BMCR 2022.11.02

Intertextuality in Flavian epic poetry: contemporary approaches

, , , , Intertextuality in Flavian epic poetry: contemporary approaches. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes, 64. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. vii, 476. ISBN 9783110597684 $130.99.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


This well-produced De Gruyter volume on intertextuality in Flavian epic originates from papers delivered at a gathering at the Fondation Hardt in 2015. My high expectations, which had been raised by the distinguished line-up of contributors, proved not to be disappointed. This book will act as a valuable resource for scholars interested in intertexuality and Flavian epic.  It will also be of use to those who are interested in imperial literature more broadly: for example, Baier’s chapter on the assumption of political authority through human interaction with the divine brings in Tacitus’ Histories and, intriguingly, the Gospel of Mark (which is seen to reflect Flavian history) whilst Hinds’ stimulating paper on cross-linguistic intertextuality focuses mostly on the proems of pre-Flavian epics, including the probably Neronian Ilias Latina.

The volume encompasses a broad span of papers, tackling the topic of “intertextuality” from a number of different angles. (The discussion of terminology can be found in the introduction, pp.1–3.) These angles are bound together by a clear introduction, recurring themes, and internal allusions.

The volume contains contributions which bring in the socio-cultural context, whether this is as a lens to examine the texts (for example, in the case of Baier) or as part of a wider discussion, such as Keith’s consideration of Valerius’ description of the Sun-god’s temple alongside the memory of the imperial use of temples in the Augustan period, or Heerink’s pessimistic reading of Valerius’ Argonautica, which, he argues, inverts and elegizes Vergil’s Aeneid in order to suggest the impossibility of an Aeneid in the Flavian age. Most chapters, however, take a literary perspective, typically combining concrete examples and theorizing, in order to elucidate texts and the relationships between texts. Not surprisingly, the contributors mostly pay attention to the use of earlier verse texts in Flavian epic, especially Augustan and Neronian poems like Vergil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Lucan’s Bellum Civile. Dewar’s investigation into the Flavians’ use of neoteric poetry is a notable exception and there are fleeting glimpses of a Lucretian presence. The reception of Flavian epic crops up intermittently (see, for instance, Bernstein’s comments on Claudian’s use of Flavian epic), including in prose, as in Stover’s examination of Tacitus’ engagement with Valerius’ Argonautica in his Histories.

The nineteen chapters which follow the introduction cover all of the extant Flavian epics, with the underdog, Silius’ Punica, receiving the least airtime: for focussed attention, there is only Fucecchi on Silius’ Hannibal (one of several papers to consider how intertextuality can shape character) and Marks, which examines Silius’ exploitation of Ovid’s autobiographical portrayal in his exile poetry as well as the well-trodden path of engagement with the Metamorphoses. Some contributions, like Dewar and Augoustakis, range around but the majority target specific authors. In terms of space devoted per line of extant text, Statius’ Achilleid is the winner. Here, Ripoll’s discussion of the characterisation of Ulysses stands out for its lucidity and insight into Statius’ use of “anticipative allusion” (pp. 250–1, which involves allusions to texts dealing with future events). This is particularly developed with regards to the Odyssey. Ripoll finishes (pp. 257–58) by considering the fatherlike Ulysses as a model for Statius, who announces at Achilleid 1.7 “his intention to accompany the young hero like a paedagogus throughout the Trojan war” (p258). Certainly if we return to deducere from this perspective after encountering Ulysses’ relationship with Achilles, it acts as a salutary reminder not to be hoodwinked by the proem’s emphasis on Achilles into neglecting other protagonists in the epic.

