Sunday, August 13, 2017


Anne Rogerson, Virgil's Ascanius: Imagining the Future in the Aeneid. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge Classical Press, 2017. Pp. viii, 237. ISBN 9781107115392. $99.99.

Reviewed by James J. O'Hara, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (

Version at BMCR home site


This fine and stimulating book discusses multivalent and slippery prophecies, significant names and their etymologies, and especially the importance of variant and inconsistent versions of myth. To quote Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, "these are a few of my favorite things." But even someone whose interests do not overlap with this book's as thoroughly as mine will find much of value here.

The book, originally a dissertation supervised by Philip Hardie and Emily Gowers, has ten concise chapters including the introduction and conclusion. Different chapters explore conflicting statements about whether the Trojan Ascanius or Aeneas and Creusa's half-Italian son Silvius Postumus will be heir to Aeneas and ancestor of the Alban Kings, Romulus, and the Julians; the significance of the names Ilus, Iulus, and Ascanius; the ways that "Ascanius is appropriated as a symbol" (p. 57) by female characters, both Dido and especially the backwards-looking and Troy-fixated Andromache in Aeneid 3; how the strong and problematic associations of Ascanius with Troy are stressed by Andromache, by Ascanius' performing of the "Trojan Games," and in other passages; how the omen of Ascanius' flaming head in Aeneid 2 could be read in different ways, and how the similar omen in Book 7 furthers the idea that Lavinia's line and that of Ascanius are to be in competition; how Ascanius is portrayed at times as an exotic and even "erotic, un-epic presence" (p. 138) who needs special protection, and at other times as an immature, rash boy lacking in self-control; and how these various worrisome qualities, and his persistent Trojanness, suggest that he might make a less suitable heir and ancestor than Silvius. Rogerson's close reading of the details of the text, which builds both on context and on the poet's precise word-choice, calls attention to many aspects of the poem that we have missed. The book offers a thoroughly modern way of reading: Rogerson is well-versed in the mythological background and makes solid philological arguments, but shares the modern scholar's openness to ambiguity and uncertainty––when the details of the text support such a reading. Not every reader will agree with everything she says, but the arguments are careful and compelling.

Describing how the Aeneid often evokes potential future conflict between Ascanius and his family on the one hand and Lavinia and her son Silvius Postumus on the other is central to the book's novel contribution, so I'll give that question the most attention here. After a thoughtful Introduction, Rogerson begins in Chapter 2 with a review of Aeneas' offspring in earlier versions of the story, many of which depict multiple sons or even daughters, and often feature conflict between Ascanius' and Lavinia's lines. These versions, including Livy's recent declaration of aporia in Ab Urbe Condita 1.3.2-3, formed the context in which readers would have received Vergil's new story. Of course a new poet is free to innovate, and to declare, e.g., that Aeolus is in need of a wife in Aeneid 1, rather than the married father of twelve of Odyssey 10. But Rogerson shows again and again that the poet's careful word-choice points to rather than evades the problem of Aeneas' heirs. She shows first that in numerous passages divine or divinely inspired figures state or imply that Ascanius will found Alba Longa and that his heirs will reign both at Alba and at Rome. These passages include Jupiter's words to Venus in 1.267-74 and to Mercury in 4.234 (repeated by Mercury in 274-76, and cited by Aeneas in 355), Anchises' in 6 (the Parade of Heroes features Caesar et omnis Iuli / progenies magnum caeli uentura sub axem, 789-90), the description of Aeneas' shield (genus omne futurae / stirpis ab Ascanio, 8.628-29), and Apollo's addressing Ascanius as dis genite et geniture deos (9.642). But the problem is that Anchises also says that Aeneas' half-Italian son Silvius Postumus will be "king and father of kings": Siluius, Albanum nomen, tua postuma proles, / quem tibi longaeuo serum Lauinia coniunx / educet siluis regem regumque parentem, 763-65. The phrasing regem regumque parentem even resembles and points to Book 9's dis genite et geniture deos. Silvius' Alban nomen "becomes the cognomen of all the Alban kings hereafter ([Livy] 1.3.7), down to Numitor, father of Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus" (p. 19). Rogerson nicely notes that when Anchises introduces the Parade by speaking of "what glory is to come for Aeneas' Dardanian offspring" (Dardaniam prolem … 6.756), Dardanius is not a bland adjective meaning "Trojan," but evokes "Dardanus' dual nature as both Trojan and Italian" (p. 28) and the "hybrid" nature he shares with Silvius Postumus, who is pointedly described as Italo commixtus sanguine (762).

