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Latin Reading Club (1) - Virgil, Aeneid VI.295-316

Cato

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As Aeneas descends into the underworld, Virgil describes the entrance and the waiting souls.

Hinc via, Tartarei quae fert Acherontis ad undas. 295
Turbidus hic caeno vastaque voragine gurges
aestuat, atque omnem Cocyto eructat harenam.

Portitor has horrendus aquas et flumina servat
terribili squalore Charon, cui plurima mento
canities inculta iacet; stant lumina flamma, 300
sordidus ex umeris nodo dependet amictus.
Ipse ratem conto subigit, velisque ministrat,
et ferruginea subvectat corpora cymba,
iam senior, sed cruda deo viridisque senectus.

Huc omnis turba ad ripas effusa ruebat, 305
matres atque viri, defunctaque corpora vita
magnanimum heroum, pueri innuptaeque puellae,
impositique rogis iuuenes ante ora parentum:
quam multa in silvis autumni frigore primo
lapsa cadunt folia, aut ad terram gurgite ab alto 310
quam multae glomerantur aves, ubi frigidus annus
trans pontum fugat, et terris immittit apricis.

Stabant orantes primi transmittere cursum
tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore.
Navita sed tristis nunc hos nunc accipit illos, 315
ast alios longe summotos arcet harena.

Perseus Project text with Vocabulary Links (Tufts)
Mirror of Perseus text (Chicago, IL)
Mirror of Perseus text (Berlin, Germany)

A good English translation of the passage


Vocabulary/Grammar:

295 For beginners, you may be surprised by the criss-cross way Virgil positions relative pronouns, i.e. quae in this verse (antecedent via) comes after Tartarei (which modifies Acherontis). In English we naturally try to keep the relative "who, which" close to the antecedent, but Latin is much more flexible.
296 caenum, -i - "filth"; vorago, -inis (f.) - "whirlpool"
299 terribili squalore goes with Charon, while mento - "chin" goes with iacet. what sort of ablatives are these (they're not the same type)?
302 contus, -i - "pole"
303 cymba, -ae - "skiff," a kind of small boat.
304 crudus, -a, -um - here translate as "youthful"
309 quam multa = multa quam and repeated in 311.
310 gurges, -itis "gulf, whirlpool, abyss"
313 The grammar here is unusual; how do you interpret primi or the infinitive transmittere?
316 ast = at

Discussion:

Please feel free to comment on the mythological geography in 295-7.

Stant lumina flamma in 300 is a famous phrase; what, in your opinion, makes it so memorable?

What does the placement of words in 301 suggest?

crudus, -a, -um in 304 is an interesting word. Compare it to its Latin cognates, and comment on the choice.

How do you interpret ante ora parentum in 308? Why ora?

What is the effect of the two similes in 309-312, besides the obvious fact that the number of souls is large?

What is the effect of amore in line 314? Tragic? Humorous? Ironic?

why do you think Virgil placed alios and harena where he did in 316? Hint: harena is an ablative of...?

There is no need to limit discussion to these items; they are thought-provokers only. As always, comments on the overall feeling of the passage or the quality of the provided English translation are also welcome.

Habeatis ludum!
 

Iynx

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terribili squalore... cui plurima mento
canities inculta iacet; stant lumina flamma,
sordidus ex umeris nodo dependet amictus

You know I think I saw that guy, last time I was in New York. I just assumed that those stairs went down into another subway station...
 

Iynx

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1. More seriously, chjones, I think this is a good first choice. I don't usually care much for Virgil, but even I think this is beautiful, powerful stuff.

2. There's a little part of the human outer ear that's known as the cymba conchae. It must have reminded someone, once, of a boat. From the ear-hole, cross the first ridge to the north, and you're there.

3. I'll try to get the discussion going by addressing one of your questions that I find very interesting, that on the grammar in line 313. At first glance I thought I understood it (I still haven't looked at your translation). The general sense is clear enough: "They stood pleading that they might be the first that the ferry should carry across". It wasn't until you asked, in effect, that the grammar be explained, that I began to have doubts.

