Avant Propos: The Set Text and the Aeneid

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 For the most part, Aeneid 1–4, a third part of the epic overall, is set in Carthage. In the larger scheme of things, this detour via Africa appears to be an accident. After the extended proem (1.1–33), Virgil begins his narrative proper medias in res with Aeneas and his crew on their way from Sicily to the Italian mainland. Yet the sight of the Trojan refugees about to reach their final destination stirs the hero’s divine arch-enemy Juno, who already figured prominently in the extended proem, into action. The violent storm she unleashes with the help of the wind-god Aeolus does not end in the desired outcome (wrecking of the ships and mass drowning). But the Trojan fleet is blown well off course. When Neptune finally calms the cosmic commotion at 1.142, Aeneas and his men find themselves not in Italy, but near the recently founded city of Carthage in Northern Africa, ruled by Queen Dido, herself a recent exile from her native Tyre in Phoenicia. (In terms of geopolitics, the drift in the Aeneid tends to be from East to West.) There is irony to savour in the fact that Juno, who, in the proem, is presented as deeply worried about the future of her city Carthage (destined to be destroyed by Aeneas’ people, the Romans), sets up the enmity between the two cities by causing Aeneas’ tragic sojourn in Africa: thus are the inscrutable twists and turns of fate![1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The tragedy of Dido unfolds over the course of the rest of Book 1 as well as Book 4. In between, Aeneas takes on the role of ‘internal narrator’ at the welcome banquet laid on by Dido. He recounts the fall of Troy and his flight from the burning city (Aeneid 2) and tells of his subsequent travels and travails until his arrival at Carthage (Aeneid 3).[2] One of the interpretative challenges involved in reading an excerpt from Aeneid 4 is to see it in the context of what came before, especially in Book 1, and what follows after, especially in the remainder of Book 4. But you may also wish to ponder what the flashback in Aeneid 2 and 3, as well as explicit and implicit resonances of the Dido-episode in subsequent books of the epic, may have to contribute to our understanding of the set portion of text. For instance, Aeneas, in his account of the fall of Troy in Aeneid 2, makes much of the figure of Sinon, a treacherous Greek who persuades the gullible Trojans to breach their city walls to pull in the Wooden Horse; and in a sense, unbeknownst to him, Aeneas does something very similar in Carthage, employing his persuasive skills to gain entry into the heart of his hostess.[3] The outcome is in each case the same: Troy and Carthage end up in flames, and Aeneas leaves a conflagration behind him at the end of both Aeneid 2 and Aeneid 4. Is he another Trojan horse?

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Likewise, the ghost of Dido and her tragic suicide haunt subsequent books. A particular poignant instance is the meeting of Dido and Aeneas in the Underworld at Aeneid 6.440–76. Just as the shadow of Ajax at Odyssey 11.541–67, who sulks speechless when his mortal enemy, still alive, appears in the world of the dead and tries to engage him in conversation, Dido refuses to respond to our hero and moves away in fraught and dignified silence, joining the shade of her former husband Sychaeus. Another moment of similar emotive power comes in Aeneid 11, when Aeneas covers the dead body of Pallas, the only son of his guest friend Euander, who got killed by Turnus, with magnificent pieces of garment made by Dido (11.72–5)—not unlike the one, perhaps even the same, he is wearing at Aeneid 4.262–64 (which is part of the set passage and discussed in detail below). The death of Pallas is by far the worst catastrophe that Aeneas suffers in the course of the poem. It turns him into a beast of sorts, leads to his performance of human sacrifice during the funeral of his fallen charge, and motivates the final scene of the epic: Aeneas kills Turnus in a fit of rage upon seeing Pallas’ sword-belt on his prostrate enemy, which instantly wipes away any thought of mercy. By evoking Dido as Aeneas bends over the dead body of Pallas, Virgil, among other things, subtly reminds us that the curse with which Dido sends Aeneas on his way at 4.590–629 is hitting home.[4]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 But the most crucial part of the poem for appreciating the set text is of course Book 1. It sets the stage. To recapitulate briefly what happened after Aeneas’ unplanned arrival in Africa, in the understanding that the following is no substitute for giving Aeneid 1 a quick (re-)read: Aeneas’ divine mother Venus, none too pleased at seeing her son tossed all over the Mediterranean by a vindictive Juno, seeks out Jupiter to protest. The father of the gods reassures his daughter and unrolls a bit of the scrolls of destiny for her benefit, revealing the impressive future that lies in store for her city of Rome. He also sends down Mercury to ensure that the Trojans will receive a friendly welcome (a passage discussed in more detail below: also our set text features a Mercurial descent from Mt. Olympus at the bidding of Jupiter, at 4.238–78). But Venus, whether still worried or, on the contrary, reassured and hence keen on some vindictive mischief, also decides to meddle. She devises a scheme to have Dido fall madly in love with Aeneas, which involves her son Cupid (Aeneas’ divine half-brother) impersonate Aeneas’ son (and Cupid’s nephew) Ascanius and, thus disguised, poison the queen during her welcoming cuddle with passionate desire for the Trojan hero. At the end of the Book, Carthaginians and Trojans settle down to a magnificent banquet, during which Aeneas tells the spellbound audience of their labours so far—an account Virgil reproduces in Books 2 and 3, where the narrative focus is thus inevitably squarely on Aeneas. But with the opening line of Book 4, the attention of the author switches decisively to Dido. Aeneid 4 is her book. And she owns her book like no other ‘secondary’ character. Even Turnus, the other principal adversary of Aeneas, does not dominate the narrative stretch granted to him in quite the same way. Dido truly is Aeneas’ most significant other—a subversive figure with the potential to derail his destiny, the foundation of Rome, and the history of the world. As Alessandro Schiesaro puts it:

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Dido’s challenge to the ostensible ideology of the Aeneid is more radical than the specific alternative she posits to Aeneas’ itinerary: she stands in Virgil’s poem as the most powerful incarnation of a radically alternative world-view. Thrown on the shores of a potentially hostile land, welcomed (not without divine intervention) by a generous and attractive queen whose fate is in many respects parallel to his own, Aeneas is faced—for the first time—with a real alternative to his life’s business, the search of a new homeland for his displaced people. The false foundations which dotted his earlier wanderings, even the emotional encounter with Andromache’s pathetic (and pathological) solution to a similar problem—how can the defeated Trojans construct a new Troy?—, were temporary, limited, and patently unviable detours. Carthage is different. There he can become the co-regent, effectively the king, of a prosperous new land; his people can merge with the locals; royal succession would be guaranteed by Ascanius, or, down the line, by the child he will eventually conceive with Dido, the queen he has fallen in love with: we can glimpse, tantalizingly, a totally different world-history. The text is ready to acknowledge how much Aeneas is tempted by this unexpected scenario: coming to Carthage on Jupiter’s orders, Mercury finds him fundantem arces ac tecta novantem (260), forgetful (oblitus) of his reign and his mission (267).[5]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The overall structure of Aeneid 4 is tripartite. Virgil marks the beginning of each section with the quasi-formulaic phrase at regina, which draws programmatic attention to the protagonist of the book (Dido, queen of Carthage) and the adversative (cf. at) role she plays in the narrative:

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 1 (At regina graui iamdudum saucia cura/ uulnus alit uenis…) –295.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 296 (At regina dolos (quis fallere possit amantem?)/ praesensit…) –503.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 504 (At regina, pyra penetrali in sede sub auras/ erecta ingenti taedis atque ilice secta/ intenditque locum sertis et fronde coronat/ funerea… (‘But the queen, when in the deepest recess of her home the pyre had been built skywards, enormous in size with pine logs and cut oak, hangs the place with garlands and crowns it with funeral boughs…’) –705.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 As Quinn notes: ‘The book is the shortest of the twelve and the most dramatic in form. A tripartite structure is more clearly discernible than in the other books: lines 1–295 recount the beginning of the affair; lines 296–503, the alienation; lines 504–705, the end of the affair—Aeneas’ departure and Dido’s suicide.’[6] He also notes that for each section the word following the phrase at regina (i.e. graui, dolos, pyra) ‘strikes the keynote of the ensuing action.’

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0  

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 [1]
Fans of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series may wish to compare the irony that the evil wizard Voldemort helped to turn Harry into the hero who would ultimately defeat him by acting on a prophecy that predicted this outcome.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 [2]
Compare Odysseus’ account of his travels at the court of Phaeacia at Odyssey 9–12 before his onward travel to Ithaca.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 [3]
For Aeneas as spin doctor in Aeneid 2 see Powell (2011).

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 [4]
See especially 4.617–18: … uideatque indigna suorum/ funera (‘let him see the wretched deaths of his friends’). Dido’s garments are part of a tragic economy of gift exchange. See Quint (1993) 65: ‘Dido in Book 1 receives the veil of Helen and the scepter of Ilione (647–55), Latinus in Book 7, a libation bowl of Anchises and the scepter and robes of Priam (244–48). These Trojan spoils carry with them a kind of curse, and their new possessors are condemned to play out the tragic roles for which the costumes fit them. Their cities now become new versions of the fallen Troy: Carthage’s walls seem to be on fire with the flames of Dido’s pyre (5.3–4); Laurentium’s walls are literally burnt down (12.574f.).’

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 [5]
Schiesaro (2008), pp. 206–07.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 [6]
Quinn (1968), p. 135.

Source: https://aeneid4.theclassicslibrary.com/2012/11/29/avant-propos-the-set-text-and-the-aeneid-2/