BMCR 2006.03.01

Roman and Greek Imperial Epic. Rethymnon Classical Studies 2

, , Roman and Greek imperial epic. Rethymnon classical studies ; v. 2. Rethymnon: Crete University Press, 2005. x, 195 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9605242036 €25.00 (pb).

This collection of nine papers derives from a conference held at the University of Crete in Rethymnon in 2002, organised and edited by Michael Paschalis. As the title suggests, the focus of the volume is on later Roman and Greek epic, an increasingly popular area of research worldwide, and this is an interesting collection which will be a useful resource for anyone interested in the ancient epic tradition of the Flavian and late antique periods (from Valerius Flaccus to Nonnus and Dracontius).

After an introduction (1-8) by Michael Paschalis which helpfully summarises the papers and draws together some common themes (especially the fact that none of the volume’s contributors really commits to the idea that later Greek poets knew earlier Latin ones, generally seeing Hellenistic intermediaries as explaining resemblances), the volume begins with a group of four papers dedicated to Flavian Latin texts. In ‘Juno and the Poet in Valerius’ Argonautica (9-27)’, Meredith Monaghan argues that the divine character Juno stands as a surrogate for the poet, with both presented as self-conscious plotters struggling against the weight of the Aeneid. This is plausible enough (and nicely ironic since the Valerian Juno herself in fact mirrors her Vergilian antecedent in her apparent innovation of stirring up a Colchian civil war [cf. Aeneid 7] just as Valerius’ novelty of a Colchian fiancé for Medea recalls Turnus and Lavinia). But when M. argues that Medea’s consensual removal from Colchis in Valerius is ‘rape’, or that a main concern of Juno in the poem is her attempt to prevent it ending and thus delay Rome’s foundation and the future destruction of her favourite Carthage from destruction, not all will follow her; the Punic wars are seen by M. as crucial consequences of the Argonautic saga but are never mentioned in the Argonautica — Carthage is found not at all, and Rome is found only in the introductory allusion to Flavian military enterprise [1.7-14] and a couple of anachronistic similes [6.55 and 402]). Ellen O’Gorman turns to Statius and argues interestingly in ‘Beyond Recognition: Twin Narratives in Statius’ Thebaid‘ (29-46) that the feuding brothers Eteocles and Polyneices express a vicious excess of mutual knowledge and recognition, and that the twin also carries the idea of the monstrous double. She looks at various fraternal and quasi-fraternal pairs in the poem: Tydeus is plausibly seen as the ‘good’ brother denied to Polyneices, and an effective contrast is made between the brother-slaying Lemnian twin Lycaste and the virtuous twin sons of Hypsipyle, who appear to rescue their mother and reverse previous Lemnian fratricide as well as contrastneatly with the warring sons of Oedipus. She also links to this the ‘doubling’ of the Lemnian episodes of Statius and Valerius (seeing the former as commenting on the latter as most agree).

Alessandro Barchiesi follows the recent interest in the Achilleid by comparing it in ‘Masculinity in the 90’s: The Education of Achilles in Statius and Quintilian’ (47-75) to Quintilian’s contemporary account of male elite education in the Institutio Oratoria, a characteristically enterprising contextualising move. Here he plausibly identifies shared anxieties about masculinity and Greekness (and notes that the Chiron/Achilles pedagogic relationship is actually cited at Inst. 1.10.30), and with his eye for the telling detail suggests e.g. that Achilles’ disguise on Scyros gives a good explanation for the dancing-girls on his Iliadic shield. In the Achilleid itself he pursues a number of indications of gender uncertainty, showing yet again the rich literary texture of this poem which cries out for a modern commentary to succeed that of Dilke (though Peter Heslin’s new book as B. notes will certainly help). Kirk Freudenburg, in ‘Making Epic Silver: The Alchemy of Imperial Satire’ (77-89) suggests that Juvenal’s first satire attacks Greek and Grecising epic as part of creating a literary niche for the quintessentially Roman genre of satura. This is neat enough, but it should also be stressed (as F. himself does in his Satires of Rome, 202) that there are direct attacks here on Valerius Flaccus and other Roman poets too and that creating space within Latin literature is also important. A good link is made with Martial 10.4 and the thesis that ‘epic, and its vain fantasies, are set out as the foil to the satirist’s daily experience’ (86) is nicely matched with the ideas that life in Juvenal has in fact become as outlandish as epic and that both epic and satire have reached their end point in the Flavian epoch.

