BMCR 2022.01.22

Explorations in Latin literature. Volume 1: epic, historiography, religion

, Explorations in Latin literature. Volume 1: epic, historiography, religion. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. 818. ISBN 9781108481861 $120.00.

[The table of contents appears below.]

Explorations in Latin literature collects, in two volumes, “virtually all of the articles and chapters [Denis Feeney has] written, omitting an early essay and a number of pieces for Companions” (1).[1] Beyond the papers themselves, each volume prints a Foreword by Stephen Hinds, an Introduction by Feeney, and a bibliography of his published work to date. Volume 1, the focus of this review, advertises its contents as concerning epic, historiography, and religion. A review of volume 2, “Elegy, Lyric and Other Topics,” will appear separately.

Before I turn to the volume itself, I offer two remarks by way of preface, one about the range and form of Feeney’s published work, and one regarding my own encounter with it.

To begin, the division of labor between the volumes is not tidy: a learned piece on Vergil as learned poet appears in volume 2, as does an essay on aetiology in Ovid. More interestingly, the range of material treated in Feeney’s essays is not coextensive with the topics of his monographs. Neither Caesar’s Calendar (2007) nor Beyond Greek (2016) finds significant echo or substantial supplement in the essays, nor even Literature and Religion at Rome (1998, but see chapters 11 and 13 in this volume).[2] These are thrilling books—Feeney is a master of many forms—and I hope an occasion arises when someone can appropriately assess Feeney’s very substantial achievements as an historian of culture, across topics with quite distinct evidentiary regimes.

Literature and Religion at Rome was the first work by Feeney that I read. I regarded it then, and I think it now, a quarter century later, among the very finest books on Roman religion. Not long after I read it, a friend invited me to Stanford to attend as an auditor the conference Rituals in Ink, whose proceedings were published by Alessandro Barchiesi, Jörg Rüpke and Susan Stephens.[3] Feeney spoke there; the text is published in this volume as chapter 11 (“Interpreting sacrificial ritual in Roman poetry: disciplines and their models”). The scholarly content, if you will, of Feeney’s presentation is largely recoverable from the published text, but not the force of his remarks at one remarkable moment. On the occasion (and in the paper), Feeney evaluates a number of recent readings of Vergil’s Georgics, including that of Llewelyn Morgan.[4] Morgan’s analysis of Vergil’s treatment of the bugonia troubled Feeney: it strongly implies, Feeney urged, that the greater the violence of a sacrifice, the more powerful the rebirth or redemption that will follow (215). The published paper eloquently declines to sanction the necessity of such a reading. In person, the implication that violence might be justified by the moral power of the natural growth it seems to cause was lamented in remarkable language. The claim for ethical reading made a very powerful impression; I will return to this issue.

This volume of Explorations contains 16 papers, one of which, “Fictions of Citizenship in Livy’s History,” is published here for the first time. Overall, it offers 12 papers on epic—7 on Vergil—; 2 on religion; and 2 on historiography. Feeney adds a very small number of notes referring to literature that appeared after any given essay’s initial publication—in the first two essays there is, I believe, one such citation—, and references among the essays to each other are also minimal. The essays have also been equipped with translations, which are useful and sometimes very fine.[5] Overall, it reads like a book on the Aeneid to which essays on other topics are appended. That said, the questions of what it meant for him first to write and later to assemble all these essays on Vergil, and what it might mean for the reader to encounter them between two covers, are neither addressed by him nor charted via simple gestures of cross-reference.

Given that the great majority of the essays have been previously published and, indeed, have had a significant reception, I will comment selectively before giving attention to the one new essay. I then turn to the essays on Vergil.

The essays on religion (chapters 11 and 13) both take as their point of departure a problem of method, namely, that superficially historicist approaches to works of literature, read as “evidence” for the study of religion, often tend to steamroll specifically literary concerns in a rush to read those works as “participating” in larger structural, anthropological or cognitive patterns. The works are treated as merely synecdochic of something else (for which, I might add, they are themselves taken as evidence). The engagements of these essays with specific works of literature to one side (the Georgics in the one case, and the histories of Livy and Dionysius in the other), these essays are the most dated in the volume. The quarrel over method that concerned Feeney at the time strikes me as no longer live; the effect of alienation is greater insofar as Feeney is particularly concerned to denounce bad applications of method. Which is not to say that Feeney writes badly on method: some remarks on alterity in an essay on Vergil are beautifully crafted, with an illuminating and complimentary footnote on works in the vein that Feeney admires (p. 280 with n. 37). There’s a lesson here about the half-life of quarrels.

