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Virgil

Well, I am reading the Aeneid again (Ruden, this time). I was struck, as I read the fourth book, by a similarity that at first struck me as interesting though likely incidental, but that, as I read, came to seem more and more deliberate on Virgil’s part. In brief, I think Aeneas is, for Dido, a sort of Trojan horse.

Virgil gives the story of the Trojan horse in the second book. The Greeks build a massive wooden horse, with Greek soldiers hidden inside, then pretend to leave (in fact they hide on a nearby island). The Trojans, thinking the Greeks gone, come out to examine the horse, rightly suspecting some sort of ploy. Laocoön even throws a spear into the horse, eliciting a strange groaning sound. But a Greek youth is captured and brought before Priam. Pleading that he has escaped the Greeks, who wished to offer him as a sacrifice, he tells a fantastic tale that convinces the Trojans that the last thing the Greeks want is for the Trojans to take the horse to their citadel. Indeed, the Greeks made the horse so big precisely to prevent it from fitting through the entrances to Troy. This story is apparently confirmed when two snakes emerge from the sea and eat Laocoön and his sons, apparently a divine punishment for striking the horse with the spear. So the Trojans “cut the walls” (2.234) and bring the horse inside. At nightfall, of course, Troy goes up in flames, finished forever.

Abstractly put, the Trojans trust an apparent exile. On the basis of this trust, they weaken their defenses, taking into their city the very cause of their downfall.

What happens to Dido in book four? Just the same, more or less. Aeneas arrives at her city, and Jove softens Dido’s heart so that she accepts him. He tells, for two whole books, the sad story of his exile. The effect is to make Dido fall in love with him. Here we must back up, and revisit events from book one. There, we learned that Dido’s former husband was murdered, and that she has sworn never to love again, a vow she has until this point kept. Behind the scenes, however, Venus has swapped out Ascanius (Aeneas’ son) for Cupid, who breaches Dido’s defenses and makes her come to love Aeneas. Returning now to book four, Dido, against her better judgment, allows Aeneas into her hurt. But Fate impels him onward, and when he leaves, it drives her to suicide.

Abstractly put, Dido trusts an exile. On the basis of this trust, she weakens her defenses, taking into her heart the very cause of her downfall.

Are these mere loose parallels? At a high enough level of abstraction, anything can be made to seem similar to anything. What reason is there to think that Virgil intended these similarities? Or, if one distrusts intentionalism in interpretation, what reason is there to think that these similarities are salient to understanding Virgil’s poem?

For one thing, the similarities are not merely abstract. Dido’s struggle between the choices of loving Aeneas or squelching that love mirrors the discussion among the Trojans over what to do with the horse. In both cases, better judgment appears to have the upper hand. Dido emphatically rejects her passion:

But let the earth first gape to its foundation,
Or the all-powerful father’s lightning drive me
To the pale shades of Erebus and deep night,
Before I shamefully break Honor’s laws.
The man who first was part of me has taken
My love. He ought to keep it where he’s buried. (4.24-29)

But this resolve is weakened when her sister, Anna, points out to her the advantages of having Aeneas and the Trojans as allies. Carthage is in a precarious position, and could use the strength. This doesn’t convince Dido (she doesn’t love Aeneas for his soldiers, as it were), but it does make “the spark of passion blaze” (4.53).

Even still, this might not be enough. Dido does not “marry” (she and Aeneas rather disagree over the appropriateness of this word) Aeneas until their encounter in the cave, to which they were driven by “the all-powerful father’s lightning.” Just as in the case of Sinon, mere words from mere mortals do not suffice. Divine intervention is needed.

Moreover, the very terms in which Virgil describes Dido’s succumbing to her passion—Anna’s words “made the spark of passion blaze”—foreshadow her downfall. For when she kills herself, and when Rumor spreads the news throughout the city, Virgil makes this comparison:

Long-drawn-out shrieks of grief and women’s keening
Brimmed from the buildings. Anguish filled the sky,
As if invading troops brought Carthage down—
Or ancient Tyre were sacked—and flames were scaling
The rooftops of the houses and the temples. (4.667-71)

After this passage, there can be no doubt that we are to read the fall of Dido as akin to the fall of Troy.