When in Book 7 the flaming-head omen that marked Ascanius as special in Book 2 recurs in connection with Lavinia, "The repetition … casts Lavinia as the Ascanius figure for the second, Italian half of the poem" (p. 30). The oracle of Faunus tells Latinus that "foreign sons-in-law are coming to lift by blood our name to the stars" (7.98-99), and that "descendants from their stock" (quorumque a stirpe nepotes, 99) will see the whole world at their feet. "Their stock" means the stock of the foreigners, and so Faunus' oracle will be true even if Ascanius is the ancestor and not Lavinia. (Rogerson might have compared 8.340-41, where Carmenta accurately prophesies greatness for the sons of Aeneas, but only for the site of Pallanteum––and not Evander's people, who will die out, futuros / Aeneadas magnos et nobile Pallanteum). But Rogerson notes that no solution can make the problem go away, for neither Ascanius nor Silvius can be easily dismissed,1 nor can the problem be tamed as "a neutral, if playful allusion, in the style of an Alexandrian poet, to the variations in the tradition," because "Aeneas' descendants matter more than that" (p. 32). And the issue has contemporary relevance, which Rogerson touches on more than explores in depth: "Placed side-by-side the passages hint at civil strife to come after Aeneas' settlement in Latium, a further allusion among many in the text to the perpetual struggles for power, inheritance and succession that tore at the fabric of Roman society, from the time before the actual foundation of the city to the age of Augustus" (p. 33). She could have stressed the Augustan context even more: in the last years of Vergil's life, Augustus lost his nephew and son-in-law Marcellus in 23; he then gave Marcellus' widow Julia, Augustus' daughter by his previous marriage, in marriage to Agrippa (their first son Gaius was born in 20); and at the same time Augustus' wife Livia had her two sons from a previous marriage, Tiberius (22 years old in 20) and Drusus (18 in 20). And of course Augustus was merely a great-nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, and had Caesar's only son, Cleopatra's Caesarion, killed. Ovidian scholars often note Ovid's interest in questions of succession later in the Augustan period:2 Rogerson's book suggests that Vergilians should join them. She notes in particular that in the wording of Anchises' lament for Marcellus in Aeneid 6 we see "clear evocation of the rival claims of Silvius and Ascanius" (p. 34), in such details as Iliaca … de gente 875, Latinos / avos 875-76, Romula … tellus 876-77, and even heu, miserande puer, si qua fata aspera rumpas 882, which resonates with the language used of Silvius' descendant Silvius Aeneas in 770, si umquam regnandam acceperit Albam.

