BMCR 2021.10.51

Poétique de l’horreur dans l’épopée et l’historiographie latines

, Poétique de l'horreur dans l'épopée et l'historiographie latines. Scripta antiqua, 127. Bordeaux: Ausonius Éditions, 2020. Pp. 469. ISBN 9782356133304 €30,00.

Artistic works of horror have often received a cold critical reception, with the so-called “horror genre” traditionally maligned by popular and scholarly commentators alike. Since the 2010s, however, consensus at both levels has declared a new cinematic and literary “horror renaissance” and a re-evaluation of horror’s aesthetic qualities, with the gruesome and disturbing receiving their due – a trend in which Classics itself has taken part.[1],[2] Aline Estèves’ monograph, adapted from her 2005 doctoral thesis, therefore arrives at an exciting time and should find many eager interlocutors.

Estèves examines the poetics of Roman horror, and Latin horror, in epic and historiography from the 1st century BCE to the 1st century CE; here, she fills a gap left open by previous scholarly focus on related aspects of Roman tragedy. Four authors from each genre receive attention. On the epic side, we find Virgil, Lucan, Statius, and Silius Italicus; on that of historiography, Caesar, Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus. The monograph is divided into four sections bracketed by an introduction and conclusion, and each section is organized around a distinct approach: lexical, thematic, aesthetic, and axiological. Estèves’ ambitious study features evocative close readings and valuable frameworks for navigating horror’srole in these works; certain aspects of its methodology, however, limit its ability to engage with horror studies as richly as it might.

In her introduction, Estèves addresses two central topics: first, how these Latin works fit into a larger history of horror; and second, what exactly she takes horror to be. On the former, Estèves sees the horror responses evoked in ancient texts as overlooked predecessors to the horror genre of the 20th and 21st centuries. These shared responses stimulate “des discours antithétiques,” wherein some denounce the horrific acts while others “peuvent y voir des gestes de grandeur, d’exigence éthique ou d’intégrité religieuse d’autant plus manifestes que la violence y est exacerbée” (p. 12). I’ll note briefly that although Estèves makes this connection and touches on many topics relevant to contemporary explorations of horror – such as what kind of pleasure or use horror offers[3] – she positions herself as connected to but not in conversation with modern horror studies. As for horror itself, Estèves criticizes previous analyses for not providing a clear definition of horror before exploring it. As an exception, she draws on famed horror writer Stephen King’s view in Danse Macabre (1981) and defines horror primarily as a “peur hyperbolique,” accompanied at times by “une sensation de dégoût viscéral ou de répulsion paniquée” (p. 21). It is this concept of abnormal fear that Estèves privileges in what follows.

Estèves’ first section addresses Latin’s psychological and physiological lexicon of fear and the role of horror/horror as fear-plus within it. Estèves observes that horror has not been properly addressed in prior studies and considers its use and connotations through three distinct frames: time period (from the late Republic to Flavian period, with a focus on lexical commentators), genre (epic and historiography), and author (those eight named above). In each of these domains, Estèves makes a strong case for horror’s association with a unique fear response, often accompanied by certain physiological markers. Epic authors develop a fuller image of horror as “une émotion intense et durable…suscitée par des réalités insoutenables” which affects one suddenly and cannot be avoided or reversed (p. 105). Such horror also takes two broader forms: one that Estèves goes on to call horror ad odium – experienced in response to horrific ugliness like that of grotesque violence – and a second labelled horror ad uenerationem, understood as akin to a horrific sublime elicited by horrific beauty (such as that experienced in the face of great but terrible divine power). As will be addressed further below, all may not be convinced by Estèves’ definition of horror and its identification with horror. Nevertheless, this lexical exploration does much needed work to fill a gap in the scholarly conversation.

In the second section, Estèves turns to thematic considerations. She first provides a framework for her subsequent analysis through the discussion of the rhetorical devices aemulatio, uariatio, and inuentio and their potential to elicit powerful emotional responses, including horror. The use of these rhetorical strategies is grouped into five thematic categories: loci horrendi, temporal and meteorological phenomena, violence (particularly in war), specific character types (such as tyrants and “barbarians”), and mirabilia (including prodigies and necromancies). The bulk of what remains is dedicated to two subsections: first, the exploration of archetypal motifs used in these horrific themes and, second, a focused analysis of loci horrendi as an exemplum. In the former, Estèves identifies three central motifs for Roman horror marked by transgression and strangeness: darkness, excess, and ugliness. Authors make diverse use of these motifs across themes, but Estèves also notes broader trends: for example, epic leads historiography in the use of the darkness motif in loci horrendi, while Flavian authors make the greatest use of ugliness. The case study of loci horrendi also reveals illuminating trends across three different types – forests, mountains, and the underworld.

Section three begins with one of horror studies’ oft-discussed problems: namely, that the horrific themes and motifs discussed in the previous section can but don’t always cause horror, and so the question remains of what exactly turns them horrific. Estèves offers an answer through an analysis of the rhetorical devices by which authors create different effects. Building on Quintilian and Longinus especially, Estèves articulates the following structure: the horror itself is often something intellectually or physical incomprehensible (thaumaston), and authors balance a need for realistic details to evoke horror with that of maintaining an appropriate level of description. Genres and individual authors navigate this framework through varying applications of emphasis, amplificatio, and tumor, with, for example, historiography making greater use of emphasis, while epic is drawn more readily to amplificatio through the layering of euidentia. The more unrestrained and potentially problematic tumor (decadent or inflated style) appears when the previous two devices cannot properly account for the horror an author wishes to convey, such as in select battlefield descriptions from Lucan, Silius, and Statius.

