The Two Voices of Virgil's Aeneid



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The Two Voices of Virgil's Aeneid
Adam Parry (from Arion 2, no. 4 Winter 1963)

I want to begin with the particular. Sometimes we come upon a short passage in a poetic work we know well, a passage we have never particularly noticed before, and all at once, as a kind of epiphany, the essential mood of the author seems to be contained in it. Here is a candidate for such a passage in the Aeneid. There is at the end of book 7 a kind of Catalogue of Ships, a muster or roll call of the Latin leaders and their forces as they are arrayed against Aeneas in the long war which occupies the last books of the poem. One of these leaders is a quite obscure figure named Umbro. The Catalogue is an Homeric form, and Virgil here exploits it in the Homeric fashion, drawing out a ringing sense of power from place-names, epithets of landscape and valor, names of heroes. He endeavors further, again in the Homeric fashion, to give individuality within the sense of multitude by singling out some characteristic of each Latin warrior, a device the Aeneid has yet more need of than the Iliad, since Virgil has behind him no tradition of Latin song which could give the audience a previous familiarity with the heroes he names.

So Umbro comes from the Marruvian people, and he is most valiant: fortissimus Umbro. And he is a priest, who possesses the art of shedding sleep over fierce serpents. But-and here we catch the Homeric pathos-his herbs and his incantation could not save him, wounded by the Dardanian spear. Virgil then closes the brief scene with a beautiful lamentation:

For you the grove of Angitia mourned, and Fucinus' glassy waters,


And the clear lakes.

Te nemus Angitiae, vitrea te Fucinus unda,


Te liquidi flevere lacus.

If we could understand wholly the reasons for this lamentation, so elaborate within its brevity, and what makes it so poignant, and why it is so Virgilian, we should, I think, have grasped much of Virgil's art. First, something I can talk about a little but not translate, there is the absolute mastery of rhetoric. We have a tricolon, three successive noun phrases, here in asyndeton, that is, with no grammatical connectives, joined to one verb, flevere, mourned; and this device combined with apostrophe: the dead warrior is suddenly addressed in the second person. The pronoun te, you, is repeated thrice, each time in the beginning of one of the three elements of the tricolon, a repetition we call anaphora. So much is developed but standard rhetoric. Virgil's mastery consists not in that, but in the subtle variations of it we see here. The three nouns are all a little different. The first is a grove with the name of the goddess to whom it is sacred in the possessive singular: nemus Angitiae, the grove of Angina. The second is the name of a nearby lake, Fucinus, qualified by a noun and adjective: Fucinus with glassy wave, vitrea Fucinus unda. The third, beginning another hexameter line, is a common noun lacus, lakes, in the plural, with an adjective only: liquidi lacus, transparent lakes. The first two nouns are opposed to the third by being names of places. The second and third are opposed to the first by having adjectives and by having adjective and noun separated, -whereas the grove of Angitia, nemus Angitiae, comes together. But the first and third are also opposed to the second by the variation of the anaphora: te, you, embodying the directness of lamentation, begins the first phrase: Te nemus Angitiae. Te is repeated in the second phrase, but its directness is modulated, softened, by its coming second in the phrase, after the adjective vitrea, glassy: vitrea te Fucinus unda. Then in the third phrase, the tonic note is struck again: Te liquidi flevere lacus. And finally, the verse accent falls on the first te and the third, but not on the second:

Te nemus Angitiae, vitrea te Fucinus unda,
Te liquidi flevere lacus.
If this analysis seems too microcosmic, let me say that Virgil may not be, surely is not, the greatest poet who ever lived; but that in this mastery of the disposition of words within a formal pattern, he has no rivals. The effect of the variation within the symmetry is first to establish a rhythm, whose value might finally have to be analyzed in musical terms; and second, to add emotion to the lines. The tricolon with anaphora is a strong formal device, appropriate to the sounds of public lamentation. The variations, like a gentle yielding within the firm tripartite structure, add the note of genuine grief, invest the far-off place names with something of what used to be called the lyric cry.

