The year, versified

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annuus exactis completur mensibus orbis

the cycle of the year, with the conclusion of the months, is completed

Virgil, Aeneid 5.46: Aeneas, in Sicily, is informing his men that he’s going to stage games in honour of his late father Anchises, and that exactly a year has passed since his father’s death. That year has been taken up by the action described in Books 1 and 4, the Trojans’ stay in Carthage, and Aeneas’s affair with the Queen of Carthage, Dido.

Some individual lines of Virgil’s 10,000-line epic are themselves tiny works of art. Here the poet sets out to embody the character of a year in the shape of his metrical line, the key idea in play being that the year is circular, a cycle, orbis. This was an established way of conceptualising the year in antiquity: Plutarch, for example, discussing why the Romans began the year on January 1st (we do because the Romans did), comments that years can start anywhere, “as in general there is no natural end or beginning of things that move in a circle” (Roman Questions 19).

Aeneid 5.46 is a linear disposition of Latin words, a poetic line, and qua linear anything but circular. Yet it is also, by virtue of Virgil’s disposition of those words, as close to a circle as a line of verse can get.

Here it is again with the relations between the words of the line highlighted: this being an inflected language, the words are connected by their form, not proximity.

[[[annuus [[exactis [completur] mensibus]] orbis]]]

The verb expressing the fulfilment of the year, completur, sits at the centre of the line, while the two words at its far extremes, annuus and orbis, are in agreement: “the yearly cycle” or “the cycle of the year.” Immediately bracketing completur are exactis and mensibus, and they too are in agreement: an ablative absolute, “with the conclusion of the months.”

The line is thus a sense unit organized into a perfectly concentric shape; like a hailstone, its components arranged around its central element. If the cyclical character of the year can be captured in verse form, Virgil manages it here.

Faustum annum nouum!

 

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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