- 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...