Ancient History & Civilisation



We start at the heart of the Aeneid, in a place where the laws of time in the historical world are suspended, and where the epic allows the hero and reader to range into the past and future.

The hero’s journey to the other world, the world of the dead, and, in some versions, of those yet to be born, is a standard feature of epic traditions as far back as the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.1 The ability to go beyond the limits of this world marks the exceptional status of the hero, and it gives him access to sources of knowledge unavailable to ordinary mortals. At the same time, both the journey and the initiation into privileged kinds of knowledge give the hero a better understanding of how to lead the limited existence that is this life, when he returns to his obligations in this world.

What the hero sees and learns in the other world is also for the benefit of us, the mortal readers of epic poems. The two major journeys to the land of the dead in classical epic are Odysseus’ voyage to the Land of the Cimmerians and the world of the dead inOdyssey 11 (the so-called Nekyia, ‘Necromancy’), and Virgil’s reworking of the Homeric episode in the descent of Aeneas to the Underworld in Aeneid 6. Both episodes have a limited practical usefulness for the hero himself. Circe has instructed Odysseus to consult the dead seer Teiresias on how to achieve his return home, but in the event it is she who delivers most of the detailed geographical instructions when Odysseus returns to her island from the land of the dead. Aeneas is told about his descendants and about the city, Rome, which those descendants will build, but in the second half of the Aeneid he acts as if he has no recollection of what he has experienced in the Underworld. There may be good reasons for this in terms of plot-management – after all an Aeneas who faces all the dangers and tragedies of war in Italy armed with the constant foreknowledge of his people’s glorious future might not be a very interesting hero. But one effect is to isolate the Underworld as an almost free-standing episode within the Aeneid, and this is reflected in many of the later reworkings of the Virgilian Underworld.

This self-contained feel is enhanced by two differences between the Homeric and Virgilian journeys to the other world. Firstly, the Nekyia in Odyssey 11 is followed by another book of Odysseus’ narrative of his wanderings and adventures, before his return to Ithaca and the beginning of the second half of the Odyssey in Book 13. Aeneas’ descent in Aeneid 6 is the conclusion to the first, ‘Odyssean’, half of the Aeneid, and so the last episode of the hero’s wanderings and adventures, before his arrival in the ‘promised land’ of Latium in Book 7, which is marked as the beginning of the second half of the poem by a new invocation to the Muse and by an elaborate sequence of divine machinery which motivates the ‘Iliadic’ war in Latium.

Secondly, Odysseus’ journey to the land of the dead is undertaken by the normal means of travel, by ship, to the distant and murky land of the Cimmerians where Odysseus summons up the ghosts to the surface to be revitalized with sacrificial blood (although in the last part of the Nekyia Odysseus suddenly finds himself down in the Underworld itself). Aeneas undertakes a katabasis, ‘descent’, from this world to the Underworld, and his experience is sharply marked off from the world of normal waking consciousness by liminal passages at start and close. At the beginning an invocation by the narrator to the gods and ghosts of the Underworld is followed by a journey through a shadow-land to the insubstantial personifications that cluster at the entrance to Hades. At the end ofAeneid 6 Aeneas and the Sibyl leave the Underworld through the Ivory Gate of ‘false dreams’ (Aen. 6.893–8). These are mysterious lines that take a more straightforward Homeric description of the two gates of dreams, the ivory gate of false dreams, and the gate of true dreams made of horn (Odyssey 19.562–7), and rework them in such a way as to provoke an endless and inconclusive series of attempts at interpretation.

Taken as a whole the Virgilian Underworld is a signal example of the reception of a Homeric episode (the Nekyia). While the same might be said of many episodes in the Aeneid, the Underworld is peculiarly alert to cultural and textual memories and afterlives. It is a place where the hero Aeneas is reminded of his own past through a series of figures who also carry with them intertextual pasts, and where he also meets a parade of individuals who have a very literal kind of afterlife, since these are the souls of unborn Roman heroes whose lives on earth will come after the time of the primary narrative of the Aeneid. The ‘Parade of Heroes’ presents a great sweep of futurity down to the time of Virgil’s own contemporary readers, the time of the new ruler of Rome, Augustus (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. The Parade of Heroes. Engraving by François Chauveau, from Michel de Marolles, Les Oeuvres de Virgile traduites en prose (Paris, 1649).

What for Aeneas is a mixture of memories and prophetic revelation is, for Virgil’s reader, a matter of memory, because of Virgil’s peculiar technique of conveying history in the form of prophecy, both in the Parade of Heroes in Aeneid 6 and on the Shield of Aeneas in Aeneid 8 with its scenes of Roman history. In Book 6 both Aeneas and the reader travel through time. In what some modern critics have interpreted as a psychotherapeutic working through of past trauma, Aeneas first traverses his personal past, meeting people close to him who have died violent deaths, Palinurus, Dido, Deiphobus. He arrives finally at his own biological origin in the person of his father Anchises, who then throws the direction of time into reverse with the revelation of the future heroes of Rome, Aeneas’ descendants, down to Augustus.

We the readers travel through time as registered in traditions historical, cultural and literary down to Virgil’s own day. We pass firstly through a series of Homeric-style encounters, modelled on the series of people from his past whom Odysseus meets in theNekyia, in a landscape that is recognizable as that of the traditional mythological topography of the other world as it had developed by the fifth century BC. When we arrive in the Elysian Fields we move on to the age of philosophy, as Anchises delivers, in the first part of his speech to Aeneas, a piece of philosophical didactic poetry, ‘On the Nature of the Soul and the Nature of the World’. This injects the secrets of the natural world into the mythological Underworld, and hints at an allegorization of the traditional picture. The second and longer part of Anchises’ speech, the Parade of Heroes, moves from philosophical didactic to historical epic, in an updating of Ennius’ Annals, the Roman national epic written in the first half of the second century BC which narrated Rome’s history from Romulus down to Ennius’ own time. The Parade of Heroes reaches a climax with the new saviour-god Augustus, who surpasses the epic journeyings of the legendary Hercules and challenges the ambitions of the historical Alexander the Great, himself the subject of lost epics. The Roman princeps is thus the culmination of the whole of the previous epic tradition.

Allusion to Ennius’ Annals also introduces another crucial element into the Virgilian Underworld. Aeneas’ meeting with the shade of Anchises alludes to the dream in the prologue to the Annals in which the phantom of Homer announces to the sleeping Ennius that the true soul of Homer has been reincarnated in Ennius. This stunning scene of transmission, in which the earlier author has been received fully within the person of the later author, is a prime example of what was to become a common conceit in Renaissance and later literature, metempsychosis as a figure for the ‘re-embodiment’ of an earlier author by a literary successor. An oft-cited example is that by Francis Meres (1598): ‘As the soul of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras, so the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare.’2 In the Virgilian scene paternity, rather than metempsychosis, is an implicit figure for poetic succession, as Anchises-Ennius hands over to Aeneas-Virgil the baton of Roman historical epic.3

The epic Underworld, which stores the shades of all those who have ever lived, is a kind of time-free repository for memory and tradition, into which succeeding epic poets can descend to draw material for new poems. It is already possible to see the Homeric Underworld as performing this function of storehouse of tradition.4 Enacting its own reception of pre-Virgilian literary history, the Virgilian Underworld also looks forward as it offers itself for reception and adaptation by later writers.

