Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.12.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.12.35

Elena Giusti, Carthage in Virgil's 'Aeneid': Staging the Enemy under Augustus. Cambridge classical studies.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.  Pp. xiv, 334.  ISBN 9781108416801.  £75.00.  


Reviewed by Claire Stocks, University of Newcastle (claire.stocks@newcastle.ac.uk)

Elena Giusti’s brilliant book on one of the most studied works in Latin Literature, Virgil’s Aeneid, offers a fresh perspective by shifting the focus from Aeneas and his proto-romanitas to Carthage, Rome’s legendary antithesis. Giusti weaves a tale of two halves, with the first two chapters of this book focusing on Virgil’s employment of barbarian tropes to present the mythical—and fictionalized—Carthage as Rome’s ‘other’, evoking memories of the Greeks’ treatment of the Persians on the tragic stage as well as looking forward to Augustus’ war with Cleopatra and Egypt as well as the Parthians. At the same time, she argues, Virgil’s Carthaginians also play the role of Trojans and so establish themselves as Rome’s mirror, a position that ties in well with the images of civil-war that also lie latent within Books One to Four of the Aeneid. In chapters three and four, Giusti shifts focus to consider the interaction between Virgil and Livy, and their shared fictionalizing of Rome’s past. Virgil’s willingness to forgo temporal consistency in the Carthage episode allows him to present it as a mythical, 'fake' aition for the three Punic wars, and Giusti argues convincingly for multiple allusions to all three of these wars in this episode.

Giusti begins by focusing on mid-republican literature and Rome’s portrayal of Carthage within it. Despite working with material that is at times (extremely) fragmentary, Giusti constructs a convincing reading of Carthage as Rome’s ‘other’, in a manner reminiscent of the Greeks’ portrayal of the (Persian) barbarian. In stating her case, Giusti makes clear the importance of Greece within this discourse as Rome’s republican authors explore not only the dynamic between Rome and Carthage at this time, but also how this relationship reflects upon Rome’s status as a city and cultural hub in relation to Greece. The Greeks, Giusti argues, offer Rome a model for how to approach the process of self-definition and how to use the barbarian other as a means of exploring issues of polarity and analogy between peoples. The irony, as Giusti touches upon it here (and explores in greater detail later) is that Carthage rarely, if ever, is portrayed as a ‘barbarian’ foe by Rome’s authors. Of particular note is the discussion on Plautus’ Poenulus. Here, Giusti argues for a deliberate similarity in the playwright’s portrayal of Carthage and Rome, which she suggests may result from the fact that both find themselves in the position of ‘other’ in relation to the trend-setting Greeks: from a Greek perspective, both Carthage and Rome could be considered the barbarians.

After arguing convincingly that the portrayal of Carthage in mid-republican literature underscores its portrayal in Roman texts thereafter, Giusti progresses in chapter two to a more direct discussion of Virgil’s Aeneid, as she explores the parallels between the Carthaginian Dido and literary models that include Medea, Helen, Atossa, and, of course, Cleopatra. In the multiple roles assumed by Dido, we can see a reflection of Carthage itself, and its vacillation between playing the role of Rome’s ‘other’ as well as its ‘self’. On the one hand, Virgil continues the mid-republican trend of presenting Carthage as Rome’s equivalent to the Persians: “Thus the Persian-Carthaginian parallel bolsters a sense of Roman national identity in continuity with the Greeks” (127). Yet, since Virgil is writing under Augustus, his Carthaginians are also parallel to the Parthians. Casting Carthage as the enemy that poses a contemporary threat serves an important function—namely evoking the metus hostilis, ‘fear of the enemy,’ which Rome has arguably not experienced since the third Punic war. That Rome, so its authors would have us believe, has not had an enemy since the Carthaginian wars, has played a decisive role in setting the city on a path to civil war, most recently in the war between Octavian and Antony. In associating Carthage with Parthia, therefore, Virgil suggests that the threat of another civil war will be avoided, as Augustus reignites Rome’s fear of the enemy through a war with the Parthians. Yet, Giusti argues, the constant analogies between Virgil’s Carthage and Rome demonstrate that the threat of civil war cannot be forgotten and that Virgil’s text repeatedly evokes the painful memories of such a conflict, not least because it was through such conflict that Augustus established his principate.

