CUP (2019) h/b 328pp £75 (ISBN 9781108482622)

The ‘Abused Bodies’ of the title refers to the mistreatment of corpses in Roman epic poetry: post mortem dismemberment, refusal of burial, or other forms of abuse. Roman imperial epic is obsessed with this and that is why M.’s thoroughly researched and authoritative study is undoubtedly a very valuable contribution to the field and will be of interest mainly to readers already familiar with the epics of Lucan, Statius, Valerius Flaccus and Silius Italicus.

After a brief introductory chapter, M. establishes a normative framework for the motif of corpse treatment in the Iliad and Aeneid in order to assess deviation from the norm in later Roman epic. Homer’s Iliad is full of threats of corpse abuse. For instance, at 17.126-7 Hector intends to drag the dead Patroclus away, cut off his head and give the body to the dogs. But Homer almost never allows these threats to be fulfilled—in this episode the Achaeans recover the body of Patroclus from the Trojans and he later receives a proper funeral.

Perhaps the most famous abused body in the Aeneid is Priam’s: iacet ingens litore truncus, ‘he lies a huge trunk on the shore’. M. argues that Virgil will allow a wider range of corpse abuse into his poem than Homer, but ‘pulls back from describing it.’ Priam’s body lies on the shore, a headless corpse, but Virgil is silent about the actual decapitation. Not so Lucan in his Bellum Civile, where Pompey’s head is crudely detached by Septimius: nervos venasque secat, nodosaque frangit / ossa diu ‘he saws sinews and veins, he cracks through knotty vertebrae a long while’ 8.672-3. 

After Virgil, corpse abuse in Roman epic becomes more vivid and overt. ‘Highlights’ include Venus appearing with a severed head in her arms to urge the Lemnian women to kill their husbands (Valerius Argonautica 2), or the witch Erichtho re-animating a dead soldier in an act of necromancy (Lucan Bellum Civile 6), or Tydeus eating the brains from the severed head of his enemy Melanippus (Statius Thebaid 8). At one time these gruesome elements were thought to be typical of decadent, ‘silver’ epic. M.’s study argues convincingly, with very many close intertextual readings, and through expert engagement with recent scholarship on Neronian and Flavian epic, that the abused body motifs are in fact integral to wider poetic strategies, often expressing major themes such as civil war and tyranny. 

Giles Gilbert