BMCR 2020.10.58

Humor in der Aeneis. Ein rezeptionstheoretischer Versuch

, Humor in der Aeneis. Ein rezeptionstheoretischer Versuch. Klassische Philologie, 6. Berlin: Frank & Timme, 2019. Pp. 124. ISBN 9783732904938 €28,00.


The arresting title—a nice pun, hopefully intentional, on Homer in der Aeneis—promises a laugh, but the book begins on a tragic note. “Humor in the Aeneid” is a posthumous monograph by Christophe Bourquin (1977-2009), a “shooting star” in the department of classical philology at Zürich University. Silvio Bär, the editor, has lavished enormous care on the editorial process and published it as an act of piety. Bär explains that Bourquin gave him the notes that make up the present book twenty years ago, and that when he stumbled across them again recently, he realized they were a jewel worth printing. I wish I could agree.

Bär says, rightly, that this is the only systematic treatment of humor in the Aeneid, and that he hopes other scholars will use it to develop and extend Bourquin’s ideas—as Bourquin himself would surely have wanted. In that connection, it bears pointing out that the monograph obviously does not engage with the many suggestions of humor that Frederick Ahl embedded in the notes of his 2007 translation or with Richard Thomas’s thoughts on humor in his 2014 entry in The Virgil Encyclopedia.[1]

One reason I hesitate to endorse the book is that we don’t actually get to the Aeneid until page 52 (out of 105)—literally halfway through this short book. Before then, the book proceeds as if it were a dissertation: first a review of the scant existing literature and friendly polemics against the many writers who aver that Virgil wasn’t or couldn’t be funny, then a reminder of the inherent subjectivity of humor, and a long theoretical discussion of “the laughable” in ancient and modern sources (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Kant, Schopenhauer, Bergson, Freud, etc.).

Alas, it is in these pages where the book seems to lose its sense of proportion. The theoretical survey is good and informative and mostly correct, but what does any of it have to do with the Aeneid?[2] It’s not clear—even to Bourquin, it seems, in his thesis statement (pp. 19, repeated on 105):

The purpose of the present investigation is to give a new impulse to the topic of “Humor in the Aeneid.” As far as the literary-theoretical approach is concerned, the examination proceeds according to the Ὅμηρον ἐξ Ὁμήρου [Homer-from-Homer] principle and/or the principle of close reading.

In other words, all the theoretics that precede and follow are irrelevant. Rejecting them all, Bourquin instead simply advises us to trust our gut as to what is funny (the “inductive” approach, as he eventually calls it). Nevertheless, the book proceeds to spend two chapters discussing and testing the superiority and incongruence theories of humor at length. Rather than examining anything from Aristophanes, Plautus, Terence, satire, or the Philogelos, the examples are all modern.

Once we do get through all that, what is funny in the Aeneid? Bourquin gives us nine examples in all—and the very first passage discussed is the Nisus and Euryalus episode of book nine! Bourquin laughs at Virgil’s “fortunati ambo” line (9.446), which he deems incongruous (ironic? sarcastic?) and hence, humorous. Ironically enough, this is the same passage that Richard Thomas feels erases any earlier traces of humor we might have felt involving Nisus and Euryalus in the footrace in book five:

Other possible instances of humor include Aeneas smiling at the mud‐spattered Nisus and giving him a prize after he had slipped on blood from a sacrifice and tripped up Salius  to help Euryalus win the footrace … Here, too, the humor will become diminished when Nisus and Euryalus engage in a deadly episode in Aeneid 9, in which the ground is soaked with the blood of the sleeping Rutuli, whom they butcher shortly before being killed themselves.

I confess I have never laughed at Virgil’s fortunati ambo line, either, and still don’t. I was not surprised to see that Bourquin spends several pages justifying his reading—unpersuasively, in my view.

