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A Vergilian Revision of Homeric Repetition

Alexander Forte

Colgate University

The genre of ancient epic is characterized by repetition, including oral-formulaic lexical repetition and its imitation in written epics, as well as authorial competition with and emulation of earlier epic texts (Fowler 1997; Hinds 1998; Edmunds 2001). This paper forms a part of a larger project that analyzes how epic poets use narrative descriptions of repetition to comment on their own repetitive, “intertextual,” relationship to earlier epic sources. I focus on an episode in book 12 of the Aeneid that subtly combines two famous Homeric instances of repetition, thereby revealing how the Aeneid repeats and revises the Homeric poems.

In the Iliad and Odyssey there are several different forms of enumerative repetition, wherein a given action is described as being repeated three times followed by a fourth instance leading to resolution (Göbel 1935, 3-36; Cuillandre 1943, 276; Janko 1994 ad Il. 16.702-6; Louden 2006, 25-27, 107-8).This use of triple and quadruple repetition can structure a single line (as a topos/motif), multiple lines within a type-scene, or in its largest form, an entire story pattern (Nagler 1974, 131-66). In one of the more extended examples of this narrative process, Achilles chases Hector around the walls of Troy three full times, and Zeus stops the pursuit before the fourth lap is completed (Il. 22.157-209).

Vergil paid close attention to such examples of 3-4 repetition in Homer (Dekel 2012, 16-19), and in patterning Aeneas’ cyclical pursuit of Turnus on the Iliadic chase, increases the count of laps to five. However, Vergil describes the repetitive running as unweaving (retexunt, Aen. 12.763) the previous laps. By using the language of unweaving, Vergil points to another episode in Homeric poetry that features the 3-4 pattern, the passages where Penelope explains her plot to delay her marriage to a suitor by weaving and unweaving a shroud (Od. 2.104-110 ~ 19.149-55 ~ 24.139-46), which was successful for three years, but foiled in the fourth. Indeed, retexere is precisely the language used in the first century BCE to describe Penelope’s secret unweaving of the burial shroud (Quid quod eadem illa ars quasi Penelope telam retexens tollit ad extremum superiora? Cic. Acad. II 95.1-2). Given that weaving as a metaphor for poetic composition is alive and well during the Augustan era (Rosati 1999), an analysis of Vergil’s use of retexere in this context reveals the complexity of his self-conscious relationship to Homeric poetry.

Vergil here blends two Homeric episodes that repeat and resolve in a 3-4 pattern: Achilles’ pursuit of Hector around the walls of Troy, and Penelope’s weaving and unweaving of the shroud. To the pursuit, he adds a fifth iteration, which despite outnumbering the previous attempts, erases itself while unweaving its antecedents. Turnus and Aeneas, by completing their five laps, have made no forward progress. By interweaving these two Homeric passages, while using the language of weaving, Vergil offers an implicit commentary on two goals (or effects) of the repetitions of intertextuality, rivalry with and erasure of predecessors. This spatial metaphor, however, simultaneously introduces the complicating notion that there is no measure of progress: the laps of Turnus and Aeneas turn back on themselves. Yet this notion of cyclical futility, and its application to the progress of Vergil’s poetic project, is perhaps softened by semantics of L. re-, which can indicate a restoration of an object to its earlier condition (e.g. resolvere), or a repetitive action that changes its object (e.g. retractare). Consequently, Vergil’s retexere would not simply indicate a Penelopean act of unweaving, but an authorial notion of reworking and revising earlier sources through repetition (scriptorum quaeque retexens… Hor. Serm. II.3.2).

Session/Panel Title

Allusion and Intertext

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