Tag Archive | Metamorphoses

Genre, gender (& some genitalia)

A seasonal blog about how heroes die. Draw your own conclusions about my state of mind at the end of 2018.

One of the most celebrated/notorious episodes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the Calydonian boar hunt in Book VIII (270-444), and it typifies Ovid’s irreverent approach to epic narrative. An impressive band of heroes (Theseus, Jason, Peleus, Telamon, Laertes, Nestor and many more: the generation before the Iliad, so in principle even more heroic than Achilles, Ajax or Odysseus) gathers together to help Meleager deal with a monstrous boar that is wreaking havoc in Calydon, but Ovid turns material that might make a very acceptable epic narrative into a “boisterous comedy”, in Nicholas Horsfall’s words.* Telamon trips over a tree root, for example, and Nestor polevaults onto a branch. Most outrageously of all, it is a woman, Atalanta, who shows most physical prowess, drawing first blood from the boar.

Ovid’s approach to writing epic, in simple terms, is not to do what an epic is supposed to do, but at the same time constantly remind us what a respectable epic should be doing. An essential characteristic of epic, perhaps its quintessential quality, is its masculinity, its concern with males who are more male than ordinary males and excel in stereotypically male activities, warfare and violent physical activity especially, but also forceful speech and charismatic leadership. Promoting a female character at the expense of the male suits Ovid’s aims perfectly: the prominence in Ovid’s telling of this myth of a woman huntress, alongside male heroes falling far short of the heroic ideal, strikes epic at its core.

Which brings us to the business of this blog. Ancaeus is another hero who meets a humiliating end in the course of the boar hunt, but his mode of death is particularly meaningful. An exaggeratedly male, bombastic hero, wielding a double axe, Ancaeus responds to Atalanta’s success by commanding his comrades to stand back and “Learn how far men’s weapons surpass women’s,/ and make way for my action” (discite femineis quid tela uirilia praestent/ o iuuenes, operique meo concedite, 392-3), before being peremptorily despatched by the boar with a blow from both tusks in the groin. There is nothing coincidental about the location of Ancaeus’ terminal wound. As I wrote a few years ago,** citing Adams’ seminal reference work The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (p. 93 n. 3), “tela, uirilia, and opus are all terms regularly used of the penis, and ‘there was a marked tendency for adjectives of the base femin- to be applied… to the female parts.'” Alternative translations of operique meo concedite may suggest themselves. But if epic is all about uirtus, “manhood”, this caricature of an epic hero dies a death that encapsulates Ovid’s contrarian attitude to the genre he’s supposed to be writing.

My mind turned back to poor Ancaeus a couple of weeks ago when preparing a MOOC for my old student Chris Tudor (Massolit is a great resource, incidentally, which I enthusiastically recommend). I was talking about Aeneid XI, and one of my lectures was on Camilla, the female warrior whose exploits occupy the latter part of the book (and who is a key model for Ovid’s Atalanta). Here also we find an epic investigating its own gender biases, but Virgil’s poem is altogether more conventional in this respect than Ovid’s. Camilla is a formidable warrior, dominating the battlefield and seeing off a number of male antagonists (aduenit qui uestra dies muliebribus armis/ uerba redargueret, “the day has come for a woman’s weapons to refute your words”, she vaunts over one victim, 687-8). But her death is occasioned by a dramatic reversion to (a stereotype of) conventional female behaviour: Alison Keith^ talks of “a Greco-Roman stereotype regarding women’s excessive interest in clothing and personal adornment” (p. 29). Distracted by the sight of a gorgeously bedecked Trojan priest called Chloreus, Camilla forgets her military priorities and goes in pursuit, burning “with a womanly desire for plunder and spoils” (782). Her defences down, Camilla is easily picked off by a nonentity called Arruns (whose own, weirdly anonymous, death shortly after is one of the eeriest passages in the Aeneid).

Camilla’s death seems in some respects like a crude replay of Dido’s departure from Virgil’s epic. In a similar way, a woman’s presence in this overwhelmingly male space of epic is condoned for as long as she acts like a stereotypical man, in Dido’s case as a head of state and dux, in Camilla’s as a fighter. But when women start to behave like (the ancient stereotype of) women, falling in love, acting and speaking irrationally, indulging their own selfish interests, distracted by beautiful superficialities, their time in epic is limited.

Of course Virgil, in this as in other respects, was well able to exploit the rigid generic expectations he inherited by contravening the rules for effect, and the intrinsic power of these female characters derives not least from their anomalous status in epic. “Ce qui fait l’expressivité, c’est la règle enfreinte”, as Joseph Hellegouarc’h^^ succinctly expressed it: classical literature is rule-bound, but drew much of its power of expression from that very fact. Ultimately, however, Virgil’s treatment of women in the Aeneid cannot fail but represent an endorsement of the misogyny enshrined in epic poetry, the most culturally authoritative of ancient poetic genres.

