9-2 aeneid

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

9.2 (Spring 2009)


The Aeneid (commentary)


courtesy of artrenewal.org


From Arcadia to Empire: The Aeneid’s Elusive Allegory (Part One)

John R. Harris


I.  Scholars vs. Poets (Intellectualism vs. Vision)

     Vergil’s Aeneid was one of my first—and remains one of my enduring—literary loves.  That is an odd admission in an epoch when the Classics are very rarely studied at all, when the Greek is usually prized over the Roman wherever Classics programs survive, and when the favorite Roman authors of professional Classicists are almost invariably lyric poets like Catullus or eloquent wags like Ovid.  In my early days as a Classics major, I can recall a fellow student’s disparaging the last line of Aeneas’s exhortation before a desperate charge into Troy’s flaming streets: Una salus victis nullam sperare salutem (“The only safety for the vanquished lies in hoping for no safety”).  This golden-haired child of the bourgeoisie-hating bourgeoisie was pleased to brand the verse jingoistic propaganda worthy of a John Wayne movie.  That might as well have been the day’s reigning assessment of the entire epic, with Vietnam still weighing heavily on our national consciousness: the Aeneid was the product of a militaristic empire’s well-bankrolled efforts to brainwash the masses.  Yet the line in question (and, indeed, the whole epic) suffers brutal mischaracterization if reduced to such terms.  In Aen. 2.354, Aeneas is elevating despair, not king or fatherland or tradition.  If anything, he is within touching distance of the sublime spiritual conundrum, “Those who would gain their life must lose it.”  The utter selflessness of expecting no tomorrow—of casting loose all moorings to peace and home and family—is no doubt an occasionally useful form of ecstasy for an emperor to inspire in his soldiers… but there is no question of any emperor, literal or figurative, behind the scenes of Troy’s fall.  Aeneas’s battlecry might be paraphrased, “We are betrayed and unmanned by wanting to preserve precious fragments of our doomed world.  Too late for that!  This life is at an end… or if it’s not, and if some cultural fragments may yet be saved, only releasing all regard for life and culture will perhaps win them a new dawn.”

This turns out, then, to be a highly complex utterance, involving not only a dispassionate distance from one’s own life and the generalized beauty of a living order and purpose, but even implying the virtue of not loving too much, of not forming insurmountable attachments.  I have often marveled at the resonance between such Vergilian passages and Krishna’s advice to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita.  Hold nothing of this world as immutable.  Be thorough in action, even apparently self-annihilating action.  Know that the soul’s peace resides elsewhere.  This all sounds to me far more like the Epicurean’s ataraxia—the “undisturbedness” echoed by most post-Socratic ethicists—than like the marching orders of a Nazi strike force.

Yet to my generation of “scholars”, a passing resemblance was sufficient ground for a death warrant.  The one course offered in Vergil during all the years of my graduate work addressed the Eclogues (or Bucolica)—a not uninformative study, but a mere prolegomenon, if even that, for one of Western literature’s greatest works.  Exponentially more common were courses regaling the student with all the abundant high-jinks and “naughty bits” to be found throughout the lyric and elegiac poets.  An objective observer might well be forgiven for concluding that young people confused about their sexuality or passively aggressive in shamed resistance to their native socio-economic privileges had discovered in such fare a covert vengeance on middle class values, if not a validation of their own increasingly anomic habits.

As a matter of fact, I have never sat through a single minute of formal course work focused on the Aeneid, in Latin or in translation, at any level of my educational experience.  I introduced myself to the epic when, as an undergraduate English major, I decided to dust off my high-school Latin (a program discontinued when I was in ninth grade) by purchasing Clyde Pharr’s edition of Books 1-6, generously featuring relevant vocabulary and footnotes on the bottom half of every page of Vergilian text.  Something must have captivated me instantly about the bard, since I ended up dedicating my master’s thesis and a large part of my doctoral dissertation to his masterpiece… but I cannot swear that it was his concept of heroism or the lacrimae rerum so characteristic of his style.  It may, at that inaugural stage, simply have been his “grandiloquence”: the distinctly Vergilian habit, that is, of repeating the same event or observation immediately from a slightly different angle or with slightly shifted emphasis.  Conticuere omnes intentique ora tenebant… “They all grew silent and, intent, they stilled their mouths.”  My master’s thesis actually catalogued hundreds of such passages.

In short, I do not feel beholden to the academy for placing this great work within my grasp.  I will go farther: I will say that I have read very few books or articles which significantly elucidated the Aeneid’s literary qualities to me.  I recall admiring the work of Adam Parry, a younger scion of the brilliant but short-lived Parry clan; and I will rely heavily in this essay upon W. R. Johnson’s Darkness Visible, which incited me to pursue a certain line of inquiry even if it did not utterly win me to a specific thesis (and I doubt that Johnson would admit to the book’s having had a specific thesis).  In looking back over Johnson’s profound little volume, in fact, I find that he begins his concluding chapter in terms very like those with which I opened this essay.  His estimate of the classicist machine clearly tends toward a suspicion that poetic effects are likely to be mauled therein:

Great writers are never the products of the times they live in, though they often seem so because they reflect—indirectly but brilliantly—the events, the common attitudes, hopes, and fears of their contemporaries.  But they do not merely react to events or passions of “doctrines of the times” as purely popular writers do; they also react against events and contemporary attitudes and use these critical reactions to shape something permanent and true out of the ephemeral.  All these true truisms mean here is that the term “the Augustan Age” identifies a propaganda device that was very successful [in teaching Vergil beside other Roman authors] and is now a handy but somewhat deceptive category for people who are engaged in writing or lecturing about the poetry or the art or the political events or social patterns that existed within a certain span of time.[11]

     Professor Johnson’s sensitivity is the exception that proves the rule, however.  His book was greeted by a storm of indignation on the far shore of the Atlantic, where Vergil’s epic has long been taught (under the magnetism of the British empire) as a paean of those who sacrifice self-interest to the commonweal.  The Old Guard, or so-called Oxford School (Johnson’s “European School”), numbering in its phalanx such worthies as C. S. Lewis, Sir Maurice Bowra, and Brooks Otis, insists that history and culture are on its side.  Vergil cannot have intended his epic as a rejection of militarism—even a subtle one—because anti-militarism was something that the Yanks had thought up in the sixties and were now trying to import retroactively into Augustan Rome.  Implicit in this case (and it is precisely the sort of case one hears in Classics departments on most topics) is the assumption that authors are incapable of thinking independently of their cultural scaffolding, however imaginative may be their artistic genius or fertile the depth of their personal experience.  The culture surrounding Vergil embraced an “anything for the fatherland’s glory” kind of ethic; there is every reason to think that literate members of that culture received Vergil’s public readings of his work-in-progress as an endorsement of such jingoism.  Therefore, this was Vergil’s intent.  It cannot be true that a later age with a different perspective may perceive subtle facets lost to Vergil’s contemporaries: it can only be true that later ages read their own dominant preoccupation into a past which did not share it.

Not that I have ever been a card-carrying follower of the so-called Harvard School (also viewed by Johnson with reservations)—for the argument on this side does indeed seem to me overstated in places, which may account for much of the other side’s bristling.  I cannot read the Aeneid as a deliberate and consistent indictment of imperial aggression.  In what follows, I shall applaud Johnson’s astute identification of certain baleful images in the epic which come to have, through cumulative impact, a distinctly symbolic power.  Something is surely wrong in this universe, and fighting not only fails to put it right, but must be closely equated with it.  Yet not fighting also seldom offers a credible solution—perhaps never, where major contests are involved.  Evil, I must say, often seems a necessary choice in the Aeneid: or the sorting out of evils, I should say, in an effort to choose the least evil of them is a Vergilian fact of life.  Karl Galinsky has maintained, for instance, that Aeneas’s slaying of Turnus in the incomplete work’s final scene would not only be acceptable to Roman tastes, but obligatory to the Roman sense of duty.[12]  (An Alsatian, Galinsky favored the European perspective in these matters; and he must certainly have offered some excellent classes in the Aeneid while at Austin—my bad luck was to be out-of-step with the curricular cycle, apparently.)  What must be granted to the Harvard scholars, however, is that the slaughter of the Rutulian prince remains an evil, acceptable or obligatory though it be.  More than that, the fact that such behavior may be acceptable or obligatory in human affairs implies a deeply pessimistic message about human life and culture.  I believe that Vergil has discovered nothing less than the “fallenness” of mankind—quite a remarkable find for an offspring of the civilization whose great luminary, Socrates, insisted that no one knowingly does wrong.

