Ships of State: Aeneid 5 and Augustan Circus Spectacle

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Abstract

In his description of the boat race in the fifth book of the “Aeneid”, Vergil’s comparison of the ships to chariots can be read not only as an allusion to the Homeric model on which the scene is based but also as part of a larger attempt to recast the episode as a contemporary circus spectacle. Like the Augustan circus, Vergil’s boat race offers an image of cosmic and political order. However, beyond its symbolic function the Roman circus also played an active role in realizing the hierarchies it depicted by incorporating its spectators into a unified vision of state and universe. So the boat race too, far from constituting a hiatus in the action of the poem, becomes an instrument for the socialization of those who watch it. The spectacle gives its audience a glimpse of the gods in action and of the leadership of Aeneas himself, whose past accomplishments are reflected in the conduct of the captains. Moreover, the careful organization of internal audiences within the narrative allows every spectator to identify with another figure closer to the center of events and, by extension, invites Vergil’s own readers to see themselves as participants in the scene. Thus Vergil uses the model of circus spectacle to bridge the gap separating his audience from the epic past by restaging that past in a form that both was a part of the immediate experience of the contemporary Roman and also provided a crucial context for the constitution of Roman civic life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)245-265
Number of pages21
JournalClassical Antiquity
Volume14
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - 1995
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Classics

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