Reviews: Virgil the Partisan

Review Greece and Rome (2009)
by Donald Hill

The title of Anton Powell's Virgil the Partisan. A Study in the Re-integration of Classics is enough to alert the reader to the general thrust of his argument, but it may not prepare readers for his insistence on seeing Eclogues, Georgia, and Aeneid as best understood as a unity.
Scholars have tended to see Virgil as apolitical or conscripted or propagandist and they have then set out to excuse whatever faults their interpretation entails. Powell has displayed a very wide-ranging familiarity with his scholarly predecessors and a sympathy with their conclusions even when he does not agree with them or, more commonly, believes that their analysis does not go far enough. He rightly sets Virgilian writing in its precise political context, judging that, for instance, the successes of Pompeius Sextus must have had an impact in Rome at the time, so that to igore it is to sacrifice an important tool. Powell is not afraid to use modern parallels that, among other things, demonstrate clearly to a contemporary audience how knowledge of the timing of an event can inform our understanding of it and of a writers' reasons to include or exclude it. He writes in a lucid and attractive style, displaying his admiration for Virgil on every page and his impatience with those,, who feel that it is their duty to apologize for his alleged weaknesses. Powell's arguments are sometimes obvious (though never articulated before him) and sometimes subtle, which is not to be taken as a euphemism for 'wrong'.

Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Review Mnemosyne 63 (2010)
by Stephen Harrison, Corpus Christi College, Oxford

