|Left, One of Gastave Dore's illustrations for the Divine Comedy shows Virgil guiding Dante into the Inferno at Lake Averno.|
if you drive through the Mergellina
tunnel on your way to Fuorigrotta, you pass within a
stone's throw of a Roman tunnel. It was one of a few
such tunnels, all major feats of engineering at the
time, that the Romans built to get in and out of
Naples. Legend has it that Virgil conjured this one
tunnel into existence by his powers of sorcery. The
Mergellina entrance to the tunnel is now on the
premises of an historical site called "Virgil's Tomb". And,
three, if you wander down to the seaside near Cape
Posillipo, you can see the paltry remains of what,
over the centuries, has been called, The Sorcerer's
House —meaning Virgil.
bust of Virgil on the premises
of "Virgil's Tomb" in Naples
Sorcerer, you say? Isn't this the person who
wrote The Aeneid? The Bucolics? The
Georgics? Indeed, it is, and he would probably
be amused at his putative powers of legerdemain, all
due, by the way, to the medieval Italian love of
attributing magical ability to the Greats of
Antiquity. But when Virgil was alive, he wasn't yet
Antiquity; he was just great. No magic in great
writing —just hard work.
Virgil was born near Mantua. His father was a prosperous farmer who sent his son off to Rome to study. Virgil returned home to study Greek philosophy and poetry on his own and began to write poetry that came to the notice of Gaius Cilnius Maecenus, a friend and advisor to the young Octavius (later to become "Augustus Caesar"). Maecenas' name has come down to us as a metaphor of "patron of the arts". That reputation has largely to do with his support of Virgil and the other great poet of the age of Augustus, Horace.
Under the patronage
of Maecenas, Virgil published a collection of eclogues,
idyllic poetry, called Bucolica —"The Bucolics,"
in English. As the title implies, they were filled with
a spirit of nostalgia, a longing for a simpler time.
This was understandable when you consider that Virgil
was a young man when Julius Caesar was assassinated, an
event that almost tore Italy apart. That episode,
itself, came on the heels of great unrest during the
previous 50 years in Italy. Rome was not yet the Roman
Empire, and events seemed to be coursing out of control.
Perhaps, indeed, a sensitive young poet might have
thought—in different words, perhaps, than it occurred to
Yeats 2,000 years later—that "the center cannot hold".
There are ten pastoral poems in the Bucolica, one of which contains the secret as to why Virgil was held in such high, magical esteem by Italians in the Middle Ages. It is Eclogue number four, the so-called Messianic Eclogue, in which Virgil predicts a new age of peace for the world, ushered in by the birth of a child:
Come soon, dear child of the
gods, Jupiter's great viceroy!
Come soon—the time is near—to begin your life illustrious!
Medieval Christian scholars saw this as a prediction of the birth of Christ and, thus, held the poet to have been a "pagan Christian", if you will, one in a position of privilege regarding the divine course of things. No doubt, this is the reason Dante chose Virgil to be his guide through Hell and Purgatory in la Divina Commedia and no doubt why, among all pagan authors, Virgil did not share their fate of centuries of benign and even malign neglect by Christian scholars.
Octavius prevailed, the
empire geared up, and Virgil moved to the Campania, to
Nola, near Naples. Here Virgil wrote the Georgics —
a hymn of praise to the farmer, another bit of nostalgia
about a simpler, happier time, full of hope that the new
emperor, Augustus, would be the beginning of a great
reign of peace. The Georgics are marked by an
extraordinary upbeat ending, one of regeneration and
resurrection, told in the form of an optimistic allegory
of new swarms of honey-bees issuing forth from the
carcasses of sacrificed cattle. Here, at the end of the
last Georgic, is where Virgil makes a famous
reference to Naples:
This was the time when I, Virgil,
nurtured in sweetest
Parthenope, did follow unknown to fame the pursuits
Virgil then set
about immortalizing Augustus. Drawing on the form
of the Greek epic, he sang of Aeneas:
...his fate had made him
fugitive; he was the first
to journey from the coasts of Troy as far as Italy...
...until he brought a city into being...
from this have come the Latin race, the lords
of Alba, and the ramparts of high Rome...
For Romans of
the day, the Aeneid was the epic summing up of
their history and a statement of their aspirations
—this was to be The Roman Empire. As with the Bucolica
and the Georgics, Virgil chose an earlier
Greek model for his work: the Homeric epic form. Here,
it is interesting to note that all later epic poetry
in the Middle Ages, and even something as late as Paradise
Lost (1667), owes more to Virgil than to Homer.
