The Antoneid

So here is a fragment of Polybius, really a chunk of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Rom. Ant. 1.32.1=Polybius 6.11.1), which quietly blew my mind the other day:

“But as some writers record, among them Polybius of Megalopolis, [the town Pallantium, the mythic ancient city on the Palatine Hill in Rome, was named] after Pallas, a boy who died there; he was the son of Heracles and Lavinia, the daughter of Evander, and his maternal grandfather [i.e. Evander] raised a tomb to him on the hill and named the place Pallantium after the boy.”

(ὡς δέ τινες ἱστοροῦσιν, ὧν ἐστι καὶ Πολύβιος ὁ Μεγαλοπολίτης, ἐπί τινος μειρακίου Πάλλαντος αὐτόθι τελευτήσαντος· τοῦτον δὲ Ἡρακλέους εἶναι παῖδα καὶ Λαουϊνίας τῆς Εὐάνδρου θυγατρός· χώσαντα δ᾿ αὐτῷ τὸν μητροπάτορα τάφον ἐπὶ τῷ λόφῳ Παλλάντιον ἐπὶ τοῦ μειρακίου τὸν τόπον ὀνομάσαι.)

All of these names (Pallas, Heracles/Hercules, Lavinia, Evander, and even the toponym Pallanteum/ium) are familiar from the second half of the Aeneid, but it is as if Virgil’s poem were a pack of cards and Polybius has given it a good shuffle. Strictly, though, since Polybius predates Virgil by a century or more, it is Virgil doing the shuffling. Lavinia, the daughter of king Latinus, for whose hand Aeneas vies with Turnus, is in Polybius’ version the daughter of Evander, Aeneas’ ally against the Latins in the Aeneid. Meanwhile Pallas, in Virgil’s version the son of Evander whose slaying by Turnus motivates the brutal denouement of the poem, is the grandson of Evander and the child of Heracles by Lavinia. Of Aeneas in this account of things there is not a trace.

Lavinia’s name here, Λαουϊνία (the text is the Loeb of Cary, cf. I.xliv-xlv), is a conjectural emendation of the meaningless δύνας preserved in all the manuscripts, albeit a persuasive one. But I shan’t be making too much of Lavinia per se in what follows. What I will offer is the suggestion that Virgil and his Roman readers were not unfamiliar with alternative accounts of Roman mythic history like Polybius’s, and that Virgil positively exploits that familiarity even as he presents his own version. That what Polybius recorded could claim some authority is a reasonable assumption since the Greek historian rubbed shoulders with some of the leading Romans of his day, and would have had access to some high-status Roman folklore. Virgil and his readers may also have known Polybius’ text directly, of course.

The first thing that strikes me, though, is something that’s been staring me in the face. I’m very interested in Hercules, and that includes what I see as his critical symbolic role within the Aeneid. Hercules/Heracles is a figure to whom Aeneas is regularly, though subtly, assimilated. For example, when Aeneas lifts things onto his shoulders, the great shield forged by Vulcan in Aeneid 8 or his own father in Aeneid 2, a parallel is activated with Hercules bearing the burden of the sky (or the universe), which he does while Atlas fetches for him the golden apples of the Hesperides (but which had become, along with Atlas’ own role as sky-bearer, an image of heroic endurance).

Metope from the temple of Zeus, Olympia, depicting Heracles bearing the heavens, with a little help from Athena, while Atlas proffers the apples of the Hesperides.

In Book 8 Aeneas visits the future site of Rome and is told by Evander of Hercules’ visit to the place, when he rid it of the monstrous bandit Cacus. Aeneas’ arrival is deliberately aligned with Hercules’s, since the Trojan hero arrives on the day that commemorates Hercules’ visit. In fact August 12th, the date of the festival of Hercules at the Ara Maxima, the day when Aeneas came, also corresponds to Augustus’ “arrival” outside Rome before his Triple Triumph on August 13th, 14th and 15th in 29 BC, the conclusion of the Civil Wars, another event that Virgil depicts, on the shield which Aeneas hoists onto his shoulders in Herculean fashion at the very end of Aeneid 8. So Hercules, Aeneas and Augustus are layered one on top of another in an intriguing fashion as benefactors of Rome.

There’s lots more to say about Aeneas and Hercules, particularly when it comes to understanding the violence between future Romans that fills Books VII to XII. But what this fragment of Polybius alerts me to is a clear Herculean model for Aeneas’ role as ancestor of the Romans. The Trojan hero will marry the daughter of the local king, Lavinia, and the result will be a brand new people, the Romans. This is classic Herculean lore, and in Polybius we find Hercules in Aeneas’ role. To illustrate, here’s an account of Hercules’ stay in southern France (presumably), on the same journey from Spain to Greece that brought him to Rome, driving Geryon’s cattle before him (Parthenius, Sufferings in Love 30; translation J. Lightfoot):

“It is also said of Heracles that when he was bringing the cattle of Geryon from Erythea, his wanderings through the land of the Celts brought him to the court of Bretannus. This king had a daughter called Celtine. She fell in love with Heracles and hid his cattle, refusing to surrender them unless he first had intercourse with her. Heracles was in a hurry to get his cattle back, but he was even more struck by the girl’s beauty, and so he did have intercourse with her. When the time came round, a child was born to them, Celtus, from whom the Celts take their name.”

