Gradus Ad Parnassum

Latin is in equal measure an amazing and an exasperating language, and Virgil is one of its most amazing and exasperating writers. My gob was well and truly smacked when I came across this passage, lines 725-29 of Book II of the ‘Aeneid’:

ferimur per opaca locorum,
et me, quem dudum non ulla iniecta movebant
tela neque aduerso glomerati examine Grai,
nunc omnes terrent aurae, sonus excitat omnis
suspensum et pariter comitique onerique timentem.

David West’s translation in Penguin Classics gives:

. . . we moved along, keeping to the shadows. This was the man who had been unmoved by all the missiles of the Greeks and had long faced their serried ranks without a tremor, but now every breath of wind frightened me and I started at every sound, so anxious was I, so afraid both for the man I carried and for the child at my side.

That’s a great piece of translation, which both captures the sense of the Latin and puts it into credible English. What it doesn’t do, and what no translation can do, is reveal the complexity of the original.

The first line is a simple enough clause. In a literal translation, ferimur = ‘we are borne along’ and per opaca locorum = ‘through (the) dark (of) places’. The next four lines are a coordinate clause. The object is me, that is the hero Aeneas. This being Latin, we have to trawl through the clause until we find the verb and the subject. We find two verbs in fact, the plural terrent and the singular excitat, as well as their subjects omnes < > aurae and sonus < > omnis, both either side of the verb, in the fourth line. So, we have the bare bones of the clause:

All breezes omnes aurae) frighten (terrent) me, every sound (sonus omnis) startles (excitat) me.

But there’s more. Me is modified by the relative clause introduced by quem. The me that is frightened and startled is the me who for long (dudum) not any hurled weapon (ulla iniecta < > tela) nor the assembled Greeks (glomerati < > Grai) in a hostile swarm (aduerso < > examine) would unruffle (movebant). Me (Aeneas) is further modified in the last line by the adjective suspensum and the present participle timentem, both in the accusative because they modify the object me. So, Aeneas is ‘anxious and at the same time fearing for my companion (his son) and my burden (his father being carried on his back).’

On top of all that, Virgil had to ensure that his lines fitted the metrical requirements of the Latin hexameter. Oh, and tell a story about the founding of Rome. And flatter the emperor Augustus. Oh, yeah, and use the gods to raise the philosophical question of free will. And no word processor, just papyrus or wax tablets.



Filed under Latin, Literature

7 responses to “Gradus Ad Parnassum

  1. Am Bodach

    This passage als0 illustrates how little how little Aeneas thought about his wife as she did not get al look in; that is until his guilt complex sets in.


    • Thank you, Am Bodach, for raising this point. Of course, it’s possible that Virgil may be reflecting attitudes towards women at the time was writing. It’s true that Aeneas’s wife Creusa was walking behind him and his father and his son, and not beside them, as they started to leave the ruined city of Troy. To be fair, however, it is only a few lines later, when he realises that Creusa is missing, that he says (in the West translation) ‘Then it was that my wife Creusa was torn from me by the cruelty of Fate’. He at once goes looking for her at some danger to himself, but finds only her ghost. I don’t see any of this as showing that Aeneas had little concern for his wife or that he had a change of heart because he felt guilty about his treatment of her. At other times, indeed, she seems to be frequently in his thoughts.


  2. Anything that smacks your gob that hard is worth a read, Barrie. I’m unfamiliar with Latin (beyond its foundational presence in English words) but enjoyed this very much.


  3. That was beyond my high school Latin (from many aeons ago), but I enjoyed your explanations, as well as the West translation. In fact it makes me want to pull out my old Latin text book as well as read some Virgil. For quite a while after I married and moved away from home my older sister and I would write to each other, always attaching a P.S. that would be a line or two written in Latin. For the sender the task of trying to translate a line or two into Latin and for the receiver trying to translate it back into English was a lot of fun and a good brain exercise. It was also a bit of a competition, of course, to see if we could stump one another. I’m afraid my brain would grind to a stop if I tried anything like that before.


  4. See? My brain ground to a halt just typing that! I think that last line should have read “…if I tried anything like that now.”


  5. You might find that it stimulated your brain instead. I’ve returned to Virgil after a gap of 50 or so years.


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