Skip to main content

It has long been recognized that there are significant differences between the account of Aeneas’ opponent Mezentius, the king of the Etruscan city Caere, in the traditional stories that were written down in the 2nd century BC by Cato the Censor in his Origines (fragments 9-12 Peter) and later by Roman historians such as Livy (1.2) and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Ant. Rom. 1.64-65), and that in Books 7-10 of the Aeneid, in which Vergil incorporated various aspects of other mythological figures (e.g., Polyphemus and Ajax) into his portrait of Mezentius. In this talk I present evidence that Vergil’s imaginary portrait of Mezentius as an Etruscan tyrant was based heavily on the traditional tales of the tyrannical behavior of Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome.

In the traditional tales, Mezentius came to the aid of Turnus, the king of the Rutuli, and together they fought against Aeneas’ Trojans and the Latins a great battle, in which both Turnus and Aeneas died but Mezentius survived. Later, a war broke out between the Latins, who were ruled by Aeneas’ son Ascanius, and Mezentius, in which Ascanius defeated Mezentius and either killed him (thus Cato) or after killing his son Lausus forced him to sue for peace (thus Dionysius). In the Aeneid, however, Vergil makes Aeneas kill first Lausus (Aen. 10.791-832) and next Mezentius (Aen. 10.873-908), before eventually killing also Turnus in the concluding verses of Book 12. Clearly Vergil felt under no compulsion to adhere closely to the traditional versions of the war(s) fought by the Trojan immigrants to Latium against Turnus and Mezentius.

Another innovation in Vergil’s portrayal of Mezentius is that he makes the Etruscan king not the current ruler of Caere (a.k.a. Agylla), but rather an exile from that city who had taken refuge with Turnus after he had been driven out by its citizens, after their patience had been exhausted by his tyrannical misbehavior (Aen. 8.478-495). There are close parallels between Vergil’s portrait of Mezentius as a murderous oppressor of his own citizens and the traditional portrait of the last Tarquin king of Rome. After seizing power in Rome, which had flourished for over 200 years, Tarquinius Superbus surrounded himself with a bodyguard (Livy 1.49.2: armatis corpus circumsaepsit) and proceeded to begin purges of the leading senators who had favored Servius Tullius, which Livy calls “the king’s slaughters” (2.1.10: caedibus regis). The diction employed by Livy to describe Superbus’ misdeeds at Rome is strikingly similar to that in Euander’s description of Mezentius’ tyrannical misdeeds at Agylla in Aen. 8.481-484:

hanc multos florentem annos rex deinde superbo

imperio et saevis tenuit Mezentius armis.

quid memorem infandas caedes, quid facta tyranni

effera? di capiti ipsius generique reservent!

There are other parallels too between the flights into exile of Tarquinius Superbus and Mezentius. When news of the revolution at Rome reached Tarquinius Superbus, who was besieging Ardea, a city of the Rutuli, he left camp and returned to Rome, where the citizens had closed the gates, and then went into exile at Caere (Livy 1.60.1-2). Conversely, Vergil says Mezentius fled from Caere and went into exile at Ardea, the native city of the Rutulian Turnus. Hence Vergil’s imaginary flight of Mezentius from Caere to Ardea is the reverse of the traditional flight of Tarquinius Superbus from Ardea to Caere.

To the best of my knowledge these parallels,which are not mentioned in the commentaries on the Aeneid by Conington and Nettleship or by R.D. Williams, nor in those by Eden on Aeneid 8 or Fordyce on Aeneid 7-8, nor in any other work known to me, have not been noticed before. They strongly suggest that Vergil substantially altered the traditional portrait of the Etruscan king Mezentius, which he had found in Cato’s Origines and other sources, by introducing into it traditional aspects of the tyrannical behavior of the last Tarquin king of Rome.