Reading Vergil

A Walk with Vergil: Esther Popel Shaw’s Journey with Latin in Dickinson College at the Turn of the 20th Century

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Dickinson’s first female African-American student Esther Popel Shaw (1896-1958) was a devoted Latin student, and thirty years after graduation she named classicist Mervin G. Filler as a favorite professor. In the spring of 2017 Michelle E. Hoffer (’17) wrote about the academic experiences of Popel Shaw, with a focus on how she would have encountered the Aeneid. This research was carried out in the archives at Dickinson College with assistance from archivist James Gerencser, and the essay was written as part of the Vergil seminar taught by Prof. Francese.

My research focuses on Esther Popel Shaw, the first African American woman to graduate from Dickinson College, and her journey with the Classics, particularly Vergil’s Aeneid. By examining Aeneid commentaries of the time, as well as archived academic documents such as course catalogs and entrance requirements, I will attempt to reconstruct Esther Popel Shaw’s experience with Vergil at the turn of the twentieth century. I will attempt to paint a picture of her journey through the Latin Scientific Curriculum from 1915-1919, specifically insofar as she was taught to read and interpret the Aeneid and other ancient Latin texts. Ultimately, I aim to answer the question,
“Why were people at this time reading the Aeneid?”

Esther Popel Shaw was born in Harrisburg on July 16th, 1896 and was the first African American woman to both enroll in and graduate from Dickinson College. She graduated from Central High School in 1915 and enrolled at Dickinson the following fall.1 Because Dickinson banned African Americans from living on campus at the time, Esther commuted from Harrisburg each day, electing to pursue the Latin Scientific Course (LSC) of study, which was the same as the Classical Course, but instead of taking Ancient Greek, students in the LSC replaced the Greek with additional studies in modern languages and sciences.2

Esther herself chose to study French, German, Latin, and Spanish.3 An incredibly diligent student, Shaw received both the John Patton Memorial Prize, “an academic award granted annually to one student from each class”.4 and, upon her graduation from Dickinson in 1919, was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, one of America’s most prestigious undergraduate honors societies. While Shaw held a few jobs following graduation, she spent the majority of her career as a teacher in the Washington DC area, where she taught classes ranging from French, Spanish, and English to algebra and penmanship.5 In addition to teaching, Shaw was also a very well-known poet of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as an active community member for both African American and women’s issues.

In the fall of 1915, Esther began her journey at Dickinson. And, while she only mentions Latin twice in her diary from her senior year of high school,6 we can surmise from those entries that she had a solid foundation in Latin by the time she enrolled at Dickinson. This foundation may have been a contributing factor in her decision to pursue the Latin Scientific Curriculum, which was taught in large part by Professor Mervin Grant Filler, a man whose reputation still rings through the lobby of the current Classical Studies Department, as it is named in his honor. To say he was a legend both in the Classics and at Dickinson, would be an understatement. Not only was he an brilliant scholar, but was also beloved by his students and his community, as in Shaw’s alumni survey which she completed over 30 years after graduation, she mentions him by name, saying that he gave her both “inspiration and mental stimulation” and considers herself “fortunate” to have been one of his students.7

Grant himself was a true Dickinsonian, as he attended both the Dickinson Preparatory School and then in 1889, enrolled at Dickinson College, graduating both as valedictorian and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa.8 After graduation, he went on to teach Latin and Greek at the Preparatory School and then in 1899 became the professor of Latin at Dickinson College for an impressive 29 years, in which time he was also Dickinson’s 18th president. It was in 1915 that he would have met Shaw, and was very likely the only Latin professor she had in her time at Dickinson. Based on her course of study, records show that Shaw would have taken Vergil her junior year of college with Professor Grant. In his course, Grant stressed Vergil’s “works, life, and literary influence, and readings from the Eclogues and Aeneid VII-XII.”.9 The course was three hours per week for the first half of the year. The second half was devoted to Horace, Satires and Epistles. Through an archived bookstore request from Professor Filler, it is mostly like that in her study of the Aeneid, Shaw would have studied from The Greater Poems of Virgil: Vol. 1, Aeneid I-VI by Greenough and Kittredge, published in 1895.

