VIRGIL’S DOUBLE CROSS: Design and Meaning in the Aeneid

David Quint

Princeton (2018) p/b 248 pages £27 (ISBN 9780691179384)

This book, stripped of its introduction, bibliography and index, is 190 pages long; however, it manages to cram into these pages a wealth of forensically detailed analyses of Virgil’s epic poem. 

There are seven chapters, each focusing on a particular aspect within certain books of the Aeneid. Q. points out that the Aeneid has become ‘the Classic for our time….it urgently speaks to us now in the light and darkness of an American peace that is also a long order of wars.’ He argues that ‘Virgil controls the ironies of the Aeneid in response to a particular historical situation: the emergence of a new princely regime and promised peace out of the series of civil wars that had torn apart the Roman Republic.’ Whilst most readers would be aware of the historical context of the Aeneid, Q. pulls off the herculean task of weaving together both the historical context and the multitudinous literary contexts to demonstrate how Virgil uses chiastic structures, setting up oppositions throughout the epic, in order to highlight the contradictions inherent in an Augustan ideology ‘that preached both forgiveness and revenge.’ All Latin is translated.

Chapter 1 considers the use of chiasmus in its broadest sense in books 1 and 12 of the Aeneid. Thus, whilst book 1 begins in the style of the Odyssey, (although already reversed: this is the story of the defeated Trojans) it ends in the most bloodily Iliadic of battles. Chapter 2 examines the ‘Greek books’ i.e. books 2 and 3 of the Aeneid, arguing that the recounted events of the dying moments of Troy echo Roman history, whilst the focus on the Carthaginian queen Dido points to her rebirth in the form of the implacable Hannibal. I would argue that the strongest chapter in a frankly marvellous book is chapter 3, which considers Dido both in her original mythology and in her Virgilian rewrite. Q. quotes Schiesaro: ‘Virgil does some careful stacking of the deck against Dido. Allusions to both the Medea of Euripides … and to Apollonius’s Medea … should give us pause about the Dido with whom the larger poem makes its readers sympathise.’ Given the tendency of modern readers to identify with the tragic Dido, this chapter argues persuasively that her story was rewritten by both Virgil and the Roman history that eventually crushed Carthage. 

Chapter 4 argues that book 6 ‘understands deification in Euhemerist terms, as a hyperbolic metaphor for deathless fame and earthly power.’ Here, Q. utilises a range of sources to weigh up the questions raised by the sibyl’s warning that the way into the kingdom of death is easy, whilst the way out is rather more tricky. So, what deeds must one perform to get in? And how far does divine sonship help or hinder? In chapter 5 Q. describes book 8 as ‘Virgil’s book of green and gold—golden objects shining against the green backdrop of nature.’ Here we see how Virgil’s love of the bucolic life is reflected in two perspectives: on the one hand, the rustic simplicity of an Arcadian idyll unused to ‘warships and flashing shields’; on the other, the wild, elemental primitivism of Cacus that needs taming. 

Chapter 6 is probably best read with a copy of the Iliad at hand. Q. details how the heroic duels of book 10 are constructed by imposing at least two scenes from the Iliad. However, like Stephen Hinds, Q. stresses that the models compete with one another; at different times, the warriors will imitate Sarpedon, Patroclus, Hector and Achilles. This chapter arguably bears best witness to Virgil’s genius, for it is in the multiplication of Sarpedons and Patrocluses that we read the overwhelming message of the Aeneid: the glory of war goes hand in hand with the grief of bereavement and the sorrow wrought by lives cut short. In the final chapter, Q. explores Virgil’s use of the non-Homeric Aithiopis as the model for the slaying of Pallas by Turnus and the killings of Lausus and Mezentius by Aeneas. Q. states that ‘Pallas, not Lavinia, replaces Dido as love-object in the second half of the Aeneid’—a claim of which I was initially sceptical, until Q.’s exploration persuaded me.

Q.’s book manages to be both challenging and accessible: there is much here to extend and enlighten study of the Aeneid at any level, and at an admirably affordable price.

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