Study Guide

The Aeneid Memory and The Past

By Virgil

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Memory and The Past

Book 1

"My men, who have endured still greater dangers,
God will grant us an end to these as well.
You sailed by Scylla's rage, her booming crags,
You saw the Cyclops' boulders. Now call back
Your courage, and have done with fear and sorrow.
Some day, perhaps, remembering even this
Will be a pleasure." (1.271-278)

In contrast to the first quotation under this theme, these lines, which follow relatively closely upon them, show that not all reflection on the past is nostalgic. Thinking about the past can also provide directions for how to act in the present – as, in this case, Aeneas reminds his men of how they met past challenges, thereby encouraging them to endure new ones. (In fact, he even imagines how, in the future, they will be able to look back on present challenges as also in the past – try wrapping your head around that!) How do you think this theme relates to the idea of the Aeneid as a whole, which can be read as a poem set in what for Virgil was the distant past, yet which also alludes to the events of what for him was the present day?

"Triply lucky, all you men
To whom death came before your fathers' eyes
Below the wall at Troy! Bravest Danaan,
Diomedes, why could I not go down
When you had wounded me, and lose my life
On Ilium's battlefield? Our Hector lies there,
Torn by Achilles' weapon; there Sarpedon,
Our giant fighter, lies; and there the river
Simoïs washes down so many shields
And helmets, with strong bodies taken under!" (1.134-143)

These are the first words that we hear Aeneas speak. Given that you can think about the Aeneid as divided into a first half, in which the hero is thinking about the past, and a second half, in which he is directed toward the future, it is significant that we are introduced to Aeneas as nostalgic for home – and even wishing he had died there instead of setting off on this quest.

Mindful of his mother,
He had begun to make Sychaeus fade
From Dido's memory bit by bit, and tried
To waken with new love, a living love,
Her long settled mind and dormant heart. (1.981-985)

These lines, which depict how Amor, the god of love, prepares Dido to fall in love with Aeneas, show how the past is fragile – in that we only know about it so long as it survives in our memory. Based on this passage, and its consequences later in the story, do you think Virgil views forgetting the past as a good thing or a bad thing? (In thinking about this, don't feel as if your answer has to be completely black and white.)

Book 3

'Take these things, too, and may they be remembrances
Of my hands, child, and token of my love,
The long love of Andromache, Hector's dearest.
Final gifts of your own people: take them,
You that alone remind me of Astyanax.
His eyes, his hands, his look—all were like yours.
He would be your age, growing up like you.' (3.648-653)

Here we see another way that the past can continue into the present: when something in the present serves as an echo of what has gone before. As with the second quotation under this theme, how do you think this notion relates to Virgil's project of commenting on contemporary history by writing a poem about things that (supposedly) happened a long, long time ago in a galaxy…OK, in the same galaxy?

Book 6

(Anchises): "These other souls, When they have turned Time's wheel a thousand years, The god calls in a crowd to Lethe stream, That there unmemoried they may see again The heavens and wish re-entry into bodies." (6.1004-1008)

Here, Anchises is describing the process the souls of the dead have to undergo before they can be reborn into new bodies. Because our memories are so much a part of our identity, do you think it really makes sense to think about these souls, once reincarnated, as the same people? What do you think it says about Virgil's conception of history if he sees the world as a cycle of souls continually dying and being reborn, yet never remembering their former lives?

In that high sculpture you, too, would have had
Your great part, Icarus, had grief allowed.
Twice your father had tried to shape your fall
In gold, but twice his hands dropped. (6.47-50)

Like the third quotation for this theme, these lines show the fragility of the past. They also connect with the fourth quotation for this theme by showing the past as vividly remembered in the present. In this case, they show how when the past is too immediately present and painful – as the death of his son Icarus is for Daedalus, the famous inventor and decorator of the gates of the Sibyl's temple – it can risk being forgotten, because it hurts too much to remember it.

Book 7

Be with me, Muse of all Desire, Erato,
While I call up the kings, the early times,
How matters stood in the old land of Latium
That day when the foreign soldiers beached
Upon Ausonia's shore, and the events
That led to the first fight. Immortal one,
Bring all in memory to the singer's mind (7.47-53)

In these lines, Virgil himself prays to one of the Muses (goddesses of poetic inspiration) to help him remember what happened long before his time. Do you think it still makes sense today for an historian to think about recapturing the past as an imaginative act?

Muses, now
Throw wide the gates of Helicon, your mountain,
Now lift up your song, to tell what kings
Were stirred to war, what troops in each command
Filled all the lowlands, fighting men in whom
Even in those days bounteous Italy
Had come to flower, in whom her spirit blazed.
For you remember, you can bring to life
That time, immortal ones, while to ourselves
Faint wraiths of history barely transpire. (7.880-889)

This passage has the same general structure as the one quoted above: Virgil prays to the Muses to help him remember what has happened before. When Virgil talks about how we know only "faint wraiths" (i.e., ghosts) "of history," do you think he is just using a metaphor, or is he thinking of the doctrine of reincarnation as described in the sixth quotation for this theme?

Book 8

There the Lord of Fire,
Knowing the prophets, knowing the age to come,
Had wrought the future story of Italy,
The triumphs of the Romans: there one found
The generations of Ascanius' heirs,
The wars they fought, each one. Vulcan had made
The mother wolf, lying in Mars' green grotto;
Made the twin boys at play about her teats,
Nursing the mother without fear, while she
Bent round her smooth neck fondling them in turn
And shaped their bodies with her tongue. (8.848-858)

Here, Virgil does another one of his sneaky time-paradox things. That's because he describes what Vulcan puts on Aeneas's shield as knowledge of the future – from the perspective of the ancient time-period in which the Aeneid takes place. But from the perspective of the time in which he was writing, these events were in the very distant past.

Book 10

Then Ocnus came, who roused his company
From the paternal waterways: a son
Of sibylline Manto and the Tuscan river.
Mantua, it was he who gave you walls
And named you for his mother—Mantua,
Rich in forebears, not of a single stock,
But three distinct tribes, each with four communes,
The chief one Mantua, whose vigor came
From Tuscan blood. (10.272-280)

Although this moment might not seem like much when you read through the Aeneid for the first time, it is actually a detail of great personal significance to Virgil. Here, the ancient past that Virgil is remembering is the history of Mantua, his hometown. According to legend, when Virgil was on his deathbed, one of the things he did (aside from ordering that the unfinished manuscript of the Aeneid be burned) was to write his own epitaph. This consisted of two lines, which ran as follows: "Mantua me genuit; Calabri repuere; tenet nunc / Parthenope. Cecini pascua, rura, duces." This translates to "Mantua gave birth to me; Calabria stole me away; now Parthenope / holds me. I sang of pastures, fields, and leaders." The first line of the poem refers to the places he had lived; the second to his three poems: The Eclogues (about shepherds), The Georgics (about farming), and the Aeneid (about warfare – among other things). As you can see from this epitaph – assuming Virgil actually wrote it, though of course we can't be sure about that – Virgil was a bit homesick. This little reference to his own hometown woven into the fabric of his poem brings us full circle back to the nostalgia of Aeneas's lines in the first quotation for this theme.

The Aeneid Memory and The Past Study Group

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