However, just as today, the Aeneid is open to incredible amounts of interpretation. Thus, in order to reconstruct how Shaw may have been taught to view this great work, it is necessary to examine both the Greenough text, other commentaries of the time, and the competing cultural climates at Dickinson itself. In the early 1900s, Latin was still an entrance requirement for Dickinson, including “six books of the Aeneid” and “reading at sight of easy passages from Caesar, Cicero, and Vergil” for those wanting to pursue either the Classical or Latin Scientific Courses of study. This makes sense then why Professor Filler’s course specifically focuses on books VII-XII, as students were expected to be extremely well versed with the first six upon completing high school. Both of these facts show how valued the Classics still were in academia, both high school and undergraduate. Even in a public high school, students were being drilled and versed in the Latin so that they might be prepared for college, a far cry from the public school curriculum of today, in which students are lucky if they even get a single year of Latin. However, in Shaw’s time, Latin was still considered an important part of learning any language, and at least at Dickinson, was required to some extent for every major. Another now antiquated requirement was that of religion classes. From its roots, Dickinson was a religiously affiliated institution, in which students were required to not only take Bible classes, but were also “required to attend Church twice on the Sabbath. The place of worship, however, [was] left to their own discretion, or that of their parents or guardians.”10 And, while these two lost elements of Dickinson life and study may seem unrelated, they share many surprising ties.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Christianity was still very prevalent even in secular life, and people sought biblical meaning even in pagan things, the Aeneid as only one example. While it is impossible that Vergil intended Aeneas to be a Christ-figure, many commentaries in the late 1800s and early 1900s attempt to some level to make this connection. As John Campbell Shairp, Professor of Poetry at Oxford, says in his 1881 book Aspects of Poetry,

There is in Virgil a vein of thought and sentiment more devout, more humane, more akin to the Christian, than is to be found in any other ancient poet, whether Greek or Roman. The religious feeling which Virgil preserved in his own heart is made the more conspicuous, when we remember amidst what almost overpowering difficulties it was that he preserved it.11

Henry Frieze echoes a similar sentiment in his 1902 commentary, saying in part that

[Aeneas] is intended to be the embodiment of the courage of an ancient hero, the justice of a paternal ruler, the mild humanity of a cultivated man living in an age of advanced civilization, the saintiness of the founder of a new religion of peace and pure observance, the affection of parent and child which was one of the strongest instincts in the Italian race. The strength required in such an instrument is the strength of faith, submission, patience, and endurance.12

While no one can be sure whether Frieze intended for his words to have a religious flavor, he describes Aeneas in a way that sounds eerily parallel to that of Jesus Christ, even mentioning a “new religion of peace” and that Aeneas was an “instrument of strength and faith.” Even if this was not his intention, it certainly highlights the extent to which academic thought of that period was steeped in Christianity. In fact, this view of the Classics continued up even into post- revolutionary America, in which Caroline Winterer claims that,

The Aeneid also offered boys lessons about heroism, imperial expansion, quasi-Christian virtue, and the stoic acceptance of fate. Although the lessons in the Aeneid were not inherently more applicable to republicanism than to monarchism, Americans during and after the revolutionary era applied its themes to their project of creating a republican, Christian nation.13

Thus, throughout early American history, ancient texts were read with an eye for modern religious and sometimes political parallels, as people were desperately attempting to make these epics fit the mold of their current lives, perhaps hoping to give their own experiences deeper meaning.

With this perspective of both Dickinson and early American religious climate, it becomes much easier to reconstruct what Esther Popel Shaw might have been taught in her classes with Professor Filler on the Aeneid and how she might have been pressed to interpret them. In the Greenough-Kittredge version that she likely used, while there is no specific Christ/Christian connection made, there is both a political and religious motive attributed to Vergil’s work. The introduction declares that the Aeneid “was not written merely as a work of art, nor from a casual poetic inspiration. It is the product of a patriotic national sentiment and a belief in the divine origin and destiny of the Roman State religion.”14 Once again, political and religious motive are associated with the text and, based off of the other commentaries of the time, it is likely that Shaw would have been pressed not only to see the work through a Christian worldview, but also to apply the Aeneid to her own political and religious surroundings and search for modern-day parallels.