Until our own Renaissance had rediscovered the Greeks,
knowledge of the works of Homer was sketchy and
anecdotal. No one in Italy could even read classical
Greek in, say, 1400, even if they had had a Greek copy
of The Odyssey, which they didn't.
Those Greek originals (or, at least, copies of copies) would not be available for another century and, thus, Latin translations of Homer were not completed until the mid-1500s; so, the "epic" tradition, as originally Greek as it might have been, passed into and through our Middle Ages and into modern times as "Virgilian" rather than "Homeric". When Dante sat around with his friends in 1300 talking about Homer —as he must have done— he knew about Homer and mythical Troy only through references in Roman writers, primarily Virgil, and through the veil of mythology, one much more impenetrable to him than it is to us today. Homer and Classical Greece must have seemed to Dante as, perhaps, tales of Atlantis do to us, today. But Virgil? The entire Middle Ages knew Virgil. He was on the bookshelf. They quoted his language; indeed, they still wrote in Virgil's language, Latin, though, ironically, it would be Dante, himself, to desert that language for the vernacular form later to become known as "Italian".
of the Aeneid play out in the area around
Naples. It is no problem at all, today, to walk up to
the height of Posillipo where Virgil must have stood. It
was called Posillipo even then, so named by Greeks
centuries earlier—Pavsillipon, the "place where
unhappiness ends". From there you can look west across
the Bay of Pozzuoli, as Virgil must have done as he
struggled to put into poetry the mythology and events
that were ancient even to him. You see a point of land
that closes the bay at the other end. This is where
Aeneas' comrade, Misenus, master of the sea-horn —the
conch-shell— made "the waves ring" with his music and
challenged the sea-god Triton to musical battle. For his
troubles, he was dashed into the sea and killed by
"jealous Triton". (See image, above,
right: Looking out over the Flegrean Fields to the bay
of Pozzuoli and Cape Miseno.
here for a
sets up a mighty tomb above Misenus
bearing his arms, a trumpet, and an oar;
it stands beneath a lofty promontory,
now known as Cape Misenus after him:
it keeps a name that lasts through all the ages.
"All the ages" is a long time, but at least 2,000 years later, it is still Cape Miseno. Right past Miseno and the end of the bay, Aeneas and his men "glide to the Euboean coast of Cuma"—"Euboean" from the Greek isle of "Evvoia", purported home of those who had founded the city. Here
... you reach the town of Cumae
the sacred lakes, the loud wood of Avernus,
there you will see the frenzied prophetess
deep in her cave of rocks she charts the fates
... She will unfold for you...
the wars that are to come and in what way
you are to face or flee each crisis...
This, of course, is
where Aeneas has come to get the answer he seeks as to
where and whether the wandering Trojans will be able
to rest. Here is the cave (photo, right) of the
prophetess, the Sibyl of Cuma:
The giant flank of that Euboean
has been dug out into a cave; a hundred
broad ways lead to that place, a hundred gates;
as many voices rush from these...
Then, Aeneas is off to the lake of Avernus to descend into the underworld to seek his father. At the lake still called Lago Averno,
There was a wide-mouthed cavern,
deep and vast
and rugged, sheltered by a shadowed lake
and darkened groves; such vapor poured from those
black jaws to heaven's vault, no bird could fly
above unharmed (for which the Greeks have called
the place "Aornos" or "The birdless")...
is Virgil's repetition of the popular etymology that
has Averno as the source of “infernal,” and
even the word “inferior” in the sense of "the bottom
part of"—i.e. the underworld, Hell.
Aeneas finds his father Anchises, who tells him
...that famous Rome will make her
as broad as earth itself, will make her spirit
the equal of Olympus, and enclose
her seven hills within a single wall,
rejoicing in her race on men...
Those lines are the epic justification for what Rome was to become. They were undoubtedly lines that Octavius —Caesar Augustus— wanted to hear, and once Virgil had given him those lines, there was no way that Augustus was going to give them back. It's hard to say which lines Augustus drooled over the most. I'm guessing Book 6 verse CV (in the translation from 1907 by E. Fairfax Taylor. (No, Augustus read it in Latin. Please, come on!)
thy Romans; thither bend thine
Caesar and Iulus' race behold, /
Waiting their destined advent to the skies./ This, this is he —long promised, oft foretold— /
Augustus Caesar. He the Age of Gold,/God-born himself, in Latium shall restore,
And rule the land, that Saturn ruled of old,/ And spread afar his empire and his power/
To Garamantian tribes, and India's distant shore.
