Way back last October I was helping Mary Beard and Peter Stothard introduce Virgil’s 9th Eclogue at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, gamely claiming that it was the best poem ever written. I’d still insist it was one of the very best Latin poems ever written, at least, up there with Odes 3.29.
What makes Eclogue 9 so great, to my mind (and in a couple of sentences), is that it takes the conventions of pastoral poetry and essentially shreds them. Pastoral (also known as bucolic) is a peculiar but very resilient genre of poetry. It describes a world populated by idealized herdsmen, living a carefree life in a sympathetic landscape. The Eclogues start off in typical fashion (1.1-3): “You, Tityrus, lie beneath the canopy of a spreading beech,/ and practice your woodland music on slender pipe.” The shade from the midday sun, and especially the song that we are told that Tityrus is singing about his lover Amaryllis, are classic pastoral motifs. But if I give you the whole of the first five lines of Eclogue 1, the nature of Virgil’s project is clearer:
Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
siluestrem tenui Musam meditaris auena;
nos patriae fines et dulcia linquimus arua.
nos patriam fugimus; tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra
formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas.
You, Tityrus, lie beneath the canopy of a spreading beech,
and practice your woodland music on slender pipe;
I am leaving my country’s boundaries and sweet fields.
I am an outcast from my country; you, Tityrus, at ease in the shade
teach the woods to echo “beautiful Amaryllis.”
It is characteristic of Virgil’s pastoral poetry that the blissful scene around Tityrus is set against the dire circumstances affecting the herdsman addressing him, Meliboeus, who has been expelled from his land. This sharpens the appeal of the pastoral dream, but it also betrays its fundamental fragility.
In Eclogue 9 two herdsmen are experiencing the same as Meliboeus in Eclogue 1. Moeris and Lycidas, the latter a younger man, wander through a shattered landscape, dispossessed of their land and unable to do any of the things pastoral characters are supposed to do: they cannot stop, cannot recline under a shady tree, and above all cannot sing. Indeed they cannot any longer remember the songs that they used to sing. In Eclogue 1 and 9, furthermore, the destruction of the pastoral world is associated by Virgil with contemporary events in Italy, especially the land confiscations (to resettle the demobilized troops) that followed the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. These pastoral poems are thus in some respects spectacularly artificial compositions (a lot of the impact of Eclogue 9 derives from its systematic reversal of one poem in particular, the 7th Idyll of the Greek poet Theocritus, his great predecessor in pastoral poetry, for example), but they also offer an urgent commentary on some of the darkest days in Rome’s history, the chaos that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44, in middle of which Virgil was composing these exquisite pastoral poems.
My main job at Cheltenham is to do some close reading: literally reading chunks of the poem out loud in Latin, but also drawing out what I think is most important about the detailed composition of the poetry. Preparing for this–and that includes working out with Mary and Peter what to emphasise (the event is only an hour long)–is excellent discipline: I always end up seeing much more even in very familiar poems than I had before. Occasionally enough to dash off a blog about it…
This time I came away thinking about prosody. Prosody is closely related to metre, in which readers of this blog will know I have a passing interest (here, here, and here, for example). Specifically, prosody concerns how the words of poetry are set in their metrical scheme: what kinds of word are allowed where, what pauses there should be in a line, etc.
One example of a prosodical issue in Eclogue 9 is the “bucolic diaeresis”, a habit of introducing a pause between sense units after the fourth foot of the (six-foot) hexameter line. It doesn’t sound too significant, but it was common in Theocritus’ pastoral poetry and, while less regular in the Eclogues, Virgil seems to reserve it for moments when he wants to evoke a pastoral atmosphere especially strongly: the “bucolic diaeresis” retains its bucolic associations, in other words.
At Eclogue 9.51-4, for instance, Moeris complains that he can’t remember songs any more:
omnia fert aetas, animum quoque; saepe ego longos
cantando puerum memini me condere soles:
nunc oblita mihi tot carmina…
Time takes everything away, the memory too; often I remember
as a boy putting the long days to rest with singing:
now I have forgotten so many songs…
There’s a reminiscence here of a celebrated poem by another Greek poet, Callimachus (translated by Cory), but what interests me is how, as Moeris recalls the days when pastoral was pastoral, when all day could be spent in carefree song, he introduces a “bucolic diaeresis”, the strong sense break between quoque and saepe. The prosody is evoking that long-lost pastoral past in its own right.
