Scholia Reviews ns 20 (2011) 18.


Antony Augoustakis, Motherhood and the Other: Fashioning Female Power in Flavian Epic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xii, 314. ISBN 9780199584413. UK£60.00.

Ellen Oliensis, Freud's Rome: Psychoanalysis and Latin Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xi, 148. ISBN 9780521846615. UK£55.00.

Mairéad McAuley
University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa

Mothers’ relation to Rome’s martial ethos was oppositional, complementary, and hierarchical: emblems of the ‘homefront’, the private, domestic, and feminine sphere as opposed to the public arena of the battlefield, at the same time they are responsible for the production of warriors for the state. While Roman literature frequently represented mothers as irredeemably ‘other’ and potentially dangerous to civic order (in their capacity for excessive mourning or for ambition, for example), the enduring fame of tough, wealthy Republican matronae like Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, testifies to the sanctified place accorded a certain stereotype of maternity within Rome’s patriarchal ideology. As breeders and buriers of warriors, mourners, and memorialisers, mothers occupy a similarly sanctioned role within the genre of martial epic. The goddesses Thetis and Venus, for example, bestow arms on their sons’ Achilles and Aeneas respectively, authorizing their bloody exploits while also remaining separate from them, thus preserving the gender binary of homefront/ battlefield, central to the discourse of war. Yet despite their symbolic import, mothers in Roman epic, and the Aeneid in particular, have often appeared no more than a series of shadowy, marginalized voices and figures, ignored by critics until relatively recently in favour of more glamorously transgressive females like Dido or Camilla. At best, feminist critics have argued, epic mothers provide the ground for the reproduction of virtus and the continuity of civilization, but are denied agency or subjectivity themselves (this seems especially true of human mothers such as Creusa or Lavinia), and are often displaced into symbolic maternal entities, such as the land; at worst, epic aligns mothers with madness, death and the obstruction of masculine achievement (one thinks here of Virgil’s Amata or Euryalus’ mother), and rapidly dispatches them to enable the narrative -- and the hero -- to progress.[[1]] So, when Hecuba pleads with Hector in the Iliad not to fight Achilles, she exposes her breast to him as reminder of how she nursed him and of his duty to her. Hector ignores this symbol of his nurture (and therefore of his vulnerability) -- as he must, for, as Sheila Murnaghan argues, ‘to succumb to his mother’s care is to stay out of the arena of heroic life and action and thus to earn an obscurity that might as well be death.’[[2]] Heroic glory, it would seem, is achieved by surmounting the presence of the mother, be she Thetis, Hecuba, or Creusa, as much as by surmounting the terrifying inevitability of death itself. Indeed, as Murnaghan has claimed of Homeric poetry, mothers, in their very association with childbearing and nurturing, are often so aligned with mortality and death as to become almost responsible for it.

Given the well-documented androcentric ideology of martial epic and of the context of its production and reception as formative texts for young Roman men,[[3]] it is hard to question the structural validity of such conclusions. But it also indicates the difficulty facing the critic who wants to talk about Roman epic mothers without reproducing the essentializing and oppressive gender norms of the texts themselves. In identifying, however critically, the locus of the maternal at the margins of epic action, criticism risks justifying the way in which mothers and maternity are persistently circumscribed, taken for granted or ignored by interpreters of ancient texts. As I have suggested above, mothers offer a unique category of analysis in epic, as figures marginal to its narrative structures yet central to its ideology. This ambiguous status finds an analogy in Roman society: while the Roman system concentrated all economic and legal power in the hands of the pater, motherhood was still the primary position from which most Roman women were able to exercise any recognized social or moral influence, albeit influence based on convention rather than enshrined in law. As such, the maternal provides the epicist with a potent alternative source of symbolic meaning and authority from within epic discourse, although one that had its limitations and risks. Echoing the famous injunction to Aeneas to ‘seek his ancient mother’, one wonders, what would it mean to take seriously a ‘search for the mother’ in Roman epic poetry? Such an enterprise, pace Murnaghan, seems to call for a slightly different approach to reading epic to what we are used to. Feminist readings of epic have tended (often very productively) either to expose the genre’s encoded ideology of masculinity and imperial conquest or to recuperate feminine voices which resist or ‘subvert’ that ideology (and therefore threaten generic coherence). Yet neither approach manages to escape the essentializing conventions of gender and genre which they protest against -- the idea that the feminine is (in theory if not in practice) external to ‘epic’ proper[[4]] -- and as such they cannot fully account for the ambiguity of mothers who operate both inside and outside the symbolic structures of martial epic. What, then, would seeking the mother do for our notions of epic poetry? Might it reveal other identities voiced there too, contrapuntal perspectives on epic’s self-proclaimed subject matter of arma virumque, reges et proelia, alternative -- yet still Roman -- narratives to that of patrilineage and paternal law?[[5]]