Virgil left Naples on a trip to Greece. He took ill and returned, dying in Brindisi in 19 B.C. at the age of 51. He had not finished the Aeneid, and he left instructions for the work to be destroyed. The emperor made sure that did not happen. Augustus entrusted the unfinished work to two of Virgil's friend for editing, and that is the version that passed through the centuries to Dante and to us.
Virgil's remains were returned to Naples and entombed. Whether they are in the exact spot of Virgil's Tomb in Mergellina is irrelevant. As George Sarton says: "...his main creations were the fruits of his life in Campania. What a country to live in for a poet, a country full of natural beauty and glorious remembrances... If one wants to visualize Virgil, it is there that one must seek for him, not in the land of his birth, but in the one that was the nursery of his genius."And as Virgil, himself, said: he was "nurtured in sweetest Parthenope".
[Passages cited from the Aeneid,
are from The Aeneid of Virgil, a verse
translation by Allen Mandelbaum, A Bantam Classic
Edition, 1981. Translation © 1971 by Allen Mandelbaum.
Passages from The Eclogues or The Georgics are from Virgil,
The Eclogues, The Georgics. The World's
Classics, Oxford University Press, 1983, translation
by C. Day Lewis © 1983.] The Sarton quote at the end
is from his A History of Science, Vol. 2:
Hellenistic Science and Culture in the Last Three
Centuries B.C. 1959. Harvard Univ. Press,
2. added Feb. 2022
The Aeneid - The
of the Roman Empire
It's good to have a foundation document, a piece of paper that describes how and why your nation, indeed maybe your whole civilization came to be. Of course, the farther back you go in time, the more the verifiable —or at least plausible —flowers of fact are overgrown by the weeds of humans turning into pillars of salt, mortals having children with immortals, and someone springing full-blown from someone else's brow. Nevertheless, if you read the first five books of the Bible, you get a pretty good account of early Jewish history; you read Homer, you know about ancient Greece, and if you read The Aeneid, finished in 19 B.C. by Publius Vergilius Maro (70-19 B.C.) (right, he wasn't even finished with it) you have an idea of how and why the Romans figured it was their turn to rule the world. It may not even matter if Vergil's (or Virgil's) tale of what happened to the losers (the Trojans) even if the fall of Troy is factual or if Homeric stories are a fusion of various tales of sieges and expeditions by Mycenaean Greeks during the Bronze Age. There's something quantum quirky here —we change history just by thinking about it. That frightens me.
|The map above shows the Roman Empire in about 300 A.D. Caesar Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD 14) was the first emperor. He is also known as Octavian (born Gaius Octavius in Rome). He reigned from 27 BC until his death. Historians call him one of the most effective leaders in history. His reign laid the foundations of a regime that lasted for nearly 1500 years, through the decline of the Western Roman Empire until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. He called himself Princeps Civitatis (First Citizen) Some historians call him the Father of Italy in that he established in 7 BC the Latin name "Italia" for the whole peninsula, from the figure of Italus, a legendary king of the Oenotrians, an ancient people of Greek origin in Calabria. Italus may be from ἰταλός (italós, "bull") and that may be a cognate of Latin vitulus ("calf"). The Latin vitulus may be from the Indo-European root *wet- meaning "year" (hence, a "yearling", a one-year-old calf). Speakers of ancient Oscan called Italy Víteliú. Want more "maybes"? "Italy" is related to "veal". Vergil wanted to write something the emperor would like. And that he did.|
A lot of digging by the University of
Salento has gone on way down at the bottom of the heel
of the Italian boot to show that
they have indeed pinpointed the place where Aeneas and
his crew of refugees from Troy set foot in Italy. (Note
that all sources separate Sicily
(island) from Italy (mainland). The description of the
A Translation into English prose by Anthony S. Kline (b.1947)
from Book III of The Aeneid
"First Achates proclaims Italy, then my companions / hail Italy with a joyful shout. Then my father Anchises/
took up a large bowl, filled it with wine, / and standing in the high stern, called to the heavens:/
“You gods, lords of the sea and earth and storms, carry us / onward on a gentle breeze, and breathe on us with kindness!”/
The wind we longed-for rises, now as we near, a harbour opens, / and a temple is visible on Minerva’s Height./
My companions furl the sails and turn the prows to shore. / The harbour is carved in an arc by the eastern tides:/
its jutting rocks boil with salt spray, so that it itself is hidden: / towering cliffs extend their arms in a twin wall, /
and the temple lies back from the shore."
Vergil thus places the site of Aeneas' first landing in Italy at Castrum Minervae (across from Butrint, in Epirus, a region now shared between Greece and Albania). He mentions the high promontory atop which was a majestic temple to the goddess Minerva (Athena in Greek). The team from the Uni of Salento is quite sure. No one asked me, but I like it, too.
