The noblest of their sons

One of the big surprises that Virgil springs on his readers as the Aeneid gets under way is to take them straight to Carthage.

This city is really the last place that a Roman epic should start, the most relentless and dangerous enemy that Rome in its long history felt it had faced: the threat of Hannibal coming to get them was a favoured Roman method for getting the kids to eat their greens, long after the city (and the threat) had been eliminated in 146BC, so deep ran the fear evoked by Rome’s greatest imperial rival.

But Virgil doesn’t just drag his Roman epic to enemy HQ, he then compounds the scandal by making a place that Romans very well knew represented all that was most despicable in human behaviour, all that was most uncivilized, most un-Roman, a really rather decent place, even  — terrifyingly — a place quite reminiscent of Rome. I tell my students, though they probably don’t believe me, that what is most clearly evoked by the scene that meets Aeneas as he approaches Carthage for the first time, the busy building activity of the rising city, is Rome in the first years of Augustus’ principate, the time and place of Virgil’s writing, and Romans’ first reading, of the poem.

It is indeed a shocking way to open a Roman national epic, almost as if Virgil was out to offer his Augustan readers no kind of simple answers.

By the time Aeneas leaves Carthage, it has assumed an altogether less friendly, though also more familiar, appearance. One way of understanding the trajectory of Aeneas’ stay in Carthage is as the creation of a Carthage recognisable to Roman readers, answering to the deep prejudices they had developed about their mortal Mediterranean rival during the Punic Wars. By the end of Book 4 Dido has sworn undying enmity to Rome, conjured up Hannibal from her own ashes, and generally started to look a lot like an existential threat. What’s quite interesting here is that Aeneas shares responsibility for the creation of this monster: Carthage would not be Carthage if Aeneas hadn’t met, loved and abandoned Dido.

But another respect in which Carthage becomes recognisably Carthage by the time Aeneas leaves it is in its religious character. In a brilliant article James Davidson* argues that Dido’s suicide at the end of Book 4 is meant by Virgil to inaugurate something that the Romans associated very strongly with Carthage, something they found especially deplorable: human sacrifice.

Now, a lot of what the Romans believed about the Carthaginians, for example their sexual immorality and their Punica fides, an alleged incapacity to honour an agreement, we can dismiss as the prejudice of a warring nation for its enemy. But it is generally accepted these days that the sacrifice of humans, and especially children (apparently children of the elite), at the temple of Tanit (Virgil’s Juno) was indeed an important element of Carthaginian religious observance. The sacrifice was a means to secure the goodwill of the gods, and Diodorus Siculus (20.14.4-6) records the frenetic activity occasioned by an unexpected raid on Carthage by the Sicilian tyrant Agathocles in 310BC, a crisis (it was evident to the Carthaginians) caused by their neglect of the gods which could only, the logic went, be resolved by appeasing those gods — with the most valuable thing it was possible for them to offer, their own children or themselves. Diodorus’ account is without doubt exaggerated, but the event itself, less some of the more lurid details, is entirely plausible:

“They also alleged that Cronus [i.e. Baal] had turned against them, inasmuch as in former times they had been accustomed to sacrifice to this god the noblest of their sons (τῶν υἱῶν τοὺς κρατίστους), but more recently, secretly buying and raising children, they had sent these to be sacrificed; and when an investigation was made, some of those who had been sacrificed were discovered to have been supposititious. When they had considered these things and saw their enemy encamped before their walls, they were filled with superstitious dread, for they believed that they had neglected the honours of the gods that had been established by their fathers. In their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in number not less than three hundred. There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus, extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.”

We have already contemplated two ways in which Virgil’s readers probably reacted to his depiction of Carthage: surprise at the friendly, principled face it presented to Aeneas on his arrival, and a familiar horror at the vengeful promise of eternal enmity voiced at his departure. But one of the most effective things Virgil does, in Book 1 especially, is to sow something else in his readers’ minds, periodically qualifying the positive impression made by Dido and her city with niggling hints of that more familiar, much more intimidating Carthage. Again Davidson picks up on these dissonant notes, and he almost says what I’m about to say, and I’m pretty sure thought it. It’s obvious enough when you think about it, but still a great example of Virgil’s ability to manipulate his readers’ responses to his story.

