Scholia Reviews 3 (1994): 4

Peter Toohey, Reading Epic: An Introduction to the Ancient Narratives. London & New York: Routledge, 1992. Pp. xiv + 248. ISBN 0-415-04227-5. UK£10.99.

A. J. Boyle (ed.), Roman Epic. London & New York: Routledge, 1993. Pp. xii + 336. ISBN 0-415-04230-5. UK£45.00.

Peter Davis
University of Tasmania

Here we have two books from the same publisher, issued in successive years and dealing with similar subjects. This looks like overkill. But there are important differences. Firstly, Boyle’s book is confined to epics in Latin (including essays on medieval and renaissance poems) while Toohey’s deals with Homer and Apollonius as well as the classical Latin epics. Secondly, Boyle’s book comprises 14 essays by 14 different authors, whereas Toohey’s is all his own work. Thirdly, the aims of the two books are different. Toohey’s is directed towards novices. As he states in his introduction: ‘Reading Epic, instead, has four targets: senior undergraduate students who are reading ancient epic for the first time in classical or modern literature courses; scholarly tyros and graduate students requiring something with which to orientate themselves in the field of ancient epic; and even hard-pressed university teachers (especially those outside the trade) who need a ready guide to authors beyond their normal range’ (xi). The aim of Boyle’s book is more ambitious: ‘The result, I hope, is a book demonstrating not only the (largely unknown) poetic sophistication and (underused) political and social import of Roman epic but the undying moral and intellectual force of perhaps Europe’s prime literary form’ (xi). Roman Epic is, nevertheless, accessible to the primary modern audience for the ancient epics, undergraduates reading the works in translation, for all Latin is translated. These then are very different books.

How useful is Reading Epic as an introduction? What qualities should such a book possess?

Firstly, and most obviously, it should be factually reliable and readily intelligible to its intended readers. Reading Epic meets these criteria: it is almost invariably accurate as to matters of fact and is written in a simple, almost telegraphic, style.

Secondly, such a book should, in my view, accurately represent the current state of the subject. For the most part Toohey’s book is well-balanced. He devotes roughly 18 pages to the question of genre, 21 to the Iliad, 19 to the Odyssey, 17 to Apollonius, 5 to the beginnings of Roman epic, 18 to the epyllion, 21 to the Aeneid, 19 to the Metamorphoses, 17 to Lucan, 19 to the Flavian epic poets and 19 to late epic. Stated like that the book seems well-proportioned. Most poems are given around 20 pages. But that chapter on the Flavians stands out: there are after all three Flavian epic poets. Why is so little space devoted to Statius, Valerius Flaccus and Silius Italicus? The ignorant might reply that that is all they deserve. The truth is, however, that superb work has been done on the Flavian epic poets in recent years, especially on Statius:[[1]] the claim that Flavian epic poets have little to say is likely to be met with scorn nowadays. To relegate these poets to the minor league, to give each of them less than Apollonius of Rhodes or the writers of epyllia seems a bizarre ordering of priorities.

Moreover, not all of Toohey’s claims about the Flavian poets are accurate. For example, he divides the Thebaid into Odyssean and Iliadic halves in the manner of the Aeneid. Such a division is of little use. The second half of the poem may be Iliadic in so far as its content is largely military but it hardly evokes our memories of the Iliad in the way the second half of the Aeneid does. And why call the first half Odyssean? Are these books of wanderings in the manner of Homer’s Odyssey or Aeneid 1-6? In Books 1-3 Statius outlines the origins of the war, while in 4-6 he describes the journey of the Argive army from Argos to Nemea. Three years actually elapse before the Argives begin to move and then they remain at Nemea to hear Hypsipyle’s tale and celebrate Opheltes’ funeral games. Absence of movement and delay are more characteristic of Thebaid 1-6 than wandering.

But Toohey’s chief failure in dealing with Statius is his unwillingness to draw conclusions. He acknowledges that ‘the Theban myth acts as a commentary on Roman history’ (p. 189) and that ‘identification of Theseus with the emperor Domitian is inevitable’ (p. 196) but fails to consider Statius’ characterisation of Theseus and to relate that to the poem’s political stance. Toohey’s account of Statius, and of the other Flavian poets, is superficial.

