Tag Archive | Vergil

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.

Buy me!

Forsan et haec olim…

The Pope and I don’t share too much in the way of common interests, but when I was signing off an email to my beleaguered, COVID-confined fellow examiners a fortnight ago, and when Pope Francis was reaching for a point of reference in a recent Tablet interview, we both selected the same moment in Virgil’s Aeneid to quote.

Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuuabit, says Aeneas at Aeneid 1.203: “Even these things will one day be a pleasure to recall, perhaps.” The Pope takes this as a statement of the importance of memory:

What comes to mind is another verse of Virgil’s: [forsan et haec olim] meminisse iubavit [“perhaps one day it will be good to remember these things too”]. We need to recover our memory because memory will come to our aid. This is not humanity’s first plague; the others have become mere anecdotes. We need to remember our roots, our tradition which is packed full of memories. In the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, the First Week, as well as the “Contemplation to Attain Love” in the Fourth Week, are completely taken up with remembering. It’s a conversion through remembrance.

For me it’s more a way of saying, One day our lives will be so much better that we may even be able to look back at our past sufferings with equanimity. Either way, it is something said in misfortune, when we anticipate (without necessarily much confidence) the better times to come.In the Aeneid the words come within a longer speech of consolation (198-207) that Aeneas delivers to his men after they have been driven by storm, raised by the vengeful goddess Juno, to the shores of Carthage.Here is what he says:

o socii (neque enim ignari sumus ante malorum)
o passi grauiora, dabit deus his quoque finem.
uos et Scyllaeam rabiem penitusque sonantis
accestis scopulos, vos et Cyclopea saxa
experti: reuocate animos, maestumque timorem
mittite: forsan et haec olim meminisse iuuabit.
per uarios casus, per tot discrimina rerum
tendimus in Latium, sedes ubi fata quietas
ostendunt; illic fas regna resurgere Troiae.
durate, et uosmet rebus seruate secundis.

Comrades (for we have not been ignorant of misfortunes up to now), you have suffered worse, and to these things too God will grant an end. You have drawn close to Scylla’s fury and her deep-resounding crags; you have known the rocks of the Cyclopes, too. Recall your courage, and banish grief and fear. Even these things will one day be a pleasure to recall, perhaps. Through fortunes of all kinds, through countless hazardous challenges, we head for Latium, where the fates promise us an untroubled home–there it is granted that the kingdom of Troy will rise again. Endure, and preserve yourselves for prosperous times.

We’re being asked to think quite hard about Homer’s Odyssey here, Aeneas’ words strongly echoing those of Odysseus at Od. 12.208-12 as he and his crew were approaching Scylla and Charybdis. But while he aligns the Trojans’ experiences with Odysseus’s, Virgil also draws an important contrast, if subtly. R. G. Austin in his commentary on Aeneid 1 compares Aeneas’ speech with its model in the Odyssey: “…there is a notable difference in tone. Odysseus is unsure of his men, sure of himself, reminding them of his own courage and skill in bringing them out of cruel dangers. Aeneas trusts his men, and gives them credit for steadfastness…” The Romans liked to imagine that such strong social instincts, the subordination of personal ambition to the interests of the community, set them above other nations, Greeks first and foremost. Socii, the word with which Aeneas opens, expresses an evocatively Roman concept of common endeavour. Meanwhile Odysseus could be considered an individualist, since while he did eventually get himself back to Ithaca in one piece, he lost his entire crew along the way.

In broader terms the Aeneid, a story of success (the establishment of Rome) emerging from disaster (the sack of Troy), originally directed at Rome’s recent experience of civil war and the promise offered by Augustus’ rise to power, lends itself to dark moments like our own that need to discern some light ahead. In that sense forsan et haec olim meminisse iuuabit encapsulates a key message of the poem: this too shall pass. But the emphasis on community and the hope of better times are not ultimately separable: it was Rome’s rediscovery of its common values, so the Augustan narrative went, that brought about its recovery–the refoundation of Rome that had supposedly been achieved by Augustus, and the peace he restored between Romans.