Sticking with the “bucolic diaeresis” for a moment, toward the end of the poem Lycidas makes a final desperate effort to persuade Moeris to stop and sing, in other words to recover the pastoral fantasy (9.59-62):
hinc adeo media est nobis uia; namque sepulcrum
incipit apparere Bianoris. hic, ubi densas
agricolae stringunt frondis, hic, Moeri, canamus:
hic haedos depone, tamen ueniemus in urbem.
From here on there is half our journey to go; look, the tomb
of Bianor is coming into sight. Here, where the farmers
are stripping the thick foliage, here, Moeris, let us sing:
put the kids down here; we will reach the City all the same.
Again, Lycidas’ pleas gain extra force by an intensification of the pastoral ambience. The first two lines imitate Theocritus Idyll 7 very closely, but each also has a strong “bucolic diaeresis”, uia || namque and Bianoris || hic. Lycidas is refusing to give up hope, and his prosody reflects that.
Moeris, the disillusioned older man, will have none of it. The poem ends with an abrupt couplet expressing his adamant refusal to sing (66-7):
desine plura, puer, et quod nunc instat agamus.
carmina tum melius, cum uenerit ipse, canemus.
Say no more, boy, and let’s get on with the matter at hand.
We shall sing songs better when the master comes.
(“The master” refers to Menalcas, a poet-figure whose absence from the scene earlier in the poem is a symptom of the disruption in the countryside. His return is a faint hope, one presumes.)
I’m going to focus on another detail of prosody here. In desine plura, puer Virgil does something naughty, introducing a syllable quantity that is strictly illegal. The seven syllables of the phrase should follow the pattern long-short-short long-short-short long, but the -er of puer, “boy,” is a short syllable. Now the rule that Virgil is breaking here is not an absolutely hard-and-fast one, but this is still a very rare license, only occurring when it does in the first syllable of a metrical foot, and normally only (as here) before the main caesura (a conventional pause) of a verse. Virgil will have been aware of similar moments in Homer’s hexameters and in other Greek poets, and sometimes his practice reflects an older pronunciation of the Latin words (syllables short in his day which had once been long). More often, though, and this is the case here with puer, Virgil simply places a short syllable where readers would firmly expect a long syllable to go. The best discussion of Virgil’s practice is in R. G. Austin’s wonderful commentaries on books of the Aeneid, for example his note at Aeneid 4.64 (pectoribus inhians), but Austin’s most important observation is that Virgil was sometimes clearly just exploiting the license for artistic effect: “Whatever the technical explanation of the matter, Virgil’s pleasure in using the device is obvious, and his skill as plain.”
So the question that occurred to me in Cheltenham was why Virgil had introduced a short-weight syllable at the end of desine plura puer.
I think it’s a very subtle, rather beautiful effect rounding off this pretty marvellous poem. In a sense Eclogue 9 is all about silence. The characters struggle, and fail, to remember the songs that are the quintessence of the pastoral pipedream: the pastoral world has lost its all-important music. We should note also that Virgil is coming to the conclusion of his own poetic collection: there is one more poem and the Eclogues will end, and since Virgil has encouraged us to see the Eclogues as themselves pastoral songs, the songs of pastoral figures in their idyllic surroundings (he refers to himself as Menalcas or Tityrus, names of herdsmen, for example, and Virgil’s poetry has a deliberately singsong quality), the fact that Virgil’s poetry falls silent at the end of the collection itself works as a protest against the forces that make the pastoral dream impossible, the civil wars pitting Roman against Roman.
Here Moeris, in the face of their overwhelming misfortunes, demands silence from the ever-optimistic Lycidas: “Say no more, boy.” In the subtlest way possible Virgil underlines that enforced silence, lengthening the pause at the caesura after puer with a syllable that falls ever-so-slightly too short. It might be just that phrase that is enhanced by that extended lack of sound, but desine plura, puer, in the context of a collection of pastoral songs, songs that conjure into existence a bewitching alternative existence, is a devastating statement. Within the poetry we “hear” momentarily the suppression of all poetry.
It is very, very technical stuff, sometimes, Roman poetry. But that can also be when it’s at its most gorgeously expressive.
