BMCR 2007.10.22

Inconsistency in Roman Epic: Studies in Catullus, Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid and Lucan. “Roman Literature and Its Contexts”

, Inconsistency in Roman epic : studies in Catullus, Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid and Lucan. Roman literature and its contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xiv, 165 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 9780521641395. $28.99 (pb).

Table of Contents

Scholars in Roman studies are becoming increasingly comfortable with interpreting, rather than explaining away, inconsistencies in written texts. This trend has been responsible for new approaches to inscribed and poetic calendars of the Augustan Age, beginning with Beard’s seminal article on the subject.1 In studies of Roman epic, however, a tendency still remains to privilege the supposedly unfinished, or unrevised, state of many works as the explanation for inconsistencies in these texts. O’Hara’s contribution to Cambridge University Press’ “Roman Literature and Its Contexts” series seeks to redress this discrepancy. O’Hara contributes a study of inconsistency that treats it as a formal feature of Roman epic inherited, in part, from Hellenistic literature and the Greek epic tradition. His aim is to demonstrate how inconsistencies, as they manifest themselves in mythological and aetiological variants, chronological discrepancies, and contradictions between a narrator and characters in a text, are part of a ‘poetics of fragmentation’ and signal ‘competing perspectives’, instead of an author’s carelessness, to a reader. The broad range of Roman epic allows O’Hara to establish an interpretive “framework for understanding the poetic or rhetorical use of inconsistencies in any ancient author…” (p.5). O’Hara’s study is aimed at any reader, expert or not, interested in using literary theory to shed new light on contemporary issues in Roman epic.

O’Hara argues that inconsistencies in Roman epic are often, but not always, thematic devices that demand interpretation. He begins with an expansive survey of the device in “Greek Versions” (chapter 1) that introduces inconsistency as an established hermeneutic, especially in Hellenistic literature. He proceeds to focus on Roman epic alone in the following five chapters, which are on Catullus 64 (chapter 2), Lucretius’ de Rerum Natura (chapter 3), Vergil’s Aeneid (chapter 4), Ovid’s Metamorphoses (chapter 5), and Lucan’s de Bello Civili (chapter 6). In a compelling study, O’Hara argues that many thematic inconsistencies are related to the experience of reading these texts. O’Hara supports his argument by focusing specifically on the proems of the epics he covers. One of the greatest strengths of his argument is to link thematic inconsistencies with the formal construction of epic. His command of the secondary literature is formidable, as the sixteen pages of bibliography and over 300 footnotes attest. O’Hara attends constantly to the place of his argument in the history of scholarship and guides the reader through a variety of interpretive approaches to the inconsistencies that he analyzes without claiming to offer a “key” to them all.

O’Hara begins with a brief history of inconsistency in Greek literature from the Iliad to the Argonautica, with divagations into tragedy, epinikian poetry, philosophy, pastoral, Shakespeare, physics, and Callimachus’ Hymns along the way. In part, he uses this chapter to demonstrate how historically contingent our own notion of poetic unity is. O’Hara argues that we owe this to the Neoplatonist theory that every texts has a unified perspective, or skopos. His analysis of Plato’s Phaedrus and the Republic, however, shows that this ancient reader treated inconsistencies as interpretable phenomena and used them in the production of his own texts. O’Hara uses the historically contingent nature of ‘poetic unity’ to counter arguments that inconsistencies in Homer should be explained away or emended. In particular, the inconsistent images of Zeus in the Iliad and the Cyclops in the Odyssey introduce motifs that unite this chapter with the later Roman material. The most rewarding section of this chapter is the discussion of Hellenistic poetry. In Callimachus’ Hymn to Zeus, he demonstrates that the poet explicitly mentions two incompatible variants of a myth to draw attention to the fictionality of his own and other poets’ constructions. With Theocritus’ Idyll 18, he shows how the knowledge of variants alluded to in the poem can produce reactions in the reader that are inconsistent with the tone of the speaker’s voice in the poem. For O’Hara, this is an example of how the reader’s response to an inconsistency contributes to fashioning a text, sometimes contrary to the poetic voice within it. O’Hara does not posit a totalizing interpretation for how inconsistency works in all these texts. Rather, he posits several different approaches to making sense of this device in light of a poem’s thematic design. This even-handed and non-polemical tone lends additional authority to his own analyses in later chapters.

