Week 5: Ancient Rome

Please choose carefully! If you can't decide for yourself, let the Fates decide... Then, when you have made your choice, you can start the Week's Assignments.

Vergil's Aeneid is the epic story of how the defeated Trojan refugees, escaping from their ruined city, followed Aeneas through many adventures until they finally reached Italy and founded a new civilization. Vergil re-worked the Homeric tradition into a new Roman epic, taking the Odyssey and adapting it to the wanderings of Aeneas all over the Mediterranean, and then taking the Iliad and adapting it to the war that Aeneas wages in Italy in order to establish his new city. In the selections chosen for this week, Aeneas has just landed on the shores of Libya and has been taken in by the queen of Carthage, Dido. At a feast that Dido organizes in his honor, Aeneas tells the story of the fall of Troy (including the story of the Trojan horse), and his flight from the city - including his encounters with the monstrous flying harpies and even the very same Cyclops, Polyphemus, that Odysseus had met on his way home from the war in Troy.

Here are some quotes:

See, in dream, before my eyes, Hector seemed to stand there, saddest of all and pouring out great tears, torn by the chariot, as once he was, black with bloody dust, and his swollen feet pierced by the thongs. Ah, how he looked! How changed he was from that Hector who returned wearing Achilles's armour, or who set Trojan flames to the Greek ships! His beard was ragged, his hair matted with blood, bearing those many wounds he received dragged around the walls of his city.

... he dragged Priam, trembling, and slithering in the pool of his son's blood, to the very altar, and twined his left hand in his hair, raised the glittering sword in his right, and buried it to the hilt in his side. This was the end of Priam's life: this was the death that fell to him by lot, seeing Troy ablaze and its citadel toppled, he who was once the magnificent ruler of so many Asian lands and peoples. A once mighty body lies on the shore, the head shorn from its shoulders, a corpse without a name.

...we saw the shepherd Polyphemus himself, moving his mountainous bulk on the hillside among the flocks, and heading for the familiar shore, a fearful monster, vast and shapeless, robbed of the light. A lopped pine-trunk in his hand steadied and guided his steps: his fleecy sheep accompanied him: his sole delight and the solace for his evils. As soon as he came to the sea and reached the deep water, he washed away the blood oozing from the gouged eye-socket, groaning and gnashing his teeth.

Ovid's Metamorphoses is one of the most important sources for the mythology of ancient Greece - and Ovid was one of the most versatile and talented poets of the Roman tradition. The word "metamorphoses" means "transformations", and the unifying theme of these myths is some kind of transformation: Tereus is turned into a hoopoe, Baucis is turned into a tree, and so on. You will probably be familiar with some of the stories included in this selection, such as the story of Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection, or Pygmalion who fell in love with a statue. Other stories will probably be new to you, such as the Greek myth about the flood that almost wiped out human life completely, or the story of Myrrha who fell in love with her own father. Ovid wrote the Metamorphoses in verse form, but the English translation here is in prose, making it easier to read than the translation of Vergil's Aeneid. (So please choose Ovid this week if you want to read something that is easier to follow.)

Here are some quotes:

Even as his mouth was crying his father’s name, it vanished into the dark blue sea, the Icarian Sea, called after him. The unhappy father, now no longer a father, shouted ‘Icarus, Icarus where are you? Which way should I be looking, to see you?’ ‘Icarus’ he called again. Then he caught sight of the feathers on the waves...

Procne, with an unchanging expression, struck Itys with a knife, in the side close to the heart, while he stretched out his hands, knowing his fate at the last, crying out 'Mother! Mother!', and reaching out for her neck. That one wound was probably enough to seal his fate, but Philomela opened his throat with the knife. While the limbs were still warm, and retained some life, they tore them to pieces. Part bubble in bronze cauldrons, part hiss on the spit: and the distant rooms drip with grease.

'Everything changes, nothing dies: the spirit wanders, arriving here or there, and occupying whatever body it pleases, passing from a wild beast into a human being, from our body into a beast, but is never destroyed. As pliable wax, stamped with new designs, is no longer what it was; does not keep the same form; but is still one and the same; I teach that the soul is always the same, but migrates into different forms. So, I say as a seer, cease to make kindred spirits homeless, by wicked slaughter: do not let blood be nourished by blood!'

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM