Scene, a Cave

One line of Virgil’s Aeneid out of a total of around 10,000:

speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem

But the Aeneid is so intricately composed that every single line of it is potentially a miniature masterpiece in itself. This is my current favourite, anyhow.

Actually I’m cheating, because this one is strictly speaking two lines, first used at Aeneid 4.124 and then repeated, unchanged, at 165. The first time, it’s spoken by the goddess Juno as she explains to Venus her plan to unite the Trojan visitors with their Carthaginian hosts and hence neutralise the threat that Aeneas, through his descendants, poses to her beloved Carthage. She will raise a storm as they hunt, she tells Venus, and “Dido and the Trojan leader will take refuge in the same cave,” where Juno, the goddess of marriage, will join them in wedlock: speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem/ deuenient. When the line returns, it is in the voice of the narrator, the only change being the tense of the verb that rounds off the sentence in the following line, a present tense in place of Juno’s future as the goddess’s prediction is realised. The Trojans and Carthaginians gather for the hunt, a storm breaks, and “Dido and Aeneas take refuge in the same cave,” speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem/ deueniunt.

Everything about these six words is exquisite, if I’m honest, but let’s start with the very fact it’s repeated, because that in itself is a powerful narrative device, effortlessly achieved. Virgil likes to manipulate his readers’ sense of human free will. Throughout the Dido story we’re forced to wonder where the agency lies: are Dido and Aeneas falling in love as any humans might, or are they the puppets of higher forces? Here Juno sets out to Venus how she will arrange matters, but after that scene in heaven the narrative shifts back to the human level, and we’re distracted by a sequence of compelling descriptions of human activity, the magnificent preliminaries to the royal hunt, the superlative beauty of Aeneas and Dido especially (Aeneas is equated to the god Apollo), and then the excitement of the hunt itself. It has only been forty lines, but in that time the power of Virgil’s storytelling has made us forget the gods’ role in events, lulling us into accepting a strictly human frame of reference. Then suddenly that line returns, the narrator repeating the precise words of Juno; and we realise that events are happening exactly as Juno had predicted they would. The illusion of mortal freedom and dignity is shattered, and it’s a terrifying moment.

But what about the line itself? Even if there weren’t that wonderful effect in store, we could forgive Virgil for repeating it, since he makes it communicate far more than any line should. For starters, he exploits the flexibility of Latin word order to create a verbal image of the scene: the words for the cave, speluncam … eandem, “in the same cave” or perhaps “in the cave together”, surround “Dido and the Trojan leader” (Dido dux et Troianus) just as the cave encompasses the two lovers: a line of verse is made, as far as a line of verse can be made, to look like the restricted space of a cave. I’ve always felt that this famous image from a fifth-century manuscript of Virgil, the Vergilius Romanus, the lovers squeezed into a very cosy-looking cubicle, was inspired by the structure of Virgil’s line.

But if the cave is evoked by meticulous word placement, so is the relationship between the couple within it. Something that Virgil constantly plays on in the Dido story is the anxiety he knows Romans are bound to feel at the idea of their founding father emotionally entangled with the queen of Carthage. There are levels to this anxiety, none of them reflecting well on the Romans: at the most basic, a Roman male would feel threatened by the very notion of a man surrendering his emotional autonomy to a woman, and Virgil works on this fear expertly here. By pushing apart the words we translate as “Trojan leader”, dux et Troianus, and allowing the word for leader, dux, to sit next to Dido’s name, Dido dux et Troianus, Virgil introduces an ambiguity into the line: momentarily we think that the dominant figure in this relationship, the leader, is Dido, not Aeneas, and we’re more prepared to do so because Dido has been presented by Virgil as a charismatic leader of her people (from a Roman perspective a highly paradoxical, female leader) ever since her first introduction to the poem: Venus, recounting Dido’s achievements to Aeneas when he first arrives at Carthage in Book 1, tells him that dux femina facti, “a woman was the leader of the enterprise.” Here in Book 4, as I say, the effect is momentary: when we get to Troianus we know it’s an adjective and it needs a noun to qualify: the “leader” is the “Trojan” Aeneas. But the idea has been broached that Aeneas is not embodying the masculine dominance that Romans expected of their heroes.

But Dido and Aeneas aren’t just any old woman and man, of course. They are the founder of Carthage and the founder-to-be of Rome, in other words representatives of two cities which would in historical times fight the Punic Wars to decide which of them controlled the Mediterranean basin. To Romans the Carthage founded by Dido could only be the city that produced Hannibal, the city that almost destroyed their own, and which Rome felt had to be destroyed to ensure their own survival (delenda est Carthago, as Cato the Censor used to put it). That struggle was still a strong folk memory in Virgil’s day. Long after Hannibal’s death he was a bogeyman Roman mothers used to get their kids to eat their greens, just as Boney was in England for a long time after the Napoleonic Wars. One of the very strangest things about Virgil’s account of Carthage is how sympathetic and appealing he chose to make a place that his readers were conditioned to regard as irredeemably malevolent. An alliance between the Trojans and Carthaginians, even an amalgamation of the two peoples, is repeatedly mooted, explicitly and implicitly, in Virgil’s Carthage episode, but the poet knows that that the notion of Rome’s ancestors contributing to the gene pool of their sworn enemies is anathema to his Roman readers.

Well, contributing to the Carthaginian gene pool is one way of describing what Aeneas is up to in that cave. What we need to appreciate is how wrong in principle such a relationship would have seemed to Roman eyes.

So Virgil’s intricate word order suggests a man losing control of his destiny, ceding leadership to a woman. But it is a Roman man we are dealing with, and a Carthaginian woman, and that increases the offensiveness of the scene significantly. What occurred to me in the middle of a school talk last week (it was late on a Friday, so forgive me) was that all of this Roman anxiety about Aeneas’ shenanigans in Carthage could be boiled down to a fear of muddying the clear distinction that had to be maintained between Trojans/Romans and Carthaginians, and this is what I think is most troubling about the line: Virgil presents us with characters whose proper roles are confused, but more fundamentally with a couple so intimately involved that they can’t clearly be distinguished.

Now one thing to say is, again, that the sharp differentiation of Roman and Carthaginian was critical to a Roman sense of Romanness to a degree that we can’t any longer appreciate. This is a scene bound to outrage the sensibilities of the male Romans who were Virgil’s primary audience, then. But it also seems to me that this is yet another respect in which Virgil’s line is reflecting in its verbal shape the scene it depicts, in other words that there’s something very suggestive about the intertwining of the (words for the) lovers in this cave-like line. Virgil is notoriously oblique about what does happen in the cave, but I’d say that the word order gives the game away clearly enough.

Of course, Latinists don’t need to be told how sexy the word order of an inflected language can be.

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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

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