The Classical Quarterly (New Series)

Research Article

The Criminals in Virgil's Tartarus: Contemporary Allusions in Aeneid 6.621–4

D. H. Berrya1

a1 University of Leeds

At Aen. 6.562–627 the Sibyl gives Aeneas a description of the criminals in Tartarus and the punishments to which they are condemned. The criminals are presented to us in several groups. The first consists of mythical figures, the Titans (580–1), the sons of Aloeus (582–4), Salmoneus (585–94), Tityos (595–600) and Ixion and Pirithous (601–7). Next Virgil turns away from mythical figures to particular categories of criminal. He mentions those who hated their brothers, who assaulted a parent, who cheated a cliens, who gloated over wealth they had acquired without setting aside a part for their family, who were put to death for adultery, and those who, breaking their masters' (‘dominorum’, 613) trust, made war on their country (608–14). The reference to the contemporary scene is unmistakable. The mention of a cliens (609) indicates that we have moved from Greece to Rome. Moreover, ‘quique ob adulterium caesi’ (612) brings to mind Augustus' concern over moral standards, the subject of legislation in 28 B.c., 18 B.c. and A.d. 9; the lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis (18 B.c., but no doubt in the air for some time previously) gave to fathers of adulteresses the right to put to death both guilty parties. Thirdly, ‘arma...impia’ (612–13) is an obvious reference to civil war (cf. Geo. 1.511–14; Aen. 1.294–6), which as Servius argues is more narrowly defined by ‘nee veriti dominorum fallere dextras’ (613) so as to exclude Caesar and Octavian: undoubtedly the allusion is to the war against Sextus Pompeius, which Augustan propaganda chose to represent as a war against runaway slaves. Virgil continues by sketching the penalties paid in Tartarus by such men (614–17). While doing so, however, he retreats once again into the realm of mythology: the punishments he describes are those more normally associated with Sisyphus and Ixion (rolling a stone uphill, suspension on a wheel). This reversion is completed at 617–20 where, confusingly, Virgil denies that he has been alluding to events of contemporary significance by naming two mythical personages, Theseus and Phlegyas (the father of Ixion). Virgil therefore implies, but then denies, contemporary relevance. It is this kind of protean elusiveness (most marked, perhaps, in the Eclogues) which makes the contemporary allusions in Virgil so difficult to pin down.