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The Primacy of Vision in Virgil's Aeneid

The Primacy of Vision in Virgil's Aeneid

A fresh look at one of the masterpieces of Latin literature and how it contributes to a new visual culture and a new mythology of imperial Rome.

January 2006
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271 pages | 6 x 9 | 6 b&w illus. |

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.

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Text and Art Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • Chapter 1. Prophaenomena ad Vergilium
    • Theory
    • Theoria
    • Ante ora patrum
    • The Scope of the Argument
  • Chapter 2. Ruse and Revelation: Visions of the Divine and the Telos of Narrative
    • Seen/Unseen
    • Gods Revealed
    • A God in the Midst
  • Chapter 3. Vision Past and Future
    • Hector and the Penates
    • Hindsight to Foresight: Andromache and Aeneas
    • Imago Creusae
    • Vision and Temporal Modality in Aeneas' Katabasis
    • Site/Sight of Rome
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter 4. Hic amor: Love, Vision, and Destiny
    • Aliud genus officii: Vision and the Second Favor
    • Viewpoints of Departure: Deception, Vision, and the Separation of Dido and Aeneas
    • Fixos Oculos
    • Lauiniaque uenit
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter 5. Vision's Victory and the Telos of Narrative
    • Failure of Rhetoric (Part 1): Effete oratores
    • Drances and Turnus: Opposing Visions
    • Hercules and Cacus: Light, Darkness, and Diction
    • Failure of Rhetoric (Part 2): The Futility of Battlefield Entreaty in Books 10-12
    • Failure of Rhetoric (Part 3): Sight Makes Right and the Aeneid's Finale
  • Chapter 6. Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography

Riggs Alden Smith is Associate Professor of Classics and Associate Dean of the Honors College at Baylor University.


Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

—John Keats


"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 realm visible, its aura breathable, and his voice, through Chapman, finally audible. Chapman's translation of Homer gives the reader a new vision of the poet, allowing Keats to extol and describe through a strikingly visual simile. Keats' poem celebrates vision, emphasizing both acquisition of knowledge and the response of wonder. Homer's blindness contrasts with Cortez and his men, who marvel at the spectacular sight before them. These different perspectives converge to create for the reader a rich literary vista.


Keats' use of vision, therefore, is not a mere matter of perspective but a subjective experience informed by the intertextual resonance with Chapman's Homer. This subjectivity is not defined simply as a character's subjective posture, that is, the relative point of view of a character, but rather as the poet's ability to exploit his characters' vantage points, as Keats does with Cortez. Vantage point is thus linked to the notion of subjectivity.


Richard Heinze and William Anderson have both addressed subjectivity in Virgil, and Brooks Otis has devoted an entire chapter to Virgil's subjective style, explaining that Virgil narrates through his characters, identifying with their perspective: "Virgil is constantly conscious of himself inside his characters. He thinks through them and for them." While this aspect of Virgil's style offers an interesting line of inquiry and will generally inform my discussion, the overall scope of this study is broader.


"Focalization," a component of the theoretical framework of the late Don Fowler, has offered Virgilian scholarship a point of departure for the study of issues related to point of view. This mode of interpretation, formulated by the French narratologist Gérard Genette, has been profitably applied to Polybius, Lucan, Livy, and Ovid in recent Latin studies. Behind Genette's theory of narratology lies the question "Who sees?" In this book, I wish to ascertain how vision functions within the Virgilian narrative by asking not only the question "Who sees?" but also "What is seen?" and "How does Virgil employ vision and visual perspectives to suggest the thoughts and motives of his characters?"


The importance of vision in the Aeneid increases as the poem approaches its telos. That telos is ultimately Rome's foundation, which begins, symbolically, with Aeneas' killing of Turnus. I will seek to connect vision to that telos, considering how information gathered visually differs from that gathered aurally. Thus I will contrast visual and verbal modes of communication and perception that anticipate the poem's telos.


A quarter of a century ago, Michael Putnam made the powerful observation that throughout the Aeneid, "words are replaced more regularly by deeds." Virgil's poem obviously includes a number of speeches, a necessary form of presenting and garnering information in epic narrative. In the Aeneid, however, speeches are also used to counter another method of information gathering that emerges within the text, namely, vision. In the final analysis, Virgil contrasts oratory with vision in such a way that, after continuous tension between rhetoric and vision throughout the poem, vision ultimately triumphs as the dominant means of communication and perception.


This tension between sight and speech reflects the time when Virgil composed the Aeneid, a period situated between the waning influence of the art of rhetoric in the Roman Republic and the waxing influence of images in the new empire. Paul Zanker and Karl Galinsky have shown that visual messages played a major role in shaping Augustan culture. Zanker notes that images primarily serve the creation of a new mythology of Rome. Galinsky furthers this discussion by showing how the use of images during the Augustan "renaissance" of art and literature reflected the unique environment of the pax Augusta. Yet as Galinsky has convincingly shown, these images were not mere propaganda. The Forum Augustum served as a cultural center, the approximate equivalent of the Athenian acropolis. Shortly after Virgil's death, the Ara Pacis would proclaim the Augustan peace while also suggesting a reformulation of the concordia ordinum. Augustus' completion of the Theater of Marcellus did not merely continue Julius Caesar's building program, but it also gave tangible evidence of the first emperor's interaction with the populace.


In Virgil's day, Augustan architecture and other artistic expression redefined the Roman world. This development is also reflected in poetry. For example, Karl Galinksy and Michael Putnam have each fruitfully compared the content of Horace's Odes 4 to that of the Ara Pacis. Tibullus' topographical poem, too, reveals how a poet can overlay geographical and historical details to suggest the importance of the urbs as the setting of a love affair (2.5). Such examples demonstrate the Augustan texts' heightened emphasis on visual themes, particularly those tied to a new understanding of the world as reflected in imperial building. Structures such as the Palatine temple of Apollo and art objects such as the Augustus of Prima Porta acted as bearers of messages that reflected the highly visual aspects of Augustan society. Virgil's use of vision, therefore, ultimately signals a communication shift that the social climate of Augustan Rome had already begun to embrace.


