Some thoughts on Aeneid Book II by an English Teacher (Lines 506-558, 705-740 & 768-794)
This year I will be teaching The Aeneid as the set text for my Latin GCSE class (but only the lines selected by OCR – see title). This is the first time that I have had to study this text properly (my background is not in Classics) and I have spent the first few weeks of my summer holiday translating, researching and musing on the text. I suppose I come at it with ‘naïve eyes’, but I also come at it with ‘English Teacher eyes’ and I have enjoyed seeing significant moments and language that I would hope my English class would pick up if they were to read this text. I have decided to write a few of these down and open myself up to the scrutiny, disagreement and dismissal of the wider internet community to see what they think about my ideas and perhaps what else I could learn before I teach this after the summer break.
Please therefore feel free to tell me what you think.
1) The impotency of Priam
Priam is the king of a captured city. It isn’t just being taken from him by force, but it is going to be burnt to the ground. The inner sanctum of his home has had the doors wrenched off and, in a darkly comic scene, Priam puts on the armour of his youth and picks up a useless sword. The true impotency of Priam’s sword will be seen when Pyrrhus arrives, but in the meantime, there is the brutal truth of Hecuba and her daughters crowding around an altar for safety, knowing full-well that their salvation is not going to be found in the trembling form of Priam’s ‘Prince to the rescue of the damsels in distress’. Priam is in denial regarding his inability to help and protect and in another story with a less tragic ending, we would see Priam having a mid-life crisis as he takes up the arms (symbols) of his youth. But he cannot protect them and Virgil taps into the psyche of machismo when Hecuba talks him out of trying to be a hero – there will be no blaze of glory for Priam - a husband who cannot protect his wife and a father who cannot protect his children. Hecuba suggests that even Hector could not help - a true sign that the father’s strength has waned and perhaps an additional Freudian detail. Hecuba also leads Priam back to the altar and lays him down, as if he is some elderly relative who has wandered off down the street. His impotency is fully realised when his useless spear is so feeble that it cannot penetrate the shield of Pyrrhus.
It is the victor, Pyrrhus, who now controls who lives and who dies and it is his sword and spear that has the strength needed to pass through the flesh of his enemies.
Priam is a spent force and soon all of his children will be dead and, with them, his name. In the ancient world a name was very important – Medea knew this when she killed Jason’s children.
2. Fathers and Sons
In these lines there are some interesting echoes in the relationships between the various fathers and sons that are mentioned. Priam is told that his son Hector could not save them, Polites is killed before his father’s eyes (another death Priam cannot avenge), Priam states that Achilles did not father Pyrrhus, and that he respected Priam (like a father?), Pyrrhus doesn’t say the name of his father and discusses his inferior breeding and of course Aeneas rescues both his son and his father. The father/son dynamic is clearly important, so much so that Priam abandons his wife and daughters at the altar (potentially their only hope of salvation) in order to chastise Pyrrhus for the death of one son. A few lines later we see again the status of women compared to sons when Creusa is left behind by Aeneas and ends up dead. Priam’s anger seems to be almost fiscal in origin – he talks about repayment and payment in full; it is as if sons are a financial asset, which of course, they were. His harsh words ping off Pyrrhus like his spear will off his shield later in the text. Pyrrhus is more than happy to disparage the name and reputation of his own father (Achilles) as he seeks to make a name for himself. This of course is the natural order of this world; the son usurps the father like a strong army beats a weak one; like Greeks defeat Trojans; like Aeneas and his band of refugees beat the Latins. The strong make a name for themselves – the weak die.
However, strength does not always mean death. Aeneas, who of course is the hero of this text, shows this through becoming a father to his father and saving him from the burning city. He also raises Iulus to the position of companion as opposed to child – this world needs fathers (creators) – it is no place for children (or women as it transpires).
3. The two hands
Pyrrhus stabs Priam using his right hand (his left drags him through his own son’s blood – the left hand is always the more sinister of the pair), whereas Aeneas has Iulus’ hand clasped to his right hand. Here we see how things should be - the young being led by the old. In the case of Pyrrhus’ right hand, we see the effects of chaos leading to children killing (surrogate) parents.
Aeneas also tells his father to take the sacred objects in his hand, because he cannot touch them as his is not pure. I feel that this links to the idea that to hold something makes it real – you cannot have an empire without seeing the empire. This is also seen when Aeneas cannot grasp Creusa’s shade – she no longer exists, so it is time for Aeneas to look forward to his new kingdom and perhaps most importantly for a virile leader, a new wife.
4. Priam and Ozymandias
There is a nice echo between Priam’s headless trunk and Ozymandias’ trunkless legs. Time truly is the enemy of ‘great men’.
5. Forlorn Ceres
Aeneas instructs his followers to meet at the temple of forlorn Ceres. Ceres is a good goddess to mention in this situation. Her links to the boom and bust cycles of the seasons seem to chime directly with the rhythms of empires – first they rise and then they fall – a cycle as inevitable as summer into winter.
I would love to hear your thoughts on any of the things I have started to discuss above. Thanks for taking the time to read!