BMCR 2005.04.64

Vergil, Philodemus and the Augustans

, Vergil, Philodemus, and the Augustans. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xii, 361 pages). ISBN 0292798113 $55.00.

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[The author of this review apologizes for its late completion.]

The sixteen articles in this volume originated as papers at the “First International Symposium on Philodemus, Vergil and the Augustans,” held in 2000 and involving several top scholars in the field. It seeks to establish a tangible connection between Philodemus of Gadara (hereafter, P) and the Latin poets under his tutelage, namely Vergil (hereafter, V). The title includes the Augustans, but the two essays on Horace and Propertius constitute negligible treatment. Each author of the volume aims to provide evidence of P’s influence on V, but does so with varying amounts of substantiation, and the overall efforts to flesh out the P-V connection are interesting but often minimally convincing. The quality and nature of the contributions is uneven and leaves the impression that many of the contributors are reaching to try to establish connections that are, in fact, less than tangible. Many of the contributors do not distinctly enough differentiate between a general influence of Epicureanism and a direct relationship between P and V. Also missing is the recognition that V’s allusions to other authors and works often elicit tension (e.g., his echo of Catullus 66.39 at 6.606). It is puzzling that many of the excellent scholars here, so familiar with V’s texts and tendencies, seem to be searching for an unmitigated and uncomplicated adherence to P’s works. Its major contribution lies more in illuminating recent techniques of papyrological reconstruction than in offering a new perspective on interpreting V’s poetry.

After the generous but unwieldy Introduction (24 pages), there are six groups of articles: two on the early poems, three on different aspects of the Aeneid, one on the Augustans. There is an excellent Bibliography, a List of Contributors, a General Index and an Index Locorum. The volume is beautifully edited, with very few and inconsequential typographical errors (e.g, “embarrassing” instead of “embarrassed, p. 273; a superfluous “was” on p. 274, some inconsistency with the use of quotation marks for translated phrases on pages 274-285, and a few comma splices throughout).

David Armstrong’s introduction places the volume within the matrix of recent works on P by Asmis (1990), Obbink and Gigante (1995) and Sider (1997). While Armstrong avers “Thus, we can be brief here” (p.3), he embarks on an extended account of P’s identity, the progress made on texts and translations of the Herculaneum papyri, summaries and discussions of P’s texts, and finally addresses the volume’s articles. While Armstrong appears to have been aiming at completeness, the amount of information makes this introduction unwieldy. His sentence structure is often long and unnecessarily burdensome, while the transitions between areas of focus are elusive and demand careful attention. Most importantly, Armstrong admits that the book’s thesis is not innovative (i.e., it provides further, perhaps irrefutable evidence for the P-V link), and in that respect it achieves its goal; its weaknesses lie in the sometime unpersuasive substantiation, some failures to distinguish between P and Epicureanism generally, and some rather questionable links to P through other avenues.

In Part I: Early Vergil, three essayists offer evidence for the influence of Epicureanism on V’s early works. The principal weakness is that the authenticity and general acceptance of some of these early works are not sufficiently addressed. The contribution of the third essay is particularly questionable, as it assumes the authenticity of the Culex. All three essays’ reliance, to varying degrees, on Catalepton 5 also makes their general conclusions about P’s influence on V’s early poetry less than convincing.

Diskin Clay’s “Vergil’s Farewell to Education and Epicurus’ Letter to Pythocles” explores the connection between Catalepton 5 and Epicurus’ letter to Pythocles. While Clay’s evidence that V is responding here to Epicurus is generally convincing, the reading of Cata. 5 as a farewell to V’s formal education and anticipation of his new path is less so, for it is possible that V’s exposure to such a letter would have occurred once he was already well-ensconced in his pursuit of philosophy and tutelage under Siro. Furthermore, Clay’s suggested links to P rely heavily on conjecture.

Francesca Longo Auricchio’s focus on the image of the harbor in “Philosophy’s Harbor”makes its primary contribution through its discussion of the particulars of the papyrological reconstruction (e.g., of P. Herc. 463). Her discussion of the image of the harbor contains much of interest on the use of the term and image in authors and texts both preceding and postdating V but not nearly enough on V’s texts or usage of portus (of which there are many examples in the Aeneid). Furthermore, her observation that the image was commonly used by various Classical authors contradicts her claim that its use in Cata. 5 reveals a link between P and V.

