BMCR 2010.06.12

Apollo, Augustus, and the Poets

, Apollo, Augustus, and the Poets. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xi, 408. ISBN 9780521516839. $110.00.

This ambitious and important book builds on Miller’s publications on Augustan poetry stretching back over nearly thirty years. It is well complemented by Apolline Politics & Poetics, a volume co-edited by Miller also appearing last year.1 Miller’s readings of Apollo’s presence in Augustan poetry take an important cue from D.C. Feeney’s observation of “the ancients’ ability to view a deity as a many-sided prism.”2 Miller’s discussion of Apollo’s appearance at Ascanius’ first combat in Virgil’s Aeneid exemplifies the value of attempting to perceive the multiple sides of the “prism” simultaneously. In this brief episode, Apollo functions as “a prismatic figure who is also Homeric champion of Troy, the patron of archers, Delphic god of moderation, and the Callimachean divinity who urges poets away from martial epic” (150).

Chapter 1, “Octavian and Apollo,” traces the development of the association between Apollo and Octavian from the early triumviral period onward. In the very beginning, the god could have been just as easily associated with Octavian’s enemies: “Apollo” was the watchword at Philippi, Antony struck Apollo-themed coins, and Octavian was condemned as “Apollo Tortor” after masquerading as Apollo at a banquet (Suet. Aug. 70). Miller then turns to readings of Horace’s divine “rescues.” Apollo saves him from the pest of Serm. 1.9, but it is Mercury who must save the poet at Philippi in Odes 2.7, just as the same god saves Rome in the person of Augustus in Odes 1.2. As the following chapter indicates, Apollo has been too closely identified with war to be the plausible figure to end it.

Chapter 2 examines the poets’ representations of the god’s role at the battle of Actium. Virgil’s Shield of Aeneas locates the post-Actium triumph at the temple of Apollo Palatinus, an unexpected change from the traditional venue, the temple of Capitoline Jupiter. As Miller observes (94), this passage sets the parameters for future representation of Actian Apollo in Augustan poetry. A significant and largely persuasive reading of Propertius’ Actium elegy follows. Both here and in other chapters, Miller follows the via media on the question of Propertius’ conformity or dissidence from Augustan ideology. His Propertius is neither lampooning the princeps nor capitulating to him (81). Both in this chapter and elsewhere in the book, Miller dissents from Gurval’s Actium and Augustus. 3 In Miller’s view, Gurval underestimates the significance of Apollo to the princeps, and such significance does not derive entirely from the poets.

Chapter 3, almost ninety pages long, offers a sequential reading of Apollo’s appearances in the Aeneid. The god’s oracles at Delos, Buthrotum, and Cumae receive full discussion. While the Homeric, Apollonian, and Callimachean backgrounds to these Virgilian scenes are fully exploited, it is surprising that Greek tragedy has been overlooked here (indeed, not one locus from Greek tragedy appears in the index locorum).4 A sophisticated series of connections is drawn between Aeneas’ consultation of the Sibyl, “Augustus’ saecular agenda” (139), and the promises made by the Virgilian narrator at the opening of Georgics 3. Apollo’s appearance on the Shield of Aeneas has already received attention in the preceding chapter. Miller rejects earlier scholars’ interpretations of Apollo’s failure in Aeneid 12 to aid his doctor Iapyx in healing Aeneas, and argues that no “convincing motive” (179) can be attributed to the god. Apollo Medicus would not have been identified with the Antonians, because C. Sosius, the former Antonian and showpiece of Octavian’s clemency, rebuilt his temple. (Apollo’s frequent failures as Medicus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses will be a theme of chapter 7.)

Chapter 4 examines the Augustan poets’ response to the Temple of Apollo Palatinus. Miller’s Propertius reads the monument both with and against the imperial grain in 2.31; his narrator genuinely admires the temple but resists its presentation of “the Actian victor, the punisher of wrongdoers, the establisher of harmony on earth” (205). In Tristia 3.1, Ovid’s book makes the temple the centerpiece of its tour of the city, plays up the god’s displacement of Capitoline Jupiter and connection to the imperial “Jupiter” residing next door, and laments its own exclusion from the temple library. Apollo’s shift from bow to cithara in Propertius’ Actium elegy signifies Augustan victory, the god’s figuration as Citharoedus on his temple, and the poet’s return to his own Callimachean aesthetic priorities. Tibullus 2.5 marks Augustus’ impact on Rome’s religious life through its occasion, the installation of his patron Messalla’s son as a quindecimvir charged with the consultation of the libri Sibyllini which Augustus transferred from the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus to the new temple for Apollo.

