Vergil's Demands on His Readers

Daniel V. McCaffrey

Randolph-Macon College

Partly because of the oral background of classical epic,  Vergil expected the audience of his Aeneid , at least sometimes, to be listening to a recitation, not reading a written text.  Listening is a one-directional, or serial, process: each word must quickly  be processed as it enters the listener's ear because the next word will follow in a fraction of a second. To fit each word into the structure of a developing sentence,  a listener can remember what has gone before but cannot look ahead.  If the earlier context does not clarify the structure, the listener must remember the difficult word and await further clarification. Because the listener's working memory is quite limited, a passage can quickly become incomprehensible from just a few such structural ambiguities.

 Since Latin is a nearly free-word-order language, Vergil was grammatically allowed to arrange the words of a clause in any order he saw fit but he favored some orders and avoided others in order to  enable his listeners to understand his poem so quickly that they could concentrate on the narrative. This paper will present a detailed observation of the  structural ambiguities in Vergil and the methods of their resolution. It will identify those disambiguating techniques which enable the earliest and easiest resolution and those which are most often used by Vergil.  Learning and teaching those techniques will make listeners and readers of the Aeneid more fluent and efficient.

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