My (ndk's) earlier survey of scholarship on the ‘Aeneid’ in the twentieth century ended in 1990. It showed many advances in that century, but also that there was no consensus about the meaning or fundamental ideology of the ‘Aeneid’, with barricades separating optimists from pessimists. My sympathy lied more, although not completely, with the pessimist reading, as the explanation about the relationship between my videoworks ‘Palinuro’ and ‘Miseno’ showed.

After ‘Miseno’, my second Vergilian videowork (1990) I centred my attention to the Greek antiquity - Hesiod, the bronze age of the Mycenaean period, and to antique Asia Minor. So my knowledge about scholarship on the ‘Aeneid’ ended with Harrison’s ‘Oxford Readings in Vergil’s Aeneid’.
Although some articles of that book are still essential readings (see article below), it is high time - not only for the digital cross-departmental project but also for myself - to pick up the reception of the ‘Aeneid' since 1991.

For the moment I have made a summary of an article by Helen Slaney: ‘Recent work on Virgil’s Aeneid Book 6’, from 2009. This resource is in the author’s own words ‘designed to give a swift and honest appraisal of current scholarship pertaining to Aneid Book 6’. Albeit with three restrictions. It is only about works published between 1990 and 2009. It includes only scholarship in English. And it is not an impartial document. Slaney: ‘I believe scholarly rigour can only be improved by dropping the pretence of objectivity in favour of a more involved, self-reflexive approach.’ (Maybe not utterly correct for a scholar, but in my (ndk's) opinion for an artist a 'conditio sine qua non'.)






summary of an article by Helen Slaney from 2009



Although this debate can no longer be called current in any meaningful sense, it’s still essential to any interpretation of the Aeneid and continues to haunt the scholarship. It’s also becoming an object of study in its own right. Various terms have been coined to classify the two extreme positions on the spectrum of reading the Aeneid. The most common terms are optimistic/pessimistic; European/Harvard; objective/subjective; Augustan/anti-Augustan; and imperialist/pacifist.

The Aeneid’s (re)politicization in the latter half of the twentieth century has been recognised as springing from a zeitgeist hostile to European totalitarianism and US imperialism, and from an academy newly suspicious of myths constructed to protect power.

Now, to suit a more polycentric world, the Aeneid has acquired some new buzz-words: polyvalence, polysemy, heterogeneity, openness, plurality, relativism, indeterminacy, ambiguity, ambivalence, dynamism. Rather than mounting a specific ideological soapbox, Virgil’s poem presents its readers with concentrated conflicts of interest, or multiple points of view that cannot be reconciled. The roots of this kind of character-based or, alternatively, individual-against-fate dialectic may be traced back to Greek tragedy. (Hardie, 1998; Tarrant,1997; Conte, 2007; Harrison, 2007.)

Of course, residual common-sense conservatives like Horsfall (1995) and Powell (1992) are still exchanging volleys with hard-core radicals like Casali (2006) and Putnam (2003). Conte’s Poetry of Pathos (2007) provides probably the best current text-based argument for the Aeneid as “polycentric”. In his introduction to Conte’s study, Harrison confirms that the once-formidable barricades separating optimists from pessimists have ‘fortunately broken down.’



There is no objective point from which to comfortably survey the past, and no objective background of “culture” against which a text, in this case the Aeneid, can be isolated. Culture is comprised of multiple texts that circulate and interact. These don’t have to be literary texts, but can include artwork and iconography, architecture, material remains and artifacts, anthropological practices such as burial and ritual, myth, landscapes, scientific knowledge and the human body itself. (Edmunds, 2005) It is no longer sufficient to regard the Aeneid as the self-contained product of an otherwise immobile historical moment.

As Thomas (2001: 35) argues, ‘Augustus, and the reception of Augustus, controls and diverts the Virgilian text.’ What are your views on Augustus? And where did you acquire them? Is he the smooth-faced boy-warrior of the Prima Porta, or the paranoid despot who exiled Ovid? Syme’s crypto-Hitler or a more benevolent restorer of the Golden Age, spreading justice and mercy and the Pax Romana? Because it’s really not possible to read the Aeneid without negotiating its relationship to Augustus, this section looks at major recent scholarship on the period.

The countercultural revolution of the 1960s allowed Virgil to break away and shatter his epic with voices that spoke for the oppositional and the oppressed. (This began with Adam Parry’s groundbraking ‘Two Voices’ article in 1963.) This reading became increasingly popular into the 1990s, when new work on the Augustan regime and its “cultural program” began to challenge the Princeps’ individual dominance, assigning a more active role to artists in constructing and/or deconstructing “Augustus” as a concept.