For it is the place-names in this passage that show us how Virgil has departed from his Homeric model. The Homeric lines the commentators cite here occur in the Catalogue of the Trojans at the end of book 2 of the Iliad: "The forces from Mysia were led by Chromius and by Ennomus, a diviner of birds. But his birds did not keep him from black death. He was to be slain by the hands of swift Achilles at the river, where many another Trojan fell." The moment of death, and the great slaughter of the Trojans when Achilles returned to battle, is the picture we are left with.

Or again this, from the fifth book of the Iliad: "Menelaus son of Atreus caught with his sharp spear Strophius' son Scamandnius, a great hunter. Artemis herself had taught him how to down all the wildlife that the woods nourish. But the huntress goddess Artemis did him no good then, nor did his mastery with the bow for which he was so famous. The son of Atreus, killer Menelaus, struck him with the spear as he fled before him, right between the shoulders, and drove the point out through his chest. And he fell forward, and his armor rang as he fell." Again, and more emphatically in a typical passage such as this, the bitter irony of Homer leaves us with the image of the instant death of the man: the glory of Scamandrius when he lived and was famed as a hunter, then the uselessness of what he was as death comes upon him.

Virgil in the lines about Umbro imitates these scenes. But the image he leaves us with is not a fallen warrior, but a mourning landscape. The dramatic preoccupation of Homer with the single man and the single instant of time gives way to an echoing appeal to the Italian countryside, and an appeal strengthened in wholly un-Homeric fashion by historical associations.

The place-names invoked by Virgil, Marruvium, Lake Fucinus, the grove of the goddess Angitia, are from the Marsian country, hill country to the east of Rome, where a few generations earlier than Virgil a tough and warlike Italian people, the Marsi, had lived in independence, as Roman allies. In the Italian or Marsic war of 91-88 B.C., they had been defeated by Rome, and though they had gained citizenship, they had effectively lost their independence. To Virgil, this people represented the original Italian stock. His feeling for them had something in common with what Americans have felt for the American Indian. They were somehow more Italian than the Romans themselves. Proud, independent, with local traditions hallowed by the names they had given to the countryside, they succumbed inevitably to the expansion of Roman power. The explicit message of the Aeneid claims that Rome was a happy reconciliation of the natural virtues of the local Italian peoples and the civilized might of the Trojans who came to found the new city. But the tragic movement of the last books of the poem carries a different suggestion: that the formation of Rome's empire involved the loss of the pristine purity of Italy. Thus the plot of the closing books of the poem centers on Turnus, Aeneas's antagonist, who is made the embodiment of a simple valor and love of honor which cannot survive the complex forces of civilization.

In this light we can understand the form which the lamentation for Umbro takes. Umbro himself is not important. He is no more than a made-up name. The real pathos is for the places that mourn him. They are the true victims of Aeneas's war, and in saying that they weep, Virgil calls on us to weep for what to his mind made an earlier Italy fresh and true.

The lamentation of the ancient hallowed places of the Marsi strikes a characteristic Virgilian note of melancholy and nostalgia, a note produced by the personal accents of sorrow over human and heroic values lost. But equally characteristic is the aesthetic resolution of the lines. The lament is presented to us as an object of artistic contemplation. By this I mean not simply that the lines are beautiful, for that is no distinguishing feature of Virgil. Nor do I refer to the vulgar concepts of "word-painting" or "scenic values," concepts often invoked in Virgilian criticism. The unexpected epithets vitrea, glassy, and liquidi, clear, do not, I think, "paint a picture" for us. But they do create a sense of sublimation, a conscious feeling that the raw emotions of grief have been subsumed in an artistic finality of vision. Not only the death of Umbro but also the loss of Italy itself is at last replaced by an image of bright and clear waters. The word vitrea in the middle of the lamentation is particularly noteworthy, for its connotations are those of an artifact. It is as if Virgil were telling us that the way to resolve our personal sorrow over the losses of history is to regard these losses in the same mood as we would a beautifully wrought vessel of clear glass. The perfection of the lines itself imposes a kind of artistic detachment, and we are put in the position of Aeneas himself, as he sees, in Carthage, the destruction of Troy represented as paintings in a gallery of art. These paintings remind Aeneas of all that has been, of the tears of human things; and at the same time, Virgil tells us, they fill him with hope. In a larger way, the whole poem is such a painting. It is about history, but its purpose is not to tell us that history is good, or for that matter that it is bad. Its purpose is rather to impose on us an attitude that can take into account all in history that is both good and bad, and can regard it with the purer emotions of artistic detachment, so that we are given a higher consolation, and sorrow itself becomes a thing to be desired.

