Virgil's Ascanius: Imagining the Future in the Aeneid by Anne Rogerson
Virgil's Aeneid sometimes gives the impression that the future the poem presents is certain. For readers of the poem, after all, the future has already happened. Anne Rogerson reminds us that the future of Aeneas' people is in fact far from certain, and not only because the future of Rome extends beyond Virgil's time. The immediate future of Aeneas' people, being so far in the past of Virgil's ancient and modern readers, is also malleable and vulnerable to exploitation. The child Ascanius embodies the vulnerability of the future in the Aeneid. Rogerson's comprehensive treatment of Ascanius begins with a clear statement of its argument on the first page: "When the Aeneid focuses on Ascanius and shows us other characters looking at him too, it is very often the uncertainty, the contingency and the malleability of the future that are stressed as the various perspectives the text offers on Aeneas' small son reveal how views of the future are shaped by different desires and competing agendas." Readers familiar with the poem and recent scholarship on it will not be surprised to find an aspect of the Aeneid focusing on doubt, uncertainty, and competition between differing perspectives and agendas. Such a characterization is, however, an oversimplification of an argument that focuses with subtlety on a relatively underappreciated character. Virgil's Ascanius contains in its close readings many insights that deepen our understanding of the Aeneid.
The book is made up of 10 chapters, including the introduction and conclusion. Each chapter and the whole are logically organized, clearly signposted, and eloquently written. The whole book is a pleasure to read, and the argument is easy to follow, without sacrificing rigor or subtlety. Chapter 1, the introduction, begins by laying out the main arguments of the book, and then proceeds with a [End Page 165] programmatic example, reading Ascanius' little legs and unequal steps fleeing Troy. This close reading runs through the approaches taken in the rest of the book and includes discussion of pre-Virgilian images of the scene, sources for Virgil, and receptions of Virgil's portrayal. From there the introduction stresses the diversity of views on Ascanius in modern scholarship, and argues that the presentation of the character in the poem "encourages such diversity of opinion" (9).
Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the choices Virgil made in creating the character for his poem, comparing Virgil's Ascanius with other representations of Ascanius and investigating the character's names. Chapter 2, "The Heir and the Spare," examines different versions of the legend of Aeneas, showing the Aeneid's relationships with its predecessors and Virgil's unique choices in his presentation of Ascanius. The chapter argues that although Virgil generally streamlines the story, he maintains a tension between Ascanius as Aeneas' heir and the founder of the Roman future on the one hand, and Silvius as the true fusion of the Trojan and Italian lines on the other. The contradictory claims that each will father a line of Alban kings raise the possibility of familial and civil strife without naming it explicitly. More importantly, the inconsistency casts doubt on the veracity and reliability of the contradictory predictions.
Chapter 3, "Old Names and New," treats the essential but difficult issue of the names Ascanius and Iulus. This chapter argues that Ascanius' names emphasize the duality of a character bridging the past and the future, and that the insistence on two names draws attention to the tension between competing visions of the future. Names are significant, and the meaning readers attach to them serves the interests of those readers. Ascanius' multiple names leave him open to multiple readings serving multiple interests.
The next chapters deal with characters within the poem reading Ascanius in different ways and attempting to appropriate his significance for their interests, starting with chapter 4, "Andromache and Dido." This chapter analyzes two failed attempts to assimilate Ascanius to "narrative paths not taken" (57). First, Andromache treats Ascanius as an image of a past that cannot be brought back, and then Dido treats him as an image of a future that will not come to pass. In both cases, Ascanius is vulnerable to appropriation by dangerous interests hoping he will embody a vision contrary to Jupiter's.
Chapter 5, "Trojan Games," moves on to the fifth book of the poem and examines the lusus Troiae and Ascanius' role in it. Like Ascanius, the lusus Troiae looks back to the past of Troy as well as ahead to the future of Rome. The projection of something explicitly named Trojan into the future seems to contradict Jupiter's agreement with Juno that the name of Troy will end, calling into question the veracity of rival visions of the future. When Ascanius confronts the women burning the ships and speaks to them about hopes for the future, he removes his helmet and makes himself vulnerable. Intertextual connections with Pentheus emphasize his vulnerability, but those connections also cast doubt on his suitability for the role of merging East and West, suggesting that Ascanius may hinder rather than advance the agenda of the poem. [End Page 166]
After chapter 5 deals with book 5, Chapter 6, "Trojan Fire," takes us back to the second book of the Aeneid, where we can now see Ascanius' role in a new light following the analysis of some of his subsequent uses. Although many parallels in poetry and historiography suggest that the omen of the flames around Ascanius' head is a sign of future greatness, other parallels suggest that it may also be a prediction of civil strife and premature death. Aeneas' and Creusa's initial fear competes with Anchises' confidence in the positive reaction, showing Ascanius again as a focus of competing interpretations of signs of the future.
