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