BMCR 2024.04.10

Virgilio: guida all’Eneide

, Virgilio: guida all’Eneide. Bussole. Rome: Carocci Editore, 2023. Pp. 144. ISBN 9788829020676.

September 2023 saw the Italian publishing house Carocci release two brand-new introductions to two of the most canonical Latin Classics, both authored by renowned Italian scholars: Luigi Galasso’s guide to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Sergio Casali’s to Virgil’s Aeneid.[1] The title of Carocci’s book series, Bussole (Italian for ‘compasses’), renders precisely the task of these slender volumes: to guide readers through the ancient works, and at the same time help them find their way out of the marshes in the wide and often disorienting panorama of secondary literature. Italian students approaching Virgil’s Aeneid (as much as Ovid’s Metamorphoses), might be both surprised and demoralised at discovering how much of this critical literature is written in English, as can be surmised from a quick glimpse at Casali’s recommended introductory bibliography (134­–45). If Anglophone students, both in secondary and higher education, are already served by beginners’ guides to the poem, the same cannot really be said for Italian pupils, who will be immensely rewarded by the critical compass provided by Casali.[2] Yet this volume can serve a larger audience than the one for which it was originally intended: in writing the present review in English, I hope to provide some of this extended readership with a sense of the richness of its contents.

Recipient of both the A. G. McKay Prize from the Vergilian Society and the Vergilius Prize from the Accademia Nazionale Virgiliana in Mantua, Casali is a more than well-established name among Latinists, and his firm opinions on the Aeneid, specifically in terms of the inherent polysemy of the text and of Virgil’s faltering allegiance to the Augustan programme, are well known among Virgilians. Unsurprisingly, this guide opens by emphasising the poem’s ‘enormous complexity,’ its ‘profound ambivalence’ and ‘inherent contradictions.’ Beyond this programmatic take, however, readers might be wrong to imagine that they could easily anticipate the book’s contents. In fact, Casali includes quite a few surprises, especially in terms of unpredictable case-studies, which make some of this book’s chapters a thought-provoking read also for scholars who have long been engaged in the study of Virgil.

The guide consists of seven chapters followed by a metrical appendix and suggestions for further reading for each individual chapter. Chapter 1 is a succinct book-by-book summary, whose brief bibliography includes a list of Virgilian commentaries and of existing handbooks and introductions. Chapter 2 locates the Aeneid within the Virgilian corpus by surveying three programmatic moments of Virgil’s self-reflexive poetics: the Callimachean recusatio of Eclogue 6 (which Casali interestingly notes to be both the first recusatio in the entirety of Latin poetry, and the first Latin reworking of the prologue of Callimachus’ Aitia), the promise of an ‘Augusteid’ in the proem to the third Georgic (for Casali this refers ‘beyond doubt’ to a future work rather to the Georgics), and the mysterious ‘proem in the middle’ of Aeneid 7. Discussion of the Aeneid’s ‘proem in the middle’ shows how Virgil creates veritable challenges for his readers: why is the proem ‘delayed’ in the book? Why is Erato invoked?[3] As a way to introduce his polysemic approach, Casali argues that these challenges can be ‘solved’ through intertextuality in different ways, always with the expectation of a ‘multiplicity of possible solutions’ that somewhat mirrors the Hellenistic exegetical tradition surrounding the Homeric poems (41).

While granting that Virgil might also address other types of readers, Casali conveys the picture of a learned ‘collaborative reader’ (117) who rejoices in being invited to participate in the author’s erudite exegetical game. This is a common, stereotypical characterisation of the Virgilian reader conjured up by scholars, but one can hardly overlook the irony of the fact that this ideal reader resembles quite closely the ideal scholars themselves. The irony should induce us to reflect upon the role that professional scholars should play with respect to ‘lay readers,’ especially as regards interpretation, an issue that is all the more pressing in books addressed to the general public.[4] In Chapter 4, when discussing the intertextuality between Dido’s combined three speeches to Aeneas and Ariadne’s speech to Theseus in Catullus 64 (both of precisely 70 lines in length), Casali speaks of ‘the paradox of an allusivity that, right when it seems to be exalting the pathos of the story, inevitably “cools it down” with the intellectualism of an intertextuality that extends to the same line-count between parallel passages’ (93).[5] That such employment of the intertextual method has the effect of ‘cooling down’ the readers’ affective response to the poetry is beyond doubt; but who, or what, is responsible for the chilling intellectualism of this technology of reading? The author, the text, the reader, the critic? Or, indeed, the critic-as-reader?

