Tragic Poetics in Vergil’s Aeneid
The well-known mosaic in Tunis’s Bardo Museum that depicts Vergil flanked by the Muses offers more than an idealized representation of Rome’s great epic poet. In the mosaic Vergil appears seated reading a scroll open to Book One, line eight of the Aeneid – Musa, mihi causas memora, quo numine laeso. To his right a muse stands upright, shoulders squared, dressed in a green tunic with a gold cloak; she is thought to represent Clio, muse of history. To Vergil’s left stands another muse dressed in a red tunic decorated with golden designs, a green cloak draped over her shoulders. She holds her head with her right hand while in her left hand she carries a mask. Her right foot, clad in the tragic cothurnus, crosses in front of her left and similarly-clad weight-bearing foot, while she leans toward Vergil, supporting her right elbow on the back of Vergil’s chair. This muse represents Melpomene, muse of tragedy. The presence of the muses provides the response to the poet’s invocation. Moreover, the appearance of Clio and Melpomene suggests two important literary influences at work on Vergil in his composition of the Aeneid. Critics will acknowledge, of course, that Vergil’s Aeneid embraces more than history and tragedy. Many muses danced for Vergil as he composed his epic. But the presence of Clio and Melpomene points to more than literary influence. Clio with her scroll reminds the viewer of the text that Vergil wrote; she is a bookish muse who records the deeds of the past and can recall them at the poet’s summons. She practices her art on the written page. Melpomene also delves into the deeds of the past, and while her creations can take textual form, she practices her art in performance on stage. But as Aristotle observes the difference between poet and historian is not that one writes in verse and one in prose. Rather, while Clio records human deeds as they actually happened, Melpomene offers generalized views of human action. This distinction is, in fact, the one Aristotle records in the Poetics when he distinguishes between the historian and the poet and remarks that “poetry...is more philosophical and more excellent than history” (Poetics 1451b.) Additionally, the tragic muse with her mask and her cothurni signals the importance of mimesis in tragedy. Tragedy is not just for silent reading.
While much has been written about historical allusion in Vergil’s Aeneid, and much also about bookish influences in general on Vergil’s compositions, while scholarship on Vergil and tragic drama has increased, comparatively little has been written about the impact of tragedy as a performing art on the Aeneid. The Aeneid is a poem worthy of tragic performance and the mask and cothurni of Melpomene, a phenomenon that early readers of Vergil like Martial noticed (5.5.8 and 7.63.5 ). Contemporary scholarship acknowledges the importance of both written and performed versions of Vergilian poetry. However, in this essay I would like to draw attention to the importance of dramatic literature and theatrical performance in the poetics of the Aeneid. Keeping in mind the essentially performance-oriented texts of Attic Greek and Republican Latin tragedy, Vergil’s readers today might unlock new understanding of the poem that many moderns consider the apex of epic composition. In a final, more provocative section of the essay, I speculate on the place the Aeneid might have held as a performed text in the Empire, observing its continued popularity as both a written book and a performed poem in an era when new literary tragedy was a rarity and pantomime reigned as a performance art.
Vergil and Tragedy