The metacritical question of how to read (for) the mother in Roman epic is highlighted by the two works under review. Both books explore the ambiguously oppositional yet complementary role of mothers within a literary tradition that often has been viewed by critics as self-consciously ‘patrilineal’[[6]] and point towards new ways to approach gender in Roman epic. Roman literary mothers have emerged from the shadows in recent years with a collection of essays on the Roman representation of maternity in Helios in 2007 (topics included the aforementioned Cornelia, Fulvia and mothers in Propertius, Ovid and Statius), now followed by these two more substantial, sophisticated studies. Antony Augoustakis’ alliteratively-titled Motherhood and the Other: Fashioning Female Power in Flavian Epic is notable for being the first monograph (to my knowledge) to declare a focus on motherhood in Roman literature (in this case, Flavian epic) and constitutes a subtle, impressive addition to our understanding of the relations between the construction of gender and civic identity in Roman epic, building and advancing on Alison Keith in Engendering Rome. Freud’s Rome, Ellen Oliensis’ contemplation on the role of Freudian theory to Latin literary criticism, devotes only one chapter out of three, ‘Murdering Mothers’ (pp. 57-91), to the representation of motherhood in Augustan epic, but her contribution will be crucial to anyone interested in the gender dynamics of Virgil’s and Ovid’s poetry or in Roman maternity in general. While there are fundamental divergences between the two authors’ approaches, a virtue of both is that they take the maternal as a powerfully multivalent category, encompassing allegorical, symbolic, and ‘real’ mothers, as well as the interaction between these planes. A second point of connection, one that I will discuss below, is that both yoke together psychoanalysis and Roman maternal representation as ‘natural’ bedfellows; in Oliensis’ case, this is obviously Freudian theory, while Augoustakis’ study draws on the revisionist psychoanalytic ideas of Julia Kristeva.

AugoustakisMotherhood and the Other: Fashioning Female Power in Flavian Epic, treats the intersection, in post-Augustan epic, of gender and ethnicity, in other words, the relation between the ‘mother’ (purportedly one of the closest bonds humans have, central to the formation of the self, yet as woman also the ‘default other’ in patriarchal society) and the ‘other’ (the foreigner, the stranger, the outsider, the not-I). But more than that, Augoustakis’ concern is the mutating role of both foreignness and femininity-maternity in Flavian epic’s ongoing concern with what it means to be a (male) Roman citizen, as the empire’s frontiers expand to encompass previously unimagined places and peoples. As he observes in his introduction, titled ‘Other and same: Female presence in Flavian epic’ (p. 1-29), Flavian epic, whether mythological or historical, reverses the centripetal impulse of Virgilian and Ovidian epic action towards Italy and Rome, changing its focus outwards to the edges of the imperial world (Argos/Thebes, Colchis, Africa). At the same time, it also amplifies the role of women from earlier epic in both positive and negative ways. As both women and foreigners in Statius’ and Silius’ poems display a pietas or virtus which is absent or distorted in the corrupted world of (Roman) masculine heroism, boundaries between same and other are destabilised -- only to be ultimately reconstituted at the end, as the concept of Romanness expands to incorporate ‘elements from outside, which bear the marks both of the radically different -- the monstrous -- and of Rome’s true self, that is, its idealized virtues and merits’ (p. 9). Mediating Augoustakis’ understanding of the fluid relation of foreign and feminine other to the imperial Roman self is Kristeva’s rich work on the stranger -- both the foreigner or alien in a country or society, and the idea of strangeness at the heart of our being, qualities which we most fear in ourselves, the ‘other’ we must repress or exile from the conscious self we present to the world.[[7]] Much of Kristeva’s work, whether on language, the maternal or the stranger, is concerned with the relationship between identity and difference, with the way in which boundaries between self and other are constructed and shattered. Key to this is her famous notion of the ‘semiotic’: while the symbolic sphere (a Lacanian term) is the paternal realm of language and signification, the semiotic, for Kristeva, describes the pre-Oedipal, bodily drives that exist in opposition to grammatical and linguistic signification (but are necessary for it), and which breaks into the symbolic in genres such as poetry. Kristeva connects the semiotic to the maternal body, which she describes as ‘abject’ (has to be repressed for the subject to enter into language), and the chôra (a term drawn from Plato), a womb-like space that precedes language yet helps to generate it.