Let us now consider the poem from a wider point of view. Here we take care not to let orthodox interpretations of the Aeneid obscure our sense of what it really is. The nostalgia for the heroic and Latin past, the pervasive sadness, the regretful sense of the limitations of human action in a world where you've got to end up on the right side or perish, the frequent elegiac note so apparently uncalled for in a panegyric of Roman greatness-like the passage at the end of book 5 which describes the drowning of the good pilot Palinurus in dark and forgetful waters just before the Trojans reach Italy-the continual opposition of a personal voice which comes to us as if it were Virgil's own to the public voice of Roman success: all this I think is felt by every attentive reader of the poem. But most readers, in making a final judgment on the Aeneid, feel nonetheless constrained to put forth a hypothetical "Roman reader" whose eyes were quite unused to the melting mood. He would have taken the poem ultimately as a great work of Augustan propaganda, clapped his hands when Aeneas abandons the overemotional Dido, and approved with little qualification the steady march of the Roman state to world dominion and the Principate of Augustus as we see these institutions mirrored in Anchises' speech in book 6 and in Juno's renunciation in book 12. This, we are told, is how we should read the poem. After all, what was Augustus giving Virgil all those gold-pieces for?

So Mr. Kevin Guinach, the Rinehart translator, after putting forth these views, adds: "From this it must not be inferred that Virgil was a hireling. . . . It is fairer to suppose that he was an ardent admirer of the First Citizen and his policies, and sought to promote the reconstruction that Augustus had in mind." Apropos of Dido he says: "The ancient Romans did not read this episode as tearfully as we do. . . . From the Roman point of view, Dido was the aggressor in her marriage to Aeneas, an intolerable assumption of a male prerogative." Moreover, he tells us, the Roman would have condemned her for breaking her vow to her first husband, dead these many years. Consider the case of Vestal Virgins....
But what, on the simple glorification of Rome interpretation, do we make of some of the finest passages of the Aeneid? What we find, again and again, is not a sense of triumph, but a sense of loss. Consider the three lines at the end of book 2 which describe Aeneas's attempts to embrace the ghost of his wife:

Three times I tried to put my arms around her


And three times her image fled my arms' embrace,
As light as the winds; as fleeting as a dream.

Like the lines about the fallen warrior, these lines derive from an earlier literary tradition. And again a comparison with this tradition will tell us something about the Aeneid. Virgil has two Homeric passages in mind, one in the twenty-third book of the Iliad where Achilles tries to embrace the hollow wraith of Patroclus:

So spoke Achilles, and reached for him, but could not
seize him, and the spirit went underground, like vapor,
with a thin cry. And Achilles started awake, in amazement,
and drove his hands together, and spoke, and his words were sorrowful:
Ah me! even in the house of Hades there is left something of us,
a soul and an image, but there is no real heart of life in it!

And a passage from the eleventh book of the Odyssey, where Odysseus in the Underworld attempts to embrace the shade of his mother:

I bit my lip
rising perplexed, with longing to embrace her,
and tried three times, but she went sifting through my arms, impalpable
as shadows are, and wavering like a dream.
And this embittered all the pain I bore.

So the Virgilian passage first of all serves to reinforce the identification, operative throughout the poem, of Aeneas with the heroes of Homer. But the identification only sets in relief the differences. Virgil's lines are characteristic of the whole mood of his poem, the sadness, the loss, the frustration, the sense of the insubstantiality of what could be palpable and satisfying. Virgil emphasizes the image-the word imago ends the second line; and we can think of countless like passages, such as the appearance of Aeneas's mother in book 1, not recognized until after she has fled. The Homeric heroes are made angry by these signs of what lies beyond our physical existence. Achilles drives his hands together, Odysseus is embittered that this kind of frustration should be added to his troubles. The Homeric hero, however beleaguered by fate, loves and enjoys the warmth of life, and his course of action includes a protest against the evanescence of mortality. But the sense of emptiness is the very heart of the Virgilian mood. After the three lines I have quoted, Aeneas goes on simply:

The night was over; I went back to my comrades.

