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Götter und menschliche Willensfreiheit

Thomas Baier

I. Grundlagen

Humour, chance, and choices: human and divine in the Aeneid

Frederick Ahl

Texte intégral

  • 1 Poetics 1448a 34–36; see Ahl 1997, 9–25.

1The earliest Greek narrative of descent into the underworld (as opposed to summoning the dead among the living) is in a comedy, Aristophanes’ Frogs, performed in 405 BC. Dionysus “himself”, wearing a lion skin over his saffron robe travels there to bring back the recently deceased Euripides, and Charon, ferryman of the dead, whose name Diodorus Siculus (1, 96, 8) claims is Egyptian for “boatman”, makes his stage debut. If Charon is a stock figure in comedy, as is sometimes assumed, his presence as a character is neither attested nor likely in any other Attic Comedy whose title we know. Euripides, of course, had mentioned Charon on stage some forty years before Frogs in his tragedy Alcestis (252–257) – though he did not introduce him as a character. Alcestis, as she lies dying, claims she can see him. Alcestis was the final play in a tragic tetralogy, the spot usually reserved for a satyr play. Much in it evokes comedy rather than tragedy. Indeed, Heracles, whose behaviour in the play is often humorous, calls the people of Pherae not citizens but kometai, “villagers” (Alcestis 476), a term Aristotle associates with the origins of comedy.1

  • 2 Lucian also has the “living” Menippus claim, jestingly, to have visited the underworld in his Meni (...)

2Charon makes a few other appearances in performance texts. Seneca describes him in Hercules Furens, 762–777. And in the second century AD, Lucian, in Dialogues of the Dead (2, 3, 9) represents him conversing with both Hermes and the dead, and conveying the cynic philosopher Menippus across the Styx into an underworld which neither Menippus, as a cynic, nor Lucian, as an Epicurean, would have believed in.2 Lucian tells of another visit to the mythic underworld in his True History, a work he prefaces with a warning to readers not to believe anything he tells them and that he concludes with a (false) promise to write of his further adventures in a subsequent book (True History 2, 47). One does not have to believe in the mythic underworld to write about it.

  • 3 Charon’s boat, for instance, is more humorously flimsy in the Aeneid than in the Frogs and springs (...)
  • 4 See Lühken 2002. Evidence that Virgil’s Epicureanism continued into his adulthood is ever mounting (...)
  • 5 For a general overview reflecting the scholarly consensus on how the epic gods work, see Feeney 19 (...)
  • 6 See Ahl 2008, 363–382 and Ahl 2010, 47–58.

3But when Virgil introduces the same mythic Charon as a person in Aeneid 6, we approach him differently. We are reluctant to consider Virgil humorous, although his Charon recalls his Aristophanic predecessor, and although Virgil himself was, like Lucian, an Epicurean and probably did not, therefore, believe in an afterlife.3 Virgil is still commonly read as if he were a Pythagorean, Stoic, or proto-Christian.4 He is swaddled in two millennia of Christian interpretation, which is built on the promise of an afterlife and which inclines to believe, as does Umberto Eco’s Jorge de Burgos, that God does not laugh.5 The habit of reading Virgil as a non-laughing “believer” is so deeply ingrained that it is still heresy to question it in many circles. Nonetheless, there are more than a few touches of satirical humour even in Aeneid 6, where Aeneas visits two distinct underworlds: a mythic underworld, where his guide is the Sibyl and his ferryman Charon; and a Platonic, exclusively male, Elysian underworld the Sibyl knows nothing about.6 She shows her ignorance when she asks the Orphic Musaeus, the only poet other than Punic Iopas named in the Aeneid, quae regio holds Anchises’ ghost, as if Elysium were, like Rome, divided into regiones, “boroughs”, where spirits have addresses, and where she supposes Anchises is somehow confined (6, 669–671). Musaeus’ response, that Elysium’s denizens have no fixed abode, silences the Sibyl. Virgil allows her no further direct comments.

  • 7 Polleichtner 2009, 125–145.
  • 8 To catch the wordplay on Venus and venatrix, I have her “hunting for venison” in my translation (1 (...)

4The consensus view of Virgil’s epic has little use for humour, which is minimally acknowledged even when undeniably present. Even in Wolfgang Polleichtner’s fine recent study of the emotions in Virgil, there is no discussion of humorous elements in, for example, Aeneas’ encounter with his mother Venus (1, 314–410).7 In it, Venus disguises herself as a virgo, an unmarried girl (thereby denying her motherhood), as Virgil notes repeatedly and emphatically. She becomes a venatrix, a “huntress”, rather than genetrix, “bearer of children”.8 Her disguise is very stagy and her dissimulation is, as Aeneas points out, cruel. But it is also droll. Aeneas’ mother, disguised as a virgin, is recognisable to her son only when she sheds her clothes, thus looking like the nude Venus of Hellenistic and Roman art, and moving away from him.