Régine Chambert’s “Vergil’s Epicureanism in His Early Poems” uses the Culex as a focal point. Chambert, following A. Salvatore, rejects reading the Culex as post-Vergilian parody (refuting D.O. Ross) and claims”in spite of undeniable parodic elements, the poem bears the mark of strong influences that are to be found, with unavoidable changes, in Vergil’s major works” (p.48), thus putting the cart before the horse. Chambert claims to find “undeniable Epicurean influence” in this and two poems from the Catalepton, but even if one were to accept the authenticity of the Culex, there is not enough substance. The focus on the Epicurean ideal of the soul’s “rest” and the imagery of otium, while interesting, functions more as evidence for a potential link between the Culex and the Eclogues than for the alleged relationship between P and V. The segment detailing “Epicurean connotations” of vocabulary (p.49) is likewise unpersuasive, since many of the words are of common usage.

In contrast to the first section, the three essays in Part II: Eclogues and Georgics are of outstanding quality, though they further the aims of the project with varying degrees of success.

“Consolation in the Bucolic Mode: The Epicurean Cadence of Vergil’s First Eclogue” is Gregson Davis’ examination of the motif of consolation. It is well-organized, well-supported, and eloquent. His assertion that the “cadence” of Eclogue 1 “resonates with certain ‘invitation’ epigrams of the philosopher-poet P” (p.63) is certainly reasonable, and his demonstration of it offers substantial support to the general aim of the volume.

It should come as no surprise that W.R. Johnson’s “A Secret Garden: Georgics 4.116-148″ is seasoned and insightful. His reading of the Corycian farmer is both brilliant and a delight to read from beginning to end. Johnson elucidates V’s technique of description through tension and paradox; discussing J.S. Clay’s interpretation of the episode, he focuses on the ataraxia of the clearly Epicurean farmer for what it lends to his characterization, keenly observing that for all its apparent solidity and beauty, the farmer’s solitude betrays his lack of friendship, a crucial element of Epicurean life. While this essay displays great sensitivity to V’s poetry and general philosophical influences, it, like many others in the volume, does little to demonstrate a direct connection between V and P.

Sadly, the death of Marcello Gigante, who had participated in the conference and clearly been instrumental in the project of deciphering and textualizing the papyri, occurred before this volume and his essay, “Vergil in the Shadow of Vesuvius”, were completed. While the article is excellent, it does more to draw out the Epicurean aspects of V’s works than present irrefutable proof of the connection between P and V. Gigante asserts that the vocative form of V’s name in Greek in P. Herc. Paris 2 indicates “the confirmation of his presence in P’s circle at Herculaneum” (p. 86) and uses this as a reason “to look more closely at the traces of Epicureanism” in V’s poetry. While it is clear that Gigante tries to remain balanced and cautious in his views, the principal problem is that the discernible evidence of Epicureanism in V is not necessarily a manifestation of a relationship between P and V. Gigante himself perhaps says it best with this statement: “If we listen to the poet’s voice, it is easy to infer that, though immersed in the travail of the history and culture of his times, and in Greek culture especially, V is resistant to imprisonment in any preconceived scholastic formula” (p.95).

Part III: The Aeneid : The Emotions. Since anger is a topic central to many philosophical doctrines and was clearly crucial to some of P’s treatises (namely the De Ira and On the Good King), this segment of the volume is particularly important in its potential demonstration of P’s influence on V. The three articles which comprise this section are all informative, but the central problematic issue remains the same: V’s representations of anger are not always or necessarily influenced by P, and certainly not only by P and Epicureanism.

“The Vocabulary of Anger in Philodemus’ De Ira and Vergil’s Aeneid” offers Giovanni Indelli’s synopsis of P’s treatise De Ira, of which he has produced an edited text and commentary. While Indelli’s overview of P’s work is clearly delineated, his correlation of P’s various Greek terms for “anger” with V’s different choices ( ira, furor, et al.) is not convincing. Indelli suggests that V employs the same term with distinct variance, e.g., while ira in Aeneas seems to represent orgê, in Turnus it signifies thymos. Although I am inclined to agree that V’s usage and application of terms are as careful as P’s, Indelli’s argumentation does not elucidate clearly enough how a single word, when applied to different characters, manifests different aspects of anger.

