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Elegiac Amor and Mors in Vergil’s ‘Italian Aeneid’

Sarah McCallum

           In this paper, I explore the role of Roman elegy in the second, ‘Iliadic’ half of Vergil’s Aeneid.  A detailed philological analysis of three key episodes supports my argument that, contrary to expectation, Vergil incorporates Roman elegy in significant passages throughout the second half of the Aeneid.  By presenting evidence from the deaths of Nisus and Euryalus, Pallas, and Camilla, I aim to show that Vergil experiments with elegy as a funerary, as well as amatory, genre within his maius opus about war and conquest.

            Existing scholarship has recognized that Vergil makes use of the repertoire of Roman elegy, particularly for narratives that feature themes and subject matter related to love.  For example, we find echoes of elegy in Vergil’s Eclogues, particularly in the characterization of two alienated and suffering lovers: the shepherd Corydon; and the poet-lover Gallus, a figure based on Vergil’s friend and elegiac contemporary C. Cornelius Gallus.  In Georgics 4, the tragic love of Orpheus and Eurydice reveals the continued impact of erotic elegy on Vergil’s poetic development.  Studies of elegy in the Aeneid have focused largely on the disastrous love affair of Aeneas and Dido in the fourth book.  The love story, as we might expect, features an impressive array of elegiac themes and diction and endures as the most cited example of Vergil’s experimentation with elegy. We know that Vergil experiments with Roman elegy at every stage of his career up to and including the first, ‘Odyssean’ half of the Aeneid.  But what about the second half of the poem?

            It is my belief that certain generic and political and cultural expectations have shaped, and indeed limited, the study of Roman elegy within Books 7-12.  The genres of epic and elegy tend to be seen as diametrically opposed based on their formal and thematic repertoire.  In ancient literary-critical terms, epic and elegy are defined by contrast:  epic sits at the pinnacle of the generic hierarchy, elegy at the bottom; epic is ‘hard’ (durus), elegy is ‘soft’ (mollis); epic deals with ‘serious’ themes like war and city foundation, elegy with the ‘frivolous’ themes of love and leisure.  By these definitions, the genre of Roman elegy seems at best unsuited, at worst antithetical, to the somber and troubling narrative of war presented in Aeneid 7-12.  We frequently find a similar opposition in assessments of the political and cultural significance of Roman elegy and Vergil’s Aeneid.  Interpretations of elegy as a counter-cultural phenomenon place it in opposition to the Aeneid, a poem often seen as heavily entrenched in the dominant culture.  A tendency to view Vergil’s epic and Roman elegy as polar opposites, both in terms of generic classification and political and cultural significance, creates resistance to the idea that the ‘lofty’, martial, second half of the Aeneid plays host to the ‘lowly’ poetry of love and leisure.

            I aim to challenge this resistance by first drawing attention to significant examples that confirm the integration of erotic and sepulchral elegy into the ‘Italian Iliad.’  Three key episodes contain evidence for the poetic fusion of elegy and epic in narratives concerned with love, death, and war:  the fatal raid of Nisus and Euryalus (A. 9.168-465); the funeral of Pallas (A. 11.29-99); and the death of Camilla (11.498-835).  I then hope to analyze the ways in which the Roman elegiac qualities of these episodes force us to reconsider their significance in relation to the martial epic context.  The blending of recognizable elegiac and epic elements creates a productive tension between war and love, and public duty and private loss, destabilizing the martial narrative.  Vergil’s elegiac focus on figures evocative of love, death, and lament – Nisus and Euryalis, Pallas, and Camilla – calls attention to the profound human cost of the war, as well as the destructive passions that drive the conflict.

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Vergil, Elegy, and Epigram

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