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Volume 2, Number 3
October 1994

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The Colors of the Aeneid

by Robert Joseph Edgeworth,
New York, P. Lang, 1992

Reviewed by:

Jacqueline Clarke, 
Department of Classics,
University of Adelaide,
SA 5001,
e-mail: jclarke@arts.adelaide.edu.au

The study of colour in poetry has to a large extent been neglected by serious scholars. At various times studies have been produced on the use of colours in the English Romantic poets, in Dante, Virgil and Horace but a feeling of unease toward research in colour imagery has caused many scholars to shy away from this field. Criticism of such research tends to be based on two points: that it is frivolous, and that it is too subjective. Critics assert that research of this kind does not contribute significantly to understanding of the text and, because with colours we are in the realm of emotions and associations, that there is no way of assessing colour imagery objectively. There is an additional difficulty when examining the use of colours in Greek and Latin literature. This is the doubt surrounding the nature of many ancient colour terms. It is difficult to determine how far ancient colour terms correspond to our own (purpureus seems to mean both 'purple' and 'bright', luteus can on different occasions be translated as 'yellow', 'orange' and 'pink'). As well, several terms that can be used to denote colour also have a non-chromatic meaning (e.g. lacteus, sangineus ) and sometimes there is confusion as to which meaning is uppermost.

As a result of these difficulties, although some classical scholars seem interested in Greek and Roman writers' use of colour imagery and touch upon it in passing, very few have made colour imagery a topic for their research. A few have attempted it - for example in the past studies have been done on the use of colour in the Aeneid and in Ovid's poetry but these studies are by no means as extensive or as detailed as these very colourful works deserve. This is a pity because it is an indisputable fact that colour appears in ancient literature and often the appearance seems to be deliberately contrived, not random or careless. This is especially true of poetry for it is safe to assume that Roman and Greek poets, like poets of other races and times, utilized colours for their associations and their powerful connection with emotions. Indeed the casual reader of Roman poetry may observe that certain colour combinations (red and white, purple and gold) occur frequently and that there seems to be a pattern to their occurrence. Studies of such colour imagery may give us further insight into one of the ways that a Roman poet manipulated the responses of his audience.

In the light of this, Edgeworth's book can be viewed as an important contibution to the serious study of colour imagery in ancient poetry. It is one of the largest and most comprehensive studies of colour use in a single ancient author. Virgil's Aeneid is an obvious choice for such a study, for Virgil is perhaps the most visual of the Roman poets and a large work such as the Aeneid gives more scope for the poet to develop his own system of colour imagery. There are 526 instances of colour terms in the Aeneid, according to Edgeworth, and these are employed in diverse ways and applied to many different objects. Edgeworth concentrates on how and why Virgil makes use of colour; not merely to enhance the aesthetic appeal of the work but to add to its mood and to link episodes together. In doing this Edgeworth also makes an attempt at sorting out the confusion that surrounds some Latin colour terms which can on occasion lead to misunderstanding or even mystification when reading the text.

Edgeworth acknowledges that the study of colour must necessarily involve a degree of subjectivity but at the same time he approaches the topic from as systematic and objective a manner as possible. Over a third of the book is occupied by a detailed and methodical concordance of all the colour terms in the Aeneid. For each colour reference the context of the colour term is given, possible Greek or Latin influence cited and the word's position in the line indicated. From this data Edgeworth is able to draw conclusions about the extent to which Virgil's colour use is formulaic and inherited from previous authors and the extent to which he alters existing colour imagery or introduces new material. In general it seems that although Virgil draws a great deal on previous authors his colour images are not mere formulae. Virgil often makes use of colour where his literary model has none; for example VII 698-702 where the Falsicans march and sing like snow-white swans (nivei cycni) who sing in flight. This simile is modelled on the similes of Iliad II 459-463 and Argonautica IV 1298-1302; however in both of these the emphasis is on sound - it is Virgil who adds the element of colour (Edg. pp. 142-3). Likewise XII 595-603 (Amata committs suicide, rending her purple robes) in many respects imitates the suicide of Byblis in Parthenius 11 and that of Clyte in Argonautica I 1064-66 but neither of these make use of colour (Edg. p. 154). In addition many of Virgil's colour terms shift about in the line as he strives for variety in his phrasing. The colour term albus, for example, which is a commonly occurring one in the Aeneid, although showing a preference for the final position in the line, can also appear in five other positions (Edg. p. 70). In the same way ater and auratus, also common terms, are flexible as to their position in the line (Edg. pp. 85 and 88). Thus Virgil's use of colour exhibits a deliberation and sensitivity, it is not unthinking and automatic.

By comparing the relative number of colour terms per book and their frequency per line, Edgeworth is able to demonstrate a correlation between mood and colour in the Aeneid (pp. 19-26). It appears that Virgil makes use of colour in scenes of hope and happiness while the absence of colour in gloomy passages adds to their mood. Not a great deal of colour is employed in most of Book VI, but when Aeneas comes to the Elysian fields Virgil utilizes many bright, clear colours in his description - virecta is used of the land itself, fulva is employed to describe the sand on which the heroes wrestle and the light that surrounds everything is purpureus (637-643). Conversely there is a lot of colour in the first section of Book V which describes the games but when Aeneas' fortunes take a turn for the worse at line 604, all colour (apart from black) departs from the narrative. Colour is apparently one of the ways in which Virgil is able to suggest mood in the Aeneid.