And the third of the three lines

As light as the winds, as fleeting as a dream.

receives a delicate emphasis, partly due to the two different words for as



Par levibus ventis, volucriique simillima somno

that blurs the contours of our waking senses and gives the line a force of poignant resignation absent from both Homeric passages.

One other passage here, which I will speak of again later on. Aeneas comforts his men after the storm in book 1 with a famous phrase:

Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.

Some day perhaps remembering this too will be a pleasure.

Lifted again from the Odyssey. But the Homeric line is quite unmemorable. Odysseus says to his men that some day their troubles now will be a memory. He means only, they will be in the past, don't be overcome by them now. Virgil has made one clear change: the word iuvabit: it will be a pleasure, which makes a common-place idea into a profoundly touching one. Not I would insist, because Virgil is a greater poet, but because the kind of sentiment that stands out in the Aeneid is different from the kind that stands out in the Odyssey.

How much in general is Aeneas like the Greek heroes? We know from the first line that he is cast in the role of Achilles and Odysseus:

Arms and the man I sing.

The arms are of course the Iliad, the man is the Odyssey. And the first six books of the Aeneid retrace the wanderings of Odysseus, the wars of the last six books follow the example of the Iliad. But the examples are not followed closely. The Odyssey goes on after its first line to tell us about the single man Odysseus; the Iliad goes on to describe the quarrel that was the first step in the tragedy of Achilles. The Aeneid moves from Aeneas straightway to something larger than himself. Rome:

that man who was tossed about on land and sea


and suffered much in war until
he built his city, brought the gods to Latium
from whence the Alban Fathers, the towering walls of Rome.

Aeneas from the start is absorbed in his own destiny, a destiny which does not ultimately relate to him, but to something later, larger, and less personal: the high walls of Rome, stony and grand, the Augustan Empire. And throughout he has no choice. Aeneas never asserts himself like Odysseus. He is always the victim of forces greater than himself, and the one lesson he must learn is, not to resist them. The second book of the poem drills him thoroughly in this lesson. The word Aeneas keeps using, as he tells of the night Troy fell, is obstipui: I was dumbfounded, shocked into silence. Again and again he tries to assert himself, to act as a hero, and again and again he falls. He leads a band of desperate Trojans against the Greeks, but it all turns sour. The Trojans dress up as Greeks, an unheroic stratagem which works for a while, but then their own countrymen mistake them, and Trojans slaughter each other, while Aeneas himself ends up on the roof of Priam's palace, passive spectator of the terrible violations within. A key passage is the one in which Aeneas is about to kill Helen. At least the personal, if not entirely heroic, emotion of revenge can be satisfied. But his mother stops him, not with a personal plea, as Athena checks Achilles in the Iliad, but by revealing for an instant the gods at work destroying the city. Against such overwhelming forces as these, individual feeling has no place. Aeneas must do the right thing, the thing destiny demands, and sneak away from Troy.

One of the effects, then, of the epic identifications of Aeneas is ironic contrast: he is cast in a role which it is his tragedy not to be able to fulfill. Let us now consider another kind of identification: the historical ones. As well as being cast as Odysseus and Achilles, Aeneas has to be the emperor Augustus. Of many passages, this one in the third book particularly contributes to setting up the connection. Aeneas and his men coast along the western shore of Greece and stop at Actium, where there is a temple of Apollo. There they hold games and Aeneas fastens to the door of the temple spoils taken from the Greeks with the inscription THESE ARMS FROM THE GREEK VICTORS. The reason for this action in this place is that Augustus had won his great victory over Antony and Cleopatra a few years earlier at Actium. He had instituted games in honor of his victory, and he liked to identify himself with Apollo. Moreover THE GREEK VICTORS, who are now vanquished, represent the armies of Antony, who recruited his forces from the eastern Mediterranean, whereas Augustus made himself the champion of Italy. So that the victory Aeneas somewhat illogically claims here by dedicating Greek spoils prefigures the victory that was to establish the power of Augustus.