The histories embedded in the Virgilian Underworld have a largely positive trajectory: towards a ruler, Augustus, whose coming marks a new era in human history and the beginning of a Golden Age, and towards the epic poem, the Aeneid, which bids both to incorporate and to outdo the previous epic tradition. Modern critics have pinpointed moments of doubt and criticism in the politico-historical message of the main body of the Speech of Anchises,5 but it requires no hermeneutic suspicion to register the grief and sense of loss in the coda, the threnody for the younger Marcellus, nephew of Augustus, whose premature death in 23 BC cut off a promising future. Here Anchises’ and Aeneas’ personal sorrow at the fate of one of their descendants merges with the communal grief of the Romans of Virgil’s day, ‘the huge grief of your people’ (ingentem luctum […] tuorum), as Anchises tells his son (Aen. 6.868). A journey to the other world that concludes with the snatching away of something promised points back to the other great Virgilian Underworld narrative, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in the fourth Georgic, of which there are echoes in other episodes in the Aeneid that have an infernal quality to them: Aeneas’ loss of his wife Creusa in Book 2 just as they are about to escape from the Hellish night of the sack of Troy, and Nisus’ failure to check that his boyfriend Euryalus is following him as they try to escape from their Italian pursuers in the night episode in Book 9. Later authors sometimes combine imitation of the Underworlds ofGeorgics 4 and Aeneid 6.

The reception of the Virgilian Underworld begins with the Roman epic successors to Virgil. Ovid offers a typically oblique and fragmented response to Aeneid 6. As he tracks the plot of the Aeneid in Metamorphoses 14, the momentous Virgilian journey of Aeneas to the Underworld in the company of the Sibyl is dispatched in a breezy four-line summary (14.116–19), matching the four-line summary of the tragic matter of Dido and Aeneas shortly before (Met. 14.78–81). In some of the most famous, and most quoted, lines in the Aeneid Virgil’s Sibyl tells Aeneas before his descent (6.126–9), ‘Easy is the descent to Hades (facilis descensus Auerno): dark Pluto’s door is open day and night. But to retrace one’s steps and make it back to the upper air, that is the task, that is the labour.’ In Ovid the difficulty of the return is no more than that of a hard uphill slog through the darkness, which Aeneas whiles away in conversation with the Sibyl, who tells an erotic story of how Apollo tried to take her virginity. Here it is hard not to use the word ‘parody’, and the portentous solemnity of the Underworld episode irresistibly provokes burlesque (for further examples see Chapter 8, pp. 178–80).

Ovid had provided a fuller infernal topography in Metamorphoses 4, in the course of a series of Theban stories in Books 3 and 4 which together constitute an ‘anti-Aeneid’, a deformation of the providential teleology of the Aeneid that anticipates the large-scale ‘anti-Aeneid’ of Lucan’s epic on the civil war between Caesar and Pompey.6 Juno descends to the Underworld to summon the Fury Tisiphone to send Athamas and Ino mad. Here Ovid combines the physical descent to the Underworld of Aeneid 6 with Juno’s evocation from Hades of the Fury Allecto in Aeneid 7 in order to infuriate Turnus and Queen Amata against the Trojans, newly arrived in Latium. As a form of reception ‘combinatorial imitation’ of two separate Virgilian episodes implicitly registers a connection that the reader Ovid has seen within the Aeneid. Books 6 and 7, the two books that straddle the division between the two halves of the epic, offer two very different accounts of the relationship between the Underworld and this world. The ordered topography of the eschatology of Book 6 presents a clarification of the chaotic experience of living in this world.7 The various classes of the dead are put in their proper places, and Aeneas is offered a vision of the whole course of future Roman history sub specie aeternitatis, ending with a new Golden Age under Augustus, the fiction of the end of history. Shortly before the final stage of his infernal journey Aeneas comes to a fork in the road, the left leading to Tartarus, the right to the Elysian Fields, a sharp dichotomy between the places of the damned and the blessed not found in the Homeric Nekyia, but fully developed by the time of Plato.8 Aeneas takes the path to the Elysian Fields to meet his father; the Sibyl tells him that no pure (castus) human being can enter Tartarus, and describes the punishments suffered inside by the great sinners of myth. The security-guard at the gate of Tartarus is the Fury Tisiphone with her whip. This orderly classification is taken up and developed, sometimes at great length, in post-classical cartographies of the afterlife, as in Dante’s Divine Comedy or in Charlemagne’s visit to the other world in the neo-Latin epic on Charlemagne, the Carlias by Ugolino Verino (1438–1516) (see p. 41 below).

Thus the dualism of good and evil is safely policed in the Underworld of Book 6. It seems that after the revelation of a vision of the glorious future of Rome Aeneas safely crosses the boundary between the other world and the world of the living when he exits via the Gate of Ivory. But in Book 7 the Trojans’ idyllic arrival at their promised land of Latium quickly turns into a hell on earth when Juno summons up from the Underworld one of Tisiphone’s sisters, the Fury Allecto, in order to provoke all-out war between the Trojans and the Italians. Virgil projects the dichotomy of Heaven (the Elysian Fields) and Hell (Tartarus) as places of reward or punishment in the next life, on to a dualistic struggle in the processes of history in this world between the forces of light and darkness, order and disorder, Heaven and Hell.9 This is not an absolute theological dualism, since the chief protagonists on either side, Jupiter and Juno, are brother and sister, husband and wife, and Virgil has no sooner constructed his dualistic template than he begins to deconstruct it in various ways. Nevertheless the Aeneid’s tendency to structure its narrative as a Manichaean dualism, unprecedented in what survives of earlier Greek and Roman epic, translated easily into any number of narratives based on a Christian view of the world and of history (see Chapter 6).

Juno’s use of the forces of Hell to inject new and demonic life into the second half of an epic which is in danger of running out of steam after the hero’s safe arrival in Italy was much imitated by Virgil’s Latin epic successors in antiquity from Ovid onward. A fuller machinery for this plot device, now transferred to the beginning of an epic narrative, was provided by the late-antique epic poet Claudian (born c. 370). Claudian combines the motif of summoning a Fury (or other Hellish agent) to create madness and strife on earth with the stock epic scene of a council of gods, but in this case a council of the gods of the Underworld. The main narrative of Book 1 of In Rufinum, Claudian’s invective against Rufinus, the Praetorian Prefect of the eastern Roman Empire (AD 392–5), opens with the word Inuidiae: Allecto is fired with ‘envy’ at the sight of cities of the earth enjoying peace. She convenes a council of her sisters, their numbers swollen with a crowd of personifications of evils that is modelled on the personifications that cluster at the entrance to the Virgilian Underworld. Allecto takes the podium, and complains of the Furies’ passivity in the face of a new Golden Age presided over by the emperor Theodosius and Justice. The Furies have been expelled from all their kingdoms (59:omnibus eiectae regnis). Allecto appeals to her sisters to ‘recognize what befits the Furies, and to resume the powers that have fallen into disuse’. This is an invitation to an intertextual recognition and renewal of the actions of the Furies, familiar from the line of earlier Latin epics going back to Aeneid 7. Warning against a direct attack on the gods, Allecto’s sister Megaera advocates instead an assault on the world of humans through the agency of her nursling, the monstrous Rufinus. Megaera ascends to the surface at a place on the coast of Gaul identified with the land of the Cimmerians where Odysseus consulted the dead. In a replay of Allecto’s approach to Turnus, Megaera disguises herself as an old man and rouses Rufinus to action.10