Today, the dialogue has shifted away from religion and onto many different branches of academic thought. Some scholars are fascinated by the underlying political message of the work, attempting to examine the ways in which socialist and democratic nations interpret the Aeneid to fit their own political structures.15 Other scholars shift the focus onto Aeneas as a hero, attempting to justify his portrayal within the larger context of epic heroes.16 And still others, like Peter Jones, take a much more multifaceted approach, examining not only Aeneas as a hero, but also Vergil and his style and his possible motivations. Perhaps Jones’ most brilliant observation in his introduction is his comparison of Aeneas to a modern hero. He says that, “Aeneas is a man who must learn to submit to the will of the gods, a response wholly at odds with much of today’s ‘culture’ which insists that following the devices and desires of one’s own heart represents the very zenith of human achievement.”17 Not only is he perfectly witty, but he also makes an astute point about the dangers of trying to force Aeneas to fit any modern conception of what it means to be a hero. Aeneas is not from our time, and he is not meant to be. Instead of desperately trying to thrust him into a mold in which he simply does not belong, we must try to use him as a model of ancient values, always keeping him within the context he was meant. There are many qualities of Aeneas’, such as determination, passion, and patience, that are still very applicable to modern life; however, if we attempt to base his worth as a hero off of some sort of one-to-one comparison with the superheroes of today, he will fade into the background, utterly misunderstood.

So, to finally answer the question, “Why were people at this time reading the Aeneid?” I must turn to Professor Robert S. Conway’s lecture, which he delivered in 1931, on the bi-millennium of Vergil’s birth. His lecture, which was titled “Poetry and Government: A Study of the Power of Vergil” ends with a call to keep the Classics strong and alive for future generations. He says, “Let us see to it that our successors may have the privilege that has been given to us of hearing the great voices that older times speak in their own accents across the silent years, of being quickened by them to know the gold from the dross, of learning from them what is simple, what is high, what is human, what is true.”18 This answer not only answers why people in Shaw’s day read Vergil, but is also just as applicable to Latinists and Classicists today. Conway understands that if we lose the ability to understand the Classics, we also lose the ability to understand the past, to understand people who somehow saw the world through a clearer lens. To Conway, these are not merely stories but windows into truth and beauty and goodness. They teach us virtues even without our knowing, like that of hard work as we struggle through the Latin, and persistence as we try to peel back the layers of meaning in each word. Conway does not see Vergil as antiquated, but as timeless. Vergil’s words stand as pillars of truth as much today as they ever did, for he showed us through his bright words and gentle verse how to be brave, how to be patient, how to be weak, and most of all how to be truly, painfully human.


1. Doran, Malinda Triller. “Esther Popel Shaw (1896-1958).” Esther Popel Shaw (1896-1958) Dickinson College. 2013. Accessed April 05, 2017. http://archives.dickinson.edu/people/esther-popel-shaw-1896-1958.
2. “Courses of Study,” Catalogue of Dickinson College (1916-1917): 15. The Classical Course of study consisted of four hours of both Latin and Greek per week freshman year, and then an elective three hours per week for the rest of the course.
3. Doran, Malinda Triller. “Esther Popel Shaw (1896-1958).” Esther Popel Shaw (1896-
1958) Dickinson College. 2013. Accessed April 05, 2017. http://archives.dickinson.edu/people/esther-popel-shaw-1896-1958.

4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. In a diary entry from Friday, June 19, 1914 she tells how her junior year report card had just come in the mail, specifically stating that she received a B in Virgil. Then again on Monday, September 28, 1914 she says that she “had a test in Greek History & rec’d a test paper in Latin in which I got a B.”
7. Esther Popel Shaw’s Alumni Questionnaire which she filled out in January of 1955.
8. Dickinson College Archives. “Mervin Grant Filler (1873-1931).” Mervin Grant Filler (1873-1931) Dickinson College. 2005. Accessed April 05, 2017. http://archives.dickinson.edu/people/mervin-grant-filler-1873-1931.
9. “Latin Language and Literature,” Catalogue of Dickinson College (1916-1917): 31.
10. “Public Worship,” Catalogue of Dickinson College (1834-1835): 14.
11. John Campbell Shairp, Aspects of poetry; being lectures delivered at Oxford (New
York, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894), 140.

