Dante King

Two Sides of the Same Coin: Vergil and Ovid’s Clashing Portrayals of Individual and Group Identity

April 11, 2021   /  

Name: Dante King
Major: Classical Languages
Advisors: Dr. Josephine Shaya, Dr. Monica Florence (second reader)

This independent study examines Vergil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Heroides and Metamorphoses with regard to Aeneas and Turnus as analogues for Roman citizens and Italic provincials respectively. As this project is primarily concerned with textual investigation, philological analysis of Vergil and Ovid’s texts takes center stage and is supplemented by contemporary material evidence and secondary scholarship in foundation narratology, identity, and political theory. So, whereas Vergil characterizes Aeneas as a dominant hero destined to found a new home for his people, the proto-Roman Trojans, and Turnus as a rebellious but ultimately ineffectual Italic monarch, Ovid presents the former as a detestable warmonger and the latter as a pitiable victim. I argue that these characters and their peoples are emblematic of the Romans and Italics of the early imperial period, so these poems are inherently politically charged. Finally, I use the insights garnered from the ancient sources to draw conclusions about modern-day American political discourse, particularly concerning the recent debate over Confederate monuments––how anyone can effect positive change in the face of oppression.

Dante will be online to field comments on April 16:
2-4pm EDT (PST: 11am-1pm, Africa/Europe: evening)

72 thoughts on “Two Sides of the Same Coin: Vergil and Ovid’s Clashing Portrayals of Individual and Group Identity”

  1. Bravissimo, Dante! I am so proud of what you’ve accomplished, and am cheering as you begin your next big adventure! Congratulations!

  2. Hi Dante,

    Great thesis! Your comments on Turnus reminded me so much of Julius Caesar’s portrayal of the Gauls and Germans, and also of Tacitus’ portrayal of the British in the Agricola: Brave, but ineffective, indeed! Do you think there is some responsion between these texts?

    Also I was wondering about violence in the texts you examined, and what lessons you drew from that violence? Your final conclusions on the present day debate over 19th C monuments eschews violence in a wonderful way, and I was wondering whether this was in reaction to the ancient texts?

    All Best Wishes for today!

    Edith Foster

    1. Hi Professor Foster! Thank you very much! Researching and analyzing Turnus was easily my favorite part of the project. I am inclined to believe that Vergil and Ovid were responding to Caesar’s Gauls and Germans, at least. Because the Aeneid was so influential, I wouldn’t be surprised that Tacitus used Vergil’s Turnus as a model for his Boudicca; both are impassioned leaders afforded a certain degree of “Romanness,” but they ultimately fall short of the ideal.

      Concerning violence, in Vergil it comes across as an inevitability – always a destined means to an end, namely the future glory of Rome – whereas it is voluntary in Ovid. The divinities of Vergil orchestrate Aeneas’ whole (hero’s) journey, sending a bad omen his way if he tries to settle anywhere other than Latium. Ovid’s post-diluvian deities, on the other hand, either take a back seat (cf. during the Trojan War) or act rather human (Apollo and Daphne, Jupiter and Ganymede). Ovidian violence, then, is quite the human identifier. I did not consider any of this when crafting my conclusion, however. Haha

  3. Congratulations, Dante. I am very happy that I got to know you this past year, and wish you well as you embark on the next stage of your education.

    1. Thank you, Professor Tierney! Likewise; I’m so glad and, indeed, honored that I had the chance to work with you on Pathways. I’ll make sure to keep in touch!

  4. Love the mention of Kehinde Wiley! I really like how you connect antiquity to the modern-day, it really showcases how history can teach us so much about the present. In your abstract, you say that the poems are “inherently politically charged.” Do you think it is possible for creative expression to not be politically charged? Or are politics and art always inextricably connected?

    1. Thanks, Marloes! I think any work of creative expression is informed by the culture/milieu in which it is created, but to varying degrees depending on the individual work and its creator. Politics and art are not, in my view, inextricably linked (i.e., someone can produce a work of art without any intention of it being politically motivated), but the artist’s initial intention does not wholly define a work of art (death of the author). These are great questions!

  5. Congratulations, Dante. This is a wonderful and unique project–impressive work. Best of luck in grad school, and know that you will be missed.

    1. Thank you, Professor Florence! I couldn’t have done it without your mentorship, both in class and during junior I.S. I’ll keep in touch for sure!

  6. Well done Dante! I really enjoyed learning more about your project and I wish you all the best with all the fun and exciting adventures that lie ahead!

  7. Congratulations Dante!!! It has been an absolute joy to have you as a colleague and to have someone to talk Latin with!!!

    1. Thank you, Tessa! I have thoroughly enjoyed working alongside you and talking about Latin, as well! The fact that you stopped by to check out my project means a great deal to me!

  8. Salve Dante! I have so much admiration for you. Congratulations on your amazing IS. Every bit of it looks fantastic and fascinating.