Based on these observations, for the current undertaking I will establish two ideas as operating premises:


  1. Within the context of the decline of Republican rhetoric, the Augustan age was peculiarly rife with and indebted to visual conveyance of ideas (Zanker's and Galinsky's overarching contribution).
  2. 2. For characters in Virgil's Aeneid, vision emerges as the most prominent way of constructing and interpreting reality. This is particularly true of Aeneas, who reacts to visual stimuli more efficiently than he does to verbal requests.


On the basis of these premises, I will argue that Virgil's poem encompasses a subtle shift from rhetoric to vision as the primary means of conveying and gathering information. This shift is important because it informs Aeneas' decisions in the epic, from leaving Dido to killing Turnus. To support and explicate this thesis, I will apply the philosophical formulations of the twentieth-century French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty to Virgil's principal character, Aeneas. My use of Merleau-Ponty is not meant to introduce a tight phenomenological approach to reading. Others such as Gadamer and Ingarden have done this successfully, within the contexts of their hermeneutic and structuralist systems.


Ingarden's analysis of the literary work of art's anatomy, its essential structure, is derived from his essential commitment to phenomenological analysis. Ingarden looks back to ancient models such as Aristotle to assist in this regard, and to important early modern work such as Lessing's Laocoon. Gadamer, whose hermeneutic approach to ancient text was applied successfully to Horace's Ode 1.19 by Lowell Edmunds, also takes an approach essentially indebted to phenomenology, though with more emphasis on the aesthetic value of a literary work. Both of these theorists—Ingarden and Gadamer—demonstrate the essential validity of phenomenological consideration of a text. Beyond them, in interpretations of medieval and Renaissance literatures one finds rich and provocative applications of phenomenological theory. In classical studies, recent contributions such as those found in The Roman Gaze, edited by David Fredrick, have called attention to the importance of vision in Roman art and architecture. Sharrock's discussion of the Portland vase stands out as particularly exemplary of how important the visual culture was in the Augustan period. Images were not merely in the service of the state but were also part and parcel of domestic and public life.


My application of Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology is not the sole basis of my methodological approach to this book, but rather a strategy or compass within the context of the methodological premises derived from the contributions of Zanker and Galinsky. Specifically, I will use aspects of Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological theory to reformulate point of view as a kind of active and participatory vision of the world on the part of characters within the narrative. Inasmuch as some of Virgil's characters are well aware of their own world through what they see and the way they are seen, I have adopted for them the term voyant-visible, which Merleau-Ponty uses to describe the human being who embraces life's challenges visually and visibly. The voyant-visible is the centerpiece of Merleau-Ponty's philosophy and is particularly applicable to the central figure of Virgil's narrative, Aeneas.




Merleau-Ponty developed his theories about phenomenology in response to a tradition of phenomenological debate that had already been advanced in Germany. Thus, to a certain extent, in forming his philosophy, Merleau-Ponty was reacting to such thinkers as Nietzsche, who questioned the still widely prevalent divide between the human and divine viewpoint in Cartesian dualism. Later, Merleau-Ponty's contemporary, Jean-Paul Sartre, tendered a well-known distrust of vision that would ultimately bleed into Lacan's psychoanalytical vilification of the ego, Irigaray's gender-sensitive anti-ocularcentrism, Derrida's anti-heliocentrism, and Lyotard's discursive figurality. In his seminal study of the history of vision, Martin Jay points out that, in modern and postmodern western philosophical discourse, Merleau-Ponty resists the trend toward the denigration of vision and instead affirms its role in a proper understanding of the world. Such an affirmation of a visual relationship to one's environment is well suited to my consideration of vision in the Aeneid.


Although Merleau-Ponty died before he could fully develop his theories about phenomenology, his work reveals that he had begun to consider meaningfully the ontological divide between word and sight. The Merleau-Pontian concept of vision begins with physical sight but extends to the notion of metaphysical gaze. Despite the limitations of empiricism in the context of a philosophical study of nature, Merleau-Ponty believed that physical sight undergirds the search for truth. To some extent, Merleau-Ponty unites the Cartesian cogito with the person "in the world," whose vantage point is not a "God's-eye view" but worldly in a human and humane sense. In bringing together the two Cartesian visions, "the vision upon which I reflect" (i.e., the cogito) and the "vision that really takes place," Merleau-Ponty fleshes out his concept of the one who sees and is seen.


As I noted above, I am particularly indebted to his formulation of the visually motivated protagonist, the voyant-visible; this is the person who, almost instinctively, makes decisions based on what he sees. This perception is not based on social convention, as conveyed through outside persuasion, but is based on the information gathered naturally through vision. Merleau-Ponty describes the voyant-visible as one "immersed in the visible by his body, itself visible . . . ," who, he says, "opens himself to the world." For Merleau-Ponty, the voyant-visible gathers information through vision while engaging his surroundings in such a way as to be fully visible himself. His perceptibility defines the voyant-visible as an actor who is identified as such.


