Friday, September 18, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Vassiliki Panoussi, Greek Tragedy in Vergil's "Aeneid": Ritual, Empire, and Intertext. Cambridge/ New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xiii, 257. ISBN 9780521895224. $80.00.
Reviewed by Wolfgang Polleichtner, Ruhr-Universität Bochum

Table of Contents

Panoussi provides us here with the first book-length study on the topic of the role of classical Greek tragedy in Vergil's Aeneid. The greatest achievement of this book undoubtedly is that it will be a starting point for many more future discussions on this topic.

Following the acknowledgments (ix-xi) and the list of abbreviations (xiii), Panoussi gives us an overview of her book in the introduction (1-7). Panoussi argues that Vergil used allusions to Homer and to the Greek tragedians alongside each other to achieve two goals. According to Panoussi's view, the use of Homer is intended to confer authority upon Vergil's work. Vergil becomes the Roman Homer and thus can endorse Augustus' new regime in Rome. The use of tragedy in turn offers Vergil the opportunity to raise serious doubts about this regime. The tension between the two literary genres emerges as a means to mirror the process of negotiating the tension between affirming and resisting the new political circumstances.

In my view, however, this approach does not pay enough attention to several issues. First, the history of the genre of epic poetry in Rome is far more complicated than Panoussi portrays it. For example, Ennius' important role in regard to the Roman absorption of Homer is not even mentioned. Panoussi's argument also does not sufficiently take into account that Augustus' reign was in itself by no means a static phenomenon. As, for example, Schauer1 has recently shown, this aspect should play a major role in our interpretive efforts to understand Vergil's Aeneid.2

In addition, already Aristotle in his Poetics combined his position on tragedy with remarks on epic poetry. This approach enabled him, inter alia, to point out the differences, but also the similarities between the two genres. Aristotle's views probably were not lost on epic poets subsequently. A discussion of the history of these differences between epic poetry and tragedy in Rome would have been necessary to fully assess Vergil's role in using the alleged tensions between the two genres for the purposes which Panoussi claims to have been Vergil's. I need to admit that Panoussi says in her n.3 on page 4 that such a discussion would be beyond the scope of her study and furthermore severely complicated by the fact that we do not know much about Roman tragedy. If, however, we cannot establish what the state of the tragic genre was in Rome, we indeed enter dangerous territory if we suppose too readily that anything like "generic integrity" (57) was a concept that Vergil could use in his Aeneid in order to score interpretive points in regard to his own times. What would this integrity have looked like?

Finally, in my opinion a brief definition of what terms like "ritual" or "ritualistic" mean for Panoussi and a brief introductory evaluation of the relationship between ritualistic acts and typical epic elements would have been helpful at the beginning of the book. Where did ritual end? What did it mean for Roman ears if certain activities that were not part of a religious act were couched in ritual vocabulary? Do we really have to assume that such an action, that is by necessity not part of a religious ritual and as such, of course, defective and incomplete, represents ritual corruption or some other kind of sacrilege?

Panoussi's book is divided into two main parts (I "Ritual", 9-173, and II "Empire", 175-226). The first part contains three sections of which section A ("Sacrifice", 11-77) is divided into the first two chapters of the book. The first chapter of this section is entitled "Ritual Violence and the Failure of Sacrifice" (13-44). Panoussi carefully explores the consequences that violations of ritual purity have in various passages of the Aeneid. Panoussi draws on many parallels from Greek tragedy. At some points, however, an increased focus on the differences in the parallels would have been helpful to ascertain the different degrees of influence these parallels exert over the Aeneid. For example, Orestes kills his mother whereas in Vergil's Helen episode Helen is not a relative of Aeneas, of course. In my opinion, the parallels with Orestes show that Vergil wants to problematize the relationship between guilt, vengeance, responsibility, and giving in to irrational anger. Ritual impurity and violation, whose intricacies Panoussi very ably explains, make the reader aware that there is indeed a lot at stake in these Vergilian passages.

