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Filial Piety and Menoetes' Fall in Aeneid 5

Hannah Sorscher

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

     During Anchises’ funeral games in Aeneid 5, the helmsman Menoetes is thrown overboard by his captain, Gyas. Nearly drowning, he struggles to shore, to the laughter of Trojan spectators (5.159–82). Menoetes’ predicament has attracted little attention besides comparison to Palinurus’ fall (e.g., Putnam, Köves-Zulauf, Fratantuono and Smith). Although scholars discuss Gyas’ violence (e.g., Nicoll, Delvigo, Fratantuono and Smith), many see the Trojans’ laughter as a rare moment of lightheartedness (e.g., Knapp, Otis, Putnam, Rose, Feldherr, Farrell 2012). I argue that Vergil depicts Menoetes as an elder and father-figure disrespected by his comrades. Their laughter at his near-death experience complicates the filial piety of the Trojans just as they aim to found a city ostensibly based on that very virtue.

     Menoetes’ epithet senior (5.179) is especially significant in Book 5, which features age, generations, kinship, parenthood, and Roman ancestry as major themes (e.g., Bertram, Pavlovskis, Holt, Heinze, Feldherr, Farrell 1999, 2012). The adjective also indicates that he deserves similar respect as those called senior earlier, arguably the most important father-figures in both Greek and Latin epic poetry—Anchises (2.692), the honorand of the games, and Priam (2.509, 2.544). Other admired seniores in Book 5 include Acestes (5.301, 573); Nautes (5.704, 719, 729), and Entellus (5.409).

     Senior intensifies both Priam’s struggle with the weight of his armor (2.509–11), and Menoetes’ trouble swimming in waterlogged garments (5.178–79). Stabbed by Pyrrhus, Priam is described with accusative present participles (2.550–51, trementem, lapsantem); Menoetes is described similarly (5.181–82, labentem, natantem, revomentem). These verbal parallels, as well as meter and syntax, align him with Priam, and the laughing Trojans with the murderous Pyrrhus. Gyas is likened to Pyrrhus as a youth (5.172, iuveni; 2.473, iuventa) with youthful companions (2.477, Scyria pubes; 5.119, pubes … Dardana), destructive emotion (5.172, exarsit; 2.529, ardens), and most importantly, as treating an older man with violence. These parallels are strengthened by numerous other recollections of the fall of Troy in Book 5 (e.g., Rose, Putnam, Petrini, Fratantuono and Smith).

     The Trojans’ laughter is also problematic because of its Homeric analogue, when Ajax is ridiculed after he slips during Patroclus’ games (Il. 23.773–96). Vergil transfers details from this scene to his boat race rather than the footrace (Knauer): outside intervention (Gyas’ and Athena’s) causes both falls (5.172–75, Il. 23.782); both men spit out the material they fall into (Il. 23.781, ἀποπτύων; Aen. 5.182, revomentem) and endure mocking spectators (Il. 23.784, γέλασσαν; Aen. 5.181–82, risere, rident). But after Ajax’s fall, Antilochus, the youngest Greek warrior, espouses the value of older men (Il. 23.787–92). In Aeneid 5, despite Vergil’s focus on age and Menoetes’ epithet senior, affirmation by younger warriors of their elders’ continuing worth is conspicuously absent.

     Menoetes’ subtle but overdetermined episode likens him to Priam, Anchises, and any respected elder. The violence and ridicule he suffers undermine the character of Aeneas’ comrades, and introduce a note of discord to a book dedicated to promoting filial pietas.

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Augustan Poetry

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