A city with no name?

This is my second blog on the “prehistory” of the Aeneid in quick succession, but this one is directly inspired by Shadi Bartsch’s wonderful new translation of Virgil’s poem. Everyone should get a copy; it’s by far the best English version available, in my humble opinion. In this blog I’ll actually be questioning Prof. Bartsch’s translation of a line, but my ultimate point will be that her rendering of that line is as right as it’s wrong, and more importantly that it exemplifies the engagement with the spirit of an original text that a truly great translation can achieve.

The line in question is a momentous one, the very opening line of Aeneid VIII, an important book of Augustan foundations, which also marks the formal outbreak of war between the Latin and Trojan forces. Here are lines 1-6, followed by Prof. Bartsch’s translation:

Ut belli signum Laurenti Turnus ab arce
extulit et rauco strepuerunt cornua cantu,
utque acris concussit equos utque impulit arma,
extemplo turbati animi, simul omne tumultu
coniurat trepido Latium saeuitque iuuentus               

“As bugles blared their strident notes, Turnus waved/ the standard on Laurentum’s citadel, spurred/ his eager horse and clanged his sword and shield./ At one, all hearts were thrown in turmoil. In the anxious/ tumult, Latium swore loyalty; the young men/ raged for war.”

It’s a terrific opening, building momentum for the conflict to come. The previous book had ended with a catalogue of all the Italian forces gathering to oppose Aeneas. Here at the start of Book VIII the resistance to the Trojan arrivals is encapsulated in Turnus’ action in 1-2 of raising the “signal of war” (signum is a notoriously vague word, but some kind of standard or flag is perhaps implied) from the citadel of the city ruled by king Latinus.

I’m being careful about how I refer to that city of Latinus because this is the nub of the issue. The expression Laurenti… ab arce is translated by Prof. Bartsch as “on/from Laurentum’s citadel”, reading Laurenti as the genitive form of a proper name Laurentum, the name of the city. But Laurenti can also be the ablative form of the adjective Laurens, agreeing with arce, in which case Laurenti… ab arce would mean “from the Laurentine citadel” and the city would not in fact have been named. It’s fair to say that most translators and commentaries understand the construction in the latter way — fundamentally, it’s truer to Virgil’s practice elsewhere of identifying the people of this city as Laurentes, and things they possess as “Laurentine”. Aside from 8.1 he uses Laurens as an adjective (at a rough count) twenty times (the related Laurentius once), and as a substantive in the plural, Laurentes, seven times.

On two further occasions beyond 8.1 we find the form Laurenti, 8.38 and 12.769, again generally read as dative/ablative of the adjective Laurens, and less prone to be read as the genitive of Laurentum (Prof. Bartsch goes with “Laurentian” is both instances), perhaps because arx, “citadel”, evokes a physical city more strongly than solum, “soil”, “earth”, at 8.38 or diuus, “god”, at 12.769. It’s also worth mentioning that “as an -nt- stem, Laurens shows both i-stem and consonant stem inflections in abl. sg. and gen. pl.” (A.J. Nussbaum, ‘Ennian Laurentis terra’, HSCPh 77 [1973], 207-15, at 209), that is with either -i and -e in the ablative singular and -ium and -um in the genitive plural (though always -um in Virgil): we find the ablative form Laurente at Aen. 7.47 and 12.547. “The i-declension was confused even to the Romans themselves”, in the immortal words of Allen and Greenough.

(Woodcut illustration from the “Strasbourg Vergil”, source and explanation: http://dcc.dickinson.edu/images/brant-duplicate-latinus-sitting-amidst-grieving-women.)

My view — the mainstream view, I think I can claim — is that the natural reading of Laurenti at 8.1 is as an adjective, “Laurentine/Laurentian”. But I also think that Virgil was perfectly alive to this ambiguity, and that makes it all more interesting. With luck, at any rate, I can convince my reader that a matter of grammatical detail can have some quite momentous implications.

There’s a parallel argument to be made, ultimately no more conclusive than this stylistic hunch, but of an interestingly diverse kind. This is that, while other localities in Latium mentioned by Virgil, Ardea and Lavinium, were undoubtedly features of Augustan-era Latium and are identifiable in the modern landscape, the same is not so of any town called Laurentum.

A hundred years ago Jérome Carcopino in Virgile et les origines d’Ostie (Paris, 1919) argued very persuasively and at considerable length (pp.171-387; pp. 151-340 in the second edition (1968), which I’ll be citing), that Laurentum was never a place, and any ancient claims that it was were based on a misconception. Carcopino was writing against the backdrop of strenuous efforts to locate Laurentum in the coastal strip south of Rome, activity grounded in a general assumption that the remains of a real town bearing that name were indeed there to be discovered. See, by way of illustration, the detailed note on Laurentum in William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman geography (London, 1854).