Because the Augustan political structure and accompanying culture did not pre-exist, but were in the process of formulation, it doesn’t make sense to talk about Virgil’s opposition or support for a “program” that had not yet cohered. Rather, current scholarship leans towards investigating how the Aeneid contributed to an ongoing negotiation of Augustan authority. One important facet of the Aeneid’s contribution, as Hardie (1998: 63-69) points out, is the rewriting of Roman history. Along with Livy and Propertius, Virgil participated in fashioning an image of archaic Rome that cast the Augustan present as restorative, not revolutionary. Finally, however, and most recently, the constructivist reading of Augustan Rome has led critics to interrogate in addition the modern political significance of claiming Virgil for the rebels or the partisans.


(Now a) look specifically at work that’s been done on Aeneid 6 since the 1990s. Naturally, the irresistibly enigmatic Gates of Sleep are still spawning interpretations. Everyone agrees that A6 is the centerpiece (...) but the jury’s still out on what that might actually mean.
As far as commentaries go, Maclennan’s new one (2003) is a good solid school text that comes with an introduction, synopsis and extensive grammar/syntax assistance in the notes. It can easily be supplemented with material from the less user-friendly but more scholarly Austin (1955) or Williams (1972).

Zetzel’s ‘Romane memento: justice and judgment in Aeneid 6’ (1989), while it’s a little outside our survey period, is a great place to start exploring Virgil’s Underworld. It locates the book in the turning point at ‘the end of one saeculum and the beginning of another’ (p264), linking its Sibylline and Mystery-cult rituals to the ceremonies performed in 17 BC at Augustus’ Ludi Saeculares. A6’s double, incompatible visions of the afterlife - primeval Tartarus versus the neo-Platonic transmigration of souls - can thus be related to a Rome where bloody vendettas are giving way to an ideology of cyclic renewal.7 (Meanwhile, check out the unhappy afterlife of the Sibyl herself in Lucan, Petronius, T.S. Eliot and Reginald Hill’s Arms and the Women). The shades who wait to cross the Styx are used by Warden (2000: 358) as an illustration of cupido, or ‘the motif of ungraspability, of unfulfilment’ that haunts Aeneas’ quest.

Moving on through Acheron brings us to Aeneas’ encounter with Dido’s spirit, the subject of Feldherr’s fascinating, if convoluted 1999 article ‘Putting Dido on the map: genre and geography in Virgil’s Underworld’. Feldherr correlates the fluidity of genre in their encounter - is it epic? elegiac? tragic? Neoteric? - with the Underworld’s fluid topography. R.D. Williams’ ‘The sixth book of the Aeneid’, however, first published in 1964 but reprinted in Harrison (1990), is still essential reading: it lucidly introduces the psychoanalytic aspect of Aeneas’ katabasis, defining it as a confrontation and reconciliation with his own past and future. The parade of heroes receives its most accessible critique in O’Hara (1990: 163-72).

Finally, then, we arrive with some trepidation at the Gates of Sleep. It’s now generally accepted that Yes, Virgil really did mean falsa insomnia, and Yes, that does make Anchises’ prophecy seem just a tad dodgy. The most sensible treatment of the subject is Molyviati-Toptsis (1995), which concludes that ‘the falsa insomnia are an authorial comment on the deceptive quality of Anchises’ speech’ and its selective representation of Roman history (p650). Molyviati-Toptsis avoids falling back on the rather strained neo-Platonic solutions proposed by Tarrant, West (both reprinted in Harrison 1990) and Fratantuono (2007). Instead, she follows Putnam and O’Hara in acknowledging Virgil’s emphasis on the fallibility of artistic and/or prophetic representation. (For a good wicked chuckle, I do recommend West’s ‘The bough and the gate’, if only because it’s so belligerent and merciless towards some of the wackier explanations for the Gate and the Golden Bough.)



Melancholy has been recognised as a defining feature of the Aeneid ever since the eighteenth century, but has only recently acquired political overtones. Persistent intimations of loss, the beauty of doomed youth (Eurylaus, Camilla, Lausus, Marcellus), and one of Western literature’s most lachrymose heroes have consistently appealed to those readers for whom imperial glory rings false. Grandsen (2004: 94) defines Virgilian melancholy as

a sense of the unrealized, of words not spoken, of things not enacted, of a world in which, perhaps, Aeneas stayed at Carthage, Evander did not lost his son, Turnus was spared, Marcellus survived to succeed Augustus.

Such wistful musing on the counter-factual conditional - if only! - take sharper shape in Conte (2007), who understands these alternatives to the fated plot as articulating ‘suppressed desires and ideals.’ Individual subjectivities flourish, each offering a glimpse of a (pleasanter?) track not taken as the epic steams off down the imperial highway. To what extent these individual subjectivities, these “further voices” (Lyne 1987), represent opposition to a dominant discourse is still a hot topic, or at least still smoking. The debate over how exactly poetics and politics, language and power intersect certainly hasn’t burnt out yet.