What evidence have I in support of this assertion?  Is there reason to suppose that Vergil knew Hebrew or had the Pentateuch translated for him?  I have no such evidence whatever, any more than I have amassed clues that a wandering scholar told him of the Bhagavad-Gita.  Any claim of this kind would be extravagant to the point of silliness.  Yet what vexes me about the Classics establishment is that appeals to essential human nature are considered equally extravagant.  One cannot allege that the basic moral insight, “Thorough, persistent right action is impossible.” lies waiting to be unearthed by any intelligent, introspective person.  There must be a source, a historical primum mobile.  The position is absurd.  It overlooks that no truly, fully historical first cause would be coherent in matters of morality, since 1) behaviors would be dependent on an historical event, not anchored in human thought, and hence lacking in genuine moral compulsion; and 2) that the “prophet” of the new regime would have to draw his ideas from some preceding influence—or else his dynamic effect could only be explained by inspiration (i.e., access to a transcending spiritual communion), which would thrust us out of historicity and into a territory beyond the scholar’s reach.  Classicists today are in fact as “anti-essentialist” as English professors.  As a group, they will not countenance the notion that “human nature” extends beyond biology.  (Hence the fascination with the Dionysiac and the yawning sufferance of the Apollonian: “that old bore”, a full professor of international repute once referred to the Stoic Seneca in one of my graduate classes.)  Of course, why would we call any work “classic” unless it possessed qualities which endured above the ebb and flow of epochal circumstance?  And why would the classicist tolerate the laurels of light and reason traditionally bestowed upon his field by gullible outsiders if he accepted only sex, hunger, and the will to power as motives not founded in cultural conditioning?  He accepts the laurels because they are offered, and because they are laurels.  Why refuse free adulation?  But the cognitive dissonance stirred up by constant hypocrisy (adulation turns out to be not quite free, since essential human nature turns out to include a conscience) at least gravitates against teaching the most “classic” of works.  Exit the Aeneid.

Perhaps by now my introduction has sufficiently justified my decision to write as an experienced reader, a trained linguist, a published novelist, and an adult human being rather than as a “scholar” (using the word in a very narrow sense).  That is, I shall cite minimally from other studies of the Aeneid, because I have found few of them to be useful in tracing the work’s overarching tendencies.  Such studies too often cannot see the forest for the trees.  Immersed in details about Vergil’s circle of poet-colleagues and patrons, about his shadowy past, about the prevailing tastes and beliefs of his day, etc., etc., they seem to have immunized themselves against reading the text.  And while the New Criticism has been anything but new for a long time now, no amount of historicizing can impugn its most basic insight: that a literary text is a work of art, an object, and hence the alpha and omega of any artistic experience which involves it.  We can ultimately best understand Vergil by reading Vergil: by remarking what images he favors, analyzing their context, comparing the circumstances of recurrence… yes, and also by noting what emotions most move his characters, how these characters act when moved, what consequences result from their actions, and how consistent a moral portrait the overall mass of action and reaction ends up producing.

That we who so evaluate motive and moral consistency may be twenty-first century Americans does not disqualify us from a membership in humanity.  Were we incapable of understanding the loss of a child, a lover, or a friend as an ancient Roman would have done, then the rationale for studying the past’s literature as literature would have evaporated—and the rank and file of our ailing culture are perhaps not far from that point of insular nullity.  But this would be far from a concession of cultural relativism—an admission that one age can never understand another.  On the contrary, it would be a confession that our own age had fallen out of a bimillennial line of civilized continuity into barbarism.  If we wish to muster ourselves back into that noble line, where mere gestures can express complex feelings and life itself may be risked to fulfill a created expectation, then reading literary classics is one obvious restorative measure.  As for those “classicists”, be they graduate students or tenured professors, who rate our dietary, tonsorial, and connubial habits as more important determinants of our value system than a brush with death through starvation or disease or combat, I really don’t think such people capable of assessing either another culture’s view of life or, indeed,  their own culture’s.  Great literature, at last, is about life.  A scholar who has done nothing but read, scribble, and pedantically spar throughout his mortal existence is in no position to do anything with a text but correct its spelling.

II.  Imagery: Life as Ongoing War

     The early Greek philosopher Anaxagoras held that all things began in cosmic spirit, but that terrestrial life took its specific origin from water, heat, and earth.  If a poet’s creative genius be held to determine the first seed and ultimate destination of his intricate fictions, then we may divine something of that alpha and omega in the specific terrestrial images to which he recurs.  Such often-evoked objects may not so much be symbols as mere mood-setters (especially if we require that the symbol’s directions of reference be plainly intended by their author).  In Vergil’s case, I think we may indeed discern something elemental pulsing with spiritual alarm through a narrow cluster of favorite images.  Johnson captured two of these in the title of his book: fire and shadows.  That pair already introduces an irony, of course, as Johnson knew (and as Milton knew before him).  Fire spreads light, which is a universal expression for the expelling of ignorance or “darkness”—yet it is precisely in the presence of bright light that we are most keenly aware of the shadows thrown contrastively where illumination cannot reach.  Johnson is entirely correct, it seems to me, when he stresses that blazes of glory are routinely attended by tragedy and even atrocity in Vergil’s authorial hands.  To these images I would add those of blood and madness.  A wound or a lurid stain is conceptually far more distinct, to be sure, than whatever picture words like insanus, vesanus, and furiens may evoke.  Nevertheless, the four images taken together often appear to be interchangeable in the Aeneid.  Fire is always potentially rage and lunacy, darkness always poised to burst into flames—and from an eruption of any or all three of these may pour blood in frightful abundance.

Books 2 and 4 show the highest concentrations of these images, though they are sown more or less evenly throughout the epic.  That in itself is suggestive: the climactic plundering and torching of Troy and Dido’s tragic dissolution into madness mirror one the other in Vergil’s mind.  Not all of the second book’s most compelling clusters of imagery, furthermore, directly relate to fighting: in fact, we are seldom witnessing raw battle-fury (what the Germans call Wüt) at such moments.  Writes Vergil of the Trojan Horse’s introduction into the citadel, for instance:

                           … quater ipso in limine portae

substitit atque utero sonitum quater arma dedere;

instamus tamen immemores caecique furore

et monstrum infelix sacrata sistimus arce.

                                                            2. 242-245

Four times on the gate’s very threshold it stuck, and four times the arms in its belly made a clatter; yet we pressed on thoughtlessly, blinded by zeal, and settled the baleful wonder within the sacred stronghold.

Of the fourfold complex of images, blood and fire are here somewhat implied in the arms’ clatter: for we all know what points and blades do, and the clang of these objects hints that they are bright with polish, not muted in dirt and rust.  Darkness leaks into the scene both from the Horse’s great belly and from the Trojans’ blindness, which state of mind is said to be stirred by a mad zeal (furor).  Rage, of course, might just as well be associated with fire, as it is less than 100 verses farther along:

arma amens capio; nec sat rationis in armis

sed glomerare manum bello et concurrere in arcem

cum sociis ardent animi; furor iraque mentem

praecipitat, pulchrumque mori succurrit in armis.

                                                            2. 314-317

Insane, I arm myself.  Not that there is much sense in arms—but my spirits burn to be immersed in battle and to hurl myself with my comrades into the citadel.  Mad frenzy and rage drive me on.  The beauty of dying in the fray is irresistible.

If arms may again be assumed to imply both fire and blood (and fiery images are seconded by Aeneas’s burning spirits), then only darkness is missing from this passage—though the odd verb glomerare suggests burial at the bottom of a gory dog-pile.  To be sure, we have here drawn closer to the rage of actual combat.  The prospect of fighting to the end, however, plainly appeals to Aeneas as a kind of suicide, not as a likely means of defending his city.  Psychic derangement holds the upper hand in these pictures.