In chapter three Giusti turns her attention to Livy and to the association that Virgil appears to build between Carthage and Troy. The importance of reading Livy and Virgil together is stressed, as is the fact that the relationship between the two authors has not received the attention that it merits. It is at this point that Giusti introduces one of her strongest arguments and an ingenious solution to the temporal inconsistency of Virgil’s Carthage episode. The problem, as Giusti reminds us, is that it is impossible to calculate exactly how long Aeneas stays in Carthage. The episode itself implies a stay of some length, but once Aeneas returns to Sicily in subsequent books, Virgil suggests that very little time has passed since Aeneas was last on the island. The crux of the matter, Giusti argues, is that Virgil’s audience would have known that any meeting between Dido and Aeneas, even a legendary one, could not have taken place since there is a discrepancy of several centuries between the dates recorded by Rome’s authors for the fall of Troy and the foundation of Carthage. The fictionality of this episode, Giusti concludes, was deliberate and the temporal inconsistency within the text draws attention to this fact: “The encounter is a fable that everyone knows to be false” (174). Our understanding of the role of fictionality in Virgil’s epic, Giusti argues, can be improved by considering how this epic stands in relation to Livy and the use of Fama by both authors as a means of blurring the boundaries between myth and history. By means of several case studies, including a comparison between Livy’s account of Hannibal’s attack on Saguntum at the start of the Second Punic war and Virgil’s Carthage episode, Giusti demonstrates the dialogue between Virgil’s and Livy’s works. The chronological inconsistencies that both appear to embrace highlights their “authorial power” (196) and illustrates their desire to build ideological discourse into their portrayal of history, irrespective of whether they are writing epic or historiography.

Chapter 4 focuses predominantly on Books One to Four of the Aeneid, which we are to view as a unit within the epic (if we assume a tripartite structure for the work). Throughout this chapter, Giusti offers examples of Virgil’s allusions to all three Punic wars, arguing that when read as a whole, Virgil’s Carthage episode serves an historical allegory for that conflict and thus looks beyond the obvious association between the pairing of Carthage and Dido with Egypt and Cleopatra. Book one of the epic employs multiple allusions to Naevius, among other sources, to draw parallels with the first Punic War. In Book Four, Giusti argues, Virgil then builds a link between Dido and Hannibal and the second Punic war, which again draws him into debate with Livy, especially Book 30 of his history. Finally, she argues that the death of Dido is reminiscent of the destruction of Carthage after the third Punic War. Once Aeneas has left Carthage and hosts the Sicilian ludi in Book Five, Virgil concludes his depiction of this historical allegory by presenting scenes that allude to Rome’s ultimate triumph. Woven into this narrative of the rise and fall of this city, Carthage, is a reminder of the rise and fall of another city, Troy. In paralleling Carthage with Troy, Virgil reminds his readers of Carthage’s function as a mirror for Rome and its Trojan origins. Yet at the same time, Virgil makes a distinction: whereas Carthage, like Troy, will succumb to destruction and the tragic, cyclic, effect of history (such as we see in Livy), Rome is apparently capable of rising above this, despite its recent civil war. For once the civil wars are over and Augustus has come to power, Hannibal’s curse in Aeneid Book Four no longer seems so threatening: “Augustus has demonstrated that the arrow of time can be turned back as far as the Golden Age, so that the end is now projected in a far-removed future for those who still accept a cyclical view of history. This is the real power of the Augustan Re-evolution” (267).

Throughout the whole of this book, there is one concept to which Giusti repeatedly returns: namely the importance and power of tragedy to underscore Rome’s response to, and evaluation of, its wars with Carthage, and itself. From the beginning of chapter One, where Giusti notes the emergence of the barbarian other on the Greek tragic stage, through to the trauma of Rome’s recent civil wars, this book observes the tragic modes present in (e.g.) historiography and notes Virgil’s employment of tragic models and tropes in his portrayal of Carthage in the first four books of his epic. This “common thread” (20), as Giusti refers to it, helps to unite an argument that at times verges on becoming fragmentary due to the many ideas that circulate throughout her book. Overall, the vision and scope of Giusti’s work is impressive, although it still bears some of the hallmarks of a PhD dissertation in its structure and argumentation: the chapters are very long and contain multiple sub-sections, some of which, potentially, could have been developed into their own chapters. There are, however, frequent summaries of the argument throughout, which serve as useful points for the reader to stop and evaluate what he/she has read. In addition, whilst the argument is dense and at times fragmentary, the research behind it is impeccable. The ideas are impressive and Giusti frequently summarizes the history of Virgilian scholarship on key issues relating to the Aeneid in a manner that will make this material both accessible to undergraduates and incredibly useful. The typos are few, and the book as a whole is well produced. This is a worthy addition, therefore, to the body of scholarship on Virgil’s epic.

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