5The poets who thunderously insist on what readers should (and should not) believe are not Virgil and Ovid, whose epics are full of gods, but Lucretius and Lucan, from whose epics the gods are largely absent. Lucretius argues for a material world of atoms and free will without a deterministic force or divine intervention: gods, being perfect, do not contemplate imperfection and are not involved in human affairs. Lucan, generally taken to be a Stoic, reaches a similar conclusion from a different starting point: the sorry state of human affairs proves it we are lying when we say Jupiter is in charge: mentimur regnare Iovem (Pharsalia 7, 446). Lucan nowhere says or implies, however, that Virgil put Jupiter in charge. And while Virgil’s Jupiter sometimes claims that he is, Virgil mingles the language of determinism and freewill from the epic’s opening lines onwards. Aeneas comes to Italy fato, as “fate’s refugee” (1, 2), but is thrust by Juno “into so many spirals of chance, casus” (1, 10). Virgil uses the antithetical keywords of Stoic determinism (fatum) and Epicurean free will (casus) as if their juxtaposition were uncontroversial. He then asks his audiences a question: tantaene animis caelestibus irae? (Aeneid 1, 11): “Anger so great: can it really reside in the spirits of heaven?” Modern readers assume he is posing an inert rhetorical question, anticipating a passive “Yes!” rather than challenging us from the outset to interact with his text. Stoics, Epicureans, and Platonists in Virgil’s audience, however, would surely have answered “No!”

  • 9 Curiously Metamorphoses 1 and 2 show destruction of the world by water, flumen, (in the story of L (...)

6Alain of Lille, who describes Lucan as a fulmen, “thunderbolt”, and Ovid as the anagram of fulmen, flumen, a “(flowing) river” (Anticlaudianus 2, 361–362), compares Virgil to an abyss, a semantic free fall down a chasm of almost infinite associations.9 Finding a consistent (much less thunderous) editorial voice in Virgil is so hard that we sometimes generate thunder for Virgil by representing statements he assigns to his characters as expressions of his personal opinion. For Virgil subdues and camouflages personal views, creating a tension manifested in conflicts of tone. The humorous encroaches on the solemn (and vice-versa).

  • 10 See Ahl 1985, 95–99.

7Discussion of whether Jupiter (or other gods) control events should note which Virgilian characters, if not the narrator, make the statements we want to adduce as evidence, what motivation they may have, and what light is shed by the wider contexts in which these statements are made. Jupiter, for instance, sometimes speaks as if fate were fixed and he were in charge, especially when conversing with gods in private. Most famously, he declares to Venus that he has given Rome empire without end (1, 254–256 and 279). And this declaration serves as underpinning for the interpretation of the Aeneid as a paean of praise for Rome and its leader. But Virgil’s Jupiter is not an absolute ruler in a monotheist’s heaven or an earthly tyrant’s palace. He speaks differently when facing the competing claims of Venus and Juno in a public assembly of gods (10, 1–117). There, in a scene Servius (on Aeneid 10, 104) says is based on Lucilius’ first satire, Jupiter declares that divine quarrelling has made a treaty between Trojans and Italians impossible; on this day, each person’s individual fortune will decide the issue, quae cuique est fortuna hodie (10, 107).10 He will be impartial as to whether the Trojans have arrived in Italy in accordance with the fates (seu fatis, 10, 109) or by Troy’s bad errors and ruinous prophecies (sive errore malo Troiae monitisque sinistris, 10, 110). Rex Iuppiter omnibus idem, he concludes. Fata viam invenient (10, 112–113). Then he swears an oath by the Styx to affirm his resolution to let matters and persons take care of themselves (10, 113–115).

  • 11 See Ahl 1985, 275–285; expanded in more detail in my forthcoming How to Read the Aeneid (Oxford 20 (...)

8It is not only Jupiter’s words of frustration in Aeneid 10 that counterpoise his expansiveness in Aeneid 1, but also the larger context, within book 1, of his boast that he has given Rome “empire without end.” His declaration is in response to Venus’ complaint about his indifference to Aeneas’ Roman destiny when she comes after he has failed to prevent a storm, unleashed at Juno’s instigation, that might have killed Aeneas, and that has left him in an alien land, and, indeed, in an alien period of time (1, 125–130).11 When Virgil has Jupiter flash at Venus “that smile with which he calms sky and storms” (1, 254–255), he highlights a curious irony. The poet’s narrative voice shows that the storm results from a breakdown of checks and balances Jupiter himself established to prevent precisely such an incident. He gave Aeolus command of the winds and strict instructions about controlling them. Although Aeolus instantly violates these terms when Juno bribes him (1, 58–74), Jupiter doesn’t seem to notice that his system is not functioning and that a storm has occurred. Since Jupiter’s boast to Venus does sketch part of what lies ahead for Rome (from a Trojan perspective, if not from that of Virgil’s contemporaries), the context raises doubts as to whether Jupiter causes (rather than simply foresees) the events he prophesies. Neptune, not Jupiter, disperses the winds, calms the waves, and rescues Aeneas’ fleet.

9Rescue by Neptune is not new to Aeneas. The god’s Greek counterpart, Poseidon, rescues him from Achilles in Iliad 20, 288–339. But Virgil’s Homeric echo, as usual, underscores differences between the two incidents. Neptune neither intervenes, as Poseidon does, specifically to save Aeneas for future greatness – nor tries to salvage Jupiter’s command structure. True, he rescues the hero and his fleet; but he acts because the winds are violating what he thinks is his personal domain. And Virgil adds a touch of humour by conjuring images of the stormtossed Neptune, graviter commotus, “seriously stirred” (1, 124), peering above the surface of the water and driving his chariot over the waves as he and other sea-gods prise ships from rocks.

10Virgil reinforces the suggestion that Jupiter’s command system has broken down in the epic’s first full simile, comparing Neptune to a pious man who restores order when a state’s government collapses into civil war (1, 142–156). The simile, universally viewed as an allusion to Octavian’s ending of Rome’s civil wars, has troubling resonances. Aeolus is bribed to release the winds, which, though envisaged as emerging like an army on the march: velut agmine facto, do not riot spontaneously as Virgil says the people do. Yet Rome’s civil wars arose from the subversion of law and order by the military and political actions of powerful rivals, and from rampant corruption, rather than from popular uprisings made fierce by random weaponry. Restoring order required huge armies, thousands of battle deaths, countless cold-blooded murders, and, above all, numerous fleets, not just a simple appearance by a pious man. Virgil’s audience knew this from personal experience.