Thirdly, such a book should, I think, have a distinctive point of view and make a worthwhile contribution to its subject. That is of course true of all books. Some introductory books which meet this criterion spring immediately to mind: Howard Clarke’s Art of the Odyssey (Englewood Cliffs 1967), William Anderson’s Art of the Aeneid (Englewood Cliffs 1969), E. T. Owen’s The Story of the Iliad (Ann Arbor 1966) and Simon Goldhill’s Aeschylus: the Oresteia(Cambridge 1992). Toohey, however, sees his role as providing ‘interpretive paraphrases’ (p. 121) except in the case of the Aeneid and the Metamorphoses. This may be inevitable given the scope of his subject, but it is a risky course to take. Interpretive paraphrases can soon become banal summaries. Does Toohey avoid this danger? In my view he does not. Consider this paragraph dealing with Odyssey 5:

‘Odysseus finally becomes the narrative focus in book 5. He is pictured with Calypso where his resolve to return home is tested. This book is a fine example of the generic blend so evident and so appealing throughout the Homeric epics. After a divine assembly (5.1-27: often criticized for repeating material from the assembly of book 1; did it once begin the Odyssey?) Hermes is sent to instruct Calypso to let Odysseus go (5.28-115). She does so, but not without attempting to sway Odysseus from his purpose (she offers him immortality) (5.148-227). After accepting Calypso’s help in constructing a boat (or a raft) he sails away, for seventeen days (5.228-81). But his scourge, the god Poseidon, destroys his craft in a storm (5.282-332). Odysseus subsequently swims to shore to the land of the Phaeacians (5.333-493) (pp. 50-51).’

This passage is not atypical. We find dry summary interspersed with bald critical comments (‘often criticized for repeating’ etc. ‘this book is a fine example’ etc.) which lead nowhere. And what does that phrase ‘generic blend mean’? Is this not imposing an alien term? If Homer includes a particular kind of episode in an epic, it is, by definition, the kind of episode appropriate to the epic genre. Moreover, the crucial issue in this part of the poem, Odysseus’ choice between Calypso and mortality on the one hand and Penelope and mortality on the other, is confined to a four-word parenthesis.

Even where Toohey does adopt a different approach the results are not always satisfactory. For example, Toohey describes Aeneas’ behaviour in the final duel with these words: ‘This lack of reconciliation permeates the epic as a whole. It is not confined to Dido. Aeneas butchers Turnus. Deaf to his opponent’s pleas, Aeneas surrenders to a surge of anger and drives in the sword’ (p. 122); ‘Turnus pleads for his life, and for a moment at least Aeneas seems to consider the possibility of mercy (clementia). But he sees Pallas’ belt-buckle on Turnus and, in a fit of rage (recapitulating those of book 10), he kills the suppliant. Aeneas’ reaction to the sight of Pallas’ buckle may be understandable, but it is not a reaction controlled by a desire for reconciliation. Nor does it demonstrate that attitude of clementia urged by Anchises in Hades or by Aeneas himself when approached by the Latin emissaries at 11.108-19. The outcome of the combat seems to cast the possibility of reconciliation, clementia, and the imperial destiny into doubt. It is as if the generic claims of the heroic impulse have overwhelmed a hero more normally subject to the claims of empire and pietas‘ (p. 132). But when it comes to evaluating the poem’s political stance Toohey explicitly rejects the idea that ‘the duel represents a condemnation of Aeneas’ behaviour and, through this, the cost of the aspirations of empire and Augustus’ (p. 138). Toohey repudiates the implications of his own argument. And are we really supposed to believe that Aeneas kills Turnus because of generic constraints? He also misrepresents important details. Toohey rightly points out (p. 132) that Aeneas is described at pius at 10. 591 when he is about to kill Lucagus, but ignores the rest of the line: quem pius Aeneas dictis adfatur amaris (‘whom pious Aeneas addresses with bitter words’). There is an irony here: the hero famed for piety speaks with bitter words. He then goes on to kill the suppliant. Is this pietas? Virgil sums up the whole episode by describing Aeneas not as pius but furens (10. 604).

To write a genuinely interesting work about a major work of literature for beginners is a difficult task. It can, however, be done, as the books of Clarke, Anderson, Owen and Goldhill testify. After reading Toohey’s more ambitious book, I can only conclude that writing a worthwhile introductory book about more than twelve epic poems is probably beyond the capabilities of a single person.