The feminine influence is stirred into this toxic mix without any apparent incongruity when we are told that Aeneas’s rampaging comrade Coroebus had recently arrived in Troy insano Cassandrae incensus amore (343: “inflamed by an insane love of Cassandra”).  One hardly stops to wonder if our narrator thinks love itself insane, if Coroebus loves too much, if the raving Cassandra is simply a bad choice of amorous interest… or if all strong emotion has turned to liability on this fatal night.  The last supposition may be the best, inasmuch as Coroebus indeed commits a kind of suicide upon witnessing the rape of his betrothed at the altar of Minerva.  Non tulit hanc speciem furiata mente Coroebus / et sese medium iniecit periturus in agmen (407-408: “Coroebus, his mind crazed, could not bear this sight, but hurled himself, ready to die, into the midst of the battleline”).  The Trojan contingent under Aeneas, by this point, has been compared through simile to ravening wolves in a dark mist (350-353), and soon after draws comparison to a bright, venomous snake, its neck swollen with rage (379-381).  In other words, these desperate men have degenerated from a properly human state to an animal mindlessness.[13]  Indeed, the transformation is somewhat physical in that one of their rash ploys is to assume the armor of slain Greeks—a shift which eventually draws volleys of friendly fire down upon them.

The snake simile is reprised when the dreadful Pyrrhus penetrates the inner sanctum of Priam’s palace, triumphantly poised to slaughter Troy’s king (471-475).  There is nothing particularly martial about what follows.  On the contrary, for grotesquerie and downright sadism, it rivals those very peculiar carvings of the Trojan War which Aeneas views when first entering Carthage (1. 464-493: everything from throat-slitting by night to desecration of corpses to necrophilia is here, but not a single scene of equal hand-to-hand combat).  Pyrrhus first baits the old man by eviscerating the boy Polites at the altar where the royal couple has taken refuge.  When Priam feebly flings a spear in furious indignation, the brute dispatches him, too.  Aeneas, having watched these horrors from afar, describes them appropriately.  Pyrrhus is furens, like a wild torrent (498-499); the expired Priam desecrates the altar’s flames with his blood; the legendary fifty thalami of the palace topple in another image of suffocation and burial.  Blood, fire, madness, and darkness… and not one brush stroke of it hinting that ainsi va la guerre—that war must necessarily break a few eggs to make an omelet.  War is perhaps the purest distillation of the madness Vergil paints in Book 2: but remains a mere species of madness, not a worthy endeavor from which madness may incidentally detract.  Neither Coroebus nor Pyrrhus—nor even the suicidal Aeneas, with his battlecry of pulchrum mori—is primarily attending to the business of breaking through the opponent’s phalanx.

To be sure, we should look for such a picture on a canvas properly suited to its representation: the scenes of pitched battle in Books 7, 11, and 12.  Images of insane rapine are somewhat less concentrated here—but only somewhat.  Just as the Carthaginian frieze viewed by Aeneas and Acates offers not a single panel where equally matched heroes fight toe to toe, so the vibrant portrait of the Italian war in the later books is flushed with shades of brutal excess, tragic misjudgment, and supernatural frenzy.  The Queen of the Gods, Juno, inaugurates this conflict as she did the storm which pitched the Trojan refugees on African shores in Book 1.  At both points, her fuming, implacable indignation at past slights is linearly rationalized and rhetorically magnified with an obsessive precision that could well allegorize Envy in a morality play.  The perverted intensity of these passages (1. 35-49 and 7. 293-322) is indeed undervalued for its Miltonian genius at representing a warped soul through speech.  As we shall see, the relationship between Juno—whatever Vergil means to symbolize in her—and murderous rage must hold a vital clue to understanding the author’s view on the origins of human strife.

In Book 1, Juno had enlisted the aid of Aeolus, ancient god of the winds, by dangling before him the prospect of alliance with the most comely nymph of her attendants.  The distinctly feminine instigation of obstacles to Jupiter’s grand plan is again underscored in Book 7—underscored four times, in fact.  First of all, Juno summons the dire Allecto from Hades, instructing her to inspire a belligerent rage in the Italians parallel to that chaotic violence unleashed earlier by the old god of the winds.  Allecto dutifully betakes herself to a mortal female who will become a constant and finally self-destructive firebrand in the cause of havoc, the Latian queen Amata: here is the second association of femininity with mad passion.  The dread Fury fits the queen with a poisoned, serpentine necklace spun more or less metaphorically from dark concealment, insanity, fire, and the implicit wounds of venom (7. 349-356).  Amata immediately stirs up the local womenfolk in a feigned bacchanal (simulato numine Bacchi, 385), an image which plainly echoes that of the Bacchante to whom the degenerating Dido was compared in Book 4; and the meltdown of civil order begins, the frenzied queen leading a wild procession of torches in the dark mountains (frondosis montibus, 387).

The third invocation of a female figure finds Allecto assuming the guise of the ancient Calybe, a priestess of Juno (415-419), to incite the valiant warrior Turnus as he lies sleeping.  This masquerade fails to have the desired effect: Turnus scoffs at the wizened hag, telling her (apparently more awake than asleep) that a man’s work should be left to men.  Allecto grows enraged.  Her mask melts away (exarsit in iras, 445), hissing snakes rise from her hair, and she declares, “In my hand I carry war and death” (bella manu letumque fero, 455).  Turnus fully wakens in a trembling sweat and calls madly for his arms: saevit amor ferri et scelerati insania belli (461: “a craving for iron rages in him—the insanity of wicked warfare”).

As this fatal kettle is brought to a boil, young Ascanius (here called Iulus), Aeneas’s son, innocently wanders into the Italian woods to go a-hunting.  Excited hunting dogs (literally maddened: rabidae, 493) unfortunately rouse a stag that is the special pet of the local ruler’s daughter, Silvia.  The boy draws his bow and fires: Vergil describes him as eximiae laudis succensus amore—“ enflamed by a longing for high praise” ((496), leaving us to puzzle over what this childish desire to please possesses of corrosive adult passion.  The arrow, of course, does not miss its mark.  Bleeding profusely and groaning like a human suppliant (501-502), the stag returns with the last of its vital energy to Silvia, whose grieving reaches the ears of every neighboring farmer.  In the hands of all, wrath turns tools of honest labor into deadly weapons (telum ira facit, 508)… and the idyllic peace of this pleasant backwater is permanently ruptured as men in both of the coalescing battlelines fall slain.

Fully satisfied that she has ignited “spirits with the love of insane Mars” (animos insani Martis amore, 550), Allecto returns to the recesses of hell through a dismal vale hidden in dense foliage (561-567).  Amata’s wild troupe of Bacchantes meanwhile converge upon the pacific but ineffectual Latinus, pressing him to declare war on the Teucrians by flinging open the temple of Janus.  He refuses in gestures of futility oddly resonant with Pontius Pilate’s hand-washing (abstinuit tactu pater aversusque refugit / foeda ministeria, et caecis se condidit umbris, 618-619: “the old man held his hands aloof and, having turned away, fled from these loathsome duties and hid himself in inner shadows”).  Yet Juno supernaturally steps up to fulfill the rite, driving the doors open with her own hand.

To reiterate the lesson of all that we have just observed: for Vergil, it is war that erupts from passion, not excessive passion which erupts now and then during the manly business of war.  That the feminine is implicated in dangerous spiritual surges throughout Book 7 as Aeneas’s fragile truce with Latinus dissolves can only underscore how alien to the Vergilian vision is any view of warfare as naturally virile; or to phrase the thought more accurately, the feminine inspiration of warfare in Vergil stresses that men naturally—if paradoxically—tend to compromise their manhood as they go about the “business of men”.   For men are least men when they cannot control themselves: the Socratic tradition had taught the ancient world as much for four centuries by this point.  Passion is literally pain (from the verb pati), the anguish of an impulse resisted by the rational mind yet burdensome to the unappeased nerves.  From passion grows strife—and from strife follows the madness of bloody destruction.  These associations are as inescapable in the Aeneid’s text as they are grudging of hope for long-lasting human happiness.

III.  Femininity, Passion, and Tragedy

     If we now follow this thread of the feminine—which we have found surprisingly but brightly twined about Vergil’s other images of war—back to the epic’s beginning, we indeed discover that the female influence has played midwife to strife from the start.  The Trojan fleet is very nearly sunk in a terrific storm during our introduction to Aeneas.  The vengeful, ever-seething Juno has staged the whole thing by luring Aeolus to help her in the fashion described above.  Had not Neptune intervened in a timely manner and chastened the unruly waves, the glorious mission to found Rome would have been ignominiously drowned; for Jupiter, though having conceived a high destiny for Aeneas, is seldom sufficiently attentive to ward off Juno’s efforts at sabotage from those whom he has set into very risky motion.

