Archive | May 2019

Ibant obscuri

A fond memory of tutoring, back when Chris Tudor, a.k.a. Massolit, was still an undergraduate, so one or two years ago. We were discussing a passage from Aeneid VI, the terrifying initial entry into the Underworld by Aeneas and the Sibyl of Cumae (6.268-81; David West’s translation, lightly versified):

ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram,
perque domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna:
quale per incertam lunam sub luce maligna
est iter in silvis, ubi caelum condidit umbra
Iuppiter, et rebus nox abstulit atra colorem.
vestibulum ante ipsum primis in faucibus Orci
Luctus et ultrices posuere cubilia Curae;
pallentes habitant Morbi tristisque Senectus,
et Metus et malesuada Fames ac turpis Egestas,
terribiles visu formae, Letumque Labosque.
tum consanguineus Leti Sopor, et mala mentis
Gaudia, mortiferumque adverso in limine Bellum,
ferreique Eumenidum thalami et Discordia demens
vipereum crinem vittis innexa cruentis.

They walked in the darkness of that lonely night with shadows all about them,
through the empty halls of Dis and his desolate kingdom,
as men walk in a wood by the sinister light of a fitful moon
when Jupiter has buried the sky in shade
and black night has robbed all things of their colour.
Before the entrance hall of Orcus, in the very throat of hell,
Grief and Revenge have made their beds
and Old Age lives there in despair, with white-faced Diseases
and Fear and Hunger, corrupter of men, and squalid Poverty,
things dreadful to look upon, and Death and Drudgery besides.
Then there are Sleep, Death’s sister, perverted
Pleasures, murderous War astride the threshold,
the iron chambers of the Furies and raving Discord
with blood-soaked ribbons binding her viperous hair.

Here you can listen to Matthew Hargreaves reading this passage in the original Latin.

Chris, characteristically forthright even in his youth, offered a searching critique of Virgil’s simile at 270-2. It wasn’t much of a simile, he remarked, if it explicated a walk in darkness by analogy with a walk in darkness. A very good point. Similes are by definition comparisons of different things. A simile is in some respect like the thing it illustrates, of course, the clue’s in the name, but must also, for it to be something different from a literal comparison and do some metaphorical work, be essentially different, too. In “I wandered lonely as a cloud”, it is obviously essential to the impact of the figure of speech both that Wordsworth is not literally a cloud and also that he has in certain (unanticipated) respects behaved like one.

In Virgil’s example, by contrast, the simile seems to be all similarity and no difference, not so much “I wandered lonely as a cloud” as “I wandered lonely as someone wandering lonely.”

My answer to Chris back when–and some might consider this a desperate defence of Virgil–was that maybe this striking lack of figurative colour was actually the point. One of Virgil’s achievements in this book of the Aeneid is to conjure up for the Underworld the eerie character of a place both animate and dead, a space full of shades of former humans who can interact with Aeneas, but whose existence is nevertheless of a fundamentally lesser kind. Aeneas, a live human moving through the Underworld, stands out from its inhabitants by possessing physical characteristics of the living such as weight (as when Charon’s ferryboat, designed for insubstantial shades, ships water when he steps into it, 412-14), colour and even a voice (489-3, Aeneas’ vivid encounter with his insubstantial former enemies at Troy, including the gorgeous image of Aeneas’ fulgentiaque arma per umbras, “weaponry blazing through/amid the shadows”). The difference between the dead and the living for Virgil is light, definition and colour.

The passage we’re looking at here offers the first glimpse of this gloomy, achromatic world. But Virgil calculates, I think, that introducing metaphor to this scene, in other words a simile doing the work a simile should do, will contradict the picture he’s painting of a place lacking something essential to the world of the living; or to put that positively, seeking to convey the dreariness of the Underworld, he lets that lifelessness penetrate deep into his poetry. Virgil introduces a simile, a figure of literary embellishment (metaphor is readily described in ancient literary criticism as a matter of brightening a piece of writing, bringing light to it, e.g. Quintilian 12.10.36), but a simile that itself loses its life and colour as the poem accompanies Aeneas on his journey down to Hell.

I don’t think Chris bought that all those years ago, and there’s no reason why anyone else should.

I gave you Matthew Hargreaves’ beautiful reading of these crepuscular verses earlier. He’ll be reading them again, alongside many more, equally lovely, at King’s College, London on March 28, alongside Dame Emma Kirkby, Lizzie Donnelly, George Sharpley, and the author—and tickets are available here.

