Abused Bodies in Roman Epic

Andrew M. McClellan, Abused Bodies in Roman Epic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

Reviewed by Courtney Evans, Duke University, courtney.evans@duke.edu.

This project, originating from McClellan’s dissertation, seeks to offer a “fundamental re-evaluation of violence and warfare in Latin epic” (17) by shifting our interpretive lens onto the corpses of epic, viewing them as “characters” which demand our attention. In this McClellan is largely, though not entirely, successful.

Chapter 1 sets the stage for much of what is to come. McClellan begins appropriately with scenes of corpse abuse and aberrant funeral practice (real or threatened) in the Iliad. He shows that the threat of corpse abuse and denial of proper burial, while a common feature of battlefield boasts and an often-voiced fear of the combatants themselves, is rarely realized within the poem. Despite constant references to corpses being left as fodder for wild animals and birds (a theme sounded even in the proem), we never see this play out; nor do we see widespread intentional corpse mutilation, at which the fierce fighting over slain warriors hints. The most brutal corpse treatment is of course Achilles’ treatment of Hector’s corpse, dragged daily around Patroclus’ tomb. But McClellan rightly draws out the emphasis placed on the gods’ protection of Hector’s body—this attempted abuse is ineffectual, as is the denial of funeral rites since they are eventually granted. The only scene that overtly depicts corpse abuse is Ajax’s beheading of Imbrius at 13.201–5. McClellan argues that this anticipates the later abuse Achilles will (attempt to) effect on Hector. It is also the exception that proves the rule. Homer sets a clear limit on the kind of violence he allows into the poem: bodies are, for the most part, given due rites and burial, and corpse abuse is always ever threatened, feared, or unsuccessfully attempted.

It is against this backdrop that McClellan’s project begins, as he tackles how Virgil responds to this poetic legacy of corpse abuse and burial denial. McClellan shows that Virgil, too, sets a limit on depicting these post mortem offenses; a key difference, however, is that while Virgil does not generally depict them overtly, he lets us know that they happen. We see Nisus and Euryalus die, and we later see their heads on spikes, but the post mortem beheading happens, as it were, off camera. So too, the beheading of Priam in Book 2. In Book 10, Aeneas deals Mezentius a fatal hit to the neck, but when his armor is set up as a trophy in the beginning of the following book, it has been mysteriously pierced twelve times. As often, these Virgilian “silences,” as McClellan styles them, invoke or rework threats and fears from the Iliad. Significantly, for McClellan, whereas these violent deeds are never actualized in Homer, in Virgil they are; he simply refuses to narrate them explicitly. The ending of the poem also crucially leaves unresolved (in a way that the Iliad does not) just what will happen with Turnus’ corpse. McClellan argues that these silences mirror contemporary silences about the real world violence of Rome’s civil wars, and that Virgil’s silences both shield his audience from the horror of the spectacle and also rely on their participation to fill in the gaps, perhaps with details from their lived experience.

In Chapter 2, McClellan argues that Lucan, Statius, and Silius Italicus engage in a dynamic and allusive game of “filling in” those Virgilian “silences.” He offers what he calls a synoptic view of how these poets respond to the epic legacy of corpse abuse left by their predecessor (Homer, Apollonius, and Ovid make extended appearances as well). To demonstrate this technique, he focuses on post mortem decapitation and how each poet revisits Virgil’s most famous silence: the beheading of Priam in Book 2, which most regard as an allusion to Pompey. Lucan’s response is, naturally, to turn the volume up to 11 and to make Pompey’s beheading and its attendant consequences as overwhelmingly and gruesomely present and visible to us as the beheading of Priam was hidden by Virgil. 

Statius’s version of Tydeus’s beheading of Melanippus (and his cannibalism) and his own subsequent death and abuse at the hands of the Thebans is electric with allusions to Homer, Virgil, Lucan, and Valerius. McClellan also shows how Statius borrows from the boar hunt of Met. 8 to highlight Tydeus’s bestial qualities. In the Aeneid, Virgil let us see only the effect of Mezentius’s corpse abuse (his perforated breastplate) which we as readers know must have happened in the silence between the end of Book 10 and the opening of Book 11. Like Lucan, Statius fills in that narrative gap and makes the abuse of Tydeus’s corpse explicit and allows it to happen right before our eyes.

