My blog poses the questions that everybody wants answered.
OK, maybe that’s optimistic, but I’m going to suggest that the Greco-Roman gods’ ability to weep is not a given, and thus when and how they dissolve in tears can be instructive.
Our text is a powerful scene in Aeneid 10 where the young warrior Pallas, facing his nemesis Turnus, prays to Hercules for success. It’s Hercules he appeals to because, as we have learnt in Aeneid 8, the hero had once visited the kingdom of Pallas’ father Evander (on the future site of Rome) and rid it of the troublesome monster Cacus. By this point in Book 10 we are some years later, and in the meantime Hercules has died and become the god to whom Pallas can direct his prayer.
Here is Pallas’ appeal, Hercules’ tearful response, and the chief god Jupiter’s reaction (10.457-73, accompanied by the translation of Fairclough and Goold in the Loeb):
hunc ubi contiguum missae fore credidit hastae,
ire prior Pallas, si qua fors adiuuet ausum
uiribus imparibus, magnumque ita ad aethera fatur:
‘per patris hospitium et mensas, quas aduena adisti,
te precor, Alcide, coeptis ingentibus adsis.
cernat semineci sibi me rapere arma cruenta
uictoremque ferant morientia lumina Turni.’
audiit Alcides iuuenem magnumque sub imo
corde premit gemitum lacrimasque effundit inanis.
tum genitor natum dictis adfatur amicis:
‘stat sua cuique dies, breue et inreparabile tempus
omnibus est uitae; sed famam extendere factis,
hoc uirtutis opus. Troiae sub moenibus altis
tot gnati cecidere deum, quin occidit una
Sarpedon, mea progenies; etiam sua Turnum
fata uocant metasque dati peruenit ad aeui.’
sic ait, atque oculos Rutulorum reicit aruis.
But Pallas, when he thought his foe within range of a spear-cast,
moved forward first, in the hope that chance would aid the venture
of his ill-matched strength, and thus to great heaven he cries:
“By my father’s welcome, and the table to which you came as a stranger,
I beseech you, Hercules of the stock of Alceus, aid my great enterprise.
May Turnus see me strip the bloody arms from his dying limbs,
and may his glazing eyes endure a conqueror!”
Hercules heard the youth, and deep in his heart
stifled a heavy groan, and shed useless tears.
Then with kindly words the Father addresses his son:
“Each has his day appointed; short and irretrievable is the span
of life for all: but to lengthen fame by deeds—
that is valour’s task. Under Troy’s high walls
fell those many sons of gods; indeed, with them fell
my own child Sarpedon. For Turnus too his own
fate calls, and he has reached the goal of his allotted years.”
So he speaks, and turns his eyes away from the Rutulian fields.
There’s a lot going on here, among other things an assimilation of Hercules to Aeneas, who had also visited Pallas’ father at the site of Rome and enjoyed his hospitality (compare 10.515-7, Pallas, Euandrus, in ipsis/ omnia sunt oculis, mensae quas advena primas/ tunc adiit, dextraeque datae). In addition, though, and this is relevant to the tears, Virgil’s Jupiter recalls in his consoling words to Hercules a very important moment in Homer’s Iliad, when Zeus/Jupiter himself had contemplated rescuing his son Sarpedon, a Lycian warrior allied to the Trojans, from his fated death at the hands of Patroclus (16.419-61). Back then Zeus had been dissuaded from any such intervention by Hera, and that scene had illustrated a theme central both to the Iliad and to the epic tradition as a whole: the insignificance of human life and the unbridgeable chasm that separates suffering mortals and the comfortable and untroubled existence enjoyed by the gods.
The unavoidable tragedy of human life and death is thus what Jupiter starts by reminding Hercules of here. But the name Sarpedon evokes another significant moment in the Iliad, as at 12.322-8 he is the mouthpiece for one of the most memorable statements of heroic values in the poem. Sarpedon explains to his fellow-Lycian Glaucus why they are obliged to lead the fight against the Achaeans:
“Ah friend, if once escaped from this battle
we were for ever to be ageless and immortal,
neither should I myself fight among the foremost,
nor should I send you into battle where men win glory;
but now—for in any case fates of death threaten us,
fates past counting, which no mortal may escape or avoid—
now let us go forward, whether we shall give glory to another, or another to us.”
