Archive | February 2019

Non passibus aequis


A minor thought, even by my standards, which struck me between preparing a tutorial and rehearsing this, but to catch such random ideas was one of my original points in blogging, so…

An archetypal image from the Aeneid is Aeneas’ escape from Troy in the dead of night, bearing his aged father Anchises on his shoulders and holding his son by the hand, while his wife Creusa follows at a fateful distance behind the group of men (Aen. 2.721-6):

haec fatus latos umeros subiectaque colla
ueste super fuluique insternor pelle leonis,
succedoque oneri; dextrae se paruus Iulus
implicuit sequiturque patrem non passibus aequis;         725
pone subit coniunx.

With these words I spread over my broad shoulders
and bowed neck the covering of a tawny lion’s skin
and take up my burden; little Iulus entwined
his own hand in mine and follows his father with unequal steps.     725
Behind trails my wife.

The scene was already celebrated in antiquity, recreated in sculptural form in the Forum of Augustus at Rome among other Roman heroes like Romulus, from which derive depictions in images and visual parodies from Pompeii.

Specifically, it was 724-5, describing Aeneas’ son, known alternately as Ascanius or Iulus, that caught my attention. Non passibus aequis, “with unequal steps”, now a proverbial expression, is in context a vivid and poignant reminder of the boy’s age and vulnerability as his family flees the captured city. Meanwhile Ascanius’ alternate name Iulus is, here as elsewhere, a means for Virgil to link Aeneas and the Julii family to which Augustus belonged (for his importance in Julian family lore, there’s a bit more here). It appears that Virgil gives the boy special emphasis in his account. At the top of this post there is a coin of Julius Caesar, Augustus’ adoptive father, depicting Aeneas’ escape, and it includes his father on his shoulders, but no son, even though that son was crucial to Julius Caesar’s ancestral claim. In Caesar’s image Aeneas’ spare hand is holding the palladium, the talismanic statue of Athena/Minerva that, housed in the Temple of Vesta, would protect the future city of Rome.

Well, what struck me about Virgil’s description of Iulus on this, the umpteenth, occasion of reading it is a subtle shift in perspective in line 725, and perhaps another way of lending the boy the slightest boost in status. This is all within Aeneas’ narrative of the fall of Troy to Queen Dido in Carthage, and Aeneas describes the physical process of picking up his father from his own viewpoint, similarly introducing his son in 724 taking hold of his hand. Then in 726 Aeneas describes his wife’s position at the rear, again as if viewing her himself. But in 725 we seem to catch just a glimpse of a different perspective and consciousness, that of little Iulus himself. It all hinges on the word patrem. The only person properly capable of seeing Aeneas as “father”, after all, is Iulus, and the word thus momentarily gives us access to Iulus’ subjectivity.

A very subtle effect, for sure, and I’m here obviously indebted to Don Fowler’s classic article “Deviant focalisation in Vergil’s Aeneid” (PCPhS 36, 1990, 42-63), in which he investigates moments when Virgil implicitly conveys a point of view at variance with that of the narrator (hence “deviant”). In Book 2 Aeneas is the narrator, but here, with patrem, his son’s viewpoint intrudes itself, for a second, into Aeneas’ account.

Just for a second, though? It might be worth wondering if non passibus aequis is also the boy’s perception, and it would be nice: not just a vivid image of a small child, if so, but that child’s own viewpoint, Iulus himself aware that his legs are not as long as Aeneas’s, Iulus who by implication is striving to keep pace with his father.

