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Interpreting Twelfth-Century Imitation of the Classics: Walter of Châtillon’s Imitation of the Aeneid in the Exordium of the Alexandreis

Justin Haynes

This paper uses the exordium of the Alexandreis as a test case to argue for a new theoretical model for reading postclassical imitation of classical poets. Traditionally, scholars, who have analyzed Walter’s debts to classical poets, have visualized a direct conversation between two authors: Walter and the classical poet being discussed (Christensen, Wiener, Ratkowitsch, Zwierlein). Instead, this paper presents evidence that we should view classical imitation through a lens that includes intermediary works, such as later poets, but especially medieval and late antique commentaries on the classical poets. We should also seek to understand how such imitation was understood by medieval readers through the medieval commentaries on the Alexandreis. When these other sources are examined, Walter’s imitation of the Aeneid’s exordium takes on many new dimensions and brings us closer to understanding how Walter expected his poem to be compared to classical epic.

For instance, most modern scholars have seen Walter’s exordium as principally showing allegiance to Lucan’s Bellum Civile rather than the Aeneid (Christensen, Ratkowitsch, Zwierlein). Interpretations of the poem as whole then follow suit. This is a conclusion based on the traditional “direct” approach to understanding imitation in which specific “verbal echoes” are sought out and conclusions drawn from their number and thematic relevance. However, analysis of Servius’ commentary on the Aeneid as well as medieval commentaries on the Alexandreis reveal that this was not how late antique and medieval scholars generally viewed imitation. Indeed, evidence will be presented that the vast majority of quotations from classical poets in the medieval commentaries on the Alexandreis are not cited for their verbal similarities to the text in question.

Instead, the medieval commentators on Walter’s exordium see greater imitation of the Aeneid than of the Bellum Civile, and they also see imitation of the Aeneid in places where today we might be disinclined to do so. The medieval commentators argue that Walter’s exordium conforms to the tripartite pattern established in Servius’ reading of Virgil’s exordium: proposal, invocation, and narration. Servius explains that Lucan does not follow this order, so by observing that Walter replicates Virgil’s order, the medieval commentators seem to be suggesting a stronger Virgilian alignment. Furthermore, it has not struck modern readers of the Alexandreis as surprising that Walter invokes “Musa” at the beginning of his epic. Most seem to implicitly take this as just a generic reference to the epic tradition as a whole, yet it had long since become a commonplace of even highly classicizing Latin epic to invoke at least one person of the Christian Godhead in place of the classical Muses (Curtius, Ziolkowski). The medieval commentators on the Alexandreis pointedly note the specifically Virgilian resonance of invoking “Musa” in the exordium (Aeneid 1.8). We can conclude that Walter’s unequivocal invocation of “Musa” would have immediately suggested to Walter’s audience that the Alexandreis was probably going to include some form of Virgilian divine apparatus, which indeed it does, in contrast to Lucan’s practice. After all, even Lucan famously denied the existence of the Muses and refused to invoke them in his exordium—instead invoking Nero for inspiration (sarcastically, according to Arnulf’s twelfth-century commentary on Lucan).

The implications of this study go well beyond scholarship on the Alexandreis or medieval epic and may even shed light on ancient poetic imitation. The kind of Latin textual communities that existed in the late twelfth-century were surely closer to Roman textual communities than the modern community of classical scholars. Most of the modern interpretative strategies applied to Medieval Latin hexametric poetry have been borrowed from classicists, but the many additional resources available to medievalists—near-contemporary manuscripts and commentaries as well as contemporary manuscripts and commentaries for the classical poems being imitated—might be deployed to give us additional information about poetic imitation that might benefit those who work exclusively on ancient poets. 

Session/Panel Title:

Imitation in Medieval Latin Literature

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