Back to the Future in Virgil’s Aeneid

Juno and Aeneas Absolutely, Positively Travel Through Time

[Originally published October 17, 2018, in In Medias Res]

In twenty years of talking about Virgil’s Aeneid it’s hit me that most people don’t get the weirdest thing about it. What I mean is, it takes place in a time warpFred Ahl, my colleague, first walked me through all this many years ago, and he deserves credit (but no blame) for what follows.

Consider the story as Virgil sets it up from the get-go (1.12–22, in Fred’s translation):

Once, an old city existed, and Tyrian settlers controlled it:
Carthage, a distant menace to Italy, facing the Tiber’s
Estuary, rich in resources, ferocious in practice of warfare.
Juno reportedly cherished this one land more than all others,
Even than Samos. In Carthage she kept both her chariot and weapons.
This was her candidate city to rule as the king of all nations
If fate allowed. For this role she was grooming it even in those days.
But there was being produced, she’d heard, from the bloodline of Trojans,
Offspring that would one day overturn her Tyrian fortress,
People who’d rule far and wide like kings, full of pride in their war skills,
Sure to arrive and cut Libya’s thread spun on Destiny’s spindles.
Fearing this…

In plain English, Juno is afraid of Rome’s destruction of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War. For Virgil, that was a real date. When was it? In 146 BCE.

Here’s the nutty thing — when is Juno afraid? There’s no way to tell when she’d heard about the city’s fate from the Fates but Carthage is already her favorite city; it’s where she’s been keeping her chariot and weapons.

Now, Dido founded the city of Carthage in 814 BCE. Again, for Virgil that’s a real date. Timaeus of Taormina had fixed and canonized it centuries before Virgil was born. So at the story’s start, Juno is inhabiting some point after 814 BCE but before 146 BCE.

So what does Juno do about it?

She goes back in time — specifically, she goes hundreds and hundreds of years into the past, zeroing in and landing seven years after the end of the Trojan War (as Dido points out in 1.755). For Virgil, that’s another real date: 1177 BCE, because Eratosthenes had fixed the fall of Troy at 1184 BCE and canonized it centuries before Virgil was born.

Think about it: In order to prevent Rome from destroying Carthage in 146 Juno travels back to 1177 to prevent the Trojans from reaching Italy so that their great-great-grandkids can’t found Rome in 753 and their great-great-great-grandkids can’t be born and destroy Carthage in 146.

Got that? Of course you do. It’s the same plot as Back to the Future (especially #2, the coolest of the three).

Might as well be Aeneas, Mercury, and Dido

This isn’t some sophistic interpretation. This is absolutely and exactly what’s happening in the epic. It’s the basic engine of the plot.

And there’s more. That storm that Juno stirs up in book 1 drives the Trojans off course not just in space but in time too.

1.21 gigawatts off the coast of Sicily (Aeneid 1.90)

Again, Dido founded the city of Carthage in 814 BCE. And again, for Virgil that’s a real date.

And it means that Juno’s storm blows the Trojans off course not just from Italy’s coasts to Africa but forward from 1177 BCE to 810 BCE, or thereabouts — a few years after the foundation of Carthage. That’s when books 2–4 take place.

And because Aeneas winds up hanging out in Carthage too long (about a year), that’s one reason Jupiter sends Mercury to intervene and tell the Trojans to get the hell out of dodge: The Aeneas-Dido romance threatens a rupture in the space-time continuum.

“You, laying foundations for mighty Carthage! Obsessed with your wife…!” (Aeneid 4.265)

As Dido commits suicide atop the pyre, the Trojans hightail it out of town and sail straight into a storm — a storm that blows them back from the future, from 810 BCE to 1177 or 1176 BCE, where they started. Fred implies all this with extreme subtlety in two adjacent footnotes (5.1 and 5.8–11):

Aeneas returns to his own times.… The visit to Carthage is set between two storms, as Odysseus’ visit to Phaeacia is set between periods of sleep (Odyssey 6–13). No gods start this storm: it is just the wrong season to be at sea.

Virgil invented this plot motif.

Here’s a timeline to keep everything straight: —

Work through the implications and you’ll love it. And no, there’s nothing remotely like this in Homer.

When the Trojans reach Sicily, normal time resumes. The rest of the epic (books 5–12) take place over a couple weeks in 1176 BCE.

The biggest mistake people make in reading ancient literature is deciding that because it happened a really long time ago, it all happened at more or less the same time. Not so. Next time someone tells you they’re impressed by the Iliad or the Odyssey, tell ’em about the Aeneid.