By Meghan Reedy
The grove in the center of Carthage where Dido is building a huge temple to Juno is a place of firsts. It is the first place where Juno showed the Phoenicians a favorable sign after they were tossed ashore: lucus in urbe fuit media, … quo primum iactati undis et turbine Poeni effodere loco signum, quod regia Iuno monstrarat (441–4). It is also the first place Aeneas (who has also recently been tossed ashore) feels that it might be safe to begin to feel safe: hoc primum in luco nova res oblata timorem leniit, hic primum Aeneas sperare salutem ausus (450–2)— and Aeneas too feels comforted here by something that he sees, nam … videt … (453–5).
What Dido and the Phoenicians see is the head of a horse, caput acris equi (444). They were shown it by Juno, and it was a sign to them that they would be strong in war and secure in their livelihood for generations: sic nam fore bello egregiam et facilem victu per saecula gentem (444-5). They were reassured by it about their course of action; and chose to build a temple to Juno in return for that reassurance, hic templum Iunoni … Dido condebat, donis opulentum (447). Vergil tells us about the head, about Juno’s showing it, and about what it means to Dido and her people, all as matters of fact; likewise Dido’s building of a temple there. And he tells us the whole story quickly: the entire narrative, from their coming ashore in Libya to the advanced stage of the temple’s construction (the roof is on, nexae aere trabes, 448–9; doors are already hung, foribus cardo stridebat aenis, 449), takes up only nine lines, 441–9.
What Aeneas sees, however, is significantly more complex: it takes 43 lines (450–493) to describe it all. The matter of interpretation, what the “sign” means, is also personal to Aeneas and relevant chiefly to his own emotional state—and as such much of it is inarticulate and unfolds over the course of his looking (he cries out, for example, or weeps, multa gemens, largoque umectat flumine voltum, 465). What the pictures on Dido’s temple mean to Aeneas is thus, perhaps paradoxically, much harder to articulate than what the horse’s head meant for the future of the Phoenician people.
It is perhaps surprising, then, to note that most comprehensive effort at pinpointing Aeneas’ response comes right at the beginning, before rather than after the description of what he sees, in lines already quoted (450–2):
hoc primum in luco nova res oblata timorem
leniit, hic primum Aeneas sperare salutem
ausus, et adflictis melius confidere rebus.
We learn here that the “strange thing” he’s come across, nova res oblata, lessens his fear, soothes his anxiety, timorem leniit. And while it doesn’t give him specific things to look forward to in his or his people’s future, it does shift his attitude away from despair and towards very cautious hope— which feels reckless, under the circumstances, and requires daring. He dares to hope for safety, sperare salutem ausus, and to trust a little more in the shaky, trouble-wracked things he is doing, adflictis melius confidere rebus.
However cautiously and personally, these reactions are forward-looking; fear and hope and trust in one’s actions all look into the future, even if it is just a little way. And so again it is perhaps surprising that what Aeneas sees has on the face of it nothing at all to do with the future: he sees a pictorial narrative of the last war at Troy. The “strange, new thing” Aeneas sees, and that gives him cautious hope for the future, is his own past:
… videt Iliacas ex ordine pugnas,
bellaque iam fama totum volgata per orbem,
Atridas, Priamumque, et saevum ambobus Achillem.
He sees the Trojans’ battles in order, a war already common knowledge the world over; Achilles raging at the Greek king Agamemnon, and at the Trojan king Priam.
These lines give the broad, broad overview; detailed descriptions of several of the pugnae are to follow. But it is now, immediately, in the moment of his first realization that he is seeing pictures of his own city’s war in this most unexpected place, that Aeneas stops still and tries, through tears, to articulate what this means to him, constitit, et lacrimans … inquit … (459). He speaks to Achates (459–63):
… ‘Quis iam locus … Achate,
quae regio in terris nostri non plena laboris?
En Priamus! Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi;
sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
Solve metus; feret haec aliquam tibi fama salutem.’
What might he mean?
“What place, what region of the world is not already full of our work? See, Priam! Even here there are fitting rewards for glory; there are tears for things and mortal-things touch the mind. Let go fear; this story will bring you some kind of safety.”
What if just the very notion that the Trojan war has become a common story helps? Aeneas realizes that he is seeing the Trojan war in line 456; here is the next line: bellaque iam fama totum vulgata per orbem. His first, incredulous question to Achates in 459–60 is a rephrasing of this same idea; “is there any place that isn’t talking about what we did?” In 461, pointing out Priam, he takes it as a sign that there are suitable rewards for laus—glory, a glorious deed, but at root “praise” … people talking about a deed that is worth talking about. And the last thing he says in 463 is that this story, haec fama, will keep them safe.
Looking back at 452, where Aeneas dares to trust a little more in his shaky deeds, adflictis melius confidere rebus, perhaps the knowledge that his city’s defeat is already an epic is heartening. If his losing is already a good story, maybe whatever comes next might be okay.
But something more comes out in the next two lines (464–5):
Sic ait, atque animum pictura pascit inani,
multa gemens, largoque umectat flumine vultum.
“He said this, and grazed his spirit on an empty picture, moaning often, and he drenched his face with a great river.” He will continue to weep and moan throughout: lacrimans (470); vero ingentum gemitum dat pectore ab imo (485), deeply moved by what he recognizes in these pictures, agnoscit (470); agnovit (488).
Back in 406 he used this same word, Ille ube matrem / agnovit; he recognized Venus when she dropped her disguise. And he was upset with her for tricking him with images, and he asked her, Quid natum totiens, crudelis tu quoque, falsis ludis imaginibus? (407–8). If we keep this moment in mind when read Aeneas’ enigmatic statement sunt lacrimae rerum, mentem mortalia tangunt, perhaps we glimpse something pointed in mortalia. Perhaps another reason seeing this story here is that this time, in this story, he recognizes his friends (Agnoscit … Tydides, 470–1), and he recognizes himself (se … agnovit, 488)— mortals, not gods. And these mortal things do move him deeply, they bring him to tears; unlike his mother, these things touch him.
But then, doesn’t he also speak too soon when he says “don’t worry, this story will save us”? Venus tricked him by disguising her appearance; Aeneas is sitting, at this very moment, while he thinks these thoughts, wrapped in a disguise himself. Isn’t the safety this war-story brings also going to prove a trick?
Barchiesi, A. 1997. “Ecphrasis.” In The Cambridge Companion to Virgil, ed. C. Martindale, 271–81. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bartsch, S. 1998. “Ars and the Man: The Politics of Art in Virgil’s Aeneid.” Classical Philology 93: 322–342.
Clay, D. 1988. “The Archaeology of the Temple to Juno in Carthage.” Classical Philology 83: 195–205.
Fowler, D. 1991. “Narrate and Describe: The Problem of Ekphrasis.” Journal of Roman Studies 81: 25–35.
Johnson, W.R. 1976. Darkness Visible: A Study of Vergil’s Aeneid, 99–105. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lowenstam, S. 1993. “The Pictures on Juno’s Temple in the Aeneid.” Classical World 87: 37–49.
Lowrie, M. 1999. “Telling Pictures: Ecphrasis in the Aeneid.” Vergilius 45: 111–20.
Thomas, R. 1983. “Virgil’s Ecphrastic Centerpieces.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 87: 175–84.