Chapter 13, “On not forgetting the ‘Literatur’ in ‘Literatur und Religion,'” offers the opportunity to express a concern about “history” (my scare quotes). Feeney writes:

In the case of Livy, it is possible to imagine why he might be interested in the boundaries of representing the divine in history under the pressure of what Augustus was doing to rewrite the boundaries of representing the divine in Roman religion as he wrote. (p. 269)

Some caution is necessary here. One should resist the temptation to understand “Augustan” literature in light solely of Augustan politics. As Fergus Millar once reminded us:

The greatest works of what we normally call ‘Augustan’ literature were produced by writers who came to maturity in the Triumviral period, and were already established as major authors before January 27 B.C., when ‘Imperator Caesar Divi filius’, whom we like to call ‘Octavianus’, gained the unprecedented cognomen ‘Augustus’. By that moment the Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil, the Epodes and Satires of Horace, and Book I of the Elegies of Propertius were already written. Livy had composed his sombre Praefatio, and probably the whole first pentad, in the later Triumviral period, perhaps around the time of Actium or soon after.[6]

In this case, there had been a prior, perhaps unprecedented intervention in “representing the divine in Roman religion,” namely the (triumviral) lex Rufrena of 42 BCE, which not only enjoined the erecting of images of Caesar as god, but intervened in the use of that image in relation to other images, in order to make its status as the image of a god clear in practice. The law applied not least to lectisternia, a ritual in which Livy had a special interest. The shockwaves from this moment reverberated in Roman culture for a very long time.[7] The point is simply that, whatever Augustus did to rewrite the boundaries of representing the divine in Roman religion, those actions were not the context, and certainly not the sole context, within which Livy (re)considered the representation of the divine in history.

The new essay, “Fictions of citizenship in Livy’s History,” offers an extended and fascinating typological reading of episodes in Livy’s first decade that evoke the concept of citizenship, whether explicitly in juridical terms or implicitly, by speaking merely of communal membership. I name the reading “typological” because Feeney accords with others—among recent scholars, Jan Felix Gaertner and Uwe Walter (pp. 346-367)—in urging that Livy structured the History and wrote its episodes in order to highlight significant patterns that he saw in past events and wished others to understand. So, according to Feeney, we should not only read Livy in light of this interpretive principle—”Livy’s picture of the causes of the Latin War in the year 340 is distorted by his understanding of the Social War, and by the desire to have the two crises mirror each other” (p. 359)—but we may use it to excavate Livian material where the History does not survive: “We will never know how Livy treated the citizenship issue in the context of the Social War, but we get some glimpses in his treatment of the year 338…” (p. 358).

There is a great deal in this chapter to admire, not simply intelligent grounding in contemporary scholarship on belonging but also piercing observations on details. (I had not noticed, but will not forget, that 8.5.9 is the only occasion when Latini is used in the vocative [p. 358].) That said, I worry that some balance is askew. Although Feeney observes that Patavium, Livy’s birthplace, was granted Roman citizenship in 49, and allows that this occasion must have had significance for Livy (p. 363), in general he writes as if Livy were an interpreter of his context and not also formed by it. One can reasonably suppose, apparently, that Livy took on board the grant of citizenship to Gades because he is recorded as having mentioned it (p. 363, citing the epitome of book 110). But the many extraordinary innovations in citizenship and colonization of the Augustan age go unmentioned, including the very curious coining of Ῥωμαιότης in a Greek translation of an edict of Augustus, to describe the granting of Roman citizenship to Greeks in Cyrene.[8] To style a transformation in juridical identity as a gift of “Romanness” is to lay bare precisely some of the central issues that Feeney imagines Livy to wrestle with.

I wish also to register some puzzlement at Feeney’s use of the concept of “fiction.” The material under discussion has little in common with legal fictions (despite p. 324), which are tools of analogical reasoning by which situations are construed as parallel in structure so as to justify a parallelism of consequence.[9] Feeney describes Livy as “fascinated by the way in which human societies function through strange processes of collective belief; he is intrigued by the way in which these fictive constructs have the capacity to take on a power of their own, to become genuinely ‘real’ in their own right” (p. 325). It is not clear to me that the grounding of Roman institutions is “fictive”, or the institutions themselves the product of fiction, merely because they “cohere through collective acts of will and belief” (p. 324) or because Livy acknowledges them to be products of human institution-building. Contractarian theories of politics and cognitivist theories of social cooperation are, I think, distorted, or at least the understanding of the work they seek to do is not furthered, by this terminology.

