Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

Places in the Aeneid

October 24, 2009

When Homer uses the words “Danaan” or “Achaean”, anybody with a smattering of knowledge on Greek epic would read that to mean simply “Greek”, and probably (with a great deal of justification) put the change down to an attempt to keep to meter. It’s the same with place names; when I’ve read the Aeneid in the past, I’ve seen the words “Aeneas set sail for Hesperia” written down on the page and registered something along the lines of “Aeneas set sail for some place but it’s probably not particularly important where so keep reading Sam, just keep reading.” Since moving to Italy a year and a half ago however, these names often have added significance for me. When I read about the funeral games for Anchises being held in Drapanum, there’s an exciting realisation that Virgil’s talking about Trapani, a place I passed through in July.

Living on Via degli Ausoni as I do, one word which keeps cropping up is of particular interest to me: “Ausonia”. It’s normally used as an alternative word for Italy,* but the Ausones were a distinct people, and were in fact one of the three tribes of people met by Greek colonists when they first came to Italy. Dionysius of Halicarnassus writes very briefly about them (1 11,2-4; 12,1), and his dating suggests they were in modern day Calabria (the toe of Italy’s boot) in at least the sixteenth century BC. In the fourth century BC, the Ausonians allied with the Samnites against Rome, and as Livy writes in his Ab Urbes Condita 9.25, their main cities were destroyed as a result. One thing that’s particularly interesting about the Ausones within the context of the Aeneid is that according to myth, they were said to have descended from a son of Circe and Ulysses. The Greek is of huge importance to the lineage of the Italian people then, but at the same time, he is one of the only people viewed in an unambiguously negative light throughout the poem; we have one more complication in an increasingly complex poem. In the melting pot of cultures which would converge and become Rome, could the inclusion of the treacherous Odysseus’ line be gently undercutting the patriotic tones?

Incidentally, whilst I’m posting on the topic of places in the Aeneid, I remember the first time I ever read the poem I’d wondered about the “eternal fame” promised Caieta (the nurse of Aeneas) in book 7 and the Sybil’s promise that the place where Palinurus died would bear his name “for all time to come” (book 6). If anybody’s interested, the bay of Caieta still exists although the ‘C’ has softened to become “Gaieta” as does the town of Palinuro.

*Although not exclusively, see Evander’s account of Saturn’s reign in book 8, for example.