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Constructing Ethnicity in Miniature: Cultural Memory in the World of the Aeneid

Tedd Wimperis

Elon University

 This paper examines the expression of cultural memory among three ethnic communities depicted in the Aeneid—the Carthaginians, Latins, and Arcadians—and how their cultural memories construct and influence their collective identities. My discussion focuses on one specific example of cultural memory, myths of foundation and communal descent, which Jonathan Hall identifies as “a defining criterion of ethnicity” (1997, 25) and the historical sociologist Anthony Smith regards as “in many ways the sine qua non of ethnicity” (1986, 24). Elaborating the evidence for foundation myths preserved among these fictionalized ethnic groups, this paper also shows how Vergil’s characters employ these myths for political and ideological purposes, as part of elite self-representation, diplomacy, and communal ritual. 

Dido’s Carthaginians commemorate the recent founding of their new state in North Africa, as well as their ethnic roots in Phoenicia. The settlers’ own name for the city, Byrsa (Punic for “oxhide”) as well as the placement and prominence of the temple of Juno are linked to the memory of the city’s foundation: the former from Dido’s ruse to acquire the land (1.365-68), the latter from the omen of the horse’s head that foretold the city’s glorious destiny (1.441-45). At the state banquet held for the Trojans, the narrator describes a silver dish depicting the exploits of early Phoenician founders (1.640-42), and Dido pours a libation with a chalice passed down through her lineage (1.728-35). In Italy, Latinus traces his descent back to Saturn, regarded as the founder of the Latin people (7.47-49); the very name of the “Latin” people is derived, through the etymology from latere recognized by Evander, from the memory of Saturn’s foundation (8.321-23). The Latin palace of Picus is a storehouse of symbols evoking the community’s heritage of martial exploits and the divine origins of their kings (7.170-91). When Aeneas meets Evander and the Arcadians, they are performing the annual honors at the Ara Maxima that form an integral part of their civic identity. Celebrated with sacrifice and song, Hercules serves not only as a patron god, to whom the community both corporately and individually renders prayer, but also a savior and founder-figure whose slaying of Cacus represents a defining moment in communal memory. 

These ethnographic details correspond with the historical cultivation of foundation myths in ancient mediterranean societies, replicating, as if in miniature, the real-life construction of identity through communal myth. Adding further nuance, Vergil also replicates the application of such myths in the political activities of his fictionalized ethnic communities. The Carthaginian temple of Juno, the city’s major landmark, is also the site where Dido holds court and legislates (1.505-508); the Phoenician dish and ancestral goblet are advertised in the context of a diplomatic banquet. In Latium, the Saturn myth underpins the legitimacy of its king, who sits on the “ancestral throne” (7.169, 192-93), and the Palace of Picus is not only a repository of cultural memory but also the seat of government (7.173-76). At Pallanteum, the annual festival at the Ara Maxima engages the entire state: Evander, as king (rex Arcas, 8.102), presides over the celebration along with his senate and aristocracy (8.104-106). 

While memory and identity have long been studied in connection with the Aeneid’s construction of contemporary Roman identity, this paper newly examines the construction of ethnicity among Vergil’s characters, inside the epic’s fictional world. It builds principally on the Vergilian scholarship of Reed (2007), Syed (2005), Seider (2013), Nakata (2012), and others, and engages an interdisciplinary framework assembled from classical studies alongside sociology and political theory. In tracing the correspondences between the discourses of memory, identity, and politics inside and outside of the poem, this paper 

highlights another way in which the Aeneid engages with Augustan ideology—namely, by replicating the very rhetoric of Roman memory and identity on which the principate’s self-representation relied, a rhetoric in which Vergil’s own epic, an ideologically-charged retelling of a Roman foundation myth, is itself participating.

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What's in a Name?: Race Ethnicity and Cultural Identity in the Poetry of Vergil

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