River battles in Greek and Roman epic

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The structural element ‘river battle’ (μάχη παραποτάμιος, mache parapotamios) can already be found in Homer’s Iliad. In Book 21, Achilles chokes the river Scamander with corpses, an act that leads to the direct confrontation between hero and river, individual and nature (Hom. Il. 21.1–384). The structural components of all subsequent scenes depicting combat between a hero and a river (or a river god) in Greek and Latin epic are firmly dictated by Homer’s episode. In Vergil’s Aeneid, Aeneas is at times characterised through allusion to Achilles in Iliad 21 (Verg. Aen. 10.557–60), and Turnus is cast as the swollen Ganges and Nile in his attack on the Trojans and their fleet at 9.25–76. Nevertheless, despite the striking quality of the Iliadic narrative, it is not until the epics of Flavian Rome that an extant example of this bauform once again emerges. In both Silius Italicus’ Punica and Statius’ Thebaid, heroes engage in Homericising battle with rivers at key narrative junctures. In Punica 4, Rome faces Carthage at the battles of the rivers Ticinus and Trebia. During the latter, Scipio himself clashes with the river in verbal and physical warfare (Sil. 4.135–479, 4.573–704; cf. esp. 4.638–704). In the Thebaid, it is Hippomedon in Book 9 who takes on the role of Achilles in his battle against the Ismenus (Stat. Theb. 9.225–540). Statius innovates in his handling of the scene by utilising imagery drawn from visual art to depict the river as a personified god. The most expansive example of the mache parapotamios can be found, however, in Books 21–24 of Nonnus’ Dionysiaca (especially Book 23).

Beyond scenes that focus on single combat between heroes and rivers, depic- tions of naval combat between river fleets also may have appeared in Greek and Roman epic, but no strong examples survive. Scenes within Vergil’s Aeneid depict fleets marshalling and sailing on the Tiber (Verg. Aen. 8.66–101; 10.118–214), but no episodes show combat between vessels. A possible influence on the largely unattested tradition of depicting infantry battles set in rivers can be traced to touch- stone scenes from historiography. Without specific evidence, it is only possible to surmise that multiple generic modes of depicting river combat would have been built into epic’s take on these narratives.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationStructures of Epic Poetry / Epische Bauformen
EditorsC. Reitz, S. Finkmann
Publisherde Gruyter
ISBN (Electronic)9783110492590
ISBN (Print)9783110492002
Publication statusPublished - 16 Dec 2019


  • Narrative patterns
  • Intertextuality
  • Epic poetry


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