The chapters often show that intertextuality does not have to be—or does not have to be just a case of—verbal allusion. It can occur at the level of structure and content, as Heerink shows on pp. 195–96: the final speech of Hypsipyle to Jason (V. Fl. 2.419–24), accompanying her gifts of a sword and cloak, references her unborn child and hence reworks Dido’s final utterances of her first speech to Aeneas after she has heard of his departure (Aeneid 4.325–30), with pointed contrast: the situation of Dido, who laments her lack of offspring, is much less positive; indeed, she will go on to kill herself with the sword that Aeneas had given her. Such intertextuality can be hard to find using digital methods. It is a leitmotiv of the collection that digital tools are an aid, rather than a substitute for human input. This is noted, as in Bessone’s observation (p164) that the form of the rhetorical question at Statius Achilleid 2.94, which picks up Ovid Metamorphoses 12.162–63, is “an impalpable echo, that escapes digital tools”. And it is repeatedly demonstrated by individual pieces. So, for example, no program could replicate the masterly control of fragmented and recreated evidence found in Dewar’s tracking down of the adjective Phoroneus to Calvus’ lost Io.[1]

Recognition of Greek verbal parallels and allusions where there may be glosses on or play with Greek words clearly present a challenge to digital tools. This is an area where scholarly scrutiny must surely remain invaluable. We may take as an example Bessone’s observations about bilingual word play in her discussion at pp.149–51 of Statius’ inversion of Homer Iliad 13.701–708 at Thebaid 1.131–38: it is hard to imagine a program noting that the “equal heart” of Il. 13.704 is turned into the “different heart” (dis-cordia) of Thebaid 1.137. The issue of Latin engagement with Greek is, indeed, a recurring concern in the volume. So, for example, Hinds’ contribution deals with the “what-ifs” and “hows” of the detection of Greek intertextuality in Latin epic. And Augoustakis, in his discussion of the names of slain warriors, notes that the name Helops (Statius Thebaid 12.746) is recycled from Ovid’s Centauromachy (where the Centaur is “transfixed by a javelin”, fixus … iaculo, Met. 12.335) but with the description of his death (a spear bit with his mouth) picking up the fish ἔλλοψ. One might wonder whether the etymological link had been prompted by Ovid’s own word play, as Helops is there preceded by Dictys, “fishing-net”.

Several papers towards the end give a snapshot of some of the work that is being pioneered in the important and fast-moving area of digital humanities. Theoretical consideration of its possibilities and limitations is backed up by concrete examples. The volume well shows the extent to which these tools have become mainstream in intertextual study. Even papers which do not explicitly tackle digital humanities reference search tools or provide the kind of statistical evidence (as Marks, pp. 97–8) which search tools must use. Tesserae is the search tool most cited amongst the contributors: see Bessone p. 135–36; Augoustakis p. 172; Battistella and Galli Millic p. 219. As Bernstein notes (p. 387), resources such as Tesserae have facilitated the task of assembling instances of text reuse and other poetic features with the result that there is a shift of “the bulk of the scholar’s intertextual work from discovery to interpretation”. As well as analysis of the effects of discovered parallels (something evidenced throughout the volume), it can also be the task of the scholar to consider how far readers might consciously or sub-consciously pick up on these allusions, which are sometimes at a micro-analytical level, and the fruitfulness of any recognition. See Bessone p. 135 and Hinds p. 423: “what digital text analysis at its innovative best can do is to challenge us all … to increase our scrutiny of textual phenomena within, beyond, and perhaps at the very limits of its interpretative reach”.

Occasionally, I felt there was a missed opportunity to cross-reference the papers. So, for example, Keith’s observation (p. 329) that the guidance of Jason by a handmaid of Medea (V. Fl. 5.399–454) rehearses the Homeric Nausicaa’s guidance of Odysseus to her father’s palace could have been used to strengthen the links made by Battistella and Galli Milić between Nausicaa and Medea on p210 n.25 (the dream at V. Fl. 5.343–49) and p211 (the simile comparing Medea to Proserpina at V. Fl. 5.343–49). Within the chapter of Battistella and Galli Milić, I would suggest that a connection could be drawn between the marriage associations of the Nausicaa scene (in her dream she is invited to go to the river to wash her dowry) and the fact that the passage from Seneca’s Medea 99–101, which is viewed as lying behind Valerius Flaccus 5.363–72, is from a sort of epithalamion sung in honour of Jason and his (short-lived) new bride, as noted at p. 219. Like the choice of Proserpina in the simile (which is also useful for evoking the idea that Medea is ripe for marriage), the effect is ominous.