Edgeworth is most interesting on what he calls Virgil's associative or thematic use of colour (pp. 26-52). He argues that Virgil makes use of certain colour combinations as a means of linking scenes that are in different parts of the poem. For example the colour combination green and white is frequently employed in scenes in association with the idea of homecoming, when Aeneas feels that he is coming closer to his goal (pp. 43-5). The actual colour words appear together only twice - they appear first in Book III 125-6 in association with a homecoming that subsequently turns out to be false; the second time they are used together is Book VIII 82-3 (the white sow on the green grass) which is a sign of the true arrival at Italy. There is also an instance when one colour word is stated and the other implied - in Book VI 190-2, when Aeneas despairs of finding the golden bough, two doves (traditionally white in Roman literature) land on a green bough to aid him in his search. Edgeworth has also not unconvincingly argued that the symbol of the poplar (which is green and white - its two colours are emphasised at Book VIII 276) is an extension of this imagery, for Father Tiber and Evander who both appear in Book VIII in association with the poplar (lines 31-4 and 276-7 respectively) will help Aeneas come closer to his goal. Thus Virgil appears to be making use of the colours green and white as signposts of the stages of Aeneas' quest.

According to Edgeworth, Virgil also appears to use colours in connection with certain objects to link episodes in the reader's mind. The best example of this is the purple flower which Edgeworth (pp. 26-9) argues is employed as a symbol of death, present or impending, of important characters in the Aeneid . Dido (IV 486), Anchises (V 79), Marcellus (VI 884), Euryalus (IX 435) and Pallas (XI 69) are all associated with flowers of purple hue. The final character linked with a purple flower is Aeneas himself - in Book XII (411-22) Venus brings him a purple flower which cures him of his wound. Here Edgeworth argues that Virgil is cleverly reversing the imagery; with the appearance of a purple flower the reader half expects Aeneas' death but it turns out that this is the means of his recovery.

Edgeworth asserts that Virgil's use of colour is very different from that of his predecessors. Certainly Virgil is no mere imitator; his skill as a poet and the large 'canvas' of the Aeneid meant that he could adapt and play on existing colour images for his own purposes. However Edgeworth also claims that Virgil 'refined' or 'narrowed' the connotations of particular colours (pp. 52-4) and this is less convincing. He goes so far as to claim that the colour purple when it appears in the Aeneid is 'consistently ominous' and he seems to imply that Virgil's repeated linking of purple with death was on the whole peculiar to him and that previously in Roman poetry purple had no strong death association. However this interpretation means that he has to 'stretch' or gloss over certain instances of purple in the Aeneid which appear to have positive or neutral connotations. Venus' brief aside that Tyrian girls wear purple buskins (I 337) Edgeworth interprets as a reference to Dido and her impending death and he does not really explain the very positive image of Venus bathing Aeneas in purple light (I 591) apart from saying that it is in imitation of Homer. In addition Edgeworth does not examine in any detail the use of purple in other Roman poets - it is possible to find enough instances of purple's link with death in Virgil's predecessors and contempories to prove that his use of purple was part of a tradition which had been long established. For example Catullus appears to be employing purple and red repeatedly in association with the ideas of violence and death in Poem lxiv.

This brings us to one of the weaknesses of Edgeworth's book. Few detailed studies have been done on other ancient poets' use of colour and although Edgeworth devotes his first chapter to examining the use of colour in various ancient authors, this examination is necessarily superficial and his generalizations about their use of colour must be treated with caution. For instance he states that the numerous colour contrasts in Catullus' Poem lxiv are just for decorative effect (pp. 11-12) but Harmon in his article 'Nostalgia for the Age of Heroes in Catullus 64' (Latomus 31 [1973], 311-331) offers a very different view. Harmon thinks that Catullus uses colours to link episodes and reinforce themes in his poem - thus he seems to be using colour in much the same way as Virgil does in the Aeneid, although on a lesser scale. Edgeworth acknowledges Harmon's article but does not address his views.

Another limitation of Edgeworth's book seems to stem from his desire to avoid the charge of subjectivity. Edgeworth restricts himself to examining terms that denote colour and apart from a few exceptions includes only those terms which have been 'verified' by Andre in his book Etude sur les Termes de Couleur dans la Langue Latine. However colour is not as precise as that. Some colour terms also have non-chromatic meanings and can be used with little or no idea of colour. For example at IX. 548 albus appears to be used to denote a shield that is 'blank' (i.e. lacking any heraldic design) rather than 'white'. Edgeworth states that this is a non-colour use of albus (p. 68) but he still includes it in his statistics about Virgil's use of colour. Similarly the word aurum can be used to denote either colour or money. Edgeworth includes ALL the instances of aurum in the Aeneid, arguing that there is always a hint of colour when the word is used; one wonders however whether the reader is meant to gain any impression of colour from such perfunctory uses as I 349 or III 55 where aurum seems just a synonym for pecunia.

More importantly, the fact that Edgeworth restricts himself to colour terms means that he largely ignores 'implied colour'. A colour term does not always have to be present for an impression of colour to be created in the reader's mind - objects such as blood, snow, bones, grass can be used to denote colour. Edgeworth does not list instances of implied colour which means for example that he misses Virgil's use of green and white at Book III 537-8 (when the Trojans catch sight of Italy they see white horses on the grass). Likewise he does not observe the red/white contrast at Book XII 36 (Latinus says that the streams of the Tiber are warm with blood, the plains white with bones) which contributes to the ominous tone of the red/white imagery of Lavinia's blush a little later in the text (ll. 67-9).

In spite of the limitations of this book, it is still an important contribution to making this field respectable in Classical literature. Edgeworth's book gives this area the attention it deserves; his methodical approach means that the subject is treated seriously and with consideration. Edgeworth is handicapped by the fact that very few studies of this depth or magnitude have been done on Virgil's predecessors or contempories' use of colour; such studies would enable us to place Virgil's use of colour in perspective.

Jacqueline Clarke

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 2 Issue 3 - October 1994
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606

DLA Ejournal Home | Electronic Antiquity Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search ElAnt and other ejournals