BMCR 2007.06.10

From Many Gods to One. Divine Action in Renaissance Epic

, From many gods to one : divine action in Renaissance epic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 1 online resource (x, 247 pages). ISBN 9780226307565. $30.00.

Table of Contents

In this book Gregory (hereafter G.) examines the Renaissance reinvention of the divine action of classical epic. In five chapters covering Homer to Milton, he explains how Renaissance poets confronted the problem of adapting the narrative structure of classical polytheistic epic to Christian monotheistic norms. G.’s comparative approach will give readers an excellent sense of the distinctiveness of, and continuities between, classical and post-classical epic traditions. The book will be of particular interest to classicists working on the European epic tradition, reception studies, and neo-Latin literature, but it also makes an excellent general introduction to Renaissance epic. The clarity and fluency of G.’s prose, and the light but judicious annotation, will add to the book’s wide appeal, as will its economy—the book comes in at just over two hundred pages and at a very reasonable price to boot.1

The introduction sets out G.’s argument and the central issues involved. G. contends that “[f]or the purposes of epic narrative, many gods are better than one” (5). The theology of classical epic consists of selfish gods, conflicting divine interests, and imprecise justice. Divine conflicts and negotiations allow the plot of classical epic to happen. The plot of Christian epic, on the other hand, must contend with the unity, omnipotence, and benevolence of the Christian God. What power prevents God from immediately accomplishing His will? Poets from Petrarch to Milton used various strategies to evade and answer this question, which G. calls the problem of counterbalance. Christianity also introduces into epic the distinction between true and false religion—the Mosaic distinction (G. borrows the term from Jan Assmann)—which “constitutes the single most important difference between classical and Renaissance epic” (13). The manifestation of the Mosaic distinction can take many forms, from open martial conflict against pagan enemies, as in the epics of Ariosto and Tasso, to the ultimate division of saved and damned, as in Paradise Lost. Building on the work of David Quint, G. observes how the Christian epics deploy the Mosaic distinction to serve their own ends: true religion authorises present conquest and future salvation.2

Although G. admits the influence of other canonical classical authors, he regards Virgil’s particular conception of divine action as paradigmatic for Renaissance poets (23-24). For the most part this premise works well, but there are occasions when a less homogenised understanding of classical epic would have deepened G.’s readings. For instance, although he acknowledges the role of Lucan’s Bellum Civile in Quint’s scheme of winners’ and losers’ epic, G. does not contemplate the possible ramifications of Lucan’s anti-Virgilian theology. For Renaissance poets the Bellum Civile would not only have represented the archetypal poem of civil war, it would also have stood out for man-made gods and divine inaction. The omission of Lucan (his name appears only twice in the index) is felt particularly strongly in the section on Ariosto’s Cinque Canti (chapter 3). G. also focuses on Providence and the manifestation of divine will in historical events as the exclusive preoccupation of Christian epic (19-21). But these concerns, and the hermeneutic activity associated with them, have clear precedents in classical epic: omens and oracles are variously taken as predictions of the future, explanations of the present, and indicators of fate or divine will. While the co-existence of divine providence and evil may be a peculiarly Christian puzzle, the intellectual and epistemological issues surrounding divine providence have a strong classical pedigree, which G. could usefully have taken into consideration.3

Chapter 1 is designed to render the polytheistic model in classical epic clear to non-classicists. G. admits that the material, drawn from the work of Denis Feeney and others, will be familiar to classicists (28).4 The first part of the chapter fleshes out the problem of counterbalance outlined in the introduction. The plot of classical epic is driven by dissenting gods, such as Poseidon and Juno, whose claims have some hold on Zeus or Jupiter and so lead to negotiation and compromise. Renaissance poets likewise tried to use Satan and the infernal powers as agents of delay and division, but God’s immeasurable superiority makes a mockery of the notion of compromise (43-44). In the second part of the chapter, G. argues that classical epic does not have to explain away injustices in the world, because the Olympian gods are not presumed to be absolutely just. Christian poets, constrained to depict a benevolent and omnipotent God, could use the Mosaic distinction to show that suffering comes only to God’s enemies, while His favoured side ultimately enjoys salvation.