The introduction finishes by (rightly) insisting that there is still a considerable amount to be done on Flavian intertextuality. The book certainly provides stimulus regarding what directions future research might go. This is particularly apparent in the four papers which treat digital matters, and here some of the effort needed will go beyond that which can be done by individual scholars: digital access to the hand-lemmatized cards of the TLL archive, the potential of which is noted by Heslin, is a particular desideratum. However, there will be many ways in which the contributions spark off future research. Intergeneric relationships are treated in the volume, particularly in the chapter of Heerink, which looks at Valerius’ exploitation of elegy, and the contribution of Battistella and Galli Milić, which well treats the Argonautica and Senecan tragedy. The scene from Valerius Book 5 discussed by the latter, which is shown to be rich in Senecan intertextuality and tragic irony, arguably carries a marker of the tragic in the figure of the nurse.[2] Can an automatic eye, accompanied by human scrutiny, be cast on digitally recovered intertextual parallels from non-epic genres to see if these are accompanied by metageneric markers (such as the Latin word for nurse) in order to help with intergeneric investigation?


Authors and Titles

Neil Coffee/Chris Forstall/Lavinia Galli Milić/Damien Nelis, Introduction

Helen Lovatt, Meanwhile Back at the Ranch: Narrative Transition and Structural Intertextuality in Statius Thebaid 1

Tim Stover, Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica 3.598–725: Epic, History, and Intertextuality

Damien Nelis, Allusive Technique in the Argonautica of Valerius Flaccus

Raymond Marks, Searching for Ovid at Cannae: A Contribution to the Reception of Ovid in Silius Italicus’ Punica

Michael Dewar, The Flavian Epics and the Neoterics

Federica Bessone, Allusive (Im-)Pertinence in Statius’ Epic

Antony Augoustakis, Collateral Damage? Todeskette in Flavian Epic

Mark Heerink, Replaying Dido: Elegy and the Poetics of Inversion in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica

Chiara Battistella/Lavinia Galli Milić, Foreshadowing Medea: Prolepsis and Intertextuality in Valerius Flaccus

François Ripoll, Ulysses as an Inter- (and Meta-)textual Hero in the Achilleid of Statius

Marco Fucecchi, Constructing (Super-)characters: The Case Study of Silius’ Hannibal

Gianpiero Rosati, The Redemption of the Monster, or: The ‘Evil Hero’ in Ancient Epic

Thomas Baier, Flavian Gods in Intertextual Perspective. How Rulers Used Religious Practice as a Means of Communicating

Alison Keith, Palatine Apollo, Augustan Architectural Ecphrasis, and Flavian Epic Intertextuality

Carole Newlands, Statius’ Post-Vesuvian Landscapes and Virgil’s Parthenope

Neil Bernstein, Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives on the Use of Poetic Tradition in Silius Italicus’ Punica

Peter Heslin, Lemmatizing Latin and Quantifying the Achilleid

Neil Coffee/James Gawley, How Rare are the Words that Make Up Intertexts? A Study in Latin and Greek Epic Poetry

Stephen Hinds, Pre- and Post-digital Poetics of ‘Transliteralism’: Some Greco-Roman Epic Incipits



[1] Cf. Tarrant, R. J. 1985. Seneca Thyestes (Atlanta, GA), p105 on Seneca Thyestes 115–16, speculating that the adjective Phoronis may have come from Calvus’ Io.

[2] For markers of tragedy in Statian epic, see Ruth Parkes, 2021. ‘Finding the Tragic in the Epics of Statius’, in Elements of tragedy in Flavian epic edd. A. Marinis and S. Papaioannou (Trends in Classics, Supp. Volume 103, De Gruyter), 107-28