Easter Eggs in the Aeneid

In Memory of Cristiano Castelletti

[Originally published December 10, 2018, in In Medias Res]

“From the pen of Vergilius Maro.” See below.

Daniel Mendelsohn made a great point in his great essay a month ago about the Aeneid:—

Right he is, and that treasure can be damned fun to find and collect. But how do you know when you have the real thing and when you’ve struck fool’s gold? Before I answer that question, let me show you a new Easter egg and then explain why there’s no point pitching it to a peer-reviewed journal.

It starts with the Emperor Augustus, who tells us in his autobiography that the senate once gave him a golden shield inscribed with the words VirtusClementiaIustitiaand Pietas. They put it up on display in the Curia Julia, Rome’s senate house (Res Gestae 34):—

clupeus aureus in curia Iulia positus, quem mihi senatum populumque Romanum dare virtutis clementiaeque et iustitiae et pietatis caussa testatum est per eius clupei inscriptionem.

A golden shield was put on display in the Curia Julia whose inscription testified that the Senate and People of Rome gave it to me in recognition of my valorclemencyjustice, and piety(source)

Those words come pretty much verbatim from the shield. Take a look: —

A marble copy of Augustus’ golden shield (source)

Virgil snuck an allusion to this shield into his description of the palace-temple complex of Laurentum in Aeneid 7. That’s a target-rich environment all by itself, and the language strengthens the associations. Here are lines 170–6 in Fred Ahl’s translation:—

Towering over the city, its huge roof raised by a hundred
Columns, august and sublime, stood the palace of Laurentine Picus,
Eerie with bristling forests and old superstitious traditions.
Here kings were given their scepters and took up the fasces of office,
Since this conferred a good omen. It was, too, their senate and temple,
Site for their holy-day banquets. And here, when the ram had been slaughtered,
Elders would sit side by side at communal tables for dining.

The building is “august” (augustum) and it’s a “curia” where the Laurentine elders or senators (patres) dine after a ram’s been slaughtered (caeso, which sure looks like Caesar). Oh, and the building’s crammed with trophy weapons and statues of bygone Laurentine leaders, including one of Picus, the first king of Latium, who’s holding a shield (183–9):—

Add to these numerous weapons attached to the sacrosanct doorposts,
Captured chariots suspended, the curving edges of axe-blades,
Helmet plumage and monstrous bolts from the gateways of cities,
And spears and shields and rams ripped from the timber of warships.
Shown seated, holding Quirinus’s staff, enrobed in a small, striped
Toga, and bearing the sacral shield (ancile) in his left hand, was Picus

So where’s the allusion? It is — let me suggest — entirely in the name Picus, whose letters encode the initials of those four virtues inscribed on Augustus’ shield (Pietas, Iustitia, Clementia, and Virtus). In other words, Virgil is treating PICVs as an abbreviation like SPQR.

Okay. Is it real? I don’t know. Maybe it isn’t.

The problem is that Virgil wrote the kind of poem that makes you think it could be. A little further on in book 7 he makes an acrostic spell out MARS when war breaks out (601–4): —

Fred’s translation is pretty ingenious here

And not a hundred lines later he has a half-line anagram of just two words:

Fred translates this “pools’ loops

Whether PICVs is or isn’t an allusion to Augustus’ shield isn’t really the kind of thing peer review is equipped to pronounce on. I say yes, you say no, and neither of us can prove it. We’re not to blame, though. The problem is exactly the one the cartoonist Gary Larson faced with his cartoon “Cow tools” (visit the link if you aren’t familiar with it).

This gets back to Daniel Mendelsohn’s point about the Aeneid — it feels like a treasure hunt designed for graduate students of the future.” That doesn’t mean it is a treasure hunt, but if it isn’t, whose fault is that? And what role does peer review have to play in trying to sort this mess out?

Wielding a stilus

These thoughts came to mind when I learned last week that my friend Cristiano Castelletti died last year. It was meningitis, and I was last to know. Cris knocked on my hotel door one night years ago in Warsaw when no one could sleep; a concert was pounding just outside. “Wanna go get a beer and a bratwurst?” he asked. It wasn’t the first thing I expected from a Swiss-Italian professor at a conference on Latin puns in Poland.

Cris was one of the greats, snuffed out too soon, and peer review was rough on his ideas. Sometimes he rode home victorious. He split Virgil criticism in 2012 by suggesting the first few lines of the Aeneid encrypt the words a stilo M. V., “From the pen of Vergilius Maro” — an Easter egg that certifies the proper start of the poem (see the image at the top of this page to see what he was looking at). Right or wrong, who’s to say? Read his formal, peer-reviewed publication here, or better, if you know Italian, watch him describe his thinking on Swiss TV. You just might feel yourself wavering as you do. Felix Castalidum reperit qui astutius astus.

R.I.P. Cristiano Castelletti (1971–2017)