The new age inaugurated by the Augustan reign is the subject of Chapter 5. The Ludi Saeculares, along with their representation in Horace’s Carmen Saeculare and Odes 4.6, provide the primary focus. Miller attempts to solve some old and new interpretive problems: Jupiter and Juno appear to have been subordinated to Apollo in the Ludi, while the uncertainty caused by Horace’s address to unspecified di at Carmen Saeculare 45ff. is deliberate and strategic. Chapter 6, “Apolline poetics and Augustus,” examines Apollo’s service to the poets’ aesthetic programs. Horace adapts Pindaric and Callimachean narratives of Titanomachy and Gigantomachy in order to figure Octavian as the new Ptolemy after his victory over the former Ptolemaic empire. Yet the same poet also dares to compare himself to Augustus, appropriating the Apolline laurel associated with Augustan victory for his own brow and calling himself a princeps. Propertius’ Apollo, meanwhile, serves his adaptation of the Callimachean recusatio : he dissuades the poet from writing on Alban kings and Augustan conquest, but also approves the poet’s plea for posthumous fame. Hostile questioning of Propertius’ new “patriotic” program in book 4 becomes ironic by being placed in the mouth of a figure named after an Egyptian god identified with Apollo. Ovid’s similarly “patriotic” work in elegy, the Fasti, nominates the Apollo-like Germanicus, capable of both poetry and warfare, as its patron.

The book closes with a chapter on Apollo in Ovid’s Metamorphoses that dissents from “crassly reductive” (333) readings that interpret the poem exclusively in terms of its response to Augustan ideology. For Miller, readings that attempt to erase Augustan panegyric in the Metamorphoses are insufficient; but by the same token those same panegyrics are controlled by the same ludic sensibility that subverts every other kind of authoritative discourse. The famous description of Jupiter’s palace as Palatia caeli ( Met. 1.176) is a pointed reversal of Virgil’s displacement of Jupiter in favor of Apollo at the post-Actium triumph, to be complemented later in the epic by the equally shocking address to Phoebe domestice ( Met. 15.865). The aetiology of the laurel is one of many demonstrations of how Ovid diminishes Augustan grandeur through a shift in narrative perspective, while Apollo’s failure to cure himself of his love for Daphne is the first of his many failures to act as Medicus in the Metamorphoses. Ovid deliberately omits the connection to the Augustan future from his retellings of Aeneas’ encounters with Apolline prophecy at Delos and Cumae,5 locating it instead in the speech of Pythagoras.

Apollo, Augustus, and the poets offers learned and engaging readings of many of the central works of Augustan poetry. It overlooks no relevant Augustan or Republican evidence and provides an ample account of relevant Greek literary tradition, even including the less-familiar responses to Actium by contemporary Greek poets. Its occasional gestures to the post-Augustan poets’ responses to issues raised by their predecessors’ representations of Apollo could have been productively multiplied many times over. Works of post-classical culture are usually adduced in order to demonstrate methodological points.6 While Miller’s description of his method of determining when reference to Apollo evokes Augustus (“an important criterion is a textual trigger that activates political meaning,” (5) risks a certain amount of circularity, its implementation is level-headed and productive. Miller dissents from overzealous or reductive interpretations that attempt to uncover pointed references to Augustan politics in every mention of Apollo. In his view, for example, a passage such as Propertius 2.1.3-4 ( non haec Calliope, non haec mihi cantat Apollo: / ingenium nobis ipsa puella facit) simply exemplifies a typical elegiac concern, and should not remade into a comment on Augustus, as some readers have tried to do (313). Miller’s approach nevertheless allows considerable openness to a multiplicity of interpretations, including ones fully resistant to dominant Augustan ideology. Though the significance of Apollo is the point of entry for Miller’s examination of individual Augustan poems, almost all of his detailed and sensitive interpretations range far beyond this initial mandate. As such, this book comes highly recommended to all readers of Augustan poetry.7


1. Lucia Athanassaki, Richard P. Martin, & John F. Miller, eds., Apolline Politics & Poetics: International Symposium (Athens, 2009).

2. D.C. Feeney, The Gods in Epic: Poets and Critics of the Classical Tradition (Oxford, 1991) 127, qtd. at 98.

3. Robert Alan Gurval, Actium and Augustus: the politics and emotions of civil war (Ann Arbor, 1995).

4. See now Vassiliki Panoussi, Greek Tragedy in Vergil’s “Aeneid:” Ritual, Empire, and Intertext (Cambridge, 2009); but Apollo only receives brief discussion there as well.

5. Reference to Sophia Papaioannou’s Epic succession and dissension: Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.623-14.582, and the reinvention of the Aeneid (Berlin, 2005) might have been expected here.

6. Thus, for example, Raphael’s “Repulse of Attila” shows the same martial involvement of the saints as Apollo at Actium (72), while Byron’s “willfully misread” (205) Colosseum in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage provides a model for understanding Propertius’ (mis)reading of the temple of Apollo Palatinus (205).

7. Misprints are few and unimportant: “Rutilian” (181), “observor” (201); “signifers” (336). Latin sometimes appears in the main text unitalicized; one Greek quotation is slightly corrupted (65).