Epic: Before and After Vergil

views updated

Epic: Before and After Vergil


Long Tradition. By no means should one infer that Vergil was the only epic poet of Rome. On the contrary, he worked in a long-established tradition. The Annales of Ennius, who died a century before Vergil was born, already borrowed the dactylic hexameter for the recording of year-by-year Roman history (indeed, as an epic poet, Ennius presents himself as the reincarnation of Homer). Even earlier than this, Livius Andronicus had made a translation (although into saturnians) of Homer’s Odyssey. But the genre was, from the beginning, a complicated one. For one thing, the poems of Hesiod date from approximately the same period as those of Homer, namely, the eighth/seventh century B.C.E., but the Works and Days of Hesiod is not a single long narrative about battles or wondrous adventure, like the Iliad and Odyssey, but rather a work about the practicalities of farming and sailing, cobbled together with proverbs and ritual lore that we classify today as “wisdom literature”. The ancients, however, would have classified Hesiod’s work as “epic,” no less than Homer’s, because it was composed in the same meter (dactylic hexameter). The meter was used for various other purposes as well, such as recording the utterances of the Delphic oracle. This flexibility of subject matter was to suit later poets as well, those writing in Latin as well as in Greek.

Important Precursors. Vergil had both important precursors and significant successors in the use of dactylic hexameter verse. Among the former, apart from Homer, Hesiod, and Apollonius Rhodius, we must especially mention Theocritus, the Hellenistic Greek poet who lived in the early third century B.C.E. and wrote his Idylls in this meter; Callimachus, whose now-fragmentary Greek poem Hecale has been termed by modern scholars an epyllion or “mini-epic”; and Catullus, whose poem numbered sixty-four in modern editions is an astonishing tour de force that must have profoundly affected Vergil. Whole books have been written about the putative influences of these authors on the poetry of Vergil, and more still have been written on the influence Vergil had on his successors, some of whom are discussed below.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid’s major work—and the only one composed in dactylic hexameters—was his Metamorphoses, the first epic written after Vergil. Ovid’s catalogue-epic, formally derived from Hesiod’s Theogony,directly answers the challenge of Vergil. While the Aeneid dealt with one hero and one myth, Ovid tells a whole host of stories, loosely organized in cycles. Where Vergil’s worldview was teleological, Ovid’s world is constantly in flux (Met. 15.165, omnia mutanturi “everything keeps changing”). One minute you see a young woman, the next moment she is a tree. Although Ovid will never qualify as a philosopher, this constant flux is an expression of a totally different philosophy of life. Nothing is permanent, not even Rome or Augustus. Where Vergil’s tone was one of sadness, Ovid cherishes flippant, irreverent wit and humor. (The elder Seneca tells the story that Ovid’s friends asked the poet to remove three lines from his entire works. Ovid agreed on the condition that three lines were out of bounds. They were, of course, the same as the ones his friends wanted him to strike. Only two of them have come down to us: “half-human beast and half-beastly human” [Ars 2.24] and “both the chilly north-wind and the unchilled south wind” [Am. 2.11.10].)

Always Erotic. Above all else, Ovid chooses to eroticize the mythical stories wherever he can. While Daphne, for example, is being turned into the laurel tree, Apollo puts his hand on the newly formed tree trunk under whose bark he can still feel her heart pounding (Met. 1.553-4). Clearly he has his hand on her breast. Or take Echo, wooing Narcissus: she can only repeat his last word(s). Ovid has a humorous field day with this speech impediment, despite which the two manage to have a meaningful conversation. The erotic highlight comes at 3.386-7, where Narcissus asks to meet Echo, whom he cannot see. She is said to answer his call huc coeamus (let’s get together here) more gladly than anything ever by her coeamus. She, however, wants to do more than just meet, since the second meaning of the verb coire gives us the English noun coitus! A further source of humor is paradox: the healing deity Apollo cannot heal his own lovesickness (1.523) and is deceived by his own oracle (1.491). Narcissus, in love with his own reflection in a pond, exclaims “my wealth has made me poor” (3.461)! and wishes to be parted from his own body. Another way of making something funny is by taking it to ridiculous extremes. Pygmalion forges a lifelike ivory statue with which he falls in love, and prays that she may come alive, which with the help of Venus she does. It was commonplace in ancient times to say that an author loves his work. Pygmalion, as Ovid shows us, takes this to an unrivalled extreme: “Kisses he gives and thinks they are returned; /he speaks to it, caresses it, believes/ the firm new flesh beneath his fingers yields,/ and fears the limbs may darken with a bruise” (Met. 10.256-8, translation by Melville). Another stereotype was that good art was incredibly lifelike. Ovid again takes this theme to its logical and ridiculous extreme. This statue is so lifelike that she does indeed come alive.

