BMCR 2022.07.10

Das Bild von ‘Africa’ in der augusteischen Dichtung. Poetische Konstruktionen eines geographischen Raumes

, Das Bild von 'Africa' in der augusteischen Dichtung. Poetische Konstruktionen eines geographischen Raumes (Vergil, 'Aeneis' - Horaz - Properz). Göttinger Forum für AltertumswissenschaftBeihefte Neue Folge, 11. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp. x, 263. ISBN 9783110736090 $126.99.


In the wake of a renewed interest in questions of race and ethnicity,[1] identity and otherness,[2] in the Greco-Roman world, Hesekamp’s monograph focuses on a timely topic from the angle of the (instrumental) ‘fictionality’ of representations of ‘Africa’ at the hands of Augustan poets. Yet, unlike most recent work produced on adjacent topics, her interest unabashedly lies in these works’ literary features, which she mainly surveys via structuralist theories of narratology and symbolism, and the discontinuous input of cognitive approaches.

With the material divided into two main sections—the ‘dramatic’ epic of Virgil and the (broadly conceived) ‘lyric’ of Horace and Propertius—the book asks how these literary genres present ‘Africa’ differently because of their narrative potential (or lack thereof), even though they build upon a commonality of topoi. This approach brings somewhat mixed results: on the one hand, against the historians’ tendency to decontextualise specific passages from the literary texts and make them function as mere data in larger cultural narratives, Hesekamp refreshingly reminds us of the need to read literature on its own terms, with a perceptive eye for its specific contexts. Special attention is devoted to issues of internal or external perspective, focalisation, and communication, and how these are intertwined with the original audience’s common knowledge around Africa. Recognition, for example, that the ‘emptiness’ of Africa sheds light on a crisis of identity in both Aeneas and Dido, rather than on Africa per se, makes it more difficult to turn Africa’s ‘deserts’ (deserta) into a constitutive feature of the imagined landscape of north Africa for a Roman audience, even though it may also be true that it is this preconceived cliché about the African landscape that brings about the superimposition between the landscape and the characters’ psychology. On the other hand, the book will let down readers interested in finding out more about the origins and features of such preconceptions, many of which filter into the early modern and colonial periods and take the form of explicitly racist ideas about Africa, which persist in different forms to the current day. Overall, the book’s disregard of distinctions between ancient and modern forms of prejudice, racialisation, exploitation, and colonialism is rather disappointing for a volume published in 2021.[3]

The book’s introduction sets out a defence of its purely literary methodology. Hesekamp posits that the poets’ ‘fictive representations’ of Africa bear ‘normative effects’ in the imagination of readers unfamiliar with Africa’s geographic-historic features, allegedly creating a ‘reality of Africa’ in their consciousness. If this literature ‘shows no interest in Africa’ per se, neither does this book, which zooms in on strategies of representation without interpreting them against historical or material realities; nor does it reflect on the pernicious consequences of such strategies for contemporary Africa as they get reproduced in scholarship. From the book’s first pages, ‘Africa’ is presented as a ‘mysterious’, ‘strange’ and ‘enigmatic’ ‘continent’ whose contours (and distinction from the modern ‘continent’) are never clearly spelled out. As this book also demonstrates, ‘Africa’ is by no means a single entity, even in the Latin literary representations, and important distinctions can be drawn between its different areas and populations: is this tendency to collapse it into a unicum a feature of the ancient Roman or of the later European mind? And to what extent are the ‘mysterious’ features of the continent in the ancient literature a blueprint for how colonial Europe will instrumentally turn it into a realm of the irrational, the underdeveloped, and the primitive, to justify its colonial rule and exploitation? Sadly, as the review of scholarship also highlights (where the focus is on theories of narratology, symbolism, formalism), Hesekamp does not grapple with such questions, even though her findings will be important for anyone who may approach the topic from different viewpoints. Moreover, it is only towards the book’s close that she attempts to draw the line on what is specific about the Augustan poets—rather than Latin literature as a whole—for thinking about African space as a space of empire and conquest.

A chapter on the original audiences’ ideas of Africa includes important historical and ethnographic background, lending credence to the idea that African toponyms function in poetry as ‘cognitive triggers’, bearing specific associations in the readers’ minds. Yet there are problems in attempting to reconstruct allegedly preconceived ideas about Africa in an audience that must have necessarily been quite diverse and which, as Hesekamp writes, may not only have been in Africa, but also—a possibility that she does not fathom—may have also been African. Additionally, her use of Sallust’s African digression as a ‘historical’ rather than ‘literary’ source that readers may have taken as a ‘realistic description’ of Africa strikes an odd note given her admission that such excursus is ‘embedded in the topoi of the ethnographic tradition’ and ‘shaped by the narrative function that it holds in [Sallust’s] monograph’.[4] This section on Sallust contains lapses  that will recur frequently in the book: specifically, readers would have benefited from a clarification of the anachronisms inherent in talking about ‘civilisation’ or lack thereof. Sallust’s inculti (BJ 18.1; cf. 89.7 incultius) refers to Nomadic populations refraining from cultivating the soil; it doesn’t necessarily indicate a ‘downgrading’ of the people. If it does, then Sallust’s ‘moral’ judgment over the Numidians may be interpreted against Sallust’s own thought, not necessarily as a mirror for ingrained preconceptions of the Roman audience. There is also a problem with identifying the Ethiopians (here and elsewhere in the book) as ‘people with dark skin colour’, giving the wrong impression (against Herodotus among others) that Ethiopians were the only people whose skin was black in Africa and elsewhere (especially puzzling given the supposed etymology of the Mauri from μαυρός ‘dark’, cf. Luc. 4.678–679; Manil. 4.729–730).

