Meta-Imagery : some self-reflexive similes in Latin epic 1
The most common term used in classical Latin for what modern readers of ancient poetry generally understand by 'simile', i.e. the formal comparison of something or someone with something or someone else 2, is imago. To cite three influential texts : Rhetorica ad Herennium 4.62 imago est formae cum forma cum quadam similitudine conlatio, 'simile is the comparison of one figure with another, involving some degree of similarity', Cicero De Inv.1.49 imago est oratio demionstrans corporum aut naturarum similitudinem, 'simile is speech showing the likenss of bodies or natures', Quintilian Inst. 5.11.24 illud genus, quod Graeci vocant, quo exprimitur rerum aut personarum imago, 'that species called by the Greeks, by which the likeness of things or persons is expressed' 3. Though the terms simile and similitudo are also used in ancient rhetorical treatises for other, more general analogies and comparisons, Aristotle's in the Rhetoric, imago is the standard word for the extended poetic simile, Aristotle's 4. In what follows I want to draw attention to the metapoetical effect achieved when that word is itself used within, or in the immediate context, of an epic simile, with the result that the simile draws attention to its own formal status as a comparison. This poetic device is sparingly used by Latin epic poets; it seems to begin with a single example in Vergil, is followed once in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and is developed by the Flavian epic writers, who use it no less sparingly but (as often) creatively deploy this Vergilian technique 5. We shall see that the device is used for a number of effects - intertextual, referring self-consciously to long tradition of formal simile in other Greco-Roman epics 6; intratextual, linking the relevant simile with previous material in the same epic work; and poetic ambiguity, exploiting to the full the wide semantic range enjoyed by the term imago.
My first example is Aeneid 10.454-6, where Turnus, attacking Pallas, is compared to a lion charging at a bull 7:
utque leo, specula cum vidit ab alta
stare procul campis meditantem in proelia taurum,
advolat, haud alia est Turni venientis imago.
'and as a lion, when it sees from a high vantage-point a bull standing at some distance on the plains, preparing for battle, flies towards it, no different was the appearance of Turnus as he charged'.
Here the last clause could also be translated 'no different was the simile for Turnus as he charged'. The second interpretation points to the literary analogies for the passage : haud alia suggests to the alert reader not only that this is yet another lion-simile for Turnus in the Aeneid (as already at 9.792-6 and subsequently at 12.4-9), but also that it is yet another example of a traditional kind of comparison familiar from other texts, especially from Homer. The extended comparison of a hero slaying the enemy on the battlefield to a lion attacking or slaying a bull or ox in combat occurs on three occasions in the Iliad (5.161-4, 16.487-91, 17.542) 8; the point of evoking that literary tradition is not mere intertextual virtuosity, but also a forceful dramatic effect. On every occasion of the lion and bull comparison in the Iliad it is clear that the lion is or will be victorious, and that the bull is or will be dead. Hence the Homeric models for this simile, pointed to by the metapoetical use of imago, bring out its narrative role as a pathetic anticipation or prolepsis 9 of Pallas' coming death at the hands of Turnus. Imago here is not just a casual piece of poetic self-reflection, but plays its part in the poem's dramatic structure.
A second example occurs at Ovid Met. 14.768. There the god Vertumnus, disguised as an old woman, is attempting to induce the nymph Pomona to yield to his erotic advances. He recounts the 'persuasive' story of Anaxarete and Iphis, in which the sexual intransigence of the woman leads to disaster, but achieves no success by it; as a final strategy, the god suddenly resumes his normal shape as a youthful male (14.765-771) :
haec ubi nequiquam formae deus aptus anili
edidit, in iuvenem rediit et anilia demit
instrumenta sibi talisque apparuit illi,
qualis ubi oppositas nitidissima solis imago
evicit nubes nullaque obstante reluxit,
vimque parat : sed vi non est opus, inque figura
capta dei nympha est et mutua vulnera sentit.
'When the god, fitted to the shape of an old woman, said this to no avail, he returned to the shape of a young man and put aside the old woman's trappings, and appeared to her just as when the brightest appearance of the sun has overcome clouds in its path and shone unimpeded, and prepared to use force; but there is no need for force, and the nymph was captivated by the figure of the god and felt a shared wound'.