A very similar sequence will appear in a few hundred lines when Aeneas relates the final hours of Troy to Dido in Book 2.  Specifically, he describes the end of Laocoon.  This worthy man had stood alone against the foolhardy proposal (fomented by the vile spy and liar Sinon) to bring the great wooden horse within the citadel’s walls.  For his exemplary caution and civic-mindedness, Laocoon is soon after attacked by a supernatural horror while sacrificing to Neptune (ductus Neptuno sorte sacerdos, 2. 201) along Troy’s windy shores: a two-headed serpent, sent by Minerva.  Upon launching an utterly futile defense of his two young sons and his lineage’s future, Laocoon himself is torn to shreds.  Sic semper optimis, one is tempted to say of this epic where bad things so often happen to good people!

Vergil’s Roman Athena, the goddess Minerva, appears rarely in these verses, but we may note that she is a double of Juno in many ways: both were slighted in the Judgment of Paris, both therefore became implacable enemies of Troy, and both—in Vergil’s eyes—channel   their   hatred   cleverly   into   opportunities   for   vengeance unnoticed by more powerful male gods who might have resisted.  We do not know if Laocoon’s immortal patron chose not to save him: the incident, after all, is being recounted by another mortal who can only guess at divine will.  What remains certain is the disturbing fact that this morally superior man was indeed cruelly punished for his virtue by a ravening force of female (read “passionate”) provenance as the more stable male force of order did nothing—seems, indeed, to have known of nothing amiss in the cosmos.  If Neptune saves the Aeneades in Book 1 while Jupiter is lost in Olympian dreams, the Old Man of the Sea is himself similarly vacant and anemic in Book 2.[14]


The agonizing end of the Trojan priest Laocoon is commemorated in a sculpture (probably a Roman copy of a Greek original) recovered from a storeroom in the Vatican about five hundred years ago.  Schiller also dedicates several pages of his Vom Pathetischen und Erhabenen to this brave man’s futile struggle against a two-headed sea serpent devouring his sons in cruel ambush.  The philosopher most certainly had Vergil prominently in his thoughts; and the unknown Roman sculptor, even if he borrowed some of his inspiration from the Eastern Mediterranean, may have been stirred to do so by the Aeneid‘s second book. 

Though this catastrophe is narrated by Aeneas to Queen Dido, and though Aeneas himself often has scarcely an inkling of the gods’ intentions, to say that the goddess Minerva sends the serpent while Neptune looks on would not depart from the castaway hero’s own recollection of the event.  The pattern repeats itself at every critical juncture of the epic: a female divinity, seething with rage or vengefulness or jealousy, overrides the authority of a presiding male divinity to turn the cosmos inside-out.  Indeed, no later than the epic’s first verses after its invocation, we see Juno plotting to annihilate the Trojan fleet, reciting in crazed soliloquy her grievances against the tribe in a lather of implacable indignation.  Juno enlists the aid of Aeolus, ancient god of the winds, by dangling before him the prospect of alliance with the most comely nymph of her attendants.  A symbolically female force of passion having destabilized a symbolically male force of order, the world quite literally slides into chaos around the Trojan fleet, which is only saved by the timely rise of Neptune from the waves.  Like Jupiter’s many rehabilitations of the imperial destiny awaiting Aeneas, this one comes almost too late and leaves the audience convinced that the rational male influence tends to doze in moments of smooth sailing.

When I teach the Aeneid to undergraduates, I always hasten to add at this point that Vergil’s symbolism, if sexist, is not so in any facile way.  Passion is a formidable power in the epic, not a weak-spirited cringing from hard labor or intense concentration.  Over the short haul, it often appears to dominate the universe, rather as Euripides’s Medea dominates Kreon’s plodding legalism and Jason’s slippery sophistry.  Furthermore, both male and female characters may often be said to display an orderly male side and a passionate female side in the epic.  Aeneas employs words like amens and insanus to describe to Dido the street-fighting in which he and others engaged during Troy’s final night, a sequence where flames and darkness are also invoked as much in metaphor of the combatants’ spiritual state as in portrayal of the setting.  An indirect association, therefore, of fighting with the female through Dionysiac frenzy may be divined throughout this section.  Indeed, the hero claims that a tristis Erinys drove him to take arms and rush into the streets (2. 337)—very like saying, “A female devil made me do it.”  His comrade Coroebus suicidally hurls himself into the Greek ranks, as noted above, upon beholding the rape of Cassandra, his betrothed.

Then we have the other side of the coin.  No Vergilian female is more poised, sober, and deliberate than the magnificent Camilla.  The poet introduces her as a warrior who disdains the womanly pursuits of spinning and weaving (bellatrix, non illa colo calathisve Minervae / femineas adsueta manus, 7. 805-806) but suited, instead, to harsh battles (806-807) and races with the wind (806).[15]  Yet this explicitly undomesticated female is by no means without charm.  All the country lads (omnis tectis agrisque effusa iuventus, 812) admire her as she leads her rustic contingent to war.  For some reason, Vergil also includes their mothers among the breathless bystanders (813), as if Camilla were the ideal prospect for a daughter-in-law.  Her femininity at this point is not nullified, but supple and in check—the more powerful, perhaps, for that reason (since explosions of female passion tend to ignite “manly” fury).  Indeed, she is much the cooler head in Book 11, where the leadership of the Italian troops is divided between her and Turnus.  The male valiant impetuously charges off to arrange an ill-advised, vengefully conceived ambush for his rival Aeneas.  Camilla stays behind to defend Latium, which she does with lethal effectiveness… until, that is, her attention is fatally riveted by bright plunder.  Vergil tells us that she incautiously follows the richly adorned Chloreus—a priest (the ultimate irony) of that same Cybele who feminized her male votaries—“burning with a womanly desire of booty and spoils” (totumque incauta per agmen / femineo praedae et spoliarum ardebat amore, 11. 781-782).  This single lapse into a faint surge of passion suffices to seal her doom.  The devious sharpshooter Arruns looses an arrow that finds its mark, and the virgin warrior expires bleeding from her breast in the arms of inconsolable attendants—very much as we saw Dido perish in Book 4.

Indeed, the star-crossed Dido begins her poetic life looking quite like the tragic Camilla.  The young queen is compared in simile to the virgin huntress Diana—the most boyish of the goddesses, perhaps—when she assumes her throne in Book 1 (498-504).  At this early point in the epic, Dido assumes a rightful place among the Aeneid‘s august male rulers of simple, uncorrupt states created comfortably in the “uncivilized”, almost Edenic west (cf. Acestes and Evander).  Her city’s walls are rising in orderly and energetic fashion.  Her people, occupied with their labors, give no hint of dissension.  She receives suppliants on her throne with an easy majesty and a generous mansuetude which bear no sign of calculation.  Only after being maddened by passion for Aeneas does she become Book 4’s wounded deer:

uritur infelix Dido totaque per vagatur

urbe furens, qualis coniecta cerva sagitta,

quam procul incautam nemora inter Cresia fixit

pastor agens telis liquitque volatile ferrum

nescius: illa fuga silvas saltusque

peragrat Dictaeos; haeret lateri letalis harundo.

                                                     2. 68-73

The unhappy Dido is on fire.  Raging, she wanders throughout the whole city, like a deer among Crete’s wild heights whom a shepherd, trying to chase off with weapons, pierces in an improbable shot.  He turns his back on the arrow without knowing of its success as his victim blindly flees through Mount Dicte’s forests and valleys, the lethal dart clinging to her flank.

Note that this effusion of feminine passion has immediately evoked the fourfold imagery of fire, darkness, blood, and madness which so often characterizes Vergil’s combat scenes.  Dido is on fire.  The preceding two lines (66-67) emphasize the deeply hidden quality of the embers: the flame eats her marrow (est mollis flamma medullas) and a silent wound lives within her breast (tacitum vivit sub pectore vulnus).  Of course, the simile makes the wound far more explicit while also extroverting the inner shadows in steep mountain vales.  The single word furens specifies that the pitiable queen has lost her mind; but the simile again, by likening her to an irrational beast, underscores that her reason has forsaken her.

