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Inscribing Fate: Epigraphic Conventions and Virgil's Aeneas

Morgan E. Palmer

Fate is an important aspect of Virgil's programmatic characterization of Aeneas, who is described as "fato profugus" before he is introduced by name (Aen. 1. 2).  This is the first of Virgil's many references to fate in connection with individual characters.  On epitaphs and in the Aeneid the fates are limiting forces, cutting short human desire and potential. Given the marked increase in epigraphic activity during the Augustan era (noted by Alföldy 1991 and Bodel 2001), it is likely that epigraphic portrayals of fate, although not limited to the Augustan era, were particularly visible at that time.  Hence, they would have been an accessible source for Roman conceptions of fate, and might have appealed to Virgil's interest in Roman visual culture.  In this paper I consider the possibility that epigraphic material influenced Virgilian portrayals of the fates and of Aeneas.

The significance of fate in the Aeneid has been discussed (O'Hara 1990), and it has long been recognized as a convention of Roman epitaphs (Lattimore  1942).  In many cases these references to fate are infused with the pathos and possessiveness that have already been recognized as central to the Aeneid (Putnam 1995).  Furthermore, Virgilian portrayals of characters, which I argue are influenced by fate, have been discussed in detail (Reed 2007).  Servius noted the presence of epigraphic language in Aeneas' instructions for Pallas' funeral arrangements (Aen. 11. 24-28), and the CIL notes similar language to Aen. 11. 28 (a passage also cited by Rawson in her 2002 study of funera acerba) on a funerary inscription for a son characterized by his pietas (CIL X 4728).  Furthermore, Thomas (1998) and Dinter (2005) have discussed how Virgil responds to the language of sepulchral epigrams when describing the deaths of certain characters.   

In this paper I use evidence from Roman inscriptions to argue that there are clear similarities between epigraphic and Virgilian representations of fate as a controlling and limiting force that influences individuals.  First, I suggest that by citing the fates several times at the beginning of the epic (Aen. 1.2, Aen. 1. 18, Aen 1. 32, and Aen. 1. 39), Virgil establishes their importance, portraying them as limiting forces, a characterization which resembles conventional representations of fate on Roman funerary inscriptions.  In addition, I address the gods' discussion of Trojan fate, which includes Jupiter's characterization of Aeneas as a figure who will rise "ad sidera caeli" (Aen. 1. 259), a phrase with a Roman epigraphic parallel (CIL VI 21521).  The prominence of fate in the first book of the Aeneid establishes its importance as a force which impacts Aeneas and other characters.  Furthermore, epigraphic parallels to these early references suggest that Roman inscriptions influenced Virgilian references to fate, and hence also influenced character development.  Next, I turn to the death of Creusa, using epigraphic evidence to show that when Aeneas refers to his wife as snatched away by fate (Aen. 2. 738) he describes her much in the way that a husband might describe his deceased wife on a tombstone.  Similarly, Dido refers to "fata Sychaei coniugis" (Aen. 4. 20-21) while expressing her desire to remain loyal to her coniunx, a relationship often commemorated on epitaphs.  Both of these instances, in which fate figures prominently, are characterized by the sort of pathos that is present on funerary inscriptions.  Next, I discuss Aeneas' declaration that the fates prevent him from living his life as he desires (Aen. 4. 340-344), comparing Virgil's earlier characterization of the fates as limiting forces, and noting their impact on Aeneas.  Then, I turn to Pallas, discussing Evander's anxiety about the fate of his son (Aen. 8. 574-583) and Aeneas' reaction to his death, which parallels characterizations of grieving parents portrayed on funerary inscriptions (CIL VI 7872).  In short, epigraphic references to fate as a controlling and limiting force might have influenced Virgil's portrayal of Aeneas' character.

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Vergil’s Aeneid

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