chapter  I
18 Pages

INTRODUCTION: THE ROMAN SONG

Hayley’s homage to Virgil constitutes an appropriate epitaph not only for Virgil but for Roman epic itself. From Livius’ ‘translation’ of Odyssey 1.1 onwards Roman epic defined itself as a palimpsestic genre, deriving much of its meaning and significance from its relationship to and rewriting of other, especially Greek but increasingly, as Rome’s literature developed, Roman texts. As in its architecture, its sculpture, its painting, as throughout its entire political, social and cultural system, Rome in its literature, most especially in epic, created forms which unceasingly reformed earlier achievements. Most im portant here was Ennius, a wide-ranging and ambitious poet, whose overt, Creative and extensive use in his Annales not only of Homer, Hesiod and Callimachus but of his Latin predecessors, Livius and Naevius, became the model for Roman epicists to come. What Ennius did (and here he built upon what was latent in Livius’ Odussia) was to establish the notion o f sub-text(s) as essential to the reading of Roman epic. Inevitably this palimpsestic dimension o f the genre could be (and was) handled with varying degrees of subtlety and richness by the poets of Rome; but it gave to the great Roman epics a profundity and semantic allusiveness exceeding the Greek texts which the poets rewrote. The paradigm and canonic case was Virgil, whose exploitation o f the semantic properties of literary

allusion set the Standard which the imperial epicists and later the poets of the European Renaissance, including Milton, endeavoured to attain. One of the injustices done to the early imperial epicists by nineteenthand twentieth-century scholarship has been precisely to confuse functional allusion and rewriting with slavish, uncreative imitation. Imitatio was a goal of ancient writers because ( interalia) it gave textual layers to their work. Far from being slavish, it was (in the hands o f the major practitioners) an instrum ent of great Creative power. It is not simply, as Eliot observed over seventy years ago, that

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.1