I will employ Merleau-Ponty's voyant-visible in two ways. First, I will conceptualize, as an operating principle, the poet as a kind of voyant-visible, an artist not wholly removed from the work he creates yet necessarily distinct from his characters in terms of the action of the narrative. Heinze, Otis, and Anderson first showed how Virgil's ability to sympathize with his characters evidences the depth of the poet's subjective style. Heinze suggested that the foundation of Virgil's epic is "the warmth of his sympathy with the emotions of his characters, and . . . the strength of his moral and religious sentiments and of his national feelings. . . ." Heinze refers to this quality elsewhere as Virgil's Stimmung, that is, his ability to create a sympathetic tone in which the reader can encounter Virgil's characters. Otis expounded on Heinze's observations in relation to the Nisus and Euryalus episode, concluding that Virgil "is doubly subjective—first in the empathy . . . second, in his own personal reaction to their emotions." In another classic treatment of the poem, W. S. Anderson notes Virgil's empathy and observes that the narrator's subjective comments reinforce the self-denying behavior of the characters and heighten the reader's sympathetic response.


More important to this discussion, however, is the second way that I employ Merleau-Ponty's concept of the voyant-visible: I will emphasize that Virgil creates characters whose vision motivates an active response to their surroundings. These characters do not observe from a removed or secure vantage point but are in the midst of the narrative's action. Thus, from his first appearance, Aeneas emerges as a "see-er" acutely in touch with the reality of the moment and motivated to action by his vision. The voyant-visible is the character—in the Aeneid, principally but not exclusively Aeneas—who embraces the challenging situations in which Virgil places him both visually (i.e., using vision as a primary means of discerning the proper course of action) and visibly (i.e., being a part of the action as a principal figure; this is unlike Paris of Iliad 3, who is physically removed from his situation [3.380-383]). This activity and engagement based on vision are what Merleau-Ponty refers to as "a living relationship and tension among individuals." The voyant-visible interacts with the world thus:


This subject is no longer alone, is no longer consciousness in general or pure being for itself. He is in the midst of other consciousnesses which likewise have a situation; he is for others. . . .


Merleau-Ponty's voyant-visible is connected to other living beings, forming a mutual relationship in which each person becomes fully understood only in relation to others. Proper vision, which defines that relationship, motivates the voyant-visible to act appropriately in his environment. This proper action is borne out of decision-making based on what is seen and therefore what is real to the viewer, not a "God's-eye view" but a human view on the human plane.


I do not mean that Aeneas' vision is entirely physical or that he is incapable of the kind of internal vision that looks toward the future in a metaphorical sense. Rather that, too, is an aspect of his role as voyant-visible. With regard to physical sight, however, Aeneas, as the voyant-visible, interacts compassionately with some of those he sees, such as the survivors of the shipwreck in Aeneid 1; to others he responds harshly, such as those he encounters on the battlefield in Aeneid 10-12. When Aeneas kills, he gives no heed to rhetorical persuasion but relies on visual stimuli. Aeneas' gaze can enable him to show compassion, but the actions motivated by his gaze can also strengthen his resolve, intensify his sense of duty, and, some would argue, cause him to indulge his human fallibility. The voyant-visible is capable of deep feeling, whether compassion or anger, based on what he sees.




Although movement beyond focalization to phenomenology represents a widening of the scope of vision within Virgilian narrative, it also imposes certain constraints. This study will not simply treat language related to eyes or vision in Virgil or exclusively examine situations rife with visual imagery. This book will not treat portents, predictions, or apparitions that do not directly relate to the way in which a character gathers information. Nor will it treat the fertile topic of ecphrasis in detail, although it has been considered thoroughly by a number of scholars such as Fowler, Putnam, and others. Furthermore, this study will not consider Virgil's quasi-rococo descriptions such as that of Fama (Book 4), Charon (Book 6), or Allecto (i.e., qua visual creature, Book 7). Though such passages may be visually striking (e.g., the stunning transformation of the ships into nymphs in Book 9), they do not fall within the scope of this analysis. Rather, I will consider in phenomenological terms a number of different episodes in the Aeneid that reflect Virgil's shift from rhetoric to vision as the paramount form of communication in the narrative. In addition to gathering information through vision, Virgil's characters communicate through visual signals. Such visual communication was a crucial aspect of Augustan society.


In that society, a number of cultural icons were being established by which Romans could glean information about the new imperial order, various current events, and even the significance of international developments. A Roman of the middle Augustan period, for example, could walk from the Forum Romanum, an area symbolized by the old rostrum, to the curia, where many a debate had raged, to the nearby comitium, where pivotal votes of the Republic had been cast, to Julius Caesar's relatively new forum, the centerpiece of which was a temple dedicated to Venus Genetrix. In this, the first of the imperial fora, public and private were merged, for the structure celebrated Caesar both as public official and as the heir of the Julian gens descended from Venus.


Caesar's successor, Octavian, was equally adept at promoting himself within the context of the iconography of late Republican Rome. In the 20s, Augustus was developing and building his own forum to connect his Julian heritage with Aeneas and also to bind the regal and Republican history to Romulus, whose statue was located in the center of the southern exedra of the forum, directly opposite the statue of Aeneas in the northern exedra. These could be seen on either side of the pronaos of the temple of Mars Ultor, the centerpiece of the new forum. Messages were disseminated iconographically to the viewing public in the new Forum Augustum even as the orators of the old Forum Romanum had once poured forth orations from the old rostrum.


In the Aeneid, vision transmits messages in a manner similar to the methods by which information was conveyed in Augustan society. Just as Aeneas gathers information by viewing the objects described by Virgil in various ecphrases (e.g., in Books 1, 6, 8), the Roman population under Augustus is likely to have beheld their mythical and historical past in Augustus' forum and, to take another example, on the Ara Pacis. While the beholder probably would not have grasped all the monument's information, the icon's content would have resonated generally with the experience and thoughts of most Roman viewers. The cultural and historical approaches of Zanker and Galinsky thus provide this study with an important point of departure.


