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  • Inconsistency in Roman Epic: Studies in Catullus, Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid and Lucan
  • Sabine Grebe
James J. O'Hara. Inconsistency in Roman Epic: Studies in Catullus, Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid and Lucan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xiv + 165. ISBN-13: 9780521641395 (hb) $ US 90; ISBN-13: 9780521646420 (Soft) $ US 30.99.

Much scholarship reads the inconsistencies in epics as evidence that a text is unfinished, unrevised or poorly transmitted. O'Hara convincingly demonstrates that such reading is unjustified. Instead, O'Hara "explores the possibility of interpreting, rather than removing or explaining away, inconsistencies in ancient texts" (1). He does so with reference to the following contexts: the literary use of discrepancies in a comparative study of Greek poetry (Chapter 1), Catullus 64 (Chapter 2), Lucretius' De Rerum Natura (Chapter 3), Vergil's Aeneid (Chapter 4), Ovid's Metamorphoses (Chapter 5), and Lucan's Bellum Civile (Chapter 6). This ambitious comparative approach, O'Hara believes, "may help to establish a framework for understanding the poetic or rhetorical use of inconsistencies in any ancient author" (5). More specifically, inconsistencies manifest themselves in mythological and aetiological variants, chronological discrepancies, and contradictions between the narrator on the one hand and the characters of his text on the other. O'Hara interprets these incongruities as "competing perspectives" (4) and "multiple voices" (6) rather than as a poet's inattention to the contradictions. O'Hara argues that ancient authors deliberately used passages which contradict one another. Inconsistencies in Roman epic are often, but not always, thematic devices which the poet leaves for the reader to interpret. In reviewing O'Hara's project, I shall identify the contradictions which O'Hara addresses, chapter by chapter.

Chapter 1 contains a survey of inconsistencies in Greek poetry: Homer, Hesiod, lyric and tragedy, and the Alexandrian poets. Passages in Plato and Aristotle, which discuss unity or inconsistency, complement the chapter. O'Hara's observations in Chapter 1 depend heavily on the works of other scholars.

Some inconsistencies in Homer (8–15) can be traced back to the poet's [End Page 473] purpose to "misdirect the audience to some degree, in order to create tension or uncertainty about how the narrative will proceed" (10). For example, Zeus' various prophecies deceive the audience and the other gods. The inconsistent images of Zeus influenced the treatment of Jupiter in Vergil's Aeneid and in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Often the characters rather than the poet himself say contradictory things. Odysseus, for example, describes the Cyclopes as cruel savages who must work hard (Polyphemus) on the one hand, and as happy primitives who live a life of ease, far from toil and in a fertile land with a spontaneous supply of food on the other. Unfortunately, O'Hara does not interpret or explain this discrepancy. O'Hara refers to similar contradictions in Lucretius' portrayal of early humans and in Vergil's description of the Italians in the second half of the Aeneid. The different stories Telemachus hears about Helen when he visits Sparta in Odyssey 4 present another example of implausibility. Menelaus portrays Helen as helping the Trojans whereas Helen presents herself as loyal to the Greeks. O'Hara interprets the two versions of Helen's character as competing stories which frequently occur in Greek literature and may also be found in the Aeneid. Homer also may have deliberately alluded to different versions of the myth—a practice which is common in Greek tragedy, the Alexandrian poets, and later Roman poets.

Discrepancies in Greek tragedy (16–18) can be interpreted as dramatic necessity (Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis) or as the wish of the poet to "misdirect the audience to create suspense, surprise, or uncertainty" (16). Inconsistencies in prophecies in Sophocles' Women of Trachis or Philoctetes can reflect the poet's comments about the limitations of human knowledge, the tendency of characters to speak rhetorically and deceptively, or the development of a character (Heracles, Neoptolemus) who understands a prophecy only late in the play.

The next section (18–23) briefly examines ancient and modern theories of poetic unity. O'Hara summarizes comments which Plato (Protagoras, Republic, Phaedrus), Aristotle (Poetics), and Horace (Ars Poetica) make with respect to the organic structure of a poem...


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