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Virgil's Gaze:
Nation and Poetry in the Aeneid
J. D. Reed

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In composing the Aeneid, Virgil had inherited the peculiar task of tracing the Roman nation from a group of Trojan refugees. The possibilities for an epic of national foundations are rich. Not only does the westward shift from the eastern Mediterranean world suggest self-defining contrasts with other nations (nations over which the Romans had gained dominion); an origin in the world of Greek mythology, but in a city opposed to the Greeks, makes the mediation of Hellenism in any such account—and in the very form it takes—necessary but complicated. Virgil’s poem, in fact, represents (among other things) a Roman version of a specific type of Greek poetry: the ktisis or foundation myth (the word literally means the foundation of a city or colony), celebrating a ktistês or founder; and its narrative engages in detail with Greek ktistic or foundational mythology. The present study, through close readings of the text, looks at the way the Aeneid offers the readerly subject a national identity—which the teleology of the poem invites us to read as Roman— through comparisons and contrasts between other nationalities (especially Trojan, Carthaginian, Italian, and Greek). In speaking of nationalities, I mean the unities that the poem may designate by the terms gens, genus, or populus, and by the myriad of ethnic groupings that it names, opposing some to others (for example, Trojans versus Greeks) and including some within others (as the Rutulians are part of the Italians). The Aeneid uses ethnic boundaries to organize and mold into new ideological shapes the disorderly wealth of facts (mythological, historical, and so on) that Virgil inherited; the schema that results complicates a simpler one (based on the Catalogue of Women attributed to Hesiod) that it also offers, whereby the Italian-derived descendants of Dardanus are opposed to the Greco-Oriental lineage of Inachus.1 The whole process necessarily involves Virgil’s poetics of nationality in a dialogue between other Greek and Latin poets.

Other paradigms of identity and alterity—those offered by gender and age, for example—are also relevant to the poem’s representations of nationality, and we shall take account of these as well. Sometimes characters (particularly those who oppose Aeneas’ Trojans) equate Eastern ethnicity with effeminacy, in formulations that the poem may confirm or explode by turns. Gender abets the poem’s constructions of nationality, perhaps most conspicuously in the case of the female and Phoenician Dido and the female and Italian Camilla, but also in unexpected ways. The poem’s evaluation of the national claims of Turnus must be viewed alongside his assimilation, at crucial moments in his story, to the literary model of the distressed mythological heroine; at the end of the book we return to this model as it touches the central case of Aeneas himself. The book introduces its nexus of themes by discussing a group of peculiar descriptions of battle deaths that erotically objectify warriors of both sexes and different ethnicities (all of which will ultimately be subsumed into the Roman); the erotic gaze not only suggests certain oppositional constructions of gender, but in the desirous viewer (whether conceived as narrator, character, or reader), we can explore the way that alterity can posit a lack, a need, even an urge to assimilate one’s object to oneself (or vice versa).

Indeed, the gaze is a central trope of the study, one of whose principal concerns is the narratology of the poem, understood broadly as its chains of viewing or perceiving personae that assimilate poet, narrator, reader, and character. Hence the book’s title; and hence also (as reflected in chapter titles) characters are often the focus of individual chapters. Identity implies a shared viewpoint that discloses certain contrasts and boundaries—or to put it conversely, any contrast that the poem draws between nations demands that we attend to the coordinates under which that contrast appears. What emerges is a schema that shifts with the narratology of the poem: the ethnic affinities of a character, national group, or motif—and the ethnic identity produced by opposition to an Other—can change depending on the changing perspectives that the poem, reconfiguring its great mass of inherited comparanda into meaningful patterns, offers its readers.

For this book will not attempt to characterize in definitive terms the Roman identity that the Aeneid offers; rather, its working hypothesis is that that identity is always provisional and perspectival—that the pairs of opposites that mark it out are never fixed. The moving boundaries between Greek, Oriental, and Italian carve out a standpoint—a persona assimilable to the Roman—so that the poem constructs the self as empty of nationality except as defined against a foil, or a series of foils. Roman identity—always reducible to some other nationality, depending on where the poem draws the boundary between nations—emerges as a synthesis (in a dialectical sense) of other national identities (analogous to the dialogue conducted by the Aeneid with its literary forerunners); there is no essence, no absolute center, no origin that exclusively authorizes Romanness. One recalls the Eclogues, where the literal, geographic boundaries of the Italian landscape, scumbled and shadowy, already prompt Connolly to discern a “revelation of fictionality at work,” a fragmented quality that “draws readerly attention to extratextual—which is to say political and social—efforts to make landscape whole.”2 In the later poem, too, with its grander scale and vaster sense of a national self, a unity that one perspective asserts will only beg, from another perspective, the question of what figure, what stance, enforces that unity.