Human life is incomparably worse than the life of the gods in the Iliad, but the brevity and insignificance of our human existence is also what shapes the heroic ethos, and indeed epic poetry. The inevitability of their death drives the heroes of epic to seek an alternative form of immortality, to compensate for abbreviated lives with the everlasting glory achieved by deeds great enough to be commemorated in song. That immortal glory, an alternative existence, is what Homer’s Iliad bestows on Sarpedon, and the fundamental heroic calculus, fame achieved by bravery in the face of certain death, is exactly what Jupiter is setting out for Hercules in Virgil’s account.
But it’s tears that I’m meant to be talking about.
When he hears Pallas’ prayer, Hercules weeps. His foreknowledge of Pallas’ doom is perhaps divine, but his tears are emphatically not. There was a well-established literary convention that the life of the gods was so carefree, in contrast to the limitless sufferings of humanity, that they could not physically cry. Now, we do see gods crying in Greco-Roman accounts: Artemis even cries in the Iliad after a scolding from Hera (21.493-6), and Aphrodite/Venus, while she doesn’t explicitly cry when stabbed by Diomedes in Iliad 5, does have eyes welling with tears when he addresses Jupiter at Aen. 1.228-9. But Venus is a special case among epic gods, closer in some respects to human shortcomings. In general, also, poetic convention was more rigid than poetic practice, and Ovid, a great manipulator of literary convention, twice asserts the principle that gods cannot cry, at Fasti 4.521-2 and Metamorphoses 2.621-2 (Apollo after killing his lover Coronis): “the cheeks of the heavenly gods may not be wet with tears”, he writes in the Metamorphoses. The passage in the Fasti I discuss in my forthcoming book Ovid: A Very Short Introduction, but the idea was clearly familiar to Virgil’s contemporary readers, and important when we contemplate Hercules, since as a god he really shouldn’t be crying.
Well, the fact that Hercules weeps is a hint, as delicate as can be, that he’s still a novice at this immortality game, only recently made a god, and not yet as free as a divinity should be of emotional attachments to humanity. Jupiter, the seasoned deity, puts Hercules right, teaching him that gods and humans are irrevocably different by virtue of death, and–if the Loeb translation of oculos Rutulorum reicit aruis (10.73) is right–gives him an object lesson in divine indifference by turning his gaze away from human misery in Italy.
So Virgil contradicts the rule that gods can’t cry, and also, in Hercules, allows a human to beat death and secure everlasting life. But it’s by breaking the rules that he achieves this immensely subtle characterisation of Hercules, and also, through Jupiter’s words, how he powerfully reasserts the essential truth of the heroic world: gods are ineffably happier than us, and we will die.
One of the big surprises that Virgil springs on his readers as the Aeneid gets under way is to take them straight to Carthage.
This city is really the last place that a Roman epic should start, the most relentless and dangerous enemy that Rome in its long history felt it had faced: the threat of Hannibal coming to get them was a favoured Roman method for getting the kids to eat their greens, long after the city (and the threat) had been eliminated in 146BC, so deep ran the fear evoked by Rome’s greatest imperial rival.
But Virgil doesn’t just drag his Roman epic to enemy HQ, he then compounds the scandal by making a place that Romans very well knew represented all that was most despicable in human behaviour, all that was most uncivilized, most un-Roman, a really rather decent place, even — terrifyingly — a place quite reminiscent of Rome. I tell my students, though they probably don’t believe me, that what is most clearly evoked by the scene that meets Aeneas as he approaches Carthage for the first time, the busy building activity of the rising city, is Rome in the first years of Augustus’ principate, the time and place of Virgil’s writing, and Romans’ first reading, of the poem.
It is indeed a shocking way to open a Roman national epic, almost as if Virgil was out to offer his Augustan readers no kind of simple answers.