Claudian’s In Rufinum is the main model for the many councils of devils summoned by Satan in medieval and Renaissance epics that operate with a Christian divine machinery. In the tenth and last book of the twelfth-century Walter of Châtillon’s widely read epic on Alexander the Great, the Alexandreis, Nature is enraged by Alexander’s determination to open up hidden parts of the world. She descends to an Underworld which contains personifications of sins, corresponding to the personifications of evils at the threshold of the Virgilian Underworld, together with a landscape of Christian purgatorial fire. Nature complains to Leviathan-Satan, who calls a council of the captains of Hell, and asserts that Alexander is planning to invade and conquer Hell itself – Leviathan has heard that it is fated that a human being will burst open and lay waste the Underworld with ‘triumphal wood’, mistaking Alexander for Christ. The personification of Treachery undertakes to engineer the fatal poisoning of the Macedonian king.11 The Renaissance tradition of infernal councils reaches a climax in the particularly complex example of the ‘great consult’ summoned by Satan in Book 2 of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Another hellishly disruptive creature in the Aeneid is the personification of Fama, ‘Rumour’, who bursts forth after the union of Dido and Aeneas in the cave in Aeneid 4 in order to propagate rumours about the sexual scandal (Fig. 2).12 Fama is a chthonic being, the daughter of Earth and sister to the Giants who fought against the Olympian gods. She is the major example in the Aeneid of an extended personification allegory. Together with the Virgilian Fury Allecto, who is herself virtually a personification of madness and frenzy (furor), Fama is a crucial model for the five major personifications in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Envy; Hunger; Sleep; Morpheus, the god of dreams; Fama).13 The Virgilio-Ovidian series of personifications spawns a vast progeny in the medieval and Renaissance tradition of personification allegory. The Houses of the Ovidian personifications are places closely related to the Virgilian Underworld, and this affinity offers further Ovidian comment on the nature of the Underworld, as well as exemplifying the frequent presence in epic of figurative or allusive underworlds.

Fig. 2. Fama in Aeneid 4, woodcut in Publii Virgilii Maronis Opera, ed. Sebastian Brant (Strassburg, 1502).

Like the door of the Virgilian Underworld, the Ovidian House of Fama ‘lies open night and day’ (Met. 12.46), a reminder that the Virgilian Underworld is a vast repository of cultural and literary ‘tradition’ (one of the meanings of the Latin word fama). This connection is picked up by Chaucer and Alexander Pope.14 In Chaucer’s House of Fame the whirling house of twigs, a conduit for all manner of news and reports, and a lower-class version of the main palace of fame, has doors open day and night, like Ovid’s House of Fame and Virgil’s Underworld. Allusions to Revelation, to the Last Judgement and to Dante’s otherworldly journey in the Divine Comedy, import Christian eschatological associations into Chaucer’s dream-vision. Queen Fame’s distribution of fame or blame to her petitioners as she sits in judgement, totally arbitrary though it is, hints at the function of the Underworld as a place for final judgements on the lives lived in this world. Pope, in his Temple of Fame, a neoclassical updating of Chaucer’s medieval poem, further develops the otherworldly associations. The Temple is set on top of a (Chaucerian) rock of ice: ‘Steep its ascent, and slippery was the way’ echoes and inverts Virgil’s facilis descensus Auerno, via Dryden’s English translation of Virgil’s Latin, ‘Smooth the descent, and easy is the Way’. The description of the Temple itself is much indebted to an infernal architectural masterpiece, Pandaemonium, the palace of the fallen angels at the end of Book 1 of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Yet another Ovidian version of the world of the dead is the House of Sleep in Metamorphoses 11, located near the land of the Cimmerians, the setting for Odysseus’ necromancy in Odyssey 11. Ovid’s House of Sleep is a place of darkness through which flows Lethe, the infernal river of ‘forgetfulness’. In answer to a request from Juno, Sleep sends Morpheus, the god of dreams, to appear to Alcyone in the likeness of her drowned husband Ceyx, a revenant from the world of the dead. Sleep and Death are already brothers in Homer.

Ovid also exploits a frequent connection between visits to the Underworld and dream-visions. The use of a narrative of a literal journey, either in the body or as disembodied soul, to the other world as a vehicle for philosophical instruction opens itself to the charge of being a poetic fiction. One defence is to frame such an experience as (just) a dream-vision, for example Cicero’s Dream of Scipio at the end of his Republic, a reworking of the Myth of Er at the end of Plato’s Republic, in which Er’s soul travels to the afterlife in an out-of-the-body experience. The Platonic and Ciceronian passages are both important models for Aeneas’ katabasis; Aeneas’ exit via the Homeric Ivory Gate of dreams is perhaps a hint that it was all just a dream, and Aeneas’ entry into the Underworld has an equally unreal quality to it. Virgil takes care not to presume too much on the credulity of his sophisticated readers. Dream-visions, a staple form of medieval narrative in particular, are often vehicles for accounts of the Underworld; Chaucer’s eschatologically coloured House of Fame is a dream-vision.

Signally missing from the Ovidian episodes reviewed so far is the philosophical and historiographical content of the Speech of Anchises in Aeneid 6. Ovid displaces this from the other world into the mouth of a living character, but one who has privileged first-hand experience of the soul’s transmigration through a series of embodiments, a doctrine of which Virgil’s Aeneas had learned from the shade of his father. The philosopher Pythagoras’ long speech in the last book of the Metamorphoses was valued in the Middle Ages and Renaissance as a poetic exposition of the secrets of natural philosophy, just as the Virgilian Underworld was prized for its revelation of the mysteries of the universe. These are not qualities high on the list of most modern readers of poetry. The Ovidian Pythagoras’ sermon on metempsychosis and the consequent need to practise vegetarianism, to avoid the risk of eating a reincarnated relative, modulates into a disquisition on the universal principle of mutability, of which the last examples are the rise and fall of cities. The latest of these cities is the nascent Rome, whose future world-rule Pythagoras remembers to have heard prophesied in a previous incarnation. As in the Speech of Anchises, Roman history forms the climax of a grand philosophico-historical package, but a doctrine of universal change can only put in question the Virgilian message that long historical process will culminate in the enduring world-rule of Rome in a new Golden Age.

Lucan, in his epic on the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, mounts a frontal assault on the Virgilian message of a pax Augusta achieved after centuries of wars foreign and civil. In another sixth book Sextus Pompey, the degenerate son of Pompey the Great, learns of the secrets of the dead not through a katabasis, but through necromancy, a variant on the Homeric Nekyia. Where Odysseus had called up the shades of the dead and given them blood to drink to enable them to speak, Lucan’s terrifying night-witch Erictho revives a body left on the battlefield and forces it to speak against its will. The dead man reports that civil war has broken out among the Roman shades (6.780), introducing the chaos of Roman history into the orderly dispositions of the traditional Underworld. Sextus Pompey is offered no vision of future world-empire, but instead is warned that he will find no safe hiding-place in any of the three continents of Europe, Africa or Asia.

Silius Italicus (c. AD 26–102) combined close imitation of the Aeneid in his epic on the war between Rome and Hannibal, the Punica, with a more direct devotion to the shade of Virgil, whose tomb near Naples he bought and venerated (see p. 9 above). Unsurprisingly, Silius pays homage to Virgil in what is the longest rewriting of Aeneas’ visit to the Underworld in any ancient Roman epic. In Punica 13 Silius’ hero, Scipio Africanus, goes to Cumae, the site of Aeneas’ previous descent, to ask the current Sibyl of Cumae to allow him to call up the ghosts of his father and uncle, recently killed in battle. Contact with the other world is established through the Homeric method of giving sacrificial blood to the ghosts, since a literal katabasis would be out of place in a historical epic. Intertextuality manifests itself in ghostly presences:15 the first shade to drink the blood and to be given back her voice is that of the Sibyl who accompanied Aeneas to the Underworld. Scipio is presented with a pageant of great men in Roman history, past and future. He also encounters two famous Greeks: firstly, Alexander the Great, whose glorious career is a stimulus to Scipio’s own achievement, as, allusively, it had been a model for Anchises’ praise of the unborn Augustus in the Virgilian Parade of Heroes;16 and secondly Homer, the author of the first heroic visit to the Underworld, and the source of the whole Greek and Roman epic tradition, which is thus safely stored in nuce within the Silian Underworld. Scipio, repeating the famous wish expressed by Alexander the Great at the tomb of Achilles that he too might have a Homer to celebrate his deeds, wishes that the fates might allow Homer to praise the deeds of the Romans. That wish has in a sense come true between the lifetimes of Scipio and Silius: the ‘Roman Homer’, Virgil, had written the great national Roman epic. Scipio’s own sense of unfulfilled potential is reinforced by dense verbal echoes in the lines on Homer of the episode of the younger Marcellus at the end of Aeneid 6.17 More generally that sense of loss may be felt to colour the relationship of an epigonal poet to a great predecessor, of a Silius to a Virgil, who can only ever be present in the ghostly form of his text.

