As I was watching the mobs at the gates of Kabul airport several weeks ago and tried to imagine what had been transpiring in Afghan households over the weeks since the fall of their country to the Taliban, I was transported to what is for me one of the most stunning scenes in Virgil’s first-century B.C. epic, The Aeneid.
The scene illuminated in my mind the kinds of exchanges taking place among Afghan family members: agonizing quarrels between loved ones over what to do in the face of imminent peril; eruptions of vengeful anger; torrents of grief; desperate pendulum swings between hopelessness and hope; decisions to buckle down, to hide, to dare forays into the menacing streets, as they try to make their way to safety.
The Virgilian scene that has printed itself on my heart appears in Book Two. This section of the 12-book legend recounts the circumstances that force Aeneas out of his homeland to wander stormy seas. By the end of the book, Aeneas, who has been one of the few Trojans to survive the fall of the great city of Troy, is poised to undertake a long and perilous journey to establish a new homeland for his people in Latium, or Italy. He is destined to become the founder of Rome, but at the close of this book, he and Virgil’s readers are just at the beginning of an extended tale that combines, in a poem of majestic beauty and wrought of the finest human sensibility, elements of Homer’s two great works.
(I have used John Dryden’s 17th-century translation in the following citations.)
As the scene opens, the Trojans have just been delivered their devastating defeat. Aeneas is standing in the ruins of his beloved city, surrounded by dead comrades. He has watched as Priam, the revered king of Troy, fell and “became a headless carcass and a nameless thing.” Here are the shattered warrior’s words:
Then, not before, I felt my curdled blood
Congeal with fear, my hair with horror stood …
Alone and despairing, wandering the rubble of the city, he catches sight of Helen, the Greek princess he blames for the war and his city’s destruction. “Trembling with rage,” he vows to slay “the strumpet.” Though as a soldier, he says, he can expect no applause for the murder of a woman, he declares that “the punished crime shall set my soul at ease.” He readies to commit the act.
At this explosive juncture, however, “a gleam of pleasing light spread o’er the place,” and Aeneas’ mother, Venus, goddess of love, stands before him. She reproves her son for letting his suffering goad him toward impetuous acts.
“My son, from whence this madness …
Why this unmanly rage?”
Rather than waste time on blame, she says, he must seek his father, wife, and son. She tells him it was not the Greek princess who caused Troy’s downfall.
“Not Helen’s face, nor Paris, was in fault;
But by the gods was this destruction brought.”
She clears the mists and reveals to him the avenging deities at play: Neptune heaving up the city’s foundation with his mace; “imperial Juno” egging on Grecian bands; and Jove, the father of the gods, arming “partial deities” to supply “new courage to the foe.” As Venus points to these acts of destruction and incontrovertible evidence of defeat, a vision comes to Aeneas of a great mountain ash being axed down “with mortal groans.” Upon receipt of this crystallizing vision, Aeneas realizes that further battle is pointless, and sets off “thro’ foes and fire,” to search out his ailing father at the family home and help him to safety on Mount Ida.
His father, Anchises, however, has other ideas. Feeling bereft, impotent, and at odds with the gods, he wishes only to remain in the decimated city, fight, and die. He comments wryly that he is sure the enemy will oblige and bring his death. He urges Aeneas, however, to save himself, his wife, and his child.
“Go you, whose blood runs warm in ev’ry vein.
Had Heav’n decreed that I should life enjoy,
Heav’n had decreed to save unhappy Troy …”
Beside himself, Aeneas pleads with his distraught father to imagine the impact of these words on his son.
“Can I, without so dear a father, live?
You term it prudence, what I baseness call:
Could such a word from such a parent fall?”
But Anchises is resolute. He refuses to relent. Dismayed, Aeneas absorbs his father’s wretched mood. Feeling utterly lost, he pivots now toward his goddess mother and, in his mind, angrily flings her questions. Has she directed him to return home merely to see his whole family—father, wife, and son—“welt’ring in blood”? If so, he will hurtle back into the fray. At least he will die fighting for his city.
Urg’d by despair, again I go to try
The fate of arms, resolv’d in fight to die …
Now it is Aeneas’s wife, Creusa’s, turn to implore. As Aeneas grabs his sword, she begs him to remain and guard his family, rather than charge back into the city for revenge—and certain death. She embraces his knees and begs, holding up to him their young son, Iulus, also called Ascanius:
“If death be your design, at least,” said she,
“Take us along to share your destiny …”
The tale pauses now as Creusa’s “clamorous cries” fill the house. Here we dwell for a long time. We readers hear the sobbing and feel it pulse in our own bosoms.
Now, in a crescendo, a turning point in Aeneas’ agony occurs. A literal deus ex machina strikes.