Jeffrey Fish’s article “Anger, Philodemus’ Good King, and the Helen Episode of the Aeneid“, taking cues from F. Cairns and M. Erler, examines P’s treatises De Ira and On the Good King and V’s portrayal of Aeneas’ anger. Fish observes that P’s school may have been unique in allowing the wise man to express anger, provided that he avoided imposing punishment with pleasure. According to P, this kind of anger is properly handled by a corrective measure that results in the individual’s growth. Fish thus views the Helen episode as providing the necessary corrective moment for transforming Aeneas’ anger. While Fish has thoroughly researched, presented logical arguments on the episode’s authenticity, and displayed compelling parallels and contrasts between Aeneas and other heroic figures, he omits a fully developed reading of the poem’s final confrontation, which warrants fuller treatment given Fish’s claims about Aeneas’ “transformation” (perhaps here Fish is too readily influenced by Cairns). Whether or not one finds this article convincing will likely remain dependent on one’s stance on the Helen episode and interpretation of Aeneas’ heroism and final act.

Frederic Schroeder’s “Philodemus: Avocatio and the Pathos of Distance in Lucretius and Vergil” offers a straightforward look at the creation of “detachment” or “distance” in the poetry of Lucretius and V as potentially influenced by the writing of P. Schroeder’s observation that P’s use of envisioning in his therapy (in both the De Ira and the De Morte) leads him to deduce a direct line of influence between P and Lucretius. His exempla are well chosen, and he allows suggestions rather than assertions of indisputable influence to make his case. Yet, Schroeder devotes significantly more attention to Lucretius than V, and while he offers an insightful view of how V’s philosophical training may be visible into his poetry, he does not as thoroughly develop a connection between P and V.

The essays in Part IV: The Aeneid : Piety and the Gods have much to contribute to Vergilian scholarship. All are extremely well written, but how well each one furthers the project’s aims varies.

Patricia Johnston’s “Piety in Vergil and Philodemus” explores the piety of Aeneas through the lens of Epicurus’ view of piety (according to P). While Johnston clearly compiles evidence to support her claims that V was influenced by P’s notions of pietas, she does not thoroughly resolve the tension between piety and arma, which, as she demonstrates, V clearly associates in the poem’s second half. While she makes a compelling case for their association, she does not wrestle with its inherent irony.

Dirk Obbink’s essay, “Vergil’s De pietate : From Ehoiae to Allegory in Vergil, Philodemus, and Ovid”, begins by linking P’s De pietate and V’s Aeneid. More than half the essay details the reconstructive methods of Obbink and others who worked on the Herculaneum papyri. Importantly, Obbink credits various scholars’ contributions with ushering him toward his reconstruction and remarks “no single methodology, whether archaeology or textual criticism or literary criticism of the history of ideas, is capable of recovering this nexus. Rather, they must all be used in conjunction.” (p.205). While this article presents a marvelous concatenation of contemporary and interdisciplinary scholarship, it fails to give pride of place to V or develop in significant detail the volume’s overriding claim of P’s influence on V.

Michael Wigodsky’s “Emotions and Immortality in Philodemus” is a fine example of astuteness and sound reasoning. Wigodsky explores V’s theology with an eye to assessing whether or not his depictions of gods reflects P’s particular brand of Epicureanism. His analysis involves not only an understanding and reconstruction of P’s views and treatises but also a consideration of the theological views of Hermarchus, Empedocles and even the Stoics. Wigodsky strikes an excellent balance by making direct and persuasive links between P’s discussions of the gods and V’s presentations of them in his epic while simultaneously recognizing V’s divergences from Epicureanism (particularly non-Philodemean). He also observes how V’s epic specifically demonstrates P’s ideas about good poetry and thus offers one of the more persuasive articles in the volume.

