VIRGIL’S ASCANIUS: Imagining the Future in the Aeneid

Anne Rogerson

CUP (2017) h/b 237pp £75 (ISBN 9781107115392)

Ascanius is an iconic figure in the Aeneid, at times the very embodiment of the future of his family and people, and, as R. points out, he remains Trojan too. His names recall the past and look to the future. At 1.268 he had an apt name Ilus while Troy (Ilium) remained, and then the cognomen Iulus is added to Ascanius (1.267-8), apt for the future of Rome, the Julian gens and the emperor Augustus. The two names are used with almost equal regularity (35:41) and occasionally in close proximity (4.274 quoted below). While other youths such as Euryalus or Pallas can die young, Ascanius must survive. Virgil does show him maturing from small boy (parvus Iulus 1.710, 722) to growing lad (4.274) but, as R. points out, he is never allowed to become completely adult in the Aeneid. Even after his manly exploit of killing Numanus Regulus (9.633-4), Apollo still addresses him as puer, significantly in juxtaposition with virtute (9.641).

There is a famous inconsistency in the Aeneid over Roman ancestry: is Ascanius or Silvius the fons et origo of the Alban kings and their Roman descendants? According to Jupiter (a usually reliable source) at 1.267ff Ascanius will effect the move to Alba Longa and there the gens Hectorea will reign three hundred years until Ilia gives birth to twins. But in the underworld (6.764ff.) Anchises offers a different view since Aeneas’ last child (postuma proles) by Lavinia will be brought up by her as ‘king and father of kings’ and from him will be descended rulers of Alba Longa.

This inconsistency may not be felt in other parts of the epic: Mercury delivers an uncompromising message from Jupiter at 4.274-6 (Ascanium surgentem et spes heredis Iuli / respice, cui regnum Italiae Romanaque tellus / debetur). But Anchises does give the option for doubt.

This study of the Ascanius contributes to our understanding of the complexity and richness of the poem as a whole. He may represent hope for the future but he is also a young man whose future is subject to delay and frustration, as is the whole Trojan venture. For example, when the Trojan women set fire to the ships, Ascanius arrives first on horseback (5.667ff), and reproaches the women. His speech ends with the grand gesture of throwing down his helmet with the words en, ego vester Ascanius. R. observes the potency of the gesture, ‘demanding acknowledgement of who he is’ and what he represents—their Roman future. But Aeneas arrives and the women scatter before they can respond to Ascanius’ speech. ‘Readers,’ R.  continues, ‘are left uncertain about whether his identity, maturity and position were properly recognised by the Trojan women.’ R.’s view of Ascanius may be summarised briefly by her conclusion to her chapter, ‘Aeneas’ Farewell’: ‘Always upstaged by his heroic father, he symbolises the frustrations as much the hopes of succession. His voice, when heard, is swiftly silenced, and after Aeneas leaves to engage in his climactic encounter with Turnus, he simply vanishes’.

This book should be in every university library. Academic in style, but accessible and clearly expressed, it would not disappoint non-specialist readers either.


Alan Beale

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