By the time Aeneas leaves Carthage, it has assumed an altogether less friendly, though also more familiar, appearance. One way of understanding the trajectory of Aeneas’ stay in Carthage is as the creation of a Carthage recognisable to Roman readers, answering to the deep prejudices they had developed about their mortal Mediterranean rival during the Punic Wars. By the end of Book 4 Dido has sworn undying enmity to Rome, conjured up Hannibal from her own ashes, and generally started to look a lot like an existential threat. What’s quite interesting here is that Aeneas shares responsibility for the creation of this monster: Carthage would not be Carthage if Aeneas hadn’t met, loved and abandoned Dido.
But another respect in which Carthage becomes recognisably Carthage by the time Aeneas leaves it is in its religious character. In a brilliant article James Davidson* argues that Dido’s suicide at the end of Book 4 is meant by Virgil to inaugurate something that the Romans associated very strongly with Carthage, something they found especially deplorable: human sacrifice.
Now, a lot of what the Romans believed about the Carthaginians, for example their sexual immorality and their Punica fides, an alleged incapacity to honour an agreement, we can dismiss as the prejudice of a warring nation for its enemy. But it is generally accepted these days that the sacrifice of humans, and especially children (apparently children of the elite), at the temple of Tanit (Virgil’s Juno) was indeed an important element of Carthaginian religious observance. The sacrifice was a means to secure the goodwill of the gods, and Diodorus Siculus (20.14.4-6) records the frenetic activity occasioned by an unexpected raid on Carthage by the Sicilian tyrant Agathocles in 310BC, a crisis (it was evident to the Carthaginians) caused by their neglect of the gods which could only, the logic went, be resolved by appeasing those gods — with the most valuable thing it was possible for them to offer, their own children or themselves. Diodorus’ account is without doubt exaggerated, but the event itself, less some of the more lurid details, is entirely plausible:
“They also alleged that Cronus [i.e. Baal] had turned against them, inasmuch as in former times they had been accustomed to sacrifice to this god the noblest of their sons (τῶν υἱῶν τοὺς κρατίστους), but more recently, secretly buying and raising children, they had sent these to be sacrificed; and when an investigation was made, some of those who had been sacrificed were discovered to have been supposititious. When they had considered these things and saw their enemy encamped before their walls, they were filled with superstitious dread, for they believed that they had neglected the honours of the gods that had been established by their fathers. In their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in number not less than three hundred. There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus, extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.”
We have already contemplated two ways in which Virgil’s readers probably reacted to his depiction of Carthage: surprise at the friendly, principled face it presented to Aeneas on his arrival, and a familiar horror at the vengeful promise of eternal enmity voiced at his departure. But one of the most effective things Virgil does, in Book 1 especially, is to sow something else in his readers’ minds, periodically qualifying the positive impression made by Dido and her city with niggling hints of that more familiar, much more intimidating Carthage. Again Davidson picks up on these dissonant notes, and he almost says what I’m about to say, and I’m pretty sure thought it. It’s obvious enough when you think about it, but still a great example of Virgil’s ability to manipulate his readers’ responses to his story.
Someone who harbours serious concerns about the Carthaginians is Venus, Aeneas’ divine mother. At 1.643ff. Aeneas, who has by now met and been warmly welcomed by Dido, sends word to the Trojan ships for his son Ascanius to join him in Carthage, at which point Venus hatches a plan to substitute her divine son Cupid for Ascanius, and thus ensure that Dido, under Cupid’s influence, will fall in love with Aeneas and do him no harm. (Venus’ plan is not flawless.) The grounds for the goddess’s anxiety about Carthage are given at 661, quippe domum timet ambiguam Tyriosque bilinguis, “since indeed she fears the untrustworthy house and the two-tongued Tyrians.” Clearly here Venus’ concerns evoke those raw Roman prejudices about Punica fides, “Punic faith”, their congenital untrustworthiness, a jarring reminder of how Carthage really is amid the overwhelmingly positive representation of Dido and her city.
But I can’t help feeling that the swapping of Cupid for Ascanius is still a bit undermotivated, Dido perfectly capable of falling for Aeneas without Cupid’s intervention. And if we do need a bit more reason for Venus to keep the boy Ascanius well away from Carthage until she’s confident Carthage isn’t behaving like Carthage, well, perhaps the most deep-seated of all Roman misgivings about the place was what they did to children there.
