BMCR 2020.09.47

Abused bodies in Roman epic

, Abused bodies in Roman epic. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xi, 310 p. ISBN 9781108482622 $99.99.

The imperial Roman epics serve up comparatively more shocking and explicit descriptions of violence than the earlier epics of Homer and Virgil. Ovid’s Tereus cuts out Philomela’s tongue, and soon will dine on his child’s corpse; Lucan’s Erictho reanimates a dead soldier to perform a bizarre necromancy; Valerius’ Amycus lives in a cave full of his victim’s corpses; Statius’ Tydeus chews on his enemy’s skull; Silius showers page after page with blood and guts. Earlier generations of readers tended to dismiss these bodily horrors as a decadent age’s affectation, a symptom of “change and decline.” McClellan offers an energetic and creative, if not always balanced, approach to this longstanding interpretive problem.

McClellan provides an excellent review of the poets’ historical circumstances, which may account for some of the differences in their approach to corpse abuse. McClellan discusses the Caesarian and Flavian civil wars, as expected, and even the fifth-century BC practices of ataphia and anairesis, which we likely pay more attention to than Statius did. Though not as lengthy as Augustus’ campaigns, the Flavian civil war broke out unexpectedly and contained more brutal moments close to home, such as the burning of the Capitol. Furthermore, none of the Flavian poets was as close to the regime as Virgil (while Lucan may have quarreled with Nero), and so perhaps had more conceptual space to discuss war’s costs. Yet war trauma and disaffection cannot explain Lucan’s histrionics, however. His short life was spent in peaceful times, yet he wrote some of the most gruesome passages of Latin literature.

McClellan’s introduction reviews (far too swiftly) a series of modern comparanda and theoretical approaches. Visual theory occupies the majority of his critical attention, in particular Noël Carroll’s “horror paradox”[1] As Carroll observes, the paradox is that, like Plato’s Leontius, we want to look away, but can’t, from the disgusting sight of a corpse. McClellan also eagerly combines a variety of reading strategies into what he calls a “methodological mélange” (22), which I discuss further below. The book’s true strength comes from the subsequent chapters, which feature sophisticated, high-level readings of the poets’ dialogues with the tradition. McClellan’s writing style is allusive and infectiously enthusiastic. Congenial examples include translating Lucan BC 7.43 o miseri as “O dysphoric people” (129), and the pertinent observation that the Aeneid “is calculating, expurgating” (64), like the Res Gestae.

Chapter 1 sets Homer and Virgil as the baseline from which later poets depart. The Aeneid is circumspect when describing corpse mutilation, typically preferring to show the aftermath: Priam’s headless corpse, Nisus’ and Euryalus’ heads on pikes, Mezentius’ abundantly pierced armor, and Turnus’s corpse whose fate we must guess at. Awareness of such circumspection allows McClellan to move past a polarized reading of the Aeneid as “for or against” the Augustan regime. Virgil instead allowed his readers, including the poets of the following century, to fill the gaps he left with their own sense of approval or outrage.

Chapter 2 surveys decapitation in Virgil’s successors. For these poets, “graphic scenery” provides the “focal points for narrative action” (99). The Bellum Civile characteristically amplifies whatever the Aeneid was reticent about. Virgil’s headless Priam evoked the historical Pompey’s fate in two lines; Lucan’s extended scene of Pompey’s murder drowns the reader in hyperabundant detail. Statius’ Tydeus recalls the Flavian civil war with his excesses on the battlefield, while Silius draws on the association between a leader’s head and his metonymic role as the state’s caput.

Chapter 3 focuses on Lucan’s Bellum Civile. Attitudes toward their postmortem fates distinguish the principal characters. McClellan returns to Pompey’s makeshift burial to make the important observation that the elements of traditional funerary ritual “are importantly scattered, distorted, or unfulfilled” (128). Caesar welcomes the death at sea that Aeneas dreaded; he need not worry about his body’s fate if he is destined to become a god himself. He subsequently forbids burial to the Pompeian dead at Pharsalus and tramples on Hector’s grave at Troy. Cato imagines being decapitated like Pompey and Cicero, though Utica will take him on a different exemplary path.