12. Virgil, Walter Dennison, and Henry Frieze, Virgil’s Aeneid. Books. I.-XII. (New York,
American Book Company, 1902), 21.

13.Caroline Winterer, “Why Did American Women Read the Aeneid,” in Blackwell
Companions to the Ancient World Series: A Companion to Vergil’s Aeneid and its
Tradition 2010, ed. Joseph Farrell and Michael C. J. Putnam (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-
Blackwell, 2010), 368.

14. Virgil, Walter Dennison, and Henry Frieze, Virgil’s Aeneid. Books. I.-XII. (New York,
American Book Company, 1902), 21. J.B. Greenough, and G.L. Kittredge, The Greater Poems of Virgil: Vol. 1, Aeneid I-VI.
(Boston, Ginn & Company, 1895), 34-35.

15. Ernst A. Schmidt, “The Meaning of Vergil’s “Aeneid:” American and German
Approaches,” Classical World 94 (2001), pp. 145-171.

16. Adam Parry, “The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid,” Arion 2 (1963), pp. 66-80.
17. Peter Jones, Reading Virgil: Aeneid I and II. (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2011), 27.

18. Robert Seymour Conway, Makers of Europe (Cambridge, Harvard University Press,
1931), 83.

Podcast: The Chilling Fate of Palinurus (Aeneid 5.847–871)

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Seth Levin discusses the character of Palinurus in Vergil’s Aeneid

Palinurus falls from the stern of a ship into the sea, the God of Sleep flies away with a branch in his hand. Engraving from a German children’s picture-book version of the Aeneid by G. J. Lang and G. C. Eimmart, 1688.

Palinurus falls from the stern of a ship into the sea, the God of Sleep flies away with a branch in his hand. Engraving from a German children’s picture-book version of the Aeneid by G. J. Lang and G. C. Eimmart, 1688.

Cui vix attollēns Palinūrus lūmina fātur:
‘Mēne salis placidī vultum flūctūsque quiētōs
ignōrāre iubēs? Mēne huic cōnfīdere mōnstrō?
Aenēān crēdam (quid enim?) fallācibus aurīs          850
Tālia dicta dabat, clāvumque adfīxus et haerēns
nusquam āmittēbāt oculōsque sub astra tenēbat.
Ecce deus rāmum Lēthaeō rōre madentem
vīque sopōrātum Stygiā super utraque quassat          855
tempora, cūnctantīque natantia lūmina solvit.
Vix prīmōs inopīna quiēs laxāverat artūs,
et super incumbēns cum puppis parte revulsā
cumque gubernāclō liquidās prōiēcit in undās
praecipitem ac sociōs nēquīquam saepe vocantem;           860
ipse volāns tenuīs sē sustulit āles ad aurās.
Currit iter tūtum nōn sētius aequore classis
prōmissīsque patris Neptūnī interrita fertur.
Iamque adeō scopulōs Sīrēnum advecta subībat,
difficilīs quondam multōrumque ossibus albōs          865
(tum rauca adsiduō longē sale saxa sonābant),
cum pater āmissō fluitantem errāre magistrō
sēnsit, et ipse ratem nocturnīs rēxit in undīs
multa gemēns cāsūque animum concussus amīcī:
‘Ō nimium caelō et pelagō cōnfīse serēnō,           870
nūdus in ignōtā, Palinūre, iacēbis harēnā.’

