BMCR 2001.08.23

Virgil and the Augustan Reception

, Virgil and the Augustan reception. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 1 online resource (xx, 324 pages). ISBN 0511016506 $59.95.

1 Responses

For over a quarter of a century, the Vietnam War has been a part of a polarized debate in the field of Virgil studies. “Optimistic” readers of the Aeneid contend that its “pessimistic” readers are presentists, identifying their own distrust of government and resistance to war, both of which Vietnam engendered, in the pages of Virgil’s epic. By imputing alien values to Virgil, the “optimistic” critic contends, the “pessimistic” reader distorts the character of the Aeneid, wilfully finding darkness in a poem that lauds Augustus and the new saeculum aureum. In return, readers who identify a subversive voice in Virgil often accuse the other side of brutishly overlooking or ignoring that voice in the service of epic monophony and ideological absolutism. It is against this contentious backdrop that Richard Thomas (hereafter T.) sets Virgil and the Augustan Reception. As those familiar with his work know, T. is on the side of the “pessimists” (or, perhaps better, “ambivalents;” T. has disavowed the term “pessimists”1), and in his latest book aims to support that position in two ways: he identifies anti-Augustan elements in the Aeneid; and he examines how the dominant Augustan reading of the poem has historically suppressed those subversive elements. By analyzing individual passages in Virgil’s epic and specific moments in the two millennia of Virgil’s Nachleben, T. produces a work that impresses both with its detail and its range, and that breathes new life into a debate that had begun to ossify.

T. divides his book into a prologue, introduction, and nine chapters. He begins the prologue by admitting with admirable candor that he was once concerned that his opposition to Vietnam caused him to identify the “profound qualifications” of Virgil’s vision of his political and cultural worlds (xi). T. refuses to accept such a reductive proposition and takes issue with those who contend that his reading of the Aeneid, as well as other readings like his, reflect solely a sensibility formed by America’s ugly war. To the claims that he is an anachronistic critic, T. replies that all interpretation is contingent upon an audience’s own horizon. This includes the Augustan reading of the Aeneid, which, T. contends, has been shaped by the expectations, experiences, and education of varied interpretive communities, and does not simply recover the original intent of Virgil, as its proponents often claim it does. One of T.’s stated goals is to examine how an Augustan Virgil is “a political and sociological construction (xii)” which reflects the needs and concerns of different audiences, especially rulers and members of the cultural elite. This is not to say that T. considers any interpretation of the Aeneid as good as any other. As he notes, certain critical approaches to a text are more plausible in terms of the culture that produced the text (xvii). T. applies this theorem to Virgil in order to counter further the argument that the “pessimistic” reading of the Aeneid is anachronistic and that the Augustan position accurately captures the intentions of Virgil and the inherent meaning of his poem. T. contends that aspects of Roman culture make it feasible to suppose that Virgil, while offering some material consonant with Augustan ideology, could have also been criticizing and subverting Augustus. T. supports his position by citing the Rhetorica ad Herennium and Quintilian, who theorize veiled criticism and prove it to be an established category of thought and expression in Roman antiquity. More provocatively, T. considers the darker, critical Virgilian viewpoint to be the dominant one in the Aeneid : “the fact is that in this poem the Augustan voice will generally be subverted by the ‘other’ voice or voices” (xviii). Finally, T. asserts that Virgil, fully in control of his ambiguous criticism, resorted to it out of fear, because speaking openly was unsafe (10).

The circumstantial nature of T.’s evidence leaves him somewhat open to attack at this juncture.2 His argument for a subversive Virgil grows stronger, however, when he turns to the Aeneid itself. T. locates ambiguity at several points in Virgil’s epic by rigorously analyzing verbal echoes and semantic details that complicate the ideological messages of the passages. The lines that especially interest T. are those that even readers sympathetic to the “ambivalents” might consider to be Augustan, notably Aeneid. 1.286-8 and 6.791-5 (T. provides a particularly deft interpretation of the phrase aurea condet / saecula) [ Aeneid. 6.792-3]). To take up these Virgilian passages is a bold move; to show that the passages yield plausibly subversive meanings is a powerful one and does much to bolster T.’s position.