As Diodorus suggests, the really valuable children were the high-born, the children of the elite; in fact only the highest-born would do. No child was more elite than Ascanius, ancestor of the Romans, and of the Julian family in particular: he is the character that represents in the Aeneid all the promise of Rome’s glorious future. Virgil intrudes, with exquisite subtlety, a reminder of what this place where Aeneas was busily making himself at home was in the habit of doing to boys of such extraordinary promise.
How terrifying a threat Carthage actually posed to Rome.
*J. Davidson, “Domesticating Dido,” in M. Burden (ed.), A woman scorn’d: responses to the Dido myth (London: Faber & Faber, 1998), 65-88.
A curse is a spooky enough topic for Christmas, I reckon. But this blog about curses (exsecrationes in Latin) is really for me to get some thoughts straight in my head. I am still investigating a Roman priest known as the flamen dialis, a priest of Jupiter (as I touched on here, a strange figure who could be considered a kind of animate statue of the god), and one thing I want to understand better is how this priesthood was regarded during Augustus’ reign. (All ultimately with a view to deciding on a possible role for it in Virgil’s Aeneid, but that’s another matter.)
The most important thing to appreciate about this priesthood and Augustan Rome is that for the first half of Augustus’ reign there was actually no flamen dialis in post. This office, a crucial intermediary between Rome and its most powerful patron, the chief god Jupiter, had remained unoccupied since the death by his own hand of the flamen L. Cornelius Merula in 87BC. My assumption is that the absence of the flamen dialis from Rome was a cause of significant anxiety: the Romans were deeply superstitious people, setting great store by the pax deorum, the harmonious relations between them and their gods which could only be maintained by meticulous observation of their religious obligations.
If maintaining this special relationship with the divine realm was a priority, it was because the favour shown their city by the gods was for Romans the best explanation of their rapid rise to power in Italy and the wider Mediterranean. Equally, however, when their fortunes turned sour, and Rome shifted from seemingly unlimited expansion to a traumatic century of internal conflict (only finally brought to an end by Augustus), the Romans could only conclude that they had somehow offended the gods, and this was their punishment. A key element of Augustus’ project to restore Rome after this crisis was mending this all-important relationship, renovating temples, restoring neglected religious practices, in general returning Rome to what he could claim to be the lifestyle that drew the gods’ approval in the first place.
In the event, a new flamen dialis, Ser. Cornelius Lentulus Maluginensis, was at length appointed in (probably) 11BC, shortly after Augustus had finally secured the role of pontifex maximus for himself. The pontifex maximus or chief priest was responsible for selecting the flamen dialis (though he was also subordinate to the flamen in status, interestingly enough), but Augustus had had to wait to assume the role of pontifex until the death of the previous incumbent, the humiliated and sidelined former triumvir M. Aemilius Lepidus. A natural reading of this sequence of events would be that one of Augustus’ very first acts on becoming pontifex maximus in 12BC was to fill the yawning gap in Rome’s religious fabric, the office of flamen dialis. But there is some debate about the date of Maluginensis’ appointment, and the order of events is not so certain.
My hunch, as I’ve suggested, is that Rome could not bear the absence of such an essential religious figure with equanimity; and that when Augustus did select a new priest of Jupiter, a lifetime after the last flamen dialis had died, it would have been a very impressive gesture, a powerful contribution to the climate that Augustus sought, a perception that Rome, after all the trauma of the Civil Wars, was back on its feet; a profound crisis on the divine plane had been resolved.
Merula, the last flamen dialis, had been a particularly prominent victim of those wars, and that’s really all I need to have to argue for the research I’m doing. But an article by Bernadette Liou-Gille (“César, ‘Flamen Dialis destinatus’,” Revue des études anciennes 101 , 433-459, to which I was alerted by Professor Roberta Stewart) opened up a new and weirder dimension to this story.
