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Squaring Off: Boxing as a Metaphor for the Politics of Virgilian Poetry

Alexander Forte

Colgate University

Using a culturally situated approach to cognitive linguistics, this paper argues for a Greco-Roman conceptual metaphor of POETIC COMPETITION IS BOXING. I will analyze Virgil’s use of a boxing match in the Aeneid as an adjudication of a poetic competition between earlier Greek hexametric poets, concluding with a discussion of how this episode potentially comments on Virgil’s choice to write political poetry.

The legendary boxing match between the Bebrycian king Amycus and the Argonaut Polydeuces served as an occasion for poetic competition between the rival accounts of Apollonius Rhodius (Arg. 2.1–153) and Theocritus (Id. 22.27–134), with current consensus favoring the former’s temporal priority (Hunter 1996, 57–59; Cuypers 1997, 13–28; Sens 1997, 24–31; cf. Köhnken 2010, 140–42). This paper argues that Virgil is aware of the poetic tussle between Apollonius and Theocritus, and responds to it in the Aeneid using the narrative occasion of a boxing match. The Virgilian competition between the Trojan Dares and the Sicilian Entellus (Aen. 5.362–484) at the anniversary games for Anchises in Aeneid 5 is a complex transformation of earlier boxing matches in hexameter poetry. The Trojan Dares uses the techniques of Apollonius’ Polydeuces against the gigantic Sicilian Entellus, who after recovering from a fall during the match then uses the techniques of Theocritus’ Polydeuces to defeat Dares (Hügi 1952, 127). That Virgil aligns his boxers with the two versions of Polydeuces, I argue, is a (meta-)poetic judgment.  In short, the Sicilian Entellus finishes the match by using the techniques of the Sicilian Theocritus’ Polydeuces against the Asian Dares who fights in the manner of the Asian Apollonius’ Polydeuces. Virgil is aware that Theocritus competed with Apollonius using the boxing match of Amycus and Polydeuces, and as a meta-poetic judge (κριτικός) of amoebic song, has deemed Theocritus the winner by virtue of his Sicilian proxy, Entellus.

In short, Virgil’s Theocritean victor in the games for Anchises reflects his own choice to compose overtly political poetry, enacting a teleological history of Rome under Augustus, a process nascent in his bucolics and fully flowering in the Aeneid. Indeed, Anchises’ games in Aeneid 5 are specifically concerned with articulating continuities between the Trojan past and Virgil’s Augustan present (Feldherr 1995), with the stop in Sicily serving as an intermediate stage in the Trojan integration into, and transformation of, Italic peoples. This progression is also metaphorically reflected in the boxing match: Entellus begins the match as a lumbering, monstrous hold-over from an earlier generation (in the mold of Amycus, Geryon, or Typhoeus). After his mid-match recovery, he ends the fight as a powerful, revitalized Theocritean Polydeuces. We might see in Entellus’ evolution an ethical (and political) progression. By choosing to kill a bull in place of Dares, the aged boxer facilitates the integration of Sicilians and Trojans (Feldherr 2002, 67). That this Sicilian boxer defeats an Asian opponent might metaphorically represent the Trojans’ transformation into an “Italic” community as they gradually shed their Asian origins.

After establishing the scenario outlined above, I will conclude by discussing the politics of this Greco-Roman conceptual metaphor in terms of Philip Hardie’s (1993, 101–19) post-Freudian/Bloomian remarks on the competitiveness of intertextuality. In the Aeneid’s boxing match, Virgil indirectly pits two very different poetic forefathers against one another, and by metaphorically declaring Theocritus’ version of Polydeuces the victor, aligns himself with not only the bucolic tradition that arises from the Sicilian land of Anchises’ games (as seen in Virgil’s Eclogues), but the overtly political form of Theocritus’ poetry. Theocritus, in hymning the Dioscuri in Idyll 22, would have been implicated in the politics of the Ptolemaic court, in which Ptolemy I and Berenice attained divinity as the Θεοὶ Σωτῆρες, and Ptolemy Philadelphus and Arsinoe as Θεοὶ Ἀδελφοί (Sens 1997, 23; Depew 2004, 130). Virgil, in aligning his victorious boxer with Idyll 22’s Polydeuces, points to his own poetry’s political ambitions.

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The Politics of Linguistic Metaphors in Latin

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