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Happy Un-Birthday, Harvard School!: The Aeneid’s Pre-History of Dialectical Interpretation

Nandini B. Pandey

As the so-called Harvard School celebrates its fiftieth birthday, this paper adds two thousand candles to the cake. ‘Pessimistic’ and ‘optimistic’ readings, I argue, gestated along with the Aeneid itself: its antecedent texts, internal representations of reception, and object biography conditioned even Vergil’s earliest audiences to interpret the epic dialectically.

            The Harvard School itself reacted against propagandistic views of the Aeneid (esp. Syme) and quickly generated its own antithesis, especially on the Continent (cf. Harrison, Powell, Tarrant, Zanker). Since then, pessimists and optimists have waltzed a stiff-armed pas de deux across the changing intellectual landscape of the past half century. Many scholars (Feeney, Kennedy, Martindale, Schiesaro, Hardie, Galinsky, et al.) have criticized this binary as tired and reductive; others have traced each school’s genealogy through the centuries (Thomas, Kallendorf, Quint).

This paper zooms in on dialectic itself as a characteristic Vergilian hermeneutic mode, then tracks it backwards from the Aeneid’s moment of (in)completion. I suggest that the following factors preconditioned Augustan readers, like modern ones, both to read the newborn epic ambivalently and to adopt mutually oppositional interpretive stances. 

  1. Antetexts

The Eclogues pre-scribed a dialectical hermeneutics for the Aeneid when it was still just a twinkle in its daddy’s eye. The contrapuntal perspectives of the ‘optimistic’ Tityrus and ‘pessimistic’ Meliboeus and the pastoral antithesis between political and poetic concerns (cf. Perkell) primed readers to hear ‘public’ and ‘private’ voices within Vergil’s epic, too. The later conflation of Virgil with Tityrus (Calp. Sic. Ecl. 4, Mart. Ep. 8.55, etc.) and (re?)addition of a biographical proem (Theodorakopoulos; Kayachev) further encouraged intertextual readings of Vergil’s corpus. In their amoebaean contestation of earlier songs and memories, moreover, Vergil’s fictive shepherds mirror the process of dialogic reception to which his epic would be subject.

        2.  Intratexts

This paper treats Aeneas’ much-debated encounter with the Trojan War frieze at Carthage (1.446-93; cf. Horsfall, Segal, Leach, Bartsch, Putnam, Fowler, et al.) as a programmatic internal example of readers’ tendency to co-opt and polarize textual meaning. Aeneas’ ‘pro-Trojan’ interpretation of the artwork, despite its ‘anti-Trojan’ architectural setting, sensitizes readers to gaps between Vergil’s own text, audience, and political context that widen over the course of the epic. It also emblematizes the Aeneid’s own susceptibility to antithetical readings based on readers’ personal, political, and historical perspectives.

  1. Paratexts 

Further polarizing ancient and modern interpretations, rumors of indeterminate date maintained that Vergil wanted the Aeneid burned upon his death but Augustus had it published in defiance of the poet’s wishes (Vita Suetonii vulgo Donatiana, Servius, Jerome, etc.; cf. Ziolkowski and Putnam, Brugnoli and Stok, O’Hara, Broch). Antithetical judgments are thus built into the story of the epic’s birth, which was literally tantamount to the death of the author. This literary aetion paradoxically substantiates both ‘pro-’ and ‘anti-Augustan’ readings. It also bases the Aeneid’s continued existence on an anti-Vergilian intervention by a paradigmatically ‘pro-Augustan’ reader, Augustus himself. If so, then every act of reading implicitly opposes Vergil’s authorial intentions and implicates all readers, ‘Harvard’ or not, in a tug-of-war between poet and prince.

            A brief conclusion outlines some implications of this interpretive dialectic for the post-9/11 reading and teaching of Vergil. The quotation of Aeneid 9.447 on the National September 11 Memorial exemplifies the continued, politically polarized appropriation of Vergil as well as the need for critical awareness about this process. I suggest that current pedagogical practices, like ancient ones, can, do, and should continue promoting dialogism as the hermeneutic pendulum swings away from the Harvard School’s counter-cultural idealism and toward more pragmatic, post-traumatic interpretations of Vergil’s epic. Cento di questi secoli!

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Happy Golden Anniversary, Harvard School!

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