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Italus, Italia, and Ethnic Ideology in Aeneid 7-12

Tedd A. Wimperis

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

This paper focuses on the content and significance of the terms Italus and Italia in Aeneid 7-12, and their rhetorical deployment by Turnus and his lieutenants during the war against the Trojans. The landscape of Vergil’s primeval Italy is populated by a wide array of distinct ethnic and cultural groups that inhabit politically autonomous cities. Prior to Turnus’ mobilization of resistance to the Trojans, there appears to have been little sense of unity and solidarity as “Italians” between the individual communities. Over the course of Books 7-12, however, the concepts of “Italian” identity and “Italy” as a defined cultural community gain a new ideological charge in the rhetoric of Turnus, Numanus Remulus, and others, who frame the war against the Trojans as a “national defense” and appeal to the solidarity of all Italians in defending their homeland. 

Close reading of these books suggests that the designation Italus initially has little force as a specific ethnic or cultural signifier within the world of the poem; its meaning is primarily geographical. Until Book 12, the ethnonym Italus is only sparsely used among Italian characters in comparison with, for instance, the highly frequent Rutulus or Latinus, which denote more precise ethnic and civic alignments. The only figure in the poem who self-identifies as Italus is Evander (8.331-32), whose status as a recent arrival from Arcadia further attests to the term’s broadly inclusive definition as a marker of identity. Moreover, before the Trojan landing, Italy’s diverse communities are depicted as not only distinct and autonomous, but widely prone to internal conflict (7.183-86, 8.55, 12.22-23). Amata can even make the argument that Turnus is as foreign as Aeneas because his state is independent of Latium and he himself is ethnically Greek (7.367-72).

In contrast to these indications of discrete and localized identities, rather than pan-Italian solidarity, the coalition leaders invoke a united front of all Italians against the foreign enemy who threatens Italy’s territorial borders and racial integrity (7.469, 7.578-79). Turnus promotes this rhetoric from his first rallying cry to “defend Italy” (tutari Italiam, 7.469) through his continued emphasis on the solidarity of the Italian communities in the war effort (9.132-33, 11.419-33). Numanus Remulus’ speech in Book 9 most clearly expresses the polemical contrast between Italian toughness and “Phrygian” effeminacy that underpins the formulation of a common Italian identity. By the time of the war’s final battles, the new ideal of ethnic solidarity appears to be taking root: Latinus describes his city as the last bastion of “Italians’ hopes” (spes Italas, 12.35), a disguised Juturna rallies the assembled tribes with an appeal to their shared patria (12.236), and Saces beseeches Turnus to save the arces Italum as Aeneas besieges the Latin capital (12.655). Used in reference to persons alone, the ethnonym Italus appears 17 times in Book 12, more than triple its usage in any of the previous five books.

This paper adds to recent work on Vergil’s portrayal of Italy and Italian identity in the poem (principally Ando 2002, Syed 2005, Reed 2007, Pogorzelski 2009/2016, and Fletcher 2014), and opens a new perspective on the role of ethnicity and political rhetoric in the war of Books 7-12. Highlighting the ideological significance of the terms Italus and Italia in the rhetoric of Aeneas’ foes, I survey the promotion of Italian identity as a theme in the poem’s second half, and advance new readings of select passages and speeches. To conclude, I suggest an historical analogue to the rhetoric of Vergil’s characters in contemporary Roman politics: in the lead-up to Actium, Octavian, too, had recently appealed to the collective will of tota Italia to defend the homeland from the perceived foreign threat of Cleopatra and Antony.

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Virgil and his Afterlife

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