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.
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.