At first I wondered whether the cursum transmittere might be the dreaded accusative + infinitive, and that it might constitute here an instance of indirect discourse. The problem then became finding an explanation for the primi. Neither of its two possible cases (genitive singular and nominative plural) made sense to me under this hypothesis.

So I went to hypothesis #2. Transmittere can mean not "to send over" but "to cross over" sometimes with, according to a handy dictionary, an "accusative of what is crossed" . So I now think the cursum must be not the subject accusative but the simple object of transmittere:

Stabant orantes (they stood pleading)

transmittere cursum (to cross the ferry)

primi (the first ones)


Is that right?
 

Cato

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Iynx dixit:
Transmittere can mean not "to send over" but "to cross over" sometimes with, according to a handy dictionary, an "accusative of what is crossed" . So I now think the cursum must be not the subject accusative but the simple object of transmittere:

Stabant orantes (they stood pleading)

transmittere cursum (to cross the ferry)

primi (the first ones)


Is that right?
I think you have it, except perhaps that cursus, -us is more abstractly "journey, route". The grammar illustrates a rather obscure (but ancient) use of the infinitive to express purpose; in prose I'd expect something more like Stabant orantes ut primi cursum transmitteret.

The infinitive is not commonly used this way in classical Latin (much more common in later Christian writers), but it is found in the poets, especially since the Greeks (who the Roman poets were constantly imitating) used infinitives to express purpose in Greek.

The ultimate point of this exercise is not to define yet another grammatical category (though e.g. Allen and Greensborough's grammar book does define the "infinitive of purpose"), but to show how one's current understanding of the grammar of the infinitive can be used here if one is willing to make good, educated choices (the illustration of your reasoning, Iynx, is exactly the kind of reaction I was hoping for). Cultivating that skill is a key one to the appreciation of any language (even in one's native tongue).[/i]
 

Donaldus

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Thank you chjones & Iynx, this opens the door to Virgil for me. Some observations/questions:

* sordidus ex umeris nodo dependet amictus - don't know if this is what you're referring to, but I love the way the cloak is on the outside and the knot is in the middle.

* Charon subigits the boat - a very punchy verb in this context that I can't think of a good equivalent for in English... maybe heave? If I understand correctly, the agere part of the verb implies force and the sub- prefix adds the connotation of the force being applied low to the ground or encompassed in a small space... for example, would you subigit a piano across a room? Then directly after that there's the contrast of the delicate minstration of the sails.

* I have a bit of difficulty picturing the underworld. I thought it was a cave until sails were mentioned...

* Basic question: on 312, are the birds understood to be the direct object of fugat and immitit? I'm confused by the absence of pronouns here.
 

Donaldus

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A couple of other things:

* ante ora parentum - before their open-mouthed parents? The translations all say something like 'before their parents eyes'.
* terribili squalore - 'terrible squalor' sounds weak and cliched in English, like a parent describing their teenage son's room. What connotations am I missing here?
 

Iynx

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I can answer the ante ora question, I think, Donaldus. Os means not only "mouth", but also "face" and especially "gaze". There are a number of related idioms:

os alicui sublinere (or oblinere) means to hoodwink someone. In English we speak of "pulling the wool over someone's eyes", but in Latin we "smear over someone's mouth".

aliquem in os laudare means "to praise someone to his face". Be careful not to mix this up with alicui os laedere, "to insult someone".

ante ora nostra, per ora nostra, and praeter ora nostra can all mean "before our eyes".

in ore (alicuius) and sub ore (alicuius) both mean "in the sight (of someone)".
 

Cato

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Donaldus, I like the observation on subigit and the excellent choice of "heave" for this verb. I also hadn't thought of the contrast between push the boat from below with the pole and tending to the sails above. As I'm sure you're aware, I wouldn't read too much into the presence of sails on Charon's boat, i.e. inferring there's a substantial wind blowing through the underworld, but a good point nonetheless.

