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The Blood beneath the Laurels: Aeneid 2, Metamorphoses 1, and the Ethics of Augustan Victory

Nandini Pandey

University of Wisconsin-Madison

     In Aeneid 2.469-568, an ancient laurel (veterrima laurus) overhangs Pyrrhus’ murder of Polites and Priam, ironically crowning his sacrilegious triumph over Troy. Metamorphoses 1.452-567 aetiologizes the tree as the product of Apollo’s attempted rape of Daphne, (p)rewriting the laurel as a sign of violence and cooptation from its mythological moment of origin up to modern times. Ovid’s text thus retroactively politicizes Vergil’s to comment on the laurel’s use within Roman visual culture to elide the violence that underpinned Augustan power.

     In complement to studies of tree violence in the Aeneid by Thomas 1988, Dyson 2001, and Gowers 2011, this paper analyzes Vergil’s unprecedented inclusion of a laurel near Priam’s altar to Zeus Herkeios as a locus for semantic as well as physical disruption. In Aeneid 2, the laurel is already a sign that resists signification: it wrongfully crowns Pyrrhus’ criminal sacrifice of Polies and Priam and marks Apollo’s abandonment rather than protection of the Trojans. It also intertwines with imagery elsewhere in the epic to problematize Aeneas’ attempt to right Troy's fall by refounding it in Italy. For instance, at Aen. 7.59-63, the ancient laurel that gives Laurentium its very name (O’Hara 1996) also aligns Latinus’ hall with Priam’s destroyed palace. The ominous swarm of bees at 7.64-70, however, turns this tree into a sign of Laurentium’s imminent conquest, with the Trojans now playing the part of foreign invaders (in keeping with Greek/Trojan role reversals noted, e.g., by Anderson 1957, Putnam 1965, and Quint 1993). This omen complicates judgments of Aeneas’ ascendancy and heightens the laurel’s symbolic ambivalence: for every victory it commemorates, it marks another people’s defeat.

     The laurel’s reappearance in Ovid’s story of Daphne and Apollo is, to borrow Stephen Hinds’ terms (1998: 100), a ‘local’ allusion that prompts ‘systemic’ reinterpretation of each epic. Ovid’s story positions itself as temporally prior to Vergil’s and prophesies the laurel’s future use as a fidissima custos to Augustus’ doors on the Palatine (562-64). Yet Ovid also writes symbolic violence into the tree’s very origin in ways that seem to prefigure Pyrrhus’ crimes at Troy. In Ovid’s telling, the laurel is not only a sign of victory, but also a relic of Daphne’s figurative death through metamorphosis (cf. Richlin 1991), one that recalls Pyrrhus’ pursuit of Polites and detruncation of Priam both lexically and symbolically. In his speech at 557-64, moreover, the god consummates his rape on a semantic plane when he transforms Daphne’s defeated body into a symbol of his own and Augustus’ future glory. Focalized as it is through Apollo, the tree’s apparent ‘nod’ (adnuit utque caput visa est agitasse cacumen, 567) does not indicate Daphne’s consent, but rather, symbolizes victors’ imposition of their own meanings on events and symbols.

     Via the shared image of the laurel, Metamorphoses 1 thus enters into a glancing but provocative relationship with its Vergilian predecessor, illustrating the value of a visual rather than strictly verbal approach to epic intertextuality. Ovid’s aetiology expands the temporal and political dimensions of the laurel’s appearance in the Aeneid, activating parallels between Pyrrhus’ crimes, Apollo’s brutality, and the young Octavian’s eradication of his own enemies (including M. Antonius Antyllus as he clung to a statue of Divus Iulius, according to Plutarch, Antony 81, 87). This comments on the laurel’s use within Roman material culture to honor Augustus (Alföldi 1973; Zanker 1990) but also to propagate an origin myth for the principate as rooted in universal consent (RG 34) rather than force and fear. Taken together, Aeneid 2.469-568 and Metamorphoses 1.452-567 shine a spotlight on the process by which victors seek to shape contemporaries’ and posterity’s perceptions of history through visual rhetoric like the laurels. Yet this intertext simultaneously metamorphoses Augustus’ arboreal sign of glory into a memorial to the vanquished, calling attention to the blood beneath the laurels of imperial victory.

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War and its Cultural Implications

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