The story thus has a witty climax : Vertumnus' tales in the form of an old woman have not worked, but as soon as he shows his normal appearance Pomona falls in love with him - so he need not have bothered with his previous disguise and lengthy narrative. The simile also has a neat ambiguity, depending on whose point of view (or focalisation) 10 is adopted. The clouds in the sun's path seem to symbolise the god's disguise, the sun his beautiful true shape : from Vertumnus' point of view, he is now putting off his disguise in order to try the direct approach of violence (vimque parat), removing the gloves for the struggle. But from Pomona's point of view, it is the putting off of the disguise itself which is sufficient to persuade her 11. The explicit threat of violence in the god's resumption of his manly form in fact removes the need for violence entirely, since that attractive form is itself sufficient to do the job.
The use of imago at 14.768 again looks like a case of meta-imagery : nitidissima solis imago could also be translated 'the brightest simile of the sun', i.e. 'the brightest simile, which consists in the sun'. This is logical, since the sun shining with full force naturally provides the brightest possible form of comparison. But there is also an intratextual reference here within the Metamorphoses. For the Sun himself has already appeared as a character in the poem in a situation which offers evident points of comparison with that of Vertumnus here. At Met.4.214-233 the poem narrates the Sun's pursuit of the nymph Leucothoe, which follows a pattern analogous to that of the pursuit of Pomona here. The Sun disguises himself (4.214-229) in the 'safe' form of an older female (in this case the nymph's mother), but then reveals his true glory and achieves his seduction without open protest 12 through astonishing Leucothoe with his shining beauty (230-233) :
nec longius ille moratus
in veram rediit speciem solitumque nitorem.
at virgo quamvis inopino territa visu
victa nitore dei posita vim passa querella est.
'And he, delaying no longer, returned to his true appearance and his accustomed gleaming beauty. But the girl, though terrified by this unexpected vision, was overcome by the god's gleaming beauty and suffered his force without complaint'.
The later passage in Book 14 is thus a softer and more humane version of the previous incident in Book 4. The Sun still needs violence as well as good looks to achieve his sexual ends, while Vertumnus needs only his Sun-like beauty; Leucothoe is a terrified victim and will soon meet a tragic end (4.237-55), while Pomona enjoys mutual love and will survive to be an Italian goddess of fruit and fertility. This comparison is stimulated for the alert reader by the phrase solis imago as well as the general plot-resemblances : Vertumnus is the 'image of the sun' in yet another way, reflecting 13 the earlier story in replaying the role of the Sun to more humane effect and with a happier conclusion. But above all solis imago stresses that a similar event from the previous narrative (Sol) is here brought into play through a simile (imago). 14 .
My remaining examples are from the Flavian epic poets. First, Statius Thebaid 7.804-8, where the combatants stop fighting in their shared terror at the opening of the earth to swallow Amphiaraus, and are compared to participants in a naval battle abandoning hostilities and panicking together at the onset of a storm 15:
sic ubi navales miscet super aequora pugnas
contempto Bellona mari, si forte benigna
tempestas, sibi quisque cavent, ensesque recondit
mors alia, et socii pacem fecere timores.
talis erat campo belli fluitantis imago.
As commentators have noted 16, 7.808 plainly recalls Aeneid 10.456 haud alia est Turni venientis imago (discussed above), and, as in the Vergilian passage, the summarising formula can be translated in two ways : 'such was the picture on the plain of a floating war', or 'such was the simile on the plain of a floating war'. Here the metapoetical point in drawing attention to the simile seems not to be one of literary tradition, since naval battles are not common as the comparans in the similes of ancient epic poetry 17. The phrase seems rather to indicate the exceptional material of the simile, as does the striking transfusion 18 of its aqueous content into the metaphorical phrase belli fluitantis : the simile itself is thus summarised as belli fluitantis imago, 'the simile using a floating war', a striking phrase pointing to a striking simile.
Another example is found in Valerius Flaccus. At Argonautica 6.409-11 the Scythians, fighting for Aeetes, are scattered in battle before the aegis of Minerva, supporting Jason and his men, and are compared to castaways on the shores of Italy :
non tam foeda virum Laurentibus agmina terris
eiecere noti, Libyco nec talis imago
litore, cum fractas involvunt aequora puppes.
'Not so filthy were the columns of men cast up on the Laurentian lands by the south winds, nor is the picture such on the Libyan shore, when the seas envelop wrecked ships'.