Of course, there are differences. Sinon is a liar, an extension of Ulysses’ trademark Greek cunning. He is in on the trick. In the case of Dido, however, Aeneas is unaware of Venus’ plot, and unaware that Dido loves him against her will. He is, in this sense, innocent. (In other senses, he is manifestly not.) We may sympathize with Aeneas in a way we perhaps don’t with Sinon, though, in my view, this scene should make us at least somewhat more understanding of Sinon: we should not dismiss him simply because his interests do not match up with the interests of the Trojans.

Regardless of how book four reflects on our assessment of Sinon, however, it certainly forces us to recognize an inherent terribleness in Fate, and even more so an inherent injustice in the way the gods set about ensuring that Fate. And that recognition is essential to Virgil’s method throughout the Aeneid. As much as he makes Aeneas admirable, he never makes him unambiguously so, and he certainly never makes Aeneas’ fate unambiguously good. It is merely Fate: good for Aeneas because he is the immediate beneficiary, good for the Romans because they are the long-term beneficiaries, terrible, and unjustly so, for nearly everyone else.

 

The transition between book six and book seven of Virgil’s Aeneid is the turning point of the poem. Crudely considered, it is the moment the Aeneid changes from a Roman Odyssey to a Roman Iliad. And Virgil marks this transition with an invocation of the muse Erato:

And now, Erato, who were the kings
And what was the state of ancient Latium
When this foreign army landed in Italy?
Help me, Goddess, your sacred poet,
Recall the prelude to the hostilities,
For I will tell of war’s horror, of pitched battle,
Heroes driven by courage to meet their doom,
Of Etruscan squadrons, and all Hesperia
Pressed into arms. A higher order of things
Opens before me; a greater work now begins.

Curiously, however, these are the 44th through 53rd lines of Aeneid book seven. Why the longish preamble?

A first pass at an answer might be as follows. Book six ends with Aeneas leaving the realm of the dead and sailing to Caieta’s harbor. From there, Aeneas must still make one last voyage to reach the Tiber, the main center of action for the remainder of the poem. That voyage must be described before the invocation of Erato is proper. Since that would make for an anticlimactic ending to book six, it functions much better as the intro to book seven.

All of that is true, but shallow. Virgil accomplishes much more in those forty-three lines than simply conveying a necessary plot point. The way he describes the voyage from Caieta’s harbor to the Tiber itself signals the conclusion of the first half of the story and the beginning of the second, in two ways.

First, before the voyage even begins, death claims one more member of Aeneas’ party: Caieta, who nursed him when he was an infant. (It is from her that Caieta’s harbor takes its name.) So far as I can recall, Caieta is the last remaining familial link between Aeneas and Troy. His wife Creüsa was lost in book two and his father Anchises in book three. There is, of course, still Iülus, but he represents the Aeneas’ future line in Latium, and is not so strictly tied to Troy. Caieta’s death thus symbolizes a complete break with Troy except as a memory. Much more than the invocation of Erato, her death declares that what follows is to be something different.

Only after she dies do they set sail for their final landing spot. One reason why this trip can be described so briefly (<40 lines) is because it conspicuously lacks drama. Virgil doesn’t hide this fact; rather, he makes sure we are aware of it:

And from those shores could also be heard
Lions roaring and snapping at their chains
Late into the night, the raging of bristled boars
And caged bears, and huge wolf-shapes howling.
All these were men whom Circe had cruelly drugged
And clad in the hides and faces of beasts.
But Neptune, to save the good Trojans
From these monstrous transformations,
Kept them from landing on those deadly shores,
Filling their sails with wind, and bearing them past
The seething shoals and out of danger. (7.19-29)

What is interesting in this episode is what does not happen: the Trojans do not land on Circe’s shores, are not turned into wild beasts. They reach the Tiber without incident. Where Caieta’s death signaled Aeneas’ break with Troy, this non-episode signals the Aeneid’s break with the Odyssey.

To see this, compare this scene to that in book three, in which Aeneas and his crew land in Sicily and pick up Achaemenides, a member of Ulysses’ crew left behind to fend for his own against the Cyclopes (see my posts here and here). One reason why that scene appears in the Aeneid is to draw a parallel between Virgil’s poem and Homer’s (and, of course, to use this parallel as a way also to highlight their differences).

By contrast, in book seven, Virgil draws attention to the fact that the opportunity for another such parallel was present, but not taken. It was not taken because it was no longer appropriate: the time had come for something new.

