Aeneas receives his shield, made by Vulcan, from Venus
The conclusion of book eight of the Aeneid sees Aeneas and the Trojans preparing for battle against the Latins. On the advice of the river god, Tiberinus, Aeneas has sought out an alliance with the Arcadians, a local tribe who are also frequently in conflict with the Latins. Aeneas’s divine mother, Venus (Cytherea), fretting over her son’s prospects in battle, commissions her husband, Vulcan, to forge a set of armour for him, that will be stronger than anything made by human hands. As Aeneas sits contemplating the upcoming war, Venus brings the armour to him, which consists of a helmet, sword, corslet (breast and back plate), spear, and most significantly a shield, which is the subject of arguably the most complex and thematically significant piece of ekphrasis in the poem. The words that Virgil uses to describe the shield (a non enarrabile textum, an “unexplainable fabric”) convey that interpretation is dependent on the imagination of the reader – the shield needs to be seen in the mind as a tangible object. Through a combination of Vulcan’s artistic sculpturing (we are told of the various metals, colours, and textures the shield contains) and the narrator’s descriptive skill, the ineffable is made comprehensible.
The lengthy ekphrasis of the shield that follows expands upon its elaborate decoration, which features vignettes depicting various scenes from Rome’s future, the centrepiece being Augustus’s triumph at the battle of Actium, and the subsequent subjection of all nations under Rome’s glorious rule. The shield provides something of a whirlwind history of Rome from its origins with Romulus and Remus, leading up to the claiming of its status as a world-leading power. While the narrative frames the gifting of the armour to Aeneas around Venus’s concern for his safety, this is hardly its central function. The images represented on the shield embody the epic’s political message, and as Aeneas lifts the great shield into position, it is as if the entire fate of Roman glory rests upon his shoulders.
Comparisons have been frequently drawn between the shield given to Aeneas and that given to Achilles in the Iliad. As David West points out, however, there are significant differences in the functions that these pieces of armour serve for their recipients and the overall aims of Homer and Virgil. Achilles’s shield is very much required for battle, as his original armour has been lost in battle. Decorated with images of agriculture and peaceful city scenes, the shield provides a serene contrast to the bloody battles of the epic, and offers an optimistic image of post-war everyday life. Aeneas’s shield, on the other hand, has an entirely political function. Aeneas, unlike Achilles, still has his original armour, and there would be nothing to prevent him using it in the battle against Turnus and the Latins. Venus’s gift to her son is more than simply a protection aid - it is an object that embodies the “legendary authentication of the Augustan principate” (David West, “Cernere erat: The Shield of Aeneas,” p. 296) and inspires Aeneas to pursue his fate. He is filled with awe as he beholds scenes he is unable to understand, but must commit himself to setting in motion nonetheless. The events recorded on the shield, of course, will occur long after Aeneas’s own lifetime, but the war he embarks upon will start a chain reaction culminating in the glorious arrival of the Augustan age.
There have been numerous suggestions regarding Virgil’s selection criteria for the scenes that the shield holds. For David West, Virgil simply chose vivid, eye-catching scenes which were both artistically striking and popular, and that the reader could imagine working on a real shield. The colours and textures Virgil describes, such as the green of Mars’s cave, the gold of the Gaul’s hair and clothes, the blue swelling ocean surrounding the centre panel, and the rough thatching of Romulus’s cottage on the Capitol (perceptible to a 1st century audience due to its frequent replacement on Augustus’s Palatine version, built to further his association with Romulus) were easily imaginable, especially given that many of the images described were popular subjects of Roman art. In a similar vein, but taking a slightly more systematic angle on Virgil’s selection, Alexander McKay argues that Virgil is doing something more than simply selecting his vignettes based upon their artistic potential and popularity. He demonstrates that the shield presents a series of images that can be strongly associated with the monumental and topographical landmarks of the victory parade route through Rome taken by Octavian in celebration of his triple triumph in 29 BCE (Illyricum, Actium, and Egypt). The selection of material on the shield therefore commemorates Roman triumphs through its own celebratory procession. This is a creative suggestion, but appeals more so than that of David West, whose argument fails to account for images such as that of Cloelia, which were not particularly popular in Roman artistic representation. McKay envisages the layout of the shield as consisting of an outer and an inner ring, each with four panels, and a central panel (see the diagram below). Michael Putnam is hesitant to suggest a formal layout for the shield, taking only the vague indications given by Virgil as to the positions of certain scenes in relation to one another.