Those are some thoughts about O socii within the Aeneid. But one of the most interesting things about Aeneas’ speech is its afterlife, which I’ll illustrate with some speculation and some music. Henry V’s speech before Agincourt in Shakespeare’s play (Act IV Scene III) is at times rather reminiscent of Aeneas’ speech, delivered in apparently desperate circumstances, evoking community, and thinking ahead to a time when all of it might be nothing more than a fond memory (“Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,/ But he’ll remember with advantages/ What feats he did that day”). Shakespeare knew his Aeneid very well, of course, and drew some inspiration at least for his “band of brothers” from Virgil’s o socii, I reckon:

As for the music, it certainly attests the popularity of Aeneas’ pep talk at a similar time. On this recording, at 24:30 and 28:20, two settings of O socii can be heard, the first by Adrian Willaert and the other by Cipriano de Rore, both dating to the middle of the sixteenth century. (There are also settings here of Dido’s last speech, Dulces exuuiae, Aeneid 4.651-62, and poems of Horace.)

This excellent account from the Dickinson College Commentaries does a better job than I possibly could of explaining how thoroughly the word durate, “endure” (from the last line of Aeneas’ speech), is woven into the texture of Willaert’s incredibly subtle composition (see also Blake Wilson’s longer article on early-modern settings of Virgil). The reason for the prominence given to that particular word is the man for whom Willaert and Rore wrote their Virgilian settings, Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle (1517-1586), a senior figure in the Counter Reformation whose motto was DURATE, and who, on the evidence of medals depicting a storm-tossed Aeneas or similar scenes, associated the word with its appearance in Aeneas’ speech, and equated his own role in the resistance to the rise of Protestantism with Aeneas’ hard-won progress from disaster to triumph. (For an appearance of Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuuabit in a story from the early stages of the N Irish peace process, see here, with thanks to @PhiloCrocodile.)

Well, if we replace Protestants or the Dauphin with a virus named SARS-CoV-2 and the lockdown it has imposed upon us, forsan et haec olim meminisse iuuabit and durate are both of them quite handy mottoes, and you can even sing them.  

Genre, gender (& some genitalia)

A seasonal blog about how heroes die. Draw your own conclusions about my state of mind at the end of 2018.

One of the most celebrated/notorious episodes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the Calydonian boar hunt in Book VIII (270-444), and it typifies Ovid’s irreverent approach to epic narrative. An impressive band of heroes (Theseus, Jason, Peleus, Telamon, Laertes, Nestor and many more: the generation before the Iliad, so in principle even more heroic than Achilles, Ajax or Odysseus) gathers together to help Meleager deal with a monstrous boar that is wreaking havoc in Calydon, but Ovid turns material that might make a very acceptable epic narrative into a “boisterous comedy”, in Nicholas Horsfall’s words.* Telamon trips over a tree root, for example, and Nestor polevaults onto a branch. Most outrageously of all, it is a woman, Atalanta, who shows most physical prowess, drawing first blood from the boar.

Ovid’s approach to writing epic, in simple terms, is not to do what an epic is supposed to do, but at the same time constantly remind us what a respectable epic should be doing. An essential characteristic of epic, perhaps its quintessential quality, is its masculinity, its concern with males who are more male than ordinary males and excel in stereotypically male activities, warfare and violent physical activity especially, but also forceful speech and charismatic leadership. Promoting a female character at the expense of the male suits Ovid’s aims perfectly: the prominence in Ovid’s telling of this myth of a woman huntress, alongside male heroes falling far short of the heroic ideal, strikes epic at its core.