Both the wish for a second Homer and the impossible yearning for contact with the great poet of the past feature in Petrarch’s Latin epic poem on the second Punic War, the Africa, left unfinished at Petrarch’s death in 1374.18 The hero of this epic is again Scipio Africanus, Petrarch’s ideal of classical pagan virtue. Ironically Petrarch was thwarted of any contact with Silius Italicus’ epic on the same subject by the brute fact that Silius’ Punica was only rediscovered by the humanist book-hunter Poggio Bracciolini in 1417, although knowledge of the Punica might have deterred Petrarch from his own project. In the last book of the Africa Scipio returns in triumph to Rome from his victory over Hannibal in Africa, accompanied by the epic poet Ennius, who modestly regrets that Scipio, like Alexander the Great, does not have a Homer to celebrate his deeds. Ennius then recounts a dream in which the shade of Homer appeared to him, ragged, with unkempt beard, and with empty eye-sockets. This reconstruction of the Ennian Dream of Homer at the beginning of the Annals is full of other literary ghosts, alluding as it does to several Virgilian apparitions, including Aeneas’ dream of the mutilated ghost of Hector on the night of the sack of Troy in Aeneid 2, and also to Dante’s meeting with the shade of Virgil in the first canto of Inferno.19 As Petrarch converses with Homer in his dream he catches sight of a young man sitting apart in an enclosed vale (9.216 clausa sub ualle), which is both a version of the sequestered vale (Aen. 6.703 in ualle reducta) in the Elysian Fields where Aeneas sees the souls of the unborn, and Petrarch’s own Provençal valley of poetry, Vaucluse. The words exchanged between Petrarch and Homer on the subject of this young man carry multiple echoes of the exchange between Aeneas and Anchises on the subject of the younger Marcellus in Aeneid 6. It turns out that the young man is none other than Petrarch himself, whose Africa will celebrate the deeds of Scipio. Ennius is eager to converse with his poetic rival from the distant future, but is prevented when the morning trumpet in Scipio’s camp wakes him from the dream. The pathos overlaid on the frustrated encounter by the echoes of Virgil’s Marcellus reflects in part the possibility that Petrarch may not be able to realize his own potential in his literary aspirations, in part the impossibility of that full encounter in person between Petrarch and the great dead authors of the ancient world.

Petrarch’s project of reviving the classical past is often conducted in the mode of necromancy.20 Dreams and the Underworld provide spaces in which the living and the dead can meet. One of Petrarch’s most popular works in the Renaissance was the Trionfi, the successive ‘Triumphs’ of Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time and Eternity, with pageants of famous people from the past. In form the Trionfi are another dream-vision, in which the dreamer comes into the presence of the dead, and the characters who pass in procession constitute an encyclopedic review of a largely classical tradition in a Dantesque setting. Petrarch also attempts to establish contact with those long dead in a series of letters to great writers of the classical past, including a verse epistle ‘To Virgil the heroic [i.e. epic] poet and the first poet of the Latins’ (Fam. 24.11). In his letter Petrarch imagines Virgil in an Underworld that combines allusion to the Elysian Fields in Aeneid 6, where Aeneas encounters the mythical poets Orpheus and Musaeus, with allusion to the first circle of Inferno where Dante finds the great poets of pagan antiquity.21

The intensity of the desire to be reunited with a dead loved one conveyed by Virgil in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in Georgics 4 is replicated in Aeneid 6 both in the emotional reunion of Aeneas with the shade of his father, and in the book’s concluding lament for the younger Marcellus. Elsewhere Virgil evokes the uncanny power of the revenant in the unsettling confusion of the living with the dead Hector on the part of Aeneas in his reaction to his dream of Hector on the night of the sack of Troy (Aeneid2.270–86), and in Andromache’s initial inability to decide whether Aeneas is alive or a ghost when he comes to Buthrotum in Aeneid 3 (306–12). Passages like these prompt a necromantic and visionary strain both in the reception of Virgil’s poetry, for example the visions of dead Trojan heroes who appear to Aeneas in Act V of Berlioz’ opera Les Troyens to order him to leave Carthage, and in the medieval legends about Virgil the magician and necromancer.22 Virgil himself has a way of coming back, or almost, from the dead. In a development of the legend that St Paul visited Virgil’s grave at Naples, and wept that he was too late to have converted the living poet to Christianity, the thirteenth-century Gautier de Metz relates Paul’s grief on arriving at Rome to find that Virgil had just died, too late to be converted. ‘Ah, if I had found you, I would have given you to God!’ Paul discovers the subterranean chamber in which Virgil has been buried, and sees him seated between two lighted tapers surrounded by books thrown in confusion, with a lamp hanging above him and before him an archer with a drawn bow. The archer’s arrow flies against the lamp and everything falls into dust.23

The sixth-century Fulgentius presents his Exposition of the Content of Virgil as the revelation to the author of the mysteries of the Aeneid by the stern ghost of Virgil himself. In one of a number of stories of dreaming about Virgil, St Hugo, Abbot of Cluny, saw a host of snakes and wild animals lying beneath his head; on shaking his pillow he found a copy of Virgil beneath it. The ninth-century Ermenrich of Ellwangen writes to the Abbot of St Gall telling of a terrifying night vision. Laying down his head after reading Virgil he was visited by a horrible dark monster, carrying sometimes a book and sometimes a pen at his ear, as if about to write, and laughing at Ermenrich, or mocking him for reading his words.24 The eleventh-century Wilgard was visited at night by three devils in the shapes of Virgil, Horace and Juvenal.25 And if Petrarch was in the habit of writing letters to dead poets, a twentieth-century classicist, the South African Theodore Haarhoff, used spirit-writing and mediums to communicate with the dead Virgil, and put questions to him from the Virgilian scholar W.F. Jackson Knight concerning the interpretation of the text, as Jackson Knight prepared his Penguin translation of the Aeneid.26

To return to Petrarch: Ennius’ dream in Book 9 of the Africa is only a part of the poem’s response to the Virgilian Underworld, of which Petrarch, like Ovid, makes multiple copies. A survey of Roman history, past and future, is supplied to Scipio by his father in a dream, which, in a very unclassical management of the epic narrative, takes up the whole of the first two books of the poem, reworking both the Ciceronian Dream of Scipio and the Parade of Heroes shown to Aeneas by Anchises in a scene already indebted to the Ciceronian Dream. Petrarch’s Scipio breaks off in the middle of his encomiastic survey of Roman history to deliver a full-blown sermon on the vanity of the ambition and achievements of this world. The seed of this is the elder Scipio’s lesson to Africanus, in the Ciceronian Dream, of the insignificance of Roman glory within the longer temporal and spatial perspectives of the afterlife, but Petrarch develops this with the vanity topics of late antiquity and the Middle Ages, together with a nod to the Ovidian Pythagoras’ doctrine of universal mutability. Qualification of praise, pessimism, even, are aspects of the Virgilian Parade of Heroes that recent criticism has sought to highlight. An aversion to imperialisms and a distaste for panegyric are factors that favour this modern turn in Virgilian criticism; Petrarch’s leavening of panegyrical history with vanity topics has more to do with religious motives, and can also be seen as an expression of the famous Petrarchan ‘dissidio’, his inner division between the values of this world, values framed by Petrarch in largely classical terms, and the Christian values of the next world.

