BMCR 2022.01.16

Women and war in Roman epic

, Women and war in Roman epic. The language of classical literature, volume 33. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2020. Pp. x, 330. ISBN 9789004434905 €123,00.


When it comes to women, it has long been recognized that what Roman epic preaches about its generic constitution is entirely inconsistent with its practice: despite the “regular-as-clockwork” involvement and importance of women in epic plots, epic claims the klea andron and arma virumque as its subject matter. Roman epic’s idiosyncratic and “enduring failure to theorize some of its own most representative features”[1]—or rather, its insistence on theorizing an essential part of itself as alien to it—provides fertile ground for Pyy’s Kristevan analysis in Women and War in Roman Epic.

In chapter 1, her introduction, Pyy contextualizes her project as both a continuation of and corrective to previous scholarship on women in epic. Pyy challenges what she sees as a tendency to take Roman epic too much at its word—that is, to take it as self-evidently true that women are marginal in epic. Asserting that “it is highly problematic to examine epic women as a unified group” (26), Pyy undertakes a granular examination, through the lens of Kristeva’s theories of subjectivity and language, of the roles women play in Roman war epic and its construction of masculinity and Roman identity.[2] She situates this exploration of identity against the historical background of the civil wars of the 1st centuries BCE and CE, the formation of the principate, and the increasingly multi-cultural environment of the empire.

The next three chapters work toward a fuller understanding of the dynamics of marginality in epic. Pyy distinguishes between narrative marginality (is the woman important to the plot or not?) and psychological marginality, which she defines as a lack of subjectivity (can the ideal Roman male reader relate to the woman, or is he made to feel alienated from her?). Pyy identifies various archetypal roles that women play in war and assesses where they fall in relation to these two understandings of marginality.

In chapter 2, “Origins of War,” Pyy examines the roles played by women in starting wars: brides, such as Lavinia or Argia, who submit to the logic of the patriarchy’s symbolic order, and emotional, transgressive women who incite conflict, such as Amata. The former may achieve textual subjectivity while the latter remain psychologically marginalized, but neither of these archetypes is marginal to the plot. Whether as passive instruments or active vectors, both introduce furor that drives epic plots toward their telos.

In chapter 3, “Victims of War: Gendered Dynamics of Suffering,” Pyy argues against the notion that negative emotions like fear, grief, and desperation expressed by the female victims of war necessarily alienate the ideal male reader. Female victims’ expression of the costs of war can affirm Roman identity or signal its endangerment, and Pyy points to instances of teichoscopia in which the reader is invited to view war from the perspective of and identify with the female outsider.

Chapter 4, “‘Playing Supermen:’ The Manly Matrons of Roman Epic,” demonstrates “narrative marginality.” Pyy examines the archetypes of the “manly matron” who “rise[s] above” (137) her gender and the devoted wife who becomes a reflection of her husband’s ideals and a partner in his hardships. While these women’s successful manifestation of masculine virtues renders them a point of identification for the ideal male reader, their assimilation to the patriarchal order ultimately erases them and they make little impact on the plot.

At the same time, another of Pyy’s goals is to “dig deeper into the grey area between the supposedly male and female roles and functions of war epic” (2). Pyy undertakes this effort as a corrective: on the one hand, to what she sees as an excessively schematic, binary understanding of gender guiding previous scholarship, and, on the other hand, to facile interpretations of Kristevan theory that overstate the gendered associations of the two modalities of signification, making the symbolic exclusively masculine and the semiotic feminine. In Chapter 2, Pyy reads Turnus as another emotional, transgressive bringer of war, no different from Amata, while in Chapter 3, she examines grieving fathers in the Thebaid alongside Statius’ anxious mothers. Both readings are convincing points in favor of Pyy’s argument against mapping Kristevan modalities of communication onto a gender binary. Kristeva’s, Pyy asserts, is a theory of language, not of gender, and all signifying subjects are necessarily susceptible to the influence of the bodily drives that motivate communication.

Pyy takes up this argument more directly in chapter 5, “Means of Production.” She scrutinizes the gendered associations of violence in epic and the role that violence, that most essential ingredient in epic, plays in the construction of Romanitas. This chapter, the longest of the book, contains several successful readings, particularly of the Carthaginians at Capua in Silius’ Punica and of both Valerius Flaccus’ and Statius’ Lemnian women. These instances baffle the conventional association of men with violence and killing and women with production and birth and undermine the patriarchy’s naturalization of these gender categories, instead revealing gender to be a social construction that is often at odds with—and that can only sometimes contain—biological bodily drives. Pyy crowns this section with a reading of the Flavian epicists’ disturbing association of Venus, so central to defining Roman identity in her dual aspects as genetrix on the one hand and victrix on the other, with barbaric and feminine bodily drives.

The final two sections of the chapter treat the archetypes of the warrior maiden and the “fragile” young male warrior, respectively. In these sections, Pyy argues effectively against reading Camilla as a sexualized object of spectacle, at least before her death. In Pyy’s reading, Camilla successfully renounces her female body, becoming an exemplum of the purest—non-bodily—amor patriae. In contrast, young male warriors like Parthenopaeus are inescapably associated with their bodies, marked out and marginalized as objects of sexual desire. These readings, as thought-provoking as those in the chapter’s earlier half, are unfortunately also more problematic. This chapter was rife with typos (p. 208 alone, e.g., has both “gloden” for “golden” and “partiarchal” for “patriarchal”). Aen. 11.892 is cited incorrectly, with the ungrammatical amor patriae, ut videtur Camillam (for amor verus patriae, ut videre Camillam). More gravely, it is claimed that “Camilla’s death is actually varied and recalled multiple times in the Aeneid” (227); the examples cited are the deaths of Euryalus, Pallas, and Lausus, all of which occur before Camilla’s death. It becomes difficult to accept Pyy’s claim that “the beautiful and tragic depiction of Euryalus’ death clearly recalls Camilla” (228) when Camilla has not yet died and will not for another two books. This confusion is unfortunate, and the fact that Pyy does not consider how Camilla’s death recalls the deaths of the young and inexperienced Euryalus, Pallas, and Lausus somewhat vitiates her reading of Camilla as a substitute for (or even a better) Turnus.

