BMCR 2021.10.21

Tenses in Vergil’s Aeneid: narrative style and structure

, Tenses in Vergil's Aeneid: narrative style and structure. Amsterdam studies in classical philology, volume 31. Leiden: Brill, 2019. Pp. x, 306. ISBN 9789004383241. €105,00.


This book is a revised version of Adema’s doctoral dissertation Discourse Modes and Bases: A Study of the Use of Tenses in Vergil’s Aeneid (Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, 2008). Adema proposes to follow in the footsteps of predecessors such as Quinn (1963, 1968) and Mack (1978) in studying the role of tenses in the narrative pace of the Aeneid.[1] Her analytical tools include concepts from cognitive linguistics, text and discourse linguistics, and narratology. In the Introduction, Adema says, “This book is intended for both linguists interested in Latin or tense usage in narrative texts and for scholars interested in Vergil’s narrative style and structure” (6). As a member of the second group, the present reviewer was especially interested in verifying whether Adema’s analysis of tenses in the Aeneid would be of any help to interpreters of Virgil’s text. The answer is: yes, but probably not too much, at least insofar as specifically literary interpretive frameworks are concerned. Adema’s treatment of tenses in the Aeneid is careful, accurate and carried out with evident and undeniable linguistic competence; but I think it unlikely that commentators on the Aeneid (to name a specific category of “scholars interested in Vergil’s narrative style and structure” and a scholarly activity with which I have some experience) will see their treatment of Virgil’s narrative style and structure deeply shaken up or reorganized by Adema’s theories and arguments. Nevertheless, interdisciplinary initiatives such as this are always to be warmly welcomed, and I thought it worthwhile to summarize the book for the benefit of others like myself, who might otherwise approach it with mistaken expectations. In the impossibility of giving a detailed summary of the whole book, I will concentrate on the methodological chapter 2, hoping that this summary might be useful to readers such as myself who might be curious about Adema’s book and want some idea of what to expect from it. Having such a summary might also help those who might want to consult Adema’s analyses of specific passages of the Aeneid in the following chapters, and might require assistance in understanding her technical terminology.

As Adema says, there are at least three ways in which tenses operate in Latin narrative texts: “[t]hey provide information on when a state of affairs takes place, they provide information on the progression of narrative time within the specific environment of narrative text types and they provide information on the text type in which the state of affairs occurs” (8). In chapter 2 (“Latin Tenses in Narrative Texts”) Adema introduces the basic concepts that will be used to study how Latin tenses operate in providing each of these types of information. On the sentence level, Latin tenses provide information to an addressee about the temporal relation between the “state of affairs” and the speaker or narrator. Here Adema, using the terminology of Pinkster,[2] introduces the concepts time of speaking, orientation moment, anteriority, simultaneity and posteriority in order to illustrate the semantic value of the tenses on the sentence level (9-10). The definitions of praesens, perfectum, imperfectum, plusquamperfectum, futurum, and futurum exactum are expressed according to these concepts, using Pinkster’s terminology, in Table 1 (10). In connection with the discussion of historical present, Adema also introduces the cognitive linguistic concept of base, that is, “the vantage point or deictic center of a speaker,” or, in other words, “what the speaker refers to as ‘now’ […], the hic et nunc of a speaker” (10). Adema distinguishes between two bases: the time of narration, that is, the time in which the narrator tells their story, and the reference time, that is, the time about which the narrator narrates. The semantic values of praesens, perfectum etc. are accordingly described, using the concept of base, in Table 2 (12). This can be “translated” in narratological terms to describe the temporal relations between the narration and the narrated events. These relations can be retrospective (the most commonly used), prospective (as in a prophecy), simultaneous (rarely used), or—and here we come to the historical present—pseudo-simultaneous, when the events are simultaneous in relation to an artificial base, creating the literary effect of evidentia (or enargeia), which is to be associated with the use of reference time as an artificial base rather than with the use of the present tense per se. In a story which adopts the pseudo-simultaneous relation, the narrator has two “present times” and can freely switch between them. When “the narrator of the Aeneid combines the deixis of immediacy (both adverb and tense) with the knowledge of displacement” (such as when he calls Dido infelix Phoenissa in combination with historical present tense forms at 1.712–14), he creates an effect of displaced immediacy, which resolves itself substantially into dramatic irony (16).

In the second section of chapter 2 Adema analyzes the concept of narrative progression, that is, the way in which the narrator informs the reader about the order of the states of affairs by means, among other things, of tense usage. The fact that Virgil so often uses the historical present requires that we adopt a more general terminology than that strictly associated with tense usage (such as is illustrated by the maxim perfecto procedit, imperfecto insistit). So Adema introduces here the terms event, which refers to a bounded state of affairs, and situation, which refers to an unboundedstate of affairs. Events generally indicate temporal advancement of the reference time, that is, the particular moments in the time of the story in which each event takes place, while situations generally do not advance reference time. Adema introduces various other terms to describe types of event or situation: frame (“a situation that introduces a new reference time, but only does so to provide a background, a frame, for another state of affairs,” 18), starting situation (where the state of affairs, rather than being completely unbounded, has a definite starting point; as such, a starting situation generally advances reference time), event and situation anterior to reference time (the first is completely bounded, the second is bounded only at its end, but has no explicit starting point; both generally do not advance reference time). In the third section, Adema goes on to describe the Aeneid’s various types of sequences, apart from the strictly narrative ones, in terms of the text structuring function of tenses.

