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The Forum Augustum from the Farther Shore: Vergil's Reader as Interpretive Hero in Augustus' Hall of Fame

Nandini B. Pandey

Critics have long recognized similarities between the parade of heroes in Vergil’s Underworld (Aeneid 6.637-892) and the statues of the Julii and summi viri in the Forum Augustum (20-2 BCE).  However, problems of dating and influence have distracted from the question of reception: how might Romans understand and (re)interpret Augustus’ sculptural program and Vergil’s catalogue of heroes in light of one another after the Forum had opened?  Combining literary and archaeological evidence, this paper argues that Augustus’ selection and presentation of exempla flattened out some ambivalences and contradicted some moral messages of Vergil’s poem.  Yet Aeneid 6 models interpretive strategies that primed elite viewers to recognize and respond to these differences. While visitors to the Forum occupied a similar hermeneutic position to Aeneas in the Underworld, with the pater patriae instead of Anchises as their guide, they enjoyed greater freedom of movement and interpretation by which to critique Augustus’ version of history.

Informed by recent scholarship on visuality in the Aeneid (Bartsch 1998, Smith 2005) and interconnections among literature, landscape, and memory (Leach 1988, Favro 1996, Gowing 2005), this paper reinterprets Vergil’s parade of heroes in light of reconstructions of the Forum Augustum (Zanker 1968/1988, Spannagel 1999, and especially Geiger 2008, supplemented by grant-funded research in Rome in Summer 2013).  Scholars from Rowell 1941 to Geiger 2008 have posited a general correspondence between the two catalogues. This paper explores how significant differences of selection, arrangement, and tone would convey divergent motives and messages. While Vergil links Caesar with Pompey as a nameless fomenter of war (826-31), the Forum exalted him as the deified Julius.  Contravening Anchises’ advocacy of mercy over civil strife (832-35), the Temple of Mars Ultor glorified Augustus’ vengeance against Caesar’s murderers.  Whereas Aeneid 6 reaches an elegiac climax with the doomed Marcellus (863-86), the Forum revolved around a quadrigate statue of the pater patriae. Finally, though the Forum’s triumphalist tone and use for military rituals respond to Anchises’ famous praise of the Romans (… debellare superbos, 847-53), it omits the compassionate regret that modulates Vergil’s treatment of Roman history and its victims.

This paper furthermore argues that the Aeneid encodes interpretive strategies and emotional responses that influenced readers’ response to the Forum Augustum and Augustan architecture more generally (cf. Bartsch 1998; Segal 1999). At 6.30-33, as Aeneas admires Apollo’s temple at Cumae, Vergil emphasizes what Daedalus has omitted: Icarus’ tragic death.  Readers were thus primed to notice and read “regretfully” Augustus’ own architectonic exclusion of certain summi viri (certainly Antony, Brutus, Cassius; probably Pompey, Cicero, and Cato; cf. Geiger 2005). Moreover, Aeneas’ encounter with Roman history is prefaced and punctuated by recognition and grief (esp. Palinurus; Dido; Deiphobus; Marcellus).  Elite visitors to Augustus’ re-presentation of Roman history might react similarly to their failure to recognize some of their own ancestors there, crowded out by Augustus’ privileging of the Julii.

Finally, Vergil’s use of Anchises as Aeneas’ guide through the Underworld highlights the role of interpretive mediation in determining a text’s message. This role is played, in the Forum Augustum, by Augustus himself, as selector of the statues and perhaps even composer of some elogia (Geiger 2008). In fact, his new Forum allowed every Roman to share in Aeneas’ extraordinary experience in Aeneid 6, reviewing a parade of Roman heroes with narrative commentary now provided by the pater patriae. Yet visitors could also wrest this architectural text from Augustus’ authorial control to serve their own subjective purposes and interpretations. Physically, they controlled how they experienced and used the space, e.g., reappropriating certain statues for private assignations. Intellectually, unlike Aeneas, they evaluated the princeps’ parade of heroes in light of their own political sympathies and historical knowledge. Vergil’s description of the underworld thus encouraged readers to make their own hermeneutic katabases as they walked through Rome, delving for hidden meaning beneath architectural as well as literary texts and rendering Augustus’ Forum more truly their own.  


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Art, Text, & the City of Rome

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