As lynx points out, os, oris - "mouth" is often used in Latin idioms where we might say "eyes" or "face". However, I think the word choice also underscores the pathetic image of parents watching their child on a funeral pyre, emphasizing the disbelief on their faces by drawing attention to their (presumably gasping) mouths.
 

Cato

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Donaldus dixit:
* sordidus ex umeris nodo dependet amictus - don't know if this is what you're referring to, but I love the way the cloak is on the outside and the knot is in the middle.
Absolutely; sordidus amictus wraps the line the way a cloak would wrap one's shoulders. Note also ex umeris...dependet just inside this word pair (just as a cloak would hang from the shoulders). The knot is in the middle, just where you'd expect to see it on Charon.

We tend to forget poems like the Aeneid were at first recited publically rather than read. I can imagine a good storyteller reciting this line and jesturing across his shoulders and chest with each word to emphasize the mental picture.

The theatrical possibilities are perhaps clearer in the final line of the passage, where the alios who do not have passage are kept far away from the harena. Note that the words themselves are also kept as far apart as possible in this line. A skilled reader could then use vocal cadence or gestures (e.g. gesture to the right at the beginning of the line, and move the arm until it is motioning to the left at the end) to physically illustrate the separation.

Donaldus dixit:
* Basic question: on 312, are the birds understood to be the direct object of fugat and immitit? I'm confused by the absence of pronouns here.
I'd certainly take them that way; Virgil and most Latin poets will drop pronouns if they can be reasonably inferred from the context. Small words like this tend to clutter up the line. This is also why poets will usually yank a noun/adjective out of a prepositional phrase and place it in front of the short preposition (e.g. gurgite ab alto in 310), allowing the small word to almost blend into the grammatically-attracted noun and adjective.
 

Cato

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Donaldus dixit:
* terribili squalore - 'terrible squalor' sounds weak and cliched in English, like a parent describing their teenage son's room. What connotations am I missing here?
The cognate "terrible" in English has lost much of the punch it had in Latin--I can describe a wilted salad as "terrible". But note the word's relation to the common Latin verb terreo - "frighten" and the English cognate "terror". In Latin, this word carries a much greater sense of dread than it currently does in English.

Check the basic meaning of squalor in a good Latin dictionary; you may be surprised to learn it is "stiffness/roughness". As most freshman college students can tell you, if you don't wash your clothes after wearing them for a while, they become stiff (not to mention pretty rank:)); this gives us the other meaning of squalor="filth, dirt". Charon probably doesn't visit the laundromat very often, but its also the roughness, the coarsity of the ferryman that Virgil wants us to see.
 

Iynx

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I'd like to take up, chjones, your question on line 299:

"terribili squalore goes with Charon, while mento - "chin" goes with iacet. what sort of ablatives are these (they're not the same type)?"

I read this part of the passage without much conscious difficulty, and I feel sure I understood it correctly. But your question makes me fear that I have seriously misunderstood the syntax, and I'm counting on you to straigten me out.

I confess that I see only one ablative here: terribili squalore. I read it as an ablative of manner. To me it is adverbial in nature, and pertains-- syntactically-- not to portitor /Charon (which I read as substantives in apposition) but to servat: how does he keep the waters? with fearful squalor. I understand, of course, that it is Charon, and not the waters, that is filthy, but if we were to diagram the sentence (do they still do that in schools?) we would put, or at least I would put, the terribili squalore under servat.

I read the mento as dative, and as linked to the cui: "to whose chin a great and unkempt greyness lieth". I supposed that to be a "local dative". If it is in fact ablative I am left with a stray and unexplained cui, and in fact am completely lost.

On the rim of the netherworld in fact, a bad place to be lost. Can you help me out?
 

Cato

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Iynx dixit:
"terribili squalore goes with Charon, while mento - "chin" goes with iacet. what sort of ablatives are these (they're not the same type)?"

