lover. The next chapter looks at the Penates as a different kind of gift, talismanic, religious and inalienable rather than high in exchange value or symbolically prestigious: they are well compared with the Palladium and the Golden Fleece in both these regards. The Golden Branch, ritual gift for Proserpina (cf. 6.142 munus) might have been added here, a similarly inalienable object connected with the proper destination of a journey.

The final chapter looks at the Shield of Aeneas using the categories the volume has now established. Like Venus’ gift to her son it shows the emotional commitment of Corydon’ s promised gifts to Alexis in Eclogue 2 and reverses the psychologically negative encounter between mother and son in Carthage in Aeneid 1 (note in addition that this time Venus is not in human disguise or under the cover of the forest, but in an open valley in her full divine glory). The shield’s symbolic value and inalienable status is stressed by its practical superfluousness (Aeneas needs no new shield). It has a future biography, playing a symbolic role in Aeneas’ arrival back in Latium in Book 10: Stöckinger rightly points out that Augustus’ triumph depicted on the shield shows a parallel gift-giving, and might have gone further in suggesting that Augustus’ future victory is not possible unless his ancestor conquers now by means of the shield which in fact depicts it.

It is hard to disagree with the book’s major conclusions: that there is no single poetic function for gifts in Vergil but a variety; that they vary in nature from material and highly exchangeable to symbolic and inalienable; that reciprocity in gift-giving is an important principle which is explored in a number of ways; and that modern gift-giving theory is useful in analysing ancient texts. This stimulating volume will be of real interest to interpreters of Vergil, and its methodological lessons can be well applied to other Latin texts; I have here discussed only a selection of its rich interpretations, which make even the most seasoned Vergilian reader see familiar passages in a new and illuminating light.

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