Despite these issues, this is where Pyy’s greatest contribution lies: in her decoupling of marginality from gender. Pyy is at her best when reading against gender binaries, instead theorizing gender as the opposition between those whose behavior and qualities allow them to be categorized as viri and everyone else. Men, as much as women, are susceptible to the bodily, emotional drives of the “semiotic chôra” in epic; indeed, vulnerability to this “epic furor” is “an inalienable part of manliness and Roman-ness” (305). Epic furor is both a productive force that drives the narrative, and a destructive force that must be checked for subjects to be recognized as “proper viri” and avoid alienating the reader. Marginality, therefore, is not the sole province of women, nor an automatic byproduct of being female: all characters run the risk of marginalization. But particularly when compared with the full treatment that gender receives, ethnicity could be more robustly theorized in its own right. In Pyy’s theoretical conception and its applications, ethnic difference seems simply to be gender difference operating under another name. What distinguishes these “complementary categories from otherness” (216), gender and ethnicity, from one another?

The final two chapters consider epic closely alongside historiography, as two genres more “comparable to myths or legends” (9) than to poetry. Chapter 6, “Sabine Successors? The Failure of Female Mediation,” contrasts the success of historiographical archetypes such as the Sabine women or Veturia, whose “traditional female virtues… save the day” (240), with epic women’s displays of pietas, more effective at starting wars than ending them. In the context of civil war’s dissolution of collective identity and its blurring of boundaries between the private female sphere and the male-dominated temporal scene, women cannot claim their traditional role as “unbiased outsiders” (260) to uphold order, nor does their virtue provide a basis for collective Roman identity.

In Chapter 7, “Dynamics of Death,” Pyy argues that, unlike historiography, epic endows its dying women with considerable narrative power, particularly over the formation of identity. While her case for Dido’s exertion of narratorial control on the Aeneid is largely illuminating, Pyy’s eagerness for this to be always true leads her to neglect details that complicate the picture beyond her presentation of them. Her claim, for instance, that, at the opening of Aeneid 5, “Aeneas sees exactly what Dido wants him to see, what she has carefully prepared as a feast for his guilty eyes” (286) is somewhat spoiled by the fact that Aeneas and the Trojans actually have no idea what they are looking at (quae tantum accenderit ignem / causa latet, 5.4-5). It’s unlikely this was the effect Dido had in mind. Overall, Pyy’s treatment of the Aeneid in my estimation overstates its “hopefulness,” leading to an Aeneid that looks rather one-dimensional in comparison to its Flavian counterparts, particularly since Pyy’s readings of Flavian epic are strong and dynamic.

Overall, the chapters are uneven in length and effectiveness. The thematic organization of the chapters means that discussions occasionally feel disjointed, and distinctions contrived and artificial. Each study is framed in Kristevan psychoanalytic terms, which quickly becomes predictable and gives the impression of a kind of sameness that sometimes elides the features of Pyy’s individual readings that are most original and illuminating. More fundamentally, treatment of epic as a menu of archetypes and narrative patterns reductive. Depending on one’s perspective and approach, poetic and literary considerations may carry greater weight.

In terms of presentation, translations are stiff but accurate and serviceable (with a few exceptions that challenge comprehension: e.g., “may him hear first of the death of his poor mother”, p. 98). I noticed relatively few errors or typos in the text, outside of Chapter 5 and the bibliography. One point of frustration is the cumbersome presentation of Latin verse as block quotes with slashes for line breaks. Punctuation here is also inconsistent. Omissions in the Latin text are marked sometimes with em-dashes, other times with ellipses; em-dashes are used to punctuate as well (e.g. p. 142). Omissions are not always signaled in the translation (e.g., p. 187). I suspect this mode of presentation may have contributed to the many errors of citation.[3] These errors do not detract from Pyy’s argument, but in a series that focuses on the language, specifically, of Latin literature, it is unfortunate that these idiosyncrasies obstruct full engagement with the text.

Ultimately, even if they are unlikely to find all of Pyy’s readings convincing, graduate students and scholars of Latin literature will find thought-provoking material in this book. Even those interpretations that don’t convince offer productive starting material for a discussion that will be the richer for Pyy’s efforts. 


[1] To draw on Hinds, S. (2000) “Essential epic: genre and gender from Macer to Statius,” in Depew, M. and Obbink, D. (eds.), Matrices of Genre: Authors, Canons, and Society, Cambridge, Mass., 221-44.

[2] Joining the ranks of, e.g., Augoustakis, A. (2010) Motherhood and the Other: Fashioning Female Power in Flavian Epic, Oxford, and McAuley, M. (2014) Reproducing Rome: Motherhood in Virgil, Ovid, Seneca and Statius, Oxford.

[3] Aen. 7.317-8 on p. 30 should be 7.317-322; on both p. 59 and p. 293, presumably read “7.353-364” for the inverted “7.364-353;” on p. 193 “Val. Flacc. Arg. 2.156-169” should read “2.156-160,” to cite a few.