Some thoughts about Virgil, and they bear no relation whatsoever to Brexit. If anyone feels that a blog about traumatic separation betrays deeper preoccupations, they’re wrong. As for the image of a severed hand desperately trying to get back to the body it belongs to, entirely coincidental. This is pure escapism and my id is locked in the cellar.
We’re in Book 10 of the Aeneid, and Virgil gets graphic in a manner more typical of epic successors like Lucan and Statius. Pallas, the young warrior son of Evander and Aeneas’ protégé, is enjoying his aristeia, an extended display of martial prowess characteristic of epic heroes; less technically, Pallas is on the warpath.
At 10.390-6, he comes upon, and promptly dispatches, a pair of Italian warriors, Larides and Thymber. They are in fact identical twins:
uos etiam, gemini, Rutulis cecidistis in aruis,
Daucia, Laride Thymberque, simillima proles,
indiscreta suis gratusque parentibus error;
at nunc dura dedit uobis discrimina Pallas.
nam tibi, Thymbre, caput Evandrius abstulit ensis;
te decisa suum, Laride, dextera quaerit
semianimesque micant digiti ferrumque retractant.
You also, twin brothers, fell in the Rutulian fields,
Larides and Thymber, offspring of Daucus, most alike,
indistinguishable to your own, a delightful source of confusion to your parents.
But now Pallas gave you harsh marks of difference:
your head, Thymber, Evander’s sword took off,
while you, Larides, your severed hand seeks for as its own,
its dying fingers twitching and clutching at its sword.
The closing image is especially unsettling, if for us slightly suggestive of Hammer House of Horror. There’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about it here, though. The war that Virgil is describing is a legendary counterpart of the Roman civil wars that had finally ended just a decade before Virgil’s writing, and this epic war in Italy has all the brutality and moral incomprehensibility of civil conflict. For me, there’s no book of the Aeneid more extraordinary than Book 10, a profoundly challenging account of conflict between two peoples, Trojans and Italians, who were both the ancestors of the first Roman readers of the poem. Those readers were forced to question the validity of their national hero Aeneas’ claim to settlement in Italy, and to view events as much through the eyes of Aeneas’ implacable enemies as those of Aeneas himself. That ambivalent treatment of the war extends to Pallas, Aeneas’ closest ally, whose character we are encouraged to admire and whose violent death at Turnus’ hands (not long after this passage) we are guided to deplore, but who has a disturbing capacity for shocking bloodshed himself.
Homer had described warrior twins dying simultaneously in battle, in Iliad 5 and 6: in Iliad 5 Aeneas is the killer, so here one effect is to style Pallas a potential Aeneas, if only he might have managed to live long enough. But in neither Homeric passage are the characteristics of twinhood exploited to the extent that they are in the Aeneid.
What are these “characteristics of twinhood”? From the inside, I have no experience. From the outside, identical twins pose problems to us of distinguishability, essentially: they are different people, but the normal means of establishing their different identity are not available to us. This is how Virgil represents Larides and Thymber, two distinct men indistinguishable to their own– in a poignantly contradictory expression, gratusque parentibus error (392), a sweet source of confusion to their parents: confusion should not be a positive experience, of course. But the previous line (391) is a fine piece of composition, too, Daucia, Laride Thymberque, simillima proles, “Larides and Thymber, offspring of Daucus, most alike.” The names of the two brothers are so different, yet pressed so closely together, and surrounded by words describing what they have in common, their fatherhood by Daucus, their preternatural similarity. This impression of their inseparability is achieved as much by the structure of the line, deploying all the resources of an inflected language (allowing words to be placed where their impact is greatest), as by its content.
If that line expresses the strange togetherness of twins, the following (393) is jarringly corrective. “But now Pallas gave you harsh marks of difference”: Pallas brings violent definition to these indistinguishable men, killing them individually, and with Pallas’ intervention the poet is able to distinguish them, too: there’s a sharp contrast between lines 390 and 391, all about the twins’ interchangeability, and the lines that recount their deaths, which carefully separate Thymber (394) and Larides (395-6), and which Virgil renders as distinct as he can, in rhythm, organisation, length. Death has untwinned them.
But if in terms of composition line 391 expressed the unity of twins, 395 is its antithesis. In the deaths of both twins the theme of severance and dislocation is developed beyond their separation from each other: words of rupture, abstulit (“took off”), decisa (“severed”), describe a horrific partitioning of Thymber and Larides themselves. Thymber is decapitated, and Larides’ sword hand is chopped off. The culminating lines, quite as gruesome as any that Virgil penned, describe the efforts of Larides’ severed hand to be reunited with the rest of him. In 395 Virgil once again uses the shape of the line, as well as its sense, to convey disintegration. In English we have to translate it, “while you, Larides, your severed hand seeks for as its own”, but a word-for-word version of te decisa suum, Laride, dextera quaerit would be “you )( severed )( as its own, Larides, your right hand seeks”, the word for severed, decisa, separating te, you, and suum, (as) its own, and itself separated from its noun dextera, hand, mimicking in the word order the distance between hand and owner. The notion of a hand seeking out an entity distinct from itself to which it also belongs is inherently weird, but so here is Virgil’s line composition.
These are just seven lines of Virgilian verse, but within their scope parents’ puzzled joy collapses into the repellent image of a twitching, severed hand, and the harmony of twins into their physical disintegration. The implications of this little episode don’t quite stop there. The salient issue with Larides and Thymber, to my mind at least, is unity and its dissolution, and this is something key to the later books of the Aeneid. Aeneas, it is strongly suggested, will bring unity to Italy, but the problem, or maybe paradox, is that this future unity after Aeneas’ ultimate victory will only be achieved by extreme discord between Trojans and Italians, the warfare that will only end with Aeneas’ impassioned slaughter of Turnus, in revenge for the death of Pallas, in Book 12.
Here Virgil presents us with the ultimate example of togetherness, the bond between twins, then shows it shattered into pieces. The short tale of Thymber and Larides, or is it Larides and Thymber, encapsulates in its own way the loss of peace and coherence that is apparently essential, in Virgil’s mysterious account of the origins of Rome, to Aeneas’ unifying mission in Italy.