Whether we see that as the boy’s point of view or not (and we certainly don’t have to), this scene deftly characterises the male characters of Aeneas’ family, critical in this poem as the ancestors of Augustus and of the Romans. Anchises is authoritative (in Virgil’s version he carries with him the gods of Troy) but physically weak, while Aeneas is by implication as impressive a warrior as Hercules (the lion skin he drapes over his shoulders, and the burden he assumes, point strongly to the Greek hero, for which see more here). As for Ascanius, we can see a boy as far removed from Aeneas’ heroism by youth as Anchises is by age, in any case completing a powerful tableau of past, present and future (from which, again, the mother is pointedly excluded). At the very least the word patrem establishes Aeneas’ claim to an important status marker in this poem and in Roman life more generally. A theme of Books 1 and 2 of the Aeneid is Aeneas’ growth into the role as pater, leader of the family, initially overshadowed by his father Anchises. Here patrem reminds us of Aeneas’ own potential to be the pater familias, head of the family and by extension of the Trojan people as they turn into Romans, a national hero fully realised.

Vajrapani Hirayama

Maybe that’s all this momentary shift to Iulus’ point of view is designed to achieve, identifying Aeneas as a father in his own right as his carries his father. But I do like the possibility that we also catch here just a glimpse of Iulus’ own nascent heroism, a third generation consciously measuring himself against his father, aspiring to match his manly pace, the boy who will build on Aeneas’ victory in Italy and ensure not only the foundation of Rome, but the preeminence within it of Augustus, father of the nation, pater patriae.


The Glorious Twelfth

“That there was an art of making statues established in Italy also, and from an early date, is indicated by the Hercules dedicated in the Forum Boarium (Cattle Market), so they say, by Evander, who is called the triumphal Hercules and is dressed in triumphal clothes when triumphs are being celebrated; and also by the statue of Twin-faced Janus dedicated by king Numa, who is worshipped as presiding over peace and war, with his fingers so arranged as to indicate, by the sign of three hundred and sixty-five days, that he is also the god of time.”

A paragraph from Pliny the Elder (Hist. Nat. 34.33) which caught my attention a few months ago. There’s nothing original in what follows, but I’m thinking, on and off, about Hercules (Heracles, Verethragna, Vajrapani…), and this clarified some things for me about Hercules in Rome. There is no reason on Earth why my noodlings should be of any interest to you, needless to say.

Specifically, I was thinking, as I often do, about Hercules in Virgil’s Aeneid.

In Book VIII of Virgil’s epic Aeneas visits the future site of Rome, and is welcomed and entertained by the Greek king Evander, the alleged dedicator (Pliny is clearly sceptical) of that statue, who has settled there. Evander’s son Pallas will be crucial to the rest of the plot, his death at the hands of Turnus motivating Aeneas’ culminating revenge. But a lengthy section of this book is taken up by Evander’s account to Aeneas of Hercules’ exploits at Rome, how he had visited the site as he was herding the cattle of Geryon from Spain back to Argos, his tenth Labour, and slain a monstrous bandit called Cacus who was terrorizing Evander’s people.

Hercules is worshipped as a god by Evander (he has in the interim died and been deified), and it turns out that Aeneas has arrived on the very day of the festival of Hercules, suggesting a parallel between Aeneas and Hercules that Virgil periodically activates in the course of the poem. This festival, celebrated in Virgil’s day at the Ara Maxima, the shrine of Hercules in the Forum Boarium, fell on August 12, and that date opens up an entirely different dimension of significance.

Book VIII will end with the scene of Augustus’ Triple Triumph in 29 B.C., as represented by Vulcan on the shield he has forged for Aeneas. The triumph was a spectacular procession of troops, captives and spoils through Rome, staged by a successful Roman general, himself dressed in impressive clothing and riding in a chariot. In 29 Augustus celebrated triumphs, for military victories in Dalmatia and then over Antony and Cleopatra at Actium and in Egypt, on three consecutive days, August 13, 14 and 15. Augustus thus formally arrived at Rome, in preparation for these processions, on the day that Aeneas first comes to Rome, according to Virgil, but also the day on which Hercules had rid the city of the scourge of Cacus, and on which his delivery of Rome was to be celebrated thereafter. Denis Feeney (Caesar’s Calendar p.162) calls this a kind of wormhole, times widely separated, in the case of Hercules or Aeneas and Augustus by a thousand years, but identified in Roman minds by the sanctity of the day. It’s clear enough that Augustus had timetabled his triumphs so as to associate himself with Hercules in his role as Rome’s saviour, and that Virgil is elaborating on that.