Beyond departure, however, lies a journey into the text of the Aeneid wherever vision plays a role in Virgil's characterization and his construction of narrative. In that narrative, Virgil's use of vision often points toward the poem's telos. Virgil manipulates sight vis-à-vis his characters to reveal a character's disposition or temperament. For example, a character's confidence in the gods is often strengthened through visual confrontation with a god. Gods can also use vision deceptively to advance their own agendas. In addition, vision can be a means of coordinating the power of past events with the promise of the future. Further, bonds of love in the Aeneid are both strengthened and ruptured through vision. Analysis of Dido's and Aeneas' vision aids in analyzing their relationship; both the way they perceive each other and the way they perceive their destinies ultimately cause the break between the two lovers, overriding any last-minute verbal appeals. Vision's outstripping of oratory is also closely associated with the poem's telos, which, as noted above, I regard as the re-foundation of Troy in Rome, paraphrased simply by the well-known phrase from the poem's opening, dum conderet urbem (1.5). For this study, then, I proffer the word telos as a term to which I will return frequently in my discussion of the importance of visual communication in the Aeneid.


Consideration of Virgilian characterization and narrative necessarily involves establishing further terminology, beginning with the English word vision, which itself contains several nuances of meaning. It can suggest the physical aspect of sight, a future aspiration or goal, or even a mental capacity. For example, one speaks of foresight, hindsight, insight, and eyesight, all of which can be embraced by the single word vision. The Latin terminology encompasses a similar range of meaning: uidere is, of course, the primary Latin word for the act of seeing and chiefly refers to the physical act of sight. Other Latin verbs are also considered in this treatment, including tueri, aspicere, and other cognates of aspicere, as well as nouns related to both the *spic- and *uid-word roots.


Another term important to this study is imago, which occurs only once in the Eclogues and once in the Georgics; it occurs thirty times in the Aeneid. Netta Berlin considers this word in the context of Aeneid 12.560, where its meaning ranges from the mental picture of an imminent attack (pugnae . . . maioris imago) to the faculty of memory itself. Such an interpretation squares nicely with imago as an apparition from the past. Elizabeth Block explains imago as denoting "those visions that come unbidden into men's minds" or the gods' disguised visitation of men. Other times it can mean a manifestation of a character such as Creusa, whose imago appears before Aeneas. Obviously, the term imago had many other associations. One important connection to the past is the notion of the imagines of a Roman house or funeral procession. When Aeneas sees the imago of his father or of Creusa, therefore, there is a poignancy to the word that transcends any English translation.


Finally, one last note on terminology. Words for vision in Latin and in English have a wide range of meaning. Vision can suggest in English a hope for the future as well as the act of sight. We find this dual meaning also in the Aeneid. For example, when Aeneas asks Dido, si te Karthaginis arces / Phoenissam Libycaeque aspectus detinet urbis, / quae tandem Ausonia Teucros considere terra / inuidia est? (Aen. 4.347-350), he associates physical sight with vision, in the broader sense, of his future land. Accordingly, I will seek to analyze both aspects of vision in this study and, in Chapter 4, will enlarge on the passage cited here.


In this study, however, I will not merely analyze Virgil's vision-related language; rather, I will seek to show how Virgil's use of vision reflects the ways in which changes in communication had influenced art and literature. As Merleau-Ponty noted, "The perceived world is the always presupposed foundation of all rationality, all value and all existence." Such a formulation might well be applied to Augustan Rome. The establishment of that city is the telos of Virgil's poem, in which vision's emergence as the dominant form of perception affirms, or at least reflects, the visual supremacy of Augustan society. In general terms, therefore, vision in the Aeneid extends beyond mere physical sight to characterize the most profound themes of the narrative.


As Virgil's primary protagonist, Aeneas embodies the attributes of Merleau-Ponty's voyant-visible: he is in the world as see-er and as one held up as an icon in the midst of those with whom he interacts. He is a participant in and an engager of his surroundings, not existential or removed from them. Such an "earthy" understanding of the human experience is comparable to the atomism of Lucretius and Philodemus; Virgil was poetically indebted to Lucretius and was among Philodemus' personal friends. The effects of atomic theory on Virgil's poetry have long been recognized by Heinze and others as an aspect of his poetic style.


Lucretian visual theory probably informed the manner in which Virgil conceived of vision. Lucretius' conceptual framework was obviously heavily steeped in the ideas of Epicurus, whose notions were ultimately derived in many ways from pre-Socratic thought. For example, the Epicurean concept of sight was indebted to the Empedoclean idea of effluences. Empedocles had earlier suggested that effluences enter the eye and that elements in the eye then distinguish light from dark to form the visual image. The atomists Leucippus and Democritus used this theory to suggest that vision is caused by "images" that strike the eye:


{Greek omitted from this website excerpt}

Alexander, De sensu 56.12

[They attributed sight to certain images, of the same shape as the object, which were continually streaming off from the objects of sight and impinging on the eye. This was the view of the school of Leucippus and Democritus.]


As it had been for Alcmaeon and some other pre-Socratics, to the atomistic philosopher, vision ultimately concerns touch, as the {Greek text} would physically contact the eye. Virgil possibly understood vision to be such a tactile process. Yet it is also possible that Virgil considered metaphysical approaches to vision, such as those descended from Platonic philosophy.


In the Republic's myth of the cave, Plato posited a link between philosophy and vision, for awareness of the cave's darkness comes through vision, the greatest gift that human beings receive from the gods (Timaeus 47a-b). The Republic's cave (Book 7) provides, in many ways, the primary metaphor of Greek philosophy's quest for truth. Vision brings enlightenment and understanding critical for the greatest good: knowledge itself.


