in Language, Literature

Verbal Artistry in Vergil: Place-Names in Aeneid 1.549-58

In his speech to Dido, the Trojan leader Ilioneus wonders aloud whether their king Aeneas (rex erat Aeneas nobis, 544) is still alive; if not, the Trojans would like to make their way to Sicily, where a group of Trojan exiles led by Acestes have settled. Here is part of his speech:

Sunt et Siculis regionibus urbes
armaque, Troianoque a sanguine clarus Acestes.               550
Quassatam ventis liceat subducere classem,
et silvis aptare trabes et stringere remos:
si datur Italiam, sociis et rege recepto,
tendere, ut Italiam laeti Latiumque petamus;
sin absumpta salus, et te, pater optime Teucrum,               555
pontus habet Libyae, nec spes iam restat Iuli,
at freta Sicaniae saltem sedesque paratas,
unde huc advecti, regemque petamus Acesten.’

The passage begins and ends with Sicily (549, 557) and Acestes (550, 558), with material about Italy sandwiched in between. The longing for Italy, which is primary, is brought out by the emphatic repetition of Italiam in the same case and same line position in two consecutive verses. If, however, their king is dead, sunk in the Libyan sea, they will go to Sicily and Acestes. These last two place names (Libyae, Sicaniae) are in the same line-position as Italiam (with the caveat that Libyae is only trisyllabic), and that serves to contrast them with the real goal: Italiam twice (primary goal, to be sought [petamus] and realized if [si, line-initial] their old king [rege] still lives); pontus Libyae (possible cause of disaster); freta Sicaniae (secondary goal, if [sin, line-initial] Aeneas has died, in which case they will seek [petamus] a new king [regem]).

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  1. No caveat needed if you think in terms of cola: the place name always closes the first half of the line (the hemiepes). Or in more traditional terms, it falls before the main caesura.

    I also like the heavy, spondaic opening halves of lines 550 and 558, which give the lines a somber and perhaps stately and formal air, appropriate to the humble request. The rest of the lines show the more usual rhythmic variety.