G. synthesises classical scholarship well to illustrate the distinctions between polytheistic and monotheistic epic. However, G. might have addressed other readings of classical epic that work against those distinctions. For instance, one strand of criticism on the Iliad sees in the will of Zeus an entirely powerful and singular operation—namely, the demarcation of the boundary between god and human through the massive concentration of death.5 This view of divine action may be darker than the Christian version, but resembles it in terms of unity and power. G.’s emphasis of the discontinuity between Virgilian and Christian theology leads him to ignore the depiction of strong Roman gods and weak foreign gods in the scene of the Battle of Actium on the Shield of Aeneas ( Aeneid 8.698-706). This opposition shares at least some common ground with the Mosaic distinction. Finally, the Christians of Renaissance epic are hampered not only by devils acting like classical furies and gods (41), but also by the habit of replicating the classical heroes’ flaws of character—the wrath of an Achilles or the passion of an Aeneas. G. mentions characters being prone to behave in certain ways, but a word or two more about how intertextuality shapes character would have added another level of depth to his discussion.

Chapter 2 looks at the handling of divine action in two Latin epics of the early Renaissance: Petrarch’s Africa and Vida’s Christiad. G. has no particular desire to recuperate the Africa, a much maligned neo-Latin epic on Scipio Africanus and the Second Punic War, but Petrarch’s early fusion of classical epic and Christianised divine action marks an appropriate beginning for the main part of G.’s study. Petrarch fashions a compromise between pagan past and Christian present through their common topographical centre, the city of Rome, and he presents Jupiter as a typological manifestation of the Christian God and Jesus Christ. However, despite this bold syncretism, G. argues, the theological vagueness required to sustain both classical and Christian divinity reduces the gods from muscular participants in the action to ineffectual and insubstantial curiosities. For G., this academicism represents the fault of the whole work, especially in the form of the poem’s perfect, and therefore perfectly artificial, Scipio.

The second part of the chapter, on Vida’s Christiad, is divided into three sections: on the devils, Christ, and God. G. well illustrates Vida’s fusion of the Gospels and the Aeneid, especially in his treatment of the devils’ inspiration of Judas and the Sanhedrin (68-76). In this and subsequent chapters G. emphasises the importance of Vergil’s Allecto for the conception of hellish powers in Renaissance epic; here, Vida redeploys the very language of Allecto’s possession of Turnus to describe the malign influence of the devils. In the next two sections, on the figures of Christ and God, G. demonstrates the problems that Christian theology poses the classicising epic poet. Divine omniscience, for instance, reduces Christ’s epic heroism in the face of death to the comfortable knowledge that he will only be dead for three days (81-83), it dispenses with the need for informative dialogue between divine characters (84-85), and it makes a mockery of Vida’s suggestion that Christ almost forgets his divine nature (86-87). However, G. might have treated these apparent absurdities as something rather more deliberate and thought-provoking. When Vida dramatises the paradoxes of Christian theology, the consequent literary critical problems may carry over some of the original philosophical seriousness behind the concept of an immortal experiencing death, or other taxing Christological questions.6 Even if a principle of logical consistency ought to apply in such cases, its contradiction may reflect not simply Vida’s literary bind, but rather the state of mind of the Christian reader.

Chapter 3 treats Ariosto’s fusion of epic and romance in his vernacular epic, the Orlando Furioso (οφ and in his less well-known Cinque Canti (CC). G. observes that the strong presence of magic and enchantment in the OF, owed to the poem’s romance heritage, allows the problem of counterbalance to recede into the background. God and Satan may support Christian and Pagan respectively, but the predictability of the outcome is obscured by the relative absence of the main divine players. G. argues that while Ariosto explicitly subscribes to conventional pieties regarding divine providentialism and justice, as noted by his 16th century commentators, the poet also offers ironic commentary on these pieties through tone, allusion, asides, and other means. G. sees a broader range of attitudes to providentialism in passages referring to contemporary events: from panegyric for Ariosto’s patrons to pessimism regarding the Italian Wars.7