In the introduction Augoustakis mentions Kristeva’s conception of the maternal body as a ‘subject-in-process’ and as abject, located at the boundaries of self and other, but the question of the subjectivity of the mother herself, the concern of Kristeva’s famous essays ‘Stabat Mater’ and ‘Motherhood according to Giovanni Bellini’ (neither in the bibliography) is not really his topic. This is partly because, although it offers many illuminating readings of mother figures in Statius and Silius, Augoustakis’ book is more concerned with ‘otherhood’ than ‘motherhood’ per se. Thus the real conceptual underpinnings of Augoustakis’ readings are to be found in her theories of the foreigner, which woman also emblematizes as the alienated ‘other’ in patriarchal culture (‘Woman can never feel at home in the symbolic as can man. She becomes the female exile,’ cited by Augoustakis, p. 23). Kristeva’s notion of the ‘foreigner within us’ fits extraordinarily well with Flavian epic and its use of women and non-Roman figures to reflect on and ultimately reformulate conceptions of Roman identity. With one chapter on Statius’ Thebaid and three on SiliusPunica (reflecting its origins as a doctoral dissertation on Silius), the book is a little uneven, and readers will miss a lengthy analysis on ValeriusArgonautica (the introduction begins with a brief but suggestive discussion of cosmopolitanism in Arg. 7.227-30). But one benefit of addressing the Punica in such depth is that he reveals Silius’ still underappreciated treatment of Romanitas as a complex negotiation between centre and periphery, resulting in the absorption of the foreign other by the centre; his chapter on Statius, while subtle and insightful, has slightly less ground-breaking conclusions. Moreover, there is a surprisingly organic and productive ‘fit’ between his theoretical framework and Silius’ poem.

Augoustakis launches his analysis proper in Chapter 1, ‘Mourning Endless: Female Otherness in Statius’ Thebaid’ (pp. 30-76), with a detailed reading of Statius’ Hypsipyle. Hypsipyle embodies his concept of ‘(m)other,’ combining the marginalised, excluded status of the feminine within patriarchy and the foreigner within a given culture. The ultimate exul -- non-Theban, non-Argive, woman and slave -- Hypsipyle is both failed mother to her biological children and accused of usurping the role of Eurydice, biological mother to Hypsipyle’s doomed nurseling Opheltes. She is also displaced in terms of genre, as an elegiac heroine in a martial epic and as an Aeneas-like narrator who tells a tale not of arma virumque but of arma feminaeque. Hypsipyle, in Auguoustakis’ reading, stalks the boundaries of Statius’ martial narrative, asymbolic, homeless and genre-less, her voice both complicit and subversive of the poem in which she intrudes (p. 20). Augoustakis gives a subtle account of the multiple maternal substitutions and displacements in the Hypsipyle episode, and the treacherous failure of care that lies at the heart of them all. At the end of the Nemea episode, Augoustakis notes well how Statius returns Hypsipyle to the margins of the action, as ‘the other, the foreign unsuccessful nurse,’ silent and frozen in ecphrasis, despite having dominated the narrative for hundreds of lines. Like Opheltes’ mother Eurydice, who claims all grief for Opheltes for herself, and rejects Hypsipyle’s story of her pietas, ‘[T]he poet has reclaimed his own narrative from Hypsipyle’s hands.’ The second part of the chapter deals with the ‘otherness’ of the Theban women of the Thebaid through their role as lamenters, from the ultimate problematic mother, Jocasta (‘warmonger or helpless bystander?’), to the virgin sisters Antigone and Ismene. Represented both as a Fury in her grief and as a virtuous mother who enters the male arena of the battlefield to prevent civil war, Jocasta personifies the oppositional and complementary relation of maternity and war. Her display of maternal grief in the army almost convinces the brothers to behave, but Jocasta’s public piety is inevitably hamstrung by the fact that she is the very embodiment of domestic perversion, the Oedipodae confusa domus (1.17). Later, however, the contrast between masculine war and feminine lament is more stark: while Atys is killed by the savage Tydeus, the epic perspective shifts to the inner sanctum of the palace, where his fiancée Ismene and sister Antigone -- ‘of a different character’ (i.e. to their guilty brothers) -- utter querelae for the evil afflicting their house ‘from Fate’s origin far back’ (longe ab origine fati, 8.610) and Ismene relates her dream of Atys. Augoustakis, in a one of the most successful Kristevan readings of his book, likens this sisterly chamber-talk to the semiotic chôra, a resourceful feminine space where they can imagine ‘counterfactual scenarios that can only come true in dreams’ (p. 71), but I was surprised he didn’t make further metapoetic connections between their act of tracing back longe ab origine and Statius’ reference, in the proem, of his own quest for a starting point to his epic narrative (longa retro series, 1.7). The possibility of an alternative -- feminine, semiotic -- epic of lament seems to rupture the symbolic sphere of Statius’ narrative at the end also, where the poet closes his narrative with an description of the Argive women’s endless, Bacchic mourning. Such an alternative epic is disavowed however, by the poet’s profession of his powerlessness to relate (‘not if some god were to loose my breast in a hundred voices could I do justice . . . ’) and by the ongoing distinction in the treatment of the Theban and the Argive women, with the latter still left as aliens, on the margins. Rather, the epilogue seeks to rebuild the hierarchical boundaries between Theban and Argive, same and other, masculine and feminine, which earlier parts of the poem had destabilized (p. 89). As Augoustakis notes, at the end of the Thebaid the question remains: ‘What about Argos? What about non-Theban (non-Roman?) otherness?’ (p. 90)