11Two of Octavian’s most important victories (both naval) at Naulochus in 36 BC and at Actium in 31 BC, were won thanks to the help of his factotum Agrippa. But before Octavian secured Agrippa’s services, he had lost whole fleets to storms and to defeats at sea by Sextus Pompey and his admirals. He had had to shift his naval base first to (and to fortify) first Lake Avernus and then Misenum. Virgil’s contemporary, Strabo (5, 4, 5), says Cumae and Avernus were thought the site of Homer’s book of the dead (Odyssey 11) until demystified when Agrippa cut down the forests there to rebuild Octavian’s fleet and generally militarise the area after Sextus Pompey defeated Octavian off Cumae in 39 BC. Octavian’s misfortunes at sea had made Neptune not Octavian’s favourite god. After being defeated at sea by Sextus, Octavian removed Neptune’s image from a procession (Suetonius, Augustus 16). Neptune, in fact, was Sextus’ patron deity. True, Octavian sacrificed to Neptune before a storm wrecked his fleet off Cape Palinurus; but, on getting news of the storm he declared: “I’ll win this war whatever Neptune may do” (Appian, CW 5, 98).

  • 12 See Powell 2008, 31–85.
  • 13 See Gowing 1992, 1–3. See also Ahl 1984, 40–110, especially 52–54.

12Octavian is silent about Sextus Pompey in Res Gestae. Nor does Virgil name him in the Aeneid. But given Sextus’ official slogan of pietas and his use of Magnus Pompeius Pius as his official name, Virgil’s epithet for Aeneas, Pius, could more readily stir recollections of Sextus Pompey than of Octavian, especially in Sicilian waters, which Sextus controlled for several years. Pius Aeneas’ rescue (as a secondary consideration) by Neptune, patron of the pious Sextus, would have given Roman readers much to reflect on. Anton Powell calls Virgil’s use of Sextus’ epithet “the theft of pietas.”12 We could equally well call it Virgil’s insinuation into his contemporary readers’ minds, as the Aeneid opens, of a person he cannot name and whom Octavian did not name in his own memoirs. While Powell notes how aware Virgil was of Octavian’s flaws (and his problems with Sextus), he construes the poet’s work as his apologia for those flaws rather than as Virgil’s means of preserving, however obliquely, the memory of their existence. Virgil’s friend Horace, in a poem ostensibly chiding Lollius for incaution, commemorates an event we would not otherwise know about: Lollius’ restaging of the battle of Actium on his paternal estate (rure paterno). Lollius cast himself as Octavian and his brother as Antony, thus reconverting into civil war a conflict Octavian’s propaganda claimed was a war against Egypt (Epistles 1, 18, 58–66). Octavian’s concern was, rather, the destruction, not the preservation, of records and memories of Sextus’ campaigns. According to Appian (5, 132, 548), Octavian, after finally defeating Sextus, ordered all writings dealing with activities from Caesar’s death until then to be collected and destroyed, intent, presumably, on destroying his own identity as the bloodied triumvir, replacing Octavian with a divinely spiritual adjective, Augustus.13

13The context of Jupiter’s statement of destiny, then, has many cross-currents. It is misleading to cite it as if it were Virgil’s editorial declaration rather than a statement he attributes to a god whose attention, reliability, and control over events is questionable even before he claims to guide destinies.

14How fixed, then, is fate in the Aeneid?

The Mutability of Fate

  • 14 See Salmon 1967, 223–226 and the sources cited.

15Jupiter’s notions of self and power make him represent himself as speaker of fates. But, when Jupiter is not in the picture, Virgil notes several occasions when a single human thought could have changed the entire course of events. Had it occurred to Turnus to open the gates of the Trojan camp in Aeneid 9, 757–759, Virgil announces, “this would have marked Troy’s last day of war.” Similarly, a series of decisions in Aeneid 11, beginning with that of Diomedes, as Venulus reports it, unprompted by any god (11, 252–297), not to enter the war on the Italian side against Aeneas. Iliadic precedents suggest that Aeneas would have been unlikely to defeat Diomedes in battle. Later, in 11, 523–524, Turnus sets an ambush for Aeneas in a spot that echoes, verbatim, Virgil’s own description of the Ampsanctus Valley in 7, 565–566 – which itself recalls, ominously, Livy’s description (in 9, 2, 7) of the Caudine Forks.14 There two Roman legions had been ambushed by the Samnites in one of Rome’s most humiliating defeats in 321 BC. But when the dying Camilla sends her friend Acca to Turnus with instructions that he replace her in the defence of the city (11, 825–827), Acca reports, insofar as Virgil’s indirect statement gives us access to what she says, only Camilla’s death and the ensuing chaos (11, 897–900). Turnus abandons his ambush just as Aeneas is about to enter it (11, 901–905). Perhaps, in this instance, Jupiter is watching; for Virgil says he requires Turnus to be in a fury for the occasion.

16Even Jupiter, who represents his words as destiny, admits a certain flexibility. When Juno begs him to spare Turnus, his reply and Juno’s response are very telling (10, 622–632):

si mora praesentis leti tempusque caduco
oratur iuveni meque hoc ita ponere sentis,
tolle fuga Turnum atque instantibus eripe fatis:
hactenus indulsisse vacat. sin altior istis 625
sub precibus venia ulla latet totumque moveri
mutarive putas bellum, spes pascis inanis.'
et Iuno adlacrimans: 'quid si, quae voce gravaris,
mente dares atque haec Turno rata vita maneret?
nunc manet insontem gravis exitus, aut ego veri 630
vana feror. quod ut o potius formidine falsa
ludar, et in melius tua, qui potes, orsa reflectas!