Which brings us to the business of this blog. Ancaeus is another hero who meets a humiliating end in the course of the boar hunt, but his mode of death is particularly meaningful. An exaggeratedly male, bombastic hero, wielding a double axe, Ancaeus responds to Atalanta’s success by commanding his comrades to stand back and “Learn how far men’s weapons surpass women’s,/ and make way for my action” (discite femineis quid tela uirilia praestent/ o iuuenes, operique meo concedite, 392-3), before being peremptorily despatched by the boar with a blow from both tusks in the groin. There is nothing coincidental about the location of Ancaeus’ terminal wound. As I wrote a few years ago,** citing Adams’ seminal reference work The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (p. 93 n. 3), “tela, uirilia, and opus are all terms regularly used of the penis, and ‘there was a marked tendency for adjectives of the base femin- to be applied… to the female parts.'” Alternative translations of operique meo concedite may suggest themselves. But if epic is all about uirtus, “manhood”, this caricature of an epic hero dies a death that encapsulates Ovid’s contrarian attitude to the genre he’s supposed to be writing.

My mind turned back to poor Ancaeus a couple of weeks ago when preparing a MOOC for my old student Chris Tudor (Massolit is a great resource, incidentally, which I enthusiastically recommend). I was talking about Aeneid XI, and one of my lectures was on Camilla, the female warrior whose exploits occupy the latter part of the book (and who is a key model for Ovid’s Atalanta). Here also we find an epic investigating its own gender biases, but Virgil’s poem is altogether more conventional in this respect than Ovid’s. Camilla is a formidable warrior, dominating the battlefield and seeing off a number of male antagonists (aduenit qui uestra dies muliebribus armis/ uerba redargueret, “the day has come for a woman’s weapons to refute your words”, she vaunts over one victim, 687-8). But her death is occasioned by a dramatic reversion to (a stereotype of) conventional female behaviour: Alison Keith^ talks of “a Greco-Roman stereotype regarding women’s excessive interest in clothing and personal adornment” (p. 29). Distracted by the sight of a gorgeously bedecked Trojan priest called Chloreus, Camilla forgets her military priorities and goes in pursuit, burning “with a womanly desire for plunder and spoils” (782). Her defences down, Camilla is easily picked off by a nonentity called Arruns (whose own, weirdly anonymous, death shortly after is one of the eeriest passages in the Aeneid).

Camilla’s death seems in some respects like a crude replay of Dido’s departure from Virgil’s epic. In a similar way, a woman’s presence in this overwhelmingly male space of epic is condoned for as long as she acts like a stereotypical man, in Dido’s case as a head of state and dux, in Camilla’s as a fighter. But when women start to behave like (the ancient stereotype of) women, falling in love, acting and speaking irrationally, indulging their own selfish interests, distracted by beautiful superficialities, their time in epic is limited.

Of course Virgil, in this as in other respects, was well able to exploit the rigid generic expectations he inherited by contravening the rules for effect, and the intrinsic power of these female characters derives not least from their anomalous status in epic. “Ce qui fait l’expressivité, c’est la règle enfreinte”, as Joseph Hellegouarc’h^^ succinctly expressed it: classical literature is rule-bound, but drew much of its power of expression from that very fact. Ultimately, however, Virgil’s treatment of women in the Aeneid cannot fail but represent an endorsement of the misogyny enshrined in epic poetry, the most culturally authoritative of ancient poetic genres.

Returning to topic, a case in point is the detail that reminded me so strongly of Ancaeus, another mortal blow delivered in a significant location. Arruns’ spear strikes Camilla below her “exposed breast” (exserta papilla, 803): Camilla is portrayed as dressed for the fight like an Amazon, one breast uncovered, the archetypal ancient image of a fighting woman. (What made this the archetypal image is worth contemplating: see Adrienne Mayor,^* Chapter 5.) Again, the death of a warrior, and the location of the terminal wound, defines the character of the poem, Virgil’s conventional epic focusing on Camilla’s gender as she exits the poem, as Ovid had highlighted Ancaeus’s.

