Essential to Virgil’s Aeneid is the claim that the Trojan hero Aeneas was the direct ancestor of the ruling family of Rome, the Iulii or Julii: Augustus and his adoptive father Julius Caesar were descendants of Aeneas, and through him of the goddess Venus, Aeneas’ mother.
Virgil didn’t invent all this: it seems to have been part of Julius family self-promotion for some time. The coin at the top, an issue of Julius Caesar in about 46 BC, thirty years before the Aeneid, shows Aeneas carrying his father and the palladium (a figure of Athena that was a talisman of the city of Troy, and then of Rome) out of Troy on one side (with CAESAR making the connection crystal-clear); the profile on the other side is Venus. Politics in the late Republic was awash with candidates for office claiming to be descended from Hercules, Odysseus, one of the Roman kings, vel sim. So the Julii weren’t doing anything wildly unusual here, odd as it may seem to us.
Iulus was a key component of this claim: the son of Aeneas, also known as Ascanius, he travels with his father from Troy to Italy and features prominently in various episodes across the poem. The importance of Iulus and his name is signalled by Jupiter in Book 1, when he explains to a troubled Venus that Ascanius would now also be known as Iulus (Aen. 1.267-8), and that a member of the Julian family, its name derived from Iulus, would in time come to rule the world (Aen. 1.286-8).
Now, Virgil had Julian family lore to draw on, as I say, but that didn’t make it plain sailing. Some very interesting scholarship has been done recently by Sergio Casali* and Alessandro Barchiesi†, drawing out how tendentious Virgil’s claims about Augustus’s ancestry were even in a Roman context. Virgil’s most authoritative sources and predecessors for the story of Aeneas, Q. Ennius and Cato the Elder, had both rejected any connection between the Julii and Ascanius/Iulus: Ennius in his epic poem Annales (the great predecessor of the Aeneid) denied that Aeneas had had any male children (Casali pp. 104-106), while Cato in his Origines, the first work of historiography written in Latin, stated that Iulus had died childless (Servius at Aen. 6.760 = Cato fr. 8; Barchiesi pp. 6-7). Cato’s version of events may have been a conscious contradiction of Julian family propaganda. In either case, at any rate, influential accounts of the prehistory of Rome did not say what Virgil needed them to say, and a lot depended on Virgil’s ability to convince his readers of his alternative version of things (to make them believe in Iulus, essentially.)
Lucretius offers an interesting perspective on the challenges facing Virgil in forging a heroic ancestry for the Emperor. De Rerum Natura, Lucretius’ explanation of Epicurean philosophy in epic form (which made him Virgil’s most important recent predecessor), is addressed to Memmius, most probably C. Memmius, a prominent Roman politician with apparent Epicurean sympathies. Lucretius starts his poem with a hymn to Venus, asking her for inspiration, and in the process says complimentary things about Memmius. In a way Venus, Memmius and Lucretius will all be collaborators in the creation of the De Rerum Natura: the goddess is asked to be Lucretius’ “partner in writing the verses/ that I am attempting to compose on the nature of things (de rerum natura) for my friend of the Memmian family, whom you, goddess, have willed at all times to excel, endowed with all gifts” (te sociam studeo scribendis versibus esse,/ quos ego de rerum natura pangere conor/ Memmiadae nostro, quem tu, dea, tempore in omni/ omnibus ornatum voluisti excellere rebus, 1.24-7).
In fact Lucretius’ address to Venus suits his addressee as much as the poet, and the choice of deity is no doubt partly to be explained that way: the Memmii, like the Julii, had a family myth that they were descended from Venus, and that they were Troiugenae, of Trojan ancestry (the Roman equivalent of an ancestor on the Mayflower). The evidence for the Memmian claim about Venus is partly the emphasis on the goddess in coinage minted by members of the Memmius family (this is an example from the 80s BC), and partly here in Lucretius. Stefan Weinstock‡ further suggests (p. 23) that what Lucretius says about Venus’ special concern for Memmius, the aura she lends her favourite, is rather like things said about the favour shown by her to Julius Caesar (Dio 43.43.3; Suetonius, Julius Caesar 49.3; Velleius 2.41.1).
As for the Trojan origin of the Memmii, the first line of De Rerum Natura (to which we’ll come momentarily) and a detail in Aeneid 5 (relevant later) make that perfectly clear. But if C. Memmius played up a Trojan connection it also gives extra point to a jibe aimed at him by Cicero (Ad Att. 1.18.3): recounting gossip about Memmius’ adulterous behaviour, Cicero dubs him “our Roman Paris” (noster Paris), preying on the wife of “Menelaus” (M. Lucullus), and because this Paris is even worse than his Trojan counterpart also on the wife of “Agamemnon” (L. Lucullus, M.’s brother). All in all, it does rather look as if the Julii and the Memmii were promoting their claims to political advancement in pretty similar ways.
The opening line of the De Rerum Natura, addressed to Venus, draws Memmius and Julius Caesar especially closely together: Aeneadum genetrix, hominum diuumque uoluptas, “Mother of the descendants of Aeneas, pleasure of men and gods.” It’s a fantastic way to start, defining the goddess simultaneously in Roman and Epicurean terms: she is the ancestor of the Romans (the descendants of Aeneas) in the first half of the line, and she embodies the fundamental Epicurean principle of uoluptas, pleasure, in the second half. Lucretius’ first verse thus encapsulates the whole project of his poem, to take Rome and make it Epicurean.