Subsequent chapters treat well-known passages with a fresh eye, and continue to reveal how the poem promotes uncertainty about Ascanius' future, stresses problematic aspects of his Trojanness, and raises doubt about his suitability to reign. Rogerson's discussion of names in Chapter 3 notes that "Ascanius is an emblem of an illustrious past and the symbol of the dazzling future," but that "he also embodies one of the Aeneid's major concerns: how the Trojans are to leave enough of their Trojanness behind to become Roman." Chapter 4, on "Andromache and Dido," describes how "narrative paths not taken feature strongly in the early books of the Aeneid, where a number of dead ends threaten Ascanius and the Roman future he represents." Andromache, who of course at Troy lost a son of Ascanius' age, "is trying to claim Ascanius … as part of her own story" (p. 62), which involves living in a wan replica of Troy, and thinking of "Ascanius' heroic inheritance" (p. 59) as something to gaze back upon, rather than looking forward to a new future. Rogerson says that "Andromache's is one of the most outspoken voices of dissent from Jupiter's program [in Book 1] of recovering from Troy's fall by moving on to something different" (p. 59), but it should be noted that in speaking to Venus in Book 1 Jupiter stresses the Trojanness of the Romans much more than he does to Juno in Book 12. Chapter 5 discusses the lusus Troiae, the equestrian exercises at the funeral games for Anchises that the poet says Ascanius brought to Alba Longa (5.596-600), and that contemporary Romans preserved as an "ancestral rite" (600-602). Rogerson says that "Virgil's contribution to the debate about Troy's revival in the age of Augustus has gone virtually unremarked" (p. 86). She nicely discusses the ways in which the survival of the Trojan name in the lusus Troiae of Augustan Rome contradicts what Jupiter promises Juno in Book 12; as always, close reading of both text and context is the key, including in Rogerson's treatment of the challenging phrase Troiaque nunc pueri (5.602). In later chapters Rogerson's discussion of Ascanius' killing of Numanus Remulus is particularly rich: in contrast to most scholars, she shows that "rather than a true initiation…., this episode is a 'flirtation with adulthood'" (p. 163, borrowing a phrase of Llewelyn Morgan's).

I like it when books are short but dense, and show evidence of much careful work and thought. This one is well-written, clear and generous. I would have cited my friend Mark Petrini's chapter on Ascanius in his book on Catullus and Vergil even more times than Rogerson does, but she makes good use both of Petrini and of a wealth of Vergilian scholarship. On "substitution" in Aeneid 1 and 4, of Cupid for Ascanius and then Ascanius for Aeneas (in Dido's eyes), I would add an interesting paper by Bowie.3 Another supplement: in discussing the flaming heads of Ascanius and Lavinia, Rogerson reminds us (p. 103) that "Cassius Dio tells the story of Salvidienus Rufus, a man of humble origins … whose rise was signalled by a flame that issued from his head as he was tending his flocks." Better to add the end of the story, in which Salvidienus offers to betray Octavian to Antony, who tells Octavian, leading to Salvidienus' execution or suicide. So that's a flaming head associated with civil strife and failure, which makes it more relevant to Rogerson's concerns.

Rogerson's last sentence (p. 203) can also be mine: "Ascanius in the Aeneid is a troubling figure, but he is suited to the troubled times in which Virgil wrote, when the succession to Augustus was undetermined, Rome's ability to move on from years of civil war unclear, and, as Evander says in relation to Pallas, Ascanius' doomed double, 'hope of the future uncertain.'"


1.   For how Maffeo Vegio pushes Ascanius aside in his fifteenth-century continuation of the Aeneid, see Rogerson's "Vegio's Ascanius: Problems in the continuation of the Aeneid," Classical Receptions Journal 5.1 (2013) 106-125. In a footnote there she notes how "Ovid makes Silvius succeed to Ascanius' position as king of Alba (Met. 14.610), with his son following after him, but sidesteps the issue of Ascanius' sons. Virgil's influential commentator Servius ties off this loose end by stating that Ascanius founded Alba but died without issue, and perforce bequeathed his position as king of Alba to his half-brother (ad Aen. 6.760)." Both solutions ignore Aen. 8.628-29 genus omne futurae / stirpis ab Ascanio.
2.   E.g. Darcy Krasne, "Succeeding Succession: Cosmic and earthly succession in the Fasti and Metamorphoses," pp. 115-53 in L. Fulkerson and T. Stover, ed., Repeat Performances: Ovidian Repetition and the Metamorphoses, Madison (2016).
3.   A. M. Bowie, "Exuvias effigiemque: Dido, Aeneas and the Body as Sign," pp. 57-79 in D. Montserrat, ed., Changing Bodies, Changing Meanings: Studies on the Human Body in Antiquity, London/New York (1998). ​

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