Hercules Inc.; or, Ovid and the bovids

Montreal Moving Companies
A few weeks ago my colleague Ed Bispham, after a visit to the archaeological museum at Chieti, alerted me to a piece of Ovidiana that was entirely new to me. It was a column excavated from the site of a sanctuary of Hercules Curinus on the slopes of Monte Morrone in Abruzzo, Italy, and among other graffiti scribbled on it were twelve hexameter lines of Latin poetry, with Ovid’s name NASONIS written in another hand above them.


The lines are very hard to read, and what can be read doesn’t correspond to any surviving works of Ovid, so it’s assumed that they are being attributed to him rather than actually by him. Here is what is legible, anyhow, from M. Buonocore, L’Abruzzo e il Molise in età romana (L’Aquila, 2002), p. 178:


What keeps it all quite intriguing, though, is where we are. Monte Morrone is just a few miles from Ovid’s hometown of Sulmo (modern Sulmona). The site of the sanctuary, largely covered by a landslip in antiquity, was in fact popularly regarded in the Middle Ages as Ovid’s villa, and the excavations that uncovered this column (and other items such as this very pretty statue of Hercules, also in the museum at Chieti) were commenced there in 1957, the 2,000th anniversary of Ovid’s birth. So it’s perfectly understandable that people have wanted to make something of the graffiti, even if it’s just, in its way, a modern version of the medieval impulse to believe that Ovid lived here.

A striking fact, though, is that Ovid, who has a lot to say about Hercules and a lot to say about his birthplace at Sulmo among the Paeligni, never makes any reference to Hercules Curinus, the most important religious foundation in the district.

What’s a blog for, though, if not to flog a dead horse? I’m going to suggest that we can still find the Hercules worshipped at Monte Morrone in Ovid’s work. This will involve a rapid survey of the Hercules cult in central Italy, and then some close reading of a moment in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The most important role that Hercules seems to have fulfilled in central Italy, surprising as it may seem, was as patron of pastoral activity and commerce more generally, in particular the herding of cattle between highlands and lowlands, and the trade in the critical commodity of salt which seems to have shadowed the movement of cattle. The sanctuary at Monte Morrone stood adjacent to the calles or drove roads along which these cattle were herded, and the networks were extensive: it’s no coincidence that the great sanctuary of Hercules in Rome, the Ara Maxima, stood in the “Cattle Market”, the Forum Boarium, nor that elsewhere in the Forum Boarium there was a place called the Salinae or Salt-pans: the Forum Boarium marked the termination of the Via Salaria, the “Salt Road” by which (Pliny the Elder informs us, 31.89) salt from the mouth of the Tiber was transported into the interior. At Alba Fucens, a Roman colony lying between Rome and Sulmo, there stood a major shrine of Hercules Salarius, Hercules in his aspect as patron of the salt trade. From it comes a somewhat larger statue of the god.

Hercules’ patronage of this traffic could even turn him, a mediator through trade between the diverse peoples of Italy, into a god of Italy itself. In the Aeneid Virgil draws out the myth of Hercules’ tenth labour that underlies this connection with cattle, his killing of Geryon in Spain and herding of the monstrous herdsman’s cattle all around the north-Mediterranean littoral to Greece. In Aeneid 8, a book (in a poem) deeply concerned with Italy’s unity and divisions, Hercules, in reference to his violent suppression of the malefactor Cacus, who had attempted to steal Geryon’s cattle, is given a very suggestive epithet, the communis deus, “the god who is god for all” (8.275), a force for Italian unity. Aeneas will also unify this geographical space, but do it, as paradoxically as Hercules, by fighting a most divisive war within Italy.

As anticipated, a whistlestop tour of Herculean Italy there, but Filippo Coarelli can sum up the relevant bit: “in the great markets [Hercules] is always present as guarantor and intermediary. The cult of Hercules is thus closely connected with mercantile activity, especially in the Sabellic zone (i.e. central to southern Italy), where the divinity fulfilled the function of protector of herds and shepherds” (F. Coarelli and A. La Regina, Abruzzo-Molise. Guide archeologiche Laterza 9 (Bari and Rome, 1984), 87).

How can we drag this back to Ovid, though?

