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L. Virgil in Medieval Icelandic

L. Virgil in Medieval Icelandic

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account of the fall of Troy in book 2. The Trojan War was of su≈cient interest

in Iceland to warrant the production of three di√erent redactions of a saga

called Trójumanna saga (Saga of the Troy-Men): mid thirteenth century in the

case of the Alpha redaction, somewhat later in the thirteenth century for the

Beta redaction, and early fourteenth century for the third redaction (which is

found in the literary compilation named Hauksbók, after its creator, Haukr

Erlendsson, an Icelander who died in Norway in 1334). The anonymous

redactors of this saga drew on sources other than Virgil, chiefly on the prose

De excidio Troiae historia (History of the Destruction of Troy, fifth or sixth

century), falsely ascribed to Dares of Phrygia, a Trojan priest of Hephaestus

(mentioned in Homer, Iliad 5.9). They supplemented this rather laconic and

dry account with other works concerning the Trojan War, such as the Ilias

latina (a Latin epitome of the Iliad in 1,070 hexameters that is conventionally

dated to the first century c.e. and has been ascribed to Baebius Italicus),

Ovid’s Heroides, and Virgil’s Aeneid.

The most extensive Virgilian passage in any redaction of this saga is the

passage that occurs in both the Beta and Hauksbók redactions after the end of

the Daretian account of how the Greeks won the war. (Text: J. Louis-Jensen,

ed., Trójumanna saga, Editiones Arnamagnaeanae, series A, vol. 8 [Copenhagen, 1963]. Because the text at this point is substantially the same in both

redactions, only the Hauksbók passage is translated below.) The Daretian

approach is rationalistic, avoiding marvels and the supernatural in its telling of

the Trojan War, and omitting even the stratagem of the Trojan horse as being

too unlikely and impractical. Though the Beta redactor and, following his

lead, Haukr Erlendsson adhere quite faithfully to Daretian tradition through

most of the saga, they evidently felt the need to follow up the rationalized

Daretian account with an alternative account that includes the Trojan horse

and devotes considerable attention to Aeneas. Book 2 of the Aeneid is clearly

the source of the account of Troy’s fall presented below.

The account of Troy’s fall in the Alpha redaction of the saga is very di√erent.

The Alpha redactor did not append an alternative Virgilian account of the fall

of Troy to his Daretian account; he simply followed the course of events set

down in De excidio Troiae historia, but with a single Virgilian interpolation: a

brief statement mentioning, rather incongruously, a wooden horse filled with

troops. (Text: J. Louis-Jensen, ed., Trójumanna saga: The Dares Phrygius Version, Editiones Arnamagnaeanae, series A, vol. 9 [Copenhagen, 1981]) At two

other points in the narrative, however, the Alpha redactor inserted two descriptive details that closely resemble details in the Aeneid. Both are concerned

with the Greek warrior Neoptolemus, or Pyrrhus, as he is also known, and

are inspired by Virgil’s description of him in book 2. In the translations of



passages from the Alpha redaction below, the specifically Virgilian content is

italicized to distinguish it from the surrounding Daretian narrative. LouisJensen calls the Alpha redaction the Dares of Phrygia (Dares Phrygius, in her

usage) version because it adheres most closely to De excidio Troiae historia and

includes the fewest interpolations from other sources. (RE)

1. Trojan Horse

(Text: Hauksbók redaction, ed. J. Louis-Jensen [1963], 215–33)

Here ends the saga that Dares told, and this saga is thought to be the most

truthful, for he was present there [in the Trojan War] and had certain knowledge. But the others who have told this story were descendants of Aeneas,

and they speak more sparingly of his treacheries and his dishonorable dealings with his kinsmen. And that seems disingenuous to most wise men. But

men know that the noblest bloodline in the world is that which descends

from him and Creusa, daughter of King Priam: that of the Caesars, who are

the rulers of the whole world.

Now the Romans say that after Pyrrhus had killed Penthesilea, the Turks

[that is, the Trojans] had retreated inside the city and would not venture

outside for any of the Greeks’ taunts. Then King Agamemnon held an assembly and said to his men that he thought the city was too difficult to take

by force, and it would never be vanquished except through trickery. And

they would gain the victory only when the Troy-men were no longer taking

shelter inside the city. And he thought it most advisable to go home to

Greece. And he said that King Priam would remember that the Greeks had

come to Troy. And when he had finished speaking, there were many who

wanted to depart, but those who had lost friends or brothers-in-arms would

rather lay down their lives than depart.

Then Ulysses spoke; he had long kept silent, so that no one could get a

word out of him for many days. ‘‘To me it seems inadvisable to go away, since

we have now come to the point in time when the gods promised we would

gain the victory.’’ And then everybody wanted to abide by his counsel.

He then had an artisan fashion a horse of prodigious size. It was fashioned so that many men and weapons could fit inside it. Beneath it were

many sturdy wheels, and, even filled with men, it could be rolled in any

direction. And a few days after it was completed, Agamemnon held an

assembly of the Greeks, so close to the city that the Troy-men could hear

what they were saying. King Agamemnon announced their departure and

thanked the men for their support and courage. Then he gave every man

leave to return to his homeland, and the assembly was adjourned.

They took down all their tents and set sail that same night. And they


I I I . V I R G I L’ S T E X T S A N D T H E I R U S E S

sailed to a small island and anchored their ships near it. It was steep and

towering, and their ships could not be seen from the city. But the horse stood

near the city, and Ulysses and many armed knights were inside the horse.

But a few days later the Troy-men saw a man running from the sea to the

city. He was scantily clad, and his hands were bound behind his back. He

had a blindfold on, but it had slipped off his eyes somewhat. The man was

terrified and kept twisting from side to side as he ran. The men of the city

seized him and asked what sort of man he was.