Scarcely raising his eyes Palinurus says: ‘You order me to forget what I know about the appearance of the gentle salty sea and to forget the tranquil waves? To place my trust in this monster? For how could I entrust Aeneas to these fallacious winds, as I am often deceived by the guile of the serene sky?’ He spoke these words, and grasping and clinging to the helm, he never lost his grip and kept his eyes on the stars. But behold, the god shakes above both of his temples a branch dripping with the dew of Lethe, a branch stupefied with the power of the Styx, and although Palinurus tried to resist, his floating eyes weakened. Scarcely an unexpected sleep relaxed his first limbs, and reclining above him, the god threw Palinurus, who called out to his friends many times in vain, headlong into the peaceful waves with a plucked out part of the stern and rudder; and the god flying as a bird, carried himself along the thin breezes. The fearless fleet traverses the voyage on the sea in no more danger than was foretold by the promise of father Neptune. And now the departing fleet approached the crags of the Sirens, white with the bones of many men. Formerly it was difficult to traverse, (at that time the rough rocks were resounding from afar with the constant waves). When Aeneas felt that his wavering ship was wandering without a helmsman, he steered the ship himself on the waves of the night, terrified by the fate of his friend and lamenting much: ‘O Palinurus, confident too much in the sky and peaceful ocean, you will be thrown naked onto an unknown shore.’

Palinurus is an unlucky soul struck down by fate and the gods so that Aeneas might reach destined Italy. As Aeneas’ helmsman, he is visited by Somnus in the end of Book Five of the Aeneid, and is instructed to rest his eyes and let Somnus take over steering the fleet. However, Palinurus does not listen and is put to sleep by the god, and falls into the ocean. The reason why Palinurus dies in this manner is because earlier in Book Five, Neptune promises Venus that Aeneas will safely reach Latium on calm waters, but only if a single life in given in return. Palinurus’ main appearance is in Book Five, but he also makes an appearance in Book Six when Aeneas travels to the Underworld. During this scene, Palinurus begs Aeneas to give his bones a proper burial, and the Sibyl promises Palinurus that the people who discover Palinurus’ body “will appease your bones, will build you a tomb and pay your tomb due rites and the site will bear the name of Palinurus now and always” (Aeneid 6.379-80). But why is Palinurus unfairly chosen to die? Palinurus’ death fits into Vergilian pattern of death taking place at the end of books, or sections, of the Aeneid. In Book Two, Creusa dies in the final lines; in Book Three, Anchises does; and in Book Four, the final scene is the suicide of Dido. Not only do these characters all die at the end of these books, but their deaths in some way help Aeneas to arrive safely in Latium. They were all subject to fate and the intervention of the gods. This principle, as discussed by historian of religion Walter Burkert, is called pars pro toto, and it refers to “accepting the small loss in order to save the whole.” Vergil uses it because it “is highly rational [to employ] and highly emotional at the same time” (Burkert 51).

Through his use of pars pro toto, Vergil creates a rather eerie and somber tone in this passage. Although Vergil uses a lot of adjectives noting how peaceful the ocean and sky were during Palinurus’ death, those like placidi, quietos, sereni, and liquidas to name a few, Palinurus dies vocantem socios nequiquam, “calling out to his comrades in vain,” while he is thrown headlong into the ocean, drowning without any “indication that anyone heard the helmsman’s cries” (Fratantuono, 719). This eerie tone is especially present when Vergil writes about how the fleet approached the crags of the Sirens, which were white with the bones of many men. Sirens are mythological creatures, half human, half bird who lived on cliff-sides and would lure passing travelers to them by singing pleasant songs. Then, they would wreck the approaching ships, killing the sailors (Hinz). This detail about the Sirens could have been omitted, but Vergil cleverly writes about the Sirens to enhance the somber tone of Palinurus’ death, as “sleep had to work quickly so as to ensure that Palinurus could be cast overboard as a quasi-offering to the Sirens” (Fratantuono, 721).

Further adding to the eerie tone of this passage are Vergil’s final words in Aeneas’ epitaph to Palinurus at the end: ‘nudus in ignota, Palinure, iacebis harena’ (5.871). Palinurus will eventually wash up on the Italian shore, but Vergil notes that this shore will be ignota, or unknown. Palinurus is lost forever, and no matter how hard the Trojans search for Palinurus’ body, it will forever remain a mystery as to its whereabouts. Palinurus’ body is also nudus, or naked, stripped of its former Trojan distinction to whoever happens upon it. Vergil uses an eerie tone for this section because it complements the unfair fate of Palinurus. Everything seems to be going great for the Trojans after the games Aeneas holds for Anchises in Book Five, until Palinurus is unjustly chosen for death. The eerie tone in this passage also sends chills down your spine, forcing you to shudder at the dark fate of an innocent victim.