Of particular concern is the creative process involved in a work of art and, as Casali (2007) argues, the (compromised?) integrity of the artist. Prophecy, too, is always delivered by characters whose individual interests must be taken into account; to apply a narratological approach, the speaker’s identity is just as important as what he or she says. And politicized: discrepancies in the future/s depicted by Jupiter, Vulcan, and in A6 by Anchises and the Sibyl have been read as illustrating the deceptiveness of Fama (see eg Boyle 1993), and - by analogy - the deceptiveness of epic glamour itself.

In narratological terms, then, the Aeneid is a power struggle. Marginalised points of view contend with carefully crafted accounts of Roman destiny. It is vital to determine who has ultimate authority over the text. The speaker? the poet? the emperor? Or, as the next section will suggest, could the question of who is listening be just as important as the question of who is speaking?


The best general account of Virgilian transmission is Thomas’ outstanding Virgil and the Augustan Reception (2001). In conjunction with Thomas it may be instructive to have a look at Kallendorf’s 2007 study, The Other Virgil, which identifies a counter-tradition of oppositional or “pessimistic” readings running alongside the official line.

This brings us round in a feedback loop, then, to the furious debate which dominated the second half of the twentieth century over how the Aeneid represents imperial rule. The debate is not confined to academic armchairs, either; as recently as 1981, Michael Putnam made front-page headlines in Rome by informing a public audience that ‘Pio Eneo Non Era Pio!’ [Pius Aeneas wasn’t pius] (Schmidt 2001: 154). But it is crucial now to recognise that this debate has its roots in the fallout from WWII, and that its political resonance is not restricted to Augustan Rome. Both readings, the optimist-imperialist and the pessimist-subversive, can be extrapolated from the text. Scholarship is therefore currently concerned with the utility these readings have variously found among the powerful, the revolutionary, the nostalgic and/or the dispossessed.

If I had to pick three subsequent texts to focus on, I’d recommend Dante’s Inferno, Dryden’s translation of Aeneid 6 and Part 1 of Broch’s The Death of Virgil as these span major eras, genres and European cultures without straying too far from the book’s specific themes and influence. Lucan’s Bellum Civile 6, Eliot’s ‘What is a Classic?’, Auden’s Secondary Epic, Graves’ ‘The Anti-Poet’ and the delicious “Hell’s Kitchen” episode in Blumauer’s 1841 parody19 would come in as close runners-up, though.


If you rearrange the bibliography by date of publication, you’ll notice that after the annus mirabilis that was 1993 the stream of material on Virgil starts to dry up. (Distressed? Or relieved?) I’d like to finish this survey with a pronouncement made in 2001 by Joseph Farrell that might stir things up a bit:

The period of Vergilian hegemony is over… We have already entered a period during which Vergil is no longer the single most important paradigm in Latin literary studies; when the questions that we most want to answer are not Vergilian ones.

Similarly, Ziolkowski (1993: 235) contends that ‘we do not live in Virgilian times.’ It is hard now for novelists or poets to approach the Aeneid as a source-text without a degree of parody, irony or at least cynical disillusionment. ‘No, Virgil, no,’ sighed W.H. Auden, back in 1959. ‘Not even the first of the Romans can learn / his Roman history in the future tense…’ Classical scholarship runs in cycles. Until the late nineteenth century, nobody paid any attention to the Aeneid unless it was to express a preference for Homer. The twentieth century wrung the controversy it so passionately desired out of Virgil’s epic, but perhaps Farrell is right, and we could now be moving into a period where other Classical texts - formerly marginal - speak more eloquently to our condition.

Does that mean we should stop reading the Aeneid? I don’t think so. It is an endlessly rich and rewarding text, and has exercised unparalleled influence over the imagination of Western Europe. What it does mean is that we can’t take its presence for granted. Having acknowledged its fragility and contingency, and our own contribution to its status, we are required to keep asking the questions with which this survey commenced: why are we reading it? What is it for? What do we need from Virgil here and now?


(For the article in its entirety >



About the author:

Helen Slaney's (Roehampton University, Department Member) primary field of interest is classical reception studies, in particular the history of the senses and theories of embodiment. From 2013 until 2016 she held a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at St Hilda's College, Oxford, and has now moved into a permanent role as Research Facilitator at Roehampton. The monograph based on her doctorate, "The Senecan Aesthetic: a performance history", was published with Oxford University Press in 2015. Her postdoctoral research focused on tactile and kinaesthetic receptions of classical antiquity in the late eighteenth century, and she is currently working on a book entitled "The Materialization of Classical Antiquity, 1750-1820". Helen is also involved in an interdisciplinary practice-based research project on Roman tragic pantomime, funded by TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities).

For further references and resources, conveniently organised by topic (recommanded by Slaney):

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