Tag Archives: lucan

Are we reading Virgil backwards? (The headless body of Priam)

Pompey’s head

I have been reading some very good essays on Virgil today, and one fact that my students keep bringing up is that the headless corpse of Priam on the beach is an allusion to Pompey’s headless corpse on the beach of Egypt. This surprised me, since I was fairly certain that Pompey’s headless corpse in Egypt is, in fact, a detail from Lucan, a good century after Virgil, that alludes, therefore, back to Virgil.

So I did a little digging.

The passage of Virgil in question is Aeneid 2.557-8:

iacet ingens litore truncus, / auulsumque umeris caput et sine nomine corpus.

A great trunk lies on the shore, a head torn from shoulders and a body without a name.

The alluding passage in Lucan (first encountered by me in what is now a distant memory, Stephen Hinds, Allusion and Intertext; I even forget what Hinds says) is Civil War 1.685-6:

hunc ego, fluminea deformis truncus harena / qui iacet, agnosco.

I recognise him, who lies on the river’s sands, a misshapen trunk.

The parallels in the Latin make the allusion to Virgil in Lucan fairly clear. What I wondered was how we came to the inverse allusion — that Virgil’s image of Priam’s corpse is of Pompey’s. I did some digging, and it seems that because Pompey was beheaded at the mouth of the Nile and controlled Asia, and because Priam’s body is on the shore and he also controlled Asia, Virgil is making such an allusion.

According to The Virgil Encyclopedia (from Wiley), under the entry ‘Pompey’, Virgil is alluding to Asinius Pollio here. Unhelpfully, Asinius Pollio’s account of the civil war does not survive.

The first person I know of to say that Virgil is making Priam into Pompey in this passage is Servius, the great late antique commentator on Virgil. Due to his access to things now lost to us, we tend to believe Servius. Servius does not give us a source for his belief that Virgil is implicitly making Priam into Pompey. There is, in fact, nothing in the content of Servius that would make us take this line of reasoning beyond our trust in Servius.

Of course, we want to take this line of reasoning because we are in the age of the ‘pessimistic’ or ‘anti-Augustan’ reading of Virgil, the reading that deeply problematises the killing of Turnus, that puts into the forefront of our reading of Book 6 the facts that the golden bough does not come easily and that Aeneas and the Sybil return to the land of the living through the gate of ivory, the gate designed for false dreams. Or we remember Dido and, along with St Augustine, we weep. We are also the age that notes that the first simile of the epic, comparing Neptune with a statesman who calms mobs with a word, is not actually referring to Augustus, who calmed civil strife with war, and we remember that Neptune was the patron of Pompey and of Antony — the enemies of Caesar and Augustus, respectively.

But what if Servius is wrong, and what if he’s wrong because somehow we’ve read the allusion backwards?

What if, that is, the real allusion has been Lucan all along? What if Virgil is not comparing the headless corpse of Priam to the headless corpse of Pompey? What if Lucan’s allusion has so much power that it has become the Virgilian intertext? Thus, we cannot help but see Priam as Pompey after reading Lucan, even if that was not Virgil’s intention.

Or — what if there’s a detail I’ve missed? Perhaps I’ve missed another Pompey intertext to which Virgil is explicitly alluding. Correct me if I’m wrong.

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Violence in Literature

The death of Pentheus on an Attic red figure kylix, c. 480 BC

Not too long ago, I was reading a historical novel and wondering if it would be a good present for someone I know. My one concern was the violence — this was a novel about the Roman army, and there were a few battle scenes. And then, maybe the next day (?), I was reading the Aeneid, which includes such passages as this:

Tarquitius next set himself in the path of Aeneas’ fury.
Born to a nymph, Dryope, and fathered by Faunus, the woodlands’
God, he was prancing, proud in his blazing armour. Aeneas,
Hefting a spear, pinned the massive weight of his shield to his breastplate.
As the man begged in vain and prepared to keep pleading, Aeneas
Slashed off his head. When it fell to the ground, he rolled over the headless,
Still warm trunk with his feet… -Aeneid 10.550-556, trans. Ahl

This, I concede, is probably not the most violent scene in the Aeneid, but I hope it suffices as an example. This poem is violent, filled with many grim deaths. But overall, it is worth reading — the violence is part of the story, part of the art, and contributes to the bigger themes I discussed when recommending that you read this epic.

The Aeneid is not the grimmest of Latin epics when it comes to violence. From what I have read so far, that goes to Lucan’s Civil War:

One of the twins dared grab a Roman vessel
from his Greek stern when oars were interlocked
in slanting comb; but a heavy blow from above cut off
his hand, which clung there still, such was the pressure of its grasp
and, holding on with tightened muscles, it grew stiff in death.
In adversity his courage grew: mutilated, his noble wrath
increases and with strong left hand he renews the battle
and leans across the waters to seize his own right hand:
but this hand too with all the arm is severed.
Now without his shield and weapons, he is not hidden deep
inside the ship but exposed, and as he protects with naked breast
his brother’s shield, he stands firm, though pierced by many a spear,
and in a death already well earned he receives the weapons which
in their fall would have killed many of his own people. Then he gathered
into his tired frame the life that was departing by many wounds
and braced his limbs with all the blood remaining
and, though his muscles were failing in their strength, he leaped
on to the enemy ship, to damage it by his weight alone.
-Civil War 3.609-626, trans. Braund

Not the most gruesome death, but possibly one of the most bizarre as Braund observes. This death, which continues on the blood-soaked ship until it sinks, like the others in Lucan, highlights the monstrosity of civil war. There are no heroic deaths here, for the order of the world has been cast awry.

One more example from Latin epic, the death of Pentheus in Ovid, Metamorphoses 3:

… The whole mad throng
Rush at him, all united, and pursue
Their frightened quarry, frightened now for sure,
Now using less fierce language, blaming now
Himself, admitting now that he’s done wrong.
Wounded, he cries, ‘Help, Aunt Autonoe!
Mercy! Actaeon’s ghost should move your mercy!’
Actaeon’s name’s unknown. She tore away
His outstretched hand, and Ino seized and wrenched
The other off. With no hands left to stretch
Out to his mother, ‘Look, mother!’ he cried,
And showed the severed stumps. And at the sight
Agave howled and tossed her head and hair,
Her streaming hair, and tore his head right off,
And, as her bloody fingers clutched it, cried,
‘Hurrah for victory! The triumph’s mine!’
-Trans. A. D. Melville

The Expendables films having nothing on Ovid.

Each of these poems has its violent moments. But each also has wider themes — love, destiny, the wrath of the gods, freedom, glory, right behaviour. The violence and death are not there to be glorified or revelled in. They are subservient to the wider purpose of great poetry. And, whether you like them or not, these three are consummate poets.

Turning back, then, to a modern historical novel, the question should be the same, even if the artistry is not Virgilian, Ovidian, or Lucanian. What does the violence do? Does it propel the plot? Does it deepen a character? Does it expand a theme? Or is it merely titillation for the violent side of males who live in a society that prevents most of them from being legitimately violent?

Once these questions are answered, the rest should fall into place.