Finally, Petrarch gives us the full mythological version of the Underworld when Sophonisba, the African queen who has committed suicide for love like Dido, descends to confront the judges of the dead at the beginning of Africa 6. They send her to the Virgilian ‘Fields of Mourning’, the proper place for those who have died for love, and which, since the time that Aeneas met Dido there, has also received Turnus, grieving for the wife who was snatched from him, Lavinia (Africa 6.64).

Virgil, like Homer, was regarded as a source of profound scientific and philosophical wisdom, and the mysteries of Aeneid 6 were the greatest proof of Virgilian profundity. We have seen how Ovid comments on the philosophical content of the first part of the Speech of Anchises by putting an imitation in the mouth of an actual philosopher, Pythagoras. The late-antique commentator Servius writes of Aeneid 6: ‘All of Virgil is full of learning, but in this respect this book, the greater part of which is taken from Homer, claims first place. Some things in it are simple narrative, but much is taken from history, and much shows a deep knowledge of the philosophers, the theologians, and the wisdom of Egypt, with the result that many have written whole treatises on individual topics in this book.’ Bernardus Silvestris in the twelfth century says of Aeneid 6 that ‘Virgil reveals philosophical truth more profoundly in this book.’ Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance a vast amount of exegetical energy was expended on Aeneid 6, often applying an allegorical interpretation in order to extract philosophical and theological truths.27 Virgil, we have seen, hedges his bets as to the reality of Aeneas’ descent to the Underworld. The line of least resistance was to say that the narrative of katabasis is an allegory of non-literal kinds of descent. The idea that the legendary punishments of sinners in the Underworld are really figures for the self-inflicted torments of the vices of greed, ambition, lust, etc. in this world goes back to Plato (in the Gorgias) and to Lucretius, who as an Epicurean materialist denies the survival of the soul after death, and allegorizes the mythological punishments in his diatribe against the fear of death in Book 3 of On the Nature of Things.

Macrobius’ early fifth-century commentary on the Ciceronian Dream of Scipio is a treatise whose reception is tied closely to that of the Virgilian Underworld. In it Macrobius distinguishes another way in which this life may be said to be a kind of death, through the Platonic doctrine of the descent of the soul into a lower part of the universe when it enters the ‘tomb’ of a human body in the life of this world. A fully developed typology of descent emerges in the twelfth century: Bernardus Silvestris distinguishes four types: 1. ‘The descent of nature’, the ‘entombment’ of the soul in a natural body. 2. ‘The descent of virtue’, the wise man’s consideration of worldly matters in order to turn more effectively to the invisible world. This was the descent of Orpheus and Hercules. 3. ‘The descent of vice’, the irreversible immersion in the vices of this world. 4. ‘The artificial descent’, the use of necromancy to consult demons.28 Versions of this are found in the preface to the commentary on the Divine Comedy by Dante’s son Pietro Alighieri; in the mythological handbook On the Labours of Hercules by the early Florentine humanist Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406), the whole of whose fourth book is devoted to a discussion of the descent to the Underworld; and in the allegorization of the first six books of theAeneid in the Camaldulensian Disputations (c. 1473), a dialogue written by Cristoforo Landino, the major Florentine commentator on classical texts and Dante of the second half of the fifteenth century.29 Landino adds a fifth kind of descent to Bernardus’ four, the Christian descent to Hell of the souls of the damned, but this is not a descent that can be read into pagan narratives of heroes who go to the land of the dead and then return. For Landino, Aeneas’ descent is that of reason to contemplate evil and vice, Bernardo’s ‘descent of virtue’. Landino’s interpretation of Virgil may already have been partly shaped by his interests as a reader of Dante.

In later antiquity Virgil’s Underworld drew the attention of Christian readers, as well as of pagan readers with philosophical interests.30 The story is one of correction and accommodation, the latter encouraged by the affinities between Christian teaching and Neoplatonism, the dominant philosophical school of late antiquity: the Speech of Anchises contains clear Platonic elements, and the possibility has been raised of a lost Neoplatonic Virgilian commentary.31 Christianity shares with Platonism an ascetic teaching about the relationship between body and soul, although Anchises’ Pythagorean-Platonic doctrine of reincarnation was clearly unacceptable to Christian readers. The account of the elemental purgation of the souls at Aeneid 6.735–43 is the text for Augustine’s engagement in The City of God on the subject of purgatorial punishments with the Platonists (21.13), against whom Augustine asserts the Christian doctrine of eternal punishments after the Last Judgement while allowing for the possibility in this life and the next of purgatorial punishment.32 Sir John Harington in the preface to his translation of Aeneid 6 presented to King James and his son Prince Henry in 1604 notes the ‘affinity’ between Virgil’s expiation through fire and the ‘popish’ doctrine of purgatory. In Shakespeare’sMeasure for Measure Claudio shrinks from death because he cannot bear (3.1.133–7) ‘To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside | In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice; | To be imprison’d in the viewless winds | And blown with restless violence about | The pendant world.’ This echoes the elemental purgation by wind, water and fire described by Anchises.

The Church Father Lactantius (c. 240–c. 320) discerns glimmers of the Christian truth in Virgil’s Underworld. He says that the poet’s request in his invocation to the gods of the Underworld that he ‘may be allowed to speak of what he has heard’ (Aen. 6.266) shows that ‘the pagan poets did not know the mystery of the divine sacrament, and a hint of the resurrection to come had reached them only through dark rumours; what they had heard of casually and by chance they presented by way of a fictitious tale’ (Divine Institutes 7.22). Like others, Lactantius saw in Anchises’ impressive opening description of a spirit and a mind pervading and animating the universe (Aen. 6.724–7) an inkling of the truth of the Christian God or Holy Spirit (Divine Institutes 1.5.11). Virgil’s description of the beautiful landscape (locus amoenus) of the Elysian Fields (Aen. 6.637 ff.) was easily adapted by Christian poets to the biblical paradise.

In the following sections I turn the spotlight on two writers in whose works the Virgilian Underworld, and its post-Virgilian reception, play a major role, Dante and Milton.


The great German commentator on Aeneid 6 Eduard Norden discusses the place of the Virgilian katabasis within the longer history of apocalyptic literature from the sixth century BC to Dante, and concludes that Virgil had very little influence on the late-antique and medieval tradition of apocalyptic visions prior to Dante.33 The Divine Comedy is thus a key moment both in the history of Italian literature and in the reception of Virgil in Christian literature of the west.34

The detachable nature of the Virgilian katabasis is fully realized by Dante in a full-scale ‘epic’ that consists entirely in a journey through the afterlife, a journey that is also a panorama of all aspects of human life in this world. Dante chooses Virgil as his guide in acknowledgement of the supreme classical model for an encyclopedic epic, and as the literary model for Dante’s own ‘bello stilo’ (Inferno 1.82–7). The epic Underworld is a repository of tradition, and a place where the new poet meets his predecessors and takes on their mantle. Dante goes further than any other poet in exploiting this aspect of the classical Underworld, as the poet whom he acknowledges as ‘my master and my author’ (Inf. 1.85 ‘lo mio maestro e ’l mio autore’) becomes his personal guide through Inferno and Purgatory (Fig. 3).