Just because, here’s a section from the versified survey of metres by Terentianus Maurus, perhaps around A.D. 300, where he describes the bucolic diaeresis, followed by my best effort at an English version, aided by Cignolo’s edition (2002). At 2129-30 Terentianus translates the very beginning of Idyll 1 of Theocritus (“the child of Sicily”) into Latin (the Greek is Ἁδύ τι τὸ ψιθύρισμα καὶ ἁ πίτυς, αἰπόλε, τήνα,/ ἁ ποτὶ ταῖς παγαῖσι, μελίσδεται, ἁδὺ δὲ καὶ τύ/ συρίσδες, and both Greek lines have bucolic diaereses); and at 2133-4 he quotes the first two verses of Eclogue 3 of Maro (Virgil), exhibiting a nice opening example in an Meliboei. The “tetrameter” is the first four feet of the six-foot hexameter verse:
pastorale uolet cum quis componere carmen,
tetrametrum absoluat, cui portio demitur ima
quae solido a verbo poterit conectere uersum, 2125
bucolicon siquidem talem uoluere uocari.
plurimus hoc pollet Siculae telluris alumnus:
ne graecum immittam uersum, mutabo latinum,
‘dulce tibi pinus summurmurat, en tibi, pastor,
proxima fonticulis; et tu quoque dulcia pangis.’ 2130
iugiter hanc legem toto prope carmine seruat:
noster rarus eo pastor Maro, sed tamen inquit
‘dic mihi, Damoeta, cuium pecus? an Meliboei?
non, verum Aegonis: nuper mihi tradidit Aegon’.
If anyone wants to write a pastoral poem,
let them round off the tetrameter, to which a final section is lacking
which can complete the verse starting from an unbroken word,
since they have decided that such a verse be called “bucolic”.
A son of Sicily is best known for this:
so as not to introduce a Greek verse, I shall translate into Latin:
“The pine whispers sweetly, look, shepherd,
The one right by the springs; and you too make sweet songs.”
Theocritus observes this rule almost continually throughout his poetry;
for that reason our shepherd Maro, though sparing with it, still says
“‘Tell me, Damoetas, whose is the flock? Meliboeus’s?’
‘No, Aegon’s: Aegon handed it over to me the other day.’”
(Terentianus Maurus, De litteris de syllabis de metris 2123-2134)
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.
Behold! A map of the city and harbour of Cartagena, in southern Spain, for your delectation. And it may make things easier later on if you note carefully the position of the island of Escombrera or Escombreras, right at the bottom.
To the Romans Cartagena was known as Carthago Nova, New Carthage, and it was celebrated as one of the very finest natural harbours they knew. It’s easy enough to see why: in the sixteenth century the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria was in the habit of saying that the three most secure anchorages in the Mediterranean were “Cartagena and June and July.” Under the settled conditions of the Roman Empire Carthago Nova was best known for its production of the highest quality garum, fermented fish sauce, an evil-smelling staple of Roman cuisine. That island Escombrera was in antiquity Scombraria, named after the scombri or mackerel from which this garum was manufactured.
But Carthago Nova had had an intense and troubled history, the consequence of that splendid harbour. In 228/7BC a Carthaginian general called Hasdrubal (there were quite a few answering that description) established it as a base for Carthaginian operations in Spain: he named it simply “Carthage”, since Qarthadasht in Punic means “New City”; the Romans called it “New Carthage” to distinguish it from the Carthaginian mother city in North Africa.
New Carthage was the key to Spain, and in 209BC, during the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage, the 25-year old P. Cornelius Scipio (later and better known as Scipio Africanus the Elder) captured it with a lightning manoeuvre. Henceforth the advantage in Spain, and in the war as a whole, shifted decisively towards the Romans. In 202BC Scipio would crush Hannibal at the battle of Zama: the capture of Carthago Nova was felt to have been a critical step towards that ultimate Roman victory.
My own interest in New Carthage came from thinking about Virgil, not the most obvious route in. But I and Ronnie Shi (remember that name, Classicists, for she will go far) have been writing an article about the harbour in North Africa where Aeneas and his companions find refuge in Aeneid Book 1, after the storm brought about by scheming Juno has blown them off course. Here’s the Latin, and a translation, of Virgil’s description of the place (Aen. 1.159-69):
est in secessu longo locus: insula portum
efficit obiectu laterum, quibus omnis ab alto
frangitur inque sinus scindit sese unda reductos.