Chapter 6, the last, collects eight more examples that are internally marked by the words ridere, subridere, or inridere, which indicate the laughter or smile of a character. The passages illustrate Bourquin’s approach of looking for humor at the point of reception, i.e. how one character reacts to or receives another character’s words. I was pleased to see Bourquin anticipate and agree with the obvious point, nicely articulated by Mary Beard’s recent book on Roman laughter, that people sometimes laugh or smile because we’re nervous or afraid, and not just amused, and hence he himself warns us about the value of these internal markers.[3] Even so, Bourquin’s approach seems ineffective. The problem is that most of the passages—involving Menoetes, Nisus, Dares, Charon, and above all Venus—just aren’t funny. On the contrary, they unwittingly hint at why his approach of examining what (he thinks) other characters in the Aeneid find funny in interacting with each other, rather than what we readers might find funny in their interactions, ends up missing a lot of the humor in the Aeneid.

Take for example his first case study in chapter 6, where Jupiter consoles Venus (1.229-260). Virgil says Jupiter smiles at her when he’s done speaking (olli subridens, 254). Bourquin cites the next line, 1.255, where Virgil says Jupiter smiles at her voltu quo caelum temptestatesque serenat, “Showing the face that he uses to clear skies, pacify tempests” (Ahl’s translation). Yet Bourquin completely misses Virgil’s larger irony—once pointed out to me in conversation by Ahl—that Jupiter didn’t calm the storm that just shipwrecked Aeneas! (That was Neptune.)

The same objection applies to his second example in chapter 6, where Venus accosts Aeneas on the road to Carthage in book one. She’s dressed in Spartan armor. For Bourquin, the humor lies in the disguise itself, because disguises and duping someone are inherently funny (p. 72). Maybe so, but Bourquin says nothing about the end of that episode, where Venus drops her disguise—literally—and, says Virgil with deliberate ambiguity, stands seemingly naked in front of her son (404, pedes vestis defluxit ad imos, “her dress streamed down to the top of her ankles”). Some readers might find that tease a lot funnier—and even wonder whether Virgil was influenced there by the humor and stripteases of Roman mime.

Going forward, a more productive approach to humor in the Aeneid might therefore be to look not for the simpler Socratic ironies—wherein some characters gang up with us on another, as Socrates does in Plato’s dialogues—but for the subtler, Sophoclean ironies, wherein the author gangs up with us to make a larger point to which all the characters trapped in his story are oblivious.[4]

To illustrate that distinction, I’ll end this review by quoting another example of the latter, noticed by Ahl in his footnotes. In book seven, Turnus addresses Allecto with the words sed te victa situ verique effeta senectus, / o mater, curis nequiquam exercet (7.440-1). When he finishes speaking, Allecto flares up in fury and snaps back a response that echoes his words: en ego victa situ, quam veri effeta senectus / arma inter regum falsa formidine ludit (452-3). Ahl translates and comments as follows:

“Mother, decades in this spot, old age tired out from conceiving
Truthfulness racks you with meaningless worries…”

“So: I’m ‘decayed’ then:
Now see how old age deludes ‘this pot’ ‘tired out from conceiving

Decades in this spot: the Latin is curiously ambiguous: victa means ‘conquered’ and (less commonly) ‘lived’; situ both ‘place’ and ‘decay’. At the two extremes it yields: ‘lived in place’ and ‘conquered by decay’. Which, then, does the sleeping Turnus mean? If the former, he is being patronizing; if the latter, he is delivering arguably the rudest insult in the Aeneid. His use of mater, ‘mother’, seems courteous; so I have gone with the former. But the rustic Allecto clearly understands it the other way. The expression victa situ is attached to old age when Turnus uses it, but to ‘I’ when Allecto uses it. In reproducing the effect I have had to alter the pun so that it will work in English. (And ‘decades’ should be pronounced with the accent on the last syllable, not on the first.)

Ahl’s interpretation hints, rightly I think, that “humor in the Aeneid” is surely present, perhaps in abundance, but that looking for it at the “point of [internal] reception,” as advocated by Bourquin in this book, is unlikely to help us find it.


[1] Frederick M. Ahl, Virgil: The Aeneid (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007—I quote from this translation here) and Richard F. Thomas, “Humor” in Richard F. Thomas and Jan M. Ziolkowski, The Virgil Encyclopedia (Wiley Blackwell, 2014).

[2] One typo: Bourquin consistently refers to Cicero’s Orator when he means De Oratore.

[3] Mary Beard, Laughter of the Romans: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).

[4] For this useful distinction and terminology, see W. Bedell Stanford, Ambiguity in Greek Literature (Oxford: Blackwell 1939).