There are multiple instances of succession. Just as Virgil’s Sibyl hands over authority to Anchises for the prophecy of future Roman history, Dante’s Virgil, allegorized as natural Reason in the commentary tradition, hands over to Beatrice, standing for Grace, authority for the vision of those granted entry to Paradise by the Christian dispensation. But just as Aeneas takes over from Anchises the role of father of the Romans, and, correspondingly, Virgil, in the figure of Aeneas, takes over from ‘father Ennius’ as the poet of the national Roman epic, so Dante the voyager takes on an Aeneas-role that supersedes the role of the Virgilian Aeneas. Dante’s protest at Inferno 2.32 ‘I am not Aeneas, I am not Paul’ masks the fact that Dante the man is cast in the role of a traveller whose pilgrimage far outdoes Aeneas’ journey to a promised land, while Dante the poet takes over from Virgil as the poet of the Christian epic that supersedes the Aeneid, an epic of a this-worldly Roman imperialism. Virgil finally acknowledges Dante’s superiority atPurgatorio 27.139–42: ‘Await no further word or sign from me: your will is free, whole and erect, and to act against that will would be to err: therefore I crown and mitre you over yourself.’

Fig. 3. Meeting of Dante and Virgil. Tapestry after design by Francesco Salviati.

The limitation of the Virgilian vision is registered in the fact that a version of the Elysian Fields of Aeneid 6 is encountered right at the beginning of the Divine Comedy, rather than at the end, in the Limbo of Inferno 4, which is where Dante is accepted as the sixth in the company of Virgil (‘the most exalted poet’), Homer, Ovid, Horace and Lucan. We shall enter superior versions of the Elysian Fields in Purgatorio, in the Valley of the Princes (Purg. 7–8) and the Earthly Paradise (Purg. 28–33). Statius, one of the ancient epic successors of Virgil, appears in the Comedy as a forerunner of Dante, fired by a love for the Aeneid (Purg. 21.94–9) comparable to Dante’s ‘great love’ for Virgil (Inf. 1.83). In what appears to be Dante’s invention, Statius tells how he was first converted from the vice of avarice by Aeneas’ exclamation at the power of ‘the cursed hunger for gold’, on learning of the murder of Priam’s son Polydorus (Aen. 3.56–7; Purg. 22.40–1), and then converted to Christianity by the ‘Messianic’ fourth Eclogue. In a simile (Purg. 22.67–9) Statius compares Virgil to one who carries a lamp behind him, shedding no light for himself, but instructing those who follow after. Dante is one of those who can see the potential for Christian truth in Virgil’s poetry, hidden to Virgil himself.

One of the most intensely Virgilian passages in the Comedy occurs at the point where Virgil ceases to be Dante’s guide. At the end of Purgatorio Dante has his first sight of Beatrice, riding in a triumphal chariot. The angels accompanying the chariot combine biblical and Virgilian citations. They call out Benedictus qui venis, ‘blessed art thou that cometh’ (Purg. 30.19), the salutation to Jesus as he entered Jerusalem; and they scatter flowers with the words with which Anchises calls for a floral tribute to the doomed younger Marcellus at Aeneid 6.883 manibus date lilia plenis ‘give lilies in handfuls’ (Purg. 30.21). But where Anchises laments untimely loss, Dante celebrates the restoration of the full presence of his beloved Beatrice. At the appearance of Beatrice herself the stunned Dante turns to Virgil and says ‘Conosco i segni dell’antica flamma’ ‘I recognize the signs of the old flame’, translating the words with which Dido confesses to her sister Anna that her feelings for Aeneas have awakened the desire she thought had died with her first husband, Aen. 4.23 agnosco ueteris uestigia flammae. This is also an intertextual ‘recognition’ of the ‘signs’ of Virgil’s epic. But Virgil himself is no longer there to respond (30.49–51):

Ma Virgilio n’avea lasciati scemi

Di sè, Virgilio dolcissimo padre,

Virgilio a cui per mia salute dièmi.

But Virgil had left us bereft of him, Virgil the sweetest father, Virgil to whom I gave myself for my salvation.

The threefold repetition of Virgil’s name echoes the threefold repetition of the name Eurydice on the dying lips of Orpheus after his head has been torn from his shoulders by the maenads at Georgics 4.525–7. Dante is poised between an acute Virgilian moment of loss, and an un-Virgilian future of restored and redeemed love. On the one hand he is losing his poetic ‘father’, although the father’s poetry will continue to live, not least in the poetry of Dante, a poet who will not suffer the fate of Orpheus. On the other hand Beatrice is restored to Dante, reversing the Virgilian plots of both Orpheus and Eurydice and of Dido and Aeneas, which end without comfort. When Aeneas sees Dido for the last time in the Underworld she will not speak to him; Beatrice does speak, and using Dante’s name for the first and the last time in the Divine Comedy tells him not to weep.35

Dante’s compelling rewriting of Virgil ensures that in the later reception the Virgilian Underworld is often mediated through, or combined with, the Dantean. This is already the case in the eschatological visions in Petrarch’s Trionfi and Africa. In the Carlias, a Virgilianizing Latin epic on Charlemagne by Ugolino Verino (1438–1516), a pupil of Landino, the hero’s journey to the afterlife, spread over three books, proceeds through a Hell and a Purgatory closely modelled on Dante’s.36 Tennyson’s ‘To Virgil’ (see Chapter 1, p. 15) comes close to being a necromantic evocation of the dead poet. Virgil himself has become a poetic talisman, a Golden Bough that continues to gleam when parades of earthly power such as that which passes before Aeneas in Aeneid 6 have returned to the shadows: ‘Golden branch amid the shadows, | Kings and realms that pass to rise no more.’ The last stanza begins ‘I salute thee, Mantovano’, alluding to the words with which another poet, the thirteenth-century troubadour from Mantua, Sordello, salutes the shade of Virgil when the latter mentions his home town at Purgatorio 6.74–5: ‘O mantovano, io son Sordello | Della tua terra.’37 Tennyson hints that he and Virgil share a poetic citizenship, for all that by birth he comes from a country far away (the end of the previous stanza), ‘I, from out the Northern Island | Sundered once from all the human race’, an alienness expressed through further Virgilian allusion, to the description of Britain as a prospective place of exile at Eclogue 1.66 et penitus toto diuisos orbe Britannos ‘the Britons utterly separated from the whole world’, a line that early modern English writers delighted to play with (see Chapter 5, pp. 105–7).

The superimposition of Virgil on Dante continues in modern poetry,38 and was given a major boost by T.S. Eliot’s self-positioning within a tradition whose major landmarks include Virgil and Dante: both are strong presences in The Waste Land.39 In ‘The Bottle Garden’ the Irish poet Eavan Boland (b. 1944) is prompted by the otherworldly quality of greenery growing in a glass globe, where ‘The sun is in the bottle garden, | submarine, out of its element’ (compare Virgil’s Elysian Fields, which have ‘their own sun and stars’, Aen. 6.641), to a moment of Dantean introspection: ‘And in my late thirties, past the middle way, | I can say how did I get here?’ Retracing the path of her life so far takes her back to herself as a schoolgirl in the convent library, ‘reading the Aeneid as the room darkens | to the underworld of the Sixth book’.


Paradise Lost is framed by pairs of books that each relate to Virgilian uses of the Underworld. Books 1 and 2 record the original creation of the Underworld, in the form of the Hell which receives the fallen angels, and then use the Underworld as the source of the Hellish energy that motivates the human plot. Satan journeys from Hell to invade the pastoral-georgic idyll of Paradise and engineer the tragedy of the Fall of Man (9.5–6 ‘I now must change | These notes to tragic’), just as in Aeneid 7 the Hellish Allecto, a Fury at home in the world of Greek tragedy, invades the rustic tranquillity of primitive Italy to provoke all-out war between two peoples who should be at peace. Satan’s ascent to this world is preceded by the very first, and one of the grandest, of all Infernal Councils.