This stimulating volume seeks to put the party politics back into Virgil's oeuvre, and rightly considers the poetry in its relationship to the complex political environment of the Triumviral and early Augustan period.
P. sees political partisanship as the fundamental motivation for all Virgil's works; in particular, P. believes that Virgil was consistently concerned to defend Octa-vian/Augustus against the powerful opposition and legacy of Sextus Pompeius, who had made life difficult through both successful naval warfare and effective blockading of Italy in the period 43-35. Here P. is clearly right to stress that Sextus might be expected to feature in contemporary Triumviral literature, but not all will follow his insistence of the importance of Sextus for the Georgics and Aeneid. Dying in 35 BCE, Sextus surely meant relatively little for the new post-Actium world, and P. may exaggerate his significance even during his lifetime, though his role as natural heir of Republicanism as well as of Pompey was clearly significant (as acknowledged e.g. by Josiah Osgood in Caesar's Legacy (2006), 202-7). P. rightly presents Sextus (through his preferred name 'Magnus Pius') as a self-proclaimed champion of pietas\ but (as he recognises) the same can of course be said of the young Caesar, divi filius and contriver of his adopted father's apotheosis. Such rivalries were symptomatic of inter-dynast competitions for symbolic roles: we could add that of being the new Alexander or of being Liber/Bacchus, both clearly contested by the young Caesar and Antony. P. s good account of pietas in the Aeneid rightly stresses that it can encompass revenge (whether for Pompey or Caesar) as a key feature of loyalty: this crucial link, often underestimated by moderns though not by Augustus himself (Res Gestae 2), certainly informs the evaluation of revenge as an acceptable ending for Virgil's epic, as P. well argues.
Not all will agree with P.'s presentation of the Aeneid as being strongly concerned with answering anxieties about the young Caesar's behaviour in the trium-viral period: after Actium and the adoption of the name of Augustus, the promotion of the ideology of the self-proclaimed new era was surely more important for Cae-sarians than defending past failings. P. suggests that V. is strongly concerned to mask the overt impietas of the proscriptions of 43 BCE; these were shocking indeed (e.g. the death of Cicero), but their invidious legacy was effectively countered by the young Caesar's decision not to have proscriptions after Actium, when it would have been an easy choice; the drive for unity in the 20's is much more about an integrative Augustan project than aimed at dispelling worries about the young Caesar's pre-Actium behaviour.
P. also reconsiders the prominence of Sicily in the Aeneid in the light of its role as Sextus' theatre of operations. A contemporary readership would indeed surely be reminded to some degree of recent events in the area, especially the climactic naval victory of Naulochus near Messina; but (as P. admits) rivalry with the Sicilian locations of the Odyssey is important, while the crucial role of Sicily in the Punic Wars (clearly echoed in the burning of boats at Drepanum, recalling Hamilcar s victory of 249 BCE) is significant too, no doubt mediated through lost narratives in Ennius' Annales. In particular, it is hard to agree that the successful escape of the Trojans via Sicily is specifically meant to recall the young Caesar's retreats in his Sicilian campaigns; the central role of Sicily in the Aeneas-legend had long been established (see Galinsky's Aeneas, Sicily and Rome (1969)), and if we are looking for historical analogy, surely the eventual victory of the young Caesar after set-backs against Sextus is a better candidate than focussing on his defeats. Likewise, P.'s argument that the description of Etna as "a sinister intruder into Italy" reflects Sextus' damage to Caesarian power (109) might be less important than its established role as a major subject of poetic ekphrasis in the Prometheus Bound and Pindar, reaching its apogee in the pseudo-Virgilian Aetna.
In an interesting chapter on "Aeneas, Sex and Misery", P. argues that the gay sensibilities which some see in the Aeneid also have a partisan function. The hero-worshipping "eager courtship" (159) of Aeneas by Pallas is seen as a defensive reflection of homosexual accusations against both Julius Caesar and Octavian: "with Aeneas' bisexual tendency Virgil may be turning to positive use what otherwise would have been a persistent and unignorable suspicion against the Julian clan and its Phrygian ancestry" (167). Likewise, Aeneas' frustrated and afflicted personal life in the poem (lost Trojan wife, dead Punic lover, loveless Italian marriage) is seen as presenting an idealised image of self-subordination quite different from the familial felicity of Augustus and Livia, which would have been undiplomatic to promote by literary parallels. This seems a little excessive; Augustus may not have been sexually frustrated, but there were other frustrations which the Aeneid mirrors faithfully, e.g. his lack of a male heir, central to the appearance of Marcellus in the poem and to its repeated theme of youth cut off before maturity.
Having set out his full partisan argument for the Aeneid, in the last two chapters P. turns back to the Eclogues and Georgics. The Sicilian location of the Eclogues is again seen as reflecting the island's associations with Sextus in the 40's as well as the Theocritean original; this is an interesting idea, but it is hard to find real textual evidence for the link, unless in the mention of repeats of mythological naval expeditions in Eclogue 4. P. makes a persuasive case for die poet's careful balancing in Eel. 1 and 9 of criticism of Caesar's land-confiscations on the one hand and Caesarian encomium on the other, and a new and interesting argument for the Bacchic material in Ecl. 5 as pro-Antonian to balance the Caesarian Daphnis. He rightly points out that none of the great dynasts is ever named in the Eclogues; the careful ambiguity of die child's identity in Eel. 4 is seen as balancing the interests of Caesar/Sextus (through die formers marriage to the latter's connection Scribonia) with those of Antony/Caesar (via Octavia). Here we have a restoration of Sextus to a context where he was undoubtedly significant politically, worth real consideration. Overall, P.'s general view that the Eclogues introduce "the serpent of Roman civil war into Theocritus' bucolic Eden" (218) is thoroughly convincing, even if some details can be questioned.
On the Georgics, the mention of the Portus lulius project in the Laudes Italiae (2.161-4) is seen as an allusion to Naulochus (for which indeed it was built), but other indications in the same episode suggest an allusion to the more recent Actium when naval activity on the Bay of Naples must have been equally intense. The military metaphors of the farmer's battle with the land are rightly seen as reflecting actual civil war, especially in the splendid climax to Georgics 1 where the two themes are brilliantly intertwined. On the bees of Georgics 4, P. develops a plausible allegorical interpretation of the warring apian monarchs as Caesar and Antony fighting for control of Rome, commending the former as the better ruler; the horrendous but saving ritual of bougonia is seen (following Llewelyn Morgan) as mirroring the salutary carnage of civil war and national reconstruction. In general, the Georgics are seen as fully committed to the Caesarian cause and as renouncing the nuanced doubts and balances of the Eclogues—natural enough in a new era where previous political doubts and complexities had been largely resolved, at least for Caesarians.
P. rightly concludes that the success of the Augustan project has naturally concealed the partisan and prophetic aspect of Virgil's political stance; by returning to the precarious and complex original historical situations, we can achieve a richer and more rewarding reading of the poems and of the fragility and changeability of their actual detailed contexts of production. We may not agree with P.'s tendency to spot Sextus in unlikely poetic corners or that all Virgil's works "were... structured to meet the challenge posed by this Magnus Pius" (286) but equally this book shows that Sextus deserves at least a little more prominence than he generally receives in Virgilian scholarship. We may not agree with his strong formulation that Aeneas' characterisation is framed "to match and exculpate the embarrassments of Octavian" (286), or that his political partisanship linked with his gay sensibility which "found Octavian gorgeous" (288), but it would be a brave scholar who denied any connection between the legendary hero of die Aeneid and his putative latter-day descendant, the ruler and likely patron of the poem's author. Ultimately, P. provides a salutary reminder that Virgil's poetry is not always well served by some modern tendencies to undervalue historical context, and that detailed knowledge of the latter can contribute effectively to literary interpretation.

Review CHOICE (September 2008)
by C. Fantazzi, East Carolina University


Toward the end of this book, Powell (Univ. of Wales) sums up his approach as "proceeding from ideals expressed to realities suffered." A striking example of this is the chapter titled "The Theft of Pietas," in which the author argues that Virgil, unable to credit Octavian with pietas, creates the image of a pius ancestor, Aeneas, the incarnation of this virtue, which would then be transferred by association to Octavian. Powell himself is much more partial toward Sextus Pompeius--witness Sextus Pompeius, which he edited with Kathryn Welch (2002)--a fierce opponent of Octavian who styled himself Magnus Pius. One of Powell's objectives here is to shift the focus of Virgilian studies from individual works to the whole oeuvre and to see one intention in all of them, to defend the cause of Octavian-Augustus. Although he accepts the premises behind analyses of Virgil's works based on genre and architecture, Powell sees an overarching political structure. In elaborating this thesis he makes good use of neglected ancient historians of the period--Suetonius, Appian, Dio Cassius. His countercurrent argument is bound to stir up much controversy among traditional Virgilian scholars, which is all to the good. An absorbing read. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. --