Virgil’s Aeneid, Book II
Aeneas has arrived in Carthage, seen the story of Troy already captured in public artworks, and has emerged from his cloak of invisibility at the court of Dido. In this book he tells the tale of the fall of Troy.
We are presumably supposed to be, with Virgil, on the side of Troy and against the slimy Greeks, but because of this the expectation seems to be that we’ll feel anxious and sad by what actually comes off as Trojan stupidity!
- Identify several instance of Trojan stupidity leading to their own downfall.
Note Aeneas and the Trojans’ predilection for melodrama, perhaps one of the reasons they fall for Sinon’s nonsense.
Aeneas picks up the story after some other events have transpired following the end of Homer’s Iliad. (See here.) He tells of the famous Trojan horse, an plot hatched by Ulysses (formerly Odysseus) for winning the war by trickery. Note the Trojan stupidities, recounted by an unaware Aeneas:
- The Greeks suddenly pack up and leave after ten years of war? So the Trojans quickly believe. The ships are really just hiding behind a strip of land, but the Trojans immediately thrown open their gates.
- Laocoon doesn’t sound particularly insane when he advises that the Trojans beware of Greeks bearing gifts, but the Trojans ignore him and ooh and ahh over the gigantic wooden horse.
- Maybe because he mirrors their melodramatic histrionics, the Trojans believe Sinon, the liar left behind who pretends he was dumped as a traitor to the Greeks. “His name, Sinon, means ‘pest,’ ‘bane,’ or ‘misfortune’ in Greek” (Strauss 171). He says all the right things, spitting on the name of Ulysses and squeezing out tears, but give me a break.
- When they’re wheeling the horse towards the city, several times they hear noise in the hollow torso of the horse, but the Trojans ignore this. Morons!
- They ignore their own prophetess Cassandra when she warns them of this horse bringing their doom. (Okay. The tricky part here is that it is Cassandra’s curse that she know the truth and never be believed. But I’m pretty sure the Trojans know about this curse, so you’d think that therefore one would believe her, but nope. Idiots!)
- Like Beowulf’s pals before the expected night attack of Grendel, everybody gets drunk, so the Greeks are easily able to emerge from the horse in a weird symbolic blur of birth and death.
- Politës, one of the very last of Priam’s sons left alive now, in running away from Pyrrhus, leads him right to where mom and dad are hiding, which in turn brings about Priam’s murder. What a jackass!
The rest of the drama involves Aeneas’ conflicting impulses. He wants to kill Helen, but divine intervention must stop this because he has a more important mission. He wants to fight the Greeks, even if he has to go out in a blaze of heroic glory, but he has a more important mission. When his father Anchises decides he’s too old to relocate, Aeneas’ despair brings about his old heroic impulse to go fight the Greeks, but divine intervention in the form of wondrous portents (1: his kid’s head lights up, and 2: they see a UFO) reminds him that he has a more important mission.
Lastly, an important “tableau” (a symbolic visual image set up as such in narrative, a sort of freeze-frame) is carefully created by Virgil (and artists afterwards have taken the cue): Aeneas is ready to leave town with his father Anchises in a bag on his back and holding his son Iulus’ hand.
- What is the symbolic significance of this tableau?
Anchises represents old Troy, now gone. Aeneas is the transition figure, blazing rather roundabout path towards the founding of the great Roman Empire, the best thing ever (according to the Romans). Since Aeneas, like Moses, is destined not to see the new kingdom established, Iulus represents the future. And notice, then, how Creusa, Aeneas’ wife, is literally marginalized in the tableau, and then figuratively marginalized in general. The great tableau boys march off with Creusa trailing behind, and eventually when they’re way out of town Aeneas glances back and doesn’t see her. He goes back briefly, but never finds out what happened to her! And get this: “She alone failed her friends, her child, her husband. / Out of my mind, whom did I not accuse…?” (2.931-932). Um, probably himself? But who cares, right? The big male erection of Rome is all that matters ultimately.