William Boyes discusses the character of Misenus in Vergil’s Aeneid.
Most people aim to leave a mark on this world before they leave it, whether in the form of having children, or in their career, or contribution to some social movement. But very few can hope for an entire location named after us post mortem. We count among these famous few some of the most influential and important members of society to date: George Washington, Saint Francis, Milton Hershey. Nowadays you have to be a titan of industry, lead a revolution, or effect major social change to get your own hill or street. But Vergil’s Italy, all you had to do it seemed was just die near Aeneas.
The Aeneid succeeds on its own terms as a beautifully composed epic in Latin, but it also provides explanations for the state of many things in the Roman world. Vergil knits together local myths and historical accounts in a wat that gives parts the Italian peninsula itself a kind of legendary gravity. For example, Aeneas’s helmsman Palinurus and his nurse Caieta both give names to capes and peninsulas in Italy.
One such venerated companion of Aeneas was his trumpeter Misenus, whose name adorns a cape in Italy to this day, now Capo Miseno. The Sibyl first tells Aeneas of Misenus’s death, and then Aeneas finds and buries his body in order to enter the underworld. The most interesting part of this section of about 100 lines to me was the section describing Misenus in life, and detailing the circumstances of Aeneas finding his body and then his death:
Aenēās maestō dēfīxus lūmina vultū
ingreditur linquēns antrum, caecōsque volūtat
ēventūs animō sēcum. Cui fīdus Achātēs
it comes et paribus cūrīs vēstīgia fīgit.
Multa inter sēsē variō sermōne serēbant, 160
quem socium exanimum vātēs, quod corpus humandum
dīceret. Atque illī Mīsēnum in lītore siccō,
ut vēnēre, vident indignā morte perēmptum,
Mīsēnum Aeolidēn, quō nōn praestantior alter
aere ciēre virōs Mārtemque accendere cantū. 165
Hectoris hic magnī fuerat comes, Hectora circum
et lituō pugnās īnsignis obībat et hastā.
postquam illum vītā victor spoliāvit Achillēs,
Dardaniō Aenēae sēsē fortissimus hērōs
addiderat socium, nōn īnferiōra secūtus. 170
Sed tum, forte cavā dum personat aequora conchā,
dēmēns, et cantū vocat in certāmina dīvōs,
aemulus exceptum Trītōn, sī crēdere dignum est,
inter saxa virum spūmōsā immerserat undā.
My translation of this passage is as follows:
Leaving the cavern, Aeneas walked with his eyes cast downward, his face sorrowful, pondering these strange dark events in his mind. Trusty Achates went with him as a comrade and locked with his captain both his step and his thought. They spoke about many different topics among themselves, what dead comrade did the princess mean? Whose body was left to be buried? When they came to the beach, they saw Misenus on the dry sand, dead, cutoff by a death all undeserved. Misenus, son of Aeolus, than whom no one was more outstanding at rousing men and in igniting the war god with his bronze trumpet. He had been the companion of great Hector. Around Hector Misenus met battles. He was distinguished with both war-horn and spear. After victorious Achilles stripped Hector of life, the very brave hero had come into the company of Dardanian Aeneas, then following a leader no worse than he had before. But then, while he happened to be playing his conch, making the seas resound loudly with his music- the fool- he called the gods into competition with his song and, if the story is to be believed, envious Triton snatched him up and drowned the man in the frothy waves among the rocks.
This passage is packed with information about Misenus, filling in his backstory from before the Trojan War up until his death. We learn he is a tested fighter, but he is mostly a hype guy for great heroes like Hector and Aeneas, and he is great because he himself is in the company of great men. This point is emphasized by the repetition of Hector’s name, in addition to the names of other great men like Achilles and Aeneas, in line 166. Misenus was described as “very brave” and “outstanding at rousing men” to war—then later a close companion of Aeneas. Vergil also makes a point to paint the image of Misenus with great liveliness and youth, to make his death that much more tragic. Vergil’s main objective throughout the Aeneid, but especially in the little vignettes he sprinkles throughout the work, is to throw the reader into the emotional turmoil his own characters feel on their journey. In a different part of the Aeneid, Vergil subjects us to Priam’s gruesome and tragic death at the hands of Neoptolemus. This scene is particularly emotional because it involves old Priam being ripped from his family, still trembling under the weight of his old armor, and run through with a sword in a pool of his young son’s own blood. Compare these episodes also to Aeneas’s painful and protracted relational fight with Dido about leaving Carthage. Dido begs and pleads and clings to Aeneas hard as a lover should, but to no avail. She kills herself shortly after Aeneas leaves, in pain so great that nothing but death could relieve her. Each anecdote achieves the same end, in different ways: Vergil brings us a difficult and complex human experience we all find ourselves relating to in some way or another. The gods, as the ultimate arbiters of our fates, are seen as cruel and even shallow by the text—it seems completely unnecessary for a powerful sea god like Triton to snuff out a young, vibrant soul such as Misenus’s, just for playing a conch shell. The emphasis in this element is on the randomness of life’s misery. His name is repeated at lines 162, then 164 to heighten the emotional effect on Aeneas and Achates—and the reader. This technique is common in poetry, as in the line from Robert Frost: “Possessing what we were still unpossessed by, Possessed by what we now no more Possessed” (from “The Gift Outright”).
Misenus’s value and purity in the world remind the reader of the cruelty the fates seem to spin for each of us, and even can be framed in reference to the sacrifices made in war or any great undertaking. One scholar (McKay) suggests that Misenus, along with the unfortunate helmsman Palinurus, are consumed by the “destiny that embraces Aeneas and Ascanius” as “quasi-sacrificial victims.” To achieve anything so great as the Roman Empire, sacrifices such as Misenus dying must be made. Another scholar (Dinter) likens Misenus to old Trojan glory lost and soon to be re-established. Misenus helps to bridge two continents, going from being very much involved with the old Trojan way, as Hector’s loyal trumpeter, to dying and being buried on Italian soil. He, like the Trojan identity he represents, must be disintegrated and sown into Italian ground, for Roman crop to arise. He even holds a place in both Phrygian myth and Roman history.
Minor Heroes like Misenus exist in literature to enhance and move the stories of greater epic heroes like Aeneas, even if that means their sacrifice. However, I wonder whether the ancients meant to comment on the irrelevance or auxiliary nature of some people’s lives? Do the fates require sacrifice of some to ensure the glory of others, even now? Has destiny confined many of us to live only in the shadows of great men and women? Vergil doesn’t seem to give us an optimistic answer. This hard truth would certainly fit with his lessons in life’s many hardships.
Dinter, M. “Epic and Epigram: Minor Heroes in Vergil’s Aeneid.” Classical Quarterly 55 (2005): 153–169.
McKay, A. G. “Vergilian Heroes and Toponymy. Palinurus and Misenus.” In H.D. Evjen, ed., Mnemai. Classical studies in memory of Karl K. Hulley (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1984), 121–137.