Tag Archive | Vergil

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.

Virgil, hardly trying

I am trapped in admin hell, and can’t see the end of it. It’s really not my forte and all rather depressing, but not getting a second to blog is almost the most frustrating thing of all. So here’s a quick Virgil blog, because that always makes me feel better. As it happens, it’s Virgil on people trapped in hell and imagining they’re somewhere else.

One thing I try to impress on my students as early as I can is that, in one respect at least, Virgil’s poetry is thrilling not in spite of but by virtue of being spectacularly derivative. What I’m talking about is the regularity with which commentaries on the Aeneid point to parallels with Homer. Virgil is forever imitating his Greek predecessor, in language, image, plot, you name it. The poem as a whole presents itself unapologetically as a Roman version of the Homeric poems. Where, my students reasonably ask, is the creative genius in that?

Well, the beginning of an answer is provided by Virgil himself, who faced criticism for being too slavishly indebted to Homer in his own day. The ancient life of Virgil by Donatus records a detail from a book defending Virgil from his critics by Q. Asconius Pedianus, better known for some precious commentaries on five speeches of Cicero.

Asconius Pedianus, in a book which he wrote Against the Detractors of Vergil, sets forth a very few of the charges against him, and those for the most part dealing with history and with the accusation that he took most of his material from Homer; but he says that Vergil used to meet this latter accusation with these words: “Why don’t my critics also attempt the same thefts? They will realise that it is easier to steal Hercules’ club from him than a line from Homer.”

Homer’s reputation in Virgil’s day is hard to overestimate. He was generally considered simply the greatest poet there had ever been. The historian Velleius, a contemporary of Asconius, writes that Homer alone deserved the name of poet: there was no one before Homer for him to imitate, he continues, and no one after Homer capable of imitating him. So what Virgil is saying here is that even simply translating Homer straight into Latin would be an achievement, indeed an act of recklessness. How would you feel about trying to steal this man’s club?

Now of course Virgil is only ironically acknowledging the force of this criticism. He wasn’t in the habit of stealing lines from Homer in any straightforward way, and his engagement with the Homeric texts was complex and creative. The ancient notion of literary creativity, in many ways a much more reasoned one than our post-Romantic idea, was innovation within an established set of traditional rules, which generated a productive interplay of respect and rivalry between the poet and the model. The difference with the Aeneid is in the status of Virgil’s major model. Virgil was setting out to create from Homeric material a Roman epic that would surpass its model, and the very project was bold to the point of lunacy: everyone knew Homer was beyond anyone’s capacity to rival him.

What I’m going to suggest here, though, is that even when Virgil might reasonably be accused of purloining a line from Homer, it’s a brilliantly creative act, without question as audacious as mugging Hercules.

We’re in Book 6 of the Aeneid, and our hero Aeneas is passing through the Underworld in the company of the Sibyl of Cumae. In the “most far-flung fields, set apart for the glorious in war” he comes upon the shades of some old comrades in the Trojan army. Virgil’s realisation of an Underworld full of animate dead, like yet fundamentally unlike the truly living, is superb in all kinds of ways, but a recurrent touch is to suggest that the dead are themselves only half-aware they have died. At the end of this passage Virgil shows us Idaeus “still holding the chariot, still holding the arms,” pathetically reenacting his role in life as Priam’s herald, squire and charioteer. But what Virgil also does, and this is so typical of him, is to encourage us also, as we read, to mistake the dead for the living (6.481-5):

hic multum fleti ad superos belloque caduci
Dardanidae, quos ille omnis longo ordine cernens
ingemuit, Glaucumque Medontaque Thersilochumque,
tris Antenoridas Cererique sacrum Polyboeten,
Idaeumque etiam currus, etiam arma tenentem.

Here [he was met by] the Trojans, much lamented in the Upper World and fallen in war, and he groaned as he saw them all in a long line, Glaucus and Medon and Thersilochus, the three sons of Antenor and Polyboetes the priest of Ceres, and Idaeus still holding the chariot, still holding the arms.

The words I’ve underlined, Glaucumque Medontaque Thersilochumque, “Glaucus and Medon and Thersilochus,” are a very close imitation of Homer indeed. At Iliad 17.216 Homer has Glaukon te Medonta te Thersilokhon te (Γλαῦκόν τε Μέδοντά τε Θερσίλοχόν τε). In fact the Latin and Greek languages could hardly get any closer than Virgil brings them here, retaining the Greek case ending for Medon’s name, and matching Homer’s staccato te/τε (“and”) with que. The Latin words stand out from their context rhythmically, too, a weak caesura and a polysyllabic line ending which feels palpably Homeric. In other words Virgil is insisting that we recognise these words as a foreign intrusion in his Latin poem.

Slavish imitation? Definitely. He hasn’t made any effort to adapt this Homeric detail; on the contrary he’s advertising how uninventive his imitation is. But the payoff is the kind it takes a genius to engineer. What Virgil achieves by it is a sudden, intense evocation of the original context of this expression in the Iliad. Let’s consider what Glaucus and Medon and Thersilochus are up to at line 216 of Iliad 17.

They’re alive, of course: in the Iliad the city of Troy hasn’t fallen yet (Thersilokhos dies at Achilles’ hands in the slaughter of Book 21). But there’s more than that. We’re at a turning point in the war at Troy: Patroclus has perished, and Hector, leader of the Trojans, has donned the armour of Achilles himself, stripped from Patroclus’ body. It’s an ominous moment, Hector demanding comparison with Achilles when he’s really as ill-suited to Achilles’ arms as Patroclus had been. For the Trojans, though, this is a moment of hope: Hector has slain the Achaean champion, they’re in the ascendant again. That’s where a line lifted seemingly unaltered from the Homeric text transports us from the dingy Underworld of Aeneid 6, back to when Glaukos and Medon and Thersilokhos were not just alive but in their pomp, brash and confident.

In the Aeneid these Trojan heroes are dead, as we instantly recollect. The momentary evocation of the lives they’d lived as Aeneas views their indistinct shades is impossibly poignant, I think. And Virgil achieves it by doing exactly what his critics condemned him for, blatantly, shamelessly nicking Homer’s material.