This paper explores the baffling exit of Aeneas from the underworld by the ivory gate of “false dreams.” Why Vergil sent Aeneas—a real person who had just witnessed an accurate prophecy of Rome’s history—through this gate has puzzled readers for millennia. Scholars have conjectured variously and still come to no ruling consensus about what he meant. This paper attempts to answer that question. I consider three broad camps of interpretation and then construct a specific answer that borrows insights from several different scholars.
The first camp of interpretation, relatively minor, argues that the lines in question are not what Vergil originally wrote. One proponent, Gordon Cockburn, argues that Vergil inverted Homer’s image of the two gates, as Vergil was known to do with, say, the order of Pelion and Ossa in his Georgics. I conclude, however, with James J. O’Hara, that this is an unacceptable stretch. As O’Hara pointed out, this answer supposes that one instance of Vergil’s inversion of tradition (the gates) was corrected at the violent expense of the text’s meaning, while the order of mountains generated no such meddlesome redaction in the textual transmission.
The second broad camp takes the exit as primarily meaningful philosophically. Some scholars, such as D. A. West, see Vergil as playing with a Platonic model of writing a myth that is not “literally true” but which provides an image of the truth. Others take the readmission to the mortal realm in a more Stoic sense: this world of change and death, they posit, is nothing but a false dream. Some, like Fratantuono, invoke a Lucretian paradigm: the underlying truth is that there is no beyond, rendering mortal accomplishment such as the Romans’ unfulfilling since “death awaits us all” (Fratantuono 635).
The final category considers the word “falsa” as meaning “misleading” and applying to the prophecy Aeneas heard from Anchises (rather than the person of Aeneas, or the whole material realm). Molyviati-Toptsis holds this position, pointing out that the original Homeric model of the gates in Odyssey XIX applied to prophecy, and that Anchises’ prophecy, if factual, must be misleading. In O’Hara’s words, this specifically means, “more optimistic than truthful” (O’Hara, Death, 171). For example, Molyviati-Toptsis draws attention to the distance between what Anchises knows and what he tells Aeneas, typified in his instruction, “ingentem luctum ne quare tuorum” (VI.687).
This paper contends that taking “falsa” as “misleading” is essentially correct—and, moreover, that Vergil’s Latin text leads his Roman audience right to this conclusion. The quintessential point of Anchises’ whitewashing is when he mentions Romulus with no mention of Remus, going so far as to refer to the founder as, “quem . . . Ilia mater / educet” (note the singular; VI.778-9). Nevertheless, his use of the word “geminae” in the very same line while referring to something unrelated brings Remus directly to the Roman mind and, more importantly, charges the word for its later appearance describing these problematic gates. This connection should clue readers into why Aeneas leaves through the ivory gate. The other reused word, “facilis,” should remind the Roman of Aeneas’ entrance and the poetics of the golden bough. Aeneas bent the rules when he broke it off instead of plucking it—consequently, it did not come easily, but clung. Just so, Anchises’ whitewashed history disqualifies his son from the “facilis exitus” given to true shades. The whitewashing is typified in Anchises’ mentioning precisely one of Rome’s twin founders—immediately suggested by Vergil’s “geminae portae.”
The Next Generation: Papers by Undergraduate Classics Students