Like much other recent work on the Aeneid, the present readings accept the anomalies and discrepancies that appear when one passage or level of discourse is tested against another,3 and they suggest an approach (at least where national identity is concerned) to the ambiguity that critics of the past half-century have found to be of especial interpretive interest in the poem: Roman identity is an ambiguous figure, a problêma without a single solution. The polycentrism that many have detected in the Aeneid will thus deny the reading subject a positive or definitive ethnic identity, but rather involve him or her in a play of ethnic identities. The Roman has an ambivalent place wherever in the world he stands, even in Latium: belonging everywhere, he belongs nowhere. Yet the ideology that is produced by this narrative incoherence as we try to make the parts fit is not necessarily negative. We are free to recuperate the poem’s provisionality as less ambivalent than multivalent, and as serving a capacious imperialism consistent with the claims of the Roman Empire generally and of Augustan imperial culture specifically4 (though it can also serve other, conflicting ends). “The Aeneid,” warns Toll in a paper titled “The Aeneid as an Epic of National Identity,” “was not made to express any simple partisanship, but precisely to deter partisan splintering from hindering its dream of ideological unity and ethical endeavor for the whole of Roman Italy.”5 This is as true on the level of multinational empire as it is on that of Roman politics and Italian relations with Rome. Mere difference is uninteresting; what is interesting is difference disguised as sameness. The uniformity imposed by an empire can be analyzed. There is no essential Roman in the Aeneid; the ethnicity that unavoidably, historically, is to be attached to the “self ” in the poem is endlessly reducible, both conceptually and as represented by the poem as a historical reality. It is constantly deferred to other, mediating representations of ethnicity. Rome is simply not defined by what is present.

This is most crudely true on the topographical plane, where the site of Rome in Book 8 is said to empty repeatedly between arrivals by different outsiders (Saturn, Evander, Romulus). At 8.310–12 the site already has a past, intriguing to Aeneas:

miratur facilisque oculos fert omnia circum
Aeneas capiturque locis et singula laetus
exquiritque auditque virum monimenta priorum.
Aeneas stares in wonder, sending his ready glances everywhere. He is captivated by the scene, and joyfully inquires about and hears tales about each and every reminder of earlier men.

According to his host, Evander, this human past is uncanny: “These woodlands were inhabited by native-born fauns and nymphs and a race of men born of the tough wood of tree trunks” (314–15 haec nemora indigenae fauni nymphaeque tenebant / gensque virum truncis et duro robore nata). These native, autochthonous beings have none of the arts of civilization, in particular agriculture and settled living, until Saturn, in flight from the wrath of Jupiter, arrives to rule them (8.319). He too, like Aeneas, is an exile from his kingdom (also like Metabus or Mezentius, among the poem’s latter-day Italian kings). But Saturn and his subjects have no direct relation to the later inhabitants apart from dwelling place. The next inhabitants of the place are Italians arriving from the south (“an Ausonian band and Sicanian peoples” [328]), who themselves yield to Evander’s “Greek city” (as the Sibyl provocatively calls it at 6.97). Each population is replaced or displaced by another; the very names keep changing (329). Any identity that can be claimed among the different settlements will, as a metaphor based only on the sameness of their place, disintegrate readily into metonymy. Romulus’ accomplishment will be to orchestrate a fresh convergence from various directions on the newly built Rome (note 342 asylum). There is an emptiness at the geographic heart of identity, waiting to be—not exactly filled, but given outward shape, by a play of contrasts.