Aristotle considered the notion of {Greek text} to be improbable, yet his own ideas concerning visual theory are somewhat limited. While he believed that the way the physical act of vision functions is essentially passive ({Greek text}, Problems 959a24), Aristotle clearly placed vision above all other sensations. This can be seen at the opening of the Metaphysics, where Aristotle states that "of all sensations those received by means of the eyes are liked most. For, not only for the sake of doing something else but even if we are not going to do anything else, we prefer, as one might say, seeing to the other sensations." Aristotle's more extensive discussions of vision also connect sight to emotion, an association already present in Greek Orphic thought. While accepting the connection of vision and the emotions, Virgil accepts Aristotle's declaration of vision's primacy among the senses, apparently ignoring the passive way that Aristotle conceives of vision with regard to information gathering. In the Aeneid, as in the opening of the Metaphysics, vision is conjoined with action.


The Roman Epicureans of the first-century BC did not entirely abandon the Aristotelian association of eyes with emotions. Lucretius' treatment of vision, which occupies much of the early and middle portions of the fourth book of the DRN, explains how emotional energy is taken in with the stream of simulacra (the Latin translation of {Greek text}) that strike a person's eye. Philodemus, whose circle of colleagues and friends included Virgil, instead of focusing on how vision can provoke anger, turns the equation around when he describes the anger that a madman's eyes can convey.


Beyond these philosophical circles, the importance of sight as a means of information gathering and of iconography for the conveyance of information was also recognized. Thus, the psychological effect of visual stimulation is also important, for one finds an increased use of vision in communication and entertainment, particularly during the middle to late Republican period. As Rome waxed powerful in the late second and early first century BC, visual arts such as theater flourished in the urbs. Statues, often imported from Greece, increasingly adorned the city. Near the beginning of the first century, Roman wall painting had begun to change from the First "incrustation" style to the visually richer Second style that was characterized by various portraits of receded walls, landscapes, and mythological scenes. Art collections became widespread as well. By the early 40s BC, Caesar had begun to gather numerous works of art in the pronaos of the temple of Venus Genetrix within his recently constituted forum, located, symbolically, "in the heart of the city." With increased wealth and political influence came a heightened awareness of the visual arts, and Rome became a primary importer of such arts.


These were some of the ideas about vision that Virgil must have considered as he wrote the Aeneid. While I am primarily concerned with the philosophical aspects of vision as applied to the Aeneid, the psychological expression of vision in the cultural context of Augustan Rome will also be an aspect of consideration in this discussion, for Virgil's concept of sight was indebted to the intellectual and cultural heritage surrounding him. Now let us turn to Virgil's text to see how he employs vision in the Aeneid. We shall consider Virgil's text in phenomenological terms, both ancient and modern.


Ante ora patrum


Aeneas first speaks amidst a disastrous situation in the darkness of a raging storm that hampers his crew's ability to see. Even without a clear view of their situation, the crew discerns that death is imminent. Their unfortunate situation causes Aeneas to shudder; he cries out in apparent desperation:


'o terque quaterque beati,
quis ante ora patrum Troiae sub moenibus altis
contigit oppetere! o Danaum fortissime gentis
Tydide! mene Iliacis occumbere campis
non potuisse tuaque animam hanc effundere dextra,
saeuus ubi Aeacidae telo iacet Hector, ubi ingens
Sarpedon, ubi tot Simois correpta sub undis
scuta uirum galeasque et fortia corpora uoluit!'

Aen. 1.94-101

["O, three and four times blessed
were those who died before their fathers' eyes
beneath the walls of Troy. Strongest of all
the Danaans, o Diomedes, why
did your right hand not spill my lifeblood, why
did I not fall upon the Ilian fields,
there where ferocious Hector lies, pierced by
Achilles' javelin, where the enormous
Sarpedon now is still, and Simois
has seized and sweeps beneath its waves so many
helmets and shields and bodies of the brave!" (M. 1.133-144)]


This first speech that Aeneas makes in the poem calls attention to the relationship of memory and visual image, for the hero evokes an image that harks back to the memory of a previous situation when he proclaims that those who died at Troy "before their fathers' eyes" (95), as Mandelbaum renders the phrase, are truly blessed. This statement helps the reader to discern immediately Aeneas' perception of the situation that encompasses him. He views the storm through the lens of past disasters, specifically those of Iliad, 12.22-23, knowing that Troy once witnessed many bodies and weapons rolling in the Simois. Aeneas proclaims that he would rather have been seen among mangled corpses at Troy than be the perceiver of the current disaster. Although he escaped death at Troy, he must now witness the plight of his comrades-in-arms in a new disaster on the sea.


Though Aeneas is sailing to a new land, he is here and elsewhere occupied with the past. Odysseus' words provide a model for those of Aeneas:


{Greek text omitted from this web excerpt}

Od. 5.305-312

["My sheer destruction is certain.
Three times and four times happy those Danaans were who died then
in wide Troy land, bringing favor to the sons of Atreus,
as I wish I too had died at that time and met my destiny
on the day when the greatest number of Trojans threw their bronze-headed
weapons upon me, over the body of perished Achilleus,
and I would have had my rites and the Achaians given me glory."]


Like Aeneas, Odysseus speaks in the midst of a storm. But while some of Odysseus' words compare to those of Aeneas, particularly Virgil's allusion to the Homeric formula "thrice and four times blessed," Odysseus reaches a conclusion different from that of Aeneas. Odysseus' concern is for himself and for his own funeral in particular (line 313). With proper burial, Odysseus says he could have enjoyed in the burial ceremony the kleos (glory, 312) that crowns a hero's life. Aeneas has a less self-glorifying perspective than does Odysseus. Aeneas will be concerned not only with his own survival and that of his men but that of Troy, as well. His future, like his past, is to be a national venture.