    1. Salve Cara! That’s very nice of you! Thank you very much! I had a blast being your TA and learned some things myself!

  9. Fascinating, Dante! Thanks for sharing your work, and congratulations on completing your I.S.! Admittedly, it has been a looooooong time since I’ve read Vergil’s Aeneid, yet when I think of Aeneas, I definitely think “hero.” Can you describe an example of the evidence that you found that shows how Vergil portrayed Aeneas as a hero and Ovid portrayed Aeneas as a warmonger? (I might have some reading to do this summer…)

    1. Thank you, Dr. Pollock, and you’re welcome! One example from Vergil is at the very beginning of the Aeneid: Aeneas addresses his comrades, destitute after losing the Trojan War, in the vocative case. I take this as him addressing not only the fictional Trojans, but also Vergil’s contemporary audience. Aeneas does his best to console not only his men, but also the Romans living in the early first century – many of whom have witnessed civil war tear their society apart. This kind of charisma and surety is justified when Aeneas later learns from his father the specifics of glorious Roman rule via a prophecy and lands the killing blow on his archenemy, Turnus. Formally, Aeneas also completes his own Campbellian hero’s journey, perhaps the highlight of which is his descent into the underworld and subsequent ascent and arrival in Italy, ready to bestow the boon of proto-Roman rule on the autochthonous Italic peoples already living there.

      As for the Metamorphoses, Ovid ends his poem with a chilling scene of destruction perpetrated by Aeneas and the Trojans. Ardea, the last bastion of Turnus’ Italic confederacy, is burnt to the ground before transforming into a phoenix-like bird. Ovid describes this bird as having “sonus et macies et pallor et omnia, captam / quad deceant urbem” (“the sound and leanness and paleness and all the things which were suitable for the captured city”). This is significant because it empathizes with the enemies of the Trojans and, in doing so, seemingly lambasts Augustus for his own violent expansionist policy. Ovid cares more about the innocent people who are displaced by Roman imperialism, their cultures replaced by that of the Romans, than the emperor’s efforts towards total dominance.

    1. Thank you, Miyauna! You’re onto great things as well! I really enjoyed being in class with you and appreciate that you took the time to check out my project!

    1. Thank you, Professor Morrow! I couldn’t have done it without your instruction!

  10. Great work Dante! Both Mom and I could not be more proud of you!

    Steven King (aka Dad lol)

  11. Dante,
    Congratulations on such a fascinating and important project. I love the connection with the ancient sources to current discourses.
    I’m so excited for all you will contribute in your path ahead!

    1. Thank you, Professor Navarro-Farr! I think it’s important for classicists, and all scholars I suppose, to make their work relevant to issues people are dealing with nowadays, and I’m glad I was able to do that with my I.S. Also, thank you for welcoming me into the Archaeology Department with open arms; I will certainly be engaging with classical archaeology in grad school!

  12. Super fascinating stuff man! Connecting the politics of Rome and its national identity with the current monument debate and our identify was very innovative, I never have thought about the parallels until now. Excellent work Dante!

    1. Thanks, Hudson! I knew that I wanted to connect the ancient texts with a current issue and the debate over monuments seemed like the perfect comparison. Both the Roman epic poems and American monuments, though different media, are concerned with identity – who do we deem as heroes and how do we resolve disagreements about these monumental (pun intended) problems?

  13. Congrats on all your hard work Dante! I really appreciate how you turn to applying your analysis to modern American discourse.

  14. Really interesting, Dante! Congrats! I was wondering what your favorite part of the Metamorphoses was– I translated most of it in high school and there were so many stories I loved and hated.

    1. Thank you, Kath! Oh man, that’s a tough question…

      My favorite part is probably Jason and Medea, but it’s so hard to decide. I’m also a big fan of the creation, destruction, and recreation of the world, Phaëthon and Phoebus Apollo, Arachne and Minerva, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Ajax and Ulysses…among others! What was your favorite / were your favorites?

      1. I really loved all of book ten, but my favorites were definitely Orpheus and Eurydice and Apollo and Hyacinthus!

  15. Very well done Dante! This poster makes me wish I knew more about ancient Roman literature.

    1. Thank you, Erica! You should read some in translation! It can be really fun and interesting, and I definitely have suggestions. Haha

  16. Dante it’s great to see you continuing work in the field after all this time! I regret to say I still haven’t read both Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Aeneid that I got from the book store down town all the way back freshman year. Hopefully I will get to them with this upcoming free time after graduation^

    I had 2 questions:
    1. How did you come to connecting your studies to modern day (which is fascinating!)
    And 2. Do you have any other similar book recommendations?

    Congratulations with this!

    1. Thanks, Justin! Concerning you not yet reading those: “My disappointment is immeasurable and my day is ruined.” Haha

      1. Pretty much from the start of my project I knew that I wanted to connect my insights about the ancient poetry to a modern issue. Often our work as classicists can seem elitist and, in general, distant from the things people deal with today, so I think it’s important that we make these connections to show why our work matters.

      2. Yes! Assuming you’ll be reading in English, I recommend Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey which, as I touch on in my paper, undoubtedly inspired Vergil. They are both epic poems and the Aeneid is what I like to call a “chiastic retelling” of the Iliad and Odyssey, meaning that the first half of Aeneas’ journey is very Odyssean whereas the latter half is Iliadic. I might even suggest reading these two before the Aeneid so you can better appreciate Vergil’s adaptation of Homer. I love Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, too. This is a narrative prose history, but it reads kind of like the Metamorphoses in that you’re dealing with various characters/historical figures over time. I actually wrote my junior I.S. on Livy’s Roman kings!

