BMCR 1992.02.08

The Gods in Epic: Poets and Critics of the Classical Tradition

, The gods in epic : poets and critics of the classical tradition. New York: Clarendon Press, 1991. xii, 449 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780198140559 $98.00.

In this long and ambitious book Feeney treats epic poetry from Apollonius to Statius, using each poet’s handling of the gods to place his work in its intellectual and historical context. The result is a stunning synthesis of literary and intellectual history, supported, as readers of Feeney’s several important articles on Vergil have come to expect, by acute and stimulating literary analysis.

Feeney uses his introduction and first long chapter (“The Critics”) to lay out his principal themes, discussing not only the ways in which ancient critics read the gods of epic but also the attitudes of both poets and critics to fiction. (Although he modestly exempts professional classicists from reading pages 5-33 in the belief that most of it will be “quite familiar”, they should not take his advice.) His argument rests on two propositions. First, that the epic tradition includes the critics as well as the poets, and that post-Homeric poets were steeped in the conventions of ancient exegesis: “the representation of the divine in post-Homeric epic was not and could not be an unmediated response to earlier poetry, but found its forms within a rich and complex intellectual environment” (p. 2). Second, that depicting or reading the gods in epic is a problem of fiction, of the poet’s authority both to claim that his literary fictions are true and to command belief from his audience.

Poems so self-consciously conceived demand a corresponding strategy from the reader, who must understand above all that truth is a matter of context and genre. Thus: “the gods existed for the ancients according to the rules of the particular context in which they were encountered, whether that be epic, lyric, cult or philosophy…. It is, or ought to be, a truism that our experience of any object or concept is, to some degree, a function of the medium through which we experience it.” (p.45) In fact, ancient critics, as Feeney reminds us (p. 47), expressed this idea by their hierarchy of the three theologies: of poets, of the state, and of philosophers. Similarly, the critics conceived of three levels or kinds of literary reality: historia (setting out what actually happened), plasma (telling of imaginary events as if they were real), muthos (exposition of what never happened). Readers who interpret muthos as if it were historia or plasma mistake the genre before them and misread or read out the gods of epic. Feeney is properly emphatic on this point: “A special handicap for most moderns as readers of ancient epic is our insensible assumption of the naturalistic novel as the norm for narrative – a norm which itself often remains unexamined, since classicists tend to assume that naturalism is ‘natural'” (p. 43).

This groundwork established, Feeney goes on to develop his argument in six chapters: on Apollonius, Naevius and Ennius, Vergil, Ovid, Lucan and Silius Italicus, Valerius Flaccus and Statius. Readers should resist the temptation to read only the chapter/s on their favorite poets. Although each chapter is self-contained (or nearly so), certain themes recur, and the reader who follows them will come to see each poem both in its place in the tradition and in a kind of dialogue with the others on essential topics such as: the authority of the narrator, Herakles/Hercules as the bridge between human and divine (and as the model for other divinized mortals), and the epic as the arena for the fulfillment or accomplishment of divine will.

A few examples will suffice (though this bald sketch does small justice to Feeney’s richly nuanced discussion).

Apollonius reveals the will of Zeus only at the end of the poem and never represents Zeus at all. Feeney argues that his confidence as a narrator is increasingly undermined as his aetiologies “become more and more problematic, anchoring contemporary and real facts in a past which becomes less and less ‘real’ as the poem goes on…” (p. 93). The gods in their encounters with the heroes are only obliquely represented and perceived—just as Aphrodite, the first god represented in the poem, is shown only in a reflection from Ares’ shield in the ecphrasis of Jason’s cloak (1.742-6). In the estrangement of gods and men in Apollonius’ Hellenistic world only Herakles can bridge the gulf, and he only obliquely. After Herakles’ loss to the Argonauts in Book 1 the sea god Glaukos predicts his eventual apotheosis if he can complete his labors; in Book 4 the heroes find themselves in the Garden of the Hesperides, where they are saved from thirst by the spring Herakles had opened the day before, after completing his labors. Although the Argonauts do not succeed in their attempt to catch up with Herakles, the sharp-eyed Lynceus thinks he can see him far off—and the poet uses a simile that Vergil was to borrow for Aeneas’ vision of Dido in the underworld—”as you see the moon, or think you see the moon, on the first day of the month, all obscured” (4.1477-80, Feeney’s translation, p. 96). “He has gone virtually all the way down the path towards becoming a god, and that is the extraordinary interstitial point which Apollonius captures in that beautiful moment when Lynceus sees him in the far distance, or thinks he sees him. In this last mention of him in the poem, he is passing out of the world of men, and into the world of gods. In saving his companions, even in his absence, he has already begun to fulfil the functions of a god” (p. 97).