Again, imago can be translated metapoetically as 'simile' : 'the simile on the Libyan shore was not such as this'. This seems to have a specific literary reference. As with the comparison not long before of the battling Argonauts to Roman legions (402-6), the prime function of the Italian location of Laurentibus … terris (409) is to give an Italian point of contact for the intended Roman readership of an epic set in regions remote in time and space. Libyco … litore (410-11) seems to point the same way by referring to a physical feature of the Mediterranean relatively close to Rome; but here the familiarity is literary as well as geographical. The topographical reference is surely to the notorious Syrtes, the dangerous sandbanks to be found at either end of the long stretch of the N.African coast (Libyco … litore) between Cyrene and Carthage 19; but the literary reference is to the storm in the first book of the Aeneid, which is clearly set in that area. As Aeneas says in summarising the storm (Aeneid 1.376 -7), [nos] …diversa per aequora vectos / forte sua Libycis tempestas attulit oris (cf. Libyco … litore ), while eiecere (410) might pick up Dido's description of Aeneas after the storm (Aeneid 4.373 eiectum litore, egentem - note litore again). Though not many of Aeneas' ships were in fact wrecked in the storm, this is not how it felt to him (and the reader) at the time : cf. Aeneid 1.383 (Aeneas) vix septem convulsae undis Euroque supersunt, and the dramatic shipwreck described at 1.113-19 20.
Given this allusion to the storm-scene of Aeneid 1, the word imago in Libyco nec talis imago / litore gains further metapoetical point : it could mean that 'this simile is different from that in the storm-scene of Aeneid 1 which it recalls by its identical location'. The single simile of the storm-scene in Aeneid 1 is of course the famous comparison of Neptune calming the storm to a Roman politician quelling popular unrest by force of personality, an image of the restoration of order after chaos and the first simile of the poem (1.148-153) 21. By contrast, the Valerian simile marks the continuation and not the end of chaos : the divinely-incited disorder of the battle, of which this is a powerful image, continues until the end of the book, whereas in Vergil the politician-simile is followed by an instant cessation of tumult at Neptune's command. It is quite true, then, that Valerius' imago is not like that on the Libyan shore, i.e. Aeneid 1. His simile is one of disorder continuing through divine agency (Minerva), not of disorder brought to an end through a god (Neptune). The Valerian simile, then, inverts its Vergilian predecessor, intertextually recalled in imago.
Finally, an example from Silius Italicus. At Punica 12.234-6 the Roman Pedianus sees the Carthaginian Cinyps wearing the helmet taken from the dead Roman commander Paullus at Cannae 22, and attacks him in fury :
ceu subita ante oculos Paulli emerssiset imago
sedibus infernis amissaque posceret arma,
invadit frendens :
'As if the ghost of Paulus had suddenly emerged before his eyes from its resting-place in the world below and was demanding his lost arms, he charged, grinding his teeth'.
Again imago at 234 has an ambiguity. The simile introduced by ceu compares the vengeful Pedianus to the returning ghost (imago 23) of Paullus, but of course this is also a simile (imago) using Paullus as a point of comparison. The imago of Paullus in the sense of his ghost did not really arise (hence ceu and the remote emerssiset); but the imago of Paullus in the sense of a simile involving Paulus does indeed arise before the reader's eyes (ante oculos). The use of ante oculos here has interesting conections with ancient theorising about similes. The pictorial vividness which is the special quality of the simile, marked by its pictorial name (/ imago), was closely allied to the rhetorical virtue of or demonstratio, the capacity to bring something forcefully to life; indeed, the term seems originally to have been generated in praise of the liveliness of Homeric similes 24. / demonstratio was often described in rhetorical texts as the power to bring material before the eyes of the hearer/reader : cf. Rhet.Her. 4.68 demonstratio est cum its verbis res exprimitur ut geri negotium et res ante oculos demonstratur, Ps.-Rufinus Dian.15 est figura, qua formam rerum et imaginem ita oratione subtituimus, ut lectoris oculis praesentiaeque subiciamus, Isid. Et.2.21.33 energeia est rerum gestarum aut quasi gestarum sub oculis inductio. Thus the use of imago with ante oculos here could recall a standard rhetorical virtue, closely associated with the function of similes in bringing the text before the reader's eyes.
Corpus Christi College, Oxford S.J. HARRISON