But in the unusual word Lucretius selects for the Romans, Aeneadae, “descendants of Aeneas,” there’s a further implication, it seems to me. As already suggested, the evocation of Venus is inseparable from the dedicatee of the poem, C. Memmius, who claimed descent from the goddess. But what is to prevent us thinking that Memmius didn’t only share with Julius Caesar the claim of descent from Venus but also, more specifically, the descent from Venus’ son, Aeneas himself? We’ve already seen, after all, how hard Virgil had to work (through Ascanius/Iulus) to establish a unique line from Aeneas to Julius Caesar and Augustus. Given that we know the Memmii claimed Venus as an ancestor, and claimed to have originated in Troy, Aeneas would be an obvious hook to hang it all on. Certainly the very first word of the De Rerum Natura comes into clearer focus if Memmius considered himself an Aeneades, “descendant of Aeneas.”
So did C. Memmius actually claim Aeneas as an ancestor? Could Virgil, if Roman history had taken a slightly different turn, have written an Aeneid in honour of Memmius?
The Memmii do actually feature in the Aeneid, and this might help us see what Virgil does with the awkward fact, always assuming I’m on the right track so far, that the Memmii were basically making the same claims about their glorious ancestry as the Julii were. In Book 5 the contestants in the boat race during Anchises’ funeral games are identified as ancestors of Roman families: Sergestus the forebear of the Sergii, Cloanthus of the Cluentii (Servius ad loc. adds Gyas of the Geganii), and Mnestheus, genus a quo nomine Memmi (117), “from which name comes the race of Memmius.”
So the Memmii do have a Trojan ancestor, according to Virgil, but it’s Mnestheus, not Aeneas. Who is this Mnestheus? As Weinstock explains (p. 23), his name is related to “Memmius” rather cleverly, Mnestheus suggesting Greek μνήμων (mnemon, “mindful”) and Memmius the Latin equivalent memor. In the Aeneid Mnestheus is a significant character, one of the most prominent Trojans after Aeneas himself, and (as Barney Taylor points out to me) he’s Aeneas’ cousin: both of them are descended from Assaracus (Aen. 12.127; Ennius frs, 28-9 Skutsch; Aen. 1.284). But the other thing to say about Mnestheus is that there’s not much sign of him before Virgil. There’s a Menestheus in the Iliad (leader of the Athenians, 2.552), but that’s all. It follows, of course, that the idea that the Memmii were descended from a Trojan hero called Mnestheus is, for us at least, first attested in Virgil.
It’s all very intriguing. Mnestheus is really as close to Aeneas as he can be, almost interchangeable with him, you might say. The question I’m asking myself, obviously, is whether he’s Virgil’s invention, necessary to ensure that the pure ancestry back to Aeneas belongs exclusively to the Julii, and to Augustus. Invented Trojans are not thin on the ground in the Aeneid: in fact very few of Aeneas’ companions were characters already in Homer or other accounts of the Trojan War. But it’s a slightly different state of affairs when so much depends on the status of an individual: it matters a lot, for example, that Aeneas had already featured in the Iliad, providing that indisputable continuity from Troy to Rome.
If the Mnestheus/Memmius link was indeed concocted by Virgil, it illustrates two things at least about the Aeneid. One is the delicate balance that Virgil needed to maintain between celebrating the emperor Augustus and not ruffling the feathers of the wider elite on whose goodwill Augustus’ settlement depended: the Memmii are still done great honour in this poem, given ancestry in Troy, in an impressive warrior named Mnestheus. But they don’t get a piece of Aeneas. The other thing it illustrates, though, is the power of a story told with sufficient confidence to shape important details of national ideology. Virgil may have got Iulus from Julian family lore, but if he did indeed conjure Mnestheus up out of thin air, he has convinced us by sheer narrative bravado not just of the existence of a Trojan hero called Mnestheus but also that the claim of the Julii to descent from Aeneas is the only valid one.
An absolutely fascinating wrinkle to end with, though. In Ephesus Austrian archaeologists found the remains of an impressive monument, maybe funerary, for C. Memmius’ son, also C. Memmius (some images and description here). Mario Torelli has written a brilliant, if speculative, article⸸ on this building, arguing from reliefs of potentially heroic figures which perhaps decorated its third level, and from a fragment of a Greek inscription with the genitive of a name ending “–stheus” which originates somewhere on it, that one of the functions of the monument was to celebrate the younger C. Memmius’ descent from (Mne)stheus.
Theories about the date of this monument range from the early to the late Augustan period, the 30s BC to the first decade AD, but Torelli wants to place it much earlier, in the late 50s or early 40s BC, a full generation before the Aeneid. That wouldn’t suit me very well, but I think it’s fair to say that the date of the Memmius Monument is really anyone’s guess. The idea that Mnestheus might be depicted on it is incredibly appealing, though: if we could assume a date later than the Aeneid, it might make my point about the power of Virgil’s fiction rather well if C. Memmius junior had adopted an ancestry formulated in the Aeneid.
We somehow have to square Aeneadum and –σθέως, I suppose, but there’s every chance I’m barking up the wrong tree.
* S. Casali, “Killing the father: Ennius, Naevius and Virgil’s Julian imperialism,” in W. Fitzgerald & E. Gowers (eds.), Ennius perennis: the Annals and beyond (Cambridge, 2007), 103-128;
† A. Barchiesi, “Jupiter the antiquarian: the name of Iulus (Virgil, Aeneid 1.267-8),” in R. Hunter & S. P. Oakley, Latin literature and its transmission (Cambridge, 2016), 1-9;
‡ S. Weinstock, Divus Julius (Oxford, 1971);
⸸ M. Torelli, “Il monumento efesino di Memmio. Un capolavoro dell’ideologia nobiliare della fine della repubblica,” Scienze dell’Antichità 2 (1988), 403-426 = M. Torelli, Il rango, il rito e l’immagine (Milan, 1997), 152-74.