As the tragedy of Book 4 unfolds, we indeed find Dido’s anguished femininity so regularly fused with images reserved for mortal combat in Book 2 that we might claim to be watching the fall of Troy all over again in metaphor.  Aeneas once more flees the city, with Jupiter insisting that he go forth on a higher mission and while female deities create havoc at his back.  Towers do not literally topple, but they cease to rise as the reins of state slip from the queen’s trembling hands (non coeptae adsurgunt turres, 86).  The skirmishers in the streets are Dido’s warring hopes, and the slain and bleeding corpses are her despair.  Madly (demens, 78), she craves to hear the account of Troy’s last hours again from Aeneas’s lips.  In the night’s thick shadows, as the stars counsel sleep (81), she strays through her empty palace, unable to keep to her bed.  The climactic “wedding” scene arranged by Venus and Juno shares some of the same disastrous indications as attend Pyrrhus’s slaughter of Priam.  Aeneas and Dido have both “armed” themselves for a day of hunting, which—according to divine plan (female divine plan)—ends chaotically in a thunderstorm.  The entourage of both leaders flees helter-skelter (tecta metu petiere; ruunt de montibus amnes, 164: “they seek cover in terror; rivers course from the mountains”).  Dido and her guest find shelter in a cave which, in a parody of marriage rites, becomes a kind of altar.  Flashes of lightning serve as celebratory torches, and ululating mountain nymphs are bridesmaids ((167-168).  This day, Vergil tells us in a rare moment of editorial doom-saying (yet very like the pronouncement with which Aeneas concludes the death of Priam: haec finis Priami fatorum, 2. 554 ff.), was the beginning of the end: ille dies primus leti primusque malorum / causa fuit (169-170)—“this day was the first of ruin, first as a cause of misfortunes.”

Of the many other passages which might be cited from Book 4 to demonstrate how mad passion, bloody destruction, and femininity coalesce in Vergil’s poetic imagination, two must not be left without highlighting: the “Bacchante” simile and the queen’s suicide.  The disturbing simile creates a bookend with Book 1’s likening the widowed queen, independent and in the full bloom of youthful competence, to the virgin huntress Diana.  Now, as Dame Rumor drives her distraught with word of Aeneas’s imminent departure (impia Fama furenti…, 298 ff.), the tortured queen rages unthinking and inflamed through the city: saevit inops animi totamque incensa per urbem / bacchatur” (300-301).  The verb ending the clause just cited leads into an explicit comparison of Dido with a Thyias, or votary of Bacchus, as she celebrates his triennial rite of ritual delirium on Mount Cithaeron (302-303).  To this passage might be appended another about 150 lines later, wherein the raving young woman sees a cruel Aeneas in her dreams (agit ipse furentem / in somnis ferus Aeneas, 465-466) leaving her all alone.  A simile ensues comparing these nightmares to the horrid visions endured by Pentheus demens just prior to his murder at a Dionysiac rite and a crazed Orestes beset by a mother armed with fire and serpents (469-473).  Together, these scenes stress that Dido’s fury has reached fatal proportions—that it can no more be characterized in clichéd fashion as passionate love than Vergil’s warriors can be said to spill into bloodlust only when they become rather too heated up.  Instead—and in both cases, love and war—we see psychic upheaval resulting in annihilation of the human victim; and the victim, in both cases, is he or she who suffers the passion far more than any recipient of fiery words or homicidal blows.

Dido’s death, it need hardly be said, is very close to an act of war.  She impales herself with Aeneas’s sword, having surrounded herself with his armor in a deceptive mockery of a purification rite, just as her “marriage” had mocked traditional connubial rites.  (How many altars and sacrifices, from Laocoon’s to Priam’s to Cassandra’s to Dido’s, are grotesquely inverted in this epic where one’s “target god” often turns out to be either impervious or hostile!)  Vergil emphasizes a profusion of blood: the queen’s attendants witness “a sword frothing with gore and hands smeared with blood” (664-665).  The news is said to spread like—once again—a running Bacchante (bacchatur, 666), and the palace resonates with womanly ululation (femineo ululatu, 667).  Vergil proposes a simile of raging flames (flammaeque furentes, 670) igniting the entire city to describe how quickly chaos seizes hold of Carthage.  He does not round the comparison out by reminding us of Troy’s last hours… but he might well have.  The emotions and the results are essentially the same.

IV.  Arcadia: Pastoral Island Where Boys Evade Women

     If the female has a significant association with the Dionysiac in Vergil’s epic—and, specifically, with the mad, destructive passion of warfare—then we would expect to find venues relatively free of female influence (if there are any such) equally free of carnage and tragedy.  As improbable as the terms of this proposition seem, the Aeneid actually offers several such prospects.  Let us recall the younger Vergil’s Eclogues.  Though patterned after the highly stylized Bucolica of the Hellenistic Greek poet Theocritus, Vergil’s pieces never admit a female into the ranks of those shepherds whose quaint words are set down.  (The Theocritean landscape indeed tends to hum mostly with male voices: this is likely part of what drew the Roman poet to it.)  Women are naturally featured in the tales and laments shared by our uncouth rustics sprawled under scraggly trees—they represent the source, invariably, of whatever frustrated ambition or anguishing hopelessness is known to the denizens of the pastoral world.  Yet their disturbing gravity remains sufficiently remote that male emotions are not warped from their placid loops into reckless collisions.

Wherever something of Arcadia survives in the Aeneid (and it never survives for very long, to be sure, on the earth’s surface), a similar tranquility appears to enjoy a fragile reign.  Dido’s Carthage itself, as has already been suggested, is paradoxically such a place; for the queen, her volatile femininity neutralized momentarily by Vergil’s Diana simile, is originally as competent and serene as Camilla (who hails from the Arcadian hinterland, even as Dido has fled into it).  There is surely an echo, furthermore, of pristine Arcadia in Troy’s royal sanctuary, where Priam and his family ever so briefly find refuge as the city burns around them.

Aedibus in mediis nudoque sub aetheris axe

ingens ara fuit iuxtaque veterrima laurus

incumbens arae atque umbra complexa penatis.


In the great building’s mid-section, under the open sky, was a vast altar, and nearby an ancient laurel tree overspreading it and embracing the sacred idols in shadow.

Of course, the protection offered by this glimpse of uncorrupt nature is more illusory than substantial—and so for all images of the pastoral in the epic; for kings and heroes are not, after all, simple shepherds, and have not the luxury of the safety afforded by inconsequence.  Vergil may well have been reflecting upon this lonely laurel when he compared Troy’s collapse a hundred lines later to a lofty ash tree in the mountains cut down with feverish zeal (certatim) by those timeless rivals of the shepherd, farmers (626-631).  Another simile cast in the same mold is struck in Book 4 to describe Aeneas’s steadfast resistance to Dido’s entreaties (441-446).  Here the mighty oak stands fast against the north wind’s assault… but the result is scarcely less unhappy.  The tree can provide no shelter, but only retain its own position as chaos erodes the world around it.  Perhaps suggestively, its roots reach to Tartarus (446), a pit whose portals are all shunned by innocent shepherds.

Turning from the innuendo of simile to the explicitly orchestrated landfalls of Aeneas’s westward-trekking itinerary, we find a veritable index of pastoral worlds in various phases of decay.  To the extent that each island or port has been touched by “civilized” aggression—and this touch more often than not has a feminine quality—it has lost its utopian sheen.  Apollo’s sacred isle of Delos is a gratissima telus (3. 73) where the weary refugees are awarded temporary protection in an utterly peaceful harbor (placidissma portu, 3. 78).  The old king and priest, Anius, receives the travelers warmly and offers them prophetic guidance.  No god, of course, could be less Dionysiac than Apollo.  Yet here the Aeneades cannot stay—their holy mission has disqualified them for the life of pastoral ease.  They mistake Crete for their destination: Crete, stepping stone to Egypt and cradle of Greek culture’s oldest civilization.  Wasted by long human habitation (rather like Troy in ruins), the island proves a desert to them.  A famine and corrective omens drive them onward.  In the uninviting Strophades, similarly tainted by previous human contact, they find the Harpies, than whom no female representation could be more odious.  As they pass Ithaca and its environs, the looming presence of their Greek foe chases them back out to the main.  In the region of Leucae, however, they cast anchor and linger unmolested, again honoring Apollo (whose sacred precincts these are) and engaging in the playful athletic contests which will also grace their sojourn in Sicily (and which Aeneas will observe in the Elysian Fields).  The games along the shoreline (celebramus litora ludis, 3. 280), complete with wrestling matches for which bodies have been stripped and oiled ((281-282), imply a boyhood innocence—and emphasize, at the same time, the absence of women from the scene.  By contrast, the journey’s next stop, in Epirus, is haunted by Andromache’s overpoweringly tragic figure—a kind of prelude to Dido’s spiritual collapse, who listens to this narrative little suspecting that she has just foreseen the approximate outlines of her own fate.  Book 3 concludes with the once pastoral image of Polyphemus (still young, keen-sighted, and stunningly ignorant of his ghastly ugliness in Theocritus 11) now transformed into a nightmare (monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum, 658).  The Aeneades have left behind them a dismal wake of ruined gardens, though none as yet ruined by their own efforts.