In the Aeneid’s version of Roman foundations, Aeneas’ settlement will include not only Trojan colonists and Latin indigens, but representatives of other peoples: Cretans whom Aeneas’ men married during their sojourn on that island (3.136; the slave Pholoe, awarded as a prize at 5.285, may be one such), a few Epirotes picked up at Buthrotum, and even various Greeks, like Salius and Patron at 5.298. The opposing sides of the Italian war in Books 9–12, the bloody prerequisite to Aeneas’ settlement, are not cleanly defined ethnically, but include each other’s characteristic ethnic components (note the Greek-Italian ancestry of both Pallas and Turnus, for example). The presence among the Italian army of Greek figures like Aventinus, Virbius, and Halaesus approximates it to the Greek army that fought against Aeneas in the Trojan War; but the Trojan army, too, includes Evander’s Arcadians and other mainland Greeks. One is Antores, one-time companion of Hercules, who, felled by an “alien” wound (that is, by the Etruscan king Mezentius, fighting on the Latin side), famously “looks to heaven and, dying, remembers sweet Argos” (10.781–82 caelumque / aspicit et dulcis moriens reminisctur Argos). Both the broad narrative of the poem and the smaller genealogies and stories of origin, inserted with the passing mention of a name like that of Antores, make Italy a sink of many peoples, a destination not only for Aeneas and his followers.6 The war, characterized as a proleptic civil war between peoples meant to become one, dramatizes our sense of the Roman not just as the combination of Trojan and Latin, but as forged out of cross-cultural exchanges from many sides. The ethnic presences they bring to a cumulative Roman identity, I suggest, prevent that identity from ever being fixed or independent of the multiple oppositions that inhere among its components.

Beyond the actual, narrated movements of the poem’s persons we have the symbolic ethnic identifications produced by extra-textual allusions of various kinds. Here we enter the shadowy realm of meaningful etymology, so beloved of Latin poets: nomen as omen. Names of warriors, for example, introduce overtones, at least, of blurred national identity.7 To be sure, warriors on the Trojan side may have clearly Asiatic names like Asius, Assaracus, and Thymbris (10.123–24), overflowing with Anatolian geographical and mythological connotations. Others, like Tyres (10.403) and Aeneas’ captain Orontes point to a broader Oriental sphere (in these cases recalling the city Tyre and the river Orontes in the Levant). Sometimes names allegorize national transition, as when at 10.145 another Trojan warrior, Capys, is said to have given his name to “the Campanian city” (Capua). This old etymology not only recapitulates the ethnic trajectory from Troy to Italy, but, in this poem, etiologizes the dominion of the Romans over Campania in central Italy (specifically through the city that served as the Italians’ capital during the Social Wars) in a way that nevertheless evokes or preserves the ethnic boundaries that separated the Trojan-descended Romans from the rest of the Italians.8 This case is both like and unlike the etymologies of Roman clan names from followers of Aeneas in Book 5 (the Memmii from Mnestheus, the Sergii from Sergestus, the Cluentii from Cloanthus), which also emphasize the transition from Trojan to Roman, but which direct that trajectory toward Rome itself.

But this sense of national transition is sometimes not historical, but synchronic. At 10.337 a Rutulian Maeon—a poetic synonym for “Lydian”—bears a name elsewhere used of the “Lydian” Etruscans, his enemies. At 10.399 an Italian named Rhoeteus dies in the place of an Italian named Ilus—both bear names associated with the toponymy of Troy. At 9.344–45 the name of a Rutulian Rhoetus could be etymologized from either Trojan Rhoet- or Italian Rut- (analogically to the alternation Poenus/Punicus, among others). This blurs the boundary line of nationality in a way reminiscent of Virgil’s almost exclusive use for the river Tiber of the name Thybris, which recalls both the Tiber and the Trojan river Thymbris.9 Personal names connected with this last specimen recur in significant ways. We hear of both an Italian Thymber (10.391–94) and a Trojan Thymbraeus (12.458); there is also a Trojan Thymbris (10.124). And Evander at 8.330–32 reports that the Tiber took its Trojan-sounding name from a local king named Thybris. One message here is that these peoples belong together: the near-homonymies allegorize an identification that lies in the future—and attest one that lies in the past, when we remember that the poem makes Dardanus originate in Etruria.10 But what are we to make of Italians with blatantly Egyptian names like Pharos (10.322: the Ptolemies’ famous lighthouse), Lagus (10.381: the founder of the Ptolemy family),11 and Osiris (12.458: the Egyptian god)? Here one message might be of eventual Roman—that is to say, Trojan-Italian—conquest of Egypt (subtly correcting the Trojans’ own status as “Orientals,” capable of being classed together as such with Egypt). The last-named, for example, is slain by Thymbraeus in a foreshadowing of Octavian’s victory over Antony and Cleopatra.12 But other, conflicting messages are also latent; in our discussion of Turnus we shall explore the way Oriental features—like names—given to Aeneas’ Italian enemies repeatedly estrange them from the land they are fighting to keep the Trojans out of.