The essays on Vergil are a remarkable group, and vastly more powerful for being read together. At some level, their central concern is the process by which Aeneas became a figure in history and an actor in politics in a way that required self-abnegation to the point of harm to himself and others. A concern for Feeney, as for Vergil, is how to understand the cost imposed on both individuals and relationships in pursuit of such a subjectivity. As Feeney shows in chapter 1 (“The taciturnity of Aeneas”), one means among many by which Vergil narrates the issue is through a refusal of both ordinary and intimate conversation.[10] (For my part, I suspect there is a pattern to non-violent touch in the poem that it would be revealing to study alongside patterns in speech: for one thing, so far as I can tell, intimate physical contact occurs nearly exclusively along agnatic lines.) The result for Aeneas is profound isolation, but also increasing effectiveness: “We are left with a discrepancy, blunt but not distorting, between Aeneas’s private and public speech. In the private realm, he is the poem’s most consistent and prominent paradigm of the weak and insubstantial nature of human interchange.” (Feeney observes elsewhere the strong contrast with the comforts that Homeric characters receive from each other.) “In the public realm, he is increasingly successful through the course of the poem as the leader of the Trojan enterprise, whether as diplomat or general, with exhortation, encouragement and direction…” (p. 217).

The essays understand Vergil relentlessly as a learned poet—Feeney’s ideal reader of Vergil is a philologist who is reading Vergil for the second time[11]—and they are often at their best in reading the Aeneid alongside Homer, or Apollonius, or Lucan. (The moment of their production is perhaps revealed by the respect Feeney displays for Servius, as well as the constellation of contemporary scholars most often cited: Don Fowler, Philip Hardie, and W.R. Johnson, as well as Gian Biagio Conte and Alessandro Barchiesi.) But their power derives from their focus on, and acceptance of, Vergil’s refusal of easy solutions to a network of choices—in plot, allusion, narration and representation.[12] The assimilation of Aeneas to Hercules is both a literary achievement and an irresolvable ethical conundrum, embedding civilizational violence in the Roman and Augustan orders (chapter 6). Likewise:

Being a Roman depends intimately on continual reassessment of what the ‘non-Roman’ is, and is therefore ultimately inextricable from the category of the non-Roman. This apparently paradoxical conclusion is rather like what Virgil achieves in his depiction of passionate love. His main purpose is to demonstrate that it is radically un-Roman to put love first, and in order to achieve this he devotes one whole book and a major portion of another to demonstrate that to be a good Roman you have to turn your back on love. In the end, then, almost one-sixth of the great Roman national poem has become a love story, and the love experience has become central to Roman identity. (pp. 280-281)

Chapter 5 reads the conclusion to Aeneid 6 in similar terms. The essay adduces Lucan’s reading of that book to aid our own comprehension of its combination of Platonic philosophizing and a hard focus on “the political life’s intolerable demands on human nature” (p. 112):

Rome is celebrated by the device, but the reader has been given the perspective of a Platonist, and it is bewildering to be promised an elaborate revelation which ultimately declares that there is in fact nothing more than the mixed uncertainties of history. … When Virgil leads us to expect a Platonic vision, and deceives our expectation, a complex rearrangement of priorities ensues. He gives us instead something powerful and something of one kind of beauty; but when he denies his poem and his audience the beauty and the consolation of the myths of philosophy, immortality and redemption, this formal and aesthetic exclusion mirrors and recreates the exclusion which is the lot of the chief character in the poem, and of the poem’s audience in the world. (p. 112).

I quote Feeney at length because no paraphrase of mine could do justice to the precision with which, in his prose, a kind of equipoise is revealed at the heart of Vergilian ethical argument.

I came to Classics because I was required to learn Latin, and the curriculum of Latin instruction at my school required that I read the Aeneid. The class also read Darkness Visible.[13] More even than the experience of poetry, that encounter with great scholarship—its exquisite prose; its generosity to the community of scholarship that it engages; its extraordinary vision of Vergil as fearlessly human—made me want to be a different sort of reader than I had been theretofore. The book on Vergil at the heart of Denis Feeney’s Explorations recalls that feeling. I recommend it to all.