Augoustakis’ complex theoretical frame comes into its own however, in the ensuing three chapters on SiliusPunica, in which he more fully explicates the relation of non-Roman otherness to Romanness and also to sexual otherness. Instead of a seductive threat that must be expiated or expelled to the margins, the Punica demonstrates a positive vision of Romanness that comes to incorporate or absorb alternative identities, in particular through the figure of Scipio. Chapter 2, ‘Defining the Other: From altera patria to tellus mater in Silius ItalicusPunica’ (pp. 92-155), explores the relationship between paternity and patriotism in the failed or inadequate father-son or patria/colony relationships in the earlier books of the poem. Here, it is the Romans who fall short, while the enemy Hannibal, paradoxically, displays truly ‘Roman’ virtus -- battle courage and loyalty to ancestors and fatherland. His tragedy of course is that he cannot ever be fully Roman and is thus alienated from himself: ‘the foreigner that cannot be absorbed by the centre, the other that cannot become same.’ Yet it is mother figures, ‘asymbolic’ and therefore autonomous, who are most often the mediators of Silius’ interrogations of masculine patriotic identity: Hannibal’s feminising adoption of the ‘wrong mother-model’ Dido, for example. This process culminates in the evocation of Tellus in Book 15, whose appearance signifies a maternalisation of epic’s traditional emphasis on patria and masculinity, reconceiving it as a relationship between a powerfully generative motherland and male warrior. Here, in exhorting Claudius Nero to defeat Hasdrubal, Mother Earth acts like an ideal Roman matrona, providing a secure ground for the successful achievement of Roman heroism (pp. 147-49). Yet in her emphasis on the corruptions she has suffered at the hands of the Carthaginian armies (15.530f.) Tellus, Augoustakis argues, also dramatizes the interaction of same and other, the Kristevan idea of the ‘familiar tainted with strangeness.’

The idea of the mother as the ‘other element in oneself’ (p. 155) is examined more fully in Chapter 3, ‘Comes ultima fati: Regulus’ Encounter with Marcia’s Otherness in Punica 6’ (pp. 156-95), and Chapter 4, ‘Playing the Same: Roman and Non-Roman Mothers in the Punica’ (pp. 196-237), which address role of human mother figures in the poem’s reformulation of Romanness and masculinity, from Marcia’s subversive attempts to persuade her husband Regulus and son Serranus to stay in Rome, exposing the weakness of Rome’s leadership, to Scipio’s ghostly mother Pomponia who exhorts her son towards the ultimate securing of Rome’s victory. Chapter 4 also considers non-Roman mothers, such as Imilce, Hannibal’s wife who, at the end of Book 4, tries to stop his sacrifice of their baby son, and Masinissa’s mother in Book 16. Paradoxically, it is these non-Roman mothers who articulate some of the most powerful visions of ‘Romanness’ in the poem, yet as women and foreigners they remain liminal figures in the narrative, prevented, in Kristevan terms, from moving from the semiotic to the symbolic. The culmination and regeneration of maternity is to be found, at last, in the Roman mother of Scipio, Pomponia. Pomponia’s education of Scipio in the womblike ‘chôra’ of the Underworld reveals true knowledge of his divine paternity, inspiring him (like Anchises does Aeneas) to acts of heroism and bravery and ensuring the survival of the Roman race. Through the prophetic knowledge of Pomponia and Masinissa’s mother, Augoustakis argues, Silius posits a new paradigm of Roman motherhood (p. 159), one that authorizes the new leader of Rome, regenerates true Roman values, catalyses the subsequent development of empire and signals, with the arrival of the foreign goddess Magna Mater, the ‘‘entrance’ of the female into the male symbolic, . . . into language, politics, time, and ultimately culture.’ (p. 198). Finally, an epilogue, ‘Virgins and (M)others: Appropriations of Same and Other in Flavian Rome’ (pp. 238-53), uses the endings of both Thebaid and Punica as a basis for considering the importance of the categories of centre and periphery for Domitianic Rome, and its programme of moral rejuvenation. Augoustakis draws attention to emphasis on virginity in Flavian visual art, especially the depiction of the goddess Roma in Flavian art (the Cancellaria reliefs) as an Amazonian warrior along with Minerva and a Vestal virgin, mirrored by the prominence accorded to the Vestal Claudia Quinta at the end of the Punica. ‘Roma is portrayed as a figure from the periphery, since the periphery provides those examples that the centre has failed to project’ (p. 245) While the maternal terms explained in the introduction such as 'semiotic', 'chora', and 'genotext' are liberally deployed throughout the subsequent chapters, often to great effect, on occasion they do seem to slide into loose metaphor rather than emerging as essential to the analysis. This is not a criticism of Augoustakis’ nuanced and convincing readings themselves, which are, in the best tradition of studies of Latin epic, alive to linguistic, generic and intertextual detail and their ideological implications. Rather it is, in a way, testament to their plenitude -- one sometimes wonders what would be lacking if these Kristevan ‘maternal’ terms were removed. As mentioned above, this is partly because the book pursues more vigorously and analytically the argument of Kristevan ‘otherness.’ And it is very successful, since by the end, despite occasional moments where references to Kristeva are confusing or superfluous, one feels that Augoustakis has brought these two radically diverse discourses, Flavian epic and Kristevan criticism, together in an organic fashion, showing them to be mutually interanimating and interbred. Unsurprisingly, the result of this union is that Romanness is shown to be a far more fraught, decentred notion than it could ever admit to, yet Augoustakis for the most part avoids vagueness and gives a coherent and powerful account of the shapes and forms of its bugbears and the solutions the Flavians devised to control them. At all times, loyal attention to historical and literary context is a useful moderating tool to Kristevan generalisation, reminding us of the specificity of the Flavian context; yet Kristeva enables him to escape it too, to the extent that Roman concerns with Carthage/otherness are seen to echo and foreshadow a larger pattern of anxieties down the centuries in imperial constructions of identity, centre and periphery.