A. J. Boyle, editor of Roman Epic, has avoided this problem by assigning individual epics to particular scholars. Thus we have Sander Goldberg writing on Livius and Naevius, William Dominik on Ennius, David Konstan on Catullus 64, A. J. Boyle on Virgil’s Aeneid, William Anderson on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Frederick Ahl on Lucan’s Civil War, the late John Sullivan on elegy, epigram and satire, John Henderson on Statius, Martha Malamud and Donald McGuire on Valerius Flaccus, Marcus Wilson on Silius Italicus, Peter Connor on Claudian, John Ward on Waltharius and Gesta Ottonis; and Philip Hardie on Petrarch’s Africa and Vida’s Christiad.

Roman Epic begins with a survey chapter in which A. J. Boyle discusses the ‘palimpsestic nature of the genre’ (p. 1). The concept is important because the master epic poets exploit their predecessors and the reader’s awareness of them; they do not merely imitate. Boyle goes on to examine the aesthetic and political implications of writing epic poetry and to consider the interrelations between the different epic poets. In fact Boyle here provides something that is missing from Toohey’s book: a sense of direction.

The first three chapters deal with pre-Virgilian epic. In his chapter on Livius and Naevius Sander Goldberg writes that ‘over two thousand years have passed since anyone has understood Saturnian verse’ (p. 20). This may well be so, but he himself goes on to provide an extraordinarily subtle and sensitive account of Livius’ Odussia and Naevius’ Bellum Punicum. He establishes beyond doubt that ‘Saturnian epic never lacked a sensitivity to style’ (p. 31). This is a masterly essay. William Dominik’s primary thesis is that ‘self-consciousness is a principal feature of Ennian epic’ (p. 38). This claim is then substantiated through comparison of Ennius’ proem with Hesiod, Homer and Callimachus. Dominik then goes on to establish both the Homeric and non-Homeric features of Ennius’ work. He defines Ennius’ distinctive achievement as ‘depiction of the national achievement, the collective Roman hero’ (p. 51). For Ennius it is the Roman nation which merits celebration, not the individual warrior as in the Iliad and Odyssey. David Konstan’s work on Catullus is already well-known, for some years ago he published an important book on the poem Catullus’ Indictment of Rome: The Meaning of Catullus 64 (Amsterdam 1977). The prime question for many readers will be how Konstan will respond to the challenge thrown down by Richard Jenkyns in his book Three Classical Poets: Sappho, Catullus and Juvenal (London 1982), for Jenkyns claimed that poem 64 was more the work of an aesthete than a moralist. Konstan opts for a compromise position: ‘Catullus 64 has a dual quality, combining self-consciousness with ethical critique’ (p. 76). And he makes that case convincingly.

The next three chapters are devoted to that triad of works which many would regard as the most important in the Roman epic tradition, Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Lucan’s Pharsalia. Boyle’s views on the Aeneid are well- known from his book The Chaonian Dove: Studies in the Eclogues, Georgics and Aeneid of Virgil (Leiden 1986) and elsewhere. In the chapter entitled ‘The Canonic Text: Virgil’s Aeneid‘ he does not simply rehearse those views, for here he is primarily concerned with the ways in which Virgil transformed the epic tradition. He takes up such issues as: Virgil’s treatment of the relationship between myth and history, the moral issues explored by the poem, the Aeneid‘s poetic power, the relationship between form and meaning, the relationship between the Aeneid and earlier poems and Virgilian reflections on the nature of art. There is much here that is new and valuable. In the chapter entitled ‘Form Changed: Ovid’s Metamorphoses‘ W. S. Anderson takes up two problems concerning Ovid’s masterwork: ‘(1) What does this poem on the subject of changed forms discover that is new, significant, entertaining and capable of challenging Virgil’s Aeneid? (2) How far does Ovid the elegiac poet change, as he composes his poem, and how far does he change the epic form in which he has chosen to work?’ (109f.). Anderson begins with the problem of genre and the ‘Generic Fallacy’, arguing that to approach the poem with the expectation of finding an epic is unhelpful. After years of fruitless argument about the poem’s genre it is most refreshing to find a major scholar dismissing the question in this way. Anderson then examines Ovid’s use of Virgil’s ‘canonic text’, not in Metamorphoses 13 and 14 but in Book 4. He then goes on to draw inferences concerning Ovid’s ‘Aeneid‘: ‘What some critics label Ovid’s ‘Little Aeneid‘, therefore, emerges as very little concerned with the Aeneid at all, but with un-epic stories that Ovid loosely attaches to the narrative skeleton of Virgil’s poem, concerning anything but Aeneas and his great mission’ (p. 117). That ‘therefore’ worries. How can discussion of Book 4 alone justify conclusions about Books 13 and 14? Anderson concludes with a discussion of Ovid’s treatment of human beings focusing upon the Actaeon and Tereus stories, arguing that Ovid is concerned with ‘human nature, its desperate and thwarted efforts to find happiness with other human beings’ (p. 123). Frederick Ahl’s essay ‘Form Empowered: Lucan’s Pharsalia‘ is as much about the state of Lucan criticism as it is about Lucan’s poem. For him the prime disease afflicting criticism of Roman epic is ‘minimalist’ or ‘flat’ readings. Even now there are those who see the Aeneid as an ‘encomium of Augustus and the Pax Romana‘ (p. 127). But, as Ahl observes (p. 130), this is more of a problem in connection with the Aeneid than with the Pharsalia. Ahl also objects to those scholars who berate Lucan and other literary opponents of the principate for their lack of realism, scholars who accept the inevitability of Caesarism and praise the value of efficiency. Would they take the same view if their own countries fell prey to dictatorship? In the end Ahl sees Lucan’s primary importance as being the ancient writer who more than any other ‘codified the political rhetoric of liberty which bore important political fruit in the era of the French and American revolutions’ (p. 140).

