Exile in Latin Epic

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Exile in Latin Epic

S. J. Harrison

Exile, in the broad sense of extended and/or enforced absence from home with imperilled or impossible prospect of return,1 is a fundamental element of Greco-Roman epic plots. Such chronic and perilous dislocation of the normally localised existence of the ancient world gave special scope for heroic adventure, and thus fitted the most elevated and defamiliarised form of literary discourse.2 Latin epics inherit exile as a plot-feature from the Greek epic tradition, especially the theme of ktistic or foundational exile, where a hero leaves his homeland to set up a new culture;3 in Latin epic before Vergil, some treatment of the story of Aeneas as an exile from Troy and founder of the Roman race occurred in both Naevius’ Bellum Punicum and Ennius’ Annales, while on the more historical level Cicero’s exile in Greece and triumphant return to Rome in 58–7 BC appear to have been key events in his own lost De Temporibus Suis.4

In what follows I want to trace the theme of exile in the six main preserved Latin epics (Vergil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lucan’s De Bello Civili, Silius’ Punica, Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica and Statius’ Thebaid), and to show how it illustrates and promotes the central concerns of each of the poems.


Ktistic exile is naturally at the centre of the plot of the Aeneid. Aeneas appears from the very first as fato profugus (1.2), going to exile in Italy from the Trojan perspective, though his Italian destination is later skilfully rebranded as the Trojans’ original home through their distant descent from the Italian Dardanus, who himself left Italy to found Troy (3.167–9, 8.133–7): this anticipates (but reverses in direction) Aeneas’ role as ktistic exile moving from Troy to Italy. Aeneas’ departure from Troy and wanderings around the Mediterranean are consistently presented as a form of exile, and when Aeneas complains to his mother that he is Europa atque Asia pulsus (1.385) he uses a word which is standard for exilic expulsion.5 The theme of exile and its sufferings is naturally prominent in Aeneas’ own narrative in books 2 and 3: at 2.637–8 Anchises initially refuses to join his son in leaving his homeland for exile in old age (abnegat excisa vitam producere Troia / exsiliumque pati), while the ghostly Creusa does not spare Aeneas in her foretelling of future wanderings and lengthy exile (2.780: longa tibi exsilia et vastum maris aequor arandum). Aeneas as retrospective narrator is fully conscious that he is leading his men into a long and arduous exilic journey around the Mediterranean, cf. 2.798: collectam exsilio pubem, 3.4–5: diversa exsilia et desertas quaerere terras / auguriis agimur divum, 3.11–12: feror exsul in altum / cum sociis natoque penatibus et magnis dis.

At Carthage, Aeneas encounters Dido, another ktistic exile already busy founding a new city, evidently matching Aeneas’ own mission (cf. 1.437 (Aeneas speaking): “o fortunati, quorum iam moenia surgunt”). As has often been noted, the pair’s shared exilic experience and ktistic role provide a psychologically plausible motivation for their immediate mutual attraction, and Dido herself declares to Aeneas that she knows from experience what he has been through (1.628–30):

me quoque per multos similis fortuna labores

iactatam hac demum voluit consistere terra:

non ignara mali miseris succurrere disco.

A similar fortune has tossed me, too, through many toils and has wanted willed that I should settle down in this land. Having experienced distress myself I know how to aid wretched people.

But exile puts Dido in a vulnerable position as well as one of sympathy. She is a single woman with enemies (cf. 4.325–6: Pygmalion or Iarbas), whose disastrous dalliance with Aeneas leaves her exposed to local vengeance, and in her despair she cannot face a second exile (cf. 4.545–6: quos Sidonia vix urbe revelli, / rursus agam pelago …?). Dido’s ktistic exile, initially so similar, is not in the end a positive role model for Aeneas, and though she succeeds in founding her city, her death and curse doom it ultimately to destruction under Rome, something famously foreshadowed in the narrative of her end (cf. 4.669–71).

More positive as a model for ktistic exile for Aeneas is Antenor, who has preceded Aeneas in establishing a Trojan outpost in Italy—cf. 1.242–9:

Antenor potuit, mediis elapsus Achivis,

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