By Meghan Reedy
In the previous scene, Aeneas met and talked with Venus, who was disguised as a huntress, in a grove outside Carthage (media … silva, 314), in territory Aeneas had thought entirely uninhabited (inculta videt, hominesne feraene, 308). The next significant scene, when Aeneas eventually meets Dido, happens in another grove – a grove in the very center of the city of Carthage, lucus in urbe fuit media, laetissimus umbra … (441).
And in between we find these 38 lines during which the shift of scene happens: Venus and Aeneas part ways, and Aeneas moves quickly from grove to grove … through Carthage.
He makes it through, from outside the city to its very center, without interacting with anyone at all because of a device: Venus wraps him in a cloud that renders him invisible and untouchable. She wraps him in it in 411–14: Venus obscuro gradientes aere saepsit, et multo nebulae circum dea fudit amictu, cernere ne quis eos, neu quis contingere posset …; and just before he steps into the grove (441), we are reminded of it, in similar terms, in 439–40: Infert se saeptus nebula … per medios, miscetque viris neque cernitur illi.
Both times the cloud is mentioned, the emphasis falls on how it prevents other people from seeing Aeneas and his companions: cernere ne quis eos, 413; neque cernitur illi, 440. It goes unstated, but starting in 420, aspectat … arces, it is abundantly clear that Aeneas is wrapped in a one-way fog; other people may not be able to see him, but he can see them and their city just fine. The one, tiny hint of this is the repetition of moliri: in 414, Venus intends that no-one will be able to “build a delay” for her Trojans, neue quis … molirive moram, and in 424 we see that indeed they do not look up from their work “building a citadel,” moliri arcem. The cloud thus has not one but two benefits: it protects Aeneas (which was Venus’ stated aim), but it also allows him, and so us, to get a first glimpse of Carthage without having to interact with anybody in it.
In fact, Aeneas doesn’t just look at the city, he marvels at it: miratur … Aeneas …/ miratur… (421–2). He marvels at how big it is, miratur molem, and how it used to be just an encampment of huts, magalia quondam (421). He marvels at the gates and at the bustle and the paving of the roadways, miratur portas strepitumque et strata viarum (422). And as the description of what he sees and marvels at continues we hear of other fine features of the city: walls, a citadel, housing sites, ports and theatres and columns (muros … arcem … locum tecto … portus … theatris … columnas, 423–9). But starting in 423, the buildings themselves are almost incidental, because what catches his attention most fully is the vigor and the variety of the work the Tyrians are doing: instant ardentes Tyrii (423). Indeed, what strikes him is not only the abundant building work, but also the legislation of the city: iura magistratusque legunt sanctumque senatum (426).
So the cloud has not one but two straightforward functions thus far: to hide Aeneas from the Carthaginians, and at the same time to give him a good view of both the city of Carthage and Carthaginians at work on it.
But shortly before Venus floods the cloak of cloud around them (nebulae dea fudit amictu, 412), there is a peculiar moment that might nudge us into looking more closely at this cloud business. When Venus met Aeneas in the wood, she was in disguise, sporting the face and outfit of a young woman out hunting—a Spartan or a Thracian, virginis os habitumque gerens, et virginis arma Spartanae, vel qualis … Threissa (315–16). She maintained her disguise for the whole time the two were talking, and then, just as she turns away, she drops it: dixit, et avertens … vera incessu patuit dea (402–5). When Aeneas recognizes her, his mother, he speaks to her as she walks off: Ille ubi matrem adgnovit, tali fugientem est voce secutus (405–6). He is irritated and accusing (incusat, 410); he calls her cruel, crudelis tu quoque, and he asks her two questions, both concerned with true and false appearances: Quid natum totiens … falsis ludis imaginibus? Cur … veras audire et reddere voces? (407–8).
Aeneas’ questions call our attention to the fact that Venus has been in disguise, playing with him, tricking him using false images—and also to the way that almost as soon as she reveals herself she turns around and disguises him with a fake outfit, a cloak of fog, nebulae … amictu.
And so this shift of scene, with its simple-seeming cloud-trick to get our hero from one grove to the next, and from one powerful woman (Venus) to the next (Dido), has also prepared us to be alert to deceptive surfaces. We will see Aeneas interacting in the very next scene with still more images: … atque animum pictura pascit inani … (464); and we will see him see his own friends, and Dido, while he himself is still disguised as a cloud (494–519); then later Venus tricking Dido (using a fake face and fake words, for example in 709–10 (Iulum flagrantisque dei vultus simulataque verba) … is Aeneas right about Venus? Is she cruel? Is he?
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Khan, H. Akbar. 2003, “Venus’ intervention in the Dido-affair: Controversies and Considerations.” In Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History 11. Collection Latomus 272, ed. C. Deroux, 244–74. Brussels, Collections Latomus.
Reckford, K.J. 1995–6. “Recognizing Venus I: Aeneas Meets his Mother.” Arion 3: 1–42.
West, D. 1969. “Multiple-correspondence Similes in the Aeneid.” Journal of Roman Studies 59: 40–49.