G. argues that Ariosto’s anxiety about contemporary Christian Europe emerges most fully in his Cinque Canti. This incomplete poem, in the same Carolingian tradition as the OF, tells of dissension and treachery within the Christian camp. The opening of the poem alludes to classical epic with its supernatural council of Fays under the authority of Demogorgon, who sow disunity amongst the Christians. The Fays make up most of the supernatural action, much like the Olympians of classical epic, and their particular interventions occasionally recall key epic precedents such as Allecto’s possession of Amata in Aeneid 7. The lack of attention to Lucan is felt especially strongly here, since the CC alludes to the Bellum Civile at several important points. In this godless poem Ariosto consciously shifts his literary model from Virgil to Lucan.

Chapter 4 examines Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata (GL) focusing on questions of Christian conquest and devilish resistance. G. uses Tasso’s Discourses on poetry and his letters as evidence to explain the poet’s handling of the divine action in the epic. The divine action is largely classicised, with echoes of Homer and Vergil both in the depiction of God and in the supernatural interventions. G. offers a particularly good analysis of the passage of the breaking of the truce in GL 7 and the differences from its Iliadic model (153-55). G. asks, as other readers have done, why the Almighty does not enable the Christian army to liberate Jerusalem immediately. G. argues that these questions of counterbalance and God’s timing can have no convincing answer; they are merely the result of the imposition of Christian theology on a poetic form that requires delay and resistance. However, if the devils have no power to oppose God in the action of the poem, they at least provide a different view of the action, such as Plutone’s allegation of God’s imperialism (beginning of GL 4). A different view is also provided by the pagan heroes, notably when Solimano looks down at the raging battle and sees only the forces of chance and fate and “the bitter tragedy of the human condition” (GL 20.73). G. argues that the application of Solimano’s perception to the whole poem (as developed by the scholar Erminia Ardissino) represents a partial and selective reading. At times God may seem far removed from the action of the poem, but He is also determinative of Christian victory and pagan defeat. G. encourages us to be aware of the multiple perspectives offered by the poem, but also to recognise the partisanship of its God and its author.

Chapter 5 turns to Paradise Lost (PL) and to Milton’s particular response to the problems faced by previous epic poets, especially the tension between God’s omnipotence and human free will. G. examines Satan’s rhetoric closely to show how the Devil evades and denies divine omnipotence. Thus, rather than occluding the problem of counterbalance, Milton engages with it head-on. Unlike conventional heroic epic, however, recognition of the maximal power of God does not empty the poem of dramatic tension. It is precisely because obedience to God is so difficult, and the temptations so real, that Milton’s detailed examination of Satanic self-delusion and error is as compelling as it is. G. argues, against a long line of pro-Satanic critics, that Milton unambiguously undermines the Devil (196-98). What is odd about G.’s critical procedure here is its discord with his approach to Tasso. There, G. argued that critical method requires us to extend charity to the author’s conception of God and to accept provisionally premises we find quite untenable (173). But if, with Tasso, we observe the problems with these premises and have our attention drawn to them by the devils (171-72), why can we not do the same with Milton? The fact that Milton may be theologically more sophisticated than Tasso does not mean that his undermining of the devils should convince wholesale.

G. also addresses the seeming impropriety of God’s extended self-justification in PL 3. He explains God’s profound engagement with theological arguments as a necessary consequence of Milton’s unorthodox, even heretical, Arminian beliefs. G. is right to focus on Milton’s theodicy as the main reason to have God speak for Himself, but it may have been worthwhile to revisit the possible influence of theodicy in classical epic, which he discussed in chapter 1. G. might also have expended a few words on Milton’s handling of the radical threat to theology posed by atomist materialism.8

In the subsequent epilogue, G. describes briefly the changing conditions that accounted for the decline of epic poetry both in the size of its readership and as the highest literary accomplishment. G. ends the book by noting the presence of monotheistic beliefs and the Mosaic distinction in bestselling novels today.

