This week we had two inspiring presentations by Alxander Hardwick and Teresa Röger, respectively talking about late antique epic poetry and issues of interpretation in Augustine.
In his paper, “Microcosms of Peacetime: Women and Warfare in the Iliad and Beyond”, Alexander has led us through a reappraisal of the role of the Amazon warrior Penthesileia, who opens Quintus Smyrnaeus’ epic Posthomerica with a brief sally into battle, dying in short order at the hands of Achilles. One might justifiably wonder, therefore, what exactly is gained by opening the epic with a female warrior who is so conclusively defeated: scholarship so far has tended to view Penthesileia’s defeat as underwhelming at best and a humiliation at worst. Alexander’s paper has taken its cue from the brevity of Penthesileia’s presence in battle, looking beyond her martial prowess in order to examine her significance from a different angle. Perhaps the most powerful moment in Penthesileia’s brief appearance is the point at which all the Greek warriors – including Achilles – stop in their tracks, stunned by her beauty even after she has been killed. Various strong intertextual references surround Penthesileia’s protrayal at this point: the images describing her remind us (via Artemis) of Nausicaa, who constitutes a domestic and erotic threat directed at Odysseus. Furthermore, readers are overtly reminded of the grief Achilles felt after the death of Patroclus, a point at which Achilles’ thoughts were far from the battlefield both emotionally and geographically. By combining these points, together with the Greek warriors’ thoughts as they look at Penthesileia’s corpse, we understand the powerful effect which Penthesileia’s femininity has on the battlefield. Achilles is briefly emasculated, and Penthesileia represents a fundamental attribute of female characters during Homeric warfare: the ability to represent life and community beyond the battlefield.
In the second part of the seminar, Teresa presented a paper entitled “Augustine, Confessions 12: An essay on interpretation”. As much as Augustine’s Confessions have fascinated readers over the centuries as a personal tale of conversion, so much have the last three books of the work, 11 to 13, left readers puzzled. Books 11 to 13 form a commentary on Genesis 1 and are often neglected in favour of the ‘autobiographical’ first part of the work. However, the second part of Confessions touches upon core questions of Augustine’s period, namely how to tell apart orthodoxy from heresy through the use of scriptural interpretation. The aim of Teresa’s paper was to raise Classicists’ interest for what Augustine has to say on interpretation. However, she has also aimed to demonstrate that there is reason to question Augustine’s theoretical statements by paying close attention to how form and structure relate to content in Confessions 12. As a consequence of her reading, she proposed a reassessment of the relation of Confessions 12 to the treatise de doctrina christiana, a work Augustine began slightly earlier than Confessions but would finish only 30 years later. This last question addresses an issue familiar to all Classicists and actually, also to Augustine: how to develop a coherent interpretation of the works of an author (in Augustine’s case: a coherent interpretation of the Bible) without neglecting the individual features of each book.