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Nomen Echionium: Theban narratives in Virgil's Aeneid

Stefano Rebeggiani

This contribution provides a new interpretation of a particularly difficult, yet little studied, passage from Aeneid 12, featuring Aeneas at war with a Theban hero. In explaining this passage, I will shed some new light on a problem of fundamental importance for the literary and political texture of the Aeneid: Virgil’s engagement with Theban myth. I will detail the presence of a sustained chain of allusions to the Theban saga in the Aeneid, in order to provide a deeper understanding of the ways in which Virgil’s poem is able to evoke a major topic of Rome’s culture and history, namely civil war.

At Aeneid 12.513-15 Aeneas kills a warrior, Onites, who is dubbed nomen Echionium. Echion was one of the mythical ancestors of Thebes, and the adjective Echionius is commonly found as a synonym for ‘Theban’ in Latin literature before and after Virgil. Both ancient (Servius, Donatus) and modern commentators (Tarrant) agree that Virgil’s expression connects Onites with Thebes. Turnus and some of his allies have Greek origins but none of them has the remotest connection to Thebes or Boeotia. What is a Theban doing in Latium in the aftermath of the Trojan War?

That the question about this hero’s name should not be dismissed as trivial has been proved by recent inquiry. Scholars have repeatedly emphasized Virgil’s ability to use personal names to connect apparently insignificant sections of his battle narratives to some of the main themes of his poem (Reed). Recent scholarship has also drawn attention to Roman imperial poets’ interest in the city of Thebes, especially as a means to reflect on the topic of civil war (Barchiesi). Ovid’s narrative of Thebes (Met. 3-4) is dense with allusions to the Aeneid and clearly posits, in very problematic terms for Roman readers, an equation between Aeneas’ foundation and the city established by Cadmus (Hardie, Janan). The connection of Thebes and Rome is also crucial to Lucan (Roche), not to mention Statius’ Thebaid (Ahl, McNelis). While these epic rewritings of Theban stories participate in a sustained engagement with the Aeneid (Ganiban), the degree to which Virgil’s poem may owe something to epic and tragic versions of the Theban saga is yet to be investigated (Hardie). In this contribution, I shall show that Virgil’s introduction of a Theban hero in book 12 is evocative of a larger pattern of allusion linking the war in Latium to the war of Eteocles and Polynices. My analysis concentrates on a selection of passages from books 6, 7, 9 and 12.

Allusions to the Theban war begin with Aeneas’ encounter with the protagonists of the Argos/Thebes war in the Underworld (6.479ff.). These encounters, which are absent in Virgil’s model of Odyssey 11, look ahead to the battle that is about to begin between Latins and Trojans. This war is engendered by Juno through the help of Allecto, whose power is that of ‘unanimos armare in proelia fratres’, a sentence more reminiscent of the Theban brothers Eteocles and Polynices than of Aeneas and Turnus. The protagonists of this war are repeatedly linked to the Seven Argives of Theban myth. Catillus and Coras descend from Amphiaraus (7.672; cf. Pliny NH 16.637); the description of Turnus’ shield (7.783ff.) is indebted to Aeschylus’ shield of the Argive Hippomedon; the presentation of Mezentius, both in book 7 and at his entrance in war in at 9.521ff., is clearly indebted to the traditional portrait of Capaneus. Allusions to the story of Thebes continue in book 12, culminating in the final confrontation of Turnus and Aeneas.

Far from irrelevant, the Onites passage is thus indicative both of Virgil’s use of a key literary paradigm (Theban myth) and of his interaction with a central theme of Roman imperial culture (civil war). The story of Thebes provides yet another relevant layer to Virgil’s strategy of linking Aeneas’ foundation to Augustus’ rescue of the Republic from the chaos of civil war.

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Intrageneric Dialogues in Hellenistic and Imperial Epic

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