The description begins at Rome’s origins, describing the cave of Mars and the twins with the nursing she-wolf (VIII.630-634). For McKay, this represents the start of Octavian’s parade route at the south west corner of the Palatine. The second panel, depicting the rape of the Sabine women (VIII.635-641) is close (nec procul hinc) to the first (and we can interpret this both in terms of physical location and historical chronology). For McKay, this can be easily fitted into another important landmark on the parade route - the Circus Maximus, where the atmosphere is apt for the event that is illustrated, the huge crowds enjoying the games as Romulus’s men violently seize the Sabines, lured into the city under false pretences. Indeed, the Basilica Aemilia, which was on the parade route, features a frieze including the rape of the Sabines. Virgil places the peace-making treaty with the Sabines in the temple of Jupiter Feretrius on the Capitoline (VIII.639-641), in situ at the top of the shield, in between the depictions of the twins and the Sabines. Close to this (haud procul inde) the third panel shows the horrific execution of Mettius (Mettus in Virgil’s account) Fufetius, the Alban dictator, executed by the third king of Rome, Tullus Hostilius, his body rent apart by four-horse drawn chariots (VIII.642-645). As Richard Thomas identifies (Virgil and the Augustan Reception, p. 199), the violent rape of the Sabines and the horrific execution of Mettius Fufetius stand as reminders that Rome’s future sees its fair share of treachery and darkness. This is something that Robert Gurval elaborates upon. Guval specifically examines Virgil’s representation of Actium on the shield, and argues that the poet did not intend it as a piece of political panegyric, but rather it represents his personal reflections upon an event which he deemed extremely significant. For Gurval, viewing the shield’s ekphrasis purely as a salute to Roman military prowess and imperial glory is too simplistic. Rather, it created a new ‘Augustan’ conception of Actium, which understood the battle as the culmination of the events depicted in the images that surround it (see Robert Gurval, “No, Virgil, No”). These scenes of war, suffering, treason, and civil conflict are not erased by the glory of Actium, rather, the triumph and hope of the new Augustan age sees Virgil reflect upon the times of misery and darkness that have gone before.
Concluding the tour through Rome’s “regal” history, Lars Porsenna, the Etruscan king, battles to reinstate Tarquinius Superbus. He is surrounded by images of Horatius Cocles, who bravely defended Rome at the Sublician bridge against the attacking king, and Cloelia, the legendary young girl who swam across the Tiber and subsequently was granted freedom, along with other prisoners of war, such had she impressed Porsenna with her bravery (VIII.646-651). Virgil now describes a selection of Republican images, beginning with a tripartite panel featuring Torquatus defending the Tarpeian citadel and the Temple of Jupiter. Romulus’s thatched hut accompanies this, along with the silver goose sent by Juno to warn of the Gauls’ imminent attack (VIII.652-662). The image of the attack of the Gauls evokes for McKay two vital monuments of Rome’s birth and development – the hut of Romulus and the Temple of Jupiter, which stood as a reminder of Rome’s sacred power.
The celebratory dancing of the Salii, the Dancing Priests of Mars (VIII.663-669), the Luperci, and matrons, who having donated gold to the Republic, travelled in carriages through the city by way of recognition, symbolise the importance of religious and cult practices in the sustainment of Rome. The next image is placed a distance apart (hinc procul), representative of the three-century shift that now occurs in the imagery, as we skip to the Catiline conspiracy of 63 BCE, also the year Octavian was born, with the famous conspirator tortured in the underworld. Accompanying this grisly scene is the happier image of Marcus Porcius Cato, famed for his outstanding principles and complete devotion to the Republic – he stands here as the personification of justice and morality.
The battle of Actium provides the highlight of the shield (VIII.671-713), and Virgil devotes significant space to its description. Philip Hardie has drawn attention to the apparent use in the Actium description of the Gigantomachy (an epic battle of Greek mythology between the Giants and the Olympian gods). In order to infuse the battle of Actium with the grandeur that Virgil believed it needed, he describes it in almost super-human terms, imagining the battle on the scale of mythical war involving terrifying beasts (see Philip Hardie, Virgil’s Aeneid, p. 98). Actium signified something of cosmological importance, and therefore Augustus’s enemies, while mortal, needed to be extra daunting. Just as Iliad 20 describes the Olympian gods at war with one another, the shield of Aeneas describes the conflict between the Roman gods and the “monstrous” Egyptian gods (VIII.698-705). Hardie draws a comparison with Horace’s Odes, in which the Gigantomachy account emphasises not the battle itself, but the physical monstrousness of the Giants and the Olympians (Odes III.4.49-64). This comparison between the iconography common to both Virgil and traditions surrounding the Gigantomachy signifies the monumental importance of Actium as an event, and for Hardie implies that Augustus’s victory brought order on a universal scale.
Finally, Virgil describes Rome’s new leader (VIII.714-731). Octavian’s triumphant entry into the city can be imagined here in all its glory, as Virgil describes his golden carved figure sitting aloft the Temple of Palatine Apollo (possibly signifying his status at this point as in between the mortal and the divine), looking down on the peoples that are now subjected unto him, with his war spoils placed prominently at his side. The dolphins surrounding the central section might be representative of the common association of these creatures with Apollo and Venus, and it might also be noteworthy that the famous statue of Augustus from the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta has a dolphin at its base supporting Cupid.
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