Having argued that Virgil in the Aeneid is profoundly ambivalent toward Augustus, T. turns in the rest of his book to Virgil’s reception, analyzing how later authors and critics react to the ambiguities in his epic. T. organizes this material chronologically over eight chapters, beginning in chapter two with Virgil’s poetic successors in antiquity, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. T. opens the chapter by suggesting provocatively that Horace “may have been ‘correcting’ Virgil in his allusion to him, and in the process neutralizing the older poet’s ambivalence… In other words, I maintain that Horace may be seen as the first Augustan reader of Virgil” (55-6). Unfortunately, T. makes this point a bit tortuously. After an excursus on the personal relations between Virgil and Horace, T. examines the reference in Ep. 2.1.245-50 to Virgil (and Varius) as a paid epic encomiast of Augustus. One could readily conclude that Horace here offers an accurate picture of Virgil as an “Augustan” poet, or as an author who works in some way at the behest of the emperor. Ep. 2.1, in other words, would seem to support the “optimists'” position more than T.’s own. At the very least, T.’s biographical analyses contribute little to his ensuing readings of three Horatian passages. In these texts, Ep. 2.1.253-5 and CS 41-4 and 49-52, T. locates “corrections” of Virgil, or allusions to the Aeneid that suppress ambiguity and bring Virgil’s epic into accord with an Augustan message. T.’s argument grows much more cogent at this point; Horace emerges as one who wished to eliminate all traces of “subversive possibilities” (73) in the Aeneid, and so as an ur-Augustan reader of Virgil.

T.’s examination of Ovid and Lucan moves in a different direction. Whereas Horace provides an early Augustan response to the Aeneid, Ovid and Lucan are presented as two early anti-Augustan readers. T. begins his examination of Ovid with the phrase tuae Aeneidos auctor ( Tr. 2.533), which the poet addresses to Augustus. Critics have taken this comment to indicate that the Aeneid was written by command of the emperor and for his glorification. As. T. notes, however, Ovid’s view of the Aeneid may be more complicated. The phrase tuae Aeneidos auctor appears when Ovid, defending himself in exile, relates that Virgil wrote the same sort of erotic poetry as he himself did ( contulit in Tyrios arma virumque toros, Tr. 2.534). T. contends that Ovid’s statement, while dependent upon his own rhetorical needs and strategies, points up the duality of the Aeneid, or the presence in the poem of non-Augustan sections. T. proceeds to argue that certain allusions in Heroides 7 and in Metamorphoses 14 which impugn the character of Aeneas and defend some of his victims also indicate that Ovid was alive to the “oppositional material (78)” in Virgil’s epic. T. makes a similar point about Lucan. Rather than calling attention to Lucan’s antiphrastic imitation of Virgil (a line of interpretation that, as T. rightly notes, defines Virgil as a monolithic, Augustan author against whom the firebrand Neronian rebels), T. suggests that Lucan at times identifies subversive material within the Aeneid and activates that material through allusion. Lucan thus teams with Ovid to demonstrate how, long before Vietnam, Virgil accommodated and elicited responses attuned to its equivocations and dark passages.

T. next fixes his attention upon Servius, who offers a strongly Augustan interpretation of the Aeneid ( interpretatio Vergilii haec est, Homerum imitari et Augustum laudare a parentibus, ad Aen. prooem.). As T. argues (93), Servius would seem to require that Virgil, the most authoritative of poets, have a right relationship with authority and that his Aeneid endorse that power clearly and univocally. To that end, Servius at times makes up rules to explain away aspects of Virgil’s epic that do not accord with an Augustan message, including Aeneas’ tears and fright in book 1, and his rage in book 12. Yet T. suggests that there is more to be gleaned from Servius’ commentary. In offering his Augustan readings of the Aeneid, Servius often calls attention to unnamed alii who are sensitive to oppositional meanings in Virgil (and whom, naturally, Servius dismisses), as well as to named grammarians who criticize Aeneas (and whom, naturally, Servius dismisses). To T., these other voices in Servius illustrate how the Aeneid contains elements that have long been read as potentially subversive. Servius’ responses, in turn, show how the dominant Augustan readers of the Aeneid have long sought to eliminate ambiguity in the text.