The second chapter of section A is called "Suicide, Devotio, and Ritual Closure" (45-77). Panoussi diligently explains how both Dido and Turnus in the end pervert the Roman devotio. When Panoussi, however, assumes that there is a shift from being a devotus to being a slain suppliant for Turnus3 and that this shift sheds doubt on Aeneas' ability to produce lasting peace (76f.), I would add that this passage at the end of the Aeneid proves exactly the fact that Aeneas is able to restore order. It is Turnus who chooses his role according to what is most helpful for him in a given situation. In other words, Turnus' instable and opportunistic character traits complicate further what already is a political quagmire. In this sense, closure is achieved even if other important questions remain open.

Section B ("Restoration", 79-112) consists of the third chapter. It deals with the question of how ritual purity is sought and more often distorted than achieved in the Aeneid. Panoussi takes this as a sign that Vergil wants to explore the boundaries within which dissent can be expressed in the ritually sound world of Augustus' own efforts to restore cultic restoration. This chapter's argument is very interesting. Yet it rests on very speculative grounds. Take, for example, Panoussi's comparison between Aeschylus' Eumenides 71-74 and Aeneid 3.214f. (89). In Aeschylus the Erinyes and in Vergil the Harpies are described in terms that betray their foul origin. And still, the similarities between both passages are not as great as Panoussi wants them to be. In Vergil, the Harpies are seen as a sign of divine anger (ira deum), whereas in Aeschylus, the Erinyes are said to be hateful to men and gods alike. Vergil's Harpies are a sign of the anger of the gods and a means through which this anger prosecutes the reasons for its generation, whereas Aeschylus' Furies themselves are the target or reason of the gods' negative emotions. This important difference will ultimately result in very different consequences for both works. The gods will even see to it that the Furies are transformed into benevolent deities at the end of the Oresteia. The Harpies' function is far more ancillary in terms of the plot. Also the respective ritual context within which both deities appear is decisively different. I do not think that there is much more to this intertext than the fact that both groups of non-human creatures are dark forces dwelling in the underworld. Ancient mythology knows many more foul creatures. From this inventory, Vergil and Aeschylus picked those monsters whose individual and specific characteristics were required by the stories they wanted to tell.

Section C ("Women's Rituals", 113-173) comprises chapters 4 and 5. In part, chapter 4 ("Maenad Brides and the Destruction of the City") appeared already in 2002.4 This chapter is a very nice conspectus of how Dido and Amata want to reassert their power over what is happening in their surroundings and to what extent they avail themselves for that purpose of maenadic activities as we know them from Greek tragedy. This discussion will provide opportunities in the future for further inquiries about the exact nature of the marriage between the in many ways irresponsible king Latinus (cf., e.g., Aen. 7.600: rerum reliquit habenas) and Queen Amata who, broadly speaking, because of her disappointment over the perceived intransigence of her husband, apparently no longer cares about the boundaries of sound behavior (7.377: sine more).

Chapter 5 ("Mourning Glory: Ritual Lament and Roman Civic Identity", 145-173) explores the meaning of ritual mourning in the Aeneid in relation to Greek tragedy. Panoussi claims that Vergil inverts the pattern of funerary rituals he found in tragedy in order to show how communal unity is threatened by the transgression of the boundaries set by the customary roles that individual groups have to play during these rituals. Panoussi focuses her discussion especially on the role of women in this regard. In portraying these rituals as an essential part of the broader foundation of the new civic identity of the Trojan refugees, Panoussi manages to show how fragile this new identity really is. Panoussi, however, takes her argument a little too far when she defines the final scene of the Aeneid as a part of the funerary rituals for Pallas. Turnus dies in a duel. Exactly because Aeneas describes the death of his opponent that takes place in a context that prima facie has nothing to do with sacrificial and funerary rituals, the case of Turnus' death is far more complex than just a "problematization of public death ritual" (173).