Besides the tone, another aspect of Vergil’s portrayal of Palinurus which I find interesting is the dichotomy between his brief speech in the beginning of this section and Aeneas’ at the end. Palinurus makes it very evident that he does not trust the calm waves and the clear sky. Palinurus is an experienced helmsman, and would not easily be thrown overboard by the worsening of conditions. However, “in the last lines of the book Aeneas laments the steersman’s fate and comments, pathetically inappropriately as it seems in view of Palinurus’ earlier indignant refusal to trust the elements, that Palinurus died through overconfidence in the calm sea and sky” (Nicoll, 459). It seems odd for Vergil to credit Palinurus with being a great helmsman, only to have Aeneas discredit this distinction a mere twenty lines later. However, it is not uncommon for Aeneas to be ignorant of the facts, contrary to other epic heroes. When Aeneas is fighting for Troy in Book Two, for example, Venus has to come down to show him how the gods were destroying Troy and there was no hope in saving the city. Similarly, in the Underworld, Aeneas sees Dido for the first time since leaving Carthage and has no idea she killed herself because he left. Fortunately for Palinurus, Aeneas eventually realizes that divine foul-play was involved when he meets Palinurus in the Underworld.

There are many instances in this passage which exemplify Vergil’s distinct style. He employs vocabulary in this section in order to generate a more epic emotion to the lines. In line 861, he uses ales (“bird,” literally “wing”) to describe Somnus flying away from Palinurus, instead of using more colloquial terms such as avis or volucris. Additionally, Vergil does not use mare even once to describe the ocean, instead opting to use the epic word aequor in line 862. For the other instances when Vergil mentions the ocean, he uses nouns such as salis, fluctus, and undas to describe features of the ocean, which further enhance the imagery of the scene, contributing to the epic feel.

Another stylistic feature present within this passage which is characteristically Vergilian is the repetition of an idea using different sets of words. In Palinurus’ short speech alone there are two examples of repetition of the same idea. The first is in line 848: mene salis placidi vultum fluctusque quietos. Palinurus references the ocean twice in the adjective-noun pair salis placidi vultum and fluctus quietos. The example in Palinurus’ speech is in lines 850-51: Aenean credam (quid enim?) fallacibus auris et caeli totiens deceptus fraude sereni? This time fallacibus auris and caeli sereni describe the treachery of the weather. These two examples of repetition allow the reader to better picture the scenery Palinurus is currently experiencing, adding to the vividness of the poem.

To summarize, this passage at the end of Book Five is dark, as it highlights the fated death of an innocent victim, while sticking to the Vergilian theme of death at the end of sequential books, or pars pro toto.

References:

Burkert, Walter. Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Fagles, Robert, trans. Virgil: The Aeneid. London: Penguin, 2010.

Fratantuono, Lee, and R. Alden Smith. Vergil: Aeneid 5: Text, Translation, and Commentary. Leiden: Brill, 2015.

Hinz, Berthold, “Sirens.” In Maria Moog-Grunewald, ed., Brill’s New Pauly Supplements I – Volume 4: The Reception of Myth and Mythology.

Nicoll, W. S. M. “The Sacrifice of Palinurus.” Classical Quarterly 38 (1988): 459–72.

Thomas, Richard F., Jan M. Ziolkowski, Anna Bonnell-Freidin, Christian Flow, and Michael B. Sullivan. The Virgil Encyclopedia. Malden: Wiley Blackwell, 2014.

Podcast: Ode to a Trumpeter (Aeneid 6.162-174)

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Hugh Downs discusses the character of Misenus in Vergil’s Aeneid.

Triton. Bronze sculpture by Giambologna, 1560-70. Metropolitan Museum, New York

Triton. Bronze sculpture by Giambologna, 1560-70. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

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!

 References

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.

Podcast: Creusa’s Farewell (Aeneid 2.776-789)

Chris Francese No Comments

Michelle Hoffer discusses Creusa’s farewell speech to Aeneas near the end of Book 2 of Vergil’s Aeneid.

