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

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!


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: Misenus the Trumpeter (Aeneid 6.156-164)

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.


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.