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Who Framed the acer Halaesus? The Unspoken Memory of the Faliscan People in Virgil's Aeneid

Anna Maria Cimino

Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa

The aim of my paper is to analyze the absent presence of the Faliscans in the Aeneid, starting with the problematic representation of their eponym hero, the acer Halaesus (Aen. 10.411).

Marta Sordi has already put forward this issue and underlined the relationship between the Aeneid and the Roman history of the IV century BC., insisting primarily on the possibility that Virgil had access to, and used different sources to reconstruct those events (SORDI: 1960; 1964). According to her interpretation, the poem becomes an allegorical tale of this crucial phase which saw the development of Roman hegemony in Italy. This approach, counting many followers (BARCHIESI: 2008), allows us to see how Vergil reworked the stories of the Italian peoples, conditioned by their political relationships with Rome and the social imagery that Rome had created for its allies and enemies.

The poem doesn’t dedicate much space to Faliscans, who more than other Italian peoples shared the fundamental features of language and culture with the Romans (BAKKUM: 2009). Unlike other ethnic groups, the Faliscans are never mentioned in the poem, except the single occurence of their ethnonym within the catalogue of Turnus’ allies (Aen. 7.695). Moreover, the memory of Falerii, seems to be completely forgotten, even though it was one of the most dynamic cities of the pre-Roman Italy and hosted a cult of Juno, still alive in the Augustan age (FARRELL: 2014). 

Following this line of argument, I will argue that Halaesus’ character represents the only element which enables the Faliscans to play a role from within, even if minimal, in the saga of Aeneas. Thus, they take part in the formation of the Italian identity, the process allegorically narrated in the wars of the Aeneid. In it, the presence of the Faliscan eponym appears limited to two passages. Analysing them, I want to cast a new light on some peculiarities that could hardly be missed by the ancient reader. Within the catalogue (Aen. 7.723-732), Halaesus, instead of being remembered as the eponym hero of Faliscans, is associated to the peoples of the Northern Campania, while the entire area of central Italy, which should have been part of his dominion, is assigned to Messapus (Aen. 7.691-705); this difficulty becomes more challenging if we know that it represents the only aporia in a passage that is punctual and careful to the historical data (BASSON: 1975). Instead, in the description of his murder (Aen. 10. 411-425), the poet romanizes the callimachean ipotext (Ep. 2 = AP 7. 80; HARRISON: 1991), adopting the technical language of the manus iniectio, in order to illustrate the mechanism, through which the Parcae redeem the soul of the Faliscan leader, promised to death since his youth (MAGDÉLAIN: 1982).

These details caught the attention of Vergil’s audience, who was well aware of this mythical character and who, in particular, could remember the recent history of Faliscans. Actually, as allies of Veii, Faliscans were defeated by the Romans. Even though they were a weak community, the rising Roman power constructed a complex image of them, exaggerating the merits of victory over them (LORETO: 1989). Hence, I want to show how the Aeneid, thanks to the negative connotation of Halaesus and the absent presence of Faliscans, involuntarily testifies to a kind of tabù of that enemy, present and diffused in Roman society, born during the wars against Veii.

To the question “what’s in the name of Halaesus?” I would reply that behind the etymological play that links the hero to the city he founded (Halaesus > Falerii) (WALLACE-JOSEPH: 1991) Virgil hid and retraced the story of the assimilation of the Trojans in the Latin identity. That is because Rome, once it conquered the Faliscans, integrated them in its political and administrative system and erased all their traces, enough to make them unrecognizable among the great variety of peoples who inhabited the area of Tiber at dawn of the civilization. 

Session/Panel Title

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

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