The Aeneid and why I love Classical Studies

It never ceases to amaze me that, when I try something new, how it opens the door to memories, coincidences, influences and new areas of potential inquiry. I found myself in this position last week with a short passage from Book I of the Aeneid. Confession time, even after seven years of an undergrad and postgrad Classical Studies journey, I have never read Virgil’s Aeneid. Having said that I did come across a very short five-line passage during the Open University module A295 Reading Classical Latin.  To put that right I recently enrolled on a course reading The Aeneid over a couple of hours a week for a year. It sounds a long time but suits me as it allows for close reading of short passages, which I like, as it gives a real opportunity to analyse and get below the surface of the text. The passage is nine lines from Book I.680 and is where Venus, who does not trust Juno, sends her son and brother to Aeneas, Cupid disguised as Aeneas’ son Ascanius (also called Iulus), to make Dido to fall in love with Aeneas ensuring his safety.

hunc ego sopitum somno super alta Cythera
aut super Idalium sacrata sede recondam,
ne qua scire dolos mediusve occurrere possit.
Tu faciem illius noctem non amplius unam
falle dolo, et notos pueri puer indue voltus,
ut, cum te gremio accipiet laetissima Dido
regalis inter mensas laticemque Lyaeum,
cum dabit amplexus atque oscula dulcia figet,
occultum inspires ignem fallasque veneno. 

Aeneid 1.680-689

I shall put him in a deep sleep and hide him in one of my sacred shrines on Mount Idalium or on the heights of Cythera, so that he will not know of my scheme or suddenly arrive and interrupt it. You will have to use your cunning and take on his appearance for just one night. He is a boy like yourself and you know him, so put on his features, and when the royal table is flowing with wine that brings release, and Dido takes you happily onto her lap and gives you sweet kisses, you can then breathe fire and poison into her and she will not know.

This darker side of Venus immediately reminded me of Aphrodite in Euripides’ Hippolytus. Hippolytus, the son of Theseus, was a huntsman who rejected love and marriage, He therefore worshipped Artemis and refuses to honour Aphrodite. Aphrodite is offended and causes Hippolytus’ stepmother Phaedra to fall madly in love with him. Outraged and rejecting her advances, Phaedra commits suicide but leaves a letter for Theseus accusing Hippolytus of raping her. Theseus is furious and uses one of three wishes his father, Poseidon, has given him to curse Hippolytus. Whilst Hippolytus is riding his chariot by the sea Poseidon sends a fearsome bull which causes the horses to bolt throwing Hippolytus from his chariot and is fatally injured. Artemis then appears to Theseus to say Phaedra lied, Theseus rushes to his dying son where they make up before Hippolytus dies. Tragic.  Although Aphrodite and Venus have different motivations, in both cases the ends justify the means with no regard for Phaedra or Dido. Venus seems unconcerned to the fate of Dido with Virgil telling us that Dido was doomed. Aphrodite on the other hand appears vindictively heartless “But Phaedra, noble though she is, shall nonetheless die. I do not set such store by her misfortune as to let my enemies off from such penalty as will satisfy my heart.” (Hippolytus 49-50). It is a reminder that in Greek and Roman times gods could be thought as capricious, heartless and destructive.

The ancient Greeks and Romans seemed to share the same beliefs surrounding the effects of lust. Remembering Phaedra in Hippolytus, the effects of Aphrodite causing her to fall in love with her stepson are both mental and physical. She becomes unwell, incoherent, looks haggard and takes to her bed much to the concern of her nurse and the chorus. Lust in this case is a sickness which has physical consequences. Equally, and within a few lines of the chosen passage, Virgil describes doomed Dido as unaware of “pesti devota futurae” “the accursed plague to come” (Aeneid 712) which seems to suggest that illness and plague are associated with lust. This is more evident by the last word in the passage “veneno”. The dictionary provides several options for translation of the noun venenum: drug, potion, magic charm and poison all of which can case symptoms and illness. It should also be noted the verb veneno translates as ‘to poison’. So it suggests the belief in both Greek and Roman culture is that lust is a psychological and physical illness as if being poisoned.

What startled me during a conversation about the passage was that Venus the goddess of love, veneno and venenum share the same etymology. The Proto-Italian wen, itself from the Proto-Indo-European when (desire, lust) is common to both. Lust and poison are further entwined by the other form of poison and sharing the etymology: venom. There was recognition in the 15th Century that lust and disease went hand in hand, and I am sure with more than a little Christian morality, with Venereal Disease which again shares the same root and is still in use today. To me, this throws up the question of a potential difference between the Greek and Roman perception of the Goddess of Love. In Greek mythology, according to Hesiod, Aphrodite is born off the coast of Cythera (a place that appears in the Virgil passage) from the foam produced by Uranus’s genitals which his son, Cronos, had cut off and thrown into the sea. Aphrodite from aphrós (ἀφρός) “sea-foam” and -odítē “wanderer” or *-dítē “bright”. Venus is an example of syncretism where the Romans adapted the myth and iconography of Aphrodite. I am currently considering whether there is any relevance or meaning behind why the Greeks named Aphrodite after her origins whereas the Romans seem to have named Venus after an attribute or power. If so, were the Romans more concerned about the destructive power of lust and the effect Venus could have? I am still considering the possibilities and have not formed any conclusion.

The passage was read out loud and I was immediately transported back to that already mentioned undergraduate module where I had encountered The Aeneid with my total experience of just five lines. It is where Aeneas and the Cybele, priestess of the oracular goddess Apollo, begin their journey into the underworld to meet the soul of his dead father.

Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram,
perque domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna:
quale per incertam lunam sub luce maligna
est iter in silvis, ubi caelum condidit umbra
Iuppiter, et rebus nox abstulit atra colorem. 

Aeneid 6.268-272

It is the passage that opened up the beauty of the Latin language for me. Along with Virgil’s clever use of word choice that evoke feelings, the flexibility that Latin gives on word order which contributes to a far more descriptive experience. On the surface, simply reading this out loud evokes a feeling of loneliness, darkness and a world drained of colour and life. And so it is with my chosen passage. For instance, the final three words “ignem fallasque veneno” fire, deceive and poison and fallas having the second person singular ending means that Cupid (as in you) is central to the fire and poison and a vivid description of his power, subtefuge and method. As an aside the three words are a reminder of words used today that have their origins in latin: ignition, fallacy and of course venom. It is the first three lines that sets the tone as to the character of Venus and the devious plot she has hatched. The feeling of magnificent malevolence is created but the heavy ‘s’ alliteration – a technique, and a new word for me, known as sibilance. As a reminder the three lines contain: sopitum somno super […] super […] sacrata sede [..] scire dolos mediusve […] possit – half of the twenty words either start with ‘s’ of have strong ‘s’ content. When Caroline, who runs the course, read the passage she extended the ‘sss’ sounds and the discussion afterwards suggesting it was reminiscent of the scene in the animated Jungle Book where Kaa, the snake, tries to hypnotise Mowgli gave a modern example. A light-hearted comparison maybe but it gives an indication of how the Roman audience would likely have appreciated the signalling of a devious plot.

So, although this personal, the new experience of just nine lines of The Aeneid brings memories of tragedy and languages, questions of cultural commonalities and potential differences and etymological and technique explanations not to mention new words for my vocabulary. All these simultaneous thoughts and potential directions of enquiry is why I love Classical Studies.

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