Stephen Harrison on Aeneid 10

These are almost entirely my jottings taken during the lecture. They should really be read in conjunction with the handout which gives many quotations. It is not on line, I'm afraid. Still, these jottings give some flavour of the lively and humorous nature of the lecture.

Stephen Harrison's commentary on Book 10 is likely to be required reading for those teaching the book over the next two years.


Vergil regarded the last books as the more important half of the Aeneid – maior ordo. Why?

It was the traditional view that war is the most important subject:

  • War is important in Roman culture, in the earlier poets Naevius and Ennius.
  • The theme of (civil) war was central to Vergil's own time. Vergil was a young man when Caesar crossed Rubicon, and lived through to the peace brought by Augustus.

Aeneid 7-12 has resonances with recent Roman history. It tells of a Civil War where one of the leaders claimed divine parentage.

But by the middle of book 9 the reader is wanting his money back! There has been little warfare. The reader is in suspense.


(See the extracts about arms cut off, hands lopped.)

Vergil has a number of things in common with Quentin Tarentino, and this is one of them.

“Even my kids would regard this as an acceptable level of violence (boys aged 10 and 12)!”

Someone should make a film of the Aeneid.

Note the importance of gladiators in Roman life. What did the Romans do on a Saturday afternoon? Let's go down to the amphitheatre. A contemporary Roman reader would think of gladiators when reading Aeneid 10. The film Gladiator is good, in showing the horror and butchery that was part of Roman life, and the conditions in which gladiators lived. Gladiatorial shows were a universal cultural fact, like the Simpsons.

Vergil and Homer

If you read the Iliad from cover to cover you find some tedious patches, where A kills B, C kills D. Vergil is concerned to avoid such tedium.

In the opening words of the Aeneid, Arma virumque cano, Vergil claims to imitate the Iliad (arma) and the Odyssey (virum).

Vergil is saying he can 'do Homer' without the length. What matters is quality, not length. His variations on Homer are an implicit literary criticism of Homer.

Aeneas is the Pompey figure! This would be clear to the first audience. It is like a short film where a man stands in a car and is shot from top of tall building – everyone would think of Kennedy's assassination.

Vergil makes Homer more like Greek tragedy, with Turnus the tragic hero.

Aeneid 10.

Quinn divides each book of the Aeneid into 3 parts.

Homer had lots of divine councils; Vergil had only one (criticism again?).

How do you keep up the interest in a list of killings?

  • ii epiphany – of nymph
  • iii all locations, heaven, earth, sea, except underworld.
  • iv focus on an individual for some time. Allows cinematic switch of location, Meanwhile back at the ranch (interea).
  • vi Also concentration on victims, not just heroes. Like Homer, but V does it better!

Some key episodes.

  1. The gods don't come out of the assembly section very well. Some say that the other gods are insincere, Jupiter is different. But he has predicted the war in Book 1. Jupiter plays a double game, keeping family peace with put-upon wife, uppity daughter, apple of eye. Dealing with a household of women!

    The gods are like George Bush, human with finger on the button, powerful but not morally superior.

  2. Vergil came from Mantua, as did Maecenas. Vergil avoids mentioning Maecenas. Vergil is not an expert in Etruscan culture. (Macaulay Lays of Ancient Rome adds an ancestor of Maecenas).

  3. meeting with the nymphs, who were once Aeneas' ships.
  4. death of Pallas. Turnus is not wrong to kill Pallas. Killing the enemy is what you do in war. What was wrong was wearing the belt. Aeneas hangs up spoils on bushes. Remember Turnus as tragic hero, led astray not by vice but by error.
  5. The guys are not actually killed 'on camera'. Human sacrifice is too gross to show on camera. Does he do it or not?
  6. Aegaeon is impious, so Aeneas is impious too? It's the enemy's view, not the narrator's.
  7. Mezentius. Flawed hero. (Dirty Harry standing over the body is very Homeric – Do you feel lucky, punk? Euchos)
  8. Lausus a nice handsome young man, killed by Aeneas. V makes Aeneas do the killing in as acceptable a way as possible. Warns him to flee. Returns the arms to his father.
  9. Mezentius has lost his kingdom because he was a bad ruler. Now he loses his son. C.f. Creon lamanting death of Haemon. Also c.f. Would God I had died for thee! – David laments for worthless Absolom. Vergil always has sympathy for the victim, whoever he is.

Buch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ending – freeze-frame of their death, is like end of Book 10.


4 Death of Pallas – quote – is there hubris here too? Carpet scenes in Agamemnon and Persae.

Aeneid is not a conspiracy theory poem on the evils of Augustus, but shows that leadership implies being ruthless. Augustus dedicates spoils of Parthia at the time of writing of the Aeneid. He knew the limits.

You can't make omelettes …. In the Aeneid many broken eggs, a pretty impressive omelette!

Gladiators like premier league footballers, very glamorous but not the people you would like to go out to dinner with. Ordinary Romans knew killing only from gladiators. Gladiators were slaves, not real Romans.

Let the Roman stock be tough with Italian … ?? find quotation ?? Mezentius represents toughness.

Mezentius' address to his horse – Raebus, bandylegs. C.f. Achilles' horses talking to him, and Cyclops talking to his favourite ram. Sad that his best friend is a sheep! Mezentius has lost kingdom and son, now has only an animal to talk to. Mez is like the Cyclops, outcast from society, does unspeakable things to bodies.

Is Mezentius a parallel with Antony? Needs convincing about that.

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