Some striking verbal parallels confirm the connection; and give us as well insight into Virgil's technique. At the beginning of book 3, Aeneas sets sail from Troy.

I am borne forth an exile onto the high seas
With my comrades, my son, the Penates and the Great Gods.

Cum sociis natoque Penatibus et Magnis Dis.

The exact meaning of the phrase the Penates and the Great Gods is obscure. But it is clear that they are some sort of cult statues of Troy, destined to become cult statues of the New Troy, or Rome. The oddity of the phrase in fact helps us to remember it-the Romans liked their religious language to be obscure-and so does its remarkable thudding rhythm: Penatibus et Magnis Dis. This is Aeneas in his sacral character as bearer of the divine charter of Troy.

At the end of book 8, Vulcan makes a shield for Aeneas, and on it are engraved scenes from subsequent Roman history. One of these scenes depicts the Battle of Actium:

On one side stands Augustus Caesar leading Italians into battle,
With the Fathers (i.e., the Senate), the People, the Penates and the Great Gods.

Cum patribus populoque, Penatibus et Magnis Dis.

Aeneas's shield shows the future version of himself.

But Aeneas is not just Augustus. There is also the possibility of his being Augustus's bitter enemy, Mark Antony. Such is the identification we are led to make when, in the fourth book, he has become the consort of Dido, queen of Carthage. Thus the contemptuous description of him by Iarbas, his rival for Dido's love, "that Paris with his effeminate retinue, " closely matches the image of Antony and Cleopatra with their corrupt eastern armies which Augustus created for Roman morale.

And Dido is Cleopatra. When she is about to die, she is said to be pale with imminent death, pallida morte futura. Cleopatra, in her own person, is described on Aeneas's shield in book 8 as paling before imminent death, pallentem morte futura.

To understand the meaning in the poem of these historical identifications, we must first consider more fully the figure of Aeneas. We learn from the second line of the poem that he is a man exiled by fate, fato profugus, and we soon learn that fate has for Aeneas implications that go beyond his personal journey through life. He is a man blessed-or is it cursed?-with a mission. The mission is no less than to be the founder of the most powerful state known to history; and so his every act and his every passion, all that he does, all that he feels and all that happens to him is in the light or under the shadow of this immense prophetic future of which he, by no choice of his own, is the representative elected by the gods. Every experience he passes through, therefore, has a significance greater than the events of an ordinary man's life could possibly have. Every place he visits acquires an eternal fame of one kind or another. Every action he performs, every word he speaks, is fraught with consequences of which he himself can only dimly perceive the enormity.

This sense of pregnant greatness in every detail of experience is impressed on us too by the rhetorical exaggeration which pervades the Aeneid, and by the unrealism of many of its incidents. Juno's wrath in book I is magnified far beyond Poseidon's resentment in the Odyssey; Athena's punishment of the lesser Ajax, which Juno would like to inflict upon Aeneas, is enlarged into a cosmic destruction. When there are storms, the waves rise up and lash the heavens. Dido is supposed to have arrived in Africa not long before with a small band of refugees; but already the construction of a tremendous city-the later Carthage, of course-can be seen, complete with temples and art-galleries. Aeneas is moving through a world where everything is a symbol of something larger than itself. The layers of literary and historical allusion reinforce this sense of expansion in space and time which every monumental hexameter verse imposes on the reader.

The potentialities of ages and empires are alive in the smallest details of the Aeneid, and Aeneas has been made into the keystone of it all. The inconceivable destiny of Rome rests upon his shoulders. The Aeneid can give a literal meaning to that cliché. So line 32 of the first book:

Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem

It was a thing of so much weight to found the Roman race.

Aeneas can only leave Troy by carrying his aged father upon his shoulders. And Anchises is more than Aeneas's father. He is the burden of destiny itself. Thus in book 6 it is he who unfolds the panorama of Roman history to his son who has descended to the Nether World to hear him. And at the end of book 8, Virgil insists on Aeneas's role as bearer of destiny. The shield which Vulcan makes for him corresponds to the one he made for Achilles in the Iliad. Only Achilles' shield was adorned with generic pictures of life: a city at peace, a city at war, a scene of harvest, a scene of dancing, and so on. Aeneas's shield is adorned with scenes from Roman history, history which is future to him-it is here that we read of Augustus at the Battle of Actium-and as he puts it on, Virgil says:

He marvels at the scenes, events unknown to him,


And lays upon his shoulder the fame and fate of his descendants

Attollens umero famamque et fata nepotum.