That has changed by Book 5, as the smoke of Dido’s makeshift pyre stains the horizon quite literally to the stern of Aeneas’s flagship (1-7).  Yet the hero cannot divine what the conflagration means.  He is off, instead, to one more idyllic setting: Sicily, where his remote kinsman King Acestes extends another warm welcome.  Here the travelers stage a second round of athletic events (after those in Delos) to celebrate properly the funeral of old Anchises… but the epic’s tension is beginning to intensify, and images of boyish joy and womanish delirium no longer manage to occupy separate shores.  Some scholars have alleged that this episode was indeed intended to conclude Book 3’s narrative, at the end of which Anchises dies and where genuine funeral games would have been more appropriate.[16]  That Vergil may have found Aeneas’s recitation to Dido growing entirely too long is quite possible—yet the infusion of mania into the new book’s conclusion also signals the looming confrontation between Arcadia and empire which will consume the epic’s second half.  The games themselves come off cleanly enough.  Even when competitors commit rash blunders in the heat of striving or foolishly boast before they have won the prize, little blood flows and no ill will appears to linger.  During the nautical race, the pilot Menoetes is tossed overboard for steering too cautiously, incurring no more pain therefrom than a deep drink of seawater and the light scourge of the crowd’s laughter (5. 181-182).  The ship of Sergestus makes the opposite miscalculation, managing to hang itself upon a shoal during a tight turn, and limps to the finish line derided and without a prize (inrisam sine honore ratem, 272).  Still further folly is manifest when the arrogant Dares claims victory by default in the boxing match since—so he says—no one will venture to take his challenge.  After the wizened Entellus succeeds in landing a terrific blow, Aeneas halts the fight, prevailing upon the young braggart to renounce his lofty dementia and accept the will of the gods (465-467).  To all appearances, the vain youth, though missing a few teeth, is content to yield.  The day’s festive spirit not only resists flagging, but gains momentum  for the archery contest (which concludes in the epic’s only meteoric omen—a shaft spontaneously catching fire in flight—having no direct reference to future movements).  The afternoon is golden, uncompromised by hurt feelings if not by aching bones.  Boys will be boys: Arcadia is not without rough-housing, only without abiding malignity.

This particular Arcadia has so far been without women, as well.  In fact, Roman women seem not to have been permitted at public funerals in most circumstances.  Instead, the matrons of the group are stewing away to one side, “mourning the lost Anchises,” writes Vergil, “and collectively gazing upon the deep sea through their tears” (amissum Anchisen flebant, cunctaeque profundum / pontum aspectabant flentes, 614-615).  Juno does not miss the opportunity to stir trouble from this unwholesome brooding.  Her messenger Iris, disguised as the ancient Beroe, wife of the respected Doryclus, delivers a desperate speech, the gist of which is that the exiled tribe’s wandering will never end.  After Iris/Beroe seizes and hurls a torch, an old nurse of Priam’s children pronounces the act ominous… and the whole group is off and running to the moored ships with any portable fire available.  Altars are even plundered sacrilegiously for firebrands (pars spoliant aras, 661).  The men, alerted to the peril by columns of smoke, manage to save most of the fleet.  The upshot, however, is that almost all females will have to be left in Sicily due to loss of transport.  This resolution may appear to symbolize the imperial vangaurd’s liberation from its manic part.  Yet in light of what follows on the Italian mainland, we should more likely see it as a pollution of boyish good nature, so much on display during the book’s first half, with the lethal fury needed to wage war.  When men are sequestered from women in the Aeneid, their own manic “female” part only erupts the more vigorously, given enough time.

At precisely one point is this not true: the Elysian Fields of the Underworld—and the exception here may indeed be dubious.  At first flush, Elysium certainly seems like a pastoral paradise.

Largior hic campos aether et lumine vestit

purpureo, solemque suum, sua sidera norunt.

Pars in gramineis exercent membra palaestris,

contendunt ludo et fulva luctantur harena;

pars pedibus paludunt choreas et carmina dicunt.

Nec non Threicius longa cum veste sacerdos

obloquitur numeris septem discrimina vocum,

iamque eadem digitis, iam pectine pulsat eburno.

                                                       6. 640-647

Here a more abundant atmosphere hung over the fields with a purple haze.  The inhabitants enjoyed their own sun, their own stars.  Some of them stretched their limbs in rustic wrestling matches or staged a playful competition tussling in the sand.  Some kept time with their feet while chanting festive verses.  That most illustrious Thracian, Orpheus, was there in his long robe, singing metrical responses in seven voices, strumming a lyre now with his fingers, now with an ivory pick.

From end to end of Elysium, no female spirit arises before Aeneas’s inquisitive eyes.  We need not suppose the exclusion premeditated and invidious: after all, the names of distinguished females are not expunged from the roll-call of future worthies which Anchises recites for his son (e.g., Ilia and Berecyntia)—and the Sibyl, naturally, whose prophetic gifts are displayed in fits of frightful raving, remains in attendance.  Yet the immediate panorama of these blessed plains suggests only the bliss of boys at play or of philosophers in quiet converse.  Soft light we have aplenty, but supernaturally softened in a caressing haze, quite without a hint of burn or blaze; and darkness has similarly yielded to gentle shade.  Freed of fear, desire, ambition—freed of women and passion—very nearly (and progressively) freed of all recollection—these stately figures pose an antithesis to those Aeneas observed in the Carthaginian frieze, every one portrayed in excruciating, sometimes macabre anguish.

Yet lest we suppose that here lies some sort of virtuous consummation, an eternal respite for those who did their duty in life, Vergil perversely introduces the theme of reincarnation.  The unborn heroes whom Aeneas glimpses in queue are not merely souls awaiting a body: they are souls having lived countless times already (no doubt in toil) now at the frail peak of ataraxia.  An oblivious purgation of passion-roiled striving from their minds has bestowed upon them as much serenity as they will ever know.  They are about to step right back into the abyss, yet apparently have no inkling of their impending plunge’s depth.  The irony can scarcely be intended: the moment is clearly meant to be exhilarating, even climactic in some ways.  Neither Anchises nor Orpheus nor any of the happy vale’s other denizens expresses any regret about having to re-enter the fray one day, nor any bitterness that, as another Italian poet would write centuries later, the holiday’s best hour is the evening of the preceding work day.  Nevertheless, so it is.  Elysium’s freedom from the female/passion complex of corrosive forces turns out to be just another way of saying that it is a dreamland.

I shall deal with the Aeneid’s second half more thoroughly in this journal’s next issue.  Enough to say here that the Italy where Aeneas lands is much like a projection of Elysium at the receiving end of the heroic queue: the dream’s terrain, that is, in the harsher light of true day.  Old Evander, in particular, a widower with but one son to brighten his last years, is nonetheless fully content with life when Aeneas—at divine instigation—seeks him out as an ally.  The kingdom of Alba Longa is humble but virtuous, after the exquisite Arcadian fashion.  Its citizens are engaged in a yearly ritual honoring Hercules as a strange ship beats upriver to make landfall.  Evander recalls with pleasure having once met Aeneas’s father, and offers the hero and his crew a place at their festival.  The arrangements resemble what we would today call a picnic far more than a complicated rite bristling with arcane symbolism.  Dapes iubet et sublata reponi / pocula gramineoque viros locat ipse sedili: “he [Evander] orders the feast to proceed, the cups restored to their places, and he himself sees to his guests’ grassy seating” (8. 175-176).[17]  The subsequent long narrative about how Hercules once upon a time slew Cacus, a man-eating scourge of the locality, is of course peppered with rage and mortal combat: the giant actually breathes fire and inhabits a cave, so flame, smoke, and shadow punctuate the climax.  Yet the mythic superman kills his adversary bloodlessly, as if the setting’s Edenic influence had somehow purged even this ghastly tale of grotesque savagery.  Neither in the tale nor about the precincts of Evander’s rustic palace, furthermore, flits so much as a female shadow.  Evander informs Aeneas that the wooded landscape was thickly populated by indigenous Fauni Nymphaeque (314) during the blessed reign of Saturn, and also confides something of his personal history of anguish and wandering, the pronouncements of his divine mother Carmenta at last having guided him to safe haven.  The female is numinously present in these remote forests, therefore—but in a generative manner, giving birth and nourishment to a transplanted, innocuous culture.  Evander might indeed have been Aeneas if a preemptive destiny had commanded him to build an empire upon these foundations where brush grows and cattle graze (cf. 347-348 and 360-361).  Introducing his guest into a lowly palace, the old man invites Aeneas to remember that Hercules, too, once passed this way: “Dare to scorn wealth, imitate the god, and view not our thrift harshly” (364-365).  Such ideas are among the noblest of the classical world, resonating as they do with independence, free will, and a contempt of vain acquisition.  Vergil was not alone in being enamored of them.