At the entrance to the Underworld in Aeneid 6 Aeneas encounters personifications, including Death, and monsters, including Scyllas. When Satan reaches the Gates of Hell on his ascent (Paradise Lost 2.643 ff.) he encounters two monsters who are also personifications, Sin and Death. Sin has metamorphosed into the shape of the classical Scylla, ‘Woman to the waist, and fair, | But ended foul in many a scaly fold’ (2.650–1). Death’s shapeless and shadowy person embodies, if that is the right word, the empty unreality of the shadow-world through which Aeneas passes on his way to meet the persons from his past who once had a very solid reality. In a moment of infernal comedy Aeneas draws his sword to attack the terrifying phantom monsters, and has to be warned by the Sibyl of the futility of striking at shadows. In a passage of tremendous sublimity, that might have had momentous consequences, Milton’s Satan and Death take their stand against each other, and have to be separated by Sin, who tells them that they are father and son.

On his further ascent it takes Satan no little labour to battle his way through chaos to the world above. But the reverse journey, from our world to Hell, will become a facilis descensus ‘easy descent’ after the Fall, when Sin and Death build a bridge over the abyss from Hell to ‘this now fenceless world | forfeit to death; from hence a passage broad, | Smooth, easy, inoffensive down to Hell’ (10.303–5). In this new order of things the bridge also provides a path for ‘all th’ infernal host, | Easing their passage hence’ (259–60). The bridge over ‘the foaming deep’ and an indignant Chaos is a calming of the storm as if by a devilish Neptune (293–5): ‘The aggregated soil | Death with his mace petrific, cold and dry, | As with a trident smote, and fixed as firm | As Delos floating once.’ This is also a mastering by Hell of the storm-forces that had blasted Lucifer from Heaven as if he were a thunderbolt hurled by omnipotent Jupiter, to lie ‘vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf’ (1.52). ‘Him the almighty power | Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky’ combines the classical image of the thunderbolt hurled by almighty (omnipotens) Jupiter with biblical allusion, Luke 10:18 ‘I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven.’

The ‘floods and whirlwinds of tempestuous fire’ that overwhelm Satan and his companions at the start of Paradise Lost (1.77) are a narrative analogue to the storm at the beginning of the Aeneid. At the beginning of the first half of Virgil’s epic Aeolus, the king of the winds, unleashes the storm-winds from a figurative Underworld, as if he were unchaining Titans or Giants to assault the gods above, in a scene which closely foreshadows Juno’s unleashing of the infernal Fury Allecto at the beginning of the second half of theAeneid. At the start of Paradise Lost, in an inversion of the Virgilian model, it is the Gigantomachic Lucifer who takes the place of the storm-tossed hero Aeneas, sorely assailed by God’s firestorm, preparing the reader for Satan’s assumption of the Odyssean role of wandering hero that is taken on by Aeneas in the first half of the Aeneid.

If the ascent from Hell is easier for Satan and his infernal crew after the Fall, the re-ascent from the figurative Hell into which Adam and Eve have fallen will be much harder. Satan thinks to have achieved world-wide monarchy through his victory over Adam and Eve, and a detail of the description of the bridge between Hell and Earth points to the very last scene of the images of Augustan world-empire in the pageant of Roman history represented on the Shield of Aeneas in Aeneid 8. ‘Disparted Chaos overbuilt exclaimed, | And with rebounding surge the bars assailed, | That scorned his indignation’ (Paradise Lost 10.416–18). The last triumphal image placed on the Shield of Aeneas by Vulcan (and in a Miltonic context we might remember that Vulcan is also the architect of Pandaemonium) is, ‘the Araxes indignant at being bridged’(Aen. 8.728 pontem indignatus Araxes), a symbol of Augustus’ extension of his empire to the ends of the earth. The Shield of Aeneas at the end of Aeneid 8 forms a pendant to the Parade of Heroes at the end of Aeneid 6, and the two together are a statement of the providential view of Roman history, culminating in Augustus.

Of the two passages, it is the Parade of Heroes that is the main Virgilian model for the vision of universal history granted to Adam, as consolation for the expulsion from Eden, in the last two books of Paradise Lost. The mound, tumulus, like a reviewing-stand on a parade ground, from which Anchises shows Aeneas the souls of unborn Roman heroes, has become ‘a hill | Of Paradise the highest’ (11.377–8) with a view over the whole hemisphere of earth, as high as the hill on which ‘the Tempter set | Our second Adam in the wilderness, | To show him all earth’s kingdoms and their glory’ (382–4) – for which we might also read the show of earthly, Roman, glory laid before Aeneas in the Parade of Heroes and on the Shield of Aeneas. The first visions, of Cain and Abel and of a catalogue of diseases, prompt Adam to question the point of life, ‘Why is life giv’n | To be thus wrested from us? Rather why | Obtruded on us thus?’ (502–4). This is a variant of Aeneas’ incomprehension at the desire of the souls in the Underworld to re-enter bodies in new lives in this world: ‘What terrible desire for the light afflicts these poor things?’ (Aen. 6.721). The vision and prophecy of biblical history given to Adam by Michael is not so much a parade of heroes as a series of tableaux of sinners and saints, but it ends in a triumph greater than the triple triumph of Augustus: ‘Then to the heaven of heavens he shall ascend | With victory, triumphing through the air | Over his foes and thine’ (12.451–3). This is an ‘empire without end’ (Aen. 1.279 imperium sine fine) of which Milton can speak more confidently than Virgil, empowered as he is by biblical prophecy to look forward beyond his own times to a true end of history, to ‘New heavens, new earth, ages of endless date’ (12.549).

Virgil’s Underworld and modernity

Modern Underworlds continue to be places where writers confront literary tradition. They are also places of interior, personal exploration, but what awaits discovery within are not so much absolute moral and spiritual truths as darker secrets of the psyche.40Freud noted that ‘Psychoanalysis may be said to have been born with the twentieth century; for the publication in which it emerged before the world as something new – my Interpretation of Dreams – bears the date “1900”.’41 At the threshold of his new science Freud places, as epigraph, the Virgilian quote flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta mouebo (Aen. 7.312), Juno’s resolution that if she ‘cannot bend the gods above [to further her opposition to the Trojans], I will rouse the Underworld’. Freud will open the lid on the repressed thoughts and desires buried in the psyche. The Jewish Freud may also have felt a sympathy with Juno as goddess of the Semitic Dido and Hannibal: Hannibal was a boyhood hero of his. This is not the only Virgilian liminal moment in Freud: near the beginning The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901) Freud cites as an example of a suppressed memory the faulty quotation, by a fellow-Jew met while travelling, of a famous line from Dido’s curse that conjures up another return from the dead, exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor ‘may some avenger arise from my bones’ (Aen. 4.625; the ‘avenger’ will be Hannibal). Freud’s friend omits the aliquis, and through a chain of punning associations on ‘liquid’, ‘liquefaction’, ‘reliques’, he is led by Freud to think of the liquefaction of St Januarius’ blood, and so to the cause of the ‘forgetting’, an anxiety that he might hear that a woman he had met in Naples had missed her period. Pouring cold water on Freud’s depth psychology, the Italian philologist Sebastiano Timpanaro pointed out that there is a linguistic reason why Freud’s friend might omit aliquis: Virgil anomalously, but deliberately, juxtaposes the third-person pronoun ‘someone’ with a second-person verb, exoriare ‘may you arise’, as Dido appeals across the centuries to an unborn avenger who does not yet have an identity.42

Katabasis in the form of dream leads to self-discovery and the modification of a planned future in Michel Butor’s nouveau roman, La Modification (1957).43 The novel narrates the thoughts and memories of Léon Delmont, Parisian sales-representative of a typewriter firm in Rome, in the course of a train journey from Paris to Rome undertaken with the intention of announcing to his girlfriend in Rome, Cécile, that he will finally leave his Parisian wife, Henriette, and bring Cécile back to Paris. In what is planned as a self-imposed exile from his family, Rome and his Roman girlfriend stand for the dream of a new life. But during the journey Delmont comes to realize that to bring Cécile to Paris would not lead to a new life, but rather turn their relationship into a repetition of the disillusionment and failure that has brought about his alienation from his wife. The climax of this narrative of interiority is a dream sequence that confirms him in this realization.