The burden may well be a heavy one to bear, particularly if the bearer of it himself is permitted only an occasional prophetic glimpse into its meaning. And when such a glimpse is permitted him, it is likely to be anything but reassuring.

Bella, horrida bella


Wars, hideous wars!
the Sibyl shrieks at him when he questions her in book 6.

"You will get to Latium, all right," she tells him, "but you will wish you had never come!" Sed non et venisse volent. "Go, seek your Italy!" Dido tells him, and then prophesies: "Let him beg for help in his own land, and when he has accepted the terms of a shameful peace, let him not enjoy his realm, or that light he has prayed for, but

fall before his time, and lie unburied on the sands

Sed cadat ante diem mediaque inhumatus harena,

whereby Aeneas is included in an almost obsessively recurrent series of images of disgraceful and nameless death.

Labor, ignorance and suffering are Aeneas's most faithful companions on his journey to Rome. And at once to intensify his own suffering and lack of fulfillment and to magnify the destiny he is serving, Aeneas must witness the happiness and success of others. In the third book he visits his kinsman Helenus in Epirus, and there he sees a copy of Troy, laid out in miniature. Aeneas is at first hopeful as he asks the prophetic Helenus for advice: "Now tell me, for I have divine sanction for all I do, and the gods have promised me a happy course, tell me the labors I must undergo, and the dangers I must avoid." But a little later, when Anchises enters, and he must set sail again, Aeneas falls into despair: "May you live happy, for your destiny is accomplished; but we are called from one fate to another . . . You have peace, you have no need to plow up the sea and follow forever the forever receding shores of Italy."



Arva neque Ausoniae semper cedentia retro
Quaerenda.

What this and other like passages impress upon us is something subtly at variance with the stated theme of the poem. Instead of an arduous but certain journey to a fixed and glorious goal, there arises, and gathers strength, a suggestion that the true end of the Trojan and Roman labors will never arrive. It is not that Aeneas will literally never arrive in Latium, found a city, and win his wars. That is as certain as it is that Odysseus will return to Ithaca. But everything in the Odyssey prepares us for a fuller end to Odysseus's labors: we are made always to expect his reinstatement in kingship, home, honor and happiness. In the Aeneid every prophecy and every episode prepares us for the contrary: Aeneas's end, it is suggested, will see him as far from his fulfillment as his beginning. This other Italy will never cease receding into the distance.

There is another dimension to Aeneas's suffering as the bearer of too vast a destiny Aeneas cannot live his own life. An agent of powers at once high and impersonal, he is successively denied all the attributes of a hero, and even of a man. His every utterance perforce contains a note of history, rather than of individuality He cannot be himself, because he is wired for sound for all the centuries to come, a fact that is reflected in the speeches of the Aeneid. The sonorous lines tend to come out as perfect epigrams, ready to be lifted out of their context and applied to an indefinite number of parallel situations. Aeneas arrives in Carthage and sees the busy construction of the city.

0 fortunate you, whose walls already rise!


he cries out.
0 fortunati, quorum iam moenia surgunt!

That line is memorable, too memorable perhaps for spontaneity. What Virgil has done is to turn to peculiar account what is at once the weakness and the glory of much of Latin verse: its monumentality, and its concomitant lack of dramatic illusion.

But Aeneas's failure as a hero goes deeper than the formality of his speech. As he makes his way through the first six books, we see him successively divested of every personal quality which makes a man into a hero. We have seen how the weight of his mission is made to overwhelm him at the very beginning of the poem. In the second book, he is in a situation which above all calls for self-sacrifice in the heat of battle. But this is precisely what he is kept from doing. Hector appears to him in a dream and tells him not to die for his country, but to flee. "For if Troy could have been saved," the ghost says almost with condescension, my right arm would have saved it. " We understand that Aeneas's words in the first book, when he was overwhelmed by the storm, have a deeper meaning than the parallel lines of the Odyssey: "0 thrice and four times happy, you who fell at Troy!" Odysseus spoke out of a momentary despair. Aeneas's words are true for all his life. His personal ties too are not kept intact: in his haste to get his father and the state gods out of Troy, he leaves his wife behind; and when he returns to fetch her, she is an empty phantom, who can comfort him only with another prophecy.

