Friday, September 6, 2013


Marco Fantuzzi, Achilles in Love. Intertextual Studies. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xi, 317. ISBN 9780199603626. $150.00.

Reviewed by Benjamin Acosta-Hughes, The Ohio State University (

Version at BMCR home site

Theocritus Idyll 13 opens with the poet's statement to his friend Nicias that famously recalls a Platonic discussion of the origin of Eros in the Phaedrus. As an example of the god's power the poet surprisingly cites Heracles (line 5), with weighty heroic epithets and a properly heroic deed (the Nemean lion); only after the bucolic diaeresis of line 6 do we learn that he loved, and that he loved a boy. The reader might, prior to this last word, be understandably baffled by the juxtaposition of Eros and Heracles: the hero's loves (Megara, Deianeira, Iole) are notoriously disastrous. And so, it turns out, is his love for a boy. His heroic powers employed in pursuit of Hylas, his lost boy love, Heracles fails to rejoin the Argo in time for its departure, and becomes an object of mockery to his fellow Argonauts, the worst fate that can befall an epic hero in terms of loss of τιμή. Love, it would seem, is not an appropriate theme for celebrating the hero; rather, it makes his heroic prowess seem misapplied (Heracles thundering through the thickets), or worse, contemptible.

Fantuzzi's splendid study of Achilles' erotic misadventures in Greek and Latin literature is a careful consideration of an age-old problem of heroic portrayal, one with surprisingly many points of contact with questions of masculinity and its portrayal in contemporary culture. I would therefore argue that this is not only a good book, for it is an excellent reading of a large number of Greek and Latin texts, several of them undeservedly understudied, but that it is also an important book. It showcases tensions in some of the earliest representations of the hero that we have, tensions, especially concerning questions of gender, that continue to preoccupy our culture today. In this regard Achilles in Love is pertinent to many discussions about gender imaging. Why are boys not supposed to cry? What makes a man 'soft' (dominant wife, excessive deference to women)? Why can there be (as of the time I write these lines) no openly gay member of the NFL? What is a hero? In short, while a truly elegant reading of ancient texts, Fantuzzi's study is far more than that: it is a work that anyone with an interest in gender and its construction really needs to read.

Achilles in Love consists of an introduction and then three longer chapters, each on one of the 'loves' that came to be attributed to Achilles in the course of a long history of reading, and commenting on, the Iliad: Deidameia, Briseis, and Patroclus. A shorter chapter on Penthesilea closes the study. In his introduction the author lays out the essential challenge inherent in his topic: the Iliad is on the whole discrete, if not silent, on the subject of Achilles' erotic life: Hector's slayer, when resting from the martial combat at the poem's center, sings of the κλέα ἀνδρῶν, the appropriate thematic focus of martial epic. The narratives of Achilles' loves were drawn either from non-Iliadic traditions, or, as Fantuzzi carefully documents in his study, the interaction of later readers with the Iliad, both through the writing of poetry, but also, importantly, in Hellenistic Homeric scholarship. The interrelationship of these later narratives raises issues of intertextuality but also of generic definition; at the center of their multi-layered evolution is the question of what it means to be a hero, and what constitutes heroic behavior.

The narrative of Achilles on Scyros, where Thetis conceals the future hero in girls' garments among Deidameia's attendants, is best known to most modern readers from Statius, in whose poem the story plays out something of an initiation into manhood and an opposition between nature and culture emblematized by the lion simile at Ach. 1.858-63. In a Roman context, as Fantuzzi well argues, Achilles on Scyros embodies some of the problematics of Roman masculinity and its portrayal: here for a man to wear women's clothing has markedly negative connotations. The origins of this narrative are unclear: the Iliad does not mention it, and the Cypria appears to have been silent too, though there is some evidence in the scholia of traces among post- Homeric poets; perhaps, as Fantuzzi suggests (27), the earlier epic tradition found it inappropriate for hexameter narrative. Tragedy, on the other hand, clearly found considerable interest here: a surviving hypothesis of Euripides' Scyrioi (TrGF 682-86) tells of Thetis' role in hiding Achilles as a girl on Scyros, and of Deidameia's resulting pregnancy. The story with its emphasis on personal emotion, paternal wrath and several points of anagnorisis was clearly attractive to tragedy. Classical art was also interested, singling out moments of revelation and emotional choice.

The two surviving Hellenistic treatments are very different from each other, yet both reflect something of the generic problem of treating a hero's softer side. Lycophron's Alexandra roundly condemns Achilles' sojourn on Scyros, making this out to be a mark of the hero's inherent cowardice (lines 275-80); the Epithalamion of Achilles and Deidameia, however, is very different. This fragmentary poem sets the episode of Achilles on Scyros in the unusual context of a bucolic song contest. Like Idylls 6 and 11, which treat of the softer side of the Homeric one-eyed monster Polyphemus, the Epithalamion uses the erotic overtone of bucolic landscape for a novel take on a figure effectively transposed from another poetic genre. Here Achilles is the ephebe in bloom, his androgynous appeal captured in the phrase καὶ γὰρ ἴσον τήναις θηλύνετο, 'for he was as soft as they', and the singer has him use (as Fantuzzi acutely notes) Sappho's imagery of the pleasure of girls passing the night together as an effective approach to Deidameia. The Roman take on Achilles on Scyros combines something of both of these Hellenistic tones, but from a very Roman perspective on masculinity; the transvestite Achilles becomes almost a matter of miscasting, his true nature revealed in the rape of Deidameia (thus establishing one aspect of approved masculinity) and his seizing the arms proffered by Ulysses (so establishing the other). What is at issue for Horace and Ovid is the Iliadic Achilles, not a gentle ephebe: Ovid merely feigns indignation at Achilles' female clothing (Ars 1.689-90), but he too clearly prefers the more 'manly' view whereby the stuprum is proof of Achilles' true nature (73).. Statius presents a more nuanced picture of Achilles and Deidameia's relationship (he regrets leaving her), and one less critical of the cross-dressing (here imposed by Thetis very much against the boy's will), but there is still a clear preference for the return to an inherently masculine nature, as the lion simile at 1.858-63 underlines (a simile very revealing when compared with the lion cub image of Aesch. Ag. 717-36, again of nature winning out over culture). Statius, as Fantuzzi observes, does 'dignify' the episode by recasting it in an epic mode, but the image of the girlish boy remains a very problematic one, especially for a martial epic, and especially in Roman culture.

