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Sacrificial Acrostics and the Fall of Great Cities in Latin Epic

Julia Hejduk

Baylor University

The Romans were deeply aware that civilizations rise and fall through bloodshed.  The killing of individual humans, from Turnus to Romulus, marked the legendary foundation of their own city, with only a fine line separating the slaughter of battle from the ritual slaughter of human sacrifice (James 1995; Dyson 2001).  This paper argues that an intertextual acrostic conversation, spanning significant passages in Virgil, Ovid, and Lucan, explores the connections among human sacrifice, the “sacrifice” of Troy, and the eventual fall of Rome.

First, I demonstrate that fieri, which can mean both “be given” (OLD 8a) and, in an impersonal sense, “a sacrifice is offered” (OLD 13b), can also mean “be sacrificed.”  This slightly extended sense solves a notorious textual problem in Ovid’s Fasti.  The poet tells us that a dog is placed (imponitur, 4.941) on the altar as a substitute for the Dog Star, et, quare fiat, nil nisi nomen habet (942), which Frazer and Goold (1931/1989: 259) translate as “and the only reason why this happens is his name,” creating an awkward change of subject that leads some editors to prefer pereat to fiat (Fantham 1998: 272).  Recognizing that fiat can take the dog as its subject, however, yields even better sense:  “he has no reason to be sacrificed except his name.”

Next, I discuss a long, cryptic, yet highly appropriate acrostic in the Aeneid passage where Venus shows Aeneas the gods destroying Troy and the city crashes down like a tree:  FI IIS EN DANT IACE (Aen. 2.614-28).  Acrostics allow permanently unresolvable ambiguity, conveying multiple meanings and “voices” simultaneously in a way not possible in the horizontal text.  Since dant can mean “they offer (to the gods)” (OLD 1b), this sentence could be addressed to the city of Troy:  “Be sacrificed to them (the gods)!  Look, they’re making an offering (of you); lie dead!” (iacē from iaceo).  Yet it could also be addressed to Aeneas:  “Be given to them (the gods)!  Look, they’re making an offering (of Troy); cast it away!” (iacĕ from iacio). 

Vertical allusions to this acrostic in later authors help confirm its intentionality.  As the Greek ships touch Phrygian sand in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an acrostic spans the digression on the House of Fama:  AMO CUI FIANT (Met. 12.37-47).  Following on the sacrifice of Iphigeneia (27-35), the acrostic conveys Fama’s thoughts as the war with its countless human casualties commences:  “I love one to whom sacrifices are made!”  While Ovid’s acrostic marks the beginning of the story culminating in the fall of Troy, Lucan’s links the fall of Troy with the impending fall of Rome, following his invocation of Nero as the Delphic god inspiring the poet as his Sibyl—a ripe location for acrostics (Katz 2013):  AST FI IIS (BC 1.64-71).  This mantic statement could be addressed to the emperor, “But be sacrificed to them!”, confirming the subversive irony many have seen in Lucan’s ostensibly flattering invocation (Kessler 2011).  But as a quotation of Virgil, “But [remember the] ‘Be sacrificed to them!’,” it suggests that Rome, like Troy, is doomed to come crashing down.

Freed from the constraints of meter, persona, and authorial responsibility, the vertical axis offered docti poetae a powerful means of expanding the polyphony we now recognize as an essential feature of Latin poetry.  These and other “sacrificial acrostics,” far from being trivial jeux d’esprit (Fowler 1983), offer us insight into the poets’ understanding of the role of human sacrifice in the rise and fall of civilizations, including their own. 

Session/Panel Title

Epic Gods Imperial City: Religion and Ritual in Latin Epic from Beginnings to Late Antiquity

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