17I cannot convey Juno’s words without restructuring the phrasing. “Fate” is in Latin “that which is spoken”, and Juno talks of how fate can change in the transition between intent and word. She takes mente (“mind”) and sees its elements, thoughts, as letters, which can be unscrambled into words and then fine-tuned: thus mente could evolve into maneret (“would remain”). One might remove the doubtful element (“would”) and leave manet (“remains”), with its punning allusion to manes (“ghost”). Fate becomes fixed at the arguably random point where the scrambling process stops as does a slot machine in a casino. The final alignment, the word uttered, does not necessarily express the real nature of the thought that subtends it. Juno is giving Jupiter another way of interpreting his own thoughts before they become words and thus fata. Venus suspects Juno has been doing something similar earlier in the epic (1, 237).

18The vagaries of the human mind produce (or fail to produce) possibilities of radical change. As Turnus arms himself in 12, 81–100, he prepares to bring to battle an ancestral sword made by Vulcan. He readies it in 12, 88–91:

simul aptat habendo
ensemque clipeumque et rubrae cornua cristae,
ensem quem Dauno ignipotens deus ipse parenti
fecerat et Stygia candentem tinxerat unda.

19When Turnus, early in his duel with Aeneas, breaks his adversary’s guard, leaps into the air, and brings his sword crashing down on Aeneas’ helmet, we wonder if a blade Vulcan made for Daunus can shear through a helmet Vulcan made for Aeneas (12, 728–731). Turnus’ blade shatters, not because Vulcan failed Daunus, but because in the excitement, rumour reports, Turnus forgot bring it and grabbed instead his driver Metiscus’ sword which proved useful only in encounters with normal defensive armour (12, 728–741). So Turnus misses a chance to deal what might have been a fatal wound. Aeneas is lucky to have a divine shield and helmet to protect him. In offensive tactics, his failure to be deadly accurate with his magic weapons against Mezentius and Turnus leave wounds that render both men helpless. So Aeneas has to deliver their death-blows like an executioner.

Troy could have lasted another ten years...

20The final set of arms for the man Aeneas bears in the epic is made under rather odd circumstances. When, in Aeneid 8, 370–453, Venus asks Vulcan to make armour for Aeneas, Vulcan asks her why she hadn’t made the request during the Trojan War (396–399):

similis si cura fuisset,
tum quoque fas nobis Teucros armare fuisset;
nec pater omnipotens Troiam nec fata vetabant
stare decemque alios Priamum superesse per annos.

  • 15 See my discussion in Ahl 2008, 382.

21Is Vulcan right or wrong about the mutability of fate? Could Venus have, albeit inadvertently, changed the causal nexus had she thought of requesting arms while Troy was still free? In a decade, Anchises and Priam might have died at home of natural causes and Latinus stopped waiting for a foreign husband for Lavinia. Virgil doesn’t comment one way or the other. But he assures us editorially, as he sums up the motifs Vulcan crafts onto Aeneas’ shield, that the god is haud vatum ignarus, “not unaware of the seers”, and not venturi inscius, “ignorant of what is to come” (8, 627). Aeneas, in contrast, is ignorant of what the designs mean (8, 730). Since Virgil has himself claimed the title vates (7, 41), there is humorous self-reference in his editorialising.15

22Venus’ visit to Vulcan is charged with humour. Just before Vulcan’s comment on the mutability of fate, Venus has used her charms to turn on the sexual heat and renders the fire-god molten and thus malleable for her purposes (8, 388–392):

… ille repente
accepit solitam flammam, notusque medullas
intravit calor et labefacta per ossa cucurrit,
non secus atque olim tonitru cum rupta corusco
ignea rima micans percurrit lumine nimbus;

  • 16 See also Scully 2000, 93–113; Faber 2000, 49–57. Study of the shield has been subsumed into the no (...)

23Vulcan becomes as hot as his own forges under Venus’ caresses and as fierce as one of the thunderbolts he makes for Jupiter.16 He is re-forged by his wife in the fires of his own lust into an instrument of her will.

  • 17 See Maldonado de Lizalde 2005, 365–413; Ferrero Raditsa 1980, 278–339; see also Ahl 2008, 403. The (...)

24Virgil adds, parenthetically, that Vulcan “the father” is “chained down in eternal love” for his wife (8, 394): tum pater aeterno fatur devinctus amore. “Father”, while conventional for a god elsewhere, is ironic here, since Vulcan is not father to any of his wife’s children. Aeneas is the by-product of her adultery with Anchises and, as such, a curious beginning for the Julian family tree, since Octavian was, even as Virgil wrote, crafting a law, ratified the year Virgil died: the Lex Iulia de Adulteriis coercendis, which criminalised adultery, and which, Jupiter complains a couple of centuries later in Apuleius’ Golden Ass 6, 22, Cupid causes him to violate frequently.17

25Devinctus, “chained down”, evokes the witty tale of Demodocus in Odyssey 8, 266–366, where Vulcan’s Greek counterpart Hephaestus uses chain-nets to trap his wife in bed with Ares (Mars) and invites the gods to witness the proof of her infidelity. Hephaestus’ carefully crafted trap, however, makes him, not his wife, the laughing stock. And in a wittily emasculating simile drawing on Iliad 12, 433 and Apollonius, Argonautica 3, 291 and 4, 1062, all passages describing women at work, Virgil (8, 407–415) compares Vulcan to the mistress of a house rising early to do her tasks and to keep her bed chaste, something Vulcan will never be able to achieve.