In the town of Castro they have built a fine little museum where you see what they have dug up so far. It is viewable on the "Legends of Circular Ruins" website here. "Castro" is from Castrum Minervae (Latin for "Athena's castle").
The Aeneid was written in a time of great political and social change in Rome. The fall of the Republic and the last war of the Roman Republic had torn through society and shaken many Romans' faith in the "Greatness of Rome". However, the new emperor, Augustus Caesar (formerly Octavian), instituted a new era of prosperity and peace. The Aeneid reflected this. It depicted the heroic Aeneas as a man devoted and loyal to his country and its prominence, rather than to his own personal gains. The Aeneid gave mythic legitimacy to the rule of Julius Caesar and, by extension, to his adopted son Augustus, by renaming Aeneas' son, Ascanius to Ilus from Ilium, meaning Troy —as recalled in Christopher Marlowe's immortal phrase "Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships, /And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?" That made Aeneas an ancestor of the clan Julia, the family of Julius Caesar, and many other imperial descendants. Virgil laid out exactly what Octavian would need as Caesar Augustus. Aeneas came from Troy and is cast as an ancestor of Romulus and Remus! Aeneas was the first true hero of Rome. Thus, Virgil foretells the coming of the Roman Empire. It took him a while to get to Italy (as you see from the map.) He stopped for a while in Sicily, then Carthage where he had a love affair with queen Dido. We read that Latinus, king of the Latins, then welcomed Aeneas and his band of exiled Trojans. Their new lives were now in Latium. Virgil's account ends abruptly, but he used Aeneas to pave the way for the coming of the Roman Empire.
part 2 - added March 17, 2021
My favorite English polymath, Richard Fry, said that the ancient Greeks (thus, the spreaders of Greek culture beyond the Aegean) had the unique feature, a mind-set, that their ideas were going to last, that they were meant to change things. As noted above, the great loser at Troy, Aeneas, is treated extensively in Virgil's Aeneid, where he is cast as an ancestor of Romulus and Remus. He became the first true hero of Rome. Virgil wrote the life of Aeneas and about the idea of being active rather than passive, something that puts me in mind of O'Shaunessey's "Ode" (1874) where the "music-makers and dreamers of dreams" are the "movers and shakers of the world forever". The Greeks knew they and their idea were going to move and shake the world.
It doesn't really
matter if the hero's original Greek name Αἰνείας (Aineías)
can be read to mean a "god inhabiting a mortal body" but
it's curious that are no cities named for this first
Roman hero. With no effort I can think of modern cities
named for ancient ones: Naples, Ithaca, Troy,
Alexandria. You mean there was never an
Aenaria, a city named for Aeneas? What? There was? And
still is, but it's underwater? Where? Wow, wait till the
tourists get a load of this.
find the Aragonese Castle on the
island Ischia. It was built on a rock near the island in
474 BC, by Hiero I of Syracuse. Two towers were built to
control enemy fleet movements. The rock was then
occupied by Parthenopeans (the ancient inhabitants of
Naples). In 326 BC the fortress was captured by Romans,
and then again by the Parthenopeans. In 1441 Alfonso V
of Aragon connected the rock to the island with a stone
bridge in place of the earlier wooden one, and fortified
the walls in order to defend the inhabitants against
pirate raids. Today the castle is the most visited
monument on Ischia. You get into the castle through a
tunnel with large openings that let light enter.
We know that centuries earlier Virgil and the Romans called the area Aenaria. It certainly sounds like a place named for Aeneas, the Trojan hero, but until recently we have been warned off that interpretation. Don't be fooled by the spelling. But now there's an exhibit at MANN (National Archaeological Museum of Naples) on recent marine archaeology and the ancient Roman city of Aenaria! After a few years of intense marine archaeology, experts tell us that this indeed is the site of Aenaria, but you can't see it because it's underwater (some meters blow the surface on the right side of the image, above right. You can see island of Capri, far right, on the other side of the Gulf of Naples) This will take some time, but tourist mini-subs or glass bottom boats are next, as is a tourist reception center, an underwater archaeological park, marked underwater trails for visiting divers and, on the surface, a civic museum for the landlubbers. This is the most important archaeological find in decades. Can the area use more tourism? The answer to that one always seems to be "yes". It probably won't detract from the more accessible surface sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum. And what of the nearby Baia underwater park with its own mini-subs? Achtung! Achtung! Does this mean open warfare between rival U-Boot tourist fleets? Man, I hope so.