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.


Aeneas’ first appearance in Virgil’s Aeneid is hardly flattering:

Aeneas’ limbs suddenly went numb with cold.
He groaned and, lifting both palms to heaven, said:

“Three times, four times luckier were those
Who died before their parents’ eyes
Under Troy’s high walls! O Diomedes,
Bravest of the Greeks, if only I had been killed
By your right hand on Ilium’s plain,
Where Hector went down under Achilles’ spear,
Where huge Sarpedon lies, where the Simois rolls
So many shields and helmets caught in its current
And the bodies of so many brave heroes!”

(Aeneid bk. 1, lines 110-20, trans. Lombardo)

Aeneas is weary, miserable, on the verge of giving up, wishing for death—and this is the great hero who, we have just been told, is fated to found a new home in Italy, what will one day give rise to Rome and all its empire.

To be sure, Aeneas is in fairly dire straits when we meet him. He is sailing from Sicily to Italy with twenty ships when Juno persuades Aeolus to unleash the winds. It is because of these winds that “everywhere men saw the presence of death” (1.109). Still, is this Aeneas’ response to misfortune? Does he really despair so readily? We will later learn that this is far from his first misfortune, that it is only the latest in a long string—but, as I said, we only learn this later.

Why should Virgil introduce his hero in such a state? I think there is something quite appropriate about it, but to see why requires a rather large step backwards, to get a view of the Aeneid as a whole.

The Aeneid is sometimes described as half Odyssey (the first half), half Iliad (the second half). This isn’t wrong, but it overlooks the crucial difference between the Aeneid and the Odyssey. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is making a return journey. He is going back to an established home. To be sure, there is uncertainty, for that home is under threat from rapacious suitors, and Odysseus does not know whether Penelope has remained faithful to him during his extended absence. And yet there is not so much uncertainty and urgency that he cannot forget, for an entire year, where he is headed.

The Aeneid tells a very different story. Troy, Aeneas’ home, has been destroyed. No life remains for him there. His only option is to make a new home. And while he at least has the advantage of a divine mother who tells him his fate, still the goal is uncertain, a land he has never seen, full of people he has never met—a land whose only significance lies in its future promise, not in past experience. This story, the quest to make a new home in unknown territory, strikes me as better capturing the generic predicament of human life—or at least the very specific predicament of my life. (I am a Russian Jew whose ties to Russia were effaced before my birth by generations of my family living in the United States, and whose ties to Judaism were effaced by utter unbelief and a lack of stomach for cultural “Judaism.” Might I at least have an American identity? I spent my childhood in a southern state but was raised to be deliberately non-southern. That avenue, then, is also closed. Whatever home I find, it will be one of my own making.)

With such an exhausting, bewildering quest before him, it is only right that Aeneas should be glimpsed first in a moment of weariness, for it is out of precisely this weariness that he must emerge if he is to found his new home.

Miscellaneous notes on Aeneid book 1

[1] Dido’s “living passion”

Aeneas, in his quest to found a new home in Latium, is caught between his memory of his first home and visions of his second. There is a tension between these two: his memory can get in the way of his forward movement. One of the greatest qualities of the Aeneid is the way Virgil captures the way the same themes that characterize Aeneas’ journey play out in the lives of those characters who interact with his destiny without sharing it. One such is Dido. She, too, is an exile. Though her city was not destroyed, her home was: her brother Pygmalion murdered her husband Sychaeus. When Aeneas meets her, she is building her new city in Libya. In this case, her memory of Sychaeus is a strength: it keeps her from the distraction of a new lover, allowing her to focus all her efforts on Carthage. But Aeneas’ mother, Venus, schemes to ensure Aeneas’ safety, and sends Cupid (disguised as Aeneas’ son Iülus) to make Dido fall in love with him:

The boy, when he had hung on Aeneas’ neck
And satisfied the deluded father’s love,
Went to the Queen. And she clung to him
With all her heart, her eyes were riveted on him,
And she cuddled him on her lap. Poor Dido.
She had no idea how great a god had settled there.
Mindful of his Acidalian mother,
Little by little he began to blot out Sychaeus
And tried to captivate with a living passion
Her slumbering soul and her heart long unused. (1.875-84)

I think Virgil means for this passage to be ambiguous about the rightness of Cupid’s action. On the one hand, it is terrible: Dido’s resolve never to remarry, never even to love again, is being wrenched away from her against her will. And, later, we will see that this leads to her destruction, through no fault of her own. And yet Virgil also wants us to see that she has found her strength in a kind of death. Her love of Sychaeus is the love of a memory. It is a dead passion. She has made a new home, but there is something not quite wholly alive in her new “life.”