Someone who harbours serious concerns about the Carthaginians is Venus, Aeneas’ divine mother. At 1.643ff. Aeneas, who has by now met and been warmly welcomed by Dido, sends word to the Trojan ships for his son Ascanius to join him in Carthage, at which point Venus hatches a plan to substitute her divine son Cupid for Ascanius, and thus ensure that Dido, under Cupid’s influence, will fall in love with Aeneas and do him no harm. (Venus’ plan is not flawless.) The grounds for the goddess’s anxiety about Carthage are given at 661, quippe domum timet ambiguam Tyriosque bilinguis, “since indeed she fears the untrustworthy house and the two-tongued Tyrians.” Clearly here Venus’ concerns evoke those raw Roman prejudices about Punica fides, “Punic faith”, their congenital untrustworthiness, a jarring reminder of how Carthage really is amid the overwhelmingly positive representation of Dido and her city.

But I can’t help feeling that the swapping of Cupid for Ascanius is still a bit undermotivated, Dido perfectly capable of falling for Aeneas without Cupid’s intervention. And if we do need a bit more reason for Venus to keep the boy Ascanius well away from Carthage until she’s confident Carthage isn’t behaving like Carthage, well, perhaps the most deep-seated of all Roman misgivings about the place was what they did to children there.

As Diodorus suggests, the really valuable children were the high-born, the children of the elite; in fact only the highest-born would do. No child was more elite than Ascanius, ancestor of the Romans, and of the Julian family in particular: he is the character that represents in the Aeneid all the promise of Rome’s glorious future. Virgil intrudes, with exquisite subtlety, a reminder of what this place where Aeneas was busily making himself at home was in the habit of doing to boys of such extraordinary promise.

How terrifying a threat Carthage actually posed to Rome.


Image illustrating Diodorus, from “Carthage, l’histoire, sa trace et son écho” (1995) via Sophie Hay.

*J. Davidson, “Domesticating Dido,” in M. Burden (ed.), A woman scorn’d: responses to the Dido myth (London: Faber & Faber, 1998), 65-88.

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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.

2 responses to “The noblest of their sons”

  1. The Shaved Poet says :

    “Once upon a time, the British princess Boadicea met the German prince Arminius in the Teutoberg forest…”

    I’m wondering what a British author might make of such a scenario, as a window onto Virgil’s equally improbable romance between Aeneas and Dido. I guess it would depend on when the book is written. I am guessing the 1920’s would come close to Virgil’s epoch, considered as a period when the hated enemy has been left for dead.

    My guess is the author might be just looking for a sensational angle to begin his story, which is pretty much the way you see it with Virgil, but there are other exotic possibilities. There might be a moral here for the ruling class – don’t form sexual relationships with foreign leaders because it could end badly. Cleopatra and Mark Antony might have been weighing on Virgil’s mind. “No sex please, we’re British,” is surely something like that too.

    Another possibility, picking up the proto-Christian influences in Virgil’s lachrymose approach to things, could be a theme of universal peace or Pax Romana, based on the notion that all races and nations are basically the same, given the same chances in life. If Aeneas and Dido can fall in love, or if Boadicea and Arminius can be happy in each other’s arms, surely the whole world can be a beautiful place, if only the gods allowed it.

    Generally I find Virgil a bit too diffuse for my taste and I suspect his Aeneas-Dido imbroglio has no real point, just another multi-faceted fog of allusions and hints through which we nevertheless glimpse a narrative landscape.

    • Llewelyn Morgan says :

      There is a bit of starting in an unexpected place. The plot of the Aeneid is ultimately entirely predictable: Rome will be founded. Well, yes… Another aspect of the Dido/Aeneas encounter is more profound, though. Even as she becomes authentically Carthaginian in the worst sense, Dido is an enemy it is difficult to demonise and dismiss, and that’s a thread in the poem: enemies of Aeneas the poet makes it hard for us to see as straightforward enemies. Here he is doing that with the clearest case of an enemy Rome ever had. One interest of the poem is this disturbing question: what good arises from the death of essentially innocent victims of Rome’s destiny?

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