Returning to topic, a case in point is the detail that reminded me so strongly of Ancaeus, another mortal blow delivered in a significant location. Arruns’ spear strikes Camilla below her “exposed breast” (exserta papilla, 803): Camilla is portrayed as dressed for the fight like an Amazon, one breast uncovered, the archetypal ancient image of a fighting woman. (What made this the archetypal image is worth contemplating: see Adrienne Mayor,^* Chapter 5.) Again, the death of a warrior, and the location of the terminal wound, defines the character of the poem, Virgil’s conventional epic focusing on Camilla’s gender as she exits the poem, as Ovid had highlighted Ancaeus’s.

But what imperils those tidy categories just a little bit is the episode that immediately precedes Camilla’s death, again foregrounding gender/genre-defining concerns and indeed clearly setting the scene for what follows. The Etruscan leader Tarchon, mythical founder of Virgil’s hometown Mantua, rallies his cavalry against Camilla’s by hurling himself into the heart of the enemy forces, actually seizing hold of one of them, Venulus, and carrying him off bodily on his own horse. It is a spectacular exercise in male bravado: Tarchon grapples with Venulus while still on horseback, snapping off the point of Venulus’ spear and trying to drive it into his opponent’s throat. And as he gallops forward Tarchon berates his own men for their effeminacy in failing to resist Camilla. femina palantis agit atque haec agmina uertit?, 734, “Is a woman driving you off in disorder and routing these ranks?!”, he asks incredulously.

Virgil sums up this peculiar scene in a very suggestive way: uolat igneus aequore Tarchon,/ arma uirumque ferens, “Tarchon flies like fire over the plain, bearing the man and his weapons”, 746-7. Arma uirum, “Arms and the man”, deliberately recalls the opening words (and alternative title) of the Aeneid, and the central role it promises for the uir, the heroic man, the embodiment of uirtus. Back in Book 9 the Latin warrior Numanus Remulus in a vaunting speech had dismissed the Trojans as eastern effeminates, and there also the poet had implied that “toxic masculinity” was of the essence of his own poem: sinite arma uiris et cedite ferro, Numanus tells the Trojans, “Leave weapons to the men, and renounce the sword” (Aen. 9.620). “Virgil’s readers will take sinite arma uiris in the further sense of a command to leave the world of martial epic”, Philip Hardie comments.*^ Epic is male territory. If the Trojans are indeed inadequately male, as Numanus suggests, they have no role to play in it.

Well, Virgil’s narrative enacts a similar judgement on Camilla and Dido, expelling them when they start acting too much like women. But it is well said that Ovid finds almost all the material he needs to mock epic values already present in conventional examples of the genre like the Aeneid, working on details in Virgil or Homer that threaten the clear-cut definitions epic aspires to project. Ovid fashions Atalanta from Virgil’s Camilla, but Tarchon isn’t so different from Ancaeus, either. The hyperbole that makes Tarchon a character worthy of epic, superhuman and extraordinary, is also what makes Ancaeus’ overblown antics so absurd. What distinguishes the two is not much more than the license Ovid gives us to laugh at his creations (there is much of great value in the Aeneid, but very few laughs). Tarchon’s exploit carries a hint of the ritual of devotio, the last word in Roman military heroics whereby a general ensured victory by hurling himself into the midst of the enemy and vowing himself and the enemy to the gods of the underworld (for Tarchon and devotio see Matthew Leigh in this volume of Proceedings of the Virgil Society),^*^ which is a further disincentive to laugh at him.

Once again, though, especially if we happen to writing a chapter about it, we can say thank God for the Metamorphoses, and Ovid’s acute sense of the instability of epic bluster. After reading Ovid on Ancaeus, certainly, it’s hard to take Tarchon very seriously.

The Latin for “toxic masculinity”, by the way, is temeraria uirtus (Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.407).

^A. M. Keith, Engendering Rome: women in Latin epic (Cambridge, 2000);
*^P. R. Hardie, Virgil, Aeneid Book IX (Cambridge, 1994);
^*A. Mayor, The Amazons: lives and legends of warrior women across the ancient world (Princeton, 2014);
*N. Horsfall, “Epic and burlesque in Ovid, Metamorphoses VIII,” CJ 74 (1979), 319-32;
^*^M. Leigh, “Hopelessly devoted to you: traces of the Decii in Virgil’s Aeneid,” PVS 21 (1993), 89-110;
^^J. Hellegouarc’h, Le monosyllabe dans l’hexamètre latin; essai de métrique verbale (Paris, 1964);
**Ll. Morgan, “Child’s play: Ovid and his critics,” JRS 93 (2003), 66-91.