Recent commentators on Aeneid 8 have enjoyed gently mocking James Henry’s 19th-century question about the depiction, in the hymn to Hercules at 8.287-305, of Cerberus with half-eaten bones in his bloody underworld chamber: ossa super recubans antro semesa cruento (297). “Where did he get his bones in that region of shadows? … Is the omission Virgil’s or of Virgil’s religion? I am inclined to think, of the latter. ” But neither Henry nor later commentators are asking the right question, which is why Vergil depicts Cerberus as gnawing on bones in a bloody doghouse. My answer is that these lines, from the hymn that Evander’s people sing after his story of Hercules’ killing of Cacus, are part of a consistent portrayal of Evander’s extreme fondness for blood, gore, and killing, a fondness he shares with no other speaker in the poem. Attention to this aspect of the depiction of Evander both solves a number of puzzles, and has interesting consequences for how we view everything he says in the Aeneid, including his story of Hercules and Cacus and its potential to provide an exemplum for Aeneas, his comments about Mezentius, and his demand in 11.177-81 that Aeneas avenge the death of his son Pallas by killing Turnus, which in part motivates the actions of the poem’s famous closing lines.
The noteworthy and largely unnoticed details start with Evander's Hercules-Cacus story: Cacus’ lair is wet with fresh slaughter (semperque recenti / caede tepebat humus 195-6), and his victims’ heads drip gore from his doorposts (ora uirum tristi pendebant pallida tabo 197). When Hercules kills Cacus he squeezes his neck so hard his eyes pop out (angit inhaerens / elisos oculos et siccum sanguine guttur 260-61). The hymn to Hercules boasts of the hero’s sacking of both Troy, the city of Evander’s guests, and Oechalia. It then lists as a feat the killing of two centaurs “by hand” (manu … mactas 294), but in most versions Hercules’ host Pholus dies after accidentally touching a poisoned arrow, after Hercules brawls with other centaurs whose wine he had drunk without permission. As Fordyce notes, “not a very creditable exploit”—but it must be to the singers of the hymn. The next words say that Hercules killed the Cretan bull (294-5), which all other versions say he captured alive as ordered. Two lines later comes the reference to Cerberus’ curiously bloody cave.Later passages of Book 8 continue the stress on killing and gore. On the future site of Rome, Evander tells Aeneas about the Argiletum, named for a guest of his who was somehow killed (345-6), perhaps by Evander or by his people (Servius). Evander tells Aeneas he was driven from his home (333) but not why: Servius says it was for killing his father and/or mother.When telling Aeneas about Mezentius, Evander says he ties living men to corpses so that they die amidst liquid gore and filth (sanie taboque fluentis, 487); Mezentius, like Cacus (cf. tabo, 197, quoted above), is depicted as a monster. Mezentius will be a fierce killer in Book 10, but not a monster—and of course Vergil’s first readers will have recently read in Livy 1 a Hercules-Cacus story in which Cacus is not a monster either.
Evander is in some ways a sweet old man who represents the alliance of Greek and Roman (Papaioannou), and readers share his sorrow at the loss of his son. But he also displays a Tarentino-esque interest in killing and gore that complicates his status as the Romanae conditor arcis (8.313). Some of these details have been noticed by scholars working on individual passages, but they have never been pulled together; attention to them complements recent work on violence in the Aeneid (Lowrie, Morgan), the figures of Hercules (Petrini, Newman, Heiden) and Mezentius (Gotoff, Kronenberg), and of course the end of the poem (too numerous to mention).
- Fordyce, C. J. (1977) P. Vergili Maronis Aeneidos Libri VII-VIII with a Commentary Oxford.
- Heiden, Bruce (1987) “Laudes Herculeae: Suppressed Savagery in the Hymn to Hercules, Verg. A. 8.285-305,” AJPh 108, 661-71.
- Henry, James (1873-92) Aeneidea, or critical, exegetical, and aesthetical remarks on the Aeneid. 5 vols. Dublin and London.
- Lowrie, Michèle (2005) “Vergil and Founding Violence,” Cardozo Law Review 27: 945-76.
- Morgan, Llewelyn (1998) “Assimilation and Civil War: Hercules and Cacus: Aen. 8.185–267,” in H.-P.Stahl ed. Vergil’s Aeneid:Augustan Epic and Political Context, London, Swansea, 175-197.
- Newman, John K. (2002) “Hercules in the Aeneid. The dementia of power,” in Defosse, Pol (ed.) Hommages à Carl Deroux. I. Poésie. Collection Latomus 266. Brussels, 398-411.
- Papaioannou, S. (2003) “Founder, Civilizer and Leader: Vergil's Evander and his Role in the Origins of Rome,” Mnemosyne 56.6: 680-702.
- Petrini, Mark (1997) The Child and the hero: coming of age in Catullus and Vergil. Ann Arbor.