But what imperils those tidy categories just a little bit is the episode that immediately precedes Camilla’s death, again foregrounding gender/genre-defining concerns and indeed clearly setting the scene for what follows. The Etruscan leader Tarchon, mythical founder of Virgil’s hometown Mantua, rallies his cavalry against Camilla’s by hurling himself into the heart of the enemy forces, actually seizing hold of one of them, Venulus, and carrying him off bodily on his own horse. It is a spectacular exercise in male bravado: Tarchon grapples with Venulus while still on horseback, snapping off the point of Venulus’ spear and trying to drive it into his opponent’s throat. And as he gallops forward Tarchon berates his own men for their effeminacy in failing to resist Camilla. femina palantis agit atque haec agmina uertit?, 734, “Is a woman driving you off in disorder and routing these ranks?!”, he asks incredulously.

Virgil sums up this peculiar scene in a very suggestive way: uolat igneus aequore Tarchon,/ arma uirumque ferens, “Tarchon flies like fire over the plain, bearing the man and his weapons”, 746-7. Arma uirum, “Arms and the man”, deliberately recalls the opening words (and alternative title) of the Aeneid, and the central role it promises for the uir, the heroic man, the embodiment of uirtus. Back in Book 9 the Latin warrior Numanus Remulus in a vaunting speech had dismissed the Trojans as eastern effeminates, and there also the poet had implied that “toxic masculinity” was of the essence of his own poem: sinite arma uiris et cedite ferro, Numanus tells the Trojans, “Leave weapons to the men, and renounce the sword” (Aen. 9.620). “Virgil’s readers will take sinite arma uiris in the further sense of a command to leave the world of martial epic”, Philip Hardie comments.*^ Epic is male territory. If the Trojans are indeed inadequately male, as Numanus suggests, they have no role to play in it.

Well, Virgil’s narrative enacts a similar judgement on Camilla and Dido, expelling them when they start acting too much like women. But it is well said that Ovid finds almost all the material he needs to mock epic values already present in conventional examples of the genre like the Aeneid, working on details in Virgil or Homer that threaten the clear-cut definitions epic aspires to project. Ovid fashions Atalanta from Virgil’s Camilla, but Tarchon isn’t so different from Ancaeus, either. The hyperbole that makes Tarchon a character worthy of epic, superhuman and extraordinary, is also what makes Ancaeus’ overblown antics so absurd. What distinguishes the two is not much more than the license Ovid gives us to laugh at his creations (there is much of great value in the Aeneid, but very few laughs). Tarchon’s exploit carries a hint of the ritual of devotio, the last word in Roman military heroics whereby a general ensured victory by hurling himself into the midst of the enemy and vowing himself and the enemy to the gods of the underworld (for Tarchon and devotio see Matthew Leigh in this volume of Proceedings of the Virgil Society),^*^ which is a further disincentive to laugh at him.

Once again, though, especially if we happen to writing a chapter about it, we can say thank God for the Metamorphoses, and Ovid’s acute sense of the instability of epic bluster. After reading Ovid on Ancaeus, certainly, it’s hard to take Tarchon very seriously.

The Latin for “toxic masculinity”, by the way, is temeraria uirtus (Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.407).

^A. M. Keith, Engendering Rome: women in Latin epic (Cambridge, 2000);
*^P. R. Hardie, Virgil, Aeneid Book IX (Cambridge, 1994);
^*A. Mayor, The Amazons: lives and legends of warrior women across the ancient world (Princeton, 2014);
*N. Horsfall, “Epic and burlesque in Ovid, Metamorphoses VIII,” CJ 74 (1979), 319-32;
^*^M. Leigh, “Hopelessly devoted to you: traces of the Decii in Virgil’s Aeneid,” PVS 21 (1993), 89-110;
^^J. Hellegouarc’h, Le monosyllabe dans l’hexamètre latin; essai de métrique verbale (Paris, 1964);
**Ll. Morgan, “Child’s play: Ovid and his critics,” JRS 93 (2003), 66-91.

Virgil, hardly trying

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.