BMCR 2004.11.09

Contexts of War. Manipulation of Genre in Virgilian Battle Narrative

, Contexts of war : manipulation of genre in Virgilian battle narrative. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. vi, 223 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0472113593 $55.00.

In this volume Andreola Rossi (R.) provides a welcome and crucial perspective on the battle-scenes of the Aeneid, showing convincingly how narrative and other conventions from Roman historiography are exploited in Vergil’s narratives of fighting at the fall of Troy and the war in Italy. This is a line of approach which anyone who has worked on Vergil’s battle-narratives would regard as both welcome and fruitful, since (as R. herself argues in her introduction) it is the necessary corollary of the extensive and valuable research which has been done since Knauer (e.g. by Barchiesi, La traccia del modello and Mazzocchini, Forme e significati della narrazione bellica) on the use of Homeric conventions in those parts of Vergil’s epic, and has been only sporadically touched on in previous scholarship. R. locates her work within recognisable contemporary theories of genre, intertextuality and narrative, rightly pointing to the character of the Aeneid as a text suffused with other literary genres and arguing in detail for Vergil’s use of specifically historiographical narrative systems and conventions. These, she persuasively argues, provide an alternative ‘code model’ (in Conte’s terms), a literary tradition which acts as an ongoing point of reference, and demonstrate the misleading nature of Bakhtin’s claim that epic is set in the absolute past, free from traces of more recent and present institutions. Thus the mythic epic time of the Aeneid is interlaced in yet another way with markers of distinctly Roman cultural specificity.

The first major chapter begins (in an evident homage to the first chapter of Heinze’s Vergils Epische Technik) with ‘The Fall of Troy’ (17-53). Here she shows effectively that Vergil’s account in Aeneid 2 constitutes (29) ‘an innovative conflation of specific literary traditions connected with the fall of Troy and the topos of the urbs capta‘ ; the tragic, rhetorical and historiographic set piece of the sacked city clearly underlies the power of the Virgilian narrative, and R. acutely notes how V. rewrites the destruction of Troy as a simultaneous surprise assault, firing and capture rather than as the last retributive act of the Greeks before leaving (as for example in Euripides’ Troades) but does include the Euripidean emphasis on female suffering (here and elsewhere she is rightly sceptical about ‘tragic historiography’ and its influence on V. — V. got his tragedy direct).

This is all well done and effectively argued, but R.’s interest in literary systems perhaps leads her occasionally to underestimate the potential importance of historical experience in the literary presentation of the sack of Troy. For the original readership, the traumatic sack of Perugia in 40 B.C. was a likely point of recent and local reference for the horrors of a city besieged, captured and fired (cf. Appian BC 5.32-49). Whether or not it involved a massacre which finds an echo in Aeneid 10.517-20 (for the debate see S. Farron Acta Classica 28 (1985) 21-33, E. Kraggerud, SO 62 (1987) 77-87), the siege clearly had local literary impact at least for the Umbrian Propertius (1.21 and 1.22). Direct or indirect experience of such sacked cities must surely have influenced the reading of Aeneid 2 by a generation which had (like the poet himself) seen the civil wars of the forties and thirties, and R. rightly appeals elsewhere to the Roman reader and ‘fifty years of civil wars’ (168).

Another potential non-historiographical source underlying the military material in the Aeneid is several times honestly acknowledged by R., i.e., Ennius’ Annales Given that this epic poem deliberately chose a historiographic title and contained early Roman battle-narrative which is likely itself to have related to historical sources as well as Homer (see Skutsch, Annales p.7 and pp.13-14 for a starting-point), Vergil’s use of military terms and historiographical narrative conventions may be as much a claim to be in the central Ennian tradition of Roman historical epic as a link with the world of prose history. The sack of Alba Longa, rightly seen as a crucial precedent by R., seems to have been a key episode in Book 2 of the Annales (Skutsch, pp.279-80) as well as narrated more briefly in Livy (1.29, cf. R., p.31), and Ennian precedent is perhaps echoed by V. in making a sack of a predecessor city the centre of his poem’s second book.

This substantial first chapter is followed by a set of shorter studies focussing on Aeneid 7-12. The first of these (54-69) looks (partly from a narratological angle) at how the military plot is shaped in these books, persuasively identifying the importance and historiographical links of intensification, surprise and reversal in battle-narrative. It also rightly points to the creative tensions between the tragically wasteful element of the war in Italy and the teleological providentialism of the poem’s historical/ktistic aspect, famously articulated at 12.503-4 (R. as elsewhere in this book weights this balance more negatively than this reviewer would). The second argues (73-83) that the common emphasis on Homeric-style aristeiai in Vergilian battle-scene ignores the importance of historiographical group scenes; this point is well made and could be supplemented by the thought that (in contrast with Homer) the Aeneid represents the establishment of a nation which at least in some moods regarded itself as a collectivist community: the paradigmatic patriotic Roman, non sibi sed patriae natus (cf. Cicero Mur. 83), would have been a strange creature in the Iliad.

The third chapter locates the origin of the dramatic internal narrator-focaliser in epic similes in historiography (84-104), but such observing figures are found in Homeric similes, and here as in some others places in this book it is hard to separate out the epic and historiographical codes. It also argues, more successfully, that the Aeneid deconstructs the even, agonistic approach to duels shown in the Iliad by consistently presenting complex, collective and ill-matched bouts (perhaps part of an overall approach to war as irrational and confused) and can break Homeric rules to make a special point. Here one might suggest as a further example Aeneas’ generous return of Lausus’ corpse at 10.830-2, where the latter’s comrades are clearly mystified by this breach of heroic etiquette (he should have left the corpse for them to rescue), which is in especial contrast with Achilles’ return to Priam of the corpse of Hector (achieved with great effort and risk by Priam and against Achilles’ initial inclination).

