February 19, 2018

"Of arms and the man I sing"

On this day in 1184 BC, according to calculations made some 900 years later by the North African Greek, Eratosthenes, Troy was sacked and burned. The precise date is now regarded as pretty much a wild guess, although no less substantiated than the legendary events of the Trojan War. The city itself, long thought to be as legendary, has been identified -- or rather, ten distinct Trojan settlements have been identified at Hissarlik, in present-day Turkey, each built upon the ruins of the others. The Troy of Homer and Virgil, if it existed, is most likely "Troy VIIA," a settlement that appears to have been destroyed by fire at about the time calculated by Eratosthenes.

In Book Two of The Aeneid, Virgil has Aeneas (now escaped to North Africa) tell Dido of the awful events. How he and his countrymen, despite being told to "beware the Greeks, even bearing gifts," put their backs into self-destruction:
    We cut through walls and flung our ramparts down.
    All stripped for the work; under the horse's feet
    we slipped rollers, and from its neck we rove
    hempen halyards. Up rode the death machine,
    big with armed men, while boys and virgin girls
    sang hymns and joyed to lay hands to the lines.
How, wakened by screams and groans, and eager to die in battle, Aeneas hears from a breathless Panthus that he is too late:
    "Trojan and Troy, we've had our day, our power,
    our glory. A heartless Jove has handed all
    to the Greeks. Our city is ashes! Greece is lord!
    Tall stands the horse inside our fort, and births
    her soldiers. Sinon, prancing his glory-dance,
    sets fire on fire. Through gates flung wide, they come...."
How some fought, some ran, some "in shame and terror climbed / the horse again, to cower in its belly"; how aged Priam put on armor, and Pyrrhus, "like a snake on foul herbs fed," dragged him through his own son's blood to death; how Aeneas, seeing in the chaos "the face that launched a thousand ships" (that's Christopher Marlowe, not Virgil), is tempted to revenge; how a vision of his mother, Venus, recalls him to his fate, as foretold by Hector in that night's dream:
    "Run, goddess-born," he cried; "run from these flames!
    Greece owns our walls; the towers of Troy are tumbling!
    To country and king all debts are paid; my hand
    had saved them, if any hand had power to save.
    Her holy things, her gods, Troy trusts to you.
    Take them to share your fate; find walls for them:
    wander the wide sea over, then build them great."
If legend is correct, the poem itself almost never survived. Virgil worked on his epic for the last decade of his life; as he was dying -- from a fever contracted while on a voyage to Greece to gather more research for the poem -- he instructed that the Aeneid be destroyed because of its unfinished state. Emperor Augustus, whose reign the poem was designed, in part, to glorify, countermanded his wishes.

All quotations are from Frank O. Copley's translation (Bobbs-Merrill, 1965) of The Aeneid.

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