T.’s chapter on Servius might have benefited from a discussion of another Virgilian critic, Tiberius Claudius Donatus, who in his introduction offers perhaps the strongest Augustan reading of Virgil in antiquity. There are larger omissions to come, however. With Servius, T. leaves Classical antiquity, and he resumes his survey of Virgilian reception some 1,200 years later, with Dryden. T.’s approach obviously bypasses some important figures, particularly Dante, who surely warranted a lengthy discussion, if not his own chapter. It is certain that such a study would have been informative; when T. examines a passage in the Inferno in which Dante alludes to Dido and the lugentes campi (165), he displays a deep knowledge of and a sensitivity to the Italian poet.

T.’s strength in dealing with authors beyond the Classical period is evident in his fourth chapter, on Dryden. T. analyzes the strongly Augustan bent of Dryden’s 1697 translation of the Aeneid. Applying to Virgil his theory of paraphrase or “translation with latitude,” the middle ground between the more literal metaphrasis and loose imitation, Dryden claims to capture the spirit of the Aeneid even as he adapts its language. T.’s contribution is to show how Dryden, an Augustan reader of Virgil, in fact engages in hermeneutics while he translates, removing any trace of ambiguity and potential subversiveness in his version of the Aeneid. T. identifies several examples of Dryden’s tendentious method of translation, including his renderings of Virgilian passages that T. had already cited in chapter one—a rhetorical strategy that gives much force to his argument.

Dryden makes a further appearance in T.’s following chapter, on Dido and her translators. The argument will be by now familiar: certain readers of Aeneid 4 eliminate aspects of the book that arraign Aeneas and present a sympathetic Dido and thereby disturb the fabric of an Augustan reading that assimilates the hero to the emperor. T. shows how Augustan responses to Aeneid 4 developed in the Renaissance, how they became a part of the elite cultural code, and how they shaped Dryden’s translation of Virgil. Yet there are obviously other ways to understand the story of Dido, ways that T. brings to the fore by examining John D. Long’s translation of the Aeneid. Long, a nineteenth century American politician who had little formal instruction in Virgil, and so “the closest we come to a naive reader of the Aeneid (173),” is the anti-Dryden, attempting in his work to remain metaphrastically true to Virgil’s language. In doing so, he composes a fourth book that retains much sympathy for Dido, and thereby implicates Aeneas in love and betrayal more than an Augustan reader would like. While the section on Long feels like a digression (as T. admits [174]), it is in fact an important part of T.’s argument: by showing how a naive reader could locate non-Augustan elements in his metaphrastic rendering of Aeneid 4, T. tacitly asserts that those elements are an inherent aspect of the poem, or a feature that an unmediated reading and translation uncovers.

In chapter six, T. focuses upon textual critics. While these scholars engage in one of the most rigorous and scientific forms of scholarship, T. shows that, in the case of several textual critics of Virgil, emendation becomes a subjective enterprise, with the result that statements in the Aeneid that the critic finds unsavory or ambiguous are excised or bracketed. T. collects abundant evidence to support his argument. Of particular concern to Virgil’s Augustan editors are passages that bear most strongly upon Augustan ideology. These include the pageant of heroes in Aeneid 6, specifically the less than exemplary figures mentioned there; the gates of ivory that uncomfortably raise the specter of deception at the end of Aeneid 6; and the references to Antony and Cato (Uticensis?) on the shield of Aeneas in Aeneid 8. T. shows that attempts to get rid of ambiguity in the Aeneid are applied literally to the poem when critics, emending or cutting passages on ideological, not textual grounds, are not confined to the past; T. notes that contemporary scholars, notably Zwierlein, continue to cut lines that do not meet their standards of what an Augustan Virgil would have written.