But the most dramatic episode and the one in which Aeneas most loses his claims to heroism is the fourth book. The tragedy of Dido is lucid and deeply moving. But the judgment it leads us to make on Aeneas needs some comment. Generations of Latin teachers have felt it necessary to defend Aeneas from the charge of having been a cad. Modern readers are romantic, but a Roman reader would have known that Aeneas did the right thing. So the student is asked to forsake his own experience of the poem for that of a hypothetical Roman. Another theory is that Virgil somehow fell in love with, and was carried away by, his own heroine. But we cannot explain Virgil by assuming that he did not intend to write as he did. It is clear that on the contrary Virgil deliberately presented Dido as a heroine, and Aeneas as an inglorious deserter. Dido's speeches are passionate, and, in their operatic way, ring utterly true. Aeneas can apologize only by urging that his will is not his own. "If I had had my way," he tells her, "I would never have left Troy to come here at all. " "I would never have fallen in love with you in the first place," he seems to mean. "I follow Italy not of my own choice." Italiam non sponte sequor. Of course he is right. Aeneas's will is not his own, and the episode in Carthage is his last attempt to assert himself as an individual and not as the agent of an institution. And in his failure, he loses his claim even to the humbler of the heroic virtues. For piety, in the Roman sense, meant devotion to persons as well as the state. "Unhappy Dido!" the queen about to die cries out, "is it now his impious deeds become clear to you? They should have before, when you made him your partner in rule. See now his pledge of faith, this man who carries about his gods, and his ancient father on his back." For pious Aeneas, as he is called, and calls himself, throughout, cannot maintain even his piety in a personal way.

Two later passages serve to emphasize this. At the beginning of the fifth book, the Trojans sail to Italy, troubled by the death-fires they see back in Carthage. "For they knew what a woman is capable of, when insane with the grief of her love dishonored. " The Latin is perhaps more blunt. Dido's love was literally defiled, polluto amore, and Aeneas is its defiler. Later, in the Underworld in book 6, Aeneas meets Dido. He wants reconciliation now, and begs forgiveness. "I did not know the strength of your love for me," he says. Again the implication is clear. Aeneas did not know, because he could not feel the same love for her; because he is not master of himself, but the servant of an abstract destiny. Dido, speechless in anger, turns away. Aeneas is modelled on Odysseus here, and Dido's shade is the shade of Ajax in book 11 of the Odyssey. Virgil strengthens the emotions this scene creates in us by recalling the one scene in the Odyssey where Odysseus meets a hero greater than himself, and is put to shame by his silence.

But Dido, we remember, is also Cleopatra, and we must consider the meaning of that identification. Dido-Cleopatra is the sworn enemy of Rome:

Rise thou forth from my bones, some avenger!

Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor!

invoking the fell shades of Hannibal; but she is a tragic heroine. Aeneas, on the other hand, could have been, and for a while seemed to be, Antony, losing a world for love. Only he must in the end be Augustus, losing love and honor for a dubious world. The Aeneid, the supposed panegyric of Augustus and great propaganda-piece of the new regime, has turned into something quite different.

The processes of history are presented as inevitable, as indeed they are, but the value of what they achieve is cast into doubt. Virgil continually insists on the public glory of the Roman achievement, the establishment of peace and order and civilization, that dominion without end which Jupiter tells Venus he has given the Romans:



Imperium sine fine dedi.

But he insists equally on the terrible price one must pay for this glory. More than blood, sweat and tears, something more precious is continually being lost by the necessary process; human freedom, love, personal loyalty, all the qualities which the heroes of Homer represent, are lost in the service of what is grand, monumental and impersonal: the Roman State.

The sixth book sets the seal on Aeneas's renunciation of himself. What gives it a depth so much greater than the corresponding book of the Odyssey is the unmistakable impression we have that Aeneas has not only gone into the Underworld: he has in some way himself died. He descends carrying the Golden Bough, a symbol of splendor and lifelessness. The bough glitters and it crackles in the wind:

sic leni crepitabat brattea vento.

