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Boxing and Siege Engines in Vergil’s Aeneid

George Fredric Franko

The boxing match between Dares and Entellus in Aeneid V invites readers to recall similar duels in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Apollonius’ Argonautica, and Theocritus’ Idyll XXII (McGowan, Poliakoff, Sens, Stégen).   On the other glove, David Traill demonstrates convincingly how Vergil’s simile of Dares’ attack at 5.439-42 echoes Polybius’ description of Hamilcar’s siege of Eryx (56.1-57.2).  Traill is understandably reluctant to posit Polybian influence on Vergil, for it is hard to imagine the poet slogging through Polybius.  Likewise, I do not believe that we must choose between Polybius and the Greek poets as Vergil’s inspiration; rather, Polybius’ narrative serves as an intermediary for understanding the linking of boxing and siege works in Homer’s Iliad and Vergil’s Aeneid.  That linkage can enhance our general appreciation of a literary trope and support the interpretation of molibus as “siege engines” at Aeneid 5.439.  

Vergil’s boxing match between Dares and Entellus at the funeral games of Anchises most closely resembles the bout between Epeius and Euryalus at the funeral games of Patroclus in Iliad XXIII.  Dares attacks “like one who assaults a towering city with siege engines” (velut celsam oppugnat qui molibus urbem, 5.439).  Although Dares loses and Epeius wins, for several reasons “Dares represents Epeius” (McGowan).  The simile tightens that equation, for Epeius, inventor of the Trojan Horse, first appears in the Iliad in the boxing match, and his knockout blow prefigures his role in knocking out Troy via his equine siege engine (Franko).   Vergil helps us reread Homer and appreciate the strategic significance of Epeius’ sudden appearance in the boxing ring.  The cover of Edward McCorie’s 2012 translation of the Iliad precisely captures the resonance, with Cassius Clay standing triumphant over the fallen Sonny Liston.

Vergil’s use of molibus in the Dares simile presents an ambiguity noted since Servius: is the city towering with fortifications (urbem celsam molibus) or does the invader attack with siege engines (oppugnat molibus)?   Moles can be offensive or defensive siege works, and the commentaries of Conington & Nettleship (offensive), Page (defensive), and Williams (either) address the puzzle.  Williams, allowing that the “order of the words permits of either interpretation,” finds “little reason for believing with Lewis and Short that it can mean ‘siege engines’.”   Yet Vergil’s own description of the most famous siege engine in history, the Trojan Horse, suggests otherwise.   At Aeneid 2.46, Aeneas reports Laocoon’s denunciation of the horse as “this siege engine was built against our walls” (haec in nostros fabricata est machina muros).  Aeneas himself calls the horse a machina: “the fateful siege engine scales the walls” (scandit fatalis machina muros, 2.237).  The horse is a machina.  But it is also a moles.  At 2.32, Aeneas recalls how people gape at the fatal gift to Minerva and “marvel at the moles of a horse” (et molem mirantur equi).   Aeneas then reports Priam’s interrogation of Sinon and explicitly links the moles equi with machina: “why have they built this moles of a massive horse…or what siege engine?” (quo molem hanc immanis equi statuere?  …. aut quae machina belli? 2.150-1). Thus Anthon’s gloss from 1843 of moles in the Dares’ simile seems correct: “molibus = “With machines of war.’  Equivalent to machinis.”  Vergil links moles with machina and the Trojan equus.   Having forged that link in Book II, he can enrich the Dares simile in Book V with the Homeric intertext.  Dares in the Aeneid boxes like a city-sacker with molibus, just as Epeius--the fabricator of the mother of all molium, the Trojan Horse--does in his bout in the Iliad.  

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Vergil’s Aeneid

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