Sunday, October 31, 2010

Diu Viximus

Continuing the theme of human-animal relationships from the last post, I very much enjoyed teaching the tenth book of Virgil's Aeneid to my HSC class this last year, and one of the passages that appealed to both me and the students the most was the battle-speech-cum-farewell of the warrior-king Mezentius, addressed to his faithful steed Rhaebus.

Mezentius is one of the more interesting characters in the Aeneid. In the eighth book he is depicted in a brief aside as a thoroughly evil and sadistic tyrant, and while he shows some of these qualities in the course of his violent aristeia in the tenth book, he is invested with a certain dignity and honour in his death-scene. After his son Lausus has died to protect him, it is almost as if Mezentius is imbued with some of his son's heroism as he prepares to fight Aeneas; certainly, the sentiments he addresses to Rhaebus are very much in the style of a Homeric hero, and his sense of solidarity with Rhaebus is actually quite touching:

haud deiectus equum duci iubet. hoc decus illi,
hoc solamen erat, bellis hoc victor abibat
omnibus. adloquitur maerentem et talibus infit:
'Rhaebe, diu, res si qua diu mortalibus ulla est,
viximus. aut hodie victor spolia illa cruenti
et caput Aeneae referes Lausique dolorum
ultor eris mecum, aut, aperit si nulla viam vis,
occumbes pariter; neque enim, fortissime, credo,
iussa aliena pati et dominos dignabere Teucros.'

"By no means dismayed, he [Mezentius] ordered his horse to be brought. This was his glory, this his solace, on this steed he had departed all his battles in triumph. He addressed it as it grieved and started off with such words as these: "Rhaebus, we have lived a long time, if anything is a long time for we who must die. Today, you will either bring back those spoils and the head from the bloodied body of Aeneas, and you will be the avenger of Lausus' sad fate along with me, or if no force can find a way through, you will fall together with me; after all, my bravest one, I don't believe that you would accept the orders of another and consider the Trojans worthy to be your masters."

(Virgil, Aeneid X, 858-866)

Some observations:

Line 858: the opening phrase, "haud deiectus", immediately suggests Mezentius' heroic qualities; although grieved by the news of his son's death and riven with guilt at his own part in it, the great warrior refuses to sink into lethargy. Bloody but unbowed, as it were. The anaphora of "hoc" in this and the succeeding line give the strongest indication possible of the close relationship between man and horse, and the shared experiences that have created such a bond.
860: the little detail of the horse "maerentem" suggests both human feelings (Virgil's anthropomorphism at work again, just as in the Georgics), and a foreboding of Mezentius' fate at the hands of a greater warrior.
861-2: the ruthless tyrant here becomes a philosopher for a moment, and it is interesting that he implicitly includes Rhaebus in the term "mortalibus", hence my choice of "we who must die" rather than "human beings/mortals" in my translation above. The sentiment is a Homeric one: our lives are short, but our glory lives on. Here, Mezentius faces death with courage and equanimity, and the finality of his situation is emphasised by the enjambment of "viximus". Cicero's laconic "vixerunt" comment on the Catilinarian conspirators comes to mind...
864: "ultor eris mecum" comes before the caesura in enjambment, and as so often in Virgil, that indicates a significant statement. Mezentius's mind is set on vengeance, but Rhaebus is to share in that vengeance...and that achievement. The rare, striking monosyllabic ending to the line, along with the alliteration of the forceful "v" sound, perhaps suggest that Mezentius (and Rhaebus) will exhaust all their "vis" in their attempt. The bond between man and horse is delineated even more strongly in the next line with another enjambed phrase before the caesura, with the key word "pariter" suggesting that both deaths have, so to speak, equal weight.
866: a nice way to finish, hinting that Rhaebus, like his master, is made of noble and uncompromising stuff. The alliteration of "d" sounds is effective, but "dignabere" is the key word: Rhaebus is a "dignus equus", and in Mezentius' eyes, the Trojans are beneath him!

The irony, of course, is that it is Rhaebus who ultimately causes Mezentius' death, falling on top of him after Aeneas has landed a spear on the horse's forehead. Pariter occubuerunt.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for that analysis and, as a current Latin HSC student, that post was very relevant and useful for me.
    I (and my fellow students) agree that it is perhaps the best passage we've read in Book X, although I think that Virgil's authorial commentary in lines 467 to 469 rival it.
    Any more chunks of analysis about Book X would be very useful for the HSC!