We would find a geographical opposition between East and West only partially useful. To be sure, “East” suggests the boundary line between the poem’s implied self and the nations of the eastern Mediterranean (“barbarian” nations, according to the Hellenocentric discourse that Romans adopted for certain purposes—but potentially, as seen from the west, including the Greeks). We see versions of this delineation in the picture of the Battle of Actium on Aeneas’ Shield (8.675–713), and already in the Georgics (for example, in the prooemium to Book 3). But this schema breaks down if we try to identify the self with the “West.” As geography, that would be unhelpful, since apart from Italy, western Mediterranean nations (Spain, Gaul) hardly signify in the Aeneid. The poem’s most prominent “Eastern” nation, Carthage, founded by Phoenicians from Tyre and repeatedly qualified by epithets like Tyrian, Sidonian, and Phoenician, in fact lies west of Rome. Moreover, the Aeneid by no means consistently identifies Italy itself, the poem’s most conspicuous Western land (indeed, called “Hesperia” at key moments, identified—from a Hellenophone standpoint—as “Land of the Evening Star”), with the ethnic self, or with any unified identity. For similar reasons I shall often employ the term “Oriental” rather than “Eastern,” since it has more than directional connotations, and tends to lump Near Eastern, “barbarian” peoples together in opposition to Greek and Roman (as the Aeneid sometimes does; for example, on the shield in Book 8, where Egyptian, Indian, and so on constitute a “barbarian force” opposed to Roman Italy).13 The poem aims at no “Western” identity; there is an implied “self,” assimilable to the “Roman” as the poem presents it, in perpetual contrast with other ethnic constructions. The problems with a clean geographical opposition between East and West here are not just practical, but symptomatic of the poem’s ethnic constructions.


The poem’s opening announces its field of oppositions in spatial and temporal terms. The Aeneid presents itself as the story of a Trojan refugee who brought his ancestral deities to Italy and founded the nation that was to become Rome (1.1–7):

Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam fato profugus Laviniaque venit
litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
vi superum, saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram;
5    multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem
inferretque deos Latio, genus unde Latinum
Albanique patres atque altae moenia Romae.
I sing of arms and of a man, the first one who came from the shores of Troy to Italy and the Lavinian beaches, exiled by fate, much buffeted both on land and on the deep by the force of the gods above, because of the remembering anger of savage Juno; and enduring much in war as well, until he could found a city and introduce his gods to Latium: and from this came the Latin race, the elders of Alba, and the ramparts of high Rome.

Trojan and Latin shores demarcate Aeneas’ transition.14 Before arriving at Rome, the teleology runs through the Latin race (representing Aeneas’ settlement in Italy, into which the already existing Latins are curiously folded, as if they originated with it) and the “elders of Alba” (literally “Alban fathers,” encompassing both the local elders of Rome’s mother city and the emperor’s Julian clan, which had historical and legendary ties to Alba Longa). The latter are crucial for filling in the gap between Aeneas himself and the foundation of Rome;15 they will appear, with slight but significant slippage, as the Alban kings (not precisely the elders—senators or quasi-senators—that are implied by patres), direct descendants of Aeneas, prophesied at 1.272 and 6.760–70.

The trouble Aeneas and his people underwent to achieve this aim, we are told, was caused by Juno, specifically on account of the threat the Trojan refugees—or their Roman posterity—were fated to present her favorite city, Carthage (12–22):

Urbs antiqua fuit (Tyrii tenuere coloni),
Karthago, Italiam contra Tiberinaque longe
ostia, dives opum studiisque asperrima belli;
15    quam Iuno fertur terris magis omnibus unam
posthabita coluisse Samo; hic illius arma,
hic currus fuit; hoc regnum dea gentibus esse,
si qua fata sinant, iam tum tenditque fovetque.
progeniem sed enim Troiano a sanguine duci
20    audierat, Tyrias olim quae verteret arces;
hinc populum late regem belloque superbum
venturum excidio Libyae: sic volvere Parcas.