Table of Contents

Dedication, , pp v-vi
Contents, pp vii-viii
Foreword (By Stephen Hinds), pp ix-xix
Introduction, pp 1-14
Chapter 1 – The Taciturnity of Aeneas, pp 15-38
Chapter 2 – The Reconciliations of Juno
Chapter 3 – Epic Hero and Epic Fable, pp 62-82
Chapter 4 – Stat magni nominis umbra: Lucan on the Greatness of Pompeius Magnus, pp 83-90
Chapter 5 – History and Revelation in Virgil’s Underworld, pp 91-116
Chapter 6 – Following after Hercules, in Virgil and Apollonius, pp 117-140
Chapter 7 – Beginning Sallust’s Catiline, pp 141-147
Chapter 8 – Leaving Dido: The Appearance(s) of Mercury and the Motivations of Aeneas, pp 148-167
Chapter 9 – Epic Violence, Epic Order: Killings, Catalogues, and the Role of the Reader in Aeneid 10, pp 168-182
Chapter 10 – Mea tempora: Patterning of Time in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, pp 183-203
Chapter 11 – Interpreting Sacrificial Ritual in Roman Poetry: Disciplines and their Models, pp 204-227
Chapter 12 – Tenui … latens discrimine: Spotting the Differences in Statius’ Achilleid, pp 228-246
Chapter 13 – On Not Forgetting the ‘Literatur’ in ‘Literatur und Religion’: Representing the Mythic and the Divine in Roman Historiography, pp 247-270
Chapter 14 – Virgil’s Tale of Four Cities: Troy, Carthage, Alexandria and Rome, pp 271-285
Chapter 15 – First Similes in Epic, pp 286-321
Chapter 16 – Fictions of Citizenship in Livy’s History, pp 322-364
Published Works of Denis Feeney, pp 365-373
Bibliography, pp 374-401
Index locorum, pp 402-411
General Index, pp 412-422


[1] In the interest of full disclosure, allow me to say that I am thanked for comments at a conference in the first footnote of chapter 13 (p. 247).

[2] Literature and religion at Rome: cultures, contexts, and beliefs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Caesar’s calendar: ancient time and the beginnings of history (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007) (BMCR 2007.09.17); Beyond Greek: the beginnings of Latin literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016) (BMCR 2016.12.37).

[3] Alessandro Barchiesi, Jörg Rüpke, and Susan Stephens, eds., Rituals in ink: a conference on religion and literary production in ancient Rome held at Stanford University in February 2002 (Stuttgart: Steiner, 2004).

[4] Llewelyn Morgan, Patterns of redemption in Virgil’s Georgics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), a wonderful book (BMCR 2000.07.24).

[5] But see the translation of Aen. 8.290-291 (p. 120), where bello is omitted.

[6] Fergus Millar, “Ovid and the Domus Augusta: Rome seen from Tomoi,” JRS 83 (1993) 1-17 = Rome, the Greek World, and the East, volume 1: The Roman Republic and the Augustan Revolution, edited by Hannah M. Cotton and Guy M. Rogers (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2002), 321-349 at 321.

[7] Stefan Weinstock, Divus Julius (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 282-6, 393-4, 397; see also Clifford Ando, “Praesentia numinis. Part 2: Objects in Roman cult.” Asdiwal 6 (2011), 57-69.

[8] SEG IX 8, edict 1.

[9] Lon Fuller, “Legal Fictions,” Illinois Law Review 25 (1930) 363-399, part 1 of a three-part series.

[10] See also chapter 5, p. 94: ” … for this is the only occasion in the poem when Vergil uses dialogue in this way—Anchises, Aeneas, and again Anchises—without any intervening narrative to introduce the speaker.”

[11] It is thus startling when Feeney once imagines the position of a collective “we” as “first readers” of the Aeneid (p. 178).

[12] Beyond pages already cited in this review see, e.g., 161, 166, and 176: “To choose the path of war”—for readers to desire war in their epic—”is urgently compelling, from a generic and ideological point of view; but Virgil’s Homeric technique here lays open the alternatives, and forces us to accept responsibility for acceding to the continuation in the way we do.”

[13] W.R. Johnson, Darkness Visible: a study of Vergil’s Aeneid (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976).