In the fourth and final section, Estèves discusses how the reader should understand these different aesthetic devices. Importantly, horror disturbs traditional rhetorical principles by prompting the reader not only to make sense of its “anomalies esthétiques” but also “reconstituer la delectatio paradoxale qu’elles recèlent, et décrypter les directions essentielles qu’épousent ces morceaux de littérature en matière d’utilitas” (p. 311). The section goes on to illustrate how horrific themes and motifs elicit delectatio and utilitas in great detail. Estèves argues that horror can evoke both naïve pleasure (common in both genres) and an intellectual one (more present in epic) based on an author’s innovative descriptions. For example, epic especially provokes horror through literary emulation of the plastic arts, such as in character portraits. This horror is cathartic due to the distance between the reader and the horrible image. As for utilitas, Estèves identifies Roman civil conflict as disturbing both genres’ traditional association with the “rhétorique épidictique de la laudatio” (p. 373). Historiography retains the granting of praise and blame on distinct parties (although those parties change over time), as does Silius in epic; Virgil, Lucan, and Statius offer greater ambiguity.

A short conclusion usefully reiterates the study’s central conclusions. Estèves also states most forcefully here that the presence of horror in these texts – and the increase of certain horrific motifs over time – is motivated by the historical events of Roman civil war(s). A bibliography, index of “notions rhétoriques, littéraires et philosophiques,” and index locorum follow.

Estèves’ study is immensely detailed and wide-ranging, offering valuable comment on many areas of interest. The application of a serious framework for the consideration of a poetics of horror across these two genres and eight texts makes an important contribution to its reevaluation in Latin literature. The insightful close readings upon which Estèves builds her more over-arching arguments are especially worth highlighting; even those not particularly interested in horror would find it worth consulting Estèves on any passage in her index locorum. Furthermore, despite the many topics covered, Estèves’ argument remains easy to follow throughout; her consistent use of tables to represent visually the collective data she assimilates over a series of discrete arguments is a great aid to the reader. The text is also well edited and contains minimal typographical errors.

As Estèves’ exploration covers a very large body of material, this naturally comes with certain limitations. First, while each of Estèves’ authors receives attention, discussion of epic can dominate that of historiography, particularly in the third and fourth sections. Estèves does show awareness of this in her argument that, due to constraints of type, epic offers more opportunities for horror’s creative evocation; such limitations, however, may prompt questions about historiography’s success as a producer of horror. Within that distribution, Virgil and Lucan usually take the spotlight over Statius and Silius, and Caesar and Livy receive more direct engagement than Sallust and Tacitus. This becomes most noticeable when Estèves argues for broader conclusions from limited examples, and in such cases, readers may retain questions regarding those authors for whom examples are not included. Estèves’ explicit setting-aside of Ovid’s Metamorphoses due to its somewhat complicated genre (p. 24) also creates trouble for her interest in tracking how one author responds to another, especially during discussions of poetic bodily harm. N. Bernstein notes a similar omission in his BMCR review of McClellan (2019) and so this may suggest a future area of productive inquiry.[4]

Finally, while Estèves does very valuable work pursuing a consistent definition of horror, her application of ancient rhetorical concepts is generally more convincing than her use of modern accounts of horror. As mentioned above, Estèves takes her definition of horror from Stephen King, a quote from whom also marks each section. Drawing from King is understandable, as he is a remarkably influential author of horror and one especially reflective of the horror tradition. However, Estèves’ dismissal of other views by horror’s creators and scholars alike as imprecise isn’t entirely fair and comes too quickly. For example, Carroll (1990)’s influential understanding of horror as a combination of fear and disgust elicited by boundary transgression is similarly rigorous but is merely cited and rejected en masse with other theories (p. 13, n. 20).[5] Since this formulation is one of the few that has been applied to ancient texts, it’s a missed opportunity to not explain more pointedly why King’s view may be superior; I’m thinking in particular of Ganiban (2007): 49-50, which identifies Carroll’s definition as useful to think with when addressing the emotions aroused by nefas in the Thebaid.[6] That aside, King’s theory also doesn’t especially illuminate the intricacies of Estèves’ profitable distinction between horror ad odium and horror ad uenerationem, whereas other similarly two-headed theories of horror could offer richer dialogue.[7] Overall, this brusque engagement with horror theory may frustrate those interested particularly in horror’s ontology and can at times position Estèves’ study as more satisfyingly one of horror rather than horror.

Despite these limitations, let me reiterate the many strengths and significant contributions of Estèves’ analysis. While questions remain, Estèves’ work is a very welcome addition to our “horror renaissance” and has a great deal to offer readers of many kinds.


[1] For the international context of this phenomenon, despite the frequent attention on American cinema, cf. Benson-Allott, C., “They’re Coming to Get You…Or: Making America Anxious Again.” Film Quarterly 72.2 (2018): 76.

[2] Cf.  Felton, D. (ed.), Landscapes of Dread in Classical Antiquity: Negative Emotion in Natural and Constructed Spaces. New York: Routledge, 2018; and McClellan, A., Abused Bodies in Roman Epic. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

[3] For a recent example of this ongoing debate in modern horror studies, cf. Clasen, M., Why Horror Seduces. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

[4] Bernstein, N., Review of A. McClellan, Abused Bodies in Roman Epic. BMCR 2020.09.47.

[5] Carroll, N., The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, 1990.

[6] Ganiban, R. T., Statius and Virgil: The Thebaid and the Reinterpretation of the Aeneid. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[7] For one example, see Prawer, S. S., Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, Boston: Da Capo Press (1980), esp. p. 7.