The chapter closes with a look at Theron’s beheading of Asbyte and Hannibal’s subsequent revenge during the siege of Saguntum in Book 2 of Silius’s Punica. As with Statius and Lucan, Virgilian and Homeric silences are gruesomely filled in. McClellan shows that Silius engages with Virgil’s technique of offering “contrasting models for specific characters” (105)—e.g., Turnus and Aeneas resemble, both structurally and at the lexical level, Achilles and Hector at different moments. So too, via a dense network of allusion and window allusion, does Silius’s Hannibal play the role of Turnus (avenging the death of the Camilla-like Asbyte) and Aeneas (as the post-mortem abuse inflicted on her corpse is shot through with allusions to Nisus and Euryalus). Critically, Hannibal assumes the role of Aeneas when killing Theron (who is, like Turnus, the lone defender of his city), sealed neatly with Silius’s only instance of the verb condere in the Virgilian sense, “bury a sword” (Pun. 2.260; Aen. 12.950). In McClellan’s view, when Hannibal denies burial to Theron, the manifold allusions to Virgil rework the end of the Aeneid in a way that “plays out the abuse of Turnus’s corpse that is left unstated in the original” (105).

Chapters 3–6 investigate corpse mistreatment more broadly in Lucan, Valerius Flaccus, Statius, and Silius, respectively. Chapter 3 focuses on three themes: (1) Lucan’s strangely expanded, fragmented, constantly re-enacted depiction of Pompey’s (dubiously proper) funeral rites (both real and counterfactual); (2) Caesar’s lack of interest in his own and others’ funeral rites; (3) Erichtho’s reanimation of one of the corpses killed at Pharsalus to prophesy the future for Pompey’s son. McClellan shows that each of these in its own way ultimately points to how Caesarism and civil war represent a “nightmarish repetitive cycle of death” (167), and that Lucan’s contemporaries, like many of his zombie-like characters, are themselves caught in their own kind of living death.

With Chapter 4 McClellan turns to Valerius Flaccus, who tends to follow a much more Virgilian tack of eliding rather than explicitly narrating post mortem corpse violence. McClellan probes several episodes, both large (Lemnian Women, Amycus) and small (Aeson’s curse and the killing of Promachus, Jason’s beheading of Auchus), to find echoes of Apollonius’s Argonautica and its most violent scene of corpse abuse: the dismemberment of Absyrtus (a scene which comes in for extended discussion here). We do not have Valerius’s treatment of this episode, but for McClellan, “the poem’s earlier dismemberments function as prolepses for the unfulfilled violence awaiting Absyrtus” (202). A key difference in Valerius’s technique seems to be that, rather than having corpse abuse happen off camera, Valerius’s corpses are rich with intertextual clues—often to moments where violence was explicit—which add layers of implicit abuse.

Chapter 5 explores the ways in which Creon’s denial of funeral rites to the Argive dead in the end of the Thebaid is only the most egregious instance of burial denial in the poem. Denial of funeral rights is in fact a key leitmotif of the poem as a whole, and McClellan shows how its many (often perverted) funeral rites prepare us for Creon’s famous ban. War spoils “entomb” bodies and squires kill themselves to “bury” the corpses of those whom they served. The Argive leaders suffer deaths that oddly resemble funerals: in particular, Amphiaraus’s burial alive blurs the line between living and dying and thus connects him both to Lucan’s Pompey and to the Thebaid’s own Oedipus. Instances of outwardly successful/proper funeral rites (Hypsipyle’s sham funeral for her father, the funeral games for Opheltes, and Argia’s and Antigone’s burial of Polynices) are, as McClellan shows, undermined by troubling imagery or references to renewed strife; they do not bring any resolution. The chapter ends with a discussion of Maeon’s suicide, and the first act of funeral denial in the poem. McClellan argues that we should view the seer as a stand-in for Lucan whose open opposition to tyranny is honored and respected but leads to death; Statius himself opts for the safer route: criticism of the princeps which is refracted through others’ voices.