Hinc atque hinc uastae rupes geminique minantur
in caelum scopuli, quorum sub uertice late
aequora tuta silent; tum siluis scaena coruscis
desuper horrentique atrum nemus imminet umbra.
fronte sub adversa scopulis pendentibus antrum,
intus aquae dulces uiuoque sedilia saxo,
nympharum domus: hic fessas non uincula nauis
ulla tenent, unco non alligat ancora morsu.
There is a place in a deep inlet: an island forms a harbour by the barrier of its flanks; all the waves coming from the open sea are broken by it and divide as they flow into the distant recesses of the bay. From this side and that huge cliffs loom skywards, twin headlands, and beneath their peaks the broad waters are safe and still. Above rises a backdrop of shimmering woods, a dark forest with quivering shadows. Under the cliff-face straight ahead there was a cave of hanging rock, and within it fresh water and seats in the living rock, the home of nymphs: here no chains moor the weary ships nor anchor fasten them with its hooked grip.
Ronnie and I were intrigued by a detail in Servius’ late-antique commentary on the Aeneid, where he records that some readers wanted to see Carthago Nova, in Spain, behind this description of a harbour near the original Carthage, in Africa. This struck us as quite an exciting idea: a hint of New Carthage at this point of the poem would introduce lots of interesting associations with Scipio and the Second Punic War, the life-and-death struggle between Carthage and Rome that is very much in the air as the ancestral founders of the two cities, Dido and Aeneas, meet and fall in love.
I won’t inflict the details of our argument on you. That pleasure can be reserved until we persuade a journal to accept it, crossed fingers. But I will share just one of the details that persuaded us Servius might have a point–that ancient readers could have picked up a hint of Carthago Nova in Virgil’s African harbour.
At the heart of our argument are resemblances between Virgil’s poetic harbour and descriptions of Carthago Nova in the historians Polybius and Livy. Their accounts are very similar, Livy imitating Polybius, so I’ll just quote Polybius (10.10.1-3). But one clear point of similarity between Polybius’ Carthago Nova and Virgil’s Carthage should be the island that sits in the mouth of the harbour and protects it from the effects of the open sea:
(New Carthage) lies halfway down the coast of Spain in an inlet facing the southwest wind. The inlet is about twenty stades in depth and about ten in breadth at its entrance. The whole inlet serves as a harbour for the following reason. At its mouth lies an island which leaves only a narrow channel on either side into the inlet, and as this stands in the way of the waves from the sea, the whole inlet is calm, except when south-westerlies blow on both channels and raise billows.
It seems clear to us that ancient readers of Virgil would have been reminded of the Spanish port when reading about the African one, although there’s a question where readers of the Aeneid would have got their idea of the layout of Carthago Nova. In Virgil’s great predecessor Q. Ennius, we think, rather than Polybius or Livy, but that’s another story. However, there’s a fascinating wrinkle here that takes us back to the map at the top of this post. At the beginning I called your attention to the island of Escombrera/Scombraria. That’s the island Polybius describes as sitting in the mouth of the harbour at Carthago Nova, and of course it’s that island-in-the-mouth that’s a key point of contact between Virgil and the historical descriptions of Carthago Nova.
But look at the map and it’s as clear as your nose that Escombrera doesn’t sit in the mouth of Carthago Nova harbour, or anywhere near it: in fact it lies a good three miles away.
Now, this isn’t a problem for our argument, because all we need to establish is that Virgil’s harbour looked like (what Virgil’s readers thought) Carthago Nova looked like, and Virgil’s readers would have got their idea of the place not from maps, which in our sense the Romans didn’t really have, but from descriptions in authors like Ennius. But I still think it’s fascinating that Polybius and Livy could have got it so wrong, that the ancient historical record of a location as important as Carthago Nova was so spectacularly inaccurate.
Now the obvious thing this tells us is that the Romans had an extremely limited grasp of geography. It’s clear from elsewhere in Livy’s history, for instance, that readers weren’t interested, and historians made little attempt to interest them, in geographical precision. This isn’t just another example of the practical Romans’ notorious suspicion of the intellect: yes, the Greeks were more into the theory of geography (a Greek word, after all), but both Greeks and Romans lacked some of the basic technical resources that allow the kind of accurate mapmaking we’re familiar with.
