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They Might be Romans: The Giants and Civil War in Augustan Poetry

David Wright

Rutgers University

The poetry of the Augustan era is a crucial turning point for the Gigantomachy theme in Greco-Roman literature. I argue that it is during this period that the myth begins to connote civil strife. Previous scholars have discussed the political symbolism of the gigantomachy: Hardie (1985), in his landmark book on cosmic language in the Aeneid, argues that the theme of the Gigantomachy, which the ancients often conflated with the Titanomachy, suggests a “chaos vs. order” motif in the Aeneid with the Olympian-like Trojans bringing order to the Giant-like, uncivilized Italians, and extends this analogy to the politics of Vergil’s time with Augustus’ regime as the prevailing, order-giving Olympians.  This idea picks up on earlier Greek ideas of Olympian order triumphing over Gigantic chaos that were politicized in Classical and Hellenistic Greece to symbolize Greeks triumphing over “uncivilized barbarians” in conflicts like the Persian Wars or the Celtic invasions. Chaudhuri (2014) recently has given a thorough examination of the theme of the theomachy, the idea of “fighting god” in Latin literature, particularly of the imperial era. He naturally gives an extensive treatment of the Giants and Titans since they are the Ur-theomachs. He ultimately sees this theme of theomachy as an evolving discourse about the distinction between god and man culminating in the age of the divine princeps, a time in which this distinction is blurred. Not discounting these interpretations, I suggest that the theme begins to take on associations with Roman civil war during Augustan period. Though some scholars (Anderson 1997: 166, Connors 1998: 117, Stover 2014: 115) have entertained this idea in passing, there has been no formal, thorough inquiry into this connection.

            I posit that there are several factors that engender this association: 1) The Olympians, Titans, and Giants are all related. It is for this reason, Socrates says he will ban the myth from his Kallipolis in the Republic (2.378c.), specifically because it would encourage civil strife, and the Romans themselves became obsessed with the idea that familial strife was a microcosm for civil strife during this period (Bannon 1997).  Propertius in particular exploits this by juxtaposing the Giants’ assault on Mount Olympus with Remus’ assault on his brother’s hill, the Palatine (3.947-50); 2) Since the Romans more or less controlled the oikumene at this point in history, civil war became associated with the dissolution of the world itself, something which the Giants threatened to do (Jal 1963: 282ff.); 3) The war between Pompey and Caesar reached its climax at Pharsalus in the Phlegraean fields (Prop. 3. 11.37) where, according to some traditions, the Giants and Olympians came into conflict; 4) The varying traditions of the Gigantomachy myth are well suited to reflect the confusion of civil war: sometimes certain mythic figures are on the Olympian side, sometimes those same figures on the side of the Giants/Titans. Vergil exploits this inconsistency in the Aeneid when he compares Aeneas to Aegaeon and places him on the side of the Giants although he is usually on the side of the Olympians (10.565-70, O’Hara 1994). This reflects, I believe, what Quint (2011:275) sums up: “Rome’s civil wars changed today’s friend and legal guardian of the state into tomorrow’s outlaw. Mark Antony was Octavian’s rival and enemy, then his partner and brother-in-law, then – as the Aeneid itself portrays him – his rival once again.”

            I will show that the Gigantomachy theme in Augustan poetry can be read not exclusively as a “chaos vs. order” theme, but also as a reflection of the chaos of civil conflict. It is in the Augustan era this association begins, and it paves the way for future poets to exploit this such as Lucan, Statius, Valerius Flaccus, and Silius Italicus.

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Bloody Excess: Roman Epic

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