BMCR 2007.12.19

Madness Unchained. A Reading of Virgil’s Aeneid

, Madness unchained : a reading of Virgil's Aeneid. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007. xix, 427 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780739112373 $37.95 (pb).

Fratantuono (F.) provides us with a book intended to be a comprehensive introduction to Vergil’s Aeneid. F. directs his book towards any possible readers of Vergil: Latinists, Latin-less readers, high school students, undergraduates, graduates, professionals. At the same time, F. centers his argument around the assumption that Vergil’s point in writing the Aeneid was to explore the role madness played in the national identity of the Romans. Generally speaking, F. achieves these goals as he leads the readers through Vergil’s epic poem book by book and scene by scene. Thereby, F.’s book indeed provides us with an introduction to all the major aspects of the interpretation of the Aeneid. Indeed, there is something useful for everyone — however serious about reading the Aeneid or however advanced in Vergilian studies one might be — in this book, although I think that advanced undergraduates will profit most from it. And indeed, F.’s book will, of course, not fail to provoke resistance, because not every scholar (and maybe not every non-professional reader of the Aeneid as well) will be convinced that the role of madness for the Roman identity in fact was the main focus of Vergil’s attention when he wrote the Aeneid.

F.’s book consists of an introduction, twelve chapters (one chapter for each book of the Aeneid), a select and annotated bibliography, and a short index.

F.’s introduction first admonishes every reader of the Aeneid to read the entire poem. He is to be commended here, because even if it should be obvious to everyone that one needs to read a book in its entirety in order to be really able to interpret it, many readers of Vergil — horribile dictu — are content with less. Secondly, the introduction sets the stage for a detailed discussion of the individual books by describing the contemporary background against which the Aeneid was written. Thirdly, F. prepares the reader for paying attention to the theme of madness in the Aeneid. F. points to the different meanings of condere : ‘founding’ Rome in the beginning of the poem and ‘burying’ Aeneas’ sword in Turnus’ chest at the end of the poem. F. also emphasizes the parallel between the imprisonment of madness in Jupiter’s prophecy for Rome’s future in book I and Aeneas’ rage at the end of book XII.

I do think, however, that while this comparison of the beginning and the end of the Aeneid is legitimate and needs to be done, it is not quite right to give the end of book 12 quite the same weight as the various proems in which Vergil himself declares what he wants to do in what follows. The final scene of the Aeneid is definitely a very important scene, but in this regard just one of a series of other equally important scenes, which illuminate the story of Aeneas and the Trojans in their establishment of Rome. In this regard, of course, rage, anger, love, fear, and other emotions play a major role. And Vergil’s way of telling us about these emotions and about how to cope with them as part of the life of every human being may be part of the answer to the question of why the Aeneid has fascinated and still attracts large audiences all over the world and throughout time. On the other hand, these emotions, although entire dissertations can be written about them, are not everything there is to the Aeneid‘s story. Therefore, I personally would have preferred to highlight Vergil’s narrative of a life lived while searching for its shape and meaning. We know that Homer was read in antiquity to find out how one needs to live one’s life. Why should Vergil have expected anything less from his own work? Of course, there are other topics as well, some of which even form entire thematic patterns. Having said that, I can, of course, only acknowledge that the Aeneid means something different to any reader — which again makes reading the Aeneid in its entirety so interesting.1 And this is clearly the merit of F.’s book and its main twelve chapters: making us read the Aeneid as a whole and appreciate it anew not as a mere source for florilegia or as a collection of scenes assembled by accident, but as a coherent and cohesive narrative, even if Vergil may not have had the chance to make it an absolutely flawless work of poetry.

There is little I would add to chapters I-XII. Depending on one’s interests, one could stress some passages more than F. did. Maybe some of us would have incorporated more intertextual details or emphasized the contemporary context a little more. In Vergilian studies, however, the old proverb is true: ars longa, liber brevis (even if it contains approximately 450 pages). And F. manages to handle this fact such that his balanced book does not unjustly prefer one aspect of the Aeneid over the other, but gives all of them their due. F. stays the course of an explication de texte of the Aeneid without getting sidetracked. Clearly, no Mercury is needed here. In sum, F.’s observations lead us to a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of Vergil’s text. Only a few books on the Aeneid do the same: William’s 1972-3 commentary in two volumes, for example, or Edith and Gerhard Binder’s notes in six volumes which appeared in Stuttgart between 1994 and 2005. Both items can be found in F.’s useful bibliography as well.

In general, one should also not fail to read the notes of the individual chapters. F. has made wonderful points and painstaking observations in them and presents the reader of his book with many beautiful and valuable gifts in these sections of his chapters which are not to be neglected.

