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Shared Suffering and Cyclic Destruction: Failures of Environmental Control in the Aeneid

Aaron M. Seider

College of the Holy Cross

In its depictions of Aeneas’ wanderings in Aeneid 3 and struggles to secure a home in Aeneid 12, Vergil’s epic foregrounds the ruinous consequences of the desire for environmental mastery. When, for instance, a religious ritual in Thrace produces blood and an attack with a boundary stone falls short, such events reveal the Trojans and Latins’ inability to understand and order the environment. Engaging with scholarship on ecocriticism and classical antiquity (Holmes; McInerney and Sluiter; Schliephake; Hunt and Marlow) and on the environment in Roman culture and the Aeneid (Thomas; Evans; Coo; Vout; Armstrong), I concentrate on how these scenes reveal fractures in humanity’s relationship with nature. I argue that characters’ failed efforts to control the environment produce suffering and destruction, and my conclusion explores how these portents of environmental collapse open a dialogue with contemporary ideas in the environmental humanities.

As Aeneas searches for a home in Aeneid 3, the natural environment plays the role of a living entity whose suffering the Trojans cause and share. First, terror seizes them in Thrace. The branches Aeneas pulls for an altar bleed and the bush reveals itself as Polydorus, an erstwhile companion transformed by the spears that killed him. The repetition of sanguis to designate the blood of the bush (3.28, 33) and Aeneas (3.30) erases the human/nature boundary while emphasizing that pain that envelops both. In Crete, pain again crosses the border between humans and the landscape. After they settle in the wrong location, Aeneas relates how a “consuming and wretched sickness rained down on our limbs from the spoiled sky” (tabida membris, / corrupto caeli tractu, miserandaque venit / … lues, 3.137-9). Polluting the landscape and repelling the Trojans, this plague reifies the cost of environmental misapprehension.

In Aeneid 12 the Trojans and Latins fight over Italian territory, and their attempts to manage the built environment produce chaos and destruction. When Aeneas sees Latinus’ city standing unscathed, “the image of a greater fight incites him” (pugnae accendit maioris imago, 12.560), and this memory of Troy’s loss inspires him to move to raze the Latins’ walls. Here, the interweaving of past and future visions of ruin emphasizes the cyclical destruction inflicted on the environment by aspirations of political mastery. Later, Turnus hurls a stone at Aeneas and misses. This stone, the narrator emphasizes, was once “placed as a boundary in the field to settle conflicts” (limes agro positus, litem ut discerneret arvis, 12.898), and Turnus’ failed weaponization of such a marker highlights the futility of human attempts to order the landscape.

My conclusion explores the repercussions of the suffering and destruction that arise from the characters’ efforts to control the natural and built environments in Aeneid 3 and 12. Revisiting Rome’s promised “empire without end” (imperium sine fine, 1.279) from the perspective of environmental theory, I consider how the epic’s imagination of human and environmental fragility destabilizes hopes of properly perceiving the natural world, let alone exercising permanent control over it.

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Latin Literature and the Environmental Humanities: Challenges and Perspectives

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