Creusa Appearing to Aeneas (print published in London in 1781, after a painting by Maria Cosway). Aeneas, in armour, staring up on the right, stepping forward to the left and throwing his arms out to try and embrace Creusa, who floats in mid-air, naked holding a veil billowing around her and looking down to the right at him, in the background, Troy burns. Source: The British Museum.

Creusa Appearing to Aeneas (print published in London in 1781, after a painting by Maria Cosway). Aeneas, in armour, staring up on the right, stepping forward to the left and throwing his arms out to try and embrace Creusa, who floats in mid-air, naked holding a veil billowing around her and looking down to the right at him, in the background, Troy burns. Source: The British Museum.

‘Quid tantum īnsānō iuvat indulgēre dolōrī,
ō dulcis coniūnx? Nōn haec sine nūmine dīvum
ēveniunt; nec tē comitem hinc portāre Creǖsam
fās, aut ille sinit superī rēgnātor Olympī.
Longa tibi exsilia et vāstum maris aequor arandum,       780
et terram Hesperiam veniēs, ubi Lȳdius arva
inter opīma virum lēnī fluit agmine Thybris.
Illīc rēs laetae rēgnumque et rēgia coniūnx
parta tibī; lacrimās dīlēctae pelle Creǖsae.
Nōn ego Myrmidonum sēdēs Dolopumve superbās       785
aspiciam aut Grāīs servītum mātribus ībō,
Dardanis et dīvae Veneris nurus;
sed mē magna deum genetrīx hīs dētinet ōrīs.
Iamque valē et nātī servā commūnis amōrem.’

Did she trip and fall over burning wood and lose sight of him? Was she grabbed from behind by a Greek and stabbed through the heart? Did she cry out his name as he became smaller in the distance? Did the blazing walls of a nearby house collapse on her as she fled? Or could she simply just not keep up? These are questions that we will never have the answers to, because as Aeneas and his family fled the burning Troy he told his wife to follow him “at a distance” and never looked back to make sure she was safe until it was too late. For this, he bears not only the guilt he takes on himself, but the blame of generations of readers who cannot understand why he did not protect her, why he did not let her go in front, why he did not look back.

However, this is not the reputation he deserves, at least not in Creusa’s eyes. If you look closely at the words she chooses in her farewell speech, like dulcis, comitem, dilectae and nati communis amorem, it becomes clear that these two shatter the stereotype of Roman husbands being tyrants over their wives. These two were in love. That much is clear through her words. There is a deep emotional connection embedded in this speech and it paints a picture for the reader of the love they shared, helping us to feel the pain of his loss.

Creusa, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, was Aeneas’ Trojan wife whom he loses as he flees the burning city with his father and son, asking her to follow them longē or “at a distance” (2.711). Aeneas only realizes that he has lost her when he arrives at the meeting point outside the city, and immediately rushes back, only to be confronted by her shade, who delivers a moving and prophetic speech before her spirit disappears from sight. While Creusa’s final speech is the only real window we have into her character, we are provided a telling glimpse into who she was as a wife, mother, and catalyst for Aeneas’ fateful journey.

While Vergil is well known for modeling his works on those of his great predecessor Homer, Homer himself “does not have any character named Creusa, nor does he include any mention of a wife of Aeneas” (Cassali, 312). In fact the “name Creusa for the wife of Aeneas is not attested before the Augustan age”, in which both Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Livy mention her in their respective works (ibid.). In some of the earliest versions of the myth, Aeneas’ wife is named Eurydica, but “perhaps feeling that the name could not be dissociated from the Orpheus legend, Vergil accepted the account that her name was Creusa” (Briggs, 43). However, while Vergil may have accepted this origin, there are many textual clues that suggest the story of Orpheus and Eurydice was not far from his mind.

Through both his word choice and his thematic parallels, it is clear that Vergil borrowed the template of a lost wife from the Orpheus and Eurydice episode in the Georgics (4.453–527). Both Aeneas and Orpheus attempt to save their wives from dire situations, and in their attempted escape both men tell their wives to follow behind them. Ultimately, both fail. Both wives appear to their husbands after they are lost and are afforded one final speech. Perhaps the most interesting difference is that “Orpheus loses Eurydice for ‘looking back’ at her, while Aeneas loses Creusa for ‘not looking back’ at her.” (Casali, 312). Whether this is meant to speak anything to the quality of a husband Aeneas was to Creusa is widely debated. (Grillo 2010 is a fascinating discussion on what Aeneas’ loss of Creusa says about his pietas, arguing that he should not be absolved of all guilt, as he was knowingly and intentionally neglectful of his wife.)