Ascanius' vulnerability to appropriation for differing agendas continues in Chapter 7, "Protecting Ascanius," which argues that even Venus' treatment of Ascanius threatens the Roman future. The first section analyzes "the eroticization of Ascanius as Venus draws him into her deceptive world" (130), but Venus' problematic care for Ascanius is not limited to the first half of the poem. In the war, Venus' worry for Ascanius takes him out of the action, preserving him from premature death but also preventing his development of virtus and associating him with Venus' unmanly eroticism.
Chapter 8, "Growing Up," analyzes initiatory moments for Ascanius, starting with his wounding of Silvia's stag and moving on to his authorization of Nisus' and Euryalus' mission and his killing of Numanus Remulus. Each of these is problematic in some way. The wounding of the stag not only starts the war, but Rogerson makes the case that the passage invokes violence and madness in ways that suggest Ascanius may grow to embody the problematic aspects of his father. The rewards Ascanius promises to Nisus and Euryalus are not only overly extravagant, but also subtly suggest danger and death. When Ascanius shoots Numanus Remulus he kills his first man in battle, but does so at a distance and is subsequently restrained from endangering himself, ultimately remaining a boy to the end of the poem. Rogerson concludes that the promises of initiation followed by continued childhood mirror the structure of the Aeneid, promising "ends that it never delivers" (167).
Chapter 9, "Relegating Ascanius," argues that Aeneas himself, in the way he treats his son as he grows up in the second half of the Aeneid, holds him back and prevents him from becoming a heroic character. Focusing on the scene of the Trojans eating their "tables" and on Aeneas' farewell to Ascanius as he leaves to fight Turnus in the final book, Rogerson shows Aeneas taking control. In the scene of the table eating, Aeneas silences his son and asserts his own authority to interpret the sign, and in his farewell he connects Ascanius intertextually with Astyanax and with Ajax's son Eurysaces, re-infantilizing the son who has been eager to grow up.
Chapter 10, the conclusion, reminds us that the Aeneid includes uncertainty about the future of Virgil's Rome, and argues that Ascanius demonstrates how vulnerable to appropriation symbols of the future are. A final comparison with Pallas shows the contrast between a young man allowed to grow up and engage in heroic activity and a young man protected and kept in childhood. Ascanius' delayed future is left outside the poem, and is threatened by competition for [End Page 167] Alban kingship with his half-brother Silvius and by his persistent association with the Trojan past. The frustration and anxiety surrounding Ascanius reflect the frustration and anxiety of Virgil's epic and contemporary Rome.
Throughout the book Rogerson relies on solid, insightful, and original close reading of the Aeneid, enhanced by frequent recourse to allusion and occasionally to broader intertextuality. Virgil's Ascanius is a methodologically conservative book, and it avoids explicit methodological and theoretical reflection. In a different book on the subject it would not have been unexpected to find, for example, a theoretical discussion of Roman childhood. Rogerson is certainly aware of work on Roman childhood, making occasional use of Néraudau (1984), Golden (1990), Rawson (2003), and Laes (2011), but she does not engage with them extensively. There are hints of another possible theoretical discussion in a few sentences on pages 11 and 12 about characterization in literature, but Rogerson moves on quickly while a footnote directs us to further reading. The detailed analysis of the ways in which characters within the poem appropriate the legends of Virgil's ancient past might have inspired questions about the use of the ancient past in the construction of imagined communities, and in what ways uses of the past and uses of the future relate. Any of these discussions, however, would have seemed out of place in a book that does not aim to be theoretical, and what it aims to do it does very well.
Virgil's Ascanius adds a new focus to the scholarship on the ways in which the Aeneid emphasizes uncertainty and competing agendas. It is not a book with which many readers will disagree, which is, I think, both a virtue and a flaw. It is a substantial and original contribution to the study of the Aeneid, and one that scholars and students will find clear, useful, and illuminating.