Intertextuality is doubtlessly the most frequently employed methodology in Virgilian criticism and in Casali’s armoury, so it is no surprise that it guides this book’s central chapters, from a close reading of the proem (Chapter 3) to a detailed analysis of the epic models for both the ‘Odyssean’ and the ‘Iliadic’ halves of the Aeneid (Chapter 4–5), even though Casali is very much receptive to the idea that the similarities between the wars in Latium and Odysseus’ battles against the suitors also sustain a reading of the Aeneid as an Odyssey whose ending has been ‘substituted’ with a repetition of the Iliad (49). In this and in other respects, especially in the idea that the apparently purely literary choice between the two Homeric models contains in fact an ethical dimension in the stark divide between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ kingship (Odysseus vs Achilles), Casali declares his indebtedness to the latest monograph by Joseph Farrell, which also usefully summarises the critical history of Virgil’s relationship with the Homeric poems.[6] But if Farrell takes pain to theorise and explain the methodology of intertextuality for his readers, Casali leaves the matter relatively vague, so that students might be left confused about terminology and differences, such as those between ‘allusion’ and ‘intertext’, or between ‘window allusion’ and ‘poetic topoi’.[7]

Even so, readers will gain from this introduction a plethora of the most diverse texts against which to read the Aeneid, with Chapter 6 devoted precisely to the poem’s ‘polyphony of genres.’ The focus here is first on the neoteric Catullan intertext for Dido (working alongside the tragic intertext of Medea), secondly on ‘the problem of Lucretian intertextuality in the Aeneid’, presented as a ‘return of the repressed’ (99–106). Here, Casali plays two well-known interpretations of the Lucretian intertext against each other: Hardie’s view that the Aeneid provides a necessary ‘re-mythologising’ of Lucretius, and Lyne’s suggestion that the Lucretian intertext appears somewhat ‘disturbing’ and ‘subversive’ of the poem’s mythological universe (102).[8] For Casali, these two readings are ‘two poles’, simultaneously ‘coexistent and yet contradictory,’ against which to read Virgil’s paradoxical evocations of Lucretius’ scientific explanations of natural phenomena in passages where the Aeneid clearly privileges mythology instead. Since these views belong to two books that are recognised milestones, respectively, of the ‘European’ and ‘Harvard’ schools of thought on the Aeneid, reconciling these two interpretations of the Lucretian intertext allows the chapter to serve as a prelude for Casali’s following attempt to reconcile the poem’s ‘optimism’ and ‘pessimism.’ In this reconciliation of the Aeneid’s strict dichotomies, it is somewhat paradoxical that ‘the return of the repressed’—a phrase that is normally attributed, in Freudian terms, to unconscious, irrational elements of the psyche—should be used instead for the ‘disturbing’ emergence of repressed Lucretian rationalisation: what is repressed and threatens to emerge here is quite the opposite of those spontaneous irrational impulses that are normally associated with the concept.

An important role in the ‘polyphony of genres’ is played by historiography, and specifically by the pre-Virgilian tradition. Although there is no section specifically dedicated to the historiographical tradition, this is a recurrent concern of Casali’s Aeneid: it emerges already in Chapter 3, which introduces Virgil’s technique of alluding to ‘discarded versions’ of the mythical history of Rome, turning the spotlight onto his use of the ‘invention’ of the Alban Kings to cover the centuries between Aeneas’ voyage and the foundation of Rome. Yet, a full discussion of Virgil’s ‘historiographical’ choices, and of the relationship between the Alban kings and the gens Iulia, is postponed to Chapter 7, dedicated to that scholarly debate between ‘optimists’ and ‘pessimists’ that underpinned the majority of critical studies on Virgil in the second half of the 20th century and beyond. Here, the example chosen for introducing students to the ambiguous loyalty of the poem to the gens Iulia is paradigmatic and offers a gateway for directing attention onto the deceptive nature of the poem’s prophecies and the unreliability of their speakers.[9] Casali focusses on the problem of Aeneas’ dynastic succession and on the ambiguity as to whether Ascanius-Iulus or Silvius Postumus should be considered the progenitor of the Alban Kings:[10] this is a fraught political problem, since only Ascanius-Iulus (who, according to Cato, died childless) could be considered direct progenitor of the Julii. Casali speaks of the ‘embarrassment’ (113) of Virgil and his characters towards previous traditions: an exemplary case is Anchises’ reference to Silvius as Aeneas’ postuma proles (Aen. 6.763), an allusion to the version according to which Silvius was born after Aeneas’ death, which openly contradicts Anchises’ following assertion that Lavinia will instead raise the child in Aeneas’ old age (Aen. 6.764–65). More interesting still is the following interpretation of the episode of Ascanius’ killing of Silvia’s stag (plausibly a Virgilian invention) as a prefiguration of, and allusion to, Ascanius’ hostility towards Silvius: according to Cato, it was precisely Ascanius’ threat to the potential rival that forced Lavinia to give birth to Silvius in the woods, as also alluded to when Anchises/Virgil lets slip a reference to the child being ‘raised in the woods’ (Aen. 6.765 educet siluis). Again, this is an ‘embarrassing story’ (116) for the gens Iulia, and the ways in which the Aeneid hints at its own self-censorship signal the poet’s complex simultaneous allegiance to, and independence from, the princeps.

