River on Fire: The mache parapotamios and Ecological Crises in Greco-Roman Epic
The mache parapotamios, or river battle, briefly brings nature to the forefront of epic narrative and provides an insight into perceptions of the environment. This type scene, appearing in a number of extant epics including Homer’s Iliad, Silius Italicus’ Punica, and Statius’ Thebaid, demonstrates that these poems are aware of the importance of nature as divine and cosmological, and are concerned with its relationship to humankind. The mache parapotamios does not, however, communicate a ‘green’ message in which nature is considered, or cared for, as an entity unto itself. Destruction of the environment is frequently slated as sacrilegious, and it is often equated with cosmological disorder. What is more, the narrative promotes the consensual domestication of nature so that it will benefit humankind, recognising that undamaged and benevolent nature is better than its wild and aggressive counterpart. In this way, concern for the preservation of nature in epic is anthropocentric. Using a schema with which to analyse nature in epic, we can categorise aspects of nature into domesticated or undomesticated, and natural or non-natural. In the case of the mache parapotamios, this schema takes into account the personification of the river, as well as its relationship with humans. Alliances with humans demonstrate domestication, such as the Scamander’s cooperation with the Trojans, while enmity towards humans demonstrates a lack of domestication, as when the Trebia of the Punica assaults Scipio. Furthermore, a river is natural when it is in control of itself and acting according to its phusis, but an external force, such as pollution or obstruction, can cause a river to become non-natural. This frequently reflects negatively on the human perpetrators of the non-natural phenomena. Each of the three chapters discusses one of the texts above and analyses the mache parapotamios, as well as other scenes involving nature, using the proposed schema. While each text presents an altered version of the river battle in order to best suit the needs of the epic, the significance of the relationships between the gods, humans, and nature remains a constant across all three.