The final chapter investigates the funerals Hannibal gives to Gracchus, Marcellus, and Paulus. McClellan argues that for Hannibal, inspired by the depiction of Scipio’s funeral for Hanno on the walls of the temple in Liternum in Book 6, the goal of these funerals is his own praise and glory. Like Caesar’s false tears over Pompey’s head in Lucan, Hannibal’s oration for Paulus (a Pompey figure) is really about himself, and aimed at acquiring a reputation for humanitas. McClellan then goes on to treat Hannibal’s “end.” While Hannibal does not die in the poem, McClellan teases out various funereal undercurrents: Hannibal’s resemblance to Lucan’s Pompey (and to Caesar), the eulogizing quality of his final speech, his appearance as an imago in Scipio’s triumph which serves as a double for Hannibal’s funeral procession. In a decidedly Hannibal-esque move, Scipio usurps Hannibal’s “funeral” and appropriates the glory for himself. McClellan uses this similarity to probe how we are to read the figure of Scipio in the poem and his associations with monarchy and proto-Caesarism. For McClellan, both Hannibal and Scipio “combine to form a frightening image of the downside to future Caesarism” (271).

The book ends with a very brief epilogue engaging with the arguments of Gervais 2013[1] which argued that the dense webs of allusion in Statius take away much of the force of his scenes of violence; like some of the strategies employed by filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, this creates a distancing effect, reminding us that we are watching a movie, as it were. McClellan argues that if, in addition to literary allusions, we catch allusions to real-life contemporary Roman violence, then, rather than reminding us of the fiction, these scenes of literary violence might instead engender an emotional connection to the violence that was very real.

The book is aimed primarily at scholars and students of Latin epic poetry, and they are indeed the ones for whom this book will have the most to offer. Some will no doubt note the exclusion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, especially in a book entitled “Abused Bodies in Roman Epic.” After all, Ovid’s epic is deeply interested in violence inflicted on corpora, both physical and poetic, through the process of metamorphosis. And that the poem has much to say about contemporary violence and Roman political power is increasingly clear. For my part, though, I can certainly understand why one might feel, as McClellan seems to do, that Ovid’s poem is importantly different, or that we might gain something by focusing our attention on martial epic, and on violence done to war dead through dismemberment or burial denial. On the other hand, Valerius’s poem is, by McClellan’s own admission (170), not a martial epic, and Chapter 6 on Silius Italicus has only a tenuous connection to post mortem abuse and denied/perverted funeral. 

The production shows signs of haste, particularly in proofreading.[2] While nothing seriously impedes sense, there are rather more mistakes than one might expect from a press like Cambridge. The translations aim for utility and largely succeed. But occasionally they mislead,[3] or punctuation causes some potential misunderstanding.[4] Again, none of these impedes sense, and, crucially, none is disastrous for McClellan’s argument. 

In the introduction McClellan claims that his book is “a sort of methodological mélange drawing upon a range of interpretive networks and axes,” and then lists no fewer than eleven approaches (22). While I appreciate his feeling that to prioritize one over another might lead to a reductive reading, the result is a book that, to me at least, never feels quite sure what big thing it wants to be saying. The introduction begins with a discussion of ISIS execution videos and other instances of corpse abuse as psychological warfare. The point of similarity with epic poetry is apparently the simultaneous allure and revulsion that viewing violence can compel as well as our “implicatedness,” as viewers, in those violent acts. This implicatedness, we are told, affects us with “a kind of readerly paralysis” (11), which is a hallmark of post-Augustan epic. This is all very interesting, to be sure, but only rarely is this particular axis on display (pp. 81–83 is the most lengthy use); it does not pervade McClellan’s study in any systematic way. 

This is true of other axes, too. Despite McClellan’s claim in the epilogue that he has argued that “scenes of violence are very often ‘fictionalized’ refashionings of historical abuses,” there is not much of this argument to be found; on the rare occasions when it does arise for any length, as at the end of Chapter 1, the discussion is, again, most interesting. Mostly, however, when McClellan draws our attention to real world comparanda, it comes in a small paragraph, or half a paragraph (see, e.g., pp. 81, 99, 126, 147, 194). These offer little more than suggesting that the author may have had a particular episode in mind[5] or they simply assert that such episodes (individually or collectively) “stain” the scenes in which they are supposedly evoked.[6] To be clear, I do not necessarily disagree; but McClellan does not really engage substantially with how that affects or refracts our readings. They feel rather tacked on, in the end; it is telling, I think, that one can often skip them without any real harm done to the overall thrust of the argument where they appear. 