What Carcopino establishes very comprehensively, however, is that whenever one tries to locate Laurentum, it always turns out to be the same as Lavinium. The truth is that the people known as the Laurentes, occupying an extent of territory known as the ager Laurens, had an urban centre called Lavinium: as Carcopino puts it, “there was never any town of Laurentum, because Lavinium was always THE town of the Laurentes” (173). Thus at the site of Lavinium, Pratica di Mare, almost all the inscriptions feature the Laurentes, which would be peculiar if they occupied a different town; the Via Laurentina led from Rome to Lavinium; and the cults of the Laurentes were performed at Lavinium. “Laurentum is the civitas, and Lavinium is the urbs; Laurentum is the living city, and comprises the territory, gods and men of which Lavinium is the bricks-and-mortar town” (173). Laurentum as such, then, as opposed to the Laurentes, the ager Laurens, and the religious traditions of the Laurentes, the latter of particular significance to Rome, never actually existed.

Thus far Carcopino’s argument is utterly convincing, indeed unanswerable. But he comes a bit unstuck when he tries to impose his understanding of the relationship between the Laurentes and Lavinium on Virgil’s account of things in the Aeneid. What he proposes is that the city of Latinus, with its “Laurentine citadel”, is Lavinium, but in order to maintain this claim he has to discount Aen. 1.258-60 and 12.193-4, where first Jupiter and then Aeneas anticipate the future foundation of Lavinium (1.258), a city to which “Lavinia will give her name” (12.194). Lavinium will be established by Aeneas and named after the bride he will marry after his killing of Turnus at the conclusion of the poem. But if the city of Latinus, the city from the citadel of which Turnus unfurls the standard of resistance, is not Lavinium, what is it? The striking truth is that Latinus’ city, a place of enormous significance in the plot of Aeneid 7-12, ultimately Virgil’s equivalent of the city of Troy, is never in the course of the poem actually named. Or perhaps I should say, never named unequivocally.

Nicholas Horsfall has a detailed discussion of the Laurentes and the anonymity of their city in the Enciclopedia Virgiliana (Vol. 3.141-4), which among other things fills out the bibliography since Carcopino. Nicholas Purcell also has an extremely interesting article forthcoming, which he was kind enough to show me, that relates Augustus’ country estate in the ager Laurens, which encompassed Lavinium, to Virgil’s presentation of the Laurentines and their capital, suggesting also that this issue was already to people of the Augustan period something of distant antiquity and myth — just the kind of thing Augustus might be keen to reinvent. My own theory, for what it’s worth, is limited to the Aeneid, and really to that first line of Book VIII and the expression Laurenti… ab arce.

The enemy city is nameless, and that is a subtle but effective way of denying it the right to exist in the mind of the reader. This city is the alternative to Aeneas’ foundation Lavinium, which is bound up in various ways by Virgil with the ultimate foundation, Rome itself — the fundamental goal of Aeneas’ heroic exploits. Virgil thereby deprives it of the reality, the presence, that a name would bestow, and unnamed, its eclipse by Lavinium/Rome seems pre-ordained.

But I think 8.1, Laurenti… ab arce, complicates that picture just a touch. A point that Carcopino makes more than once is how unusual the situation with Lavinium and the Laurentes was even for the ancients, “a duality that … had become extremely rare” in Virgil’s time and later (198). Among ancient writers there is certainly some evidence of confusion, for Greek authors especially: Strabo mentions a town named Λαυρεντόν (5.3.5), similarly Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Rom. Ant. 5.54.1) and Plutarch (Romulus 23.1); more surprisingly Pliny the Elder talks of an oppidum Laurentum (HN 3.56), and is followed by Pomponius Mela (2.64); and it features in the Itineraries and on the Tabula Peutingeriana (Carcopino 217-8). In the latter cases the imperial foundation in the area for personnel of the imperial estate, the Vicus Laurentium, may be exerting some influence.

(From a facsimile of the Peutinger Table, source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tabula_Peutingeriana#Map: “Laurento” is on the coast to the right of Ostia.)

These hints that the ancients were already a bit nonplussed by the Laurentes and their relationship to Lavinium are what make me refine my view of Aeneid 8.1 somewhat. The point, I suspect, is not so much that Virgil’s Roman readers knew that Laurentum was a fiction, but that the status of the Laurentes was mysterious, and the question of their city, and its relationship to Lavinium, perplexing. This is what Aen. 8.1 is playing on, I think, and why its ambiguity is important.

At Aeneid 8.1, the moment of greatest threat to Aeneas’ mission, when we have been introduced to the forces massing under Turnus’ leadership and war is declared from the citadel, Laurentum is all but named. Even Carcopino allows that for an instant here there is “the illusion of the presence of Laurentum” (244). It is that exquisite hint of threat, the contours of the rival city to Rome gaining momentary definition at this most critical juncture, it seems to me, that Prof. Bartsch captures perfectly by doing what Virgil never quite (unequivocally) does — giving the city of “Laurentum” its name.

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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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