Four further chapters complete the book. One (105-24) looks at ‘times of war’, again fruitfully introducing a narratological perspective to examine analepsis, prolepsis and multiple time-levels in battle-narrative, persuasively seeing this as historiographical, along with stress on disordered fighting, death in the fossa and the role of women. It would be worth adding here again that we find once more an approach to war as confused and irrational which appeals to Vergilian ideology as well as literary precedent and that the active participation of women in battle which R. rightly finds unHomeric draws aspects from cyclic epic (e.g. Penthesilea, a presence and precedent in the Aeneid at 1.491 and 11.662). Another (125-49) looks at the vivid effect of tenses and their shifts in battle-narrative, rightly seeing historiographical connections, and also makes a larger argument that V. stresses a greater continuity between past and present in such narratives than Homer. Again the kind of lively re-imagining of the past R. rightly sees in Horace’s Pollio-ode (2.1) surely also owes at least some of its force to recent experience of civil war (indubitably the case for Horace and his readers in reaction to Pollio’s account of history since 59 B.C.), and some perhaps to the deliberate evocation of emotion in tragic drama. R. rightly stresses that ‘the Roman reader of the Aeneid becomes witness to a past that collapses into its own present’ (148-9), but again recent civil wars must surely be more important than she generally suggests. For example, the evident echo of the internecine strife between Caesar and Pompey at Aeneid 7.317 hac gener atque socer coeant mercede suorum (cf. 6.831-2), perhaps echoing Livy or Pollio’s account of the outbreak of war in 49, must add important weight to the perception that the war in Italy is a civil one (cf. again 12.503-4).

The final pair of chapters take on two central concepts in the Aeneid — spectators and spectacle, and the issue of city identity. The first (150-68) looks at the final duel between Aeneas and Turnus at the end of Aeneid 12 and is a valuable analysis with many good insights: Turnus and Aeneas are ‘surrogates for their peoples’ in the manner of the Livian Horatii and Curiatii (155) the initial internal spectatorship of either side in the poem stimulates the spectator-like involvement of the reader, but spectators and their reaction are removed from the final page of the poem and the actual killing of Turnus. R. herself interprets this absence of audience judgement at the poem’s end as an implicit condemnation of Aeneas and as a token of despair on the part of the spectators, who cannot advance beyond the moment of crisis where ‘victor and victim become indistinguishable’ (164), but it is equally possible to see it as a deliberate abnegation of authorial judgement in handing over to the reader alone the task of ideological interpretation. R’s own interpretation could again use more the element of contemporary civil war, in which victor and victim could indeed be regarded as indistinguishable. And there is potential conflict with the historiographical models she so persuasively adduces: parallels with the Horatii/Curatii duels (or with that of Torquatus and the Gaul: cf. Hardie, Cosmos and Imperium 151-3) suggest a collective response of support for one particular side. It is clear that R. does not buy the Aeneid‘s surface commitment to the new age of peace and prosperity under Augustus achieved after collective suffering and sacrifice (cf. e.g. 1.291-6, 6.791-807, 8.714-28), in which she is of course not alone (168): ‘For Virgil’s Roman reader, who in fifty years of civil wars, will have too often seen promises of pax and restoration turned into blood and war, the prophecies … are not accomplished reality but remain exactly what they are — prophecies about a future yet to come’.

The last chapter (171-96) has many good observations on cities in the Aeneid within the framework of historiographical allusions. Links between Troy, the ‘new Troy’ of Aeneas’ camp and the famously anonymous city of Latinus are nicely made, and good parallels are drawn with sieges in Caesar and Livy. Here the war between Trojans and Latins in the Aeneid is implied to have a satisfactory outcome (188 ‘after a fierce struggle against one another, they will coalesce into one national peace’), not wholly consistent with R.’s just-mentioned analysis of the Aeneas/Turnus duel, its culmination. Parallels with Rome’s historical (and historiographical) dealings with the Sabines and Alba are well made here. But the reviewer cannot follow when R. analyses the famous siege-engine simile of 12.919-26 as symbolising Aeneas’ violation through killing Turnus of the new set of Roman walls prophesied by Jupiter in Book 1: ‘[Aeneas] has … breached the city’s moenia, representative of that collectivity that, as promised by Jupiter, was to become an integral part of the new set of moenia‘ (196). What the reviewer misses here is the sense of suffering and sacrifice justified by the final result; Aeneas’ killing of Turnus, like so many hard decisions in politics, is ugly and distressing but in the end necessary. Someone (Aeneas) needs to conquer by violent means before post-war reconciliation takes place; someone else (Turnus) perhaps needs to be sacrificed to ensure the welfare of the ultimate new city of Rome, as in the myth of Romulus and Remus.

In sum, this book does a valuable and effective job in emphasising the close use of historiographical material in the battle-scenes of the Aeneid and explores with much insight and interest the ideological questions raised by such parallels with the story of Rome’s actual rise to greatness, as well as issues about literary genre and narrative structure. Not all will agree with all the views taken, and many might wish for even fuller documentation and investigation of historiographical parallels, but R. deserves the gratitude of all Virgilian scholars for a timely and stimulating piece of work which (along with some other pieces in Levene and Nelis’s Clio and the Poets, 2002 [in which R.’s first chapter originally appeared] — reviewed by Chris Kraus in BMCR 2003.09.01) will now be the key resource for research on the use of Roman historiography in the Aeneid.