26Since Virgil’s narrative focuses on Venus’ success in getting Vulcan to make a gift for her illegitimate child, the allusion to Demodocus’ tale has darker resonances than do the passages from Apollonius. For Venus also had a child by her liaison with Mars: Harmonia. And Vulcan made, as a present for Harmonia’s wedding to Cadmus of Thebes, a necklace that brought sorrow to its owners. The last member of the House of Thebes to own it was Oedipus’ son Polyneices, who gave it to his wife Argia. She, in turn, used it to pay off Eriphyle for persuading her husband, the seer Amphiaraus, to support a war against Thebes in which he foresaw his own death. Statius provides details in Thebaid 2, 244–305.

  • 18 One of the mysteries of Aeneid 5 is why Virgil chooses to identify three of his four captains in t (...)

27It is with Eriphyle that Odysseus concludes this narrative of dead heroines in Odyssey 11, 326ff.; and Virgil’s Aeneas sees Eriphyle’s mournful ghost in Aeneid 6, 446. She was killed in vengeance by her son, Alcmaeon. Could Vulcan’s gift to Aeneas bring sorrow upon his descendants too? There is no reason to assume the fire-god liked his wife’s bastard children. Vulcan’s art certainly focuses on aspects of Roman history that Anchises’ ghost suppresses in book 6: Rome fighting for survival. The events and persons depicted are, aside from the Battle of Actium and its participants in 31 BC, mostly from vatic myth-history, from Rome’s recently (in Virgil’s day) established foundation-date by Romulus in 753 BC to the capture of Rome by the Gauls in 390/387. There is nothing after that until Cleopatra’s defeat at Actium, except contrasting representations in 8, 655–662 of the unrighteous and righteous faces of Rome: Catiline, the conspirator in 63 BC and, Virgil claims in Aeneid 5, 121–122, descendant of the Trojan Sergestus; and Cato, noted for opposing Catiline, but more famous for what isn’t described on Aeneas’ shield: his opposition to Julius Caesar and his suicide after Caesar’s decisive civil war victory at Thapsus in 46 BC.18

  • 19 On Caesar and caesaries, see Ahl 1985, 74–99.

28Yet the shield is also, like Anchises’ account of Rome in Aeneid 6, notable for omissions: the wars with Pyrrhus, the Samnites, with Carthage and Hannibal; the “Social” Wars, and the civil wars involving Marius and Sulla, Julius Caesar, Pompey, Sextus Pompey, Brutus and Cassius. The omission of Julius Caesar, Octavian’s adoptive father and conqueror of Gaul, is striking, since Gauls feature prominently on the shield. Vulcan, however, represents not Caesar’s Roman conquest of Gaul (59 and 49 BC), but the defence of the Capitoline by Manlius Torquatus when the Gauls attacked Italy in 390 or 387 BC, and conquered and humiliated Rome. Caesar’s own seizure of Rome in 49 BC with the aid of many Gallic troops was itself a kind of Gallic attack; and there is an ironic echo of the baldish Caesar in the Gauls’ unscissored hair, caesaries (8, 659).19 Although the Gauls’ capture of Rome was one of the low points in Roman history, Virgil offset the menace he attributes to them in “Vulcan’s” metalwork with the more lighthearted resonances of “his own” words.

Conquering Gauls

29Aeneid 8, 652–662:

in summo custos Tarpeiae Manlius arcis
stabat pro templo et Capitolia celsa tenebat,
Romuleoque recens horrebat regia culmo.
atque hic auratis volitans argenteus anser 655
porticibus Gallos in limine adesse canebat;
Galli per dumos aderant arcemque tenebant
defensi tenebris et dono noctis opacae.
aurea caesaries ollis atque aurea vestis,
virgatis lucent sagulis, tum lactea colla 660
auro innectuntur, duo quisque Alpina coruscant
gaesa manu, scutis protecti corpora longis.

  • 20 Livy 5, 31, 2; 5, 47; Diodorus Siculus (14, 103, 1 and 14, 116, 6) thought the records indicated t (...)
  • 21 There may be a fourth level too, if one can find a way to establish it, since Virgil was much affe (...)

30Although the god’s craftsmanship is as much Virgil’s invention as is his narrative of it, it has its own “voice”. There is generally less ambiguity in Vulcan’s artwork than in Virgil’s description of it, though the image of Manlius on the Tarpeian rock is a grim exception. In 384 BC, only a few years after his famous defence, of the Capitoline, Manlius, was convicted of plotting to become tyrant and hurled from the Tarpeian rock he had previously guarded.20 But Virgil lightens the tone when he says anser... canebat, “a goose kept singing”, Gallos adesse, “that the Galli were there”. The Latin words have multiple resonances the images alone do not. Gallus means not only “Gaul”, but “rooster”, even “eunuch”, especially a castrated priest of Cybele. In Virgil’s context of birds singing and awakening people, Gallus registers “cockerel” or “rooster”, not just “Gaul”. The usual Latin word for “cockcrow” is gallicinium, “the song of the gallus”. So the description of a goose singing out that the Galli are coming triggers a pun between two of the three meanings of gallus.21

  • 22 Ovid (Fasti 4, 361–366) says the priests are so named because of the waters of the river Gallus in (...)
  • 23 Dionysius of Halicarnassus, RA 1, 78, 11; Plutarch, Romulus 20, 4.
  • 24 For the Galli as priests of Cybele, see Vermaseren l977, 96–l0l; Sanders l970, s.v. “Gallos”.
  • 25 See Pollini 1993, 258–298. Attis either got into a religious frenzy or was unfaithful to Cybele (o (...)
  • 26 See Vermaseren 1977, 96 and plate 64, illustrating the visual “pun on the funeral urn (cista) of t (...)