Perhaps it’s safer to say, though, that the geographical knowledge on show here is more sketchy than straightforwardly bad. We do, in fact, have an ancient account which places Escombrera in its true position: the Greek writer Strabo, in the course of a survey of the Spanish seaboard, mentions Carthago Nova, “by far the most powerful of all the cities in this country,” and “the Island of Heracles, which they call Scombraria, from the mackerel caught there, from which the best fish-sauce is prepared. It is 24 stadia distant from New Carthage.” A stadion was equivalent to about an eighth of a Roman mile, so that’s about right. In general the ancients knew as much as they needed to know about their physical surroundings: there might even be pockets of quite impressive accuracy, but the pieces were never joined up.
Proving that the Romans were rubbish at geography is quite satisfying, I have to admit. But what I find most interesting, exciting even, about all this is something a bit different. I mentioned earlier the question of which text it was in which Virgil’s readers found what they knew about Carthago Nova. We suspect Ennius’ great national epic the Annales, which will certainly have given space to Scipio’s glorious capture of the city. Reaching that conclusion involves some pretty dry research comparing possible earlier accounts to decide who influenced whom: there’s an appropriately forbidding German word for the exercise, Quellenforschung, sources-research. But in this case, it seems to me, Quellenforschung achieves something remarkable, capturing an individual human experience at a remove of well over two thousand years.
What on earth am I talking about?
Well, it seems clear how the error in the historical record about the position of Escombrera crept in. Because, as a recent Spanish book all about the island explains, “[Viewed] from the innermost part of the bay of Cartagena, the island of Escombreras seems to close off the mouth of the harbour almost completely.” In other words, seen from a vantage point at the southern edge of the city, the island does look like it sits squarely in the mouth of the harbour, and it follows that that is where the original source behind Polybius, Livy, and indirectly Virgil (who for various reasons is most likely someone even earlier than Q. Ennius), must have been standing when they noted down their entirely false eyewitness impression.
It may at a stretch have been Polybius himself, who certainly visited Carthago Nova in the second century BC. But there’s reason to believe that Polybius was mainly dependent for his account of the city on earlier sources. On whom precisely is a matter of speculation, but there seem to be four contenders: Scipio Africanus himself, who wrote a letter about his campaigns in Spain and at Carthago Nova to king Philip V of Macedon (Polybius 10.9.3); C. Laelius, a close friend of Scipio and an important informant of Polybius (Polybius 10.3.2); or most likely of all, one of two historians of whose work very little survives, but whom we know Polybius used extensively in his own history, Q. Fabius Pictor and Silenus.
Q. Fabius Pictor is an important figure in Roman literature, the very first Roman historian, although his history of Rome was, originally at least, written in Greek, the language of such intellectual pursuits as history writing and geography. Fabius would be a strong candidate for our eyewitness if his history extended down as far as 209BC, the date of the capture of Carthago Nova, and that is far from certain. (To be honest, very little is certain about Q. Fabius Pictor.) Fabius was exceptionally well-connected on the Roman political scene, a member of one of the most prestigious families in a very prestige-obsessed city, and second cousin of one of Hannibal’s most effective opponents, Q. Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, known for his tactics as Cunctator, “the Delayer”. Fabius Pictor had a political career himself, it seems, before turning to writing history with the advantage of his extensive insider knowledge; the section of his history devoted to the Punic Wars adopted a predictably pro-Roman stance.
But my candidate for the man staring out to sea is the Greek historian Silenus. Probably a native of the city of Caleacte in Sicily, Silenus was part of Hannibal’s retinue during his famous fifteen-year campaign in Italy, which started with Hannibal’s departure from Carthago Nova in 218BC, “recording the actions of Hannibal with great diligence,” according to Cicero (Div. 1.49) as he inflicted such catastrophic defeats on the Romans as Trasimene and Cannae. Among other things, the fragments of Fabius and Silenus suggest interesting ways in which the Romans and Carthaginians competed for hearts and minds, both for example keen to associate their side of the war with the hero-god Heracles/Hercules/Melqart, a figure worshipped across the Mediterranean and especially popular among the non-Roman peoples of the Italian peninsula, whose sympathies were of crucial importance in the conflict.
So was it Silenus standing there gazing out at Escombrera in the spring of 218BC? It is the very purest speculation, but one thing that makes me want to believe it is that Strabo (3.5.7) refers to Silenus as “something of an idiotes” on geographical matters, and while the Greek word idiotes doesn’t quite mean “idiot”, it comes pretty close to “hopeless amateur”.
That would be a fair assessment of the original source of the information about the location of Escombrera.