BMCR 2005.08.25

Vergil’s Aeneid and the Roman Self. Subject and Nation in Literary Discourse

, Vergil's Aeneid and the Roman self : subject and nation in literary discourse. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. 1 online resource (277 pages). ISBN 9780472025695 $65.00.

It is an ambitious and laudable aim to write a book that offers a comprehensive and useful perspective on one of the most-read poems of all time, and the title of this one certainly aims high. While no-one would seriously dispute that the Aeneid was the most valued text of Latin literature from the moment of its publication and in many ways acted as a manifesto of Roman ideology, Syed’s objective is to explore how this worked from the point of view of two popular aspects of identity: gender and ethnicity. She borrows some of the terms of modern theoretical discourses (principally ‘subjectivity’ and ‘the gaze’) in order to explore how the Roman reader would have negotiated these themes. The results are somewhat predictable (the position of the Roman reader was gendered by the text as male; he usually shares the viewpoint of Aeneas; ethnicity and gender are articulated through ‘Others’ who define the ‘self’ by opposition). However, the investigation is necessary, if only to show that subjectivity is a problem at the heart of the Western classical canon as much as outside and after it.

The content of the book is organised into three parts composed of eight chapters, of which a step-by-step discussion follows.

The subject of this book, as laid out in the Introduction, shifts quite markedly from the start to the finish. The first part lays the groundwork, offering a survey of certain aspects of the ancient reading experience of the Aeneid, of which the information on its pedagogic role in Chapter 1, ‘Vergil’s Aeneid in Roman Imperial Culture’, will probably be most useful to Roman and Latin scholars, given its relevance not only for Vergilians but for anyone with an interest in the non-textual ancient reception of Latin texts. The material on ancient theories of reading in Chapter 2, which might be called psychological as well as aesthetic, is also interesting in itself but is inevitably hedged around by the invisible barriers of chronology. How cautious do we have to be with the reading experiences of readers such as Augustine who themselves lived in a generation worlds away from Vergil? For that matter, who is ‘the Roman reader’ whose experience we are trying to understand? He is both at Rome and abroad, first century BC and third century AD, even a man and a woman. This implies a plethora of potential readings of any given theme. This book proceeds on the basis of a ‘typical ancient reader’ who is what the text implies, i.e. an elite Roman male.1 We depart Chapters 1 and 2 with an overview of the dissemination and perceived status of the poem in the Imperial period under one arm, and a matching set of qualifications, historical circumstances and other baggage under the other.

The second part, chapters 3 and 4, is like a commercial flight in which we are relieved of most of our luggage and required to sit still and read something for a while. Here commences the close reading which will occupy the majority of the book. The argument of Chapter 3, ‘The Gaze’, is that the text constructs a subject position for the reader through visuality in causing him to empathise with Aeneas in acts of viewing. This is relatively uncontroversial in itself, but a surprising omission becomes apparent in the discussion of the disputed ‘Helen episode’ of Book 2 (pp. 74-9). Syed claims that female characters in the Aeneid are presented in two characteristic ways: firstly as ‘spectacles’ or visual objects, and secondly as prone to uncontrollable emotion, with a substantial overlap between the two. The frenzy of Aeneas in Book 2 is discussed in some detail, but there is another passage in which Aeneas is driven to uncontrollable rage by an act of viewing — the end of the poem, where he sees Pallas’ spoils on Turnus. This seems quite pertinent here, but is not mentioned, and indeed a quick look at the index locorum reveals that there is no reference to the last fifteen lines of the Aeneid in the whole book. This is remarkable, given the centrality of the ending to the last few decades’ debate over the meaning of the poem, and the fact that Aeneas’ emotional character is a major focus of Syed’s study. It seems that this book’s analysis of ‘gender’ is actually limited to ‘sex’, focusing exclusively on the presence of women in the poem. Chapter 4 supplements the analysis of empathy with Aeneas with a survey of other empathetic characters, principally Dido and other women. The passions of these figures make them into spectacles. This is a convincing point, although it is pressed too far and presented as a universal phenomenon, when counter-examples sometimes spring to mind. For example, Eriphyle and Dido are put together as women whose emotions are emblematised by the outward signs of their wounds, just as Amata’s frenzy is represented by the external marker of Allecto’s snake (pp. 89-92). But Allecto’s snake is not seen by Aeneas or anyone else, even herself, and if wounds are a marker of emotional suffering then there are male characters who become spectacles too, for example Sychaeus who displays his stabbed chest at 1.355-6. The identification of spectaclehood as exclusively, rather than typically, female is a tendency which again provokes fidgeting on p. 103, where Dido’s passion is still allegedly the spectacle even when Aeneas is weeping and orating and she turns away from him, remaining completely stony-faced. More fidgeting on p. 105, where Andromache’s gaze is itself called a spectacle (if Andromache seeing Aeneas is a spectacle, then why not Aeneas seeing Andromache seeing Aeneas?). The argument of this second part is fundamentally sound but subjects its readers to the crosswinds of limited explicit evidence and insufficient circumscription.