31Once punning is established, the way opens for further resonances. All variant meanings of gallus emerge in Suetonius’ jest about Nero, notorious for his singing, his troubles with the Gauls, and his marriage to his castrated boyfriend Sporus: ascriptum et columnis etiam Gallos eum cantando excitasse – “It was written on pillars that his singing aroused even Gallic cocks” – (Nero 45). The meaning “eunuch” is stirred, in the description of the shield, by mention of the thatched buildings of Romulus’ day.22 Vitruvius 2, 1, 5 talks of a Hut of Romulus on the Capitoline, though the more famous Hut was on the neighbouring Palatine.23 And on the Capitoline too stood the temple of Cybele, the Phrygian goddess whose priests were galli.24 Ovid notes (Fasti 4, 347–348) that no one knows who was the original founder of Cybele’s temple: “it was Metellus; it is now Augustus.” Both the Metelli and Iulii claimed Trojan origins, and Octavian set his own calculatedly modest palace opposite Cybele’s temple and right by the Romulan Hut. The ghost of Anchises echoes this placement in Aeneid 6, 777–807: he names Romulus just before Caesar (=Octavian) and Cybele right after him. Octavian’s wife, Livia, even had herself portrayed as Cybele; but Octavian never identifies himself with Cybele’s male consort Attis.25 There is a curious visual dimension outside the Aeneid to wordplay among various senses of gallus: the funerary urn of a deceased high priest of Cybele, an archigallus or “head cock”, is shaped like a rooster.26 It reminds us of the difficulties of assessing tone in ancient narratives: the maker of the urn is probably honouring rather than mocking the dead priest.

32Rome itself had been occupied, then, by galli of a different sort. Cybele’s cult was brought to Rome from Pergamum in 204 BC towards the end of the war with Hannibal because a Sibylline prophesy said that when a foreign army invaded Italy it could be expelled only if the Mother of Mt. Ida, Cybele, were transferred to Rome (Livy 29, 37, 2; 36, 36, 3–4; Ovid Fasti 4, 179–372). By Ovid’s day Cybele’s festival, the Megalensia, was one of Rome’s most important festivals. Yet Roman citizens were not allowed to become galli.

  • 27 Servius (on Aeneid 9, 620) suggests that Remulus, as he taunts the Trojans, calling them Phrygian (...)
  • 28 See Gillis 1983, 32–34 and note 53 for the sexual innuendo. The finger mentioned might recall a) t (...)

33Virgil often refers to Cybele in the Aeneid, but not to Attis – though his characters comment on Phrygian lack of masculinity: In 4, 215 Iarbas refers to Aeneas as “that Paris with his semiviro comitatu”.27 Octavian’s involvement with the Cybele cult lurks behind Suetonius’ (Augustus 68) claim that, when one actor appeared as a gallus and banged his drum, another responded: “Do you see how the pervert controls the orb (i.e. either the round drum or the world) with his finger?” The audience, he says, took this as a slur on Octavian.28

Something else Venus fails to notice

34Vulcan’s comment to Venus about knowing the right moment to do something has implications for Rome’s future as well as for Troy’s past. Venus may have missed not only a chance to extend Troy’s existence, but also an opportunity to advance Rome’s future. Even as she speaks, Aeneas is spending his one and only night on the site where Rome will be built, sleeping with the hide of a Libyan sow-bear between himself and the ground (8, 368). The Augmented Servius, commenting on Aeneid 5, 37 about the Libyan bear skin Acestes wears, observes: Africa ursos non habet. This is the second time in Aeneid 8 that Virgil gives a puzzling glimpse of a bear that really does not exist. The first, curiously enough, comes when Aeneas reaches the site, marked by the presence of an “albino” sow, that will one day be Alba Longa (Aeneid 8, 81–83):

Ecce autem subitum atque oculis mirabile monstrum,
candida per silvam cum fetu concolor albo
procubuit viridisque in litore conspicitUR SUS.

  • 29 See also Ahl 1985, 302–309.

35The Latin offers an odd double-take. Of the two verbs in 83 the first is active, the second passive. Conspicit without the final unaccented -ur would be active (“sees”). But metrics here give -ur an accent: it precedes the monosyllable ending the line: sus, “sow”. When spoken normally, the combination sounds like conspicit ursus, “a bear sees,” not conspicitur sus, “a sow is seen”.29 It generates, syllabically, a non-existent bear whose appearance I tried to catch in my translation:

Suddenly, there she is! And the prodigy shocks and bewilders
Eyes brought to bear on a sow as she lies, stretched out on the green bank
Gleamingly white through the woods with a brood the same color, albino.

36Helenus and Tiberinus (3, 388–395; 8, 42–45) have told Aeneas about the prodigy. But neither warns him not to kill the pig and her piglets – which Aeneas proceeds to do. Now while Helenus and Tiberinus declare that the pig and piglets represent the thirty years between Aeneas’ foundation of Lavinium and the foundation of Alba Longa, others took them to symbolise the thirty cities of the Latin league (Livy 1, 20ff.; Dionysius, Roman Antiquities 3, 31, 4). Indeed, when Latin communities seceded from Rome in 91 BC they made the Alban sow their symbol on coins. In terms of this interpretation, the founder of the Roman people is now doing symbolically what his descendants will do in reality: wiping out the Latin league.

