Virgil, hardly trying

I am trapped in admin hell, and can’t see the end of it. It’s really not my forte and all rather depressing, but not getting a second to blog is almost the most frustrating thing of all. So here’s a quick Virgil blog, because that always makes me feel better. As it happens, it’s Virgil on people trapped in hell and imagining they’re somewhere else.

One thing I try to impress on my students as early as I can is that, in one respect at least, Virgil’s poetry is thrilling not in spite of but by virtue of being spectacularly derivative. What I’m talking about is the regularity with which commentaries on the Aeneid point to parallels with Homer. Virgil is forever imitating his Greek predecessor, in language, image, plot, you name it. The poem as a whole presents itself unapologetically as a Roman version of the Homeric poems. Where, my students reasonably ask, is the creative genius in that?

Well, the beginning of an answer is provided by Virgil himself, who faced criticism for being too slavishly indebted to Homer in his own day. The ancient life of Virgil by Donatus records a detail from a book defending Virgil from his critics by Q. Asconius Pedianus, better known for some precious commentaries on five speeches of Cicero.

Asconius Pedianus, in a book which he wrote Against the Detractors of Vergil, sets forth a very few of the charges against him, and those for the most part dealing with history and with the accusation that he took most of his material from Homer; but he says that Vergil used to meet this latter accusation with these words: “Why don’t my critics also attempt the same thefts? They will realise that it is easier to steal Hercules’ club from him than a line from Homer.”

Homer’s reputation in Virgil’s day is hard to overestimate. He was generally considered simply the greatest poet there had ever been. The historian Velleius, a contemporary of Asconius, writes that Homer alone deserved the name of poet: there was no one before Homer for him to imitate, he continues, and no one after Homer capable of imitating him. So what Virgil is saying here is that even simply translating Homer straight into Latin would be an achievement, indeed an act of recklessness. How would you feel about trying to steal this man’s club?

Now of course Virgil is only ironically acknowledging the force of this criticism. He wasn’t in the habit of stealing lines from Homer in any straightforward way, and his engagement with the Homeric texts was complex and creative. The ancient notion of literary creativity, in many ways a much more reasoned one than our post-Romantic idea, was innovation within an established set of traditional rules, which generated a productive interplay of respect and rivalry between the poet and the model. The difference with the Aeneid is in the status of Virgil’s major model. Virgil was setting out to create from Homeric material a Roman epic that would surpass its model, and the very project was bold to the point of lunacy: everyone knew Homer was beyond anyone’s capacity to rival him.

What I’m going to suggest here, though, is that even when Virgil might reasonably be accused of purloining a line from Homer, it’s a brilliantly creative act, without question as audacious as mugging Hercules.

We’re in Book 6 of the Aeneid, and our hero Aeneas is passing through the Underworld in the company of the Sibyl of Cumae. In the “most far-flung fields, set apart for the glorious in war” he comes upon the shades of some old comrades in the Trojan army. Virgil’s realisation of an Underworld full of animate dead, like yet fundamentally unlike the truly living, is superb in all kinds of ways, but a recurrent touch is to suggest that the dead are themselves only half-aware they have died. At the end of this passage Virgil shows us Idaeus “still holding the chariot, still holding the arms,” pathetically reenacting his role in life as Priam’s herald, squire and charioteer. But what Virgil also does, and this is so typical of him, is to encourage us also, as we read, to mistake the dead for the living (6.481-5):

hic multum fleti ad superos belloque caduci
Dardanidae, quos ille omnis longo ordine cernens
ingemuit, Glaucumque Medontaque Thersilochumque,
tris Antenoridas Cererique sacrum Polyboeten,
Idaeumque etiam currus, etiam arma tenentem.

Here [he was met by] the Trojans, much lamented in the Upper World and fallen in war, and he groaned as he saw them all in a long line, Glaucus and Medon and Thersilochus, the three sons of Antenor and Polyboetes the priest of Ceres, and Idaeus still holding the chariot, still holding the arms.

The words I’ve underlined, Glaucumque Medontaque Thersilochumque, “Glaucus and Medon and Thersilochus,” are a very close imitation of Homer indeed. At Iliad 17.216 Homer has Glaukon te Medonta te Thersilokhon te (Γλαῦκόν τε Μέδοντά τε Θερσίλοχόν τε). In fact the Latin and Greek languages could hardly get any closer than Virgil brings them here, retaining the Greek case ending for Medon’s name, and matching Homer’s staccato te/τε (“and”) with que. The Latin words stand out from their context rhythmically, too, a weak caesura and a polysyllabic line ending which feels palpably Homeric. In other words Virgil is insisting that we recognise these words as a foreign intrusion in his Latin poem.

Slavish imitation? Definitely. He hasn’t made any effort to adapt this Homeric detail; on the contrary he’s advertising how uninventive his imitation is. But the payoff is the kind it takes a genius to engineer. What Virgil achieves by it is a sudden, intense evocation of the original context of this expression in the Iliad. Let’s consider what Glaucus and Medon and Thersilochus are up to at line 216 of Iliad 17.

They’re alive, of course: in the Iliad the city of Troy hasn’t fallen yet (Thersilokhos dies at Achilles’ hands in the slaughter of Book 21). But there’s more than that. We’re at a turning point in the war at Troy: Patroclus has perished, and Hector, leader of the Trojans, has donned the armour of Achilles himself, stripped from Patroclus’ body. It’s an ominous moment, Hector demanding comparison with Achilles when he’s really as ill-suited to Achilles’ arms as Patroclus had been. For the Trojans, though, this is a moment of hope: Hector has slain the Achaean champion, they’re in the ascendant again. That’s where a line lifted seemingly unaltered from the Homeric text transports us from the dingy Underworld of Aeneid 6, back to when Glaukos and Medon and Thersilokhos were not just alive but in their pomp, brash and confident.

In the Aeneid these Trojan heroes are dead, as we instantly recollect. The momentary evocation of the lives they’d lived as Aeneas views their indistinct shades is impossibly poignant, I think. And Virgil achieves it by doing exactly what his critics condemned him for, blatantly, shamelessly nicking Homer’s material.

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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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