For all McClellan’s many interests and theoretical hat-wearing, the book is, at its heart, mostly a book about intertextuality, about the allusive games these poets play. Happily, much of that book is quite good. McClellan shows admirable command of these epics and the relevant scholarship. He does a brilliant job showing how corpses (and scenes of corpse abuse and burial denial) are rich sites of allusive play by the Latin epicists. The suggestive points he makes about how and why they differ from one another are often excellent. And there is much here to prompt further inquiry. McClellan is surely right that the poems themselves draw our attention to these bodies. Why play such allusive games with corpses (to pull on some of the threads McClellan’s discussion seems to flirt with) if not to make us look long and deeply at them, to make us feel pleasure (and horror?) at recognizing one corpse through the viscera of another, to make us complicit as we, Erichtho-like, root around these bodies collecting membra which direct us ever back to earlier corpora? So, if, for this reader at least, McClellan has not quite managed the fundamental re-evaluation he imagines, he has certainly made a powerful and persuasive case that we should all pay much more attention to epic corpses and the abuses they suffer in poetic corpora. I know I shall from now on.

Table of Contents

Introduction (1–26)
1. Setting the Stage: Corpse Abuse in Homer and Virgil (27–66)
2. Decapitation in Lucan, Statius, and Silius Italicus (67–114)
3. Unburied Past: Lucan’s Bellum civile (115–69)
4. Argonautic Abuses: Valerius Flaccus’ (and Apollonius’) Argonautica (170–202)
5. Funeral ‘Rights’: Statius’ Thebaid (203–40)
6. Grave Encounters: Silius Italicus’ Punica (241–71)
Epilogue: a post mortem (272–73)


[1] Gervais, K. 2013. “Viewing Violence in Statius’ Thebaid and the Films of Quentin Tarantino,” in Epic Visions: Visuality in Greek and Latin Epic and Its Reception, ed. H. Lovatt and C. Vout (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 139–67.

[2] E.g., p. 224: the first line of English is attached to the Latin, not the translation block that follows; see also p. 7, where attonitoque metu is rendered “and, with thunderstruck with fear”; “victory” for victor, p. 244; p. 153: “visit to the sight of Troy”; p. 165: vates is rendered as “profit”; and on p. 234, Thebaid 3.99–100 (tu tamen egregius fati mentisque nec umquam /…passure situm…) is rendered“you, exceptional in destiny and spirit, never to suffer neglect…,” but on p. 235 as “splendid of fate and soul, never to suffer oblivion.”

[3] E.g., p. 122: “lest any sea-monster…yearn for you” is an odd way to render ne ponti belva quicquam…audeat at Lucan BC 8.764-66; p. 234: quaque…veniret is rendered as “wherever freedom may appear” but the –que connects the two infinitives vadere and sancire, allowing qua…veniret to indicate purpose: “and to sanctify a road for virtue to appear”; although no translation is provided for Horace, Odes 3.30.2, on p. 238, the surrounding discussion implies that the two possible meanings of situs there are “neglect” and “physical decay,” when they are rather “site” and “decay.”

[4] E.g., p. 98 (from the translation of Sillius Italicus 2.197-205, lines 201-2): ac rapta properans caedem ostentare bipenni / amputat e curru revolutae virginis ora: “and, rushing to show off his kill with her stolen axe, he lops off the head of the virgin who’d rolled out of the chariot,” Here I assume the comma was meant to come after “kill” allowing rapta…bipenni to be instrumental with amputat which it almost certainly is: Theron has killed Asbyte with his club, but he beheads her using the axe he stole from her; the placement of the comma after “axe”makes it instrumental with ostentare, which it certainly cannot be; p. 225 (from the tranlsation of Thebaid 5.320-25, lines 323-25): accessi, saepe ante deos testata fidemque / inmeritasque manus; subeo (pro dira potestas!) exangue imperium…. I accepted, often having called the gods to witness my good faith and guitless hands before (O awful power!). I shoulder a bloodless empire….  The exclamation “(O awful power)” belongs after the period at the least.

[5] See p. 81, where a delator accused of biting the severed head of Galba’s heir is offered as a possible real world intertext to Tydeus’s cannibalism.

[6] See p. 99, where Theron’s beheading of Asbyte and impaling her head on a pike and parading it around in front of the army is stained by echoes of similar civil war abuses, most notably that Galba was found dead by a common soldier, decapitated, and then eventually gifted to Otho, who fixed it to a pike and carried it around the camp.

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