In the story of Achilles and Briseis, the hero is not in danger of demeaning himself by taking on the appearance of a girl, but rather by his feelings for a conquered woman (and therefore a slave). As Fantuzzi notes, Briseis is something of a cipher in Homer's Iliad, although the poem's primary motif, Achilles' μῆνις, is aroused by her loss. 'Her brief appearances seem to have… mainly a framing function: she has great structural importance, but is an absent structure.' (99) Homer's reader is left with an enigmatic dichotomy: Achilles has been deprived of his γέρας, and the major concern is his treatment as one of the primary Achaean leaders. Yet there is some indication that Achilles loves Briseis: this is most evident at Il. 9.341-43, where, in the context of emphasizing the loss of his γέρας Achilles appears to allow that he loved Briseis, 'although she was won by my spear' (Fantuzzi prefers the punctuation that has Achilles refer to Briseis as his ἄλοχος, a reference that has troubled some editors, but Fantuzzi is surely right here [108]). The Homeric scholia (on which Fantuzzi is particularly good, both as readerly reception and in terms of their influence on later poetry) are uncomfortable with the idea of Achilles in love with Briseis but do take some interest in Briseis' feelings for Achilles. They even enter into a surprising discussion of Briseis as φίλανδρος, a term she shares in the scholia with Andromache (116-123). A note on Briseis in this context: she seems to fulfill a symmetrical role in terms of female pathos in the Greek camp to that of Andromache/Helen among the Trojans: in her lament for Patroclus (the one moment when Briseis is given a voice in the poem, and a symbolic lynch-pin of the whole poem: her absence caused Achilles to withdraw from battle, Patroclus' death is the cause of Achilles' return) she refers to the death of her husband and brothers at Achilles' hands just as Andromache mentioned her male relatives slain by Achilles at Il. 6.413-24). Moreover, when Briseis evokes Patroclus' kindness to her in a hostile setting this is paralleled by Helen's lamenting the dead Hector at Il. 24.767-72.

What Homer left unsaid, and the Homeric scholia filled in, provides excellent material for Roman elegy, and here the tradition developed in more than one direction, as Fantuzzi shows in a series of careful and acutely intelligent readings. One is Ovid's Briseis of Her. 3, whose epistolary appeal is to an Achilles of cold, martial character: Briseis as a 'reader' of the Iliad misreads, and so overlooks, Achilles' original declaration of his true feelings (here Fantuzzi is particularly good on the influence that the Hellenistic commentary tradition was to have on later receptions of Homer). Yet there is also another elegiac Achilles, the figure of Propertius 2.8 and 2.9, and then of several Ovidian treatments in his love poetry, a soldier in love whose erotic feelings inspire his martial heroism. Here what comes into focus is a 'heroism' of love, an elegiac figure that in part effaces the epic model, with the original loss of κλέος as motive replaced in part by the hero's passion for the captive Briseis. The chapter offers a particularly rich study of the symbiosis of elegy and epic, and there is much to learn here for scholars of both Greek and Latin elegy.

Chapter 4, 'Comrades in Love', takes up the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus as depicted in the Iliad, a friendship of constancy and great depth of feeling, not however an explicitly erotic relationship. It also looks at the relationship as it was later represented on the Athenian tragic stage, especially in Aeschylus' now fragmentary Myrmidons. Fantuzzi's reading of the Homeric bond is meticulously thorough. In the Iliad the two heroes, while constant companions and set apart from the other Achaeans with Patroclus in a subordinate role, sleep apart and with different captive women (Il. 9.663-8); theirs is a symbiotic pairing, and Patroclus fulfills the role of Achilles' alter ego, but in Homer a homoerotic bond of the type of Virgil's Nisus and Euryalus, which Fantuzzi treats later in this chapter, is simply not there. However, it could be read back into Homer in later periods and under different cultural circumstances. This is clearly true of Aeschylus' Myrmidons (TrGF 3.135 and 136 are the most explicitly erotic) and of Phaedrus' speech in Plato's Symposium. These readings in turn informed the subsequent reception of the original (Aeschin. Tim. 142 e.g.).

The final chapter, 'Flirting with the Enemy' on Achilles and Penthesileia, involves the author in some admirable philological detective work: the story of Achilles' love for his martial opponent was a feature of the epic Aethiopis, of which very little survives. What we do know, from Proclus' summary of the poem, is that it featured Thersites charging Achilles with loving an enemy, Achilles killing Thersites, and Achilles' withdrawal from the army: there was thus something of a parallel structure of Achilles, a lost woman, and his withdrawal from fighting. But it is in a later tradition, one that begins with Prop. 3.11.13-16, where the narrative of love at last sight, the love that the dying Penthesileia inspires in Achilles, begins. Later hexameter poetry, e.g. Quintus or Nonnus, that rework this story, look now to a variety of models on the warrior in love, and a softer side of masculinity.

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