A number of apparently incidental references to the Aeneid and to the Underworld cue the reader for the Virgilian subtext. At one point Delmont recalls listening at home to Monteverdi’s Orfeo on the radio, and taking the Budé edition of the Aeneid from his shelves and opening it at Book 6. On the train he invents names and lives for the strangers in his compartment; an elderly couple turn into the prophet Zacharias and the Sibyl. In his dream the Virgilian Sibyl tells him that there is no golden bough for those who are strangers to their desires. Instead of meeting his own father in his dream, he sees a papal procession, and the Holy Father asks him why he pretends to love Rome, when the Pope is ‘the phantom of the emperors, who has for centuries haunted the capital of their world, now destroyed and the object of regret’. The extension of the Virgilian Parade of Heroes into the line of the Christian leaders of Rome collapses the opposition between pagan Rome, identified with Cécile (who has an aversion to visiting Catholic monuments in Rome), and Catholic Rome, identified with the religious Henriette. The opposition between Paris, as point of departure, and Rome, as destination, is also undermined throughout the novel, and the Virgilian teleology is further subverted as Delmont reflects, at the end, that the age when the world had a centre is past: that centre has been displaced from Rome to Byzantium, and later to imperial Paris. And in our age ‘the memory of the Empire, so powerful for so many centuries on all European dreams, is now an inadequate figure to chart the future of this world, which has become for all of us much vaster and organized in quite other ways’.

Like the Aeneid, La Modification is dense with literary and cultural reference, and, as in the Aeneid, personal and cultural memories are closely intertwined. The novel’s combination of a slice of everyday life with legendary patterns puts it in the line of descent from Joyce’s Ulysses, of which Butor himself notes: ‘In one day in Dublin it is possible to rediscover the whole of the Odyssey. In the midst of the alien contemporary world are reincarnated the ancient myths, and the relationships expressed in them remain universal and eternal.’44

In the Underworld of Aeneid 6 Virgil reviews the literary traditions that go into the making of his own poem. The final end of La Modification, once Delmont abandons his plan to revolutionize his personal life, is his realization that he will write a book about his experiences, this book that we are reading, the book that he had bought in the station at Paris but left unread during the journey, using it only to keep his place in the compartment. The dream-katabasis takes us to the places in the unconscious from which the modern novelist draws his material.

The Virgilian Underworld is also a reservoir of tradition and a source of poetic making for Seamus Heaney, who in the course of his career made much use of the Eclogues and Georgics, as well as the Aeneid. Continuing the tradition of Tennyson and T.S. Eliot of combining Virgil and Dante, Seeing Things (1991) is framed by translations from the Aeneid and the Divine Comedy, opening with ‘The Golden Bough’, Aeneas’ request to the Sibyl to journey to the Underworld and the Sibyl’s instruction to find the Golden Bough (Aen. 6.98–148) (Fig. 4); and concluding with ‘The Crossing’, Dante’s and Virgil’s encounter with Charon, ferryman of the Styx (Inferno 3.82–129). Within this frame the first poem, ‘The Journey Back’, is a meeting with a modern dead poet: ‘Larkin’s shade surprised me. He quoted Dante.’ Larkin’s shade quotes a translation of the opening of Inferno 2, the proem to Dante’s journey through Inferno, as Larkin himself sets out on what ‘felt more like the forewarned journey back | Into the heartland of the ordinary’, and concludes by describing himself as ‘A nine-to-five man who had seen poetry’.

Fig. 4. Aeneas plucks the Golden Bough. Engraving after drawing by Franz Cleyn, in The Works of Publius Virgilius Maro, translated by John Ogilby (London, 1654).

For Heaney too translation is not just a linguistic act, but the transferral of the otherworldly experiences of Virgil and Dante into the poet’s own present day, domesticating the visionary poetry of the past but at the same time giving a visionary quality to the ordinary. ‘The Riverbank Field’ in Human Chain (2010) starts with the description of the Elysian Fields in Aeneid 6, in the translation of the Loeb Library of parallel Latin and English texts, as Heaney sets out to ‘confound the [classical] Lethe in [the Northern Irish] Moyola’. A string of local place-names engineers the translation of Virgil’s otherworldly domos placidas into ‘“those peaceful homes” | Of Upper Broagh’. Topographical metamorphosis is matched by Heaney’s own retranslation of the Loeb version of Anchises’ account of the disembodied soul’s ‘longing to dwell in flesh and blood’, to be reborn in this world, after drinking of Lethe: ‘“In my own words”’, as Heaney had often been told to translate at school.

In the Underworld Aeneas journeys through his personal past, as well as through the traditions of Greece and Rome. ‘The Golden Bough’ translation that opens Seeing Things includes the line in which Aeneas ‘pray[s] for one look, one face-to-face meeting with my dear father’. Later in the collection Heaney re-encounters his own father in ‘Man and Boy’, playing with time in a manner that might be Virgilian as he slips from memories of himself as a child with his father, to a vignette of his father as a child running through the fields ‘On the afternoon of his own father’s death’. ‘I feel his legs and quick heels far away | And strange as my own – when he will piggyback me | At a great height, light-headed and thin-boned, | Like a witless elder rescued from the fire.’ This is a striking inversion of the group of Aeneas carrying his father from burning Troy, but through the poem the grown-up Heaney-fils also rescues from oblivion an intimate image of his father as a child.

In Human Chain ‘The Riverbank Field’ is followed by a tour-de-force translation of Aeneas’ journey through the Underworld into Heaney’s journey through his own past and future, in ‘Route 110’.45 In the first of 12 poems of 12 lines each, the narrator buys ‘a used copy of Aeneid VI’ in a secondhand bookshop from an assistant, whom we may think of as the Sibyl. ‘Dustbreath bestirred in the cubicle mouth | I inhaled as she slid my purchase | Into a deckle-edged brown paper bag.’ The dusty book is also the source of the breath of inspiration, as the poet will put the used book to new uses in what follows. Again the Virgilian infernal topography is cunningly mapped on to places and occasions in Heaney’s Northern Ireland, and the Golden Bough, Virgil’s vegetable metal, becomes an ornamental jam-pot of stalks of oats which have been wrapped in silver foil. Palinurus is a neighbour’s son who drowned in the Bristol Channel, and the mangled Deiphobus turns into those who met violent deaths in the Troubles. In the past Heaney, like Aeneas, has abandoned a Dido, last seen as a face ‘At the dormer window, her hurt still new’, as he drives away. But the sequence ends with ‘the age of births’, an upbeat look to the future, as ‘fresh-plucked flowers’ are brought not for the funeral of a young Marcellus, but for the birth of a granddaughter, ‘Whose long wait on the shaded bank has ended’. The narrator ‘arrive[s] with my bunch of stalks and silvered heads’, the Golden Bough that has led him through memories of sadness and loss to hope and joy.

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