In Part V: The Aeneid : Aesthetics, Marilyn B. Skinner’s ” Carmen inane : Philodemus’ Aesthetics and Vergil’s Artistic Vision” is yet another product of a seasoned scholarly mind. Skinner explores several episodes involving aesthetic works in V’s corpus, finding in them a “triumph of passion over reason” (p. 237) which, she believes, represents V’s response (i.e., his “aesthetic pessimism”, p. 232) to P’s assertions that poetic composition is a rational exercise and its reading a similarly intellectual activity. Skinner asserts “It is that sane and coherent model of judicious creation, levelheaded audience response, and pragmatic application with which V grapples theoretically — and which he time after time rejects” (p.236). She supplies persuasive examples of V’s demonstrations of “incomplete or futile artistic communication,” which she interprets as V’s rejection of P’s ideas about poetry.

Daniel Delattre comprehensively reviews references to music and musical instruments in “Vergil and Music, in Diogenes of Babylon and Philodemus.” Focusing on P’s views on music, he differentiates them from the ideas of the Stoic Diogenes and through numerous well-chosen examples demonstrates V’s adherence to P’s musical doctrine. He also observes V’s talent at exhibiting different perspectives: V, while adhering to the teachings of P, manages not to reject more traditional views of music, such as those voiced by the Pythagoreans and Plato. Delattre’s observations on V’s multivocalism and multivalence, his tendencies toward complexity rather than direct and unswerving adherence to a particular philosophy or stance, place this essay within the larger matrix of interpreting V which so many important scholars of the last century have evinced.

In Part VI: Other Augustan Poets, David Armstrong’s essay, “Horace’s Epistles 1 and Philodemus”, finds that Horace is an eclectic, drawing on the teachings of various philosophical sects and infusing references to their precepts into his work. One of his concluding statements, “Nothing in the poems contradicts any fundamental doctrine of Epicureanism; many of these are explicitly or implicitly affirmed. If an eclectic, Horace can be seen clearly to be an eclectic of the Garden…” (p. 293), must be countered with the observation that a lack of opposition and implicit affirmation do not offer substantial evidence, and it is in the alleged explicit affirmations that the real argument can be made. Thus, while Armstrong’s essay displays a high level of erudition throughout, many of his “proofs” are slippery. For instance, he claims that the virtus and sapientia of Epistle 1.2 “are not after all references to ‘Stoic’ values…but in fact echo P’s own words” when he has not quoted P as using these terms together and directly; instead, he observes that P referred to Odysseus as one of the “virtue-bearers” [ ἀρετηφόροι ] and states that P “implies Odysseus’ wisdom throughout” his treatise on the good king (p.278). His own admission, “I do not want to argue that some of these thoughts were unavailable to a Stoic or Academician, or are not to be found in the vast literature of protreptic teaching by other schools” (p.280), recognizes that the case he is attempting to make is difficult. It is not surprising, then, that some of his evidence for the P and Horace connection seems both tenuous and tendentious.

Francis Cairns’ “Varius and Vergil: Two Pupils of Philodemus in Propertius 2.34?” explores the notion that Propertius composed this poem upon his entry into Maecenas’ circle and uses the identification of Lynceus as Varius as its working hypothesis. After summarizing other scholars’ arguments for this identification, Cairns proceeds to illuminate traces of Epicureanism and potential references to P’s works in the poem. It is an interesting, although not necessarily persuasive reading of the poem, replete with the author’s own intimations that his suggestions are clearly refutable. Phrases like “Propertius is…revealing himself as an unworthy and doctrinally shaky Epicurean — if indeed he is one at all” (p. 308); “it cannot be shown to be certainly or exclusively Philodemean” (p. 308-9); “As far as we know, Propertius himself had no Epicurean background, and he does not give the impression of being deeply concerned with Epicureanism” (p. 316); and “Many of Propertius’ philosophical allusions may, of course, be generic Epicureanism rather than specific to Philodemus” (p. 316) demonstrate Cairns’ caution (or perhaps diffidence) in making his argument — admittedly based on a hypothesis from the start. In this regard, Cairns (perhaps unwittingly) provides the perfect capstone to the volume with this assessment: “Although Vergil was a pupil of Philodemus…and although his work reveals knowledge of Epicureanism, it shows no signs of strong or exclusive commitment to Epicureanism. Rather, Vergil’s keen interest in philosophy went hand in hand with a deliberate withholding of allegiance to any particular school…” (p. 314).

[[For a response to this review by David Armstrong, Jeffrey Fish, Patricia A. Johnston, and Marilyn B. Skinner, please see BMCR 2005.05.47.]]