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Pirates and Pietas: Sextus Pompey and the Ship Race in Aeneid 5

Elizabeth M Heintges

Columbia University

The ship race off the western coast of Sicily that dominates the funeral games for Anchises in Aeneid 5 (114-285) has long invited a range of interpretations beyond the intertextual. Commonly read as a temporal and narrative turning-point (e.g., Galinsky 1968, Holt 1979, Spence 2002, Fratantuono and Smith 2015), the race offers paradigms of moral behavior relevant to the epic through the figures of the ship captains; the victor Cloanthus finds a parallel in Aeneas himself, as he triumphs due to his pietas and proper supplication of the gods (Dunkle 2005). However, these interpretations often elide key resonances with contemporary political events to which the poem alludes, which can be gleaned through examinations of ancient historiographical and numismatic evidence.

This paper, building upon work that interrogates more nuanced historical resonances in Aeneid 5 (e.g., Feldherr 1995), argues that Cloanthus should be read not only as a counterpart to Aeneas himself but as an evocation of a more shadowy figure from recent history, Sextus Pompey, whose control of Sicily and the sea during the Civil Wars made him a troubling opponent, both ideologically and militarily, for Octavian.

Sextus Pompey has often been denigrated as a “pirate” rather than a significant actor on the Mediterranean stage, largely due to Augustus’s influential characterization in Res Gestae §25. Recent studies (e.g., Powell et al. 2002, Welch 2012) have sought to recover the substantive role that Sextus played during the 40s and 30s BCE and the wide-scale popularity that he enjoyed as the son of Pompeius Magnus, an inheritor of the Republican cause, and a protector of the proscribed. Sextus’ rehabilitation as an additional power broker to the likes of Octavian and Antony has inspired efforts to reconsider his presence (or palpable absence) in early imperial literature (e.g., Powell 2008, Gerrish 2016, Gowing 2002).

Several features of Cloanthus’ victory suggest correspondences with the historical Sextus. Cloanthus’s ship, the sea-blue Scylla (Scyllaque...caerulea, 5.122-123), is one of several monstrous vessels in the contest; it evokes the powerful sea-monster of Aeneid 3, but also several issues of Sextus’s coinage (RRC 511/2, 511/4), commemorating significant victories over Octavian’s fleets at Scyllaeum. The chlamys that Cloanthus receives as a prize (5.250-257) recalls Sextus’s practice of wearing a chlamys to signal his favor by Neptune (Dio 48.48); the cloak’s color is notably sea-blue in the literary sources—the same shade as Cloanthus’s ship and so too the color of the banner granted to Agrippa after his victory over Sextus at Naulochus in 36 BCE (App. BC 5.100, Dio 51.21). Finally, Cloanthus’s successful entreaty to the marine deities (5.235-243) invites comparison with Sextus’s association with pietas—as exemplified by his cognomen Pius and promoted through his coinage—and his notorious (reported) boast to be Neptune’s son. These claims posed serious impediments on Octavian’s own ideological messaging and were incorporated into his program after Naulochus. When viewing this episode against other sources, we gain new insight into how a seemingly minor character in Vergil’s Aeneidin fact occupies a much more substantial significance.

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Augustan Poetry

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