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Virgil's Lapiths

  • Michael C. J. Putnam (a1)

Few details in Virgil's description of the underworld have elicited more comment than his treatment of the sinners Ixion and Pirithous

quid memorem Lapithas, Ixiona Pirithoumque?

quos super atra silex iam iam lapsura cadentique

imminet adsimilis; lucent genialibus altis

aurea fulcra toris; epulaeque ante ora paratae

regifico luxu; Furiarum maxima iuxta

accubat et manibus prohibet contingere mensas

exsurgitque facem attollens atque intonat ore

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1 Aeneid 6.601–7.

2 The most recent effort to explain away Virgil's innovations by altering the received text is by J. Perret who would exchange lines 616–20 with 602–7 ( L'ordre de succession des vers dans L'Énéide, 6, 602–620’, RPh 58 [1984], 1933, building on a suggestion ofHavet L., ‘Le supplice de Phlegyas’, RPh 12 [1888], 145–72). But the comment ofAustin R. G. (P. Vergilii Maronis Aeneidos: Liber Sextus [Oxford, 1977]) on line 601 is particularly salutary. After listing earlier attempts at emendation, each as futile as the other, he observes: “The necessary inference is that Virgil has chosen to be original, regarding this Underworld Rogues' Gallery as providing a common stock of punishments, without a particular torment being the exclusive copyright of one particular villain.“

3 Tityos (Od. 11. 576–81); Tantalus (582–92).

4 I should add, however, that nowhere else do we find snakes as part of Ixion's torment.

5 Citations in Fontenrose J. E., RE 19.1.138–9 (1937), s.v. ‘Peirithoos’.

6 DRN 3.984–94.

7 Aen. 6.599.

8 ‘Bewohner der felsigen Berg’ ( Schmidt M., RE 12.1.786 [1924], s.v. ‘Lapithai’, who points out the etymological connection). Re. alsoRobert C.Die Griechische Heldensage in L. Preller Griechische Mythologie (Berlin, 1920), 2.7 and n. 7; Ebeling H., lexicon Homericum (Leipzig, 1885), s.v. Aanidcu. For a recent summary treatment of Virgilian etymologizing with examples, see the article on etimologia e paretimologia byScarpat G. in Enciclopedia Vergiliana (Roma, 1985), ii. 402–4.

9 See OLD, s.v. 3. Shortly before (Aen. 6.471) Virgil compared Dido, reacting to Aeneas' pleas, to dura silex aut… Marpesia cautes, a comparison that itself is meant to recall her characterization of Aeneas at 4.366. The epithet dura, by merely reinforcing inherent texture, serves further to underscore the power of atra at 602, whether it provokes a contrast to lucent and aurea or stands as a more general reminder of death's blackness, as at Tibullus 1.3.4–5. One might add that rocks are by tradition major implements in the Centaurs' arsenal of violence. Compare, for instance, the ship Centaurus that carries the Ligunan Cupavo to Latium (Aen. 10.195–7): ‘…ille ∣ instat aquae saxumque undis immane minatur ∣ arduus,…’ Propertius may be thinking of this same passage when he has Apollo ascribe to the ships of Antony and Cleopatra prorae Centaurica saxa minantis (4.6.49). (Cf. also the crater with which the Centaur Hylaeus threatens the Lapiths at Geo. 2.457.) Virgil thus again alters tradition by allotting to the Lapiths the prime ingredient traditionally associated with the weaponry of the bestial Centaurs.

10 Cat. 23.3–4.

11 Op. cit. (supra n. 1), on 6.603. In his comment on 604 he refers to Cat. 64.45, but the broader parallels between the two passages in Catullus and Virgil seem not to have been noted by commentators.

12 We might note also Servius' definition in his gloss on line 603: ‘…geniales proprie sunt qui sternuntur puellis nubentibus, dicti a generandis liberis.’

13 The original texts are Hom.Il. 1.263–5 and 2.742–4; Od. 21.295–304 and [Hes.[ Sew. 178–90. For Bacchus as the cause of strife, see Vir.Geo. 2.454–7 and Hor.C. 1.18.7–11. The tale elicits from Ovid one of his more expansive feats of grandiloquence (M. 12.210–458).

14 We need compare only Catullus' first epithalamium (61) for parallels, e.g. the command to the slaves to raise their torches (tollite…faces, 114) or the depiction of the husband, lying expectantly on his Tyrian couch (accubans ∕ vir tuus Tyrio in toro, 165), not to speak of the reiterated invocation to Hymen and the Fescennina iocatio.

15 Nisbet R. G. M. and Hubbard M. (A Commentary on Horace: Odes: Book II [Oxford, 1978], p. 187, on C. 2.12.5) comment valuably on this other way of viewing the Lapiths, especially vis-a-vis their regular treatment in fifth-century Greek art.

16 C. 3.4.77–80. Note also the final stanza of C. 4.7 where Pirithoo is the last word (28).

17 M. 8.612–13.

18 Aen. 7.304–5.

19 On Aen. 7.304.

20 The reason usually given for Ovid's designation is the attempted rape of Proserpina. See Hollis A. S. (Ovid, Metamorphoses: Book VIII [Oxford, 1970]) and Bomer F. (P. Ovidius Naso, Metamorphosen: Buch VIII–IX [Heidelberg, 1977], adloc.

21 Another famous Virgilian invention, devoted to the Lapiths and still deserving of full analysis, is the double transfiguration of the Lapith Caenis whose metamorphosis into a man, Caeneus, and death by crushing are told by Ovid in the lines which follow his treatment of the battle of Lapiths and Centaurs (M. 12.459–535). Only Virgil has a second metamorphosis, with Caeneus in the underworld become female again (Aen. 6.448–9).

22 It is worthy of note that Virgil has the same attribute of the Fury here, Furiarum maxima, allotted in 3.252 by Celaeno to herself (yobis Furiarum ego maxima pando). The situations are parallel enough to warrant fuller discussion because in book 3 the Fury also curses someone, this time Aeneas and his followers, with the impossibility of eating. The reason for the curse is the impious grasping of another's property as booty, in this case cattle who were actually eaten only in part (semesam praedam, 244). The curse remains but a modified, momentary version of the eternal torture of book 6, namely that in the future their hunger will force the Trojans to devour their own tables (ambesas mensas, 257). The curse is fulfilled at 7.107–34.

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