The largest section of the book covers Virgil’s Aeneid. There is much to commend here, especially at the level of close reading, and much that will need serious consideration from Virgilians. Hesekamp opens with a (slightly dated) presentation of her narratological methodology, which pays special attention to focalisation and spatial design in the close reading of specific scenes. Specifically, she shows how Hans-Dieter Reeker’s concept of a ‘progressive sketching of the landscape’ can be applied to the way in which the Libyan space is constructed in the Aeneid by the successive allocation of pieces of information. Her close reading of the topothesia of the Libyan harbour is particularly effective: by following the horizontal and vertical axes of this constructed space, she highlights the perspective of the Trojans approaching the inlet and admirably shows how the ambiguity of the landscape mirrors the uncertainty of the narrative, with its symbolism triggering a range of overwhelming emotions. Other portions of the chapter also deal with the relationship between the land and the characters’ psychology, successfully showing how certain features of the landscape and its fauna are a direct result of the tribulations of both protagonists (Aeneas and Dido) and secondary characters (Ascanius and Anna). The only aspect that I find unconvincing is the characterisation of the local Africans. It is surprising that, despite being so attuned to the characters’ perspectives, Hesekamp doesn’t notice the irony with which Anna characterises the local African kings with the same lack of (sexual) restraint that will become the damning trait of her sister. I find it difficult to agree with the views (also displayed in e.g. R.G. Austin’s commentary on Aeneid 4) that the Numidians and Gaetulian Iarbas are characterised by ‘savagery’, ‘primitiveness’, and by their lack of respect towards women (which Hesekamp evinces from Sallust BJ 80, on the practice of polygamy), and that Dido and Anna prefer Aeneas on the grounds that he comes from ‘a civilised people’. I suspect that Virgil may be presenting a Carthaginian (proto-colonial and/or proto-racial) viewpoint on the local populations (just like Sallust’s excursus was explicitly said to derive from ‘Punic books’), but such strategy of ‘othering’ different populations at different points in the epic is built upon more layers of complexity than Hesekamp allows for. Some of her observations don’t work by her own admission: the word tyranni (4.320) to characterise the Numidian kings was also applied to Phoenician Pygmalion (1.361); the phrase captam ducere (4.326), which would point to Iarbas’ violence towards women, reminds us of what the Romans did to Cleopatra, and of Aeneas’ own capture and then desertion of Dido in her own words shortly later (capta ac deserta, 4.330); Iarbas’ supposed reduction of Dido to the ‘feminine’ (4.211 femina … errans) is nothing in comparison to Mercury’s further reduction of the ‘feminine’ to the ‘volatile’ and ‘changeable’ (4.569–470). It is already questionable to take Iarbas’ characterisation as ‘exemplary’ for ‘all African leaders’, but such reduction of one to the many is further hindered by the fact that there are serious counterarguments to Hesekamp’s damning portrait of this leader and of the African populations as a whole, sometimes aided by her own analysis: she points out, for instance, how Iarbas makes a joke on litus arare (4.212) to describe a ‘vain effort’, something at odds with someone coming from a population that does not practice cultivation and would therefore be ‘uncivilised’ from a Latin perspective.

The chapter on Horace and Propertius displays similar problems despite excellent observations on particular details. Here, interest lies in the poetic features of ‘lyric’ in comparison to ‘epic’ and shows how these compositions rely on a few common topoi on Africa, which are used to ‘trigger’ chains of associations for readers. There are here interesting observations on how Africa functions at times as an ‘anti-space’ for Rome, a foil against which the Roman self is asserted, but it seems to me that the chapter overall misses opportunities for contributing to discourses of otherness, as well as racial or xenophobic traits, and it is also limiting in choosing not to engage with the topic of the Punic Wars. I was struck by the lack of interest in the continuation between Horace’s moral outlook on the richness of the land and the greed of the merchants with stereotypes of greed as applied to Phoenicians and Carthaginians, as well as in how local Africans become objectified by continuity with their land in terms of stereotypes. Hesekamp points to what she sees as a paradox of Africa as being characterised as ‘barbaric, uncivilised and uncultivated’ (what she calls ‘the horrors of Africa’), while at the same time producing ‘a wealth of vital and luxurious products,’ exploited by the Romans. Interaction with modern discourses of colonial exploitation would have helped in thinking around the question of whether this dualism emerges in her analysis as a by-product of modern distortions reflected in these texts’ modern and contemporary scholarship, or else as an important anticipation of the early modern European representations of its colonies. This remains a crucial point to raise when arguing (with regard to the shield of Aeneid 8 and Ode 2.20) that the projects of princeps and poets coincide in spreading ‘norms’, i.e. ‘civilisation’ and ‘education’ to ‘uncivilised Africans’ in order to construct a ‘new, pacified and civilised Africa’ that Hesekamp sees as contrasted with ‘the barbaric Africa of the early days’. This strikes me as one of many unsettlingly anachronistic readings of these texts’ representations of proto-colonial empire that are unwittingly put forward in an otherwise very stimulating book.


[1] McCoskey, Denise (ed.) (2021) A Cultural History of Race in Antiquity, London; Derbew, Sarah F. (2022) Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity, Cambridge.

[2] Fabre-Serris, Jacqueline, Keith, Alison and Klein, Florence (2021) Identities, Ethnicities and Gender in Antiquity, Berlin and Boston; Gruen, Erich S. (2020) Ethnicity in the ancient world – did it Matter?, Berlin and Boston.

[3] Hesekamp directs readers interested in the continuity between antiquity and modernity to Mambwini Kivuila-Kiaku, José and Nsuka Nkoko, Jean-Baptiste (2017) L’Afrique vue par les Romains: les écrits de Salluste et de Lucain, Paris.

[4] The book has serious bibliographical gaps. Here, the studies of Roberto Oniga and Robert Morstein-Marx would have been helpful.