In the second chapter, O’Hara argues that Catullus establishes a pattern that influenced later Roman epicists: starting a poem with a striking inconsistency. He focuses on three thematic inconsistencies in the poem: naming the Argo the first ship in the proem; the narrator’s belief in the heroum virtutes; and the optimistic prophecy in the epithalamium. As a whole, the chapter offers three different ways to interpret inconsistency in a poetic text. First, O’Hara shows that Catullus deliberately manipulates the chronology of the first ship in order to signal an inconsistency to the reader. Furthermore, the inconsistency opens up a gap between the naive narrator and the knowing reader. He proceeds to connect this with the poetic voice’s failure to narrate unambiguously tales of heroum virtutes. Although the narrator raises such expectations in the proem, the text follows a jarringly different narrative about the Golden Age. Consequently, the inconsistency forces the reader to question the narrator’s authority. O’Hara concludes this chapter with a study of the optimistic prophecy in the epithalamium that concludes the poem. O’Hara argues that the song, which initially absolves itself from treachery, actually repeats the tradition of Apollo’s deceptive epithalamium and alludes to Thetis’ later recognition of her deception as related in Iliad 24. The inconsistency further widens the gap between the naive narrator and the unknowing internal audience on one hand and the knowing reader on the other. This chapter demonstrates the range of ways in which a poet can use inconsistency as a programmatic device, a narrative device, and a way to raise familiar expectations in a reader in order to correct them.

In chapter three, O’Hara argues against the ‘archaeological approach’ to interpreting inconsistencies as evidence of planned revisions in the de Rerum Natura. Instead, he interprets the proems of books 1 and 4 of the de Rerum Natura in light of the programmatic use of inconsistency in Catullus 64. Immediately, this chapter demonstrates the value of reading these texts in tandem and including them in the Roman epic tradition. First, he discusses the inconsistency between the hymn to Venus (1.1-43) and the following lines (1.44-9) that deny divine involvement in human affairs. In fact, O’Hara argues persuasively that Lucretius intended his ideal non-Epicurean audience to recognize this abrupt change of tone as inconsistent with the preceding section. O’Hara relates this to the reader’s progress from the traditional Roman view of the gods in the proem to the more foreign and unfamiliar view introduced in 1.44-49. The experience of the reader helps to explain the poet’s intent in introducing such a surprising inconsistency. Next, O’Hara addresses the persistent effort to locate passages in the text that Lucretius planned to revise before his untimely death. He focuses on the proem to book 4 and Sedley’s argument that Lucretius intended to revise it because it does not present a reliable guide to the upcoming material. O’Hara shows that the inconsistencies can be interpreted, rather than explained away, when we do not read the proem as a straightforward index of the fourth book. Instead, his formal reading attunes the reader to the way that Lucretius consistently uses his proems to raise and reform a reader’s expectations. Once we place Lucretius in a tradition informed by Catullus, the inconsistency becomes interpretable in formal terms. In a sense, Lucretius expects his readers to bring certain assumptions about narrative itself to the text and proceeds to correct them in the course of his didactic epic.

