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Chasing chimaeras

  • W. S. M. Nicoll (a1)

Of the various contests held by Aeneas to mark the anniversary of his father's death the ship-race (Aen. 5. 116–286) is marked out by its length and initial position as especially important. However its precise significance is by no means obvious. That Virgil intends it to have some relevance to events of later Roman history seems fairly clear. First, we are told the names of the families descended from three of the four captains involved — Cluentii, Memmii and Sergii. It seems therefore that we should look to the activities of members of these families to discover Virgil's intention. Two families — Cluentii and Memmii — are a mystery, since none of their members plays an obviously prominent role in the events of Virgil's own time. However, Sergestus and the Sergii point unmistakably towards Catiline. Sergestus' rash folly, which is nearly the ruin of his men and his ship, exactly matches Catifine's own furor, which would have destroyed Rome. Even the name of his ship, Centaurus, reinforces the point.

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1 Servius ad Aen. 5. 121 et inde est Sergius Catilina.

2 Nisbet-Hubbard, Commentary on Horace Odes II (Oxford, 1978), p. 188.

3 ‘The ships are no longer necessary and hence ought to be destroyed as symbols of the past years of frustrated wandering’ (Putnam M. C. J.: The Poetry of the Aeneid [Harvard, 1966], p. 91).

4 Although Servius (ad Aen. 5. 117) tells us that he is the ancestor of the Geganii Virgil's silence on the point can hardly be accidental.

5 E.g. Aen. 9. 314 ff. (Nisus and Euryalus) and 756–61 (Turnus in the Trojan camp).

6 Mørland H., ‘Nisus, Euryalus und andere Namen in der Aeneis’, S.O. 33 (1957), 103 ff.

7 While accepting that the assimilation of the Virgilian captain to the centimanus is to some extent facilitated by the ‘gigantic’ context (possibly aided by the rather ambiguously positioned words ingenti mole at Aen. 5. 118) I feel that the primary purpose of the stress on the ship's size is to suggest the size of the original Chimaera.

8 A recent discussion of Od. 2.17 notes that ‘critics’ difficulties with the ode have most often centred in the fourth to sixth stanzas' and that Horace's ‘grandiloquence’ (with regard to the Chimaera and Gyas) has ‘subjected the poet to uneasy suspicions of a maudlin and obsequious lapse of taste’ (McDermott Emily A., ‘Horace, Maecenas and Odes II 17’, Hermes 110 (1982), 211–28).

9 N–H, ii. 278.

10 Ibid. pp. 281–2.

11 Hesiod, Theogony, ed. West M. L. (Oxford, 1966), p. 210, where many of the Greek and Latin passages in which the name occurs are cited.

12 West loc. cit.

13 West, however, argues for the restitution of the Γύγ- and Gyg- forms in all the passages he quotes, including those in which forms without the second γ or g appear as variants.

14 Ovid, Am. 2. 1. 12 gygen (gi- ω) PS ω: gigem ς: gigan HPa: gigam ς: giam Heinsii Palatinus. Ovid, Tr. 4. 7. 18 gian G: giam P: gygem E: gigem DB: gigam CH (so André: Luck, however, reports Gygan G: Gygam P). Ovid, Fast. 4. 593 gia F: gyge UM: gige AXm: giga D. It is perhaps worth noting that Virgil's sea-captain has become Gygas in the ed. Micyll. of Hyginus (272. 15).

15 N–H, ii. 279.

16 Loc. cit.

17 See note 14 above.

18 At Tr. 4.7. 17 context and metre alike rule it out. At Am. 2. 1. 12 a type of elision unparalleled for Ovid would result.

19 For Antony as a reckless lover see esp. Griffin J., ‘Propertius and Antony’, JRS 67 (1977), 1726.

20 I would take it that, beneath the surface astrology, Iouis points to Augustus and that the opposition between Jupiter and Saturn here has the same kind of implication that may exist in Od. 2. 12. 6 ff., where N-H comment (p. 191) ‘Horace may be suggesting an attempt to restore the ancien régime…’. For doubts on the idea that an illness of Maecenas lies behind Od. 2. 17 see Nadeau Y., ‘Speaking Structures’ (Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History II, ed. Deroux: coll. Latomus vol. 168), p. 218. Dr Nadeau suggests to me that vv. 22–6 may refer to the conspiracy of Lepidus.

21 Cairns F. J., Generic Composition in Greek and Roman Poetry (Edinburgh, 1972), pp. 9597.

22 The Hundred-Hander's name may again be applied as a term of abuse in public life at S.H.A. 19. 8. 5 sed inter has uirtutes tam crudelis fuit ut illum alii Cyclopem, alii Busirem…multi Typhona uel Giganta uocarent. For Giganta P gives gigantam and Σ gigem. (On the controversy as to the value of Σ see Marshall P. K. in Texts and Transmission, ed. Reynolds (Oxford, 1983), p. 355. He suggests that the view that the readings of Σ are the product of humanist conjecture may possibly yet prove to be basically correct.) Atrocities are evidently thought typical of the Hundred-Hander at Ovid, Fast. 4. 593.

23 For a possible (much later) example of the killing of the Chimaera as a symbol of the victory of Good over Evil see Toynbee J. M. C., JRS 54 (1964), 614. It is tempting, though I think probably wrong, to equate the Chimaera with Cleopatra. (For the Chimaera as an image applied to a meretrix see N–H, i. 317.)

24 One reason given for Antony's failure at Actium was his huge and cumbersome ships (Plut. Ant. 66. 1–2; Dio 50. 23. 2 and 50. 33. 8). I am doubtful whether this is relevant here — even though both Plutarch and Dio liken the attacks on Antony's ships to the besieging of cities. Sergestus' presence shows that the race itself cannot correspond tout court to Actium. In any case, although ‘Chimaera’ is a ship name here the appearance of the monster on Tumus' helmet suggests that it is not the link with a ship which is the important point. Virgil probably stresses size in both Chimaera passages partly for the same reason as Ovid does in his description of Python (Met. 1. 440 and 459), i.e. such monsters are huge and victory over them is thereby the greater. (For the political implications in Ovid's Python story see my article in CQ n.s. 30 (1980), 181.) Virgil is surely making a moral or political point rather than commenting on naval strategy.

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