Augoustakis’ book is admirably consistent in its use of its theoretical frame, without allowing it to overwhelm the particularity of the ancient material, and as such he successfully demonstrates one way of superseding the traditional ambivalence about ‘theory’ that persists in classical studies. If critical theory, and psychoanalysis in particular, has been absorbed by Latin criticism yet often seems uncomfortably ‘other’ to the precise and contextualised study required of ancient texts, one of the satisfactions of Ellen OliensisFreud’s Rome is that it addresses this psychic tension head on; the classicist’s dilemma becomes the vim of her critical process. Her admissions of ambivalence and uncertainty regarding the usefulness or ‘relevance’ of psychoanalytic theory to Latin literature, introducing a book dedicated to that very topic (‘Introduction: Psychoanalysis and Latin Poetry', pp. 1-13), will resonate with many who are drawn to psychoanalysis but wary of its easy tendency to universalise and to elide culture, text, and psyche. Her tone is admirably ascetic: with her disciplinary attention to historical context and philological detail, she refuses to be seduced by the potent claims to truth of psychoanalytic theory. At the same time however she is intrigued by its interpretive and aesthetic potential, its powerful implications for reading. In her introduction, Oliensis puts forward a compelling, accessible case for why psychoanalysis has something to offer our understanding of Roman texts, not necessarily in its details, but rather in its emphasis on the importance of sexuality, broadly conceived, and the unconscious. Running through the options of ‘whose’ unconscious this might be (the author’s? the reader’s? a character in the text? Rome’s cultural unconscious?), she finds them all problematic in some way, partly because they are attempts to separate hierarchically all the components which contribute towards textual meaning. As a kind of working solution, Oliensis proposes the all-encompassing notion of a ‘textual subconscious’: ‘an unconscious that tends to wander at will, taking up residence now with a character, now with a narrator, now with the impersonal narration, and sometimes flirting with an authorial or cultural address’ (p. 6). Yet at the heart of this debate lies the question of authorial intent, for many a zero-sum game -- either the author is totally in control, or something else is. Yet Oliensis goes on to ask, through examples from recent readings in Latin poetry, does it matter for interpretability? The point of an unconscious meaning is that it can coexist with (albeit in repressed form), rather than supersede the intentional, crafted sense. As I have mentioned, part of the strength of Oliensis’ work is its willingness to expose its own equivocations and find in them a productive means of going forward: the refusal to see a hierarchy between text and the abstract drives of the unconscious is what leads her back to Freud, rather than Lacan, while her belief that texts are not simply ‘reducible to their 'hidden meanings' (p. 13) motivates the persistent expressions of qualification and 'as if', as ‘an indispensable part of the picture.’