I confess that I see only one ablative here: terribili squalore. I read it as an ablative of manner. To me it is adverbial in nature, and pertains-- syntactically-- not to portitor /Charon (which I read as substantives in apposition) but to servat: how does he keep the waters? with fearful squalor. I understand, of course, that it is Charon, and not the waters, that is filthy, but if we were to diagram the sentence (do they still do that in schools?) we would put, or at least I would put, the terribili squalore under servat.
I took terribili squalore as an ablative of description with Charon. This type of ablative is specifically used when describing outward appearances (as opposed to, say, the descriptive genitive, usually used to describe more abstract qualities).

However I can see your interpretation tying it to servat (yes, diagramming is unfortunately no longer in vogue, but I agree it makes the grammar clearer), so I certainly wouldn't call it incorrect. Positionally, the phrase is equally close to Charon as it is to servat, and Virgil does have a flair for the transferred epithet (a phrase grammatically attached to one word when it's really modifying another, e.g. the English phrase "He made a drunken speech", where the speech isn't really drunken, but the speaker is).
I read the mento as dative, and as linked to the cui: "to whose chin a great and unkempt greyness lieth". I supposed that to be a "local dative". If it is in fact ablative I am left with a stray and unexplained cui, and in fact am completely lost.
My reasoning is that iacet means primarily "lie down", i.e. downward. As such, this word has an alternate meaning of "to hang" specifically when referring to hair (just checked my OLD on this; unsurprisingly, it cites this very passage under the definition "to hang loosely").

Thus, I took mento to be ablative of separation and cui to be dative of reference/possession--"from whose chin many grey hairs hang". There is a slight grammatical problem with assuming mento is dative (presumably, a dative of reference) since that construction is routinely used with persons, not things, but I wouldn't argue that too strenuously.
 

Cato

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One question that interested me is the effect of the similes Virgil uses for the crowd of dead souls. From the English translation, these are:

"... as many as the leaves that fall
in the woods at the first frost of autumn, as many as the birds
that flock to land from ocean deeps, when the cold of the year
drives them abroad and despatches them to sunnier countries."

I think Virgil is acknowledging here two common beliefs about death. The ancients routinely saw the contradiction between nature--which renewed itself with the cycle of the seasons--and man--who's life is linear, like the fates' metaphorical thread.

The falling leaves are literally dying themselves, thanks to the chill of autumn. It's easy to see this as one possible metaphor for death, an ending that casts a certain cold and permanent shadow over the end of our lives.

On the other hand, the birds in the second simile are not dead, even though they are driven landward by a similar chill (it is no coincidence Virgil uses the same word--frigore and frigus--in each simile). In fact, they arrive at sunnier countries (anyone else reminded of Shakespeare's phrase/bad Star Trek film "The Undiscovered Country"?).

Is Virgil saying that yes, death is an ending, but not necessarily a grim or hopeless one?
 

Donaldus

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It's a striking passage, both chilling and consoling. Thinking about it, the first thing that struck me was the emphasis on the number of dead - not "death is like a falling leaf", but "as many deaths as falling leaves". Taking up your linear vs cyclical distinction, chjones, I'd see the passage preceding that one as representing the linear point of view and this passage taking up the cyclical view. The linear perspective: a glimpse at individual lives and tragedies - dead before their time or at the height of their glory, loved and mourned; ... and then there's a tremendous shift in perspective to the level of large scale natural processes, nature working in aggregates, indifferent to individual outcomes, scattering and regathering according to its own cycles, etc etc...; and that jump in perspective administers a "the world doesn't revolve around you" shock, which as always is desolating but as always somehow takes a weight off. Wouldn't want to reduce it to that, there's a lot more going on in that passage, it's a good one to focus on.
 

Cato

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Donaldus, I appreciate your insight, one I hadn't thought of. You're right, Virgil first focuses on death as it pertains to humanity--children, heroes, loved ones, etc.--but then places it in the sweep of nature using the similes; the world really doesn't revolve exclusively around us.

I chose this section mainly because it was an isolated description, an ornament hanging on Virgil's grand construct that is easily removed and examined in isolation. But the human pathos found even in these scant lines permeates the poem from start to finish, even in the patriotic (but lesser-read) second half dealing with the Trojan battle for Latium. Virgil's sensitivity, I think, is what led Dante to make him the guide through the Divine Comedy.
 
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