Liou-Gille is interested in the circumstances and immediate aftermath of Merula’s death in 87BC. The context is the furious rivalry for control of Rome between L. Cornelius Sulla and L. Cornelius Cinna, the latter supported by the great general C. Marius. In simple terms, Cinna, who was consul, had been driven out of Rome, and Merula, the flamen dialis, had been appointed consul in his place (Professor Stewart suggested to me, because no one would dare to harm a hair on the head of the priest of Jupiter). When Cinna and Marius proceeded to recapture the city, Merula resigned the consulship, and then, faced with efforts by Cinna to bring him to trial (Appian, BC 1.74), took his own life.
The most detailed account of his death is by Velleius (2.22.2):
Merula autem, qui se sub aduentum Cinnae consulatu abdicauerat, incisis uenis superfusoque altaribus sanguine, quos saepe pro salute rei publicae flamen dialis precatus erat deos, eos in exsecrationem Cinnae partiumque eius tum precatus optime de re publica meritum spiritum reddidit.
Meanwhile Merula, who had resigned his consulship in anticipation of the arrival of Cinna, slit his veins and drenched the altars with his blood, praying to the gods, to whom he had often as flamen dialis prayed for the wellbeing of Rome, to curse Cinna and his party. In this way he yielded up the life that had served Rome so well.
After that (and this is the main focus of Liou-Gille’s article) a teenage Julius Caesar (who was close to Cinna, married to his daughter, and a nephew of Cinna’s ally Marius) was designated flamen dialis in Merula’s place, but never actually assumed the priesthood, no doubt mainly because both Cinna and Marius were dead within a short time, and when Sulla recaptured Rome at the end of 82BC he promptly rescinded all the measures they had taken.
Liou-Gille takes Velleius’ account of Merula’s death literally, not as a historian’s rhetorical flourish: as Merula died, he drew down a curse upon his enemies, offering his own life to the gods in return for divine punishment of “Cinna and his party”. The way Velleius puts it suggests a polar reversal of the flamen‘s power, from promoting the good fortune of the Roman res publica to becoming an agent of vengeance. The effort to make Caesar flamen dialis in Merula’s place, Liou-Gille argues, was actually an attempt to neutralize the malign influence of this exsecratio, to mend relations with the hostile gods by making a close confederate of Cinna the priest who devoted himself to serving Jupiter.
I think what I like most about Liou-Gille’s reading of these events is her assumption that Romans, including the notoriously cerebral Julius Caesar, were motivated by superstition, by a genuine terror of the gods. It’s easy to misjudge the Romans, by some of the things put on paper by Cicero or Ovid, as rational types whose religion was lightly worn. But in fact it was their scepticism that was only skin-deep.
Caesar never did become flamen dialis, and perhaps Sulla had particular reason to block his appointment: Sulla was undoubtedly a superstitious man, and he had no interest in diverting the wrath of the gods away from his enemies. But my particular interest, as I say, is how all this might have looked from the standpoint of Augustus’ principate, sixty or seventy years after Merula’s death. In other words, what are the implications of a hiatus in the office of the priest of Jupiter that lasted for a human lifetime, and might entail a curse still unpropitiated twenty years into the Pax Augusta? Certainly the lack of a flamen dialis cannot have increased Romans’ sense of security. But if we do suspect that Merula’s curse still exerted an influence, at whom would that divine wrath at “Cinna and his party” be directed in the Augustan age? The least we can say is that, if Julius Caesar had felt himself a target, it was in important respects Caesar’s legacy that was embodied by Augustus. Augustan Rome not only lacked that hotline to its greatest benefactor, Jupiter Optimus Maximus, then; it could also not be confident that Merula’s ancient curse was not still targeted at them.
Well, I’m very sure that Augustus’ appointment of a flamen dialis in 11BC was more than just a piece of political theatre. In the absence of a flamen dialis for over half a century (and what a dreadful half-century it had been), Rome had lacked a fundamental means of maintaining relations with the gods, the bedrock of its success as a nation. Until that rupture was healed, Rome’s recovery under Augustus’ direction could never be complete.
As for the rest of it, I can’t be so sure, but it would seem to me very true to the Roman mindset if something altogether more primitive was in play, the raw dread provoked by a ghastly death and priestly imprecation generations before, a suspicion that the gods’ wrath at their appalling crimes, the bloodletting of the Civil Wars encapsulated by the death of Merula, persisted, unappeased. For as long as the role of Jupiter’s “animate statue” remained unoccupied, Rome was still cursed.