Oliensis’ three subsequent chapters cover key terms in Freudian psychoanalysis: the mourning or elegiac motifs which irrupt in non-elegiac texts such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses 10 and Catullus 68 and 68b (‘Two Poets Mourning’, pp. 14-56); the representation of motherhood in Virgilian epic and Ovid’s story of Procne and Philomela in Metamorphoses 6 (‘Murdering Mothers’, pp. 57-91); and the phallus, or more precisely, castration anxiety and penis envy in Catullus 63 and Ovid’s narrative of Scylla, daughter of Nisus (‘Variations on a Phallic Theme’, pp. 92-126). In his notion of the 'uncanny' (unheimlich in German), Freud, as Kristeva reminds us in Strangers to Ourselves ‘does not speak of foreigners: he teaches us to how to detect foreignness in ourselves.’ (p. 191). In her second chapter, on motherhood in Virgilian and Ovidian epic, which I will focus on in this essay, Oliensis shows how the ambiguously depicted mothers of the Aeneid emblematize the uncanny or unconscious drives which Virgilian epic seeks to disavow or repress in its smooth narrative of Roman foundation and patriliny. Oliensis points toward textual evidence of a ‘repressed’ Aeneid, where mothers are submerged under the force of the main narrative thrust, either diffused into other female characters or elided altogether. Yet through readings of the subtexts of incestuous and murderous desire circulating in episodes concerning figures such as Dido, Amata, and Venus, as well as in the appearances of figures such as Cybele, Oliensis shows how anxiety surrounding the maternal breaks through the textual surface, often through dissonant allusions to tragic figures such as the matricide Orestes, or the murderous mothers of the Bacchae or Medea. Thus Aeneas’ protest to his retreating mother Venus in Book 1, crudelis tu quoque, is a direct quote from Virgil’s eighth Eclogue, in which it appears in the context of the infanticidal Medea -- but Virgil surely didn’t want us to think of Venus genetrix as a Medea? Another example is the frenzy of the Trojan mothers who set fire to the ships in Book 5; their aim is not to disrupt civil society, but to set down roots and end their perpetual wanderings, nevertheless the description of them ‘driven by fury’ and ‘armed with torches’ evokes not just Bacchants but also the description of Orestes fleeing the ‘mother armed with torches’ in Dido’s fevered dream (4.472). In a particularly sharp exemplification of the principle of the textual unconscious, at the moment Ascanius successfully brings the women to their senses by shouting, ‘Look here I am, your Ascanius’ (5.672-2: en ego vester / Ascanius!) and tearing off his helmet, Oliensis notes an uncanny mirroring of the Euripidean scene when Pentheus tears off of his woman’s fillet and cries: E)GW/ TOI, MH=TER, EI)MI/, PAI=S SE/QEN (Bacc. 1118f.), even though, of course, the situation with Ascanius is nowhere close to dismemberment, the women do recognize him (unlike Agave, who does not recognize Pentheus), and the potentially violent tragedy is diffused.[[8]] Here, it would seem, reading the Aeneid for and about mothers involves reading between the lines, for unresolved or glossed-over ambiguities -- marginalized or suppressed references beyond the obvious or literal context, ripples beneath the surface. Since such subtextual references almost obsessively link mothers with murder, infanticide, incest, and madness, Oliensis, reading Virgil through Freud (and Freud’s own suppression of the mother in his Oedipal narrative), suggests that these combine to form the idea of a ‘mother complex’ in Virgil -- a persistent, unfixed disquiet surrounding the figure of the mother in this foundational epic of (escaping) origins, and an inability or a lack of desire on the part of his poem to control and delimit her shadowy, proliferating and undermining presence. She goes on to suggest that we might find in Virgil a maternalised vision of the ‘paternalised’ epic tradition, one not conceived as an agonistic rivalry between poet fathers and sons (the Bloomian model) but reworked in Kleinian terms around ‘the complementary dangers of absorption and sparagmos. One scatters the mother-text so as not to be swallowed by her.’

Real rather than imagined dismemberment at the hands of the mother is the subject of Ovid’s story of Philomela, Procne and Tereus. But in this case it is not the actual mother, Procne, but her sister Philomela who is the object of Oliensis’ analytic gaze. Oliensis argues that the narrative of Philomela displaces the motif of motherhood and reproduction into political allegory. Unlike most of Ovid’s rapes Tereus’ rape of Philomela fails to produce offspring. Instead Philomela’s confinement produces a ‘brainchild’ (p. 80), the tapestry she weaves to tell the story of her rape, but also her ‘free speech,’ Philomela’s outspoken protests, which leads to the severing of her tongue. While in this sense she is akin to Livy’s Lucretia (producing libertas rather than liberi), in her determination to resist the tyrant in her own words, Philomela herself takes on the role of a Brutus or Cicero, radically flouting the convention that women should not speak publicly, least of all about the violation of their pudor. Thus Ovid’s story ends by reversing the movement of Livy’s Lucretia story from real motherhood towards the symbolic motherhood of freedom: instead, Philomela punishes the tyrant by ‘impregnating’ him with his real child. Concluding with a consideration of the one mother who was worshipped for her fecundity publicly by the Romans, the goddess Cybele, yet whose followers were foreign castrati, Oliensis ponders the ‘surplus ambivalence that attends the image of the mother, even the divine mother (of) Rome herself’ (p. 91)