As an interlude between discussions of Julio-Claudian and Flavian epic poets we have J. P. Sullivan’s chapter entitled ‘Form Opposed: Elegy, Epigram, Satire’. For Sullivan the essential subject of epic is ‘the struggle for power’ (p. 144). He notes that for Catullus and his circle aesthetics and politics went hand in hand in rejection of the epic genre: contempt for politicians and the values of public life was united with rejection of epic. The elegists too combined an attempt to subvert the traditional literary hierarchy with an assertion of private values. Satirists also rejected epic but for different reasons, claiming that their modes of writing were truly realistic, that epic’s concerns were remote from the contemporary world. As Sullivan points out, such claims are plainly false for they ignore the possibility of engagement with contemporary issues by symbolic means.

After Sullivan’s interlude comes the Flavian triad. John Henderson’s ‘Form Remade / Statius’ Thebaid‘ is a remarkable piece of work. This essay is a rewriting for a less specialised audience of a piece which first appeared inProceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 37 (1991). For the unfamiliar this chapter (even in its modified form) may prove hard going but it is worth the effort. Henderson argues firstly that we should read the poem through the framing addresses to Domitian and that they point to the poem’s ‘undisguisably explosive potential to mean, within the Flavian cosmos’ (p. 165). That case he substantiates by pointing to the Thebaid’s relationship to Lucan’sPharsalia, to the post-Lucanian civil war, and to the resemblances between the Flavian house and the house of Oedipus. Most of the paper is concerned with the nature of war in the Thebaid and the poem’s shifting perspectives on that subject. The treatment is dense intricate, and enlightening. In ‘Flavian Variant: Myth. Valerius’ Argonautica‘ Martha Malamud and Donald McGuire argue that Valerius’ Argonautica is an exercise in rewriting, a rewriting of Apollonius but with an eye on Virgil. Malamud and McGuire start with Borges’ story of ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ ‘because it exemplifies one of the issues at the heart of Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica: the relationship between production, reproduction and initiation within a textual tradition’ (p. 194). Valerius and Menard have in common the fact that ‘it is the author’s engagement with his predecessor(s), and his readers’ continual awareness of that engagement, that make the text signify’ (p. 194). This claim is then substantiated through examination of a topos and an episode, Argo as first ship and the abduction of Hylas. Valerius follows the Catullan tradition of having Argo as first ship despite there being traces of earlier voyages. For Valerius, Malamud and McGuire suggest, ‘the myth of Argo has become a trope for the impossibility of creating a truly original text’ (p. 196). What is more, they argue, ‘Valerius’ poetic technique relies on this presumption’ (p. 196), for the poem’s readers are expected to supply from their knowledge of other versions of the Argo myth motivations unexplained by Valerius. The discussion of the Hercules-Hylas relationship, is particularly subtle and complex and leads in to a tactful treatment of the Domitian-Earinus relationship. Marcus Wilson’s essay ‘Flavian Variant: History. Silius’ Punica‘ offers us a paradoxical thesis: ‘Silius’ epic is uncompromisingly anti-historical’ (p.219). Wilson argues for this view primarily through comparison with Lucan’s Pharsalia. Consider the question of causation. Whereas Lucan outlines causes of a kind recognisable as such by modern historians, Silius turns to the Dido story and Juno’s liking for Carthage, i.e. he turns to Virgil rather than Livy. And the gods are given a major role in the action, directing events and manipulating minds. His treatment of battles, with emphasis on the duel and the aristeia, and of death have more to do with the Iliad and other epics than with historical narratives. Moreover, Wilson argues, Silius is anti-historical in another sense as well, in his treatment of contemporary themes, in particular in his treatment of the Flavian emperors. These three essays are among the most valuable in the volume for implicit in the work of Henderson, Malamud & McGuire and Wilson is the thesis that the works of the Flavian epic poets merit reading and study.

