How You Can Prove The Epic Ends Where It’s Supposed To
[Originally published December 3, 2018, in In Medias Res]
You’ve probably heard Virgil died before he finished writing the Aeneid. That might be true but it’s not true the way most people assume, and there’s a way to prove it.
If you ask most people (including me, once), they’ll tell you Virgil would’ve “finished” the epic by continuing the story past Aeneid 12. That’s silly, though. Think about it: Do great writers begin on page one and stop writing on the last page, or do they work on different parts at different times?
Once you realize it’s obviously the second, options open up — including the sphragis, the most fun literary technique devised by ancient Greeks. It’s a word I’d translate “watermark.”
The sphragis was a watermark before watermarks existed. In a time when all books were copied by hand it was a surefire way to prevent people from monkeying around with your work. You made one not by secretly marking the paper but by secretly marking the text with Easter eggs, cool features that most people don’t notice but soon admire when they do.
Here are a few you might not have noticed. I owe them to Michael Putnam, who mentioned them in a class 20 years ago and who has since pointed them out in scholarly publications (here and here) you might have missed.
Go straight to the last three lines of the Aeneid. In them Aeneas loses his cool and murders Turnus (12.950–2, in Fred Ahl’s translation): —
And, as he [Aeneas] speaks, he buries the steel in the heart that confronts him,
Boiling with rage. Cold shivers send Turnus’ limbs into spasm.
Life flutters off on a groan, under protest, down among shadows.
Those lines are justly famous, and so are the first few lines of the epic. Take a look at 1.1–5 beside those last three lines of book 12: —
Why did I put some words in red? Have a look at the Latin : —
Did you ever notice that condere and fugere show up in both places — and that they mean totally different things each time? The first time condere means establishing a city but the second time it means burying a sword in a guy’s chest, and the first time profugus means a refugee but the second time it doesn’t.
Do you think that’s an accident?
And the condere thing is important. Virgil repeats it in the line that sums up his whole epic (1.33),
Even better, as Richard Thomas figured out, it shows up in an awesome ambiguity in Aeneid 6 when Anchises tells Aeneas (791–5): —
Here’s the man you’ve heard promised to you so often, he’s here now:
Caesar Augustus, born of a god, who will one day establish
All through the farmlands of Latium once, long ago, ruled by Saturn,
Ages of Gold (aurea condet saecula)…
Here Fred’s translation only gets half of it. It turns out condere is one of those weird words that, like sacer, can mean two totally contradictory things: to establish or suppress, to start or to stop. As Thomas puts it: —
Pretty awesome, eh? Again, what are the odds Virgil didn’t think about that when he chose it for this line?
And what about umbras (shadows), the last word of the epic? Look back and you’ll see I highlighted it in red above. As Putnam points out, it’s a watermark of a different kind because it harks back to the very first thing Virgil ever seriously published. Take a look at the start of Eclogues 1, where one shepherd is jealous of another that’s relaxing under the shade of a tree: —
Well, well. If you still think Virgil keeled over as he wrote the last line of Aeneid 12 and would’ve kept going if he could, well, there’s a book by Jim O’Hara you really need to read…
P.S. In keeping with In Medias Res’ new series on Ovid, don’t miss the Easter egg in the title of his most famous work. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?