Four of the five remaining papers treat Greek imperial epic. The exception is Francesco Stella’s ‘Epic of the Biblical God: Intercultural Imitation and the Poetics of Alterity’ (131-47). Here we have a welcome treatment of late antique Latin biblical epic which provides a useful survey of scholarship from Auerbach to the republished Bakhtin, including a helpful assessment of the work of the late Reinhart Herzog. Biblical epic is here seen as the successful strategy of Christian/pagan cultural mixture where the alternatives of cultural separation and attempts at biblical style in Latin had failed, and S. argues plausibly that later Christian authors such as Dracontius show a new sense of literary hierarchy in echoing classical topoi such as that of the ‘hundred mouths’ through the filter of earlier Christian work. This double operation is persuasively seen as the embryo of medieval allegorism (though Prudentius’ Psychomachia might also have merited a mention here).

Michael Paschalis himself contributes ‘Pandora and the Wooden Horse : A Reading of Triphiodorus’ Halosis Iliou‘ (91-115), in which he successfully argues for telling parallels between Hesiod’s Pandora in the Works and Days and the account of the Wooden Horse which absorbs such a disproportionate amount of Triphiodorus’ single-book epic (some 500 out of some 700 lines) : both are deceptive and disastrous female divine constructs involving manufacture by Athene. This argument is then extended to the exploration of the allied ‘female’ themes of pregnancy, parturition, exhaustion, renewal and regeneration in the poem. These are all rich topics, especially the last (Helenus as the new Menelaus and Calchas, Neoptolemus as the new Achilles), and there are other good ideas suggested such as the comparison of Wooden Horse and ship and the re-enactment in the loading of the Trojan women on the Greek ships of the loading of the Trojan Horse with Greek warriors. This paper clearly shows that Triphiodorus is worth the close attention of literary critics.

A similar case is made for Nonnus by Philip Hardie in ‘Nonnus’ Typhon: The Musical Giant’ (117-30). Here H. takes on the suggestion that Typhoeus in the first book of the Dionysiaka has metapoetical significance as a failed epic poet : ‘Nonnus retells the conflict between Zeus and Typhoeus … in a way that suggests that the monster’s assault on the supreme god is also a figure for a challenge to the authority of the epic poet in his role as panegyrist of the Olympian gods’ (121). Zeus and Typhoeus are thus two of a kind rather than opposites. Typhoeus is neatly compared to Vergil’s Fama as a monstrous deity of deviant poetic character and in his genealogy as the youngest child of Earth/Gaia. Any link between the two is more likely to be through a common Hellenistic source, H. argues, though direct use of V. by N. is not impossible.

The last pair of papers focuses on a late antique Greek poem of 1376 hexameters not usually discussed by literary critics, the Orphic Argonautica ( OA), in which Orpheus gives an account of the Argonaut saga which clearly depends on Apollonius. In ‘Generic Consciousness in the Orphic Argonautica‘ (149-68), Richard Hunter suggests that the OA self-consciously moves from didactic to traditional epic concerns and that this tension between the Hesiodic and the Homeric traditions is presented in the poem’s contrast between Orpheus and Chiron as well as in its Odyssean emphasis on wandering. Again, the conclusion is that the poem’s negotiation of various literary traditions is highly sophisticated: ‘The OA is thus to be seen as a brilliant exercise … in how to create one’s own literary space when confronted with that solid wall of authority’ (166).

A similar line is pursued by Damien Nelis in ‘The Reading of Orpheus: The Orphic Argonautica and the Epic Tradition’ (169-92), who scrutinises the OA for evidence of lost Orphic texts, not least the Orphic katabasis tradition evident from Vergil ( G. 4.464-70, Aen. 6.119-20). In particular, a detailed synkrisis of the songs sung at the Argo’s launch in the different versions of Apollonius, Valerius Flaccus, Silius Italicus and the OA plausibly points to a common source in a pre-Apollonian Greek poem, which N. (more speculatively) suggests might be the Orphic theogony/cosmogony with which the Epic Cycle seems to have begun. Once more, a firm case is made for an interestingly literary texture.

Overall, then, this is a stimulating volume of papers which will help to advance the study of later Roman and Greek epic in the Anglophone world. Its stress on the literary value of Flavian epic texts fits an existing scholarly trend in which Philip Hardie’s The Epic Successors of Virgil (1993) played a key kick-start role, while its re-evaluation of the literary texture of later Greek epic is welcome and at least partly pioneering. The second volume in this series of Rethymnon Classical Studies maintains the high standard of the first (also reviewed by me in BMCR 2003.06.21) and is again nicely produced.