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  • Aemulatio in Cold Blood: A Reading of the End of the Aeneid
  • Mehran A. Nickbakht (bio)

My concern is only with strong poets, major figures with the persistence to wrestle with their strong precursors, even to the death.

HAROLD BLOOM, The Anxiety of Influence

Much ink has been spilled over the death of Turnus. But despite more than four decades of scholarly debate, satisfactory agreement has still not been reached over the killing of the Rutulian chieftain, for the vexing questions still remain: How is the final scene of the Aeneid to be read? What is the significance of Aeneas's violent deed? Did Vergil adopt an anti-Augustan stance through allowing the pious Aeneas—the prototype of Augustus—to act in a fit of rage? Moreover, this debate is intertwined with the wider issue concerning the work's overall ideology: Is the Aeneid generally an optimistic or rather a pessimistic work?1 This paper engages the dispute only in the last section (VI). It does not attempt to proffer a solution to the complex set of questions that some critics now consider to be largely irresolvable, simply because the questions may be wrongly posed. As Don P. Fowler (1997b, 34) put it, "philosophy has to believe in solutions: literature often likes to stress that there are none."2 However, as a contribution to the ongoing debate over the Aeneid, I offer a metapoetic reading of the epic's final scene.

My starting point is the fact that an identification of the titular hero, Aeneas, with the poem's author, Vergil, can be repeatedly observed throughout the Aeneid. This phenomenon is probably most manifest in books 2 and 3 in which Aeneas narrates his adventures to Queen Dido at the royal court in Carthage. On a primary—or intertextual—level, the scene recalls the Homeric Odysseus as he relates his tale at the court of the Phaeacian king Alcinous. On a secondary—or self-referential—level, however, Aeneas can be seen as a representation of the poet himself, that is, of Vergil narrating the 'Story of Aeneas' to Augustus, the ruler of his own time.3

This kind of 'identification' of the poet with the persona of the epic hero occurs in varying, at times subtle and recondite, ways. We may find [End Page 49] this phenomenon already at the very outset of the Aeneid. The famous first line reveals a sophisticated blurring of the distinction between epic poet and epic hero and, in a programmatic way, sets the pattern for further identifications of this kind in the course of the narrative:

arma virumque cano Troiae qui primus ab orisItaliam fato profugus Laviniaque venit . . .

(Aen. 1.1-2)

I am the first to sing of the arms and the man of Troy who first from the shores of Troy . . .

Operating apo koinou, the epithet primus not only is to be taken with the presently still anonymous vir to whom the relative clause is subordinate. It also goes with the poet implied in the verb of the main clause (cano).4 Thus, Vergil covertly stakes his claim to poetic primacy and originality in the very prominent and apposite first line of the poem. In so doing, he simultaneously signals that he is now delivering what he had announced a decade earlier in Georgics 3:

                      temptanda via est, qua me quoque possimtollere humo victorque virum volitare per ora.primus ego in patriam mecum, modo vita supersit,Aonio rediens deducam vertice Musas;primus Idumaeas referam tibi, Mantua, palmas,et viridi in campo templum de marmore ponam . . .

(G. 3.8-13)

I must try a path on which I, too, can lift myself from the earth and fly as a victor through the mouths of men. I will be the first, if my life lasts, to return to my homeland, leading the Muses down from the peak of Helicon; I will be the first to bring Idumean palms to you, Mantua, and erect a marble temple on the green field . . .

In the proem to Georgics 3 (1-48), Vergil famously announces an epic in celebration of Octavian, the later Augustus. In employing the future tense for this venture-to-be, Vergil metaphorically...


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