In Chapter 4, McClellan discusses Valerius’ Argonautica as “Roman civil war draped in Homeric colours” (178). He speculates on whether Valerius would have followed Apollonius’ version in having Jason mutilate Absyrtus, as the Flavian poet tends to distance the narrative from such scenes. The chapter includes discussion of the Lemnian massacre and Amycus’ cave. Statius’ Thebaid (chapter 5) previews Creon’s ban on burying the Argive corpses from its opening lines. McClellan well observes how Statius goes beyond the example of the Aeneid in devoting the whole Thebaid to a tragic subject (215).

McClellan rarely misses the significance of an intertextual moment, and does not exclude prose texts from his purview. Valerius Maximus, for example, praises Hannibal’s burial of Roman generals under the heading of humanitas. Silius (chapter 6) knows this tradition well, but makes the burials about Hannibal’s search for glory instead (p. 243). The storm as Hannibal crosses to Italy, followed by his defeat at Zama, positions him as a Pompey, and his failure to burn the Capitol reminds the Flavian reader of who actually did so quite recently.

The book glancingly refers to Ovid throughout, but offers no sense that the Meta­morphoses fundamentally changed the way Roman epic looked at the body. Scholars have also discussed many of Ovid’s metamorphoses as a form of ongoing abuse by the gods after their victims’ deaths. We might have expected a major section on the Philomela episode, which is as much an “analytical lodestone” (158) for the book’s topic as Lucan’s Erictho episode. Ovid also relates numerous, graphically described rapes, culminating in metamorphoses that function to obliterate identity and personhood as much as corpse abuse. Silius’ Asbyte receives appropriate attention, but the relative absence of discussion of abused female victims is a surprising, and unfortunate omission.

My other criticisms largely concern the book’s introductory chapter. The “methodological mélange” offers brief references to Balibar, Derrida, Kristeva, Lacan, Žižek, and many others. Some of these theorists in fact viewed their theory as incompatible with, indeed opposed to, others on the list. McClellan also passes far too quickly over Bartsch’s sophisticated reading of satire’s “alimentary” reception of other genres;[2] this earlier book provides an excellent model of how different genres present vulnerable bodies.

McClellan’s use of modern comparison, beginning with his initial example of ISIS’s videos depicting torture and murder, similarly could have been more detailed and circumspect. ISIS engages in its terrifying spectacles as a form of asymmetrical warfare, as it cannot engage in direct combat with the US military. However, McClellan’s other examples of corpse abuse through the ages (including Assurbanipal, Roman fatal charades, Vlad the Impaler, etc.), were all performed from positions of superiority. The section entitled simply “PTSD” (116-120) reviews Lucan’s narrative of Sulla’s massacre but does not develop discussion of the section title. The available inference is that ancient and modern combat trauma are being put in parallel, but these must have been very different experiences.

Furthermore, ISIS produces videos for Western audiences that claim, however disingenuously, to be shocked by violent spectacle. Yet executions were publicly licensed entertainment for Europeans two centuries ago, and illicit entertainment for American lynch mobs in the preceding century. Roman sensitivity to violent spectacle must have been even lower. In peacetime, the wealthy audiences of Roman epic attended gladiatorial games, saw slaves being beaten, avoided remote roads for fear of bandits, traveled with large entourages for protection, and knew that urban riot, plague, and natural disaster were always possibilities. Simply reading about mutilation or “corpse-burial” (one dead body covers another) was unlikely to have kept them up at night, the way that fear of civil war might.


[1] Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror. London: Routledge, 1990.

[2] Shadi Bartsch, Persius: A Study in Food, Philosophy, and the Figural. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.