  17. Kill it, Dante!!! Such powerful sources which you honored so well. Proud of you, man.

  18. Hello and congratulations, Dante! Thanks for presenting your work here today, so that others can learn from it and enjoy it. What a great project, both on the ancient materials, and especially on the connections you make to current matters in the USA. It is so enjoyable to see this work now, and to recall meeting you initially in FYS! I look forward to reading your entire IS and having the opportunity to talk more with you about it, and your next steps in your career. Again, congratulations! 🙂

    1. Hello, Professor Graham! Thank you and you’re welcome! The mornings spent in your FYS were easily some of the best in my time at Wooster, so thank you for that! I look forward to talking with you soon!

  19. Congratulations Dante! I am impressed with how you connected Ovid and Vergil’s poetry to modern-day political parallels with the topic of Confederate monuments. So fascinating!

  20. Congrats Dante! It was fun to see how the project has turned out since last semester! I look forward to your future work!

  21. This is a great project, Dante! I am so confident that your continued studies at Cornell will bring you a truly fulfilling life. You have already demonstrated here at Wooster how capable you are!

    1. Thank you so much, Anabelle! I am similarly confident in your ability and look forward to hearing all about your future endeavors!

  22. Dante, It is a joy to read about your IS research and to see how you’ve seen the lessons of the past so clearly applicable to modern times.
    I want to thank you for your work on the Pathways team this year. I’m awed by your creative thinking and your commitment to making Wooster a great experience for all students.

    1. Thank you very much, Dr. Griffin, and you’re welcome! It’s been an honor working with you on Pathways and I hope the program thrives in the coming years! I look forward to hearing about its continual development! Also, I’m more than happy to help however I can even after graduation.

  23. Dante my friend! This is quite the project you’ve done! Such an interesting topic, and something that as a fellow classics enthusiast/minor I have not heard often. So here’s my question for you: what modern-day writers can you think of who have explicitly defined American identity in different or contrasting ways?

    1. Thank you, Sai! This is a great question and one that I hope I am well-equipped to answer. Tony Horwitz’ book Confederates in the Attic comes to mind. The author investigates the legacy of the Confederacy chiefly by following a group of Civil War battle reenactors. To some extent, these reenactors are still fighting the Civil War and linger on the Confederate point of view. This is something that fascinates both Horwitz and myself. I am also inclined to believe that Marvel Studios’ Captain America films and Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier comment on American identity. The latter especially seems to contrast two visions of the U.S., one represented by Steve Rogers, the “good” Captain America of the past who fought in World War II and alongside the Avengers, and the other by John Walker, the new morally gray Cap who falls short of Rogers’ example throughout the series. I would love to conduct more research on this topic, particularly how it relates to ancient Mediterranean perceptions of identity.

      1. Excellent response, Dante! I myself have not read Tony Horwitz’ book, but I will take a look at it! And I think you are spot on with the Falcon and The Winter Soldier example: John walker and Steve Rogers are definitely allegories for the different American eras and the values and concepts that defined those eras. I think further research would be great!

  24. Great work, Dante! I love that you were able to make your research so strongly connected to the present–it’s a tremendous skill in Classics and in Archaeology, and one I hope to be able to develop in the future. Thank you for being such a good role model in ASC! I can’t wait to see what direction your research takes in the future, and I sincerely hope you won’t fall out of touch once you’ve got a doctorate. I expect even more high quality memes then 🙂 Congratulations on a successful project, I’m very proud of you!

    1. Thank you so much, Olivia! I have no doubt that you will develop that skill; you’re probably well on your way already! It means so much to me that you consider me a role model. I do my best, but also appreciate the maturity and prowess you display. I’ll make sure to keep in touch and send only the most high quality memes 😀

      Thank you again!

  25. Congratulations Dante! This is an incredible project and I’m so excited for what you will do in the future. I’m really glad that we shared FYS together all those semesters ago!

    1. Thank you so much, Bryce! I look forward to seeing everything you’ll accomplish, too, and it was truly an honor to be your classmate in FYS. It’s crazy how time flies!

  26. Congratulations, Dante!! Waving and saying hi when we cross paths on campus always brightens my day, and I’m so glad I got your autograph after Medea freshman year for Ebay when you inevitably become famous and even more successful than you already are 😉

    1. Thank you, Maya! Seeing you every once in a while brightens my day as well! Haha, “Jason” approves of this. Admittedly, I still need to view your presentation, but in the meantime, congratulations to you as well! You’re perhaps even more successful than me! 😀

  27. Congratulations, Dante! Your work is both timely and urgent, especially its connections to U.S. national identity and politics.

    I was wondering, did you come across any similar examples of myths/texts that were retold within the Roman Empire in such a way so as to express political dissatisfaction?

  28. Great job, Dante! I think your project and presentation are both really well done. Congratulations!

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