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“Euripides’ Hippolytus in Aeneid IV”

William Bruckel

Boston University

Euripides’ Hippolytus has received only occasional or passing attention as tragic source material for Aeneid IV (Hardie (1997), Harrison (1973, 1989)).  I argue that Euripides’ play forms a significant intertext for Aeneid IV and provides a framework for Dido’s principal ethical dilemma (15ff). Dido, Anna, and Aeneas map allusively onto the figures of the Hippolytus, and Euripides’ illustration of Prodicus’ Virtue and Vice gives Vergil an ethical foundation on which to set the action of his epyllion.  

In the first part of the paper, I show that in the characters of Phaedra and her nurse Euripides dramatizes those of Virtue and Vice from the Heracles anecdote attributed to the sophist Prodicus by Xenophon (Mem. 2.1.21-34). In the second I argue that in Aeneid IV Vergil mobilizes both the tragedy and its sophistic source in his treatment of Dido, Aeneas, and Anna in an effort to exonerate the queen of ethical liability in her indulgence and therefore augment our sympathy for her demise. I follow the approach of Panoussi (2009), who claims that an extended allusive program in the Aeneid imbues the characters of Dido and Turnus with the virtues characteristic of both Sophocles’ Ajax and of his Homeric source; she argues that these “heroic ideals” are qualities absent from the empire which the epic’s hero prefigures (Panoussi 2009, 196f).  My argument that Vergil also alludes in Book IV to the Hippolytus and its source material extends this tragic effect to the virtues Dido exhibits even in her erotic indulgence.      

I begin by arguing that Euripides maps onto the debate between Phaedra and her nurse the ethical framework of Prodicus’ Virtue and Vice: august deeds and consequent reputation versus unbridled sensual indulgence.  Phaedra’s principal concern is her reputation and the effect it will have on that of her sons; this she intends to protect by concealing her faults and publicizing her good deeds, including her suicide.  The nurse, meanwhile, confronts Phaedra’s plan with a sophistic speech that argues that the best possible course of action is for Phaedra to give in to her sexual desire for Hippolytus, claiming that such indulgences are commonplace and therefore licit and replacing, like Vice, Phaedra’s ethic of absolute virtue with a relativistic indulgent one. 

In the second part of my paper I point out a system of allusions in Aeneid IV that aligns Dido and Aeneas with their tragic counterparts, Phaedra and Hippolytus.  On the most fundamental level, Phaedra and Dido are aligned by both their victimization at the hands of Aphrodite/Venus, which each characterizes as a wound, and by the goddess’ explicit apathy for their suffering.  Multiple references to hunting, meanwhile, structure Aeneas as a Hippolytus figure as well as allude to Euripides’ play. 

Dido’s sister, Anna, too fits into the Hippolytus schema: like Phaedra’s nurse, she helps to advise Dido on the best course of action in coping with her sudden and apparently illicit erotic affliction.   However, unlike the nurse or Vice who are willing to sacrifice ethical principles for expediency, Anna instead appeals to Dido’s civic preoccupation.   Anna assuages Dido’s anxieties over her late husband by insisting the dead have no interest in the living, advising her to consider a bond with the Trojans a political advantage and so a reasonably just course (Aen. IV, 31-53). In exchanging indulgent expediency for civic responsibility, Vergil adapts the Vice-like advisor character and inverts it to render its advice virtuous, despite catastrophic results. Civic duty is the only basis on which Dido will allow herself to abandon her celibacy, and so her indulgence is as virtuous as Anna’s advice since it corresponds by analogy to Phaedra’s concern for her children’s reputation.  With Dido exonerated, the tragic impact of her death at the hand of the gods and its necessity for the foundation of Rome is augmented. 

Session/Panel Title

Vergil and Tragedy

Session/Paper Number

7.4

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