There was an ancient city (colonists from Tyre possessed it): Carthage, far opposed to Italy and the mouths of the Tiber, rich in resources and most keen in zeal for war. This city alone Juno is said to have cultivated more than all others, even Samos. Here were her weapons, here her chariot; this land the goddess then already intended and nurtured to be kingdom over the nations—should the fates allow. For yet she had heard that generations were being drawn forth from Trojan blood to overturn that Tyrian citadel one day; that hence to Libya’s destruction would come a people widely sovereign and proud in war: the goddesses of fate so unwound their tale.

More shores, marking out further ethnic oppositions. The wording sets us on the Latin shore at the mouth of the Tiber, Aeneas’ eventual landfall and ultimately Rome’s entrance to the Mediterranean, looking far across to Carthage—figures us, that is, as Romans by an immediate prolepsis. The geographical opposition (13 contra) between the two countries makes them archenemies, even antitheses; and the epic, which mentions the Punic Wars only rarely, will implicitly set up the struggle between them as the defining event in Roman history from the time before there was even a Rome, by tracing (as we shall explore) the gradual differentiation of two originally Oriental peoples. Yet this prologue makes the similarity between Rome and Carthage persist fundamentally: both are devoted to war (1.14 studiisque asperrima belli, 21 belloque superbum) and intended to hold sway over many lands (17 regnum. . . . gentibus, 21 late regem). This is a contest for military empire.16 We begin the poem with the vision of a nation rising out of a play of contrast with and likeness to another nation.

Greece is already introduced, in Samos and Argos, as alongside Carthage in Juno’s affections (and in opposition to Troy—and proleptically to Rome). This is the beginning of an unstable ethnic triangle that will replace a Greek-derived ethnic polarity (self versus “barbarian”) with a less determined one and thus supersede, in the cause of Rome, the Greek worldview and the Greek authors who expounded it, from Homer onward. The schema Trojan-Italian-Greek replicates the ethnic composition of Rome’s environment during its early formative period, when Easterners (like Phoenician and Carthaginian traders), Italians (like other Latins, Etruscans, and the more distant Sabellan peoples), and South Italian Greeks were the most conspicuous “Others.” (For that matter, we might also read in this composition a reanalysis of what never explicitly appears in the Aeneid, the multiethnic city of Virgil’s time, filled with Greeks and Hellenized Easterners.) The poem can assimilate any one of these three to a self, or set it apart as an Other: Trojans can represent either origins or a past existence, now abandoned and assimilable to such aliens as Carthaginians and Egyptians; Italians can represent either the homeland Virgil had exalted in the Georgics or hostile neighbors to be subdued. And Greeks—who in Anchises’ prophecy of the Roman future are still cast as an anti-Trojan enemy—can finally either be lumped together with the Orientals whose neighboring lands they came to rule, or be identified with as the alter ego with whom Romans had so strenuously elaborated cultural parallels over the centuries, and especially as the source of the literature that the Aeneid itself is simultaneously extending and revising.17

The narrative parallels Greek foundational legends, as formulated especially in the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women and mythological texts that depend on it. There the Greek Io, driven by the wrath of Juno, wanders to the lands of the East; generations later her descendants (the Inachids, so called from Io’s father Inachus) make their way back west—following Europa—and settle in Greek lands, sometimes with conflict and bloodshed. Hellenistic Greek poets— Apollonius, Euphorion, Lycophron—had performed their own versions of this story with special application to the broadened Hellenic world after Alexander; and colonization myths—some involving Inachid descendants like Heracles, Europa, and Danae—extend it to Italy and the western Mediterranean. It significantly articulates the ancestries of the characters of the Aeneid, particularly those who in some way oppose the mission of Aeneas. Dido and Turnus are chief examples: the first is descended from Belus (1.729–30), great-grandson of Io in Greek tradition; the second, according to Amata, is a descendant of Inachus and Acrisius (7.372), the fathers of Io and Danae. The myth figures explicitly as the argumentum ingens, the “immense narrative” of Io, on the shield of Turnus (in an allusion to Moschus of Syracuse’s Europa). But it also appears in mirror fashion in the story told by the poem: the Italian-born Dardanus migrates to the lands of the East; his progeny found Troy; after the fall of Troy his descendants—led by Aeneas— make their way back in accordance with fate and settle in Italian lands, with much conflict and bloodshed. In our testimony, this story is new with Virgil: other authors make Dardanus originally Arcadian (the Aeneid in effect displaces this origin onto Evander, whose connection with the foundation of Rome is more tangential).18 In Italy Dardanids and Inachids—two dynasties tracing their origins back to Jupiter—come into conflict.