  • 30 See Ahl and Roisman 1996, 99–100.

37Aeneas also lacks critical information as he sleeps on the non-existent Libyan bear skin at Pallanteum. While Virgil takes readers through the structures and topography of what will be Rome, no one tells Aeneas that this is the place that will be Rome, that he has reached the city whose foundation is the goal of his labours. One thinks of and contrasts the idealized city emblazoned on Homer’s shield of Achilles (Iliad 18, 478–608) – a sad symbol for a warrior who will never again enter a city.30 True, Aeneas’ divine armour arrives while he is in Rome listening to Evander’s recommendation that he offer to lead the Etruscans against the Latins (8, 505–520). The arms and the man seem within reach of each other at Rome for the first and last time in the epic. But Venus sends the armour to earth not in Rome but in Etruria. Aeneas receives his divine weapons near the camp of the Etruscan king Tarchon whom he will bring with him from Caere to his camp on the Tiber (8, 597–625). He gazes in awe at the shield, but does not recognise the landscapes he visited the previous day. And since he does not return to Evander’s Pallanteum for Pallas’ funeral in Aeneid 11, he affords that city’s eyes no chance to recognise the landscapes he does not recognise himself. Pallanteum, impoverished and thinly manned, had been Aeneas’ for the taking when he arrived. But oracles, prophets, and even his own mother direct him instead to Latinus’ city, which, though it has a huge religious and administrative centre built on more columns than the Parthenon, is never named or assigned a precise location in the Aeneid. It is a good place to set down a non-existent Libyan bear skin.

38By arming Aeneas for a war against Turnus instead of telling him he has reached the site of Rome, Venus, in effect, postpones Rome’s foundation for half a millennium. Only one eventuality is noted that could move it forward. Aeneas, in 12, 184, announces official terms for what is to be done if Turnus defeats him in the proposed duel: convenit Evandri victos discedere ad urbem, “agreed: the vanquished will leave for Evander’s city.” The treaty will settle Trojans on the site of Rome five hundred years earlier if Turnus rather than Aeneas wins, presuming the unconsulted Evander still welcomes them after his son’s death and Aeneas’ failure to attend the funeral. In a way, Aeneas’ victory is a setback for the establishment of Rome. Given this perspective, we can see Vulcan’s point: what’s a mere ten years here or there?


1 Poetics 1448a 34–36; see Ahl 1997, 9–25.

2 Lucian also has the “living” Menippus claim, jestingly, to have visited the underworld in his Menippus, perhaps modelled on Menippus’ Nekuia. See Helm 1906.

3 Charon’s boat, for instance, is more humorously flimsy in the Aeneid than in the Frogs and springs leaks under the weight of a live hero. Zinn 1960, 41–56 ventured a very brief overview of humour in Augustan brief poetry. But the topic of humour in Virgil has rarely received more then passing treatment in scholarship. For further discussion of Virgil’s underworld, see Ahl 2010, 47–58; also Reitz 1982 and Billerbeck 1983, 326–338.

4 See Lühken 2002. Evidence that Virgil’s Epicureanism continued into his adulthood is ever mounting, as more is discovered about his links with the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus and his circle. See Armstrong / Fish / Johnston / Skinner 2004 with its extensive bibliography (323–342).

5 For a general overview reflecting the scholarly consensus on how the epic gods work, see Feeney 1991; for a more philosophical approach to the topic of power and justice in the Aeneid, see Zetzel 1996, 297–319.

6 See Ahl 2008, 363–382 and Ahl 2010, 47–58.

7 Polleichtner 2009, 125–145.

8 To catch the wordplay on Venus and venatrix, I have her “hunting for venison” in my translation (1, 318).

9 Curiously Metamorphoses 1 and 2 show destruction of the world by water, flumen, (in the story of Lycaon, Deucalion and Pyrrha) and by fire and lightning, fulmen, (in the story of Phaëthon). See Ahl 1985, 53–54; 171–172; 286–287.

10 See Ahl 1985, 95–99.

11 See Ahl 1985, 275–285; expanded in more detail in my forthcoming How to Read the Aeneid (Oxford 2013).

12 See Powell 2008, 31–85.

13 See Gowing 1992, 1–3. See also Ahl 1984, 40–110, especially 52–54.

14 See Salmon 1967, 223–226 and the sources cited.

15 See my discussion in Ahl 2008, 382.

16 See also Scully 2000, 93–113; Faber 2000, 49–57. Study of the shield has been subsumed into the now wildly popular “ekphrasis” studies which has become a scholarly genre of its own. See Goldhill 2007, 1–19. Also Barchiesi 1997, 271–281.

17 See Maldonado de Lizalde 2005, 365–413; Ferrero Raditsa 1980, 278–339; see also Ahl 2008, 403. The law’s name acquired a special irony since Octavian’s unfortunate and abused daughter Julia, who was married off to two of Octavian’s designated heirs, Marcellus and Agrippa, and to his eventual successor Tiberius, became an embarrassment because of her frequent adulterous affairs. See Fantham 2006; Suetonius, Augustus 64; Dio Cassius 48, 34, 3; 54, 6; 54, 18; Tacitus, Annals 1, 53.

