Sunday, May 23, 2010

Exoriare Aliquis Ultor

If there is one book of the Aeneid which best exemplifies the great power and pathos of Virgil's masterwork, it is probably Book 4, the tragedy-within-an-epic which sees Dido, queen of the nascent city of Carthage, abandoned by Aeneas after she has fallen hopelessly in love with him.

The book contains numerous memorable episodes, including Dido's heartfelt confession of her love to her loyal sister Anna, the "secret marriage" of Aeneas and Dido in a cave during a storm, Aeneas's cold, almost politician-like defence of his conduct once Dido learns of his imminent departure, and finally Dido's fiery imprecation of doom on Aeneas's descendants. It is in this final passage that perhaps my all-time favourite line of Latin poetry can be found: exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor. "May you arise from my bones, you unknown avenger." Dido speaking to the future Hannibal.

The line is superbly effective, on a number of counts. First there is the alliteration of the "s" sounds (including in the preposition "ex", which is really "ecs", after all): we can almost imagine Dido hissing the line in fury. Then the bookending of the line with the key idea: "exoriare...ultor", with the delaying of "ultor" being particularly striking.

But then something that I haven't seen any commentators mention: the brilliant choice of the form exoriare over other possible forms, namely the imperative exorere or the third person jussive subjunctive exoriatur, both of which would be possible metrically ("exorere ille aliquis...", or "exoriatur acer nostris..." would be two possible alternate lines). Why has Virgil chosen the odd second person jussive subjunctive?

Because, in my view, it captures Dido's mood perfectly. It is not so much a jussive subjunctive as a wish, almost a prayer. Yet Dido feels impelled to address her avenger in person, to cry across the centuries to him. So then, for the purpose of conveying both these ideas, the second person subjunctive is a paradoxical but perfect choice.

The rest of the passage, with some brief comments:

tum vos, o Tyrii, stirpem et genus omne futurum
exercete odiis, cinerique haec mittite nostro
munera. nullus amor populis nec foedera sunto.
exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor
qui face Dardanios ferroque sequare colonos,
nunc, olim, quocumque dabunt se tempore vires.
litora litoribus contraria, fluctibus undas
imprecor, arma armis: pugnent ipsique nepotesque.

(Virgil, Aeneid IV, 622-629)

"Then as for you, Tyrians, harass his offspring and all his people to come with your hatred, and give me this as your gift to my ashes. Let there be no affection between the two peoples and no treaties. May you arise from my bones, you unknown avenger, to persecute the Trojan settlers with fire and sword, now, some time in the future, whenever you have the strength to do so. I call upon shore to fight against shore, waves against waves, weapons against weapons: let they and their descendants be at war."

A passage of shuddering effect, in which:

Line 623: the enjambed "exercete odiis", placed just before the main caesura for particular effect, encapsulates the point of the earlier phrase. And the Trojans are not to be harassed with anything physical in particular; it is "hatred" which will provide whatever weapons are required.
624: another brilliant enjambment, "munera", rich in irony. Instead of a funeral gift of the usual type, the Tyrians' gift to Dido will be the undying hatred of Aeneas's descendants. The use of the word helps to show just how deeply consumed by ungovernable anger Dido has become. The use of the semi-archaic form "sunto" gives her imprecation a prayer-like quality.
625 we know all about.
627: the asyndeton of "nunc, olim, quocumque...tempore" gives the effect of desperation, while also underlining the idea of an eternal, unconditional hatred.
628: more asyndeton, plus the personification of the shores, the waters, and the weapons, which gives the line(s) a truly chilling character: Dido expects her spurned love to set even the regions inhabited by her enemies eternally at odds. Highly ambitious in her fury, one might say.
629: the polysyndeton at the end of the line, which involves the hypermetric elision (a lovely term, which sounds like it should refer to a collision between spaceships) of "nepotesque", helps to join the two races in the reader/listener's mind as forever linked in some battle to the death.

Hell hath no fury, indeed. A bruisingly powerful curse and a superb culmination of the events of Book 4.


  1. I know if the Aeneid is a Latin poem that tells the story of Aeneas who traveled to Italy. I do not know much about this poem. Well, I only knew a few verses only. I like the history of Rome but I do not know much about Roman poetry.
    Virgil's poetry made of whether these were related to the history of Rome?

  2. Thank you very much Mr Salter, this is superb critical commentary. It really brings the poetry to life and gives you a sampling of the extent of refinement reached by Augustan poetry.