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The Primacy of Vision in Virgil's Aeneid

By Riggs Alden Smith

Publication Year: 2005

One of the masterpieces of Latin and, indeed, world literature, Virgil's Aeneid was written during the Augustan “renaissance” of architecture, art, and literature that redefined the Roman world in the early years of the empire. This period was marked by a transition from the use of rhetoric as a means of public persuasion to the use of images to display imperial power. Taking a fresh approach to Virgil's epic poem, Riggs Alden Smith argues that the Aeneid fundamentally participates in the Augustan shift from rhetoric to imagery because it gives primacy to vision over speech as the principal means of gathering and conveying information as it recounts the heroic adventures of Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome. Working from the theories of French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Smith characterizes Aeneas as a voyant-visible, a person who both sees and is seen and who approaches the world through the faculty of vision. Engaging in close readings of key episodes throughout the poem, Smith shows how Aeneas repeatedly acts on what he sees rather than what he hears. Smith views Aeneas' final act of slaying Turnus, a character associated with the power of oratory, as the victory of vision over rhetoric, a triumph that reflects the ascendancy of visual symbols within Augustan society. Smith's new interpretation of the predominance of vision in the Aeneid makes it plain that Virgil's epic contributes to a new visual culture and a new mythology of Imperial Rome.

Published by: University of Texas Press

Cover Art

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pp. vii-viii

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xi

My desire to consider vision in the Aeneid is in part derived from an interest in ancient art that I first cultivated at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome, a program that I attended as an undergraduate under Mary Sturgeon and Fred Albertson. My own research about ecphrasis, which I considered in my first book, also influenced my consideration of the topic ...

Text and Art Acknowledgments

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pp. xiii-xiv


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pp. xv-xvi

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Chapter 1: Prophaenomena ad Vergilium

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pp. 1-23

‘‘Eagle eyes’’ is an expression often applied to people of uncommon perception and piercing vision, those able to see things hard to perceive. Throughout ‘‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,’’ Keats’ manipulation of vision does more than create lingering images; it offers a kind of theoretical point of access for the poem. The sightless Homer now becomes tactile: his ...

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Chapter 2: Ruse and Revelation: Visions of the Divine and the Telos of Narrative

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pp. 24-59

In the preface to his Milton, William Blake offers a lyric precursor to his longer edition of Jerusalem.2 Blake brings the fantastic visions seen in the Old and New Testament books of prophecy down to earth, specifically to England. By intentionally intertwining British topographical features with ...

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Chapter 3: Vision Past and Future

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pp. 60-96

The poet constructs the narrative around her apparition as she comes to him ‘‘like Alcestis from the grave.’’ Vision brokers between temporal modes: in the present, Milton’s persona sees his past wife in anticipation of a complete and future vision of her (7–8). To use terminology by now familiar,1 he plays the role of a voyant-visible who transcends time. As the poem ends, ...

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Chapter 4: Hic amor: Love, Vision, and Destiny

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pp. 97-127

In Keats’ ‘‘La Belle Dame sans Merci,’’ a lonely knight-at-arms encounters a dryadlike girl whose eyes capture his gaze. Although he symbolically endeavors to overcome her waywardness by closing her ‘‘wild’’ eyes with kisses, the knight senses that the relationship cannot endure. In his dreams, the knight can see the ‘‘death-pale’’ succession of lovers from the girl’s past. By ...

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Chapter 5: Vidi, Vici: Vision's Victory and the Telos of Narrative

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pp. 128-175

The first half of the Aeneid, which showcases Aeneas and Dido’s love affair, flows into a treatment of primarily martial themes in the second half; these themes point toward Aeneas’ killing of Turnus, the act that will lead ultimately to establishing the Roman nation. In the Aeneid’s second half, there emerges an increase in the importance of visual stimuli and a waning ...

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Chapter 6: Conclusion: Ante ora parentum

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pp. 176-182

During the early to middle Augustan age when Virgil was writing the Aeneid, Rome was in the midst of a generally positive period. Civil wars had ended, and the emperor’s extensive building program was well underway. Romans were seeing the tangible symbols of a new order, and the sights they beheld underscored the constructive aspects of the pax Augusta. The doors of the ...


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pp. 183-222


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pp. 223-236

Subject Index

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pp. 237-246

Index Locorum

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pp. 247-253

E-ISBN-13: 9780292796829
E-ISBN-10: 029279682X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292706576
Print-ISBN-10: 029270657X

Page Count: 271
Illustrations: 6 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2005

OCLC Number: 62755927
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Primacy of Vision in Virgil's Aeneid

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Art and literature -- Rome.
  • Virgil. Aeneis.
  • Aeneas (Legendary character) in literature.
  • Epic poetry, Latin -- History and criticism.
  • Visual perception in literature.
  • Vision in literature.
  • Visions in literature.
  • Rome -- In literature.
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