Oliensis’ own ambivalence about reading Rome psychoanalytically ends up producing one of the most powerful arguments I have read for psychoanalysis’ role in Classics, and her refusal to ignore the difficulties is refreshing. Yet even without her metatheoretical justifications, Oliensis’ wonderful readings of the ancient texts, such as her moving interpretation of Catullus 68 or her account of the anxiety surrounding the mother at the heart of Roman foundation narratives, are testaments in themselves to the fruitfulness of such an enterprise. So why the angst? Is it really all to do with anachronism, with the application of a model devised for the modern ‘nuclear’ family to an ancient society composed of diverse familial structures? The question of anachronism and historical specificity is, interestingly, only addressed head-on in Oliensis’ chapter on mothers (pp. 57-60). While acknowledging differences between Roman and modern maternal ideologies and realities, Oliensis gets around these by positing a fundamental similarity between fantasies of what constituted the family in Rome and the modern West. In this she follows the claims of historians such as Brent Shaw and Richard Saller that Roman families, despite the involvement of slaves and wetnurses in the intimacies of child development, were at least understood as a modern-style nucleus of parents and children, thus the Freudian model echoes a Roman cultural, if not material reality.[[9]] By analogy she evokes Shaw’s argument that the severe, authoritarian Roman father was merely an idea and not a reality. However, scholars of Roman social history have by no means reached consensus on how the Romans perceived their families, but rather are still vigorously debating the issue -- just as they are also not agreed on the reality, psychic or social, of the brutal father -- and new evidence and arguments for and against are still coming to light. Saller and Shaw’s arguments usefully pushes the Roman family, in psychic if not social form, closer to that of contemporary neuroses, but they also sanitise the possibility of real, and even sanctioned, brutality within its supposedly secure borders, and minimize some the real differences in family configuration and values that undeniably existed between Roman and 19-20th century forms of kinship and also within different periods and regions of the Roman empire itself. In a book which explicitly rejects the truth-value of Freud’s Oedipal paradigm for understanding modern family dynamics and which is predominantly concerned with psychoanalysis as a mode of reading, however, Oliensis’ characteristically formalist solution is a reasonable one -- that whatever the material realities, some kind of ‘repression’ has to happen ‘for textuality to flower over its grave’ (p. 61) -- and is borne out by her analysis of Virgil’s undeniably problematic mothers. But I couldn’t help wishing she had turned her shrewd eye in greater detail to the problems and potential of more recent psychoanalytic theory, influenced by Lacan and object relations, which has emphasized that the Oedipal triangle comprises figurative or constructed positions and the ‘laws’ that govern them, not biological or literal paternity, maternity, or consanguinity (mentioned by Oliensis on p. 60). Indeed, for all her productive fascination with a return to Freud (which this reviewer shares), Oliensis’ take on Virgil’s and Ovid’s mothers -- as both threatening and disavowed -- resonates more with the revisionist concerns of post-Freudian psychoanalytic criticism (she admits this by calling her reading of Virgil ‘Kleinian) which has sought to fill in the gaps or expose what is occluded in Freud’s Oedipal narrative: the incrimination of female sexuality through the projection of a lacking and/or devouring mother; the 'paranoid' supplement to the Oedipus complex in which the son becomes the abused / sodomized / castrated victim of the vengeful father.[[10]]

The issue of anachronism between modern theories and ancient context, or the gap in our knowledge of what constitutes the ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ in past cultures, is a hurdle that some medieval and Renaissance scholars have addressed imaginatively some time ago, if the plethora of psychoanalytically-informed studies of gender and the maternal in these literatures are anything to go by. Both these premodern periods share with the Roman radically different notions of reproduction, the female body, religion, and kinship to those of modernity, yet quite a few of these psychoanalytic studies have been able to think productively about cultural and historical differences without diminishing them or being overwhelmed by them,[[11]] instead viewing the relationship as potentially illuminating in both directions. As Oliensis herself argues, psychoanalysis may have fallen short in its grand claims to scientific truth and therapeutic efficacy, but it has offered us, as readers of texts and signs, more interpretive possibilities than even Freud himself could have conceived. Indeed, by devoting a chapter to motherhood in a book on Freud and Latin literature, Oliensis is aware of this very irony, since in privileging the father and the son in his drama of psychic and cultural development, Freud himself went to some lengths to avoid the issue of the maternal. (Indeed, Madelon Sprengnether has powerfully shown in her book, The Spectral Mother: Freud, Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Cornell 1992), that in Freud's writings, the mother’s active influence on the pre-oedipal subject is repressed but she returns as a ‘spectre’ to haunt and disrupt his psychoanalytic theories and the structures of normative patriarchal ordering).