The justification that the Aeneid offers for this schema and this migration furnishes a concrete example of the way the poem avoids the positive sense of a national identity—indeed, the overarching and primordially significant example, as expounding the deepest origin of Aeneas’ people and the reasonfor his divinely ordained settlement in Italy. The Trojan Penates, in their exegesis of Apollo’s charter-oracle to Aeneas, tell him to settle in Italy because Dardanus came from that land: specifically, Anchises is immediately to lead the group to Corythus (3.167–71 Corythum terrasque requirat Ausonias). This is a city of legend; the Aeneid identifies it with no historical place. King Latinus supplements the Penates’ explanation in his welcoming speech to Ilioneus: Dardanus, he states, originally set out “from the Etruscan place of Corythus” (7.209 Corythi Tyrrhena ab sede). When Iris summarizes the Trojan menace for Turnus at 9.10–11, she stresses Aeneas’ quest for alliances even to “the furthest cities of Corythus and the Etruscan forces” (extremas Corythi penetravit ad urbes, / Lydorumque manum). The place referred to by the Penates, Latinus, and Iris is represented as both the origin and immediate destination of the Trojan dynasts.

In tracing Aeneas’ lineage back to this place, Virgil awakens the possibility that his ancestry is Etruscan—in conformity, one might suppose, with the generally sympathetic treatment of Etruscans in the poem. But that sympathetic treatment must also be read alongside the Etruscans’ originally being Lydian or Maeonian—Asiatic, Oriental like the Trojans—in this poem, in accordance with an account first read in Herodotus 1.94.19 Etruscans cannot claim Italian soil by virtue of their origins. If Dardanus was Etruscan, and the Etruscans are originally Lydian, we are sent back to Anatolia and the Trojan sphere. Another dilemma arises against the report by Dionysius of Halicarnassus that Cortona in Etruria was once a “Pelasgian” (that is, prehistoric Greek) city:20 if Cortona is the legendary Corythus (an old identification),21 we meet with Greek identity at a certain point in its past, and the Dardanids’ opposition to their Greek enemies becomes more ambiguous. Indeed, the Aeneid then starts to abet the programmatic assimilation of Romans to Greeks that is characteristic of one strain of ethnographical polemic (including the work of Dionysius).22 We thus return, circuitously, to the more widespread tradition that Dardanus was originally Greek. It is noteworthy that at 10.719 one Acron, a “Greek man” (720 Graius homo), is said to come from Corythus. But perhaps Dardanus was a native Italian, sprung from autochthons before the Etruscans’ ancestors arrived from Lydia or the Pelasgians from Greece. In that case we arrive all the sooner at the fundamental, unavoidable dilemma, for neither Etruria as a whole nor the city of Corythus in particular is in fact Aeneas’ revealed or eventual destination; rather, according to two new prophecies (3.389–93, 8.42–48), his people will settle where he finds the omen of a nursing pig: in Latium, in the event. Rome itself, the end of all Aeneas’ efforts, will lie a little upriver in the same country. Aeneas, despite Iris’ warning to Turnus, does not in fact follow the Penates’ order to seek out Corythus specifically; he gets new instructions that have nothing to do with his ancestral place.

