Friday, October 12, 2012

Young Achilles in the Roman World

Cameron, Alan (Columbia University)

Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow...
Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow, identified by inscriptions on the upper part of the vase. Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, ca. 500 BC. From Vulci. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Journal of Roman Studies / Volume 99 / November (2009) pp 1-22

This paper considers the representation of Achilles in Roman poetry and art and, in particular, Roman interest in his childhood, culminating in the ‘exposure’ on Scyros. It is argued that common features in literature and art support the existence of illustrated mythographic handbooks. The relationship of Statius’ Achilleid to the cycle of scenes representing Achilles’ early years known from wall-paintings, mosaics, sarcophagi and the Kaiseraugst plate is discussed. Although the surviving book of the Achilleid concerns the pre-Troy years, it is suggested that Statius’ real focus was the Trojan War itself.

I begin with a casual allusion in Juvenal: securus licet Aenean Rutulumque ferocem committas, nulli gravis est percussus Achilles aut multum quaesitus Hylas urnamque secutus (Juvenal 1.162–4). Without much effort you can pit Aeneas against the fierce Rutulian, nor is there any problem in killing Achilles, or Hylas, much in demand, who fell in after his urn. These three lines list what are clearly implied to be three tiresomely hackneyed poetic themes: Aeneas’ duel with Turnus, the death of Achilles, and Hylas’ fall down the well. In keep ing with the context, the first and third are suitably depreciatory in tone: committas suggests a duel between two gladiators, and urnamque secutus mere clumsiness. But as Robin Nisbet pointed out in a penetrating series of notes on the text of Juvenal, while ‘the fatal wounding of Achilles seems an appropriate epic theme, and percutere an appropriate verb . . . there is nothing humorous about percussus Achilles’. Accordingly he proposed excussus, an allusion to Achilles’ exposure when disguised as a girl on Scyros. The corruption would have to be early, since the Scholia vetustiora , which I would date to the fifth rather than fourth century, explain percussus.