Naevius and Ennius, Feeney argues, built on Apollonius and added new themes that would be taken up by Vergil and his successors. Perhaps most important is their exploitation of the identification of Jupiter with Zeus, which conflated the supreme god of Rome with the “pan-Hellenic” and “supranational” god whose particular patronage was claimed by no single Greek state. For the universality of Zeus was just the point of “the shattering assertion” that “the god who ordains the destiny of the world, the guiding force of the universe, is the god of Rome and her empire” (p. 115). Other gods, too, gained Roman nationalistic associations and could be seen as responding both to Homeric, mythological motives and to Roman, historical motives (sometimes at the same time)—as Venus is both Aphrodite and the Roman Venus genetrix and Juno both Homer’s Hera and Tanit, patroness of the Carthaginians.

The Aeneid opens with a demonstration of the multiple natures of Juno (Tanit, Hera, physical allegory of aer, goddess of marriage), but Jupiter, too, Feeney argues, operates in many ways—as the god of aether, as “god of Rome, husband of Juno, father of Venus”. Jupiter, like Juno, is a character in the narrative, with the result that: “even his perspective is unavailable as a neutral, dispassionate vantage-point. There is no Archimedean hypothetical point in space from which to regard the action of the poem and evaluate it. Every vantage-point the poem offers is inextricable, part of a competition of views” (p. 155). (I digress here to observe that this idea alone, with its implications for the interpretation of the poem as a whole, is worth the price of the book.) Vergil’s Hercules is a link between divine and human perspectives, as Feeney demonstrates in his discussion of Hercules’ brief appearance in Book 10, when he is shown weeping for the death of Pallas: “He [Vergil] traces Hercules down that path where even Lynceus could not see, and shows him to us at its far end, as a god” (p. 156).

The Vergil chapter is the climax and culmination of the first half of the book: all of Feeney’s previous discussion seems to have had the Aeneid as its telos, and the book might well have ended here. The result would have been a less important (if more manageable) study, for the themes Feeney has traced through Apollonius, Naevius, Ennius, and Vergil reverberate through the later epics as well, and in some cases provide their starting point. The difficulty, to the extent that there is one, is that Feeney’s argument is cumulative, and keeps picking up motifs as it goes along. His snowball begins to feel like an avalanche in the Ovid chapter. The Metamorphoses is the essential pivot (or as Feeney calls it, “something of an intermezzo”, p. 188) between Hellenistic-Augustan and Imperial epic. All the themes traced in the earlier epics land in this chapter, and new ones are introduced as well. The fault is really Ovid’s, for he can keep more balls in the air than any of his critics; but one still has to admit that the Ovid chapter tries to do too much. It is confusing to read, and its direction is sometimes unclear. Nonetheless, it contains many excellent observations (some of which a less ambitious critic might have developed in separate articles), and it is essential for the discussion of the later poets, especially Lucan. Especially important is Ovid’s treatment of Augustus’ appropriation of the gods, which Feeney sees as paving the way for Lucan’s exclusion of the gods from the Bellum Civile : “As Ovid had already seen, from any viewpoint which was unsympathetic to what the emperors had done to the res publica, the divine characters of Naevius, Ennius, and Vergil were no longer available as a vehicle for communal meaning, since they had become the creatures of the princeps” (p. 294).

I am all too aware that this is a rather uncritical review, but this is the kind of book that doesn’t come along very often. To put it briefly: Feeney’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in epic after Homer. (It has the additional merit of a very full and up-to-date bibliography and generous citation of previous works.) Lest I appear fulsome, however, I can point to two defects: a) the book’s hair-raising price ($98), and b) Feeney’s occasional descent into theoretical jargon (e.g., “The poem has to authenticate its own fictions by exploiting the capacity for assent which is present in the society’s range of discourses about religion and the divine.” p. 180). You should buy it anyway (if you really care about epic you won’t wait for the paperback).