The frailty of merit

lIt is in Virgil’s world of incessant divine interference that the problem of induction be­comes most acute. Here even the most securely established regularity may be upset the next moment. This is true throughout the Aeneid, but nowhere is it more acute than in book V. At first this book seems to fit strangely into the arc of the story: how do these exiles, still not arrived in Italy, find time or heart for a series of athletic contests? Later events in the book more closely tie in to the overarching narrative, but the games seem an awkward interlude. Not so. The book establishes the absolute dominion of divine will over merely human merit. The games show this in a relatively low-stakes context, but the stakes rapidly rise as the book proceeds.

Within the first hundred lines of the book, we are given three references to the insecurity of human knowledge. First, Aeneas’ helmsman Palinurus:

No long reach eastward there’s a loyal coast,
I think: the land named for your brother, Eryx,
And the Sicilian ports – if I remember
Rightly my star heights and my miles at sea. (V.30-33)

And then Aeneas himself, announcing the games:

……………………………………….And if I
Am not mistaken, now that day as come
Which I shall hold in bitterness and honor
All my life (gods, you would have it so). (V.64-67)

Then, too, if as we trust nine days from now
Dawn lifts for mortals her dear light and bares
The world with sunrays, I shall plan and hold
Contests for Trojans. (V.86-89)

Even the rising of the sun in the morning, that most dependable of regularities, comes into question.

As it happens, each of these expectations is met: Palinurus successfully guides the crew to Eryx, it is indeed the anniversary of Anchises’ death, and Dawn does bare the world nine successive times. The stage, however, is set: the security of our expectations is in jeopardy.

Then come the games themselves. The very idea of such athletic competitions – at least to my contemporary sensibilities – is to test one’s merit, that mix of innate ability and deliberate training. It is predicated on induction, on the predictable fact that (allowing for some fluctuation) the more talented athlete will emerge victorious more often than not. Yet in each of the games (with one possible exception), something other than merit determines the outcome.

In the ship race, Mnestheus is set to pull off a thrilling, come-from-behind victory over Cloanthus:

The prows now even, they were close indeed
To winning, had Cloanthus not stretched out
His hands to seaward and in bursts of prayer
Called on the gods to hear his vows… (V.298-301)

The gods listened: “Father Portunus, the harbord god, / With his great hand impelled the Scylla onward” (V.312-13). Now perhaps Cloanthus merited the victory (he successfully pulled off a risky maneuver earlier in the race), but it was not his merit that decided it.

In the foot-race, merit would clearly award the victory to Nisus, who far outstrips the other runners. However:

…………………..But in the home stretch now
The tired men were making for the finish
When Nisus stumbled by bad luck, in gore –
A slippery place where beasts had been cut down
And blood gushed on the turf soaking the grass. (V.416-20)

Nisus further trips up the second fastest runner, Salius, in order to ensure victory for his “beloved,” Euryalus. While not obviously divine intervention, the presence of the blood on the track is attributed by Nisus to Fortune (V.455). In any case, it is not merit that decides the race.

The boxing match is the one possible exception: Entellus defeats Darës without any foul play, obvious accidents, or anything of the like. Entellus is, moreover, a famed fighter. And yet he is also old, and sluggish, and initially refuses to fight on those grounds. Darës clearly is favored to win. However, after he is knocked to the ground, Entellus gets up and, inspired by a mix of rage and shame, furiously attacks Darës, winning the match. It seems fair enough, yet here is how Aeneas comforts Darës:

………………………………….Don’t you feel
A force now more than mortal is against you
And heaven’s will has changed? (V.603-05)

Whether there was divine intervention or not, the deviation from expectation is attributed to such interference.

In the final game, the archery, things are quite straightforward: the archers must shoot a dove tethered to the top of a mast. The first archer, Hippocoön, hits the mast. The second, Mnestheus, comes close, but ends up merely severing the cord without hitting the dove itself. The dove is now flying freely, making it even more impressive that the third archer, Eurytion, successfully shoots it down, as Virgil describes in this gorgeous passage:

………………………………In a flash, Eurytion,
Long ready with his bow bent, arrow drawn,
And whispering to his archer brother’s shade
As he tracked the dove delighting in open sky
With clapping wings, now put his arrow through her
Under a black cloud. Down she plummeted
And left her life in the upper air of stars,
But brought down with her the transfixing shaft. (V.660-67)

So far, so good. But there is still Acestës, the fourth and final contestant:

The arrow flying in thin cloud caught fire
And left a track of flame until, burnt out,
It vanished in the wind – as shooting stars
Will often slip away across the sky
Trailing their blown hair. (V.676-80)

This is taken as a sign from the gods (“poets / Far in the future fabled it in awe”), and Acestës is awarded the prize. Merit has, once again, failed to decide the match.

I have gone through the games in such detail because they foreshadow the more momentous happenings of the second half of the book. After the games, as the youth are performing a mock battle on horseback, Juno sends her messenger, Iris, to perform some mischief.

…………………………………..Iris put off
Her aspect as a goddess, and her gown,
To take the form of aged Beroë. (V.797-99)

So disguised, Iris urges the Trojan women to burn the Trojan ships. Have they not had enough of traveling, of the uncertainty of exile? They have found a friendly shore. Why not stop there? But one of the women, Pyrgo has good sense:

………………………………Do not take her
For Beroë: this is not she, the Rhoetean
Wife of Doryclus, mothers. Just observe
What traits she has of more than mortal beauty,
Her blazing eyes, her audacity, her face,
Her voice, her stride. I tell you, I myself
Left Beroë just now, and she is ill… (V.835-41)

At this, the women look toward the ships,

………………………..half in unhappy love
Of landscapes there before them, half still bound
To fated realms calling them onward… (V.847-49)

They are undecided, not knowing whom to follow. Then Iris “on strong wings went up to the sky / Traversing a great rainbow under clouds” (V.850-51). Despite confirming Pyrgo’s warning, this sets the women into a frenzy, and they burn the ships.

It is this act of divine interference that the games foreshadowed. It is the ultimate disrupting of merit: Pyrgo’s warning, which had helped create the women’s indecision, is proven wholly correct, yet precisely in being shown to be correct it loses its power. Truth cannot compete with divine caprice.

The book ends with one final assault on merit. Venus, worried, turns to Neptune, beseeching him to look kindly on Aeneas’ crew and see them safely to Italy. Neptune placates her:

Dispel your fear. He shall, as you desire,
Enter Avernus port. One shall be lost,
But only one to look for, lost at sea:
One life given for many. (V.1063-66)

No reason is given here as to why a life must be lost. Nor is any given later. It is a wholly arbitrary sacrifice. And, once again, it involves a mockery of merit. At night, Somnus visits Palinurus as he guides the ship and tries to tempt him to sleep. Palinurus resists:

Forget my good sense for this peaceful face
The sea puts on, the calm swell? Put my trust
In that capricious monster? Or hand over
Aeneas to the tricky winds, when I
Have been deceived so often by clear weather? (V.1110-14)

Palinurus is wholly guiltless, yet Somnus puts him to sleep anyway, then flings him “down / In the clear water, breaking off with him / A segment of the stern and steering oar” (V.1123-25). There is no cause for this. It is simply one more awful proof of the frailty of merit against the will of the divine.

I began this post with a remark on the problem of induction. Against this backdrop, Aeneas’ lament for Palinurus takes on especial poignancy:

………………………………For counting
Overmuch on a calm world, Palinurus,
You must lie naked on some unknown shore. (V.1139-41)



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