Ultimately, I think we must see Dido as one of the many more or less blameless victims of Aeneas’ destiny. She keeps company with the likes of Creüsa, Palinurus, and Turnus. And yet, what Virgil suggests about memory, and the tension between memory and forward movement in life, is profound.

[2] Juno the contract-breaker

We first meet Aeneas beset by a weariness he must overcome. We first meet Juno, by contrast, taking the action that will typify her throughout the epic: violating some contract or another to frustrate Aeneas. In this book, the contract she violates is the “chartered agreement” that lets Aeolus, king of the winds, know “when to restrain and when to unleash them” (1.79-80). But later we will see her violate a contract between Aeneas and Latinus in order to start the war between Trojans and Latins, and then again a contract between Aeneas and Turnus, in order to prolong that war. Even if events must proceed onward toward their destined end no matter what, they are hastened there by agreements between men and gods, and Juno is the great violator of such contracts.

Odysseus, already having suffered much on his long journey back to Ithaca, arrived at Aeaea, the home of the goddess Circe. Here, as everywhere, Odysseus runs into trouble. In this case, it is that Circe turns half of his crew into pigs. But then something strange happens. Odysseus goes to rescue them, relying on the advice of Hermes for how to escape Circe’s tricks. Since he needs Circe to transform the pigs back into humans, this rescue must involve her cooperation. Sheer antagonism, such as saved him from Polyphemus, will not do. What else, then, but to become Circe’s lover? And who would not like to lay with a goddess?

All well and good, only—Odysseus forgets his home. For an entire year. All the sorrow he has endured, attempting to return to Ithaca, the pain he felt on being so close, only to have Aeolus’ winds released by his mutinous crew—all of this forgotten in Circe’s embrace. I find it difficult to forgive. How much sympathy should I invest in Odysseus’ suffering at being kept from his home if he himself forgets it so easily?

But wait, you may say: do you not love Aeneas? For he, too, forgets his destiny in the arms of a woman. True, and true. But the cases are different. Let us leave to the side that my love for Aeneas is complicated. My admiration for him is adulterated. But no matter. The case of Aeneas and the case of Odysseus are different. Odysseus is returning home. Aeneas is venturing forth to make a new home. Odysseus is drawn back to Ithaca by established ties: his wife, his son, his house. Aeneas is impelled to Latium because the gods have decreed it will be so, and perhaps by the promise of a glorious future. (But why not a glorious future in Carthage? Again, because of the gods’ decrees, and because of these alone.)

It is a very different thing to forget the past than to forget the future. Odysseus’ lapse is careless to the point of arrogance. Aeneas’ lapse is human. I, engaged in my own search for a new home (of sorts), know well the uncertainty that attends such a search. I know the sweet voice with which false terrain tempts the seeker. Aeneas errs, but in a manner I can readily forgive. Odysseus, I cannot.

In my previous post, I discussed how, with the loss of his land, Moeris lost as well the possibility of song – that is, of the shepherd’s pleasure. Song, of course, is not unique to shepherds. No doubt it exists in the city, too. But that does not mean it is the same.

What I said there was perfectly true, but it was one-sided. For Moeris did not lose merely the possibility of the shepherd’s pleasure, but also of the shepherd’s pain. Losing one’s land is not a painful event within the shepherd’s life. It is of a higher order: it denies the possibility of the shepherd’s life altogether. All of its pleasures and pains vanished. They may be replaced by others, but they are not the same. Any sophisticated hedonism (and Virgil’s is sophisticated) must recognize this entanglement of pleasure and pain, and that one may lament the loss of one’s pains as much as of one’s pleasures. My previous post was unsophisticated precisely for not sufficiently recognizing this, for presenting only the loss of pleasure.

I recognized my omission on reading the tenth and final Eclogue. There, Virgil sings a song for Gallus, who has been abandoned by his love, Lycoris. Love, which entangles pleasures and pains, is, after song, the central pleasure-pain in the Eclogues. Songs are sung for lovers, or to lament having been spurned by a lover. Happiness is requited love; unhappiness, unrequited.

But can I really speak of love as specifically a pleasure of shepherds? For love, like song, is present even in the city, and even in the city requited love is happiness and spurned love is unhappiness. What is the difference?