It sheds, Virgil says, a strange discolored aura of gold; and it is compared to the mistletoe, a parasitic plant, quod non sua seminat arbos, a plant with no vital connection to the tree to which it clings. A powerful contrast to the culminating image of the Odyssey, that great hidden rooted tree from which the bed-chamber, the house and the kingship of Odysseus draw continuous and organic life. Aeneas moves through the world of the dead. He listens, again the passive spectator, to the famous Roman policy speech of Anchises, a speech full of eagles and trumpets and a speech renouncing the very things Virgil as a man prized most:

Let others fashion the lifelike image from bronze and marble;
Let others have the palm of eloquence;
Let others describe the wheeling constellations of heaven;
Thy duty, 0 Roman, is to rule

Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento

When he emerges, so strangely, from the ivory gate of false dreams, he is no longer a living man, but one who has at last understood his mission, and become identified with it. Peace and order are to be had, but Aeneas will not enjoy them, for their price is life itself.

And yet there is something left which is deeper than all this. It is the capacity of the human being to suffer. We hear two distinct voices in the Aeneid, a public voice of triumph, and a private voice of regret. The private voice, the personal emotions of a man, is never allowed to motivate action. But it is nonetheless everywhere present. For Aeneas, after all, is something more than an Odysseus manqué, or a prototype of Augustus and myriads of Roman leaders. He is man himself; not man as the brilliant free agent of Homer's world, but man of a later stage in civilization, man in a metropolitan and imperial world, man in a world where the State is supreme. He cannot resist the forces of history, or even deny them; but he can be capable of human suffering, and this is where the personal voice asserts itself.

Someday these things too will be pleasant to think back on

Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit

he tells his comrades in book 1. The implication is that when the great abstract goal is finally somehow reached, these present sufferings, seen in retrospect, will be more precious than it.

And so this pleasure, the only true pleasure left to Aeneas in a life of betrayals of the self, is envisaged as art. The sufferings of the Trojans, as Aeneas sees them in Carthage, have become fixed in art, literally: they are paintings. And it is here first, Virgil tells us, that Aeneas began to hope for a kind of salvation. Here he can look back on his own losses, and see them as made beautiful and given universal meaning because human art has transfigured them. "Look here!" he cries. "There is Priam; there are tears for suffering, and the limitations of life can touch the heart."

Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.

The pleasure felt here by Aeneas in the midst of his reawakened grief is the essential paradox and the great human insight of the Aeneid, a poem as much about the imperium of art as about the imperium of Rome. The images in Carthage make Aeneas feel Priam's death not less deeply, but more. At the same time they are a redemption of past suffering, partly because they remove one element of the nightmare: final obscurity and namelessness, partly because they mean that we have found a form in which we can see suffering itself clearly. The brightness of the image and the power of pleasurable vision it confers, consoles for the pain of what it represents.

The pleasure of art in fact gives value to the pain itself, because tragic experience is the content of this art. Virgil continues the scene in the art-gallery: "He spoke, and with deep sorrow, and many lamentations, fed his soul on the empty pictures."

Atque animum pictura pascit inani.

Empty-inani-is the key-word here. Consider again how many times Virgil creates his most touching scenes by dwelling on how something substantial becomes empty and insubstantial: the phantom of Creusa, old fallen Troy, the apparition of Venus in book 1, the shade of Dido in the Underworld, the lost pledge to Evander, the outraged life of Turnus. Inanis is the very word that describes the tears Aeneas sheds upon leaving Carthage and Dido: "His mind was unmoved; the tears he wept were empty." That is, of no avail.

Mens immota manet; lacrimae volvuntur inanes.



Aeneas's tragedy is that he cannot be a hero, being in the service of an impersonal power. What saves him as a man is that all the glory of the solid achievement which he is serving, all the satisfaction of "having arrived" in Italy means less to him than his own sense of personal loss. The Aeneid enforces the fine paradox that all the wonders of the most powerful institution the world has ever known are not necessarily of greater importance than the emptiness of human suffering.


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