Only after these two severances—the breaking of Aeneas’ last living tie to Troy, and the breaking of the Aeneid/Odyssey parallel—was Virgil ready to begin his “greater work,” and to ask Erato’s aid in his task.

 

I imagine Virgil, as he wrote the Aeneid, found this challenge most vexing: how could he make interesting a story that is inexorably driven to a fated end that is known from the start? By this I do not mean the challenge of how to keep a story interesting when the ending is “spoiled” (as we call it nowadays), for that challenge is simply that of making good art in the first place (since good art is worth experiencing more than once). Rather, fate provides a more specific challenge. What fate threatens is the moral ambiguity that is at the heart of a good story. When a certain outcome is fated, approved by the gods, it becomes easy to judge all that approaches that outcome as good, all that obstructs it as bad.

Abstractly, the solution is that fate leaves a lot of leeway for how, exactly the outcome is reached. Certainly it can be complicated, and the hindrances are real. Moreover, fate is cruel and indifferent: those outside its path get thrown away with reckless abandon. Together, these create space for the needed ambiguity. The first allows for an indirect course, as others fight, with more or less success, against the dictates of fate. The second allows that they should be innocent in doing so.

That is the theoretical resolution to the problem, though of course it takes a great artist to achieve it in practice. Virgil is a great artist, and his handling of the story of Dido in Aeneid book 4 is an especially potent illustration. At the end of the book, Virgil puts it bluntly: “Her death was neither fated nor deserved” (4.812). Not fated, not an essential part of Aeneas’ course for Italy, and not deserved, for she was fundamentally innocent. In an epic full of large and small tragedies of the innocent, the death of Dido is probably the largest.

But let us begin with the gods, returning to Dido only after an interlude. In the first book of the Aeneid, Juno established herself as a breaker of contracts, unleashing the winds that drove Aeneas to Carthage. As a result, afraid that the fierce Carthaginians would be inhospitable to Aeneas and his crew, Venus sent Cupid to make Dido infatuated with Aeneas. This is really a terrible act. Yes, it protects Aeneas. But it also causes Dido, through no fault of her own, to break her scrupulously kept vow never to remarry, in honor of Sychaeus, her murdered husband. Venus callously strips her of her honor and, in the end, her life.

The struggle between Juno and Venus continues, with Juno proposing to have Dido and Aeneas marry. Her aim is twofold, to strengthen Carthage and protect Dido (Dido is a favorite of hers) and to keep Aeneas out of Italy. In making this proposal, she confronts Venus with a bitter charge:

“An outstanding victory! What a memorable display
Of divine power by you and your little boy,
Two devious deities laying low a single woman!” (4.109-11)

What any fairminded person reading this passage must recognize is that Juno is entirely justified in this accusation. In making his reader recognize this, Virgil captures genuine moral ambiguity: even the person (or god) furthering fate can be in the wrong, can be cruel and worthy of being despised.

Despite the insult, Venus assents to Juno’s proposal, but secretly she schemes. While we don’t know quite what happened in the cave with Dido and Aeneas, it is clear that Dido emerged convinced that they had married, while Aeneas was content to consider it merely a torrid affair. I suspect Venus was behind this trickery.

Eventually, fate comes calling, and Aeneas must leave Dido behind. Recall that, in her love for Aeneas (thrust upon her against her will), she has broken the vow that was the backbone of her strength (if not happiness). There is thus a real sense in which he is all she has left. Naturally, she is upset that he is leaving. The speech in which he attempts to pacify her is a masterpiece. I give it in full:

………………………………………….“My Queen,
I will never deny that you have earned my gratitude,
In more ways than can be said; nor will I ever regret
Having known Elissa, as long as memory endures
And the spirit still rules these limbs of mine.
I do have a few things to say on my own behalf.
I never hoped to steal away from your land
In secret, and you should never imagine I did.
Nor have I ever proposed marriage to you
Or entered into any nuptial agreement.
If the Fates would allow me to lead my own life
And to order my priorities as I see fit,
The welfare of Troy would be my first concern,
And the remnants of my own beloved people.
Priam’s palace would still be standing
And Pergamum rising from the ashes of defeat.
But now the oracles of Gryneian Apollo,
Of Lycian Apollo, have commanded with one voice
That the great land of Italy is my journey’s end.
There is my love, my country. If the walls
Of Carthage, vistas of a Libyan city,
Have a hold on you, a Phoenician woman,
Why do you begrudge the Trojans
A settlement in Ausonia? We too have the right
To seek a kingdom abroad.
………………………………….The troubled ghost
Of my father, Anchises, admonishes me
Every night in my dreams, when darkness
Covers the earth, and the fiery stars rise.
And my dear son, Ascanius—am I to wrong him
By cheating him of his inheritance,
A kingdom in Hesperia, his destined land?
And now the gods’ herald, sent by Jove himself,
(I swear by your head and mine) has come down
Through the rushing winds, ordering me to leave.
I saw the god myself, in broad daylight,
Entering the walls, and heard his very words.
So stop wounding both of us with your pleas.
It is not my own will—this quest for Italy.” (4.378-415)

