Monday, March 30, 2009


David O. Ross, Virgil's Aeneid: A Reader's Guide. Malden, MA/Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Pp. ix, 155. ISBN 9781405159739. $29.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Lisa Rengo George, Tulane University (

[The reviewer apologizes for the tardiness of this review.]

[This review does not compare different reader's guides for the Aeneid. For a recent review of Vergil companions, see Marc Mastrangelo, CJ 97 (2001) 89-93.]

David O. Ross's book Virgil's Aeneid: A Reader's Guide, has an introduction, six chapters, and an appendix on the Latin hexameter. In his preface, Ross says that his intended audience is a "wide range of non-specialist readers" (although frequent citations of untranslated Latin suggest that the book might be more useful to someone reading the poem in Latin). I believe, however, that everyone--professional academic, student, or layperson--will benefit from Ross's lyrical and insightful reading of Vergil's great poem. Ross has definitely changed my own perspective on the Aeneid.

In his introduction Ross emphasizes that Virgil is above all a poet and accordingly asks many questions but supplies few answers. The Aeneid has been misread, misunderstood, and disparaged over the centuries by those who unprofitably compare Virgil's secondary (that is to say, written) epic with the oral epic of Homer, his greatest predecessor, and find Vergil lacking the simplicity of Homer's linear and descriptive narrative. To demonstrate, Ross compares Odyssey 10.156-71 with Aeneid 1.184-94, two hunting scenes. Homer's description is precise and accurate: Virgil's description is much grander and more general. The details of the hunting scene are not important to Virgil: the hero's actions and feelings are. Ross states: "Virgil has written a poem not so much about Rome's origins and its imperial present, but about the deceptive images that we continually make and remake to restore our past and imagine our future" (p. 10). Part of Ross's goal is to offer different perspectives on some of the more prominent scholarly views of the poem. This view informs the rest of his reader's guide.

In chapter one, "Virgil's Hero," Ross presents Aeneas as a human figure caught in the great net of the gods' divine plan for Rome. "The difference between a Homeric hero at a time of crisis and Aeneas is simply this, that in Homer the hero acts, decisively and without hesitation, whereas for Aeneas there is no course of action possible, no way to resolve the conflict" (p. 13). Ross then examines three scenes of crisis in the Aeneid: 2.634-704, 5.700-54, and 4.279-95, all depicting Aeneas compelled to act on the orders of his divinely ordained mission. "No Homeric hero, even Odysseus, was ever so conflicted" (p. 15). Ross then looks at "The Hero and Personal Loss" with views of Dido, Creusa, Anchises, Venus, and Ascanius, then at "The Hero as Warrior (10.510-605)," Aeneas' aristeia.

In chapter two, Ross turns to the victims of Aeneas's great mission. "Were the victims really obstacles to progress, and were they necessary sacrifices?" (p. 32). He notes Dido's downward spiral from great queen of Carthage to obsessed and mad woman in love, and concludes "[t]here is only one other character in the epic who suffers from a similar progress to a similar isolation, cut off from every human contact, and that is Aeneas" (p. 35). About the young lovers Nisus and Euryalus, as well as about Pallas and Lausus, Ross states that the young men's attraction to the savage heroism of Aeneas brings with it "a tone of ambivalent irony" (p. 38), "and sound[s] again the Catullan themes of loss and betrayal in the new age of heroes" (p. 42). To Ross Turnus despite his enemy status) exemplifies (the Roman aristocrat with his ancestral ingenium and virtus as well as his beauty of form. When he battles against Aeneas in book XII , his furor (in both an erotic and war-eager sense) proves to be no match for Aeneas. "There is no final message to be abstracted here, no conclusions to be drawn about the rightness or wrongness of Turnus' actions or of what his heroic world made of him" (p. 52). After a brief excursus on Camilla, Ross turns to Italy itself as the epic's final victim. Pallanteum (also Latium), as Evander presents it, is both a prelapsarian idyll and a community experienced in the sufferings and glories of warfare.

Ross turns to "Fate and the Gods" in chapter three. "The Romans had no religion," (p. 62) in the sense that the Judeo-Christian tradition understands it: no creed, no personal or moral responsibility to lead a just life, no spirituality expressed through prayer and devotion, no divinity whose grace we can hope to obtain (paraphrased from p. 62). The Romans of Virgil's time were still very much aware of native animistic beliefs from their ancient past. "Virgil's gods and fate are sometimes agents, sometimes expressions of [the images of the past and the future] with an emotional depth that only poetry is capable of" (p. 76).

In "Virgil's Troy" (chapter four), Ross surveys the history of Troy as a Roman ideological concept, positing that "[f]or the ancient Romans, Troy provided an emotional antiquity" (p. 80). Since Troy is simultaneously Homeric and the source of Rome itself, Aeneas's tale of its destruction in Book II "tells of the personal loss that is always and inevitably our individual past" (p. 82). The reconstruction of Troy at Buthrotum (which Ross calls "Andromache's Troy") lacks any sense of reality. It is purely a monument to Andromache's unhappy past, since she lives for those who are dead. The real new Troy will be Rome. But the Trojan Games in Book V reveal "figures lost in a maze, trying desperately to escape, to recover a way out, inextricably wandering, blind and deceived" (p. 103). This is what his Trojan past represents for Aeneas.

"Rome the rerum imago" (chapter five) sets forth the "unknowable" future of Rome as it is presented in the poem. Ross points out that our confidence in what the future will bring is considerably higher than it would have been for the ancient Greeks and Romans, what with our abilities to predict weather, sports outcomes and to diagnose disease. "Jupiter's revelation to Venus in Book I has the simplicity of an outline offered in the first lecture of a course on Roman history" (p. 107). But for Aeneas and his men, as well as for Virgil's contemporary readers, the future of Rome was far less certain. Ross notes the textual comparison between Augustus on Aeneas's divine shield and Aeneas himself, standing high on the stern, accompanied by flames (p. 117). He sees in this shield the ignorance imposed on the epic's most important figures as well as the false dreams Aeneas received as he left through the gate of ivory from the Underworld in Book VI.

In chapter six, Ross looks at Virgil's life and works. I'm sure that he must have considered putting this chapter first at one point, and in the most obvious reading of his book, that's where it would belong. But it is fitting that this look at the limited biography of Vergil, as well as his historical context, should be at the end of this work, as Ross analyzes the Eclogues and Georgics and notes their influences on the Aeneid (as well as the Aeneid's influence on the Georgics). The analyses of Vergil's earlier works are concise and pithy, and are most suitable for those who have already read these poems. Ross's final words are about furor, the passion both erotic and violent that has driven so many of Vergil's characters breathlessly and desperately forward throughout the epic.

This short summary cannot begin to convey the complexity and allusiveness of Ross's reading of the Aeneid. He notes throughout Virgil's reliance on earlier poets, both Greek and Roman, from Homer and Theocritus to Gallus and Catullus, and enlivens the portrait he paints of the poem with the intuitiveness and relevance of his observations. Ross truly makes this notoriously difficult poem accessible to the reader, and though his analysis will be especially suitable for undergraduates reading the poem in Latin, it has something to offer both the non-specialist and professional alike.

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