In what follows, I can only briefly mention a few points about the individual chapters. Although they primarily concern the particular books in question, these points are mutatis mutandis also valid for the other chapters of the book as well. As far as chapter I is concerned, I would like to point out that F.’s comparison of the proems of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid could stress more that the anger theme of the Iliad disappears from its prominent position in the proem, replacing it with arma and vir, whereby at the same time the thematic focus of the entire poem shifts away from anger.2 I concede, however, that an exact account of the meaning of arma still is a puzzle. F.’s description and explanation of this semantic problem is a particularly good passage in this first chapter.

Chapter II, for example, shows F. at work explaining the difficult textual problem of the Helen episode. Chapter III does not fail to recognize the intricate questions of the overall arrangement of the poem’s books that are important even in the lesser known parts of the Aeneid. Chapter IV does a good job in sorting out the influenceApollonius of Rhodes had on this particular book. A few years ago, however, Damien Nelis conclusively showed that Apollonius’ influence is not limited to book IV of the Aeneid. While in book IV Apollonius’ influence probably is more visible than in other books and while F. also elsewhere directs our attention to Apollonius’ influence on other passages in Vergil’s epic poem (cf., e.g., p. 141), I would nevertheless also include Nelis’ book 3 in the annotated bibliography.

F. then rightly points out the weight book V has in itself and for the entire Aeneid, even if this book belongs to the understudied parts of the Aeneid. Chapter VI especially is a prime example of the thoroughness of F.’s review of Vergil’s work. F. uses the beginning of chapter VII as well as other passages to initiate the reader into the circle of the scholars of Vergil by mentioning aspects of the history of Vergilian scholarship every once in a while, at points where it is possible and even enhances our ability to understand a particular Vergilian passage. This progress in understanding the Aeneid that can be made over the course of reading both the Aeneid and F.’s book is also reflected, for example, in the increase of intratextual references pointed out to the reader by F. as we get to F.’s discussion of Vergil’s book VIII. F.’s book, however, still manages to remain easy to read. Given the scholarly genre of the book, which is never denied, F. displays considerable narrative skills.

Chapter IX continues to point out even more the dense fabric of Vergil’s narrative. F. points our attention also to the level of the individual verses. Cf., e.g., p. 287, where F. talks about 9.777 ( arma virum) and about the beginning of the Aeneid.4 Chapter X gives me the opportunity to point out that F. shows Vergil’s debt to philosophy where this is important and the relevance of the later (in this case: Humanist) reception of the Aeneid (cf. p. 311, e.g.). Book XI of the Aeneid is again one of those books lamentably neglected by too many Vergilian scholars. Once more, F. shows us the profoundly fundamental role of one of these understudied books. To talk about book XII, of course, is a challenge for every scholar, because of the vast amount of scholarship that exists today. F.’s approach does not fail to succeed here as well, even if it should not come as a surprise that not all of us will agree with F.’s rather “pessimistic” reading of the end of the poem.

F.’s select bibliography attests to his great experience teaching the Aeneid. The concise index could have been improved by adding an index locorum.

F.’s book is a wonderful book, because with its well-versed learning in all aspects of Vergilian scholarship it inspires its readers to think independently. F. himself points out that readers of Vergil should read the Aeneid first. F.’s book, however, provides what according to the book’s own title is “a” reading of this epic poem along with much helpful background information. And exactly because this reading does not want to release us from our duty to read the Aeneid on our own, we are greatly helped and enabled to develop our own understanding of the Aeneid and to make our own conclusions.


1. Cf. K. Galinsky, Classical and Modern Interactions. Postmodern Architecture, Multiculturalism, Decline, and Other Issues (Austin 1992) 76 (“classical works transcend time, place, race, and gender and are truly universal.”) and 84 (“while the Aeneid was strongly influenced by its times, its primary purpose was to portray the human condition in general”).

2. Also cf. p. 198. In my view, it is of course true that the second part of the Aeneid is similar to the Iliad. The very first word of this latter epic poem, however, is still not given the same prominence in the Aeneid : neither in the proem of book I nor in the somewhat belated proem of book VII.

3. D. Nelis, Vergil’s Aeneid and the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius, ARCA 39 (Leeds 2001).

4. Cf., however, also R. Niehl, Vergils Vergil: Selbstzitat und Selbstdeutung in der Aeneis. Ein Kommentar und Interpretationen. Studien zur klassischen Philologie 134 (Frankfurt am Main et al. 2002) 92. Niehl conclusively shows that Vergil never quotes himself without ameaningful purpose.