Oliensis’ ambivalent attempts to grapple with anachronism and the problematic ‘truth value’ of psychoanalysis are by no means the only way of addressing these hurdles -- Augoustakis’ unapologetic appropriation of a Kristevan ‘lens’ is one, Shakespearean scholars such as Rose, who see premodern texts as subverting classic Freudian theory, offer another, and those who champion a dialectical, interanimating approach, nor do the possibilities end there. But her treatment stands out in the field of Classics for its critical honesty, intellectual rigour and loyalty both to the ancient texts and to Classics as a discipline. Indeed, rather than compromising the specific virtues of classical scholarship in favour of the seductions of psychoanalysis, she draws on these very virtues to examine the interpretative possibilities of psychoanalysis for Rome. Oliensis’ interrogations reveal evocative and sometimes surprising meanings in old, well-trodden poems, yet she builds her stirring readings through precise, carefully-hedged, text-based arguments, which even the most theory-averse Latinist would have to work hard to disavow. As such, she has made a fundamental contribution to the increasing volume of classical scholarship that attempts to engage with modern literary theories and methodologies, including, but not only psychoanalysis -- I expect to see numerous citations of her account of the ‘textual subconscious’ from now on. But she has raised the bar too, by some measure: Oliensis’ achievement suggests that it may no longer be quite enough to ‘cite,’ vaguely or in passing, the ‘authority’ of Lacan/Freud/Derrida/(insert relevant name here), without digging deeper, either by self-conscious reflection on their interpretive potential (or not) for classical texts or by demonstrating it in action.[[12]] Her book is therefore an interesting conclusion to CUP’s major series devoted to dialectic engagements between classics and other schools of thought in the humanities. While all the books in the series have shown the influence of contemporary critical theories, Oliensis’ is one of the few that conducts a sustained interrogation of the potential relationship between a particular theoretical paradigm and classical texts and/or scholarship (her introduction can be fruitfully read alongside that of Martindale’s Redeeming the Text). I only hope that it is not the end of the conversation, but sparks off a whole series of new arguments and counter-arguments -- on mothers and lovers, psychoanalysis and Rome, ancient texts and literary theory.

In Freud’s classic essay ‘On Negation,’ he illustrates the unconscious logic of his topic, negation, with the example of the analysand who protested: ‘You ask who this person in the dream can be. It's not my mother.' Freud’s interpretation? 'We emend this to: "So it is his mother."'[[13]] Despite the plethora of mothers in Latin poetry, perhaps one of reasons the maternal has had so little critical press in Roman studies, and seems to have been almost avoided until recently at least, is because it lends itself so productively, so seemingly inexorably, to a psychoanalytic mode of interpretation -- to reading between the lines, under the covers, in the interstices of the dominant narrative, seeking what is unsaid, suppressed, negated, condensed and metaphorized, as well as what is explicit and literal. To talk about mothers in Latin poetry, it would seem, entails facing up to (the relevance of and the problems with) psychoanalytical theory itself. Thankfully, these two books suggest an end to such negation.


[[1]] See e.g. Sheila Murnaghan, ‘Maternity and Mortality in Homeric Epic’, Classical Antiquity 11.2 (1992) 242-64; A. M. Keith, Engendering Rome: Women in Latin Epic (Cambridge 2000); S. Georgia Nugent, ‘The Women of the Aeneid: Vanishing Bodies, Lingering Voices,’ in C. Perkell (ed.), Reading Vergil’s Aeneid: An Interpretive Guide (Oklahoma 1999) 251-70.

[[2]] Murnaghan (1992) 250.

[[3]] According to Keith [1] 35, epic is ‘a literary form centred on the principle of elite male identity’.

[[4]] S. Hinds, ‘Essential Epic: Genre and Gender from Macer to Statius,’ in M. Depew and D. Obbink (edd.), Matrices of genre: Authors, canons, and society (Harvard 2000) 221-46.

[[5]] Hor. Ars P. 73: res gestae regumque ducumque et tristia bella. See Hinds [4] 222f.

[[6]] E.g., P. Hardie, The Epic Successors of Virgil: A Study in the Dynamics of a Tradition (Cambridge 1993).

[[7]] Julian Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York 1991) esp. 191f.

[[8]] Ellen Oliensis, Freud's Rome: Psychoanalysis and Latin Poetry (Cambridge 2009) 69.

[[9]] Brent Shaw, ‘Raising and Killing Children: Two Roman Myths’, Mnemosyne 54 (2001) 57; and Richard Saller, Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family (Cambridge 1994).

[[10]] See e.g. Jacqueline Rose 'Sexuality in the Reading of Shakespeare: Hamlet and Measure for Measure,' in John Drakakis (ed.), Alternative Shakespeares (London 1985) 95-188.

[[11]] See, as a tiny sample, the works of Peggy McCracken, Theresa Krier, David Hillman or Lyn Enterline.

[[12]] On the politics of ‘citation’ in Classics, see Richard Fletcher, 'Kristeva's Novel: Genre, Genealogy and Theory' in R. Bracht Branham (ed.), The Bakhtin Circle and Ancient Narrative: Ancient Narrative Supplementum. Vol. 3 (Groningen 2005) 227-259, at 111-18.

[[13]] Sigmund Freud, ‘Negation’ (Standard Edition 19.233-239 [1925]) 235.