The manipulation of the Aeneid grows much darker with the Nazis and the Italian fascists, the figures who next concern T.. T. is chiefly interested in the former group, which comes as some surprise, since Mussolini and the Italians were more invested in the Augustus myth than the Nazis. T. focuses upon the Nazis, however, as a means to examine German Classicists; T. discusses the Augustan readings of Virgil of Wilamowitz, Haecker, and Oppermann more than the uses to which Nazi leaders put Virgil. This is a good and necessary move since German critics have been the strongest proponents of an Augustan Virgil. Yet resistance to such an understanding of Virgil has also been powerful, and in his next chapter, T. examines how authors and scholars like Broch, Fraenkel, Syme, and Sforza propounded an anti-Augustan reading of Virgil. T.’s discussion succeeds in demonstrating how twentieth-century readers, justifiably wary of absolute power, saw the Augustan Virgil as “an appropriation, not always coincident with the Virgil of their own experience” (260). Given T.’s earlier analysis of ambiguity and subversion in the Aeneid, one may also conclude that the anti-Augustans, while certainly influenced by their own proclivities and experiences, understood and continue to understand Virgil’s epic in ways at least as plausible as the Augustans.

Appropriately, T.’s final chapter examines the end of the Aeneid and the strategies whereby Augustan readers attempt to bring the ambiguity in the last lines of the poem into accord with an Augustan message. T. first looks at an eccentric response to Virgil’s conclusion, Maphaeus Vegius’ thirteenth book of the Aeneid, written in 1427. Vegius tidily resolves the events and issues of Virgil’s poem, giving a proper burial to Turnus and a speech of Aeneas that places the blame for the Italian war squarely on Turnus and describing Aeneas’ death and catasterism/resurrection. While Vegius’ is a radical attempt to bring a “comfortable banality” (284) to the final lines of the Aeneid, T. suggests that Augustan critics simplify Aeneas’ killing of Turnus in more subtle but no less violent ways, as they interpret the act as a blunt triumph of good over evil. T. ends by contending that Virgil’s vision of human experience is too large to fit into the narow boundaries imposed upon it by the Augustan reader.

That T. concludes with such a sentiment is not without its problems. There is a serious gap between the final pages of his book and his introductory comments. T. finishes tentatively, suggesting that both Augustan and anti-Augustan readings of the Aeneid are plausible, and that “Virgil impels us to neither” (296). Given his inflammatory initial assertion that Virgil intends his ambiguity and hides his criticism due to fear, it seems inconsistent for T. to soften his stance as his book draws to a close. T. sets out to foment revolution in the early pages of his book, particularly when he contends that the subversive Virgilian voice undercuts any Augustan Virgilian voice in the Aeneid. His eventual claim that the Aeneid can be read in different ways, however, is hardly revolutionary.

There are a few typos and mistakes in the text, all quite minor.3 Such errors, like the concerns I have just articulated, do not detract from the high quality and value of T.’s work. As a whole, Virgil and the Augustan Reception is persuasive, forceful, and impressive. It displays the intelligence and critical daring to which readers of T. have grown accustomed and takes a broad view that will be salutary for Classicists and will attract scholars in other fields (most of the Latin in the text is translated). The book ought to be read by all interested in Virgil and his reception and will make a significant contribution to Virgil studies.


1. In this review, I use the terms “optimistic” and “pessimistic” (along with “Harvard School”) for the sake of convenience, but recognize their limitations, which T. summarizes well (xii-xiii).

2. One further piece of evidence that T. could have noted is the story of Timagenes, a historian who, having won Augustus’ favor, could not refrain from criticizing him. Timagenes was subsequently barred from Augustus’ home but achieved celebrity in Rome and was welcomed by Asinius Pollio (cf. Sen. Con. 10.5.22 and Sen. Ira 3.23.4-5). In this anecdote, T. would have found an Augustus who punishes criticism (albeit not too severely) and an audience (albeit Pollio) that liked to hear that the emperor had been criticized.

3. I have located small errors on p. xi, where the word “don’t” in a citation is ungrammatical; on p. 6, where the word “obliterated” is inappropriate; p. 23, where the word “don’t” is again ungrammatical; p. 242, “assserts”; and p. 252, where pacisque seems to be an inaccurate citation.