Strange to relate, from young Iulus’ head
A lambent flame arose, which gently spread
Around his brows, and on his temples fed.
At this astonishing halo-like sight, a possible signal that all is not lost, Aeneas’ father, raises his hands to the heavens and calls out to the father of the gods to confirm the “glad presage.”
“If any vows, almighty Jove, can bend
Thy will; if piety can pray’rs commend,
Confirm the glad presage which thou art pleas’d to send.”
At this, “a peal of rattling thunder” cracks the air and:
There shot a streaming lamp along the sky …
It swept a path in heav’n, and shone a guide,
Then in a streaming stench of sulphur died.
At this deific, celestial confirmation that there are grounds for hope, Anchises is overcome. He acquiesces to his son’s plea that they attempt escape.
“Now, now,” he said, “my son, no more delay!
I yield, I follow where Heav’n shews the way.”
At this watershed moment in the book, Virgil delivers us an indelible visual image. He transmits into our own beings, via exquisite description, a family plunged into despair by wartime defeat, making a last-ditch bid for survival. This moment in the epic is an immeasurable gift, a quintessential reflection of the universal human experience of desperation—depicted, via language, in The Aeneid, and, movingly, through the centuries to follow, in many other media and descendant works of art, such as Bernini’s sculpture of 1618, Anton Joseph von Prenner’s 1728 etching, and Pompeo Batoni’s 1753 oil painting of the scene.
Upon receipt of the sacred portent, while their town “rolls” with “the flood of fire,” Aeneas grasps his son’s hand and beckons to Anchises:
“Haste, my dear father, (’tis no time to wait,)
And load my shoulders with a willing freight.
Whate’er befalls, your life shall be my care;
One death, or one deliv’rance, we will share…”
Now comes this book’s great denouement: The three generations of male family members, with Creusa a few paces behind, gingerly and fearfully pick their perilous route through the broken, shadowy lanes of the city in pursuit of safety. As the family approaches the gate to freedom, hope billows in Aeneas’s heart. He deems all danger past, but as it turns out, his heart has swelled too soon. The family hears “a frightful noise of trampling feet” and Anchises, atop Aeneas’s shoulders, spies through the gloom an onrush of Greek warriors in shining armor. Struck with fear, he cries out to his son to flee.
Aeneas bolts and runs, losing his way through the winding city alleys in the gloomy night. While he keeps grasp of his father and son as he dashes, he fails to look back and check on his wife. When he finally calms enough for his wife to enter his head, to his utter despair, Creusa has vanished. Frantic now, groaning with grief, but “no longer fearing death,” he calls out for his wife as he roars through the crushed city. But Creusa is gone.
It is now Aeneas who wails.
What mad expressions did my tongue refuse!
Whom did I not, of gods or men, accuse!
This was the fatal blow, that pain’d me more
Than all I felt from ruin’d Troy before …
Soon, though, Creusa’s ghost appears to him. Seeking “to soothe my grief,” Aeneas says, his wife’s “pale spectre” bids him yield to the terms of the gods.
“Nor tears, nor cries, can give the dead relief.
Desist, my much-lov’d lord, t’indulge your pain;
You bear no more than what the gods ordain.”
His wife-vision then foretells his future. He must endure an arduous voyage but will then find fair fortune:
“Long wandr’ing ways for you the pow’rs decree;
On land hard labours, and a length of sea.
Then, after many painful years are past,
On Latium’s happy shore you shall be cast,
Where gentle Tiber from his bed beholds
The flow’ry meadows, and the feeding folds.
There ends your toils; and there your fates provide
A quiet kingdom and a royal bride…
And now, farewell! …
I trust our common issue to your care.”
Unable to speak, Aeneas can only weep. He passes the night “in fruitless pain,” bereft with longing for his wife and beloved friends, but at dawn he comes upon a group of other homeless, fleeing Trojans seeking his leadership.
Amaz’d th’ augmented number to behold,
Of men and matrons mix’d, of young and old;
A wretched exil’d crew together brought,
With arms appointed, and with treasure fraught,
Resolv’d, and willing, under my command,
To run all hazards both of sea and land.
Beholding these trusting followers, and with his wraith-wife’s instructions vivid in his mind, he recovers his courage. He now bravely takes up his duty and embraces his destiny.
The book concludes with a return to the gilded, humbling image of Aeneas trudging toward a hoped-for new land, hoisting his father on his shoulders, holding his son by the hand:
The morn began, from Ida, to display
Her rosy cheeks; and Phosphor led the day:
Before the gates the Grecians took their post,
And all pretence of late relief was lost.
I yield to Fate, unwillingly retire,
And, loaded, up the hill convey my sire.
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