‘‘I swear by Pallas,’’ he says, ‘‘that I shall not lie in what I say to you. First,

I am a Greek, as you can see, and I am called Sinon; I am a friend of Ulysses,

and I expect no mercy from you.’’ They asked him why he had come there,

and for what purpose. ‘‘What can I tell you? I fled from death, but I expect it

shortly.’’ They answered that if he wanted to purchase his life, he should tell

them what they wanted to know.

‘‘It started,’’ says Sinon, ‘‘with the king making arrangements with the

army that I disliked, and I spoke up against them. But Ulysses is proudminded and holds grudges, as I have now experienced. At first he made as if

he had nothing against me, but I often found that he put me into deadly

danger more than into opportunities for honor, and when we were ready for

the homeward journey and an adverse wind rose against us, Calchas said

what Ulysses had planned for him to say: that a sacrifice should be made to

the god of hell. Then Ulysses said that it would not be acceptable without a

human sacrifice, and a death must take place in honor of the god. And by

Ulysses’ advice it was arranged so that my lot came up, and he acted as if it

grieved him, but he said that he would not break the law even if he had to

lay down his own life. I was then brought to shore and prepared for slaughter, just as you see me now. But as the saying goes, everyone has one friend

among his enemies, and so a man cut my bonds, and here I am now partly

bound still, as you see. But I ran away and wriggled as I ran to loosen

the blindfold from my eyes. And when I turned in this direction they did

not dare follow me. Now it seems more fitting to me that you, rather than

friends and close kinsmen, should take my life, though there is little honor

in killing me, bound and alone as I am. And I have no expectation of being

avenged afterward; rather, they will rejoice when they hear of my death.’’

Then all the chief counselors came, and it seemed advisable to them that

he should be condemned to death, and they said some trickery must be

going on. Then King Priam answered, ‘‘I am old now, and have few days left

in my life, and to me it seems no honorable deed to kill him. He was persecuted because they believed him to be our friend; I will grant him mercy.’’

The man thanked him for sparing his life.



Then Priam said, ‘‘I am curious to know why they did not burn the horse,

such a treasure.’’

‘‘Because of the gods, they did not dare. And if the horse enters the city,

the city will never be vanquished.’’

The king asked, ‘‘Why did they make this horse?’’

‘‘Ulysses sacrificed to the gods and the gods said that a horse like this one

should be fashioned, and victory would follow whoever had it. They intend

to come back again for the horse, and they went away elsewhere by means of

witchcraft or artifice.’’

And when Sinon had said this, the lords gathered together. And it seemed

fit to them, if this information were reliable, that they should act immediately and bring the horse into the city and have victory for themselves.

Then a priest answers that it would be bad luck for them all if the horse

entered the city, but the people are enraged and want to bring the horse into

the city. And now they bring ropes and haul it to the city by means of

winches, and there was such a great clamor that no one could hear what

anyone else said.

Then the priest went to the temple to make inquiries. Then two serpents

wriggled from under the altar and killed his sons. That seemed to him an ill

omen, and he said that more would follow. Then he went forth with great

clamor proclaiming that they should not bring the horse into the city and

that warriors were inside the horse, but they cried out against him and said

that he was of no importance, and they proceeded onward.

And when they reached the city gate with the horse, it could not enter the

city unless the gate was broken down. And that was done, and it was never

mended again. They placed the horse on the highest summit of the city, and

there was much going to and fro, and they rejoiced over it, and were hopeful

and serene. And they went to sleep that night very drunk with wine, and

they feared nothing for themselves. But those who were inside the horse

were prepared to carry out the plan they had previously made.

The Greeks landed with all their troops and marched with their host

drawn up to the city gate, which was open. And the Trojans had broken it

themselves for the sake of the horse. And when all the Greeks had entered the

city, and Ulysses and his men had climbed out of the horse, then trumpets

summoned the troops, and now they overrun the houses and burn them and

kill the men. And Aeneas awoke and saw the whole city burning. He arms

himself and tries to reach the king. Then he sees the dreadful onslaught

against Ilium itself, which was the most splendid part of the city, and all the

city’s splendor was laid low.

Then he sees where Pyrrhus is going, attacking Ilium. He is wielding a


I I I . V I R G I L’ S T E X T S A N D T H E I R U S E S

broad-ax, and, as Aeneas said, he was more like a demon than a man. He

leaps over body after body and strikes with both hands. He is covered with

blood. He reaches the altar that was consecrated to Thor [for Jupiter: see

below, III.L.4] and kills everyone who meets his dreadful ax. He killed

Polydamas the son of Priam, and after that killed Priam himself in front of

Thor’s altar. And when Aeneas saw him cut down, he felt that he would

rather die than flee. But then he remembered the prophecy that he would

have to go to Italy and that the most powerful men would descend from him,

men such as no others in the world. And therefore he departed with his

father and his son. (RE)

2. Serpentine Simile

Though this scene takes place before the sack of Troy, at an earlier point in the

war, when Pyrrhus is about to attack Penthesilea, the serpentine simile is

inspired by Virgil’s description of Pyrrhus’s appearance during the sack of

Troy. Later in the saga when Pyrrhus’s involvement in the sack of Troy is

mentioned, other aspects of Virgil’s description of him occur. (Text: Alpha

redaction, ed. J. Louis-Jensen [1981], 65)

Now Neoptolemus Pyrrhus takes up all his father’s war-gear, which was so

glorious that one could scarcely find its like even though one sought widely

through the world. And when he was arrayed in these arms, he leaps onto

his horse, as full of zeal and wrath as a serpent is of venom. (RE)

3. Trojan Horse (Rationalized)

In this account the Trojan horse is not dragged into the city by the Trojans; this

alteration of Virgil’s story makes the inclusion of the wooden horse