Some thoughts about Virgil, and they bear no relation whatsoever to Brexit. If anyone feels that a blog about traumatic separation betrays deeper preoccupations, they’re wrong. As for the image of a severed hand desperately trying to get back to the body it belongs to, entirely coincidental. This is pure escapism and my id is locked in the cellar.
We’re in Book 10 of the Aeneid, and Virgil gets graphic in a manner more typical of epic successors like Lucan and Statius. Pallas, the young warrior son of Evander and Aeneas’ protégé, is enjoying his aristeia, an extended display of martial prowess characteristic of epic heroes; less technically, Pallas is on the warpath.
At 10.390-6, he comes upon, and promptly dispatches, a pair of Italian warriors, Larides and Thymber. They are in fact identical twins:
uos etiam, gemini, Rutulis cecidistis in aruis,
Daucia, Laride Thymberque, simillima proles,
indiscreta suis gratusque parentibus error;
at nunc dura dedit uobis discrimina Pallas.
nam tibi, Thymbre, caput Evandrius abstulit ensis;
te decisa suum, Laride, dextera quaerit
semianimesque micant digiti ferrumque retractant.
You also, twin brothers, fell in the Rutulian fields,
Larides and Thymber, offspring of Daucus, most alike,
indistinguishable to your own, a delightful source of confusion to your parents.
But now Pallas gave you harsh marks of difference:
your head, Thymber, Evander’s sword took off,
while you, Larides, your severed hand seeks for as its own,
its dying fingers twitching and clutching at its sword.
The closing image is especially unsettling, if for us slightly suggestive of Hammer House of Horror. There’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about it here, though. The war that Virgil is describing is a legendary counterpart of the Roman civil wars that had finally ended just a decade before Virgil’s writing, and this epic war in Italy has all the brutality and moral incomprehensibility of civil conflict. For me, there’s no book of the Aeneid more extraordinary than Book 10, a profoundly challenging account of conflict between two peoples, Trojans and Italians, who were both the ancestors of the first Roman readers of the poem. Those readers were forced to question the validity of their national hero Aeneas’ claim to settlement in Italy, and to view events as much through the eyes of Aeneas’ implacable enemies as those of Aeneas himself. That ambivalent treatment of the war extends to Pallas, Aeneas’ closest ally, whose character we are encouraged to admire and whose violent death at Turnus’ hands (not long after this passage) we are guided to deplore, but who has a disturbing capacity for shocking bloodshed himself.
Homer had described warrior twins dying simultaneously in battle, in Iliad 5 and 6: in Iliad 5 Aeneas is the killer, so here one effect is to style Pallas a potential Aeneas, if only he might have managed to live long enough. But in neither Homeric passage are the characteristics of twinhood exploited to the extent that they are in the Aeneid.
What are these “characteristics of twinhood”? From the inside, I have no experience. From the outside, identical twins pose problems to us of distinguishability, essentially: they are different people, but the normal means of establishing their different identity are not available to us. This is how Virgil represents Larides and Thymber, two distinct men indistinguishable to their own– in a poignantly contradictory expression, gratusque parentibus error (392), a sweet source of confusion to their parents: confusion should not be a positive experience, of course. But the previous line (391) is a fine piece of composition, too, Daucia, Laride Thymberque, simillima proles, “Larides and Thymber, offspring of Daucus, most alike.” The names of the two brothers are so different, yet pressed so closely together, and surrounded by words describing what they have in common, their fatherhood by Daucus, their preternatural similarity. This impression of their inseparability is achieved as much by the structure of the line, deploying all the resources of an inflected language (allowing words to be placed where their impact is greatest), as by its content.
If that line expresses the strange togetherness of twins, the following (393) is jarringly corrective. “But now Pallas gave you harsh marks of difference”: Pallas brings violent definition to these indistinguishable men, killing them individually, and with Pallas’ intervention the poet is able to distinguish them, too: there’s a sharp contrast between lines 390 and 391, all about the twins’ interchangeability, and the lines that recount their deaths, which carefully separate Thymber (394) and Larides (395-6), and which Virgil renders as distinct as he can, in rhythm, organisation, length. Death has untwinned them.