Consider the following passage:

……………………..even the laurels wept,
Even the tamarisks, for Gallus’s sorrow;
Even the mountains, even the cold cliffs
Of Lycaeus wept for him, and the pines that grow
On Maenalus’ slopses; the flock was standing still
As if transfixed in mute compassion for him.

For the sorrowing shepherd, the entire world joins in his sorrow: the laurels, the tamarisks, even the cold cliffs. All bear the character of his sorrow. In the city, one may certainly sorrow, and the world may even bear one’s sorrow with one, but it is a different world, and it gives the sorrow a different character. That is why they cannot be equated.

It is surely a virtue of Virgil’s hedonism that it recognizes the failure of pleasures and pains to translate across worlds.

Virgil’s Eclogues are hedonistic poems. Let me not be misunderstood. Though Christian moralism sees in all hedonism mere gluttony, Virgil’s poems do not celebrate intemperance. They simply recognize pleasure as the only good, pain as the only bad. They are beautiful for their celebration of the particular pleasures of the shepherd’s life – and for their recognition of the threats to this pleasure.

In the very first Eclogue, we saw Meliboeus dispossessed of his farm, but we did not see his full pain. It was left, to great poetic effect, in the background of the poem. Not so with the ninth Eclogue. The setting here is a meeting of Lycidas and Moeris on the path into town. A stranger, presumably a veteran, has come to Moeris’ farm and told him, “I own this place; you have to leave this place.” The remainder of the poem presents to us Moeris’ unhappiness.

The ninth Eclogue is heavily conditioned by the poems that came before it. In this poems, we have encountered music as the greatest pleasure of the shepherd’s life. Not the only one, to be sure, but the central one. Whatever hard work it may entail, at least it leaves room for song and singing contests. These have the power even to soften its pains, as the first Eclogue shows.

Yet music is precisely what is lost in the ninth Eclogue. The following exchange hints at what’s to come. Lycidas first:

But I was told Menalcas with his songs
Had saved the land, from where those hills arise
To where they slope down gently to the water,
Near those old beech trees, with their broken tops.

To which Moeris replies:

Yes, that was the story; but what can music do
Against the weapons of soldiers? When eagles come,
Tell me what doves can possibly do about it?

Menalcas, so the story goes, had saved the land with song. We might almost think this story a myth, did we not know from earlier Eclogues that Menalcas is a real shepherd. So we are left to wonder at the origin of this story, the actual nature of the even that inspired it. Regardless, here it is introduced only to be shown inapplicable: “what can music do / against the weapons of soldiers?”

What we see in the rest of the poem is the impossibility of music. After lamenting the loss of the solace brought to them by Menalcas’ songs, Lycidas urges Moeris to sing, for “singing makes the journey easier.” Lycidas would sing himself, but “My songs are honking geese among the swans.” But Moeris cannot sing. He “has been saying the words of a song, / over and over, trying to bring them back,” but while he remembers the words, the song itself does not return. Then Lycidas, too, tries to remember a song he had heard Moeris singing, but this still cannot bring Moeris to song.

Why is song impossible? Because it is associated with another life, a life that has been lost. “Time takes all we have away from us,” Moeris laments. The songs remain in memory, but no longer in life. They are present only as the gaunt shadows of nostalgia. They cannot be brought fully to life, and in the end Moeris must say:

No more of that; let’s just go on our way.
The time for singing will be when Menalcas comes.

The ninth Eclogue is, on the whole, terribly sad. In this regard it is important that it comes near the end of the sequence. Virgil exercised great poetic sensibility placing where he did the two Eclogues dealing with being dispossessed where he did. The first Eclogue establishes such dispossession as a threat, but does not allow the dispossessed fully to lament it. Why not? Because there is always something indecent about open suffering, and the poet must render us open to forgiving this indecency before presenting us with it. The first poem, unable to draw upon the rest of the sequence, lacks the resources for this. We know only abstractly what Meliboeus has lost. We are in no position to empathize with him. For that reason, the poem’s presentation of his suffering as real, but inwardly restrained, is appropriate.

By the time we reach the ninth Eclogue, by contrast, we are fully aware of what Moeris has lost. We have seen the pleasures of his life, and thus we can enter fully into his pain. We are especially able to do so because this pain, though mentioned explicitly, is primarily revealed to us by the way the poem shows how song has become impossible. Because song is the shepherd’s primary joy – we know this from the prior Eclogues – the loss of song presents itself as more than the loss of song alone. It is the loss of the very possibility of joy. And, if we have allowed ourselves to enter fully into the hedonism of these poems, nothing could move us more.