Hugh Downs discusses the character of Misenus in Vergil’s Aeneid.
There are many stories in Roman mythology that involve mortals challenging the gods to contests. One of the best known is the tale of Arachne, the weaver who thought she was better than Minerva. Another less well-known story is that of Marsyas and Apollo. Marsyas was a satyr who challenged Apollo to a music contest but lost. More often than not, these stories do not end happily for the mortals. Arachne was turned into a spider and Marsyas was tied to a tree and flayed alive. This podcast will focus on another, more obscure character who challenged the gods and faced their wrath: Misenus, Aeneas’ herald.
Misenus’ death occurs towards the beginning of Book 6. Aeneas and the Trojans have finally landed in Italy at Cumae. Aeneas seeks out the Sibyl and, after performing the required sacrifices, entreats her to tell him what lays in store for his weary band. The Sibyl assures him he will reach Lavinium but warns him that he will find war upon his arrival. Aeneas then begs the Sibyl to show him to the Underworld so that he can visit his father Anchises. The Sibyl tells him that he must first seek out a golden bough sacred to Proserpina and bring it back with him; this is his key to the underworld. Before he leaves, she tells Aeneas that one of his companions lies dead and must be properly laid to rest before he can begin his descent. This is where Misenus appears. The original Latin is as follows:
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.
Vergil spends the next 50 some lines describing the preparations the Trojans made for Misenus’ funeral. He concludes the scene with the following lines:
At pius Aenēās ingentī mōle sepulcrum
impōnit suaque arma virō rēmumque tubamque
monte sub āëriō, quī nunc Mīsēnus ab illō
dīcitur aeternumque tenet per saecula nōmen.
Here is my interpretation of the Latin:
But when they returned to the shore,
they found Misenus cold in undeserved death on the dry sand.
Misenus, son of Aeolus, second to none in rousing men
And inciting Mars with a trumpet’s call.
First a companion of great Hector, he was famous
For fighting around the prince with both horn and spear.
After Hector was stripped of life by victorious Achilles,
Misenus, most brave of heroes, fell in with Dardan Aeneas, equal of Hector.
But then, by chance while Misenus was making the seas resound
With a hollow conch, he recklessly challenged the gods to a contest of song.
Envious Triton seized the man, if the story is to be believed,
And among the rocks drowned him in the crashing waves.
…and Pius Aeneas established his tomb on a huge mound,
And lay down Misenus’ arms and oar and trumpet
Below the lofty mountain, which from that point on has been
called Misenum and will hold that name for all time.
There are some contextual notes that I’d like to make which I think will be helpful for better understanding the section. Aeolus, Misenus’ father, was the keeper of the winds, so it is fitting that his son should be a renowned trumpeter. The conch was Triton’s “special instrument” (Austin, 91). so it makes sense that he specifically would punish any mortal who dared to challenge the gods with it. The place referred to here at the end is the modern day Cape Miseno, the northwest headland of the Bay of Naples. During Vergil’s time it was a popular vacation spot for Rome’s elite and housed many luxurious villas (Ganiban, 833). It was also the site of an important naval base during Augustus’ reign (McKay, 8). The topography of the cape lends itself to Vergil’s tale of Misenus as it bears a striking resemblance to a burial mound. The sounds the wind makes as it travels across the landscape through caves and grass are said to resemble to some degree those of a trumpet, strengthening the connection to Misenus (McKay, 7). By placing the death of Misenus here, Vergil is providing a link between the mythical past of his poem and the present day (Austin, 108). His Roman audience would have been very familiar with Cape Miseno, and making this connection would help them visualize and connect with the story more.
These lines provide us with good examples of many stylistic features common to Vergil. For one thing, Vergil very often uses words that “are more at home in poetry than prose”; these “add to the grandeur” of the poem and serve to make it feel truly epic (O’Hara, 255). Sicco; peremptum; lituo; obibat; aequora; spumosa; and immerserat are all examples of words found much more often in poetry than prose.
Another common stylistic feature found in these lines are assonance and alliteration. Alliteration had been used in Roman poetry long before Vergil came onto the scene, and Vergil uses it sparingly so as not to appear archaic (O’Hara, 252). vita victor spoliavit in line 168 is a good example of alliteration with the v’s, and line 165 contains both alliteration and assonance in aere ciere…accendere cantu. The latter is especially interesting as Vergil uses the devices to imitate to some degree the trumpeting of Misenus (Austin, 90).
Epanalepsis can also be found in this section. This is the unnecessary repetition of a word or phrase from a previous line so as to linger over an idea to add pathos or emphasis (O’Hara 253). This is seen with the repetition of Misenum in the first 3 lines. There is also repetition with Hectoris…Hectora in line 166, which serves both as a reminder of “Trojan pride and sorrow” and to emphasize the honored position Misenus held (Austin, 91).
The reason I like the Misenus story (apart from the fact that he’s a literal blowhard), is the message it conveys about the relationship between gods and man. The story, like those of Arachne and Marsyas, shows that the gods thought themselves superior to man and did not take lightly to mortal challenges. Nor did they have any qualms about killing mortals who challenged their power. I think this humanizes the gods to a certain extent, because it shows that they could be petty too, just like humans.
Thank you for listening, and I hope you now understand more about the character and significance of Misenus!
Austin, R.G. P. Vergili Maronis Aeneidos, Liber Sextus. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.
Ganiban, Randal. “Misenus,” in Richard Thomas and Jan M. Ziolkowski, eds. The Virgil Encyclopedia, vol. 2. (Chichester, West Sussex, UK : Wiley Blackwell, 2014), 833.
McKay, Alexander G. “Aeneas’ Landfalls in Hesperia.” Greece & Rome 14 (1967): 3–11.
O’Hara, James. “Virgil’s Style,” in The Cambridge Companion to Virgil, Charles Martindale, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.