Two more chapters are listed under Part II. They are entitled "Heroic Identity: Vergil's Ajax" (177-217) and "Contesting Ideologies: Ritual and Empire" (218-226). Chapter 6 is as slightly revised reprinted version of the author's "Vergil's Ajax: Allusion, Tragedy and Heroic Identity in Vergil's Aeneid" which appeared in Classical Antiquity.5 This chapter is, in my opinion, the best part of the book. It demonstrates very ably how the identity of an epic Roman hero rests on a web of intertextual relations that includes references to both Homeric poetry as well as Greek tragedy, whereby Sophocles' Ajax plays a pivotal role.

The last chapter y could also be seen as the summary of the book. Panoussi depicts the epic intertexts that are recognizable in the Aeneid as affirmations of Augustan ideology, whereas, according to Panoussi, the poem's tragic intertexts that focus on the corruption of rituals and their consequences are portrayed as being used as expressions of the negative sides of Augustus' rule. As a result of this bipolar structure and everything in between, Panoussi claims, we can grasp more clearly the complex nature of how Augustan ideology was formed and proliferated. At the same time, as Panoussi explains, the use of ritualistic acts in the Aeneid shows Vergil's appreciation of Augustus' efforts to restore the cults of Rome. Panoussi situates her discussion within modern discussions of the theory of ideology and ritual. Yet, it was not always quite clear to me in how far this discussion really was a reformulation of the old dichotomy between pro- and anti-Augustan positions (7) that would be more than just a repetition of familiar arguments, besides paying attention now also to tragic intertexts. The use of tragedy in the Aeneid has so many more facets to it that it seems a little awkward to narrow down the multiple and broad perspectives, which this phenomenon can open up for us, to the debate whether Vergil himself or the readers of the Aeneid used this epic poem for ideologically charged propaganda. Let it suffice here to point to the pivotal role that, for example, philosophy played in the negotiation between epic and tragic intertexts as, for example, Fish has recently shown.6

Panoussi's book is then rounded out by the bibliography (227-240), a general index (241-251), and an index locorum (252-257). The bibliography and the index locorum indicate that Panoussi has not included all recent scholarship on the role of tragedy in the Aeneid.7 Her book, however, merits much praise because it will serve as a starting point for many more discussions of the role of tragedy in the Aeneid and undoubtedly has initiated a new phase of the debate.


1.   Cf. M. Schauer: Aeneas dux in Vergils Aeneis. Eine literarische Fiktion in augusteischer Zeit (München).
2.   Panoussi makes this point herself on page 225. This observation then leads Panoussi to assume that the pro-Augustan reception of the Aeneid was a result of Augustus' ideological triumph. In my opinion, this rather general assumption does not do justice to the complex synchronic and diachronic relations between the Aeneid, its author, and its recipients.
3.   As scholars have noted, a discussion of the topic of Turnus' devotio is not complete without pointing out the mistakes Turnus makes in this regard. If Turnus wanted to be a devotus, he at least is not able to live up to his aspirations as a devotus. Therefore, he is no devotus, but a tragic figure. Cf., e.g., C. B. Pascal: "The Dubious Devotion of Turnus." TAPA 120, 1990: 251-268, esp. 252.
4.   V. Panoussi: "Threat and Hope: Women's Rituals and Civil War in Roman Epic," in M. Parca, A. Tzanetou, eds.: Finding Persephone: Women's Rituals in the Ancient Mediterranean (Bloomington) 114-134.
5.   21, 2002: 95-134.
6.   "Anger, Philodemus' Good King, and the Helen Episode of Aeneid 2.567-89: A New Proof of Authenticity from Herculaneum," in D. Armstrong, J. Fish, P. Johnston, M. Skinner, eds.: Vergil, Philodemus, and the Augustans (Austin 2004) 111-38.
7.   For a more comprehensive perspective on Vergil's use of tragedy cf. K. Galinsky's "Greek and Roman Drama and the Aeneid" in D. Braund, C. Gill, eds.: Myth, History And Culture in Republican Rome. Studies in Honour of T.P. Wiseman (Exeter 2003) 275-294. The latter article is also not listed in Panoussi's bibliography. Also cf. in addition to the usual bibliographies on Vergil e.g., S. Werner's useful online bibliographical guide.

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