But if in terms of composition line 391 expressed the unity of twins, 395 is its antithesis. In the deaths of both twins the theme of severance and dislocation is developed beyond their separation from each other: words of rupture, abstulit (“took off”), decisa (“severed”), describe a horrific partitioning of Thymber and Larides themselves. Thymber is decapitated, and Larides’ sword hand is chopped off. The culminating lines, quite as gruesome as any that Virgil penned, describe the efforts of Larides’ severed hand to be reunited with the rest of him. In 395 Virgil once again uses the shape of the line, as well as its sense, to convey disintegration. In English we have to translate it, “while you, Larides, your severed hand seeks for as its own”, but a word-for-word version of te decisa suum, Laride, dextera quaerit would be “you )( severed )( as its own, Larides, your right hand seeks”, the word for severed, decisa, separating te, you, and suum, (as) its own, and itself separated from its noun dextera, hand, mimicking in the word order the distance between hand and owner. The notion of a hand seeking out an entity distinct from itself to which it also belongs is inherently weird, but so here is Virgil’s line composition.
These are just seven lines of Virgilian verse, but within their scope parents’ puzzled joy collapses into the repellent image of a twitching, severed hand, and the harmony of twins into their physical disintegration. The implications of this little episode don’t quite stop there. The salient issue with Larides and Thymber, to my mind at least, is unity and its dissolution, and this is something key to the later books of the Aeneid. Aeneas, it is strongly suggested, will bring unity to Italy, but the problem, or maybe paradox, is that this future unity after Aeneas’ ultimate victory will only be achieved by extreme discord between Trojans and Italians, the warfare that will only end with Aeneas’ impassioned slaughter of Turnus, in revenge for the death of Pallas, in Book 12.
Here Virgil presents us with the ultimate example of togetherness, the bond between twins, then shows it shattered into pieces. The short tale of Thymber and Larides, or is it Larides and Thymber, encapsulates in its own way the loss of peace and coherence that is apparently essential, in Virgil’s mysterious account of the origins of Rome, to Aeneas’ unifying mission in Italy.
I am trapped in admin hell, and can’t see the end of it. It’s really not my forte and all rather depressing, but not getting a second to blog is almost the most frustrating thing of all. So here’s a quick Virgil blog, because that always makes me feel better. As it happens, it’s Virgil on people trapped in hell and imagining they’re somewhere else.
One thing I try to impress on my students as early as I can is that, in one respect at least, Virgil’s poetry is thrilling not in spite of but by virtue of being spectacularly derivative. What I’m talking about is the regularity with which commentaries on the Aeneid point to parallels with Homer. Virgil is forever imitating his Greek predecessor, in language, image, plot, you name it. The poem as a whole presents itself unapologetically as a Roman version of the Homeric poems. Where, my students reasonably ask, is the creative genius in that?
Well, the beginning of an answer is provided by Virgil himself, who faced criticism for being too slavishly indebted to Homer in his own day. The ancient life of Virgil by Donatus records a detail from a book defending Virgil from his critics by Q. Asconius Pedianus, better known for some precious commentaries on five speeches of Cicero.
Asconius Pedianus, in a book which he wrote Against the Detractors of Vergil, sets forth a very few of the charges against him, and those for the most part dealing with history and with the accusation that he took most of his material from Homer; but he says that Vergil used to meet this latter accusation with these words: “Why don’t my critics also attempt the same thefts? They will realise that it is easier to steal Hercules’ club from him than a line from Homer.”
Homer’s reputation in Virgil’s day is hard to overestimate. He was generally considered simply the greatest poet there had ever been. The historian Velleius, a contemporary of Asconius, writes that Homer alone deserved the name of poet: there was no one before Homer for him to imitate, he continues, and no one after Homer capable of imitating him. So what Virgil is saying here is that even simply translating Homer straight into Latin would be an achievement, indeed an act of recklessness. How would you feel about trying to steal this man’s club?