The third part of the book comprises four chapters on gender and ethnicity, moving from individual emotion to public politics. In Chapter 5 the absolute (and even essential, p. 117) connection in the poem between femaleness and emotional spectacle is maintained. The chapter expands on the perspective on gender offered in Chapter 3 and provides further examples, accounting for the fact that Turnus is maddened by Allecto, just like Amata, by arguing that Turnus is initially completely calm and requires far greater effort on Allecto’s part to become frenzied. Chapter 6, ‘Gendered Ethnicity’, shows how these two codes of identification must always operate simultaneously, and in fact interact in the Aeneid in that women such as Lavinia and Dido come to symbolise their nations geographically as well as demographically, tying into an ancient discourse gendering the conquered as feminine. The chapter contains an interesting assessment of scholarly contention over whether or not Dido conforms to a Carthaginian ethnic stereotype. Chapter 7 visits the same issues regarding Cleopatra (as imagined by Roman poets), drawing on Edward Said’s concept of the Western discourse of orientalism. Chapter 8, ‘Romanitas’, draws together the arguments so far accumulated and evolved but ends somewhat oddly with a switch back to a historical perspective and the conclusion that the Aeneid helped to articulate Romanness by allowing for ethnic diversity. One might expect a pessimistic acknowledgement of the racism and misogyny that form essential features of the poem’s success in fashioning an ideological value-system for the self as elite Roman male. One of the benefits of the emergence of ethnicity as a field of study in the late twentieth century has been an effort to approach artefacts from other cultures in the spirit in which they were intended, and evidently this is Syed’s attitude to the Aeneid. However, it seems a little strange to celebrate the inclusivity of the poem’s new Romanitas at the close of a book which has traversed swathes of material where we have been shown, for example, the exclusion of Greeks (p. 113) and the objectification of women. If the poem fashions Roman identity, these are its successes and should be acknowledged as such.

In a brief Conclusion, Syed reiterates Chapter 8’s separation of Romanitas from ethnicity, which seems to relate better to the Realpolitik of the Empire than it does to a narrative about the forging of a composite Trojan-Italian ethnicity that does not after all celebrate its Greek or other elements to the same degree. The final paragraph of the book suddenly announces that the scope all along has been largely restricted to the first half of the poem. It does draw on material from all twelve books, but the most attention goes to Books 1 and 4, and this should be borne in mind from the start as a partial justification for conspicuously absent passages, particularly those relating to Trojan and Italian ethnicity. However, if the rage of Aeneas in the Helen episode receives attention, it is still curious that the rage of Aeneas at the close of the poem does not, as there are ways in which it could comfortably be accommodated into the argument as it stands. Given that anyone interested in this book will probably have read several others published on the Aeneid in the last few years, it is no faint praise to call this a useful addition to their bibliographies. Those who prick up their ears at promises of ‘theoretical frameworks such as semiotics and psychoanalysis’ (p. 4) and ‘postmodern literary criticism’ (p. 5) as seen in the Introduction will be disappointed to find that Lacan is restricted to a couple of endnotes, while Freud, Kristeva and Derrida make no appearance. This will no doubt please many other readers, however, and does no harm to a work which is accessible as well as erudite. Despite the slightly undercooked centre formed by the second part, this book provides an authoritative update to discussions of the Aeneid, using modern interdisciplinary approaches to shed light on the text’s immense importance to Roman nationhood and other aspects of the construction of the self. While numerous passages are revisited (and indeed re-quoted) over the course of the book, which suggests that more streamlining could have been done, an impressive range of scholarship is brought to bear, both on the text itself and on the circumstances of its ancient reception as covered in the first part. Owing to the scarcity of evidence for the experience of the average Roman reader, and for the ‘political’ impact of the Aeneid in particular (in the loose sense), scholars usually tell the story of the poem’s early reception through its intertextual afterlife rather than its effects in the world outside the library. In this book, by contrast, the ‘literary discourse’ of the title is almost exclusively that of the Aeneid itself. The fact that it spends so much time on close reading of the text and that the context it supplies is principally historical and sociological, makes it particularly appropriate reading for undergraduate courses designed to teach the Aeneid in the context of Augustan Rome, or of Rome as a culture rather than as part of a literary tradition. Over three quarters of the index locorum is taken up by the Aeneid; this book is unlikely to overload or distract readers new to Vergil with issues of intertextuality, influence, and genre. I found only about a dozen typographical errors,2 none of which will seriously ruffle the reader, and the generally fluid written style is very lightly sprinkled with minor instances of idiosyncratic word order.3 The use of endnotes is always tiresome but there are a satisfactory general index and bibliography.

Broadly speaking, this is an academically orthodox book that seeks to bring relatively recent academic perspectives to a much-read text. It is a project of close reading from an ideological perspective, undertaken on the assumption that we can deduce its social impact from the text itself. On these terms it is successful, despite some areas that ask for more credibility than their evidence buys. It leaves this reviewer wondering what this treatment of other classical texts would look like.


1. According to Syed, ‘the text does not make room for’ divergent perspectives (p. 113). There is a danger of circularity here in deducing the opinions of readers from the text which allegedly fashions them.

2. There are two errors in the Latin (p. 41 ‘utiles’ for ‘utilis’ (or ‘utile’), p. 148 ‘Kathago’ for ‘Karthago’), six in the English (p. 45 ‘would by’ for ‘would be’, p. 125 ‘would’ for ‘wound’, p. 155 ‘conceren’ for ‘concern’, p. 175 ‘rebulit’ for ‘rebuilt’, p. 179 ‘Read Sea’ for ‘Red Sea’, p. 196 ‘Great Mothers call’ for ‘Great Mother calls’), two in the notes (p. 249 ‘in Rabirius’ for ‘to Rabirius’, p. 253 ‘Catullus and Coras’ for ‘Catillus and Coras’) and one in the bibliography (p. 164 ‘the Arist’ for ‘the Artist’).

3. Of which the only notably eccentric example occurs on p. 194: ‘Their ethnic otherness thus is a result entirely of their womanhood’.