Human Suffering. What is disturbing for modern readers is the cavalier manner in which Ovid accepts and describes acts of violence and rape. Actaeon, turned into a deer, is eaten by his own dogs while still feeling like a human: “But his friends/ with their glad usual shouts cheered

on the pack,/not knowing what they did, and looked around/ to find Actaeon” (Met./ to find Actaeon” (Met. 3.242-4 translation by Melville). Erysichthon eats himself. Philomela is raped, imprisoned, and has her tongue cut out. There seems to be a complete indifference to human suffering; in fact it often forms the basis of witty paradoxes. What seems distasteful to us is, however, part of the theme of constant flux: one minute we see the wit, the next minute we realize we are laughing at rape. Nothing is what it seems and everything, including our perception, is constantly in flux. This worldview does indeed provide a valid counterpoint to Vergil’s Aeneid.

Lucan’s Anti-Epic. Literature ran in the blood of Seneca’s family: his nephew Lucius Annaeus Lucanus (Lucan) wrote an unfinished historical epic on the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. By choosing historical rather than mythical epic, Lucan, like Ovid, avoids direct comparison with Vergil. Instead he strives to invert Vergilian precedents. Where the Aeneid gave the foundation myth of Rome, Lucan describes the death of the republic. While the Aeneid has one hero, Lucan has three central characters. Caesar, the winner of the historical events, is presented as highly energetic but malicious, while his opponent is more benign but lacks verve. The most positive character in the ten surviving books ends up being Cato (’The victorious cause pleased the gods, but the vanquished one pleased Cato” [1.128]), the Stoic sage who fought for Pompey and ended up, like any Stoic facing the loss of his personal liberty, committing suicide at Utica. Lucan’s Civil War (also known as Pharsalia) never gets this far in the plot. The last episodes covered are Cato and his men crossing the Sahara desert and Caesar meeting Cleopatra. The point at which Lucan was going to end remains a fertile ground for scholarly speculation. It seems most likely that Cato’s death at the end of a twelfth book would have provided a suitably anti-Caesarian flourish. This work constitutes an “anti-epic”: there are no gods, no powerful heroes like Achilles or Aeneas; the winner is the moral loser and vice versa; minor characters like Scaeva in book 6, who would have been whacked over the head by an aristocrat in Homer, become gruesome heroes for short periods of time. Even the style is deliberately more prosaic than is usual in epic. Rhetorical exaggeration becomes evident already in the first line where the war is labeled plus quam civilia (more than civil). Equally obvious is Lucan’s ardent anti-Caesarianism. After all, the poet was involved in the Pisonian conspiracy against Nero and had to commit suicide upon its discovery in 65 C.E.