As Dardanus’ origin and the justification of Aeneas’ destination, Corythus should refer to Rome or at least Rome’s corner of Latium (where Aeneas will build his settlement, Lavinium); yet however the name is understood, it rather leads us away from Rome.23 What does it mean for the prophecies to say, “The human founder of your race originated in the city of Corythus, in Etruscan country, so you must return to settle in Latium” (let alone “. . . so your descendants will found Rome”)? It is not as if Virgil were bound by a universal consensus to trace the Dardanid line to this place; again, the story appears first in the Aeneid. The justification for Aeneas’ westward migration—or homecoming—quite arbitrarily mismatches its outcome. An uncompleted circle leaves unanswered questions. Corythus, as a problêma,is a figure. It can be solved, and the grounds for Aeneas’ mission justified, by treating it as a metaphor for Italy, another “ancient” Italian city like the ones Rome will conquer and subsume—or as a metonymy, part of the Italian world that will come under the sway of Rome. But as such it will always threaten to come apart; the discrepancy within the identity is always near to hand.24 More fundamentally, on the level of narrative, metaphor is reduced to metonymy: what on the terms accepted by the poem should have been a replication, a return to the same, turns out to be a contingency, a near return to something adjacent. Any solution works only provisionally; the problem of Corythus can be solved only by raising other interpretive problems.25

The poem’s riddling justification for Trojan settlement in Italy, and Roman origins, is comparable to its depiction of the early history of the site of Rome. Each case presents an emptiness, a gap, an incommensurateness begging to be made up, where a central presence could have provided stability. The indeterminacy goes even deeper, if origins count: why is Dardanus’ line privileged over Teucer’s in Trojan ancestry (and future)? The logic of the Aeneid privileges origins, but the poem presses national origins only to find that they yield, in every case, to another differentiation, or to aporia. The Roman is predicated on oppositions, contrasts, and foils that are impossible to fix or define except provisionally. So the Aeneid is endlessly rereadable: every angle from which we read it offers a different way to be Roman in the world. The case of Corythus is the order of the poem.


Almost any passage in the Aeneid could be read for meaningful differentiations of this kind, and I expect and hope that the readings in this book will suggest others along the same lines. The present argument follows one particular thematic trail, starting from desire (what Virgil’s Latin regularly expresses by amor or cupido). We begin this theme in chapter 1 with Virgil’s most elaborate—and on close inspection most peculiar—descriptions of slain warriors: passages in Books 9–11 wherein he objectifies the bodies of Euryalus, Pallas, Camilla, and Lausus in distinctly erotic terms. Thematically the images in chapter 1 prove vital to our main topic, since the slain warriors in question come from different nations that will one day be absorbed into the Roman empire, while the dying-god imagery that suffuses them is mythologically bound to the Orient, whence the people of Aeneas have traveled toward their Italian destiny; moreover, these scenes showcase the sexual and gender questions that the poem frequently poses in connection with national identity. From a discussion of these death scenes as nodes of a loose network of passages tied together by verbal and thematic links and commenting on one another, we go on to discuss them as points of reception for Virgil’s Latin and Greek background. These scenes have often been held to represent young death and all it means in the Aeneid; let us read desire as an operative trope in their representation of lost (national) promise, and as analogous (at least) to the sense of lack that drives the poem’s representations of national identity. I wish not only to account for the way the given passages thematize youth, death, and desire in the poem, but to read them as giving us readers a standpoint in the narrative and a relationship to the characters, as well as to the narrative voice and its literary precursors (it should be remembered that both the synchronic and diachronic aspects of the text involve questions of national identity). We thus begin with a narratological study, in preparation for the book’s basic concern with Roman identity in the Aeneid as a function of perspective.

The next two chapters, focusing on Turnus and Dido, explore the repercussions of the death images in the treatment of those two obstacles to Aeneas’ divinely appointed mission. Thematically, Turnus and Dido too have to do with youth, death, and desire, and the figure of the dying god lurks behind them in unexpected ways. Our methods remain principally narratological and intertextual, and in these chapters help show how narrative viewpoint and literary appropriation are mutually involved with the ethnicity of those characters, especially as they serve as foils for an ethnic self (as “anti-Romans”). The narrative dynamics sketched out in chapter 1 prepare for chapter 2, where the Italians resisting Trojan settlement are seen to possess, oddly, the very Oriental traits and effeminate luxuriousness (mollitia) that are elsewhere attributed to the Trojans. Chapter 3, together with 4 and 5, traces the gradual separation of Aeneas’ band from an Oriental identity through growing contrasts with Carthage and indeed Troy itself (often represented by female figures like Dido and Andromache) and tries to establish the different lines that the poem draws between the self and an Other and to show how those lines are constantly being erased and redrawn. These three chapters are much concerned with Virgil’s revision of his Greek and Latin models to create new constructions of Rome’s imperial mission. Chapter 6 follows Aeneas into the Underworld and traces how desire becomes a contested metaphor for the Roman imperialism with which Anchises inculcates Aeneas. The synthetic Trojan-Italian nation of Anchises’ prophecy remains unstable on its own terms: Roman identity is still radically dependent on the perspective one takes on its composition. The last chapter concentrates on the role of Aeneas as a viewer and a medium for our viewpoint on these topics, and on the contradictions in his viewership that parallel the shifts in perspective we have been tracing in the poem’s version of Roman identity, always better treated as a dialectic than as a definition.