To conclude, G.’s book carves a niche for itself in a competitive field as a very specific and well-argued study of the adaptation of classical epic to monotheistic religion. Experts may value the book more for its crystallisation of an important problem and for its consummate clarity than for any paradigm shift, but it has much to offer veteran and novice students of epic alike. G. knows his Renaissance epics and their historical contexts very well indeed. The minor cavils expressed in this review are mostly directed against oversimplification of divine action in classical epic, but they show that much interesting work remains to be done in the comparative criticism of ancient and Renaissance epic by classicists and early modern scholars alike. It is through comparative work of this kind that we will gain a more refined sense of the meaning and place of individual works in their own contexts and in the broader tradition.

Classicists will miss an index locorum, especially when G. has so helpfully gathered and discussed passages on a single theme in a literary tradition. The book is remarkably free of typographical errors.9 Finally, the University of Chicago Press deserves thanks for producing a handsome book at such a reasonable price. No doubt this decision will help in making this book a standard item in courses on the epic tradition.10


1. G. also writes with good humour, e.g., when he comments on God’s discriminate damnation of pagans in the Gerusalemme Liberata (175 n. 74): “God’s principle of selection among the pagans is that of a doorman at a crowded nightclub: admit the attractive young women and to hell with everybody else.”

2. David Quint, Epic and Empire (1993).

3. G.’s omission of non-Vergilian authors occasionally causes him to miss some of classical epic’s influence on the divine action of Christian epic. For example, G. does not mention the possibility that the personification of Rome in Petrarch’s letters and in Africa 7 (discussed on pages 62-64) may owe something to Lucan’s image of the distressed Roma in BC 1. For Lucanian echoes in the Africa see Richard Bruère, “Lucan and Petrarch’s Africa” CP 56.2 (1961), 83-99. The fear of God’s violation of infernal sovereignty (Satan at Christiad 1.183-92, and Plutone at Gerusalemme Liberata 4.11) may have its precedent in Statius’ Pluto ( Thebaid 8.34-79). G.’s account of the supernatural energy at the heart of Ariosto’s Cinque Canti (134-39) could have benefited from the analysis of epic’s hellish energy in Philip Hardie, The Epic Successors of Vergil (1993), esp. 60-65.

4. Denis Feeney, The Gods in Epic (1991).

5. Ruth Scodel, “The Achaean Wall and the Myth of Destruction”, HSPh 86 (1982); Sheila Murnaghan, “Equal Honor and Future Glory: The Plan of Zeus in the Iliad” in Roberts et al. (edd.), Classical Closure (1997), 23-42.

6. On page 81 G. asserts that the epic hero must be mortal. While broadly true this neglects, for instance, Nonnus’ Dionysiaca. See Glen Bowersock, “Dionysus as an epic hero”, in Hopkinson (ed.), Studies in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus (1994), 156-66.

7. G. describes how providentialism leads Ariosto to the view that foreign invaders are the instruments of divine justice (123-26). G. might have asked why Ariosto makes the interesting choice to use not just any foreign invader but specifically the blasphemous Rodomonte as the main instrument of divine justice and of plot. Ariosto’s Rodomonte, much more than Boiardo’s, alludes to Statius’ Capaneus, thus bringing pagan defiance, and denial, of god into the heart of his poem.

8. See, e.g., David Quint, “Fear of Falling: Icarus, Phaethon, and Lucretius in Paradise Lost”, Renaissance Quarterly 57 (2004), 315-45.

9. I noticed the following: inconsistency in spelling of noun “prophecy/-sy” (e.g., 22, 64, 75, 85, 98); “it not easy” (41); “The Iliad, , 3″ (53 n. 27); ” genus intracabile” (92); page reference to Waldman’s translation missing (113); “put the put the” (161); “emerge for as” (172); “for them it is for the pagans” (176); “the course of the Paradise Lost” (190); “—” in bibliography should read “Trissino” and should be moved below Thomas Aquinas (234).

10. This reviewer happened to be reading G.’s book in Kolkata at the time of the annual festival of Saraswati, Hindu goddess of learning. In the ceremony it is customary for students to offer an academic book to the goddess, for success in that particular endeavour. This I did. So, From Many Gods to One, to one of many…