This speech is a mire of ambiguity. Aeneas just doesn’t know what he wants to say. He starts by attempting to tell her how much their relationship means to him, though he doesn’t seem to realize that the fact that he is leaving undermines this. This carries him for a few lines, but then he cannot help but try to explain himself, to make his course seem justified. In doing so, however, he ends up disowning, twice, his own destiny: “If the Fates would allow me to lead my own life” and “It is not my own will—this quest for Italy.” How much more must it wound Dido to find that it is not even a competing passion that sunders them, but simply a grudgingly accepted duty? Aeneas also attempts one more sympathetic justification (should he cheat his son of his inheritance), but this, too, likely wounds more than it helps, for Aeneas has not even given Dido a son of her own.

Aeneas’ thought process here is eminently understandable, on two levels. It is understandable, first, because the experience of bungling an explanation of oneself to those one has wronged is common. Second, Aeneas is trying to translate the commands of the gods into reasoning understandable to humans. And he just can’t do it. He tries to connect it to normal human motivations. If Dido, a Phoenician, can have her Carthage, why can’t Aeneas have a settlement in Ausonia? And doesn’t his son deserve the best Aeneas can give him? But even as he makes these arguments, he undermines them, forced to admit that “It is not my own will.” Aeneas’ fate makes him something inhuman, and in following it he takes on its callous indifference. Yet within him still beats a human heart, and his passion persists. His fate thus divides him in two: not only Dido, but also Aeneas is a victim of the gods. And that, perhaps, is the epic’s deepest and most painful moral ambiguity.

The last time I read book 3 of the Aeneid, I wrote about the strange episode where Aeneas and his crew flee from Polyphemus. The scene is strange for its lack of any real tension. It is not a thrilling escape from danger. Excitement was not Virgil’s intent in placing that scene in his poem. I tried to find another motivation in his sympathy for Polyphemus, whose eye Odysseus had gouged out.

But there is another reason for the scene as well, and that will be my focus here. Just prior to their flight from Polyphemus, Aeneas and his crew meet Achaemenides, a holdover from Odysseus’ crew. In their escape from Polyphemus’ cave, Odysseus and his men had apparently forgotten Achaemenides, and he had spent the next three months on the island, surviving on wild fruit and roots in the forest. On seeing Aeneas arrive, he approaches and, seeing that they are enemy Trojans, chooses to place himself at their mercy rather than condemn himself to continued existence in Sicily.

Now, surely, part of the reason why Virgil places this scene here is to take a swipe at Odysseus, the conniving and evil Greek. This serves two purposes: it gratifies Roman sentiment, and it establishes Virgil’s hero as superior to Homer’s. Aeneas would never leave a crew member behind out of negligence, after all.

But there is more to it than that. The Aeneid is, above all else, a book of exiles. Where the Odyssey is dominated by a morality of host-guest obligations, the moral fabric of the Aeneid concerns exiles and the community between them. Indeed, it might not even be a morality properly so called. It is less ordained by the gods than a natural consequence of empathy: those who have known exile are friendly to the wayward Trojans, and the Trojans are, in turn, friendly to the exiles they meet. (It was, of course, friendliness toward a pretend exile that caused the fall of Troy in the first place.)

The encounter with Achaemenides illustrates this. Even though he is a Greek who fought at Troy, and even though he is a former companion of hated Odysseus, Aeneas and the Trojans accept him into their ranks. This is doubly remarkable because the last time they showed sympathy to a Greek with a sob story, they were tricked into bringing the fatal horse inside the city walls. Yet they still accept Achaemenides as a “worthy suppliant” (3.770).