Well, Book 9 of the Metamorphoses (my favourite, as it happens) has a lot to say about Hercules, with Ovid having his characteristic fun at the expense of the greatest hero of them all. A key episode is the attempt by the centaur Nessus to carry off Hercules’ wife Deianira, under the pretext of carrying her safely across the river Euenus. Hercules shoots Nessus dead, but as he dies Nessus persuades Deianira that his cloak, soaked with his blood, will restore Hercules’ love to her should his affections ever wander. In fact, when Hercules does bring another woman home to Trachis, and Deianira sends to him “the shirt of Nessus” to win him back, Nessus’ blood (contaminated, as the centaur well knew, by the poisonous blood of the hydra with which Hercules’ arrows were tipped) causes Hercules a prolonged and agonizing death.

What interests me, though, is Hercules’ angry speech to Nessus (and Ovid’s account of its motivation) as the centaur attempts to make off with Deianira (9.118-28):

iamque tenens ripam, missos cum tolleret arcus,
coniugis agnouit uocem Nessoque paranti
fallere depositum ‘quo te fiducia‘ clamat
‘uana pedum, uiolente, rapit? tibi, Nesse biformis,
dicimus. exaudi, nec res intercipe nostras.
si te nulla mei reuerentia mouit, at orbes
concubitus uetitos poterant inhibere paterni.
haud tamen effugies, quamuis ope fidis equina;
uulnere, non pedibus te consequar.’ ultima dicta
re probat, et missa fugientia terga sagitta
traicit. exstabat ferrum de pectore aduncum.

And now he had reached the bank, and was picking up the bow he had thrown over,
when he heard his wife’s voice, and shouted at Nessus, who was preparing
to fail to honour the deposit: ‘Where is the empty security of your
feet carrying you, impetuous man? It is to you, two-formed Nessus,
that I speak. Listen to me, and do not steal my property.
If no respect moves you, the wheel
to which your father [Ixion] is attached might dissuade you from this forbidden union.
But you will not escape, however much you trust in your horsy advantage:
With a wound, not my feet, I will pursue you.’ Those last words
he makes good with action, and firing an arrow at Nessus’ fleeing back
he pierced it. The barbed tip jutted out of his chest.

Hercules is a character in an epic poem, and speaks like one. He’s a character in an epic poem, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, that doesn’t take itself at all seriously, mind you, so he’s rather too blustering as he shouts at Nessus, tipping over into parody. But it seems to me that Ovid is using other ways of puncturing the pomposity of this epic hero, and it takes us back to the quite mundane associations we’ve considered that Hercules at Monte Morrone carried, especially in the eyes of a Roman elite that looked down on trade. What I mean is that Hercules’ and Ovid’s language here, particularly the phrases I’ve underlined (and struggled to translate satisfactorily), are strikingly commercial in character, nec res intercipe nostras especially (I wouldn’t go to the cross for any of the others, but cumulatively they amount to something, I think): Hercules describes his wife as if she is a commodity, and Nessus as some kind of commercial rival trying to defraud him, their relationship a commercial deal that has gone sour. If so, it’s classic Metamorphoses: the most heroic of heroes transformed into a businessman with his eye on the bottom line.

The business-savvy god was a familiar notion in this part of Italy, as much to a reader in Rome as anyone who had visited the Hercules Curinus, which any native of Sulmo surely had. So maybe we can see a faint connection between the shrine at Monte Morrone and Sulmo’s most celebrated son, after all.


Ovid in Sulmona, from,_Sulmona.jpg

If this has sparked any interest in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, you can find out more about that poem and Ovid in general in my Ovid: A Very Short Introduction, available here, here, and many other places.

Other reading:

F. van Wonterghem, “Le culte d’Hercule chez les Paeligni. Documents anciens et
nouveaux”, L’antiquité classique 42 (1973), 36-48;
M. Torelli, “Gli aromi e il sale. Afrodite ed Eracle nell’emporia arcaica dell’ Italia”, in A. Mastrocinque (ed.), Ercole in Occidente. Atti del Colloquio Internazionale, Trento, 7 Marzo 1990 (Trento, 1993), 91-117;
Ll. Morgan, “A Yoke Connecting Baskets: Odes 3.14, Hercules, and Italian Unity”, CQ 55 (2005), 190-203;
T. D. Stek, Cult Places and Cultural Change in Republican Italy (Amsterdam, 2009).