Drawing on the work of Carlota Smith,[3] Adema singles out four discourse modes (narrative, description, report, and information), that we can define as the way in which Latin tenses, on the level of the text as a whole, provide information on the text types involved. These modes are defined by specific states of affairs and by the coherence relation between a state of affair and the previous one; this can be, for instance, a temporal or spatial relation (the first relation characterizes the narrative mode, the second one the descriptive mode, which only involves situations). A state of affairs may also be presented, rather than in its relation to the previous state of affairs, in its direct relation to the time of narration (report mode) or in relation to just one element of the preceding state of affairs (information mode). The narrative mode presents four presentational varieties, in relation to the different temporal relations between the narrator and a narrated sequence, which can be retrospective, prospective, simultaneous or pseudo-simultaneous; of course, the Aeneid most frequently presents retrospective and pseudo-simultaneous narratives (Adema suggests 6.362 nunc me fluctus habet uersantque in litore uenti as the only possible example of properly simultaneous narrative in the poem, while of course the prophecy of Jupiter in book 1 is an example of prospective narrative, 26 n. 30). The use of Latin tenses in these two predominant varieties of the narrative mode is outlined in Table 4 (26). As to the descriptive mode, the descriptions we find in the Aeneid can be simultaneous (with present tenses), pseudo-simultaneous (with historical presents) and retrospective (with imperfect tenses). In the report mode (not frequent in the Aeneid), “reported states of affairs are presented with respect to their individual temporal relation to the base” (29). An example of report mode is the proem, where the base is collocated in the time of narration. Otherwise, the base can be positioned in the time of the story (reference time), in which case “the state of affairs is related to this reference time, without taking its relation to other states of affairs in the story into consideration” (29); an example of this is represented by the reports at 11.664-5 and 676-7. An example of information mode is the presentation of Coroebus at 2.342-4: what is said about him there (uenerat, ferebat) is only connected to the fact that this character has been introduced into the narrative (lines 345-6, instead, though equally “informative,” are in the report mode). Here, as most frequently in the Aeneid, the information is presented from a base in the time of narration; otherwise, it can also be presented from a base in reference time, such as at 7.710-16. I must say, however, that both the section on the report mode and that on the information mode are not among the clearest in the book.

The fourth section of this chapter is devoted to a close reading of a passage from Aeneid 1.437–65, intended to illustrate Adema’s methodology. It starts with the definition of the term sequence: “[a] chain of states of affairs that is presented in the same discourse mode and from the same temporal position […]. A new sequence starts when there is a change in the temporal relation between the narrator and the states of affairs or when the discourse mode changes” (35). In the following pages Adema almost always convincingly applies her terminology and classification to the passage under scrutiny; this proves the validity of that terminology and classification.

Chapters 3–8 are each devoted to the study of a specific tense and the interpretation of these tenses as they appear in the Aeneid: praesens (ch. 3), perfectum (ch. 4), imperfectum (ch. 5), plusquamperfectum (ch. 6), future tenses (ch. 7), historical infinitive (ch. 8). Each chapter begins with a section investigating the semantic value of the tense under scrutiny, and goes on by considering the interpretations of every specific tense in relation to the type of context in which it recurs, that is, in the various discourse modes illustrated in the methodological chapter 2.

To sum up, notwithstanding her introductory declaration (cited above), this is very clearly a book primarily written by a linguist for linguists, not for Virgilian scholars. Adema cleverly dissects Virgil’s narrative, identifying in it all the categories she expounds in the theoretical parts of the book. In doing so she may often give the reader the impression that she treats the text of the Aeneid just as an example of a poetic narrative text on which she can test her (and mostly also Pinkster’s) theories. But this is not meant as a criticism of Adema, who successfully, in my view, attains the aim which she really intends, that is, as the back cover says, “to analyze and describe the use of tenses in Latin narrative texts from a linguistic and narratological point of view.”[4] In any case, Virgilian scholars will also undoubtedly benefit from reading and studying this book, and I recommend it to every commentator of any Latin narrative text.


[1] K. Quinn, “The Tempo of Virgilian Epic”, in Latin Explorations, London 1963, 198-238; Virgil’s Aeneid: A Critical Description, London 1968; S. Mack, Patterns of Time in Virgil, Hamden 1978.

[2] H. Pinkster, The Oxford Latin Syntax. Volume 1: the Simple Clause, Oxford 2015.

[3] C. S. Smith, Modes of Discourse: The Local Structure of Texts, Cambridge 2003.

[4] There are mistakes here and there, mostly mere slips: for example, at 29 Adema refers to expediam as occuring “in example (8) above”, that is, Aen. 1.1-11, while it occurred in example (1) above, that is Aen. 7.37-45; at 33, Aen. 7.710-16 is not “part of the catalogue of Etruscan people” (my emphasis); at 68, the example with uomunt and aperitur is (18), not (17); and so on.