They are also implicitly inconsistent with the idea of empire, however, which requires that one surrender one’s will to a vision of conquest, power, and affluence.  By the time war’s madness has sent its many cracks through Alba Longa’s pastoral landscape, Evander is a broken man, vowing to follow his son’s spirit to the Underworld as soon as possible (11. 181).  From a pastoral Elysium where purified souls wait to occupy the bodies of heroes, we have come to a pastoral backwater where the activity of heroes has left a kind old man longing for the Underworld.  The circle is closed, without any apparent possibility of release, its prospect capable of driving any thoughtful person to despair.  The rest of this green new world to the west, Hesperia, is already prowled by female Furies intent upon sabotage and vexed by queens and princesses of unquenchable ambition or of tormenting beauty.  Perhaps the only way out is to force one’s way forward… but perhaps to use force is but to work one’s way deeper in.

   V.  What It All Means (First Attempt)

     In my years of trying to sort out the Vergilian vision of the cosmos, I eventually settled upon the image of an Arcadian island gnawed constantly by waves of wrath, fear, greed, envy, and the rest.  These noxious surges are stirred not by a mighty Poseidon (who, during his only direct appearance in the epic, calms rather than rouses the seas), but by female deities ranging from that insatiable harridan Juno to the nightmarish Allecto to the personified busy-body Fama.  To the male deities (I blithely assumed) is consigned the island’s unstable peace—unstable largely because these gods, almost comatosely lulled by the idyll they have founded or the idyll they are planning, fail to foresee the next tsunami.  They dine with old men (widowers every one) who partake of their vision sufficiently to organize rustic games and simple, pious rites enacted in shady vales.  I had in fact employed a visual representation—a kind of “sketch”—of the pastoral drama just described in teaching my undergraduate courses for several years before growing dissatisfied with it.  The picture I posed my students seemed to unravel a lot of feverishly interlaced mortal and immortal activity, especially, in a simplistic way that students reading translated excerpts could appreciate.  The graphic looked something like this:

S U R R O U N D I N G   S E A   O F   P A S S I O N S

          GREED                              VENGEANCE                              LUST

  Greek plunder of Troy,              Juno’s hatred of Trojans,       Coroebus’s fatal attraction

Polydorus’s murder, Cam-         Dido’s cursing of Trojans,       to Cassandra, Dido’s love,

    illa’s fatal inattention          Aeneas’s slaughter of Turnus           Amata’s obsession?


A R C A D I A N    I S L A N D    ( E D E N )

Pastoral Island of Eclogues and Georgics

      sufficiency, not luxury

      peace and brotherhood

       simple rules followed by all


Presiding Male Rulers/Gods

   Acestes (Sicily)      Evander (Alba Longa)

Anius (Delos)    Anchises (Elysium)

   Jupiter       Neptune


               ENVY                                PANIC                            VAINGLORY

                   Juno’s of Venus,                 Dido the Bacchante,          Neoptolemus’s brutality,

       Iarbas’s of Aeneas,             Trojan women in Sicily,            Iarbas’s impiety,

              Turnus’s of Aeneas           riot after Silvia’s deer slain        Turnus’s belligerence

                F E M A L E   S P I R I T S   I N C I T I N G   U N R E S T

               Juno      Fama      Iris      Celaeno      Allecto      Juturna

     There is little of the creative here, really, let alone of the shocking.  The model is fully Socratic, after all, with the soul’s reigning element—reason—presiding over the more bestial elements susceptible to impulse.  To be sure, reason’s reign is deeply trouble in Vergil, and perhaps hopelessly compromised.  That the Roman poet did not share Socrates’s confidence in the eventual triumph of enlightenment may scarcely be said, however, to fly in the face of the classical disposition.  No less an Athenian oracle than Euripides anticipated Vergil’s reservations.  Worthy of special note in the light of my foregoing discussion is the distinct tendency of Euripidean women (most famously Medea and Phaedra, not to mention the Bacchae) to represent the irrational in an invincible and destructive manner.  They may quite likely have influenced Vergil’s Muse.[18]

We know, too, that Vergil was very much an Arcadian—a votary of the pastoral life.  The Eclogues and Georgics, upon which his poetic reputation was securely founded before he was commissioned to undertake an epic, are by no means rigid imitations of Theocritus and Hesiod.  They seem, rather, a paean to the simple existence which one might well expect of a man who had come through Rome’s ruinous civil war with little more than his life.  If Vergil was a follower of Epicurus, into the bargain, as many scholars have argued, then he would have embraced the formal creed of retiring from the crush of sordid, raucous special interests and cultivating his own garden.  Let us recall that the highest good to Epicurus was not pleasure (that dubious distinction belonged first to Aristippus), but freedom from pain.  If the spirits inhabiting Vergil’s Elysian Fields enjoy any sort of pleasure at all (and they are obviously offered up by the poet as definitively happy), it is the sort found in quiet conversation and childishly innocent competition, not in the least akin to the sensual thrill of hedonism.

Johnson captures all the essentials of Vergil’s pastoral ideal in summarizing the Epicurean’s outlook:

For the Epicurean temperament, the social order, which is a kind of perversion of friendship, can do little good but can do and invite endless harm.  Since the Epicurean ideal is freedom from ignorance for the individual, the body politic only serves to nourish what it feeds upon—fear of catastrophe, dependence upon changing circumstances—in short, painful, destructive illusions about things as they are and men’s proper good.  An Epicurean can manage, without deluding himself, to find and safeguard the garden that is his because, very strictly speaking, it does not matter in what city his garden my be; he is, by definition, a fierce and proud émigré.[19]

     Concludes Johnson, “Why should an Epicurean attempt to write not merely a foundation epic, but the Foundation Epic?”[20]  For this philosophic profile of thrift, independence, and introversion, one must admit, looks rather odd on the résumé of an epic-writer—particularly one who is to sing the glories, not merely of an individual or of a certain war, but of an evolving empire.  Greek philosophy in general was a poor fit with the Roman ethic of public sacrifice.  Stoicism had to make a major adjustment in moving west, its Greek founders having shown little interest in extending the realm of duty beyond a deeply introverted kind of will power.  The younger Scipio was a Stoic of this new, more westerly stamp—and he perished backing the wrong side (or the right one, if you are an idealist rather than a pragmatist) in that same ruinous civil war which Vergil narrowly survived, doing his public duty unto the bitter end.  In the section of Cicero’s Republic called Scipio’s Dream, old Africanus stresses to his grandson that the gods are pleased by nothing so much as active service to a virtuous state, even when such good servants are not appreciated in their lifetimes by the populace (Res Publica 6. 13).

Perhaps we find something analogous to this passage in Vergil’s dozing male Olympians.  They see the big picture, the grand scheme, and it so anesthetizes them to petty squabbling that they are apt to be rudely awakened when a squabble boils up into an eruption.  The paradox of such right-mindedness could indeed be said to run very deep, the inviolable serenity of a grand vision encircling the many bursts of extreme vigor required to enact that vision’s particular programs.  It is at precisely such moments that I recall the Bhagavad-Gita (not to mention various more modern projects to build visionary states at sword- or gunpoint).

So the friction between Vergil the Arcadian and Vergil the epic bard may have been genuinely intense—sufficiently so that he might have left instructions for the Aeneid to be burned after his death, as Suetonius claims.  Yet such friction, at the same time, might have been fairly common among thoughtful Romans.  Aeneas himself could be viewed as the paradigm of the empire’s conflicted footsoldier: called hither by his natural love of peace to settle wherever the waves wash him and harvest his garden, called thither by his duty to an artificial but benign state to resist nature and aggressively spread civilization’s laws.  I doubt that all of Vergil’s fellow Romans were too dense to appreciate the realism of this anguish, or that Augustus himself was too despotic to accept a portrait of honest torment more happily than one of standard propagandistic folderol.  Aeneas does soldier on, after all.  Commentators have cannily noticed that he doesn’t speak to his son Ascanius in the epic’s second half, and that he generally grows two-dimensional in grim resolve as his mission nears completion; but perhaps this is to say no more than that he has at last squared destiny’s burden on his broad shoulders.  It is a fact (though an unremarked one, as far as I know) that Aeneas’s battle fury, contrary to Book 2’s precedent, is never described as amens or insanus during the Italian campaign, though the words furor and furens continue to crop up.

