Friday, September 16, 2011


impastus stabula alta leo ceu saepe peragrans
(suadet enim vesana fames), si forte fugacem
conspexit capream aut surgentem in cornua cervum,
gaudet hians immane comasque arrexit et haeret
visceribus super incumbens; lavit improba taeter
ora cruor—
sic ruit in densos alacer Mezentius hostis.
sternitur infelix Acron et calcibus atram
tundit humum exspirans infractaque tela cruentat.
atque idem fugientem haud est dignatus Oroden
sternere nec iacta caecum dare cuspide vulnus;
obvius adversoque occurrit seque viro vir
contulit, haud furto melior sed fortibus armis.
tum super abiectum posito pede nixus et hasta:
'pars belli haud temnenda, viri, iacet altus Orodes.'
conclamant socii laetum paeana secuti;
ille autem exspirans: 'non me, quicumque es, inulto,
victor, nec longum laetabere; te quoque fata
prospectant paria atque eadem mox arva tenebis.'
ad quem subridens mixta Mezentius ira:
'nunc morere. ast de me divum pater atque hominum rex
viderit.' hoc dicens eduxit corpore telum.
(Aeneid X.723-744)

How does this extract display the heroic qualities of Mezentius? In your answer refer to both the content and the language of the extract, and to Mezentius’ speech and actions.

Mezentius is presented as the archetypal Homeric hero in Aeneid X. He is of course a mighty warrior and Aeneas’ chief adversary in the absence of Turnus. But his heroism is also seen in his fierce independence, arrogance and scorn for his enemies. Indeed his heroism is just as apparent in his flaws as in his virtues.

Mezentius’ great prowess as a warrior is his most obvious heroic trait. Virgil shows us his daring as he eagerly (alacer) rushes in to the thick of the battle, with the choice of the adjective and the use of present tense verbs (ruit, sternitur, tundit; the latter two given extra emphasis through their position at the start of a line) combining to make the action seem more immediate to the reader and thus create a deeper impression of his courage in the face of danger. The chiasmus (densos… hostis) also draws our attention to these words, highlighting the fact that Mezentius chooses to throw himself into the most dangerous (densos) part of the battle, again illustrating his courage. The chiasmus also cleverly reflects Mezentius’ situation, in the middle of the surrounding enemy. Mezentius’ decision to confront Orodes face to face also displays his bravery. The contrast between furto and fortibus armis shows Mezentius’ clearly superior strength and his rejection of sneaky, dishonourable tactics (caecum… vulnus). Virgil’s repetition and juxtaposition of viro vir also highlights the confrontation between the two men, and the unusual monosyllabic line ending gives the line an added impact on the ear of the reader.

The simile used in the opening lines of the extract also contributes to Virgil’s depiction of Mezentius as a hero. The simile has a clear Homeric flavour, and, in combination with the other similes describing Mezentius in Book X, clearly shows us the kind of hero Virgil intends him to be – firmly in the mold of Homer’s heroes, such as Achilles or Ajax. In this particular simile Mezentius is compared to a lion driven wild by hunger (another chiasmus – impastus… leo). Virgil’s choice of words such as vesana, gaudet and haeret visceribus effectively bring out the savage violence of the lion and hence Mezentius, displaying the kind of viciousness typical of a Homeric hero. The final image of the simile, that of the lion’s jaws awash with foul blood (lavit… cruor), is particularly gruesome and the juxtapostion of the negative adjectives improba and taeter paints a graphic picture of Mezentius’ savagery in the mind of the reader. The alliteration within the simile, for example of fames… forte fugacem or conspexit capream… cornua cervum, also adds to the effectiveness of these lines. The harsh sounds assist Virgil to describe the scene in a way which strikes the ears in a particularly powerful and memorable way, giving his depiction of the hero Mezentius greater depth and an increased vividness.

Mezentius’ arrogance is another important part of his heroic character. We see this especially in the way he treats his slain enemies. Both his actions and his words, for example, show disrespect to Orodes. He puts his foot on the dying man (pede posito), stands over him (super) to display his dominance and cruelly leans on the spear (nixus et hasta) which is still inside the dying man’s body (cf. line 744). His actions show no pity for the man he has wounded, in the same way that Turnus behaved towards the body of Pallas and in clear contrast to Aeneas’ actions towards the slain Lausus. Mezentius’ words also show his scorn. His speech is full of pride in his own strength as he describes Orodes as pars belli haud temnenda and altus Orodes. The sarcastic tone of these lines conveys Mezentius as a proud and boastful man. This can also be seen in his failure to heed Orodes' warning that he too will soon die (te quoque fata prospectant paria). Instead of showing humility before the gods Mezentius flies into a rage (ira), issues the blunt imperative nunc morere (the short clause effectively conveying Mezentius’ scorn again) and proudly challenges Jupiter’s power (divum pater). Such hubris is antithetical to the pietas of Aeneas, and is clearly censured by Virgil in the Aeneid, but it is still an important and typical part of the Homeric model of heroism, seen especially in the interaction between Achilles and the dying Hector, on which Virgil’s scene is clearly modelled.

And so Mezentius’ flawed heroism can be clearly seen in this extract. He is clearly a formidable warrior, with strength and bravery and also displays the arrogant pride in his own power, and the scorn for his slain enemies which typifies the Heroes of Homer’s epic poems.

Comments and criticisms are welcome!

1 comment:

Andrew C-McC said...

It's ironic that, although Mezentius is 'contemptor divum', he goes into action at Jupiter's behest ('Iovis monitis') -- even though Jupiter has sworn by the river Styx not to interfere! And when the doomed Mezentius asks to be buried next to his son Lausus, Aeneas doesn't reply -- which gives us a clue that we should not expect Aeneas to return Turnus's body to his father Daunus at the end.