The last three essays of the volume deal with late antique, medieval and renaissance epic. Peter Connor’s essay ‘Epic in Mind: Claudian’s De Raptu Proserpinae‘ is essentially a series of critical appreciations of selected episodes. Connor concludes that ‘Claudian’s De Raptu Proserpinae is very much a child of its time rather than an oddity. It must be viewed as one amongst many classicizing artefacts’ (p. 258). The next two essays move into territory largely unfamiliar to classicists (including this one). Fortunately John Ward is aware of his likely readership and so his chapter ‘After Rome: Medieval Epic’ begins with and concise and fascinating overview and then concentrates on two poems, Waltharius (late ninth century) and Hrotsvit’s Gesta Ottonis (tenth century). It also includes brief plot summaries. Ward aims to establish that ‘epic remained a vital and frequently practised form of expression suited to the exploration of the largest and most perplexing of contemporary problems’ (p. 262). Ward argues that Waltharius problematizes not only those values characteristically associated with epic, the values of loyalty and lordship, but also those associated with betrothal and marriage. Moreover, this poem is yet another rewriting of the Aeneid for it is ‘essential to have in mind the ‘meta-‘ or ‘sub-‘ text of Aeneid 4 in order to grasp the full meaning and gist of what is going on’ (p. 278). Ward concludes that Waltharius is not simply an aristocratic vernacular epic in Latin; it is not simply translated. It has been carefully and symmetrically recrafted by a skilled Latin-speaking Christian cleric in imitation of Prudentius, Statius and Virgil’ (p. 283). Ward devotes less space to Gesta Ottonis than to Waltharius, arguing that ‘the latter poem seriously influenced Hrotsvit’s conception of her task and that this conception demonstrates again the creative, and, for the context of the time, pragmatic way in which medieval authors dealt with their Latin epic inheritance’ (p. 286). This poem too concerns male- female relationships but is distinguished by the fact that it was composed by a woman. The final essay in the volume, Philip Hardie’s ‘After Rome: Renaissance Epic’ discusses Petrarch’s Africa and Vida’s ChristiadAfrica is usually regarded as a noble failure. Hardie, avoiding the well-worn path, argues persuasively for the poem’s merits, examining in particular the poem’s relationship with Virgil and its moral and generic complexities. Vida too takes the Aeneid as model but in a way that ‘transvalues and inverts the main Virgilian themes in order to bring out the lines of a truly Christian heroism and a truly Christian mission’ (p. 307).

The essays contained in Roman Epic are almost all of a very high standard. The book as a whole bears witness to the extraordinary power and remarkable durability of Latin epic poetry for the best part of seventeen hundred years.


[[1]] See, for example, F. M. Ahl, ‘Statius Thebaid: A Reconsideration’, ANRW 32.5 (1986) 2803-2912, F. M. Ahl, M. Davis & A. Pomeroy, ‘Silius Italicus’, ANRW 32.4 (1986) 2492-2561 and the articles by Philip Hardie, Donald McGuire, Martha Davis, William Dominik, D. E. Hill and Arthur Pomeroy in A. J. Boyle (ed.), The Imperial Muse: Flavian Epicist to Claudian (Bendigo 1990).