Statius’s Epic Spectacle. Under the Flavian dynasty literature—especially epic—flourished once more. Perhaps the most accomplished writer of this period was Publius Papinius Statius, who was born circa 40 C.E. as the son of a highly successful rhetoric teacher and poet in Naples. He won various poetry contests staged by the emperor Domitian. In Rome he attached himself to various patrons whom he celebrates in his Silvae (Forests). He died back in Naples around 96 C.E. Statius wrote a collection of occasional poems entitled Silvae celebrating his patrons, and things dear to them. His main work, however, is the epic Thebaid about the dispute between Oedipus’s sons Eteocles and Polynices, which culminated in the war between the brothers called “The Seven against Thebes” The theme of fraternal warfare recalls Lucan, but Statius clearly also modeled his work on the Aeneid, with his twelve book structure falling into an “Iliadic” second half balanced by some “Odyssean” elements in the first. He also retains the divine apparatus but modernizes it to become an expression of inescapable Stoic fate that is revealed to mankind who do not want to obey it but rather follow fickle fortune. Thus, the curse on the Theban royal house that is familiar from the Greek tragedies, which provided Statius with his subject matter, becomes a more philosophical necessity which governs life. His style tends to be ornate, using descriptive epithets wherever possible. His narrative thereby becomes graphic, both in the beautiful descriptions as well as in the scenes of abominable slaughter in which killing becomes fun for the characters: “Heavy hooves crush the bodies, while/blood washes the wheels and impedes the hurrying troops. / The men find this road sweet, as if they proudly trampled / Sidonian homes in Thebes herself with bloody feet” (10.478-80, a translation by Austin and Morse). Maybe there is a hint here of the Roman interest in blood sports. The story as a whole cannot help but remind the reader of the Roman civil war of 69 C.E., the year of the four emperors in which Vespasian emerged victorious. First Galba, who had ousted Nero, was killed by the imperial guard who proclaimed Otho as emperor. However, the general Vitellius was also proclaimed emperor by the legions of the Rhine. He marched against Otho and defeated him where-upon the legions of the East proclaimed Vitellius emperor. He also returned to Italy to defeat Vitellius and found the Flavian dynasty. In Statius as in history, a brother leaves the city only to prepare an army against his hometown and wage war on it. Peace is finally restored by the benevolent outsider Theseus who comes from Athens to put an end to the bloodshed. Attempts have been made at casting Theseus in a darker light but despite some shortcomings the restoration of peace and the burial of the dead comes as a great relief both to Thebes and to Rome.

Last Gasps of the Epic: Valerius Flaccus. Statius’s contemporary Valerius Flaccus directly imitated Apollonius of Rhodes’s Argonautica in his eight-book epic of the same name and on the same subject, the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. Valerius relies heavily on the Vergilian “personal narrator,” telling the story from the perspective of one of the characters in it, which is combined with an interest in human psychology. It presupposes that the reader knows the story. His most notable feature is an unparalleled number of epic similes, which enhance the pathos of the narrative.

Last Gasps of the Epic: Silius Italicus. The longest epic of them all is the Punica of Silius Italicus, in seventeen books. His subject matter is taken from Livy’s second decade, his seventeen-book form and the annalistic structure probably from Ennius’s eighteen books of Annals. Avoiding any Ennian archaisms, his main inspiration, however, was Vergil. Thus, the poem forms an intentional bridge between the founding of Rome in the Aeneid and the destruction of the republic in Lucan’s Civil War. Silius presents Jupiter as facing Rome with a hard test that it will pass, thereby proving itself worthy of empire (3.571-629). The main character in this narrative is Hannibal who, of necessity, opposes successive Roman generals. In Hannibal we hear demonizing echoes of Turnus and Lucan’s Caesar. It has been said that the epic lacks a positive hero, but Fabius Maximus and Scipio provide an unmistakable counterpoint of Roman virtus. Scipio, like Aeneas, descends into the underworld in book 13 to be unofficially instated as Rome’s savior (“Light of Italy, whose martial exploits I have witnessed/ as far too great for one man, who subjects you to descend into the night/and visit the kingdom one time to be inhabited?” [13.707-9]). The picture of Scipio Africanus is deliberately blurred with that of his father who, at the beginning of the epic, suffers some hurtful losses to Hannibal. The epic therefore acquires a single artistic hero in the merger of father and son who are tested by initial losses but, after a crucial descent to the underworld, come up triumphant. Reminiscences of Aeneas are surely intentional.


Gian-Biagio Conte, Latin Literature: A History, translated by Joseph B. Solodow (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

William J. Dominik, The Mythic Voice of Statius: Power and Politics in the Thebaid (Leiden & New York: E. J. Brill, 1994).

Martin Helzle, Der Stil ist der Mensch. Redner und Reden im romischen Epos (Stuttgart-Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1996).