Oxford (2023) h/b 182pp £54 (ISBN 9780197643242)

‘No amount of cinematic hi-tech, I suspect, could ever do what Virgil does to us in these tales’ says F. (p.154), but the visual animation produced by Virgil is nonetheless a huge part of the meaning and power of the Aeneid. Imagery in Virgil (as in film) is intrinsic to the narrative rather than being mere decoration, and F. takes us here into the poetic cutting-room. Issues of focalisation—who is doing the looking and from what angle?—and the ordering of the shots are crucial for the argument as well as for the narrative, as this brilliant book proves again and again.

Take the passage where Aeneas is looking at the temple of Juno in Carthage, analysed here in chapter three. The description ends with Memnon and Penthesilea—both of them killed by Achilles—before we see Dido leading her troops. Aeneas is ‘staring, wide-eyed’ at Penthesilea’s exposed breast (1.492) when the camera moves (in what F. calls a ‘match cut shot transition’) to Dido—another beautiful woman, another female leader, and another woman about to meet her own ‘Achilles’ in the form of her Trojan visitor. Penthesilea fades out as Dido fades in, in eloquent cinematic style. Similarly, the narrative of the life and death of Camilla is massively visual, as shown in chapter five. Chloreus the arrow-shooting priest from Mt Cybelus (11.768-82) is a blaze of colour: we watch the huntress Camilla keep him in her sights, the eye ‘tracking’ the man on the page as on the field. Camilla has never seen exotic Asiatics like Chloreus before and can’t believe her luck: she is ‘like a child on her first birthday who has just been given her first taste of ice cream’ (p.149). As F. shows, the focalised narrative tells its own story: the virgin fighter has ‘caught the eastern fever through her eyes’ (p.150), she is ‘determined to rip the clothes off him’ and this is a lot more than her ‘discovering her inner shopper-girlfriend.’ The sexual imagery links her with Penthesilea and also shows her to be all woman underneath the gender-bending gung-ho. When she gets shot by Arruns the film slows right down, taking five lines for a swift spear to reach its mark, in a manner reminiscent of the filmic techniques of a Sam Peckinpah or a John Woo.

Similes feature a lot in this book, and F. naturally brings in Homer. At Iliad 3.16-28 we see Menelaus looking at Paris like a lion looks at his dinner, after the description of Paris leading the troops and shouting his head off. In a classic ‘suture’ shot we see what Menelaus sees before we see Menelaus himself respond to it with lip-smacking relish. The detail is crucial here—Paris is described as not wearing any protective gear but only carrying spears and a bow, making Menelaus’ task all the easier. The simile describes Paris but it is not about him: it is about the lion and not the prey. One of the strongest sections of this book is where F. takes us through the two ‘insect’ similes which frame the Trojan visit to Carthage: Aeneas sees the Carthaginians as bees (1.419-36), while Dido later sees the Trojans as ants (4.397-411). These similes ‘bookend’ the Carthaginian adventure and are hugely significant. Carthage was for Aeneas ‘a sight for his sore refugee eyes’ (p.31), while the Trojans—now retreating after taking everything Dido had—are destructive ants. This simile of the ants is a good example of what F. calls a ‘pull-back reveal shot’ (p.36): the viewer of the departing Trojans is first of all the impersonal ‘you’ (cernas 401), but then we see Dido seeing them (408). Bees make, ants take: ‘what Aeneas sees as a Roman Carthage being built, Dido sees as a Phoenician Carthage being destroyed’ (p.38).

Virgil’s similes bear comparison with Lucretius’ use of analogies from the natural world, and F. riffs on this in some exuberant pages (39-48) entitled ‘Getting High with Lucretius’. Lucretius (as F. argues) helps himself to Ennius’ language and style for very un-Ennian purposes, ‘singing radical peacenik tunes about ending wars, living a simple life and dropping out, all to the sounds of a Roman marching band’ (41-2). ‘Getting high’ here is however also a matter of literal elevation: in describing sheep and armies blurring at a distance (DRN 2.318-32), Lucretius raises the viewer to a shepherd’s perch from which to look down. Height is superiority, as at the end of the Aeneid where Turnus is on the ground with Aeneas looming above him. When Aeneas looks up at the temple of Juno in Carthage in book 1, the spatial setting is like mood music darkening the tone of optimism as we already know that this same Juno will do all she can to terminate him.

F. develops this topic further with his pages on the pathos of camera angles. Aeneas in book 2 is on the roof of the palace, watching the fall of Troy. All he can do is to throw bits of masonry down on the Greeks below (453-67) and even this is a bad sign as he is helping the demolition of his own city. Virgil’s readers would recall that this Trojan hero has form for being ‘the epic’s problematic quadruple Houdini’ (p.88). ‘Aeneas is conveniently swept away from the fight four times to cowardly Paris’ one. Virgil has serious work to do’ (p.69). The wide-angle shot of Aeneas’ narrative allows him to tell us what was going on in pitiless detail: he sees everything but can do nothing as the ghastly Pyrrhus despatches Polites and then Priam himself. Homer’s field battle becomes Virgil’s domestic slaughter as the Roman poet turns things ‘outside-in’ (p.79).

In chapter 3 (‘seeing as telling’) F. shows how the ecphrasis of Juno’s temple in Aeneid 1 (453-503) lets us eavesdrop on Aeneas’ mental processing: ‘as a battered Trojan refugee, he reads aggressively against the grain’ (p.80). Aeneas reads the frieze as a monument to Trojan sorrow when it is obviously a triumphalist celebration of Juno’s conquest of Troy. The scenes on display show the demise of Rhesus, Troilus and Hector, all of them victims of Diomedes and Achilles—the two men whom Aeneas faced disastrously in battle. Aeneas homes in on these three victims with the implicit realisation that he might have stopped all of these deaths if he had been up to it and so his account is ‘personally angled and partial’ (p.93)—and intensely revealing of his state of mind.

All this is more than merely imaging technique, and F. sees a moral purpose at work: Virgil is calling us to ‘face up to and find value in undelusional and un-easy versions of the world’. Aeneas at the end kills his suppliant despite his father’s injunction to spare the defeated, and so abandons ‘the colonizers’ whitewashed slogan for what colonizers actually do’. The Aeneid gives us no easy moral jingoism, then, and the overlapping of implicit myths is also deliberate and unsettling: Dido is both Medea and Medea’s victim, Camilla is both Penthesilea and Achilles, Aeneas is both Paris and Achilles, and so on. By drawing out the complexity of the moral landscape Virgil’s poem offers us ‘an antidote to the easy hatreds and political sloganeering of Virgil’s own day, and of our own’ (p.158).

I only spotted six typos, the worst of which was the naming of Theseus rather than Peleus as the viewer of Thetis (p.103). The book has an index, a bibliography and a very useful appendix of ‘Classic Film Edits and Common Cinematographic Methods with counterparts in ancient epic’ to help readers make sense of the cinematic terminology. The book is well illustrated with twelve colour and twelve monochrome images. Like the best films, it is well paced, beautifully shot and scripted, action-packed and leaves you wanting more—I would like to read F. on (for instance) the non-linear manipulation of time in epic (and in films such as Pulp Fiction and Memento) or on how film uses metaphor—but this short book punches well above its weight and is written with infectious panache and exciting appreciation of the visual and verbal magic on show in this poem. It deserves an Oscar.

John Godwin