This is a literary, not a historical or ethnographical study; we are thus less concerned with the sources of the various ethnic influences that Virgil gathers and arranges than with the meaningful structure that the language of his text gives the ethnically significant motifs that already crowd and complicate the material he has inherited. What his text does with an ethnic unity is our focus, rather than the criteria (like a common name, language, religious practice, and so on) under which it may appear as a unity outside his text; we are likewise less concerned with the constructions of ethnic identity, explicit or implicit, in other ancient texts (let alone with modern assessments of ancient ethnic distinctions). Moreover, the Aeneid ’s creation of a multiple Roman identity out of other nationalities is at the fore of our discussion; the bestowal of Roman identity on subject peoples is not. This precision will vex some readers, I know, as will the related omission of anything to do with Mantuan Virgil’s own stance toward the Roman; I have just felt inadequate to the book that such a widening of my focus would have entailed. Nevertheless, we shall occasionally compare constructions of nationhood in other Latin writers; the book is intended to complement recent work on national identity in Augustan literature and its debt to, and departure from, earlier versions. In particular I hope to supplement current work on how the Aeneid represents in literature a new Roman subject (I think particularly of Hardie 1986, Quint 1993, and Feeney’s series of studies); it has more general affinities with Habinek’s ideological readings of Latin literature, and with studies like Hardie 1993 on later Latin epic, which problematizes Romanness not only in terms borrowed from the Aeneid, but in agonistic response to the Aeneid.

Methodologically I hope for the book to operate at an intersection of different lines of recent criticism, especially in the Anglo-American tradition. Since Fowler’s 1991 article, Virgilian narratology needs rethinking in a less formalist direction; Feldherr (1995), for one, points to the ideological dimension of narratology in the Aeneid (and offers a similar reading of Livy in his 1998 book). Interpretation of viewpoint in the material evidence has long been moving in an ideological direction (see, for example, Fredrick 1995 on gender in Roman wall paintings). Always in the background are the visions of the poem offered by its great twentieth-century interpreters, particularly Otis and Putnam; Putnam has also paved the way for the study of an erotic gaze in the poem, particularly as connected with its larger themes. My style of intertextual interpretation has been influenced both by the detailed and layered readings of Thomas and by the semantic notion of intertextuality that informs the work of such critics as Conte and Hinds. Barchiesi in particular has pointed the way toward a reconciliation of synchronic and diachronic dimensions in Augustan poetry, in his insistence (following an especially Italian tradition) on the ideological potential of narrative viewpoint and in his sense of intertextuality as a dynamic process, better studied as a rhetoric than a grammar.26

A rhetorical notion, in fact, is at the heart of this methodological intersection. This book is also, very broadly, a study of the metaphoric economy of the Aeneid; that is, the system of exchanges in his repetitions of his own and his precursors’ words and ideas, and the passing of personae between poet and reader that narrative viewpoint entails. Indeed, metaphor is the principal trope of the Aeneid: everything invites comparison and contrast with everything else, down endless chains in all directions. Not all comparisons are definitively interpretable, or even interpretable at all. The chains run on forever, and sometimes run out on us. But an interplay of sameness and difference is the engine of Virgilian meaning, and it is what makes the poem the synthesis and consummation that it is. One thinks of the consummational binding power of the personae the poem invokes: Aeneas is like Augustus is like Alexander . . . Or of its intertexts: the Aeneid is like the Argonautica is like the Odyssey . . . . (to take a few large-scale examples). Comparisons bridge boundaries of text and reality, of myth and politics, and between texts. The poem gives us a standpoint that binds and unbinds, creates likenesses and unlikenesses, and it invites us to identify that standpoint with the Roman.

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File created: 8/7/2007

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