Although Aeneas seems, at least on the surface, to be to blame for Creusa’s death, it is apparent in her speech that she does not see it this way, as she speaks gently and without resentment to her dulcis coniunx (2.776). She not only tries to soothe his guilt by reminding him that “these things did not happen without divine will” (non haec sine numine divum eveniunt, 2.776) but also by revealing that through her death she escaped becoming a slave to the Greeks, and instead now rests in the company of the gods. While he will move on, “she will remain in her homeland Troy” (Khan 2001, 909), and seems to be at peace with that. She is not resentful of his future happiness, but instead seems to take comfort in knowing that he will find happiness in the terram Hesperiam (2.781). In this way, her speech “is a combination of farewell, consolatio to assuage Aeneas’ guilt (not sharpen or prolong it), and divinatio, to point his way ahead” (Jones, 291).

She concludes her speech with the same gentleness with which it began, asking Aeneas to “preserve your love for our son” (2.789). She knows that the road ahead for her husband is a difficult one, but even still, “she ends by telling him not to fail in his love for their son” (Jones, 291), as she knows he will soon enough be taking a new wife. In her final words, Vergil shows us that above all else, she was a concerned mother, putting her son’s life and future at the forefront of both her and her husband’s mind. She also uses the word communis (2.789) meaning “common” or “shared,” perhaps in an attempt to remind him that part of her will forever live on in this person they created together, and that to preserve his love for their son is to preserve his love for her also.

Vergil puts his stamp on this speech through the imagery in his words and the themes he so seamlessly weaves in. Creusa depicts the flowing Tiber with “the limpid sounds of l and y” which “begin to give the new land certain charm” (Jones, 291), as if the words themselves are flowing gently through the fields. Vergil goes on to use “a strong but not excessive alliteration of the letter r” (ibid.) with res laetae regnumque et regia coniunx in line 783, before falling back into the gentle sounds of l and y as she begs him not to cry for her saying lacrimas dilectae pelle Creusae (2.784). However, Vergilian themes are certainly present as well, the most prominent of which is the future founding of Rome. This is the first true foreshadowing of that future to Aeneas, and while Creusa admits that the journey will be difficult, it will nevertheless be a worthwhile endeavor. He will not only begin his life anew, but will also fulfil the numen divum (2.786) or “divine will.”

While many would consider Creusa to be a minor character of the epic, I feel that she is the catalyst for the journey ahead. She needs to die so that Aeneas can fulfill his preordained destiny, and he must be forced to confront her shade so that he knows unequivocally that he has her blessing to move on without her, that he can go on knowing that she is not in pain, but in the company of the divine. She is able to put him at peace, a beloved voice telling him that perils await, but joy is inevitable. It is only through her encouragement that he is able to leave his burning city to pursue the numen divum.

References:

Briggs, Ward W. “Eurydice, Venus, and Creusa: A Note on Structure in Vergil.” Vergilius 25 (1979): 43–45.

Casali, Sergio. “Creusa.” In Richard Thomas and Jan M. Ziolkowski, eds., The Vergil Encyclopedia, 3 vols. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 312–13.

Grillo, Luca. “Leaving Troy and Creusa: Reflections on Aeneas’ Flight.” Classical Journal 106 (2010): 43–68.

Jones, Peter. Reading Vergil: Aeneid I and II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Khan, H. Akbar. “Exile and the Kingdom: Creusa’s Revelations and Aeneas’ Departure from Troy.” Latomus 60 (2001): 906–15.

Podcast: Misenus the Trumpeter (Aeneid 6.156-164)

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William Boyes discusses the character of Misenus in Vergil’s Aeneid.

Photo of Cape Misenum

Capo Miseno (source: it.wikipedia.org)

 

 

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.

References:

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.

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