What Pliny’s information about the statue of Hercules gives us is further reason for Augustus to align his own arrival in Rome with Hercules’s. What we learn from that “Triumphal Hercules” at the Ara Maxima, supposedly dedicated by Evander himself, and dressed up in the same elaborate clothing as a triumphing general during his triumph, is that Hercules could be understood to be the original triumphator, the model for every triumphing general, and that Augustus was in this respect as well something like a reincarnation of Hercules as he processed through the streets of Rome in 29 B.C.

Alba Fucens

As I say, there’s nothing remotely new about any of these observations. Here, for example, is Matthew Loar batting around similar ideas in greater depth and with much greater sophistication. What follows, furthermore, is provoked by a rereading on my part of Mary Beard’s The Roman Triumph, and some hints there of the depth of the connections Romans came to perceive, and Virgil was able to exploit, between Hercules and the triumph. It seems clear, at any rate, or at least clearer to me than it used to, that the very name of Hercules could evoke the triumphal ceremony. Horace in one of his Odes, 3.14, welcomes Augustus returning from campaign in Spain “in the manner of Hercules”, Herculis ritu, suggesting the Hercules who had also come to Rome from that direction, but also bestowing on Augustus’ arrival something of the character of a triumph.

What Mary’s book made me think of more, though, was food. There is a persistent association, albeit hard to pin down in detail, between Hercules, the triumph, and feasting. Athenaeus, citing the Stoic philosopher Posidonius, a visitor to Rome in the first century B.C., describes a feast at Hercules’s shrine (presumably the Ara Maxima), laid on by the triumphing general, the generosity of which, Posidonius remarked, was itself “Heraclean” in the provision of wine and food (Deipnosophistae 4, 153c; cf. 5, 221f). There seems to be some connection here to a ritual described by Plutarch (Roman Questions 18) whereby wealthy men would gift 10% of their wealth to Hercules at the Ara Maxima by throwing a massive dinner for Roman male citizens (women were forbidden access to the Ara Maxima).


Plutarch on the Hercules tithe, courtesy of Lacus Curtius

Quite what the connecting threads were between the dinners at Hercules’ shrine and the triumphal dinners is elusive, but one thing all this emphasis on feasting illustrates is a fundamental, and fascinating, tension in the Greco-Roman perception of this, their greatest, hero. Hercules was a god-like bringer of peace and order, but Hercules was also an all-too-human and notorious carouser, according to Plutarch somehow both gluttonous (ἀδηφάγος) and frugal in his lifestyle (ἀπέριττος  τῷ βίῳ).

At the Ara Maxima in Rome he was all of these things, on the one hand one of Rome’s many founder figures (like Romulus, and Aeneas himself), and on the other the instigator of unrestrained self-indulgence. Propertius 4.9, which playfully continues Hercules’ story in Aeneid VIII after his conquest of Cacus, exploits this contrast to comic effect, depicting a Hercules ravenous with thirst after his exertions begging for entry to the shrine of the Bona Dea, a sanctuary that excluded men (just as his shrine excluded women). The statue in the photo above is from Alba Fucens in Central Italy (now in the Museo archeologico nazionale d’Abruzzo in Chieti), a cult of Hercules closely related to that in the Forum Boarium (involving a further dimension of Hercules, as a god of commerce, but that’s another story). He strikes a relaxed pose, wine cup in his left hand (perhaps the wooden scyphus that Servius at Aen. 8.278 tells us Hercules brought with him to Italy) and garland on his head.

It is with feasting at the Ara Maxima in honour of Hercules that the day ends in Aeneid 8, too, before Evander leads Aeneas through Rome-before-Rome to Evander’s simple hut on the Palatine hill. This feasting is seemingly as strong an allusion to triumphal ritual as anything else.

Was it a statue like the one from Alba Fucens, Hercules relaxed and tipsy, that was decked out in the elaborate gear of a triumphing general, I wonder? It would capture something essential about this culture hero if it was.