Friday, June 25, 2010

Adsum Qui Feci

Apologies for the lack of posts over the past week, which has been largely due to my constant viewing of the Poculum Mundi (in case anyone's interested, you can follow my amateurish commentary on it over at my other blog). But the Pierian spring cannot be abandoned for too long, so herewith some more literary ramblings.

One of the more intriguing subplots of Virgil's Aeneid is the tale of the Trojan warriors Nisus and Euryalus; their friendship, their sly collusion during the foot-race in Book 5, and finally their doomed attack on the Rutulian camp in Book 9.

It is from the latter that this week's excerpt comes. To set the scene: Nisus has mentioned to his young friend Euryalus (the overtones of homosexuality are carefully understated by Virgil throughout, but the level of affection between the two is certainly intense) that he plans a night attack on the Rutulian lines, so as to break through to Aeneas, who is rallying help elsewhere. Euryalus, bold and vigorous, joins in willingly, and the two slaughter a number of sleeping Rutulians. But a flash of reflected light from a helmet gives the two away, and although Nisus manages to escape, Euryalus does not. As the Latin warrior Volcens prepares to kill Euryalus, the distraught Nisus breaks out of his hiding-place and begs to be killed in Euryalus's place. It is a short speech but a highly moving one, and handled with beautiful skill by Virgil:

...tum vero exterritus, amens,
conclamat Nisus nec se celare tenebris
amplius aut tantum potuit perferre dolorem:
'me, me, adsum qui feci, in me convertite ferrum,
o Rutuli! mea fraus omnis, nihil iste nec ausus
nec potuit; caelum hoc et conscia sidera testor;
tantum infelicem nimium dilexit amicum.'

"Then it was that, terrified and out of his mind, Nisus cried out and could not hide himself in the darkness or bear such grief any more: 'Do it to me, to me, I'm here, the one who did it, turn your weapons onto me, Rutulians! The whole trick was mine, this one dared nothing, nor could he have; This sky and the stars that saw it are my witnesses: he only loved his unlucky friend too much.'"

(Virgil, Aeneid IX, 424-430)

The ars in the arte:

Line 424: immediately, with the asyndeton of "exterritus, amens", we get the sense both of the urgency of Nisus' action and his disordered state of mind. The prepositions "ex-" and "a-" attached to the two adjectives help to portray Nisus as a man truly taken "out of himself".
425: "conclamat" is emphatically placed at the beginning of the line: the cry is the central event, attracting the Rutulians' attention and at least delaying Euryalus' fate.
426: the enjambed "amplius" is very effective, showing that it was simply a case of too much for Nisus: even the knowledge of his own certain death ultimately couldn't keep him from trying to save his dear friend. The prepositional prefix "per-" in the verb "perferre" further underlines this: Nisus can ferre the situation, but not perferre ("bear it to the end).
427: a wonderful line, and in my opinion a widely misunderstood one. The general consensus seems to be that the "me, me" is virtually a disjunctive form (like "moi" in French), and nothing to do with the accusative case. I respectfully disagree: the fact that it is in the accusative seems very important to me in the context here: the weapon is just about to be turned on his beloved young friend, and Nisus immediately says "me" - not "ego", not "mea" (as in the later "mea fraus"), but the accusative "me". So the idea that strikes the listener is not so much "it was me", but "do it to me". Make me the object of your violence, not poor, innocent (in that it wasn't his idea) Euryalus. Then there's the brilliant "adsum qui feci": "I am present who did this". Note: not "I am the one who did this"; similar, but with the extra information I am here. Kill me instead. A point to note is that "sum qui feci" would also have fit into the metre, so the choice of "adsum" is quite deliberate.
428-9: Nisus' speech is full of ellipsis ("erat mea fraus omnis, nihil iste nec ausus est nec potuit"), again showing his desperation and his overwrought state: the words collapse out almost on top of one another. The use of "iste", normally a word with a negative connotation, is interesting (especially since "ille" would have fit quite naturally into the metre): it is used, in my view, to almost belittle Euryalus in the Rutulians' eyes; this little fellow was incapable of any such subterfuge, is the implicit message. "conscia sidera" is a beautiful adjective-noun combination, worthy of Horace at his best; "the complicit stars", with its slight hint of a night-time tryst as well as simply a conspiracy hatched by night.
430: a highly spondaic line with a sad, poignant message. The ambiguity of "tantum" - either "he only loved..." or "he loved so much, too much" - is used to good effect by Virgil. The proliferation of nasal sounds ("n" and "m") is highly effective as well, giving the cry the feel of a lament, even a groan.

A passage rich in emotion and pathos, and one of the many little jewels in the Aeneid.


  1. Thanks for another great post. I love the way you bring out the subtleties of the Latin, aspects which might be missed if not for a careful reading. Keep it up!

  2. Thanks very much, appreciate the interest!