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What's Past is Prologue: Roman Identity and the Trojan Cycle in the Aeneid

Jennifer Weintritt

Yale University

In the Aeneid, a change in names indicates a significant historical shift. Long before Juno’s reconciliation, Jupiter remarks that Ascanius, “once called Ilus, while Troy still stood sovereign, is now Iulus” (1.267-8). Likewise, in Book 6, name change encapsulates the rise and fall of cities: Gabii, Fidenae, and the like “at some time will be names, but now they are lands without names” (6.773-6). For Vergil’s readers, these Alban cities, eclipsed by Rome, are once again nameless (Feeney). So too, nomenclature marks the end of an era as it subsides for another in Book 12. With the adoption of the Latin name at Juno’s demand, Vergil declares the Aeneid the last act of the Trojans and the beginning of a new, Roman cycle.

            This paper will examine how Juno’s interdiction against the Trojan name addresses questions about Roman cultural identity by defining the Aeneid’s relationship with the larger Trojan War narrative of the Epic Cycle. While Aeneas, Diomedes, and other mortals reassess the calamities of the Iliou Persis and Nostoi through focalized ecphrasis (Barchiesi) and internal narration (Fletcher; Hardie), divine actors seek the deep causes of the present in the master narrative of Jupiter’s divine will, introduced in the Cypria (Sammons; Mitchell-Boyask). Central to this debate are the clashing perspectives of Juno and Venus, who justify their interferences by constructing favorable narratives out of the Epic Cycle. Focusing on the concilium deorum of Book 10, I show how the goddesses’ conflicting versions of Cyclical history explore the Roman inheritance of Trojan identity. In response, I argue, to any unpalatable fusion of Trojan-Roman identity, Juno insists on the effacement of the Trojan name, a decision which also acts as a closural device for the poem and the Cycle into which it inserts itself.

            At the beginning of Book 10, Jupiter asks the assembled gods to explain the current state of affairs (10.6-14). Hearkening back to his grand teleological vision in Book 1 (O’Hara), Venus uses the language of repetition (iterum, alter, repetam, redde, revolvere casus) to argue that Juno re-enacts the Trojan War out of time and place. Troy rightly should be nascens (10.27) and recidiva (10.58), but Juno distorts the proper order of the Cycle by placing the Trojans once more under siege. Whereas Venus attempts to demonstrate that the Trojans’ past suffering demands a fresh start for their state in Italy, Juno subverts this teleology. She reframes key Cyclical events as a chain of cause-and-effect that now culminates not in well-deserved renewal, but in the Trojan and Italian conflict. Every hardship endured by the Trojans, Juno argues, leads back to Venus herself, to the promises she made in order to secure her victory in the Judgment of Paris (10.92-3). Juno’s speech is a triumphant refusal of personal responsibility. She transfers the causae motivating the poem, originally her memor ira (1.4), onto other agents: Venus, or even Jupiter, as far back as the Cypria.

Though rhetorically effective for Juno in her council speech, a seamless continuity between the Trojan state and the fated Roman empire only exacerbates the fears motivating her resistance (1.12-49; Beck). Thus, Juno’s reconciliation depends on signaling the end of this long series of embarrassing events and inhibiting the Trojans, at least, from doing her future harm. The sublimation of the Trojan name to the Latins accomplishes this, concluding her long crusade. Renaming the Trojans also brings to a close the poem’s parallel exploration of its epic heritage. Limitations, in the end, are placed on the strong sense of continuity with the Epic Cycle that the poem’s speakers cultivate, lest it spiral out of control: the Aeneid may place its origins in the Trojan Cycle—and Rome in Troy—but its identity must be distinct.

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