Edited by: Christopher Francese, Meghan Reedy, et al.
Aeneid 1.124-156 essay
By Meghan Reedy
By line 123 the storm Juno has invited has reached its height. Ships and people are scattered and shattered all over the place. But starting in line 124 it turns out that another god is not pleased by the winds’ rampage: Neptune, deep down, has felt the disturbance, emissam hiemem sensit Neptunus (125), and lifted his head out of the sea to have a look, alto prospiciens summa placidum caput extulit unda (126–7). Throughout the scene that follows we are shown more about how the gods interrelate. Neptune knows, for example, that his sister Juno’s anger is what caused the storm, nec latuere doli fratrem Iunonis irae (130). And yet it is not Juno he confronts about the incident, nor is it Aeolus, whom Juno persuaded to let the winds go. No, he calls two of the winds by name, and brings them to heel with a talking to: Eurum ad se Zephyrumque vocat, dehinc talia fertur… (131).
Thus we learn that the winds themselves are also people, so to speak, and can be held accountable for their behavior. When Neptune asks, Tantane vos generis tenuit fiducia vestri? (132), his question about the overweening confidence of the winds mirrors the poet’s concern about the extent of Juno’s anger in line 11: Tantaene animis caelestibus irae? And so we have another opportunity to consider the nature and the limits of deities. The winds are gods, too, but cannot, Neptune suggests, just raise a ruckus however and whenever they choose; there are limits. Looking back in the light of this to line 11, we might read that question anew: Juno is queen of the gods, and her anger is terrible—but is she not also, in the end, bound to modulate her behavior and accept the limits the Fates set?
In 133–4 the god asks how they can dare to raise up “such a gigantic mass (of water)”: Iam caelum terramque meo sine numine, venti, miscere et tantas audetis tollere moles? With meo sine numine, he highlights his own control over his own domain as one of the limits the winds ought to observe. But the question also echoes the poet’s statement in 33, which ends the explanation of Juno’s anger: “such great effort was involved in founding the Roman people,” (Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem). It seems that when Neptune asks “who are you, minor winds, to dare lift such weight?” he might be questioning not just their overreaching their own status, not just their straying into his own territory and lifting huge “weights” of water as waves, but also their overstretching with regard to the central Fate of the Aeneid, the founding of the Roman people. How could these wind-godlings think they could meddle with that fate?
Neptune packs Eurus and Zephyr off to go tell their king Aeolus to mind he stays within the limits of his power (non illi imperium pelagi … sed mihi sorte datum, 138–9), and puts everything to rights (142–7). The manner in which he does this is illuminated in one of the Aeneid’s many striking similes: the waves and winds quiet down in Neptune’s presence just as, veluti (148), a rioting mob stops to listen when they catch sight of a dignified man who calms them with his speech (148–53). Many people have thought a great deal about this simile, and about the striking way Vergil uses a human event (calming a riot) to augment our understanding of a natural event (calming a storm), when the reverse happens so much more often, especially in Homer. In the light of what has just been said about excess and limits in the behavior of the gods, one thing we should notice the way this “storm” has been consistently described as a series of deliberate acts by deities. The unleashed winds stir up huge waves (vastos volvunt ad litora fluctus, 86), and later Neptune calms the water (tumida aequora placat, 142); clouds steal the day away (eripiunt subito nubes caelumque diemque … ex oculis, 88–9), and Neptune shoos them off and brings back the sun (collectasque fugat nubes solemque reducit, 143); the wind Notus hurls three ships onto rocks (tres Notus … in saxa … torquet, 108) while Eurus grounds another three (tres Eurus … in brevia … urget, 110–11), and Neptune and the nymphs lever them off (Cymothoe simul et Triton adnixus acuto detrudunt naves scopulo; levat ipse tridenti et vastas aperit syrtes, 144–6). We have also witnessed Neptune’s verbal rebuke of Eurus and Zephyr.
We have thus been encouraged throughout the description of the storm not to think of it primarily as weather arising through impersonal natural forces, but as a conflict among characters, as personal. Thus when the simile comes it feels surprisingly natural. The comparison it offers readily provides a frame of reference, a name, for the behavior of the winds that has been described so far: seditio saevitque animis ignobile vulgus (149). The troop of winds is rowdy, trashy mob, ignobile vulgus, and their overreach is fueled by the desire for insurrection, mutiny (seditio saevit). Yes, we can easily think. Notus and Eurus and Zephyr and their low-born colleagues have been rioting. Similarly, the behavior of Neptune, is easily compared to that of an upstanding, dignified man, peitate gravem ac meritis … virum (151). Indeed, we can easily agree. He looked out from the deep and the rioters paused; he spoke sternly to them and they were chastened.
The result of describing the storm in such person-like terms, and then using a simile that directly compares the person-like storm-actors to people, is two-fold. As has often been remarked, the vir is described in such a way that we can’t help but think of Aeneas—already in line 10 he was called insignem pietate virum, and the man in the simile is pietate gravem … vir—and so we are being nudged here into thinking of Aeneas as being a little bit like Neptune, a little bit godlike. But I think something larger is also happening here. We are being allowed to think, to feel, that the whole universe, including the most extravagant weather, behaves like people do and can be thought of in terms of us. The god of the sea, when acting at his best and fairest, acts as a good person does. And bad weather acts as rowdy people do.
Both ways—Aeneas elevated to the divine, cosmic forces reduced to human, or perhaps rather to Roman, scale—the human players in the Aeneid are linked in with, blurred into, the workings and the motivations of the cosmos at every level, all the way to the uppermost deities. Might we not ask, is there such confidence in humankind? Isn’t this too overreaching?
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