Casali’s final reflections attempt to capture the ambiguity and contradictions of the simultaneous presence of Augustanism and anti-Augustanism in the poem by reflecting on the inherently contradictory nature of panegyric as a genre, since the strength of any panegyric lies precisely in its capacity to anticipate, and incorporate, subversive readings.[11] It is the Aeneid’s tendency to ‘self-reflection’ that eventually exposes its resistance to power: Virgil’s habit of unveiling the manipulative and deforming nature of his own poetry in relation to myth and history eventually ‘denounces the mystificatory character of the panegyrical operation’ (118). The guide leaves us with an erotic metaphor for the relationship between poet and princeps: the seduction exercised by Venus over Vulcan with the promise of a sexual intercourse in return for the shield (which is both an ideological programme and an actual military weapon) prefigures the power exercised by Venus’ descendant over the seduced poet.

Presumably, the Aeneid documents both the effects of this hallucinatory infatuation and the rational recognition of the false and manipulative character of the poet’s self-delusion. One of the Aeneid’s most conspicuous peculiarities is that it ‘represses’ rational, scientific, historical interpretation, leaving the stage for the spontaneous gut-feelings of affection and gratitude towards the political system that ended civil conflict, and supporting an a-historical mythology that should shrewdly help Rome’s imaginative community coalesce against its imagined enemies. Like the Lucretian intertext, the poem’s repressed rationality and its allegiance to historical truth persistently threaten to resurface and smash to smithereens the erotic spell of Virgil’s imperial panegyric. Casali’s guide provides the tools for either supporting or subverting the poem’s fiction, two options which are not conceived as mutually exclusive: it will be up to its readers to choose whether to take a more or less capacious interpretative stance.



[1] Galasso, Luigi (2023) Ovidio: guida alle Metamorfosi, Rome.

[2] Among the introductions to the Aeneid cited at p.135 there are some milestones of Virgilian criticism, but only Camps 1969 is in fact branded as an ‘introduction’ to the poem (Camps, W. A. (1969) An Introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid, Oxford). Available in English are also Ross, David O. (2007) Virgil’s Aeneid: A Reader’s Guide, Malden, MA and the important volume edited by Perkell, Christine (1999) (ed.) Reading Vergil’s Aeneid: An Interpretive Guide, Norman, OK. A Very Short Introduction to Virgil is also expected from Fiachra Mac Góráin.

[3] The matter, as Casali acknowledges, is treated in detail by Bocciolini Palagi, Laura (2016) La Musa e la Furia. Interpretazione del secondo proemio dell’Eneide, Bologna.

[4] See most recently Guillory, John (2022) Professing Criticism: Essays on the Organization of Literary Study, Chicago and London, 318-42.

[5] Translations from Casali’s original Italian are mine.

[6] Farrell, Joseph (2021) Juno’s Aeneid: A Battle for Heroic Identity, Princeton.

[7] Surprisingly, the go-to manual for the topic does not feature in the bibliography: Hinds, Stephen (1998) Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry, Cambridge. On the origin of intertextuality see Baron, Scarlett (2019) The Birth of Intertextuality: The Riddle of Creativity, New York.

[8] Hardie, Philip (1986) Virgil’s Aeneid: Cosmos and Imperium, Oxford; Lyne, R. O. A. M. (1987) Further Voices in Vergil’s Aeneid, Oxford.

[9] Famously discussed by O’Hara, James J. (1990) Death and the Optimistic Prophecy in Vergil’s Aeneid, Princeton.

[10] On which see especially Rogerson, Anne (2017) Virgil’s Ascanius: Imagining the future in the Aeneid, Cambridge.

[11] Famously highlighted by Kennedy, Duncan F. (1992) ‘“Augustan” and “anti-Augustan”: Reflections on Terms of Reference’, in A. Powell (ed.) Roman Poetry and Propaganda in the Age of Augustus, London, 26-58.