18 One of the mysteries of Aeneid 5 is why Virgil chooses to identify three of his four captains in the boat-race as ancestors of the Sergii (Sergestus), the Memmii (Mnestheus), and the Cluentii (Cloanthus). The Cluentius family has Oscan rather than Latin roots. And Oscan was spoken in the areas south of Latium, especially among the Samnites, Rome’s rivals in Italy until their annihilation by Sulla in 82 B.C. Only three had drawn attention in Virgil’s day. Lucius Cluentius, an Oscan meddix (= praetor or consul) was defeated and killed by Sulla in 89 BC (Appian CW 1, 50, 221). Another Cluentius, Aulus Cluentius Habitus, from Larinum (on the border between Apulia and the Frentani) died the following year (Cicero, Pro Cluentio 11). Cicero defended his son, charged with homicide, in a case of family vendettas and poisonings involving his murderous mother, Sassia (the name of Cloanthus’ ship, incidentally, Scylla, means “bitch” as well as the sea-monster Scylla of Aeneid 3, 424–428). The only notable Memmii both made their names as tribunes of the people in 111 BC and 66 BC respectively. The elder accused the Roman nobility of corruption by Jugurtha bribed and tried to have Jugurtha interrogated, but failed. He ran for the consulship in 99 BC but was killed by his rival candidate. The younger attacked Lucullus and his family and opposed Julius Caesar. He even married Fausta, Sulla’s daughter, but then divorced her, and joined Caesar. Fausta promptly married a supporter of Pompey, and the two ruined Memmius’ political career. He went into exile in Athens and probably died there. He was a wealthy orator and poet, an Epicurean and patron of Lucretius, who dedicated his epic to him. He sought out the company of Catullus (but Catullus disliked him). Cicero prevented him from buying Epicurus’ house in Athens. The only important Sergius is Lucius Sergius Catilina, who planned a revolution at Rome in 63 BC but was stopped by Cicero. Catiline is also depicted on Aeneas’ shield in 8, 668. His ancestor, Sergestus, is one of Aeneas’ chief officers. The identified captains, then, have descendants who challenged Rome’s ruling elite in the days of Virgil’s father and grandfather and look suspiciously like the reformers, intellectuals, revolutionaries, and gangsters critics said were the basis of Sextus Pompey’s forces in Sicily. If there is a Roman link for the fourth captain, Gyas, it may be too controversial to be stated. “Gyas” suggests strength of limb, like the Latin warrior Gyas in 10, 318, or Gyes, a monster with a hundred arms (Paschalis 2005, 187) – apt for the captain of an oared galley. Gyas’ ship, Chimaera, is named after a fire-breathing, mythic monster that roved Asia Minor and was killed there by Bellerophon. The chimaera is also used as a symbol by Turnus (7, 785). Plutarch thought it symbolic of a pirate; and Gyas’ Chimaera is a war galley: a trireme or quinquereme. The fourth captain, Gyas, with no descendants named, might be an allusion to Sextus himself, given the frequency of allusions to him in Aeneid 5 and 6. Sextus was executed in Asia Minor in 36 BC. See also my note in Ahl 2008, 375 (on 5, 175).

19 On Caesar and caesaries, see Ahl 1985, 74–99.

20 Livy 5, 31, 2; 5, 47; Diodorus Siculus (14, 103, 1 and 14, 116, 6) thought the records indicated two different Manlii; see Ogilvie 1965, 694.

21 There may be a fourth level too, if one can find a way to establish it, since Virgil was much affected by the death of his friend Gallus, a victim of Octavian’s displeasure.

22 Ovid (Fasti 4, 361–366) says the priests are so named because of the waters of the river Gallus in Phrygia, which caused those who drank of them to go mad and tells people to stay far away from it if they are sound of mind; cf. Pliny, NH 31, 9 and Strabo 12, 3, 7. See Frazer’s (1929) discussion, 254–255.

23 Dionysius of Halicarnassus, RA 1, 78, 11; Plutarch, Romulus 20, 4.

24 For the Galli as priests of Cybele, see Vermaseren l977, 96–l0l; Sanders l970, s.v. “Gallos”.

25 See Pollini 1993, 258–298. Attis either got into a religious frenzy or was unfaithful to Cybele (or both) and castrated himself (either willingly or under compulsion) and eventually died – though his body was preserved at Cybele’s request. Cybele’s priests, called galli, practised self-castration. On March 24 AD 239, the “day of blood” in Cybele's cult, Caius Antonius Eutyches, “Lucky”, castrated himself in her honour (CIL 13, 510). Official art, including coins, is silent about Attis. Poets are not. Catullus 63 tells of Attis’ self-castration and prays the frenzy won’t strike him.

26 See Vermaseren 1977, 96 and plate 64, illustrating the visual “pun on the funeral urn (cista) of the archigallus M. Modius Maximus at Ostia”; cf. Squarciapino l962, l2.

27 Servius (on Aeneid 9, 620) suggests that Remulus, as he taunts the Trojans, calling them Phrygian women, not men, in line 9, 6l7, may be saying not cedite ferro, “submit to the blade“, but caedite ferro, “cut with the blade”. Remulus means, Servius says: cum viri non sitis, abscindite partem virorum i.e. castrare vos debetis, more Gallorum Cybeles sacerdotum, “since you are not men, cut off your manly part, i.e., you should castrate yourselves in the manner of the Galli, the priests of Cybele.” Servius’ emendation is unnecessary since the undertone would be present anyway.

28 See Gillis 1983, 32–34 and note 53 for the sexual innuendo. The finger mentioned might recall a) the statue of Octavian at Prima Porta standing with hand raised and fingers pointed in an oratorical gesture and b) the tradition mentioned by Arnobius (5, 5–7) that Attis’ body remains uncorrupted, but not really living, after his death; his hair grows and his littlest finger moves.

29 See also Ahl 1985, 302–309.

30 See Ahl and Roisman 1996, 99–100.


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