What I have just said does not contradict the conventional European reading of the Aeneid, as championed by the likes of C. S. Lewis, Brooks Otis, and my erstwhile professor, Karl Galinsky.  This school has been far less inclined than I to concede the epic’s spiritual friction, in the first place; but its members would probably be satisfied that I had reached the right conclusion at last.  Vergil was not a subversive.  Naturally, his epic teaches that service is demanding.  Where would be the virtue in an easy task?  To suppose that Vergil would have represented the foundational struggles of the Roman Empire, however, as toxic to the hero’s soul would be simply outrageous—the excess of a bunch of Yanks who could not live down their own recent failure in Vietnam; for, though the Europeans did not designate Adam Parry, Michael Putnam, and others of the Harvard School in such blunt terms, their assessment was that the Americans had responded too naively to the new reader-response criticism.

Yet we are left with Laocoon and Evander—men of exemplary piety who wish only to preserve their tribe, and who must witness the extermination of their line by divine rage as divine justice lifts not a finger; and also with the frieze of the Trojan War adorning Carthage’s entrance—scenes selected deliberately for their depravity which go far beyond an inglorious “war is hell” grimness.  This is all too much.  The standard European reading of such misery continues to be, apparently, “that Laocoon’s real offence is that… he has stood in the way of history and destiny.  Omelettes cannot be made without breaking eggs: the ways of God are not our ways….”[21]  In a post-Homeric, post-Socratic world, however, where man is commonly accepted to have a little god within him (in the formulation of Epictetus—and of Christ), God’s ways are our ways insofar as the human conscience may tap into the inspiration of supreme goodness.  Whatever Vergil’s metaphysical beliefs, his heroic creations plainly expect not only that the gods will favor the obedient but that they will the good of the faithful.  Certainly there is never a suggestion that Aeneas suspects a conflict between divine will and the good of his people: quite the contrary.

Vergil cannot merely be saying that life is hard, therefore, and that real men face and deal with the hardship.  Life in the Aeneid is more than hard, especially for virtuous people: it is a moral outrage, an exploitative lie, generated or at least connived at by the high powers which claim a right to dutiful service.  If Laocoon’s and Evander’s plight is indeed Aeneas’s in microcosm, then the frieze is perhaps Vergil’s.  Commissioned to create a work of art about the brave deeds of heroes in time of war, he awes his audience with his technical skill.  Horses seem literally to snort and neigh, swords to rasp and clang, widows and orphans to shriek and wail.  In their enthusiasm, the work’s consumers very likely fail to notice what is, after all, less than conspicuous by its absence: real heroism.  Miguel de Unamuno once wrote, echoing his beloved Don Quixote, “Sí, para vivir muriendo nació todo género de heroísmo”: “Yes, every variety of heroism is born of dying as one lives.” [22]  We are back to Aeneas’s declaration that the only hope for the vanquished is to have no hope at all.  But Aeneas does hope, and in a way which Don Quixote uprightly resists.  He piously believes in the coming of a terrestrial paradise, while the would-be knight-errant understands that he can only wander while on earth.  In his vain hopes, the demigod is perhaps more insane than The Knight of the Sorrowful Figure—who at least knows who he is and who he may be, if he will.  Aeneas appears to know neither; for he would be the apotheosis of duty which sits athwart his high destiny, yet the pursuit of that impossible instar mires him in a being created from one moral tumble after another.

    Much as I would like to argue that Aeneas triumphs internally over passion as he triumphs externally over destiny’s obstacles (for this would render the Aeneid wonderfully coherent), the formulation doesn’t work.  If we see less emotion in the Aeneas of the work’s second half, it is because we view his character less intimately there, as if destiny had now sealed all possible portals for spiritual development once the new war had spilt new blood.  To argue thus can grow tendentious, yes: easier just to read the epic as most Romans must have done—to face the fact, in other words, that it was commissioned propaganda.  And the haunting clusters of imagery, the ambiguity of the main character’s acts, the increasing opacity of his motives, the radical contradictions running rampant among the Olympian gods… the author’s deathbed instructions that the work be destroyed… is all of this, too, then, merely an argumentative quibble, since the rank and file would have paid it little notice?

In the second part of this essay, I intend to reconsider my diagram of the troubled pastoral island.  I intend, particularly, to reject the position which I therein awarded to the male deities presiding over the cosmos.  For a second look at the evidence, I believe, must lead us to conclude that the epic’s most fundamental conflict lies not in the passionate rages of female spirits, nor even in the frustrated faith of virtuous mortals serving feckless gods: it is in those male deities themselves, rather—in Jupiter, especially, who insists upon his grand vision yet will not supply the attention and support necessary for its execution.  The inspiration for virtuous striving turns out not to justify the devoted service which it receives without question.



[11] Darkness Visible: A Study of Vergil’s Aeneid (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1976), 135.

[12] Cf. Galinsky’s review of S. M. Braund and C. Gill (eds.), The Passions in Roman Thought and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997), published in Vergilius 43 (1997): 89-100.  Here Galinsky takes on the entire phalanx of younger scholars who would “judge Aeneas by hypothetical, abstract norms that are far removed from the fullness of human experience” (99).  The rebuke is not unmerited—but it poorly addresses the malevolent, anguishing role of Vergil’s gods in human experience.  

[13] Such a view of wrath as bestializing would by no means be anachronistic.  Seneca devoted three essays to anger (De Ira) which generally reject the Aristotelian case for anger as a necessary midpoint in combat between fear and frenzy.  Of course, in Vergil we indeed witness—at least on this occasion—a kind of battle frenzy which surpasses even genuine anger.

[14] It is true that Venus reveals to her son the prospect of Neptune’s actively dismantling Troy as that same fateful day closes (2. 610-12)—the god’s sapping aided lustily, to be sure, by Juno and Minerva.  My point here depends not upon the accepted mythological causes of Troy’s fall, but upon Vergil’s representation of them.  The death of Laocoon is instigated by a female power and—in strictly narrative terms—passes unnoticed by a male power that might have been expected to show interest, if not regret.

[15] The romantic image of the female warrior has roots running at least as deep as the accounts of Herodotus—who associates a group of Scythian Amazons, significantly, with warfare on horseback.  The redoubtable Gordafaríd of the Iranian epic Shahname also fights from the saddle.  This seems to be Camilla’s modus operandi during her greatest triumphs in Book 11 (and her relinquishment of her horse in angry response to a taunt the begging of her end: illa furens acrique accensa dolore / tradit equum comiti”—note the presence of fury and fire in her deportment).  Mounted women might credibly have been at least the equivalent of male warriors, for their horses would move faster under the lighter load and hence impart more speed to whatever missile was launched.

[16] See Gordon Williams, Technique and Ideas in the Aeneid (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1983), 278-281.

[17] The adjective gramineus, “grassy”, is used only six times in the epic.  We saw it appear above in the context of Elysium, and another occurrence belongs to the athletic contests of Book 5.  It may therefore be taken as a strong indicator that Vergil regards a certain scene as Arcadian and untainted.

[18] Of course, Greek mythology generally promoted the association of the female with the irrational: Euripides did not create his characters in a vacuum.  E. R. Dodds’s Appendix I, “Maenadism”, in The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1951), 270-282, mentions Euripides repeatedly while discussing the stunning midwinter rite of the oreibasia (“going into the mountain”) practiced by Athenian women—and whose violation by Pentheus legendarily led to his mother and sister’s tearing him apart in ecstasy.

[19] Op. cit., 150.

[20] Ibid., 151.

[21] See p. 18 of H. W. Stubbs, “Laocoon Again,” Vergilius 43 (1997): 3-18.

[22] Vida de Don Quixote y Sancho, 7th ed. (Madrid: Catedra, 2008), 452.


John Harris is president and founder of The Center for Literate Values.  He received his doctorate in Comparative Literature from the University of Texas at Austin, and is now employed as a visiting lecturer by the Tyler branch of that system.