Hercules/Heracles makes a habit of begetting new peoples around the Mediterranean, and it seems to me that Aeneas’ role as the progenitor of the new race in Italy, a blend of the native and the foreign, and as partner of the king’s daughter, is another respect in which Virgil’s hero is patterned upon Hercules.

But I was going to suggest ways in which Virgil’s version of the story exploited Polybius’s very different account, or something like it, and I’d offer two illustrations of that thought, neither of them enough to protect me from the suspicion that I’m just mentally exhausted from exam marking. The first is the passage in Aeneid 10 where Pallas, son of Evander, prays to Hercules, now a god, for help in his imminent duel with Turnus. Pallas is outmatched and doomed, and Hercules in heaven can do nothing but weep, and I explained the significance of Hercules’ all-too-human tears here. But the model for Hercules’ fruitless concern for a doomed mortal is Zeus in Iliad 16 witnessing the death of his son Sarpedon–a scene that Virgil is careful to remind us of. In the Aeneid Hercules’ concern for Pallas seems, by comparison with Zeus, perhaps a little undermotivated. Sure, Hercules had visited Pallanteum and rid it of the monstrous bandit Cacus, but no particularly close connection between the hero and Pallas has been indicated before. My thought about Polybius’ version of the story, though, is that if readers are carrying with them a vague idea that Pallas is as close to Hercules as a son to his father, the relationship that Sarpedon bears to Zeus and Pallas to Heracles in Polybius, it lends this scene, currently (I’ll confess) my very favourite moment in the Aeneid, an exquisite extra force.

I’d regard the funeral of Pallas in Aeneid 11 as a similar nudge in the direction of an alternative detail . The young warrior dies in battle against Turnus, but his body is sent back to Pallanteum, the city of Evander, and that is where he is interred. Now Virgil, through the words of the river Tiber (Aen. 8.51-4), has explicitly derived the name of Pallanteum from another man named Pallas, Evander’s ancestor, but when Pallas is buried on the Palatine in Aeneid 11, his youth as in Polybius heavily emphasised, I wonder if Roman readers could exclude from their minds the possibility that this Pallas, the boy who died, is the origin of the name of the Palatine Hill. (We have already met at 7. 655-69, for what it’s worth, another son of Hercules who appears to be the eponym of a Roman hill, Auentinus.) If that thought was at all likely to occur to them, all I’d add is that the hint of an act of foundation is associated here, as elsewhere in the Aeneid, with sacrificial slaughter: it is on the Palatine, the very site of Rome, that the eight sons of Sulmo and Ufens, taken captive by Aeneas, are sacrificed at Pallas’ last rites. I discuss that deeply shocking turn of events, and its connections to the closing scene of the poem, in the latest Proceedings of the Virgil Society, if it’s of any interest.

Well, the notion that Virgil is contending with, or exploiting, alternative versions of the various stories that he tells in the Aeneid is a well-established one, particularly perhaps in relation to his departure from Troy. The introduction to Shadi Bartsch’s brilliant new translation of the Aeneid chases some of those ideas around. The presence of “Polybian” hints in the Aeneid, always assuming I’m right, may be further evidence, hardly needed, for Virgil’s subtlety, but what it also reminds us of is the astonishing power of the story that Virgil narrated, a wildly tendentious take on Roman mythic history that was so compellingly told that it eclipsed what must have been a jungle of alternatives. I wonder here also about Virgil’s simple talent for persuasive invention, for making his version the definitive version. Obviously to persuade the reader of one’s own story while at the same time exploiting their awareness of others requires particular virtuosity.

At the end of a string of speculations, some appropriately wild counterfactuals to round things off. I have a personal conviction that, had the Civil Wars which brought Augustus to power turned out differently, and Mark Antony rather than Augustus had won, the world might yet possess a Latin epic not hugely different from the Aeneid. It would feature at least as much Hercules, at any rate, because Antony claimed descent from him. Here is Plutarch, Life of Antony 4.1-2 (translation, B. Perrin):

“He had also a noble dignity of form; and a shapely beard, a broad forehead, and an aquiline nose were thought to show the virile qualities peculiar to the portraits and statues of Heracles. Moreover, there was an ancient tradition that the Antonii were Heracleidae, being descendants of Anton, a son of Heracles. And this tradition Antony thought that he confirmed, both by the shape of his body, as has been said, and by his attire. For whenever he was going to be seen by many people, he always wore his tunic girt up to his thigh, a large sword hung at his side, and a heavy cloak enveloped him.”

This gives us precious little information about the details of Antony’s claimed genealogy, but if Anton, ancestor of the Antonii, was also fathered during Hercules’ cattle herding along the Italian coast, then some permutation of the kind of story told by Polybius might have formed the core of an epic narrative written by a poet with the requisite talent, maybe Virgil himself. The essential scenario of such an Antoneid may seem daft, but that’s only because Virgil has managed the remarkable achievement of convincing us that Augustus’ claim of descent from Aeneas isn’t.

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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.

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