In chapter four, O’Hara argues against using inconsistencies to prove that Vergil intended to revise the Aeneid. Instead, he demonstrates that Vergil’s use of the literary device in the Georgics is evidence that the author could have designed some of them in the epic for thematic reasons. The most innovative part of this chapter is the discussion of book 6. O’Hara catalogues a host of inconsistencies in this book before analyzing contradictory prophecies about Aeneas’ Trojan and Italian sons. He argues that Anchises’ optimistic genealogy is as deceptive as the prophecies of Jupiter himself. In toto, the combinational effects of the inconsistencies force the reader to consider whether they cast doubt on Anchises’ prophecy of Roman rule and Augustus’ divine ancestry. Next, O’Hara focuses on the contradictory depictions of pre-Trojan Italy as warlike and peaceful. He notes that the text supports both the interpretation that the Italians were peaceful and that they were at war before Aeneas’ arrival without resolving this indeterminacy. Within the text, therefore, we might say that there is no independent space or voice to mediate between these two contradictions, only conflict. O’Hara concludes the chapter by revisiting the problem of Jupiter. He neatly connects inconsistencies about the relationship between Jupiter and the Golden Age to the thematic issue of what it means to be compared with Jupiter, or to be his partisan. Does it mean to be an enemy of the Golden Age itself? These inconsistencies lead to the question: is being associated with Jupiter in this poem a good thing at all? These are all questions O’Hara raises as possible responses to Jupiter’s own indeterminacy. Finally, his observation that Jupiter contradicts himself at the moment when he swears by the Styx (10.113-14) ends the chapter on a disconcerting and troubling note for readers of this poem. Again, O’Hara maintains a convincing tone by refusing to present a “key” for the interpretation of all these inconsistencies. Rather, his focus is precisely on how they resist being harmonized into a seamless whole.

O’Hara’s chapter on Ovid continues to analyze how inconsistencies affect the authority of narrators in that epic on narration itself, the Metamorphoses. As in the previous chapters, O’Hara begins with the opening epigraph and shows how the narrator offers two contradictory aitia for the genesis of the poem: his own animus or the gods themselves. Moreover, he shows that alternate explanations for some metamorphoses even refer to the narrator’s inconsistent opening. O’Hara’s section on multiple aetiologies in the myths of Phaethon, Ino, and Lycaon is a particularly successful example of how inconsistencies are designed to change the reader’s opinion of narrators within the text. In the sections on generic mixing and chronology, however, O’Hara’s discussion of the views of Farrell, Wheeler, and Newlands leaves little room for his own contributions. At the end of the chapter, O’Hara returns to the relationship between inconsistency and narrative authority to emphasize how contradictory aitia compromise the truth claims of all the narrators in this epic. For instance, O’Hara interprets the narrator’s conflicting views of Jupiter (15.858-60 and 15.871-72) as a means by which Ovid shows both the dangers of resisting the gods and the ultimately arbitrary nature, and practice, of their authority. As in his study of the Aeneid, O’Hara offers a sage warning against using inconsistency to pin down the politics of the Metamorphoses. O’Hara uses the last chapter on Lucan to pull together the strands of his argument. He tackles what Fantham called the “biggest dilemma in considering the de Bello Civili“: the praise for Nero that begins the epic and the subsequent praise of Brutus and laments of being born into a monarchy in book 7. O’Hara’s comparative approach to the problem uses his conclusions from the previous chapters to point to a gap between the narrator and any consistent political stance. He fits Lucan’s proem into a history of a genre where the proems rarely meet the expectations they raise. Strikingly, O’Hara compares the narrative voice to the one in Catullus 64, since both fail to present a consistent view of heroum virtutes, whether in the case of Theseus, Pompey, or Caesar. In fact, the act of mythologizing these heroes, or villains, of the Republic precludes the ability to write a consistent narrative about them. By interpreting this inconsistency in terms of formalism, O’Hara casts doubt on using Lucan’s biography or political beliefs to resolve it. The chapter, and the book, demonstrates the impossibility of using such inconsistencies to support totalizing interpretations of these epics or of the views of their narrators.

O’Hara convincingly detects the hand of the poet in designing some inconsistencies to make the poetic voice a less familiar, and less reliable, authority for resolving contradictions in the Roman epic tradition. In a series devoted to dialogue between disciplines, O’Hara shows that we can read inconsistencies as evidence of epic’s polyphonic voice. He thereby contributes to expanding the range of material in epic available to the reader for interpretation.


1. Beard, Mary (1987). “A Complex of Times: No More Sheep on Romulus’ Birthday.” PCPhS 33:1-15.