What we are to take away from this, I think, is that, in the world of the Aeneid, the status of being an exile creates a bond between all who share it. Who cares that Achaemenides was a Greek, and thus an enemy of the Trojans? That antagonism was between two established homes. When the homes are destroyed or otherwise lost, so too the grounds for hostility. Exileship trumps nationality.

It is, unsurprisingly, easier to get away with a deus ex machina plot device when you have literal gods at your disposal, but book two of Virgil’s Aeneid might appear to stretch even those more permissive limits. Two moments especially stand out: the sob story Sinon tells to get the horse into Troy, and the disappearance of Creüsa. I will focus on the former, but the latter will prove relevant.

At the start of book two, the Greeks appear to have retreated and the Trojans, overjoyed, leave their city and admire the massive horse the Greeks have left behind. They debate what to do about it, whether to bring it into their city or somehow to destroy it. Counseled wisely by Laocoön, they appear to be settling on the prudent course of destroying it when Sinon, a Greek prisoner, is left before them. They do not realize that he has deliberately let himself be captured in order to convince them to take the horse into Troy, even though Laocoön has just warned them to “fear the Greeks, even when they bring gifts” (2.61). And even though Laocoön has thrown his spear into the horse, causing it to emit a “cavernous moan” (2.65). To be duped by Sinon after this – well, it makes it hard to feel much sympathy for the fate of Troy.

And, to be fair, it is not simply Sinon who convinces them: there is also some literal divine intervention to reckon with. Nonetheless, they are taken in by Sinon’s tale. Why? I see two primary reasons. First, the story he tells is one that is readily believable to them, for he makes himself the victim of wily Ulysses:

‘But when through the malice of cunning Ulysses
(Everyone knows this) he passed from this world,
I was a ruined man and dragged on my life
In darkness and grief, eating my heart out
Over the fate of my innocent friend.’ (2.106-10)

It is a clever move, but not enough, I think. What fully converts them to his side is this:

‘And so I pray, by whatever powers above
Still witness Truth, and by any Faith we men
Still have uncorrupted, show mercy
To a suffering soul, guiltless and wronged.’

We spared him for his tears and pitied him
Of our own accord. (2.167-72)

It is those last three words of his speech that save him: he is guiltless, and yet wronged. But why should this sway them? In all honesty, it shouldn’t. Again, Laocoön has already revealed, more or less definitively, that the horse is a clever scheme and ought to be destroyed. What does this change, that they should suddenly desire to know Sinon’s account of the purpose of the horse and, further, should trust his story over the evidence of their own ears?

To understand it, we have to look outside the logic of the particular scene and consider instead the more general logic of the Aeneid as a whole. Most of the major characters in the story fall either into the category of exiles or of the “guiltless and wronged” (and, in many cases, both). Indeed, this combination is presented as central to the book right at the start:

Muse, tell me why the Queen of Heaven
Was so aggrieved, her godhead so offended,
That she forced a man of faultless devotion
To endure so much hardship. Can there be
Anger so great in the hearts of gods on high. (1.12-16)

Aeneas himself is the prototypical guiltless exile. And he is not alone. Dido, Aeneas’ second wife, is building a new city because she was exiled from her home by her treacherous brother. Creüsa, later in book two, disappears undeservedly, simply because the gods need her to be out of the way so that Aeneas can take a new wife in Italy. Palinurus, through no fault of his own (Virgil is quite explicit about this), is tossed from his ship because the gods (for no apparent reason) decided that someone had to die to ensure Aeneas’ smooth sailing. Even Turnus, Aeneas’ great opponent in the second half of the book, is hardly in the wrong for opposing the intruder who enters his land and steals his promised wife (this must be a thing with the Trojans), taking with her his future status as king. To be in exile, to be guiltless and yet inscrutably wronged, is the basic state of human beings in the Aeneid. Sinon, who pretends to be a guiltless exile, taps into a reservoir of sympathy appropriate in such a world.

So, yes, it is true that, considered purely locally, it is more than a little unbelievable that Sinon’s ploy should have worked. Nonetheless, it illustrates the larger logic of the work, the overflowing sympathy that it evinces for the exile and the guiltless. And it is fitting that the great quest of the guiltless exile should begin because a cunning Greek pretended to be… a guiltless exile.