Now of course Virgil is only ironically acknowledging the force of this criticism. He wasn’t in the habit of stealing lines from Homer in any straightforward way, and his engagement with the Homeric texts was complex and creative. The ancient notion of literary creativity, in many ways a much more reasoned one than our post-Romantic idea, was innovation within an established set of traditional rules, which generated a productive interplay of respect and rivalry between the poet and the model. The difference with the Aeneid is in the status of Virgil’s major model. Virgil was setting out to create from Homeric material a Roman epic that would surpass its model, and the very project was bold to the point of lunacy: everyone knew Homer was beyond anyone’s capacity to rival him.
What I’m going to suggest here, though, is that even when Virgil might reasonably be accused of purloining a line from Homer, it’s a brilliantly creative act, without question as audacious as mugging Hercules.
We’re in Book 6 of the Aeneid, and our hero Aeneas is passing through the Underworld in the company of the Sibyl of Cumae. In the “most far-flung fields, set apart for the glorious in war” he comes upon the shades of some old comrades in the Trojan army. Virgil’s realisation of an Underworld full of animate dead, like yet fundamentally unlike the truly living, is superb in all kinds of ways, but a recurrent touch is to suggest that the dead are themselves only half-aware they have died. At the end of this passage Virgil shows us Idaeus “still holding the chariot, still holding the arms,” pathetically reenacting his role in life as Priam’s herald, squire and charioteer. But what Virgil also does, and this is so typical of him, is to encourage us also, as we read, to mistake the dead for the living (6.481-5):
hic multum fleti ad superos belloque caduci
Dardanidae, quos ille omnis longo ordine cernens
ingemuit, Glaucumque Medontaque Thersilochumque,
tris Antenoridas Cererique sacrum Polyboeten,
Idaeumque etiam currus, etiam arma tenentem.
Here [he was met by] the Trojans, much lamented in the Upper World and fallen in war, and he groaned as he saw them all in a long line, Glaucus and Medon and Thersilochus, the three sons of Antenor and Polyboetes the priest of Ceres, and Idaeus still holding the chariot, still holding the arms.
The words I’ve underlined, Glaucumque Medontaque Thersilochumque, “Glaucus and Medon and Thersilochus,” are a very close imitation of Homer indeed. At Iliad 17.216 Homer has Glaukon te Medonta te Thersilokhon te (Γλαῦκόν τε Μέδοντά τε Θερσίλοχόν τε). In fact the Latin and Greek languages could hardly get any closer than Virgil brings them here, retaining the Greek case ending for Medon’s name, and matching Homer’s staccato te/τε (“and”) with que. The Latin words stand out from their context rhythmically, too, a weak caesura and a polysyllabic line ending which feels palpably Homeric. In other words Virgil is insisting that we recognise these words as a foreign intrusion in his Latin poem.
Slavish imitation? Definitely. He hasn’t made any effort to adapt this Homeric detail; on the contrary he’s advertising how uninventive his imitation is. But the payoff is the kind it takes a genius to engineer. What Virgil achieves by it is a sudden, intense evocation of the original context of this expression in the Iliad. Let’s consider what Glaucus and Medon and Thersilochus are up to at line 216 of Iliad 17.
They’re alive, of course: in the Iliad the city of Troy hasn’t fallen yet (Thersilokhos dies at Achilles’ hands in the slaughter of Book 21). But there’s more than that. We’re at a turning point in the war at Troy: Patroclus has perished, and Hector, leader of the Trojans, has donned the armour of Achilles himself, stripped from Patroclus’ body. It’s an ominous moment, Hector demanding comparison with Achilles when he’s really as ill-suited to Achilles’ arms as Patroclus had been. For the Trojans, though, this is a moment of hope: Hector has slain the Achaean champion, they’re in the ascendant again. That’s where a line lifted seemingly unaltered from the Homeric text transports us from the dingy Underworld of Aeneid 6, back to when Glaukos and Medon and Thersilokhos were not just alive but in their pomp, brash and confident.
In the Aeneid these Trojan heroes are dead, as we instantly recollect. The momentary evocation of the lives they’d lived as Aeneas views their indistinct shades is impossibly poignant, I think. And Virgil achieves it by doing exactly what his critics condemned him for, blatantly, shamelessly nicking Homer’s material.