This recontextualization of Homeric material both identifies Aeneas as a hero in the tradition of Odysseus and contrasts him with that same hero. The allusion goes beyond Odyssey 5. Aeneas' invocation of those who died at Troy before the faces of their fathers (95) suggests a visual image similar to Odysseus' reaction to the sacking of Troy in the song of Demodocus in Odyssey 8. There Demodocus describes a woman who has witnessed her husband's mortal wound (8.526). As she attempts to cling to his body, she is taken away from one who had fallen "before people and city" ({Insert Greek 1.8}, 8.524). This description and Odysseus' tearful response to Demodocus' song are characterized at all points by pathos engendered by the visions of suffering that the song embodies. Odysseus' grief, like the woman's in the simile, is engendered by what he sees. Virgil's text, the phrase ante ora patrum, presents an instance of pathos comparable to Homer's visual portrait of violence, loss, and grief in Odyssey 8.524. Aeneas views his current situation of possible death in a storm to be less honorable than the noble but pathetic death of soldiers in battle, with their fathers beholding the event.


The vision of past events to which Aeneas refers here parallels his vision of the disaster of which he is a part. It is significant that Aeneas does not speak as an observer or as one somehow removed from the plight of his men in the storm; with his pathetic utterance, he reveals that he willingly involves himself in the struggle. In this situation, Aeneas is a voyant-visible even if, paradoxically, his disturbed terque quaterque address comes when vision has been obscured:


insequitur clamorque uirum stridorque rudentum;
eripiunt subito nubes caelumque diemque
Teucrorum ex oculis; ponto nox incubat atra;
intonuere poli et crebris micat ignibus aether
praesentemque uiris intentant omnia mortem.

Aen. 1.87-91

[. . . cries
of men, the creaking of the cables rise.
Then, suddenly, the cloud banks snatch away
the sky and daylight from the Trojans' eyes,
black night hangs on the waters, heavens thunder,
and frequent lightning glitters in the air;
everything intends quick death to men. (M. 1.124-130)]


Aeneas makes his opening proclamation, then, precisely when the Trojans have lost their vision of the situation because the storm obscures the very light of day. This not only heightens the sense of obscurity of their seemingly imminent deaths but also adds to the panic of the moment: the cables creak (87), the men cannot see the full force of the winds, the clouds and heaven disappear as night "glooms over" a sea (89) rendered visible only by lightning (micat ignibus aether, 90). These are the visions that cause Aeneas to proclaim that those who died before their fathers' eyes were many times blessed. He and his men would have been better off dying visibly ante ora patrum (95) than in the figurative and literal obscurity of this dark storm (88-89).


After Aeneas' opening words, Virgil continues to heighten the intensity of the moment in visual terms:


tris Notus abreptas in saxa latentia torquet
(saxa uocant Itali mediis quae in fluctibus Aras,
dorsum immane mari summo), tris Eurus ab alto
in breuia et Syrtis urget, miserabile uisu,
inliditque uadis atque aggere cingit harenae.

Aen. 1.108-112

[And then the south wind snatches up three ships
and spins their keels against the hidden rocks—
those rocks that, rising in midsea, are called
by the Italians "Altars"—like a monstrous
spine stretched along the surface of the sea.
Meanwhile the east wind wheels another three
off from the deep and, terrible to see,
against the shoals and shifting silt, against
the shallows, girding them with mounds of sand. (M. 1.153-161)]


Some of these vivid images are captured in a well-known depiction of the storm from the fifth-century Codex Vergilius Romanus (Figure 1.1). The manuscript's illustration offers an imaginative interpretation of this passage and features an oversized Aeneas with hands upraised, presumably offering his "terque quaterque" declaration. Virgil's concise expression, miserabile uisu (111), however, suggests a visual image more intense than the artist can express. Aeneas' view of the wretchedness of the men in the storm presents a psychological condition that the fifth-century artist does not capture. Virgil delineates Aeneas' appraisal of the situation while also suggesting how the hero is beheld by others. The poet's careful manipulation of and empathy with Aeneas' perspective establishes the hero as voyant-visible in this opening scene. As such, Aeneas both sees and is involved with his men, visible even in the dark and gloomy situation in which the Trojans are first seen. Aeneas emerges at the poem's beginning from darkness and disorder.


The storm concludes when Neptune becomes aware of the disturbance:


Interea magno misceri murmure pontum
emissamque hiemem sensit Neptunus et imis
stagna refusa uadis, grauiter commotus, et alto
prospiciens summa placidum caput extulit unda.
disiectam Aeneae toto uidet aequore classem,
fluctibus oppressos Troas. . . .

Aen. 1.124-129

[But Neptune felt the fracas and frenzy;
and shaken by the unleashed winds, the wrenching
of the still currents from the deep seabed,
he raised his tranquil head above the surface.
And he can see the galleys of Aeneas
scattered across the waters, with the Trojans
dismembered by the waves. . . . (M. 1.177-183)]


Neptune's perception of the storm (127) closely follows that of Aeneas; raising his "tranquil head" above the surface of the raging waters, Neptune looks forth upon—one might note well the participle's prefix, which emphasizes the extension of Neptune's gaze—the storm from a vantage point different from that of Aeneas. Whereas Aeneas sees the chaos and yet can do nothing, Neptune's vision is pacifying. His divine power enables him to take action and bring about a resolution, much like a good speaker who, Virgil goes on to explain, is able to assuage troubled hearts:


ac ueluti magno in populo cum saepe coorta est
seditio saeuitque animis ignobile uulgus
iamque faces et saxa uolant, furor arma ministrat;
tum, pietate grauem ac meritis si forte uirum quem
conspexere, silent arrectisque auribus astant;
ille regit dictis animos et pectora mulcet. . . .

Aen. 1.148-153

[And just as often, when a crowd of people
is rocked by a rebellion, and the rabble
rage in their minds, and firebrands and stones
fly fast—for fury finds its weapons—if,
by chance, they see a man remarkable
for righteousness and service, they are silent
and stand attentively; and he controls
their passion by his words and cools their spirits. . . . (M. 1.209-216)]


Here the perception emphasized is not that of the pietate grauem . . . uirum (151) but rather of those who watch and listen to him. The crowd first beholds this man and, only after seeing him, awaits eagerly the words that will calm their hearts. Neptune, then, while being the primary object of this simile, is not quite the only one for whom the comparison is apt, for Aeneas behaves similarly.


The description of the "man remarkable for righteousness and service" anticipates the deportment of Aeneas a few lines later (197-209), when he will rally his men on the Carthaginian shore, telling them that perhaps they will eventually recall their suffering with some pleasure (forsan et haec olim meminisse iuuabit, 203). Aeneas comforts his men (pectora mulcet, 197) in a manner similar to the speaker of the simile (cf. 153) before putting on a good show of bravery for his men to see (spem uultu simulat, 209). Insofar as Aeneas' speech to his men (198-207) represents a tangible example of the speaker of the simile (148-153), oratory and vision join forces in this passage. This alliance of speech and sight, however, begins to fray by the end of the sixth book.


As we move from Neptune's intervention to the narrative of Aeneas and his men, Virgil uses the same visual words (prospicere) to describe Neptune surveying the now quiet seas:


. . . sic cunctus pelagi cecidit fragor, aequora postquam
prospiciens genitor caeloque inuectus aperto
flectit equos curruque uolans dat lora secundo.

Aen. 1.154-156

[. . . so all the clamor of the sea subsided
after the father, gazing on the waters
and riding under the cloudless skies, had guided
his horses, let his willing chariot run. (M. 1.217-220)]


Once Neptune has gathered information through his perspective of the disaster on the sea, he brings necessary calm to the waters. His gaze, twice mentioned (prospiciens, 127, 155), compels him to take action in restoring order to the sea. Just as the god's first vision of the winds corresponds to Aeneas' vision of the storm, Neptune's final look at the calm seas compares with Aeneas' inspection of the situation when Virgil, a few lines later, twice presents Aeneas' view of his new surroundings:


Aeneas scopulum interea conscendit, et omnem
prospectum late pelago petit, Anthea si quem
iactatum uento uideat Phrygiasque biremis
aut Capyn aut celsis in puppibus arma Caici.
nauem in conspectu nullam, tris litore ceruos
prospicit errantis; hos tota armenta sequuntur
a tergo et longum per uallis pascitur agmen.

Aen. 1.180-186

[Meanwhile Aeneas climbs a crag to seek
a prospect far and wide across the deep,
if he can only make out anything
of Antheus and his Phrygian galleys, or
of Capys, or the armor of Caicus
on his high stern. There is no ship in sight;
all he can see are three stags wandering
along the shore, with whole herds following
behind, a long line grazing through the valley. (M. 1.251-259)]


Aeneas has emerged from the storm's obscuring of vision, coming to a place where he can see clearly. Like Neptune, who had come up from the depths to appraise the situation of the storm, Aeneas has a clear view of his surroundings (prospectum, 181). The calm of this scene contrasts with the turmoil of the storm, and Aeneas will now be able to provide for his men, for he can see a food source (prospicit, 185) that will physically and psychologically strengthen the Trojans. Aeneas' vision is markedly similar to that of the god, and his perspective, characterized by the same verb (prospicere) as Neptune's, leads to action. Aeneas sees his duty and takes action; the action that vision engenders demonstrates his pietas.


The perspective that Aeneas adopts does not celebrate the space between viewed and viewer or suggest that meaning should be understood in terms of such space. Instead, a Merleau-Pontian reading of Virgil espouses the shrinking of that space through vision. The true voyant-visible should not take a detached view of others' situations, such as that seen in the opening of Lucretius' second book. There, Lucretius explains the importance of being without care by using the figure of a true Epicurean who watches the plight of others from a distance:


suaue, mari magno turbantibus aequora uentis,
e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem;
non quia uexari quemquamst iucunda uoluptas,
sed quibus ipse malis careas quia cernere suaue est.
suaue etiam belli certamina magna tueri
per campos instructa tua sine parte pericli.
sed nil dulcius est, bene quam munita tenere
edita doctrina sapientum templa serena,
despicere unde queas alios passimque uidere
errare atque uiam palantis quaerere uitae. . . .

DRN 2.1-10

[Sweet it is, when on the great sea the winds are buffeting the waters, to gaze from the land on another's great struggles; not because it is a pleasure or joy that anyone should be distressed, but because it is sweet to perceive from what misfortunes you yourself are free. Sweet is it too, to behold great contests of war in full array over the plains, when you have no part in the danger. But nothing is more gladdening than to dwell in the calm regions, firmly embattled on the heights by the teaching of the wise, whence you can look down on others, and see them wandering hither and thither, going astray as they seek the way of life. . . .]


The storm within Lucretius' passage (turbantibus aequora uentis, 2.1) compares to the situation of Aeneas and his men (uenti . . . / . . . turbine perflant. / incubuere mari, 1.82-84). When Virgil has Aeneas recall those who died at Troy (94-101), he alludes to the second image of Lucretius, the vision of armies embattled on the plains (suaue etiam belli certamina magna tueri, 5). Ironically, Aeneas would picture himself with his men in dangers quite similar to those of DRN 2's prologue.


What Virgilian critics have characterized as the poet's subjective style—his ability to sympathize with his characters—manifests itself in the gaze of his characters. Unlike Lucretius, who advocates a distant and secure perspective, Virgil closes the gap between one character and another, the gap between the character and his or her surroundings. This increased proximity can encourage a profound range of emotions, from expressions of sympathy and affection to those of concern and anger. Perhaps most significantly, vision can provoke action; for Aeneas, this action can range from fighting on the battlefield to rallying men after a disaster.


When Aeneas rallies his men after the storm of Book 1, like the noble statesman of the simile, he merely makes the best of a terrible situation:


'per uarios casus, per tot discrimina rerum
tendimus in Latium, sedes ubi fata quietas
ostendunt; illic fas regna resurgere Troiae.
durate, et uosmet rebus seruate secundis.'
Talia uoce refert curisque ingentibus aeger
spem uultu simulat, premit altum corde dolorem.

Aen. 1.204-209

["Through so many crises and calamities
we make for Latium, where fates have promised
a peaceful settlement. It is decreed
that there the realm of Troy will rise again.
Hold out, and save yourselves for kinder days."
These are his words: though sick with heavy care,
he counterfeits hope in his face; his pain
is held within, hidden. (M. 1.284-292)]


Aeneas projects an image that commands attention and respect. He proves to be neither the glory-seeking Odysseus nor a person shaped by a concern for the securitas of recent Roman didactic epic. Informed by, yet separated from, these two intertexts, Aeneas emerges as a palpable, suffering hero with the capacity to mask his own doubt and fear for the good of his people (209). He causes them to perceive him in a way that benefits and sustains them. Beyond mere words of encouragement, Aeneas thus uses his physical appearance to give them a sense of security.


In the midst of a bleak and stormy present and within the context of the tragic past evoked by terque quaterque beati, Aeneas finds a way to engender hope in those who look to him for leadership. His unique blend of sympathy and courage is a kind of participatory subjectivity, a concept related to the poet's own sympathetic style. Such psychological proximity to the world in which he lives will characterize Aeneas throughout the poem. The vision of his surrounding circumstances here produces in him a humane and sympathetic response. On other occasions—particularly in the poem's second half—it overrides what he hears, causing him to take severely decisive action.


The Scope of the Argument


Thomas Rakoczy and Raymond Prier have considered vision in Greek poetry, with special attention paid to Homer. While Rakoczy's work centers on the negative aspects of gaze and divine spite, Prier, whose criticism is indebted methodologically to the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, considers a more varied use of terms for sight, such as Homer's verbs, {Greek text} and {Greek text}. Prier suggests that these and other terms reveal the nature of comprehension based on visual perception: Homer's reliance on vision aids the construction of meaning in the Homeric poems and influences the nature of perception in the wake of the Homeric epics.


Recent work on aspects of vision as a mode of perception and communication in the Aeneid has generated many insightful observations. Licinia Ricottilli has explored how one character's gesture functions vis-à-vis language to convey information to another character. She details the many passages in which words and gestures function in tandem to produce dramatic, even theatrical effects. This combination of speech and gesture evokes response from characters, and Virgil's representation of any given gesture assists and can outstrip the importance of direct discourse.


Other studies, such as that of William Hunt, have noted how visual images seem to become increasingly "more concrete" as the poem progresses. Hunt correctly demonstrates the way that pictures come into sharp focus in the poem. Although Hunt points in the right direction, he uses the terms "picture" and "image" in such a general way that his study does not advance the topic of Virgilian vision very far. The current study posits a tension between rhetoric and vision that develops throughout the Aeneid. As I have noted previously, I follow closely the reasoning and evidence of Zanker and Galinsky and seek to apply what Zanker has called "visual language" to Virgil's text, a theory relevant to Roman society during its transition from Republic to Empire. Rome's first emperor used images to convey meaning and to create a kind of political and artistic renaissance in Augustan society, a specific historical moment in which great works of literature and art could occur through the auctoritas of that same emperor.


The Aeneid reflects this major trend toward visual communication in Augustan society. At the opening of the Aeneid, vision complements and fulfills the words of the speaker, as consideration of the simile of the speaker in Aeneid 1 makes evident. By the poem's midpoint, vision has moved to a position distinctly opposed to oratory; during the poem's final scene, vision chiefly motivates the action of Aeneas within the narrative in such a way as to suggest that rhetoric has lost much of its effect. I will use several examples from the Aeneid to support this thesis. In Chapter 2, I consider a number of instances in which the gods become visible and interact with human beings. Denis Feeney's many lucid observations provide a starting point for my evaluation both of the manner in which gods appear to mortals and of the effects of their appearances.


In the third chapter, I consider how the act of sight functions with regard to temporality, specifically examining how vision seems to broker among past, present, and future in the poem. Vision transcends temporal boundaries to point toward a justification of Rome's existence and the actions that anticipate or help to preserve that existence. Vision offers a means for bringing the future and past together within the cyclical nature of Roman time: in encountering his past and looking back in that sense, Aeneas can see the future more clearly.


Chapter 4 argues for an implied contrast between the vision of Dido and Aeneas as lovers and the vision that Aeneas has of his beloved country. Interpreting Dido and Aeneas as voyants-visibles, I argue that vision fuels important phases in the lovers' relationship, from their meeting, to their separation, to the rendezvous in the campi lugentes. As they begin to cease viewing each other sympathetically, however, their relationship begins to deteriorate, and the hero's vision of his future city replaces his view of her as the object of his love. Vision in the Dido and Aeneas tale therefore accomplishes its ends, first by cooperating with rhetoric and then by responding to and ultimately supplanting rhetoric.


In the final chapter, I assert that oratory becomes increasingly suspect and devalued as the poem proceeds. Appeals offered by embassies become less successful. Pleas for mercy fall on deaf ears. In the final scene of the Aeneid, vision effects in Aeneas a strong response. Virgil's use of vision is ultimately causative, prompting action, for the power of images replaces rhetoric as the motivation for action.


But let us begin with the gods, as does Virgil's poem, for visual perception of the gods causes mortals to reconsider decisions and redirect their own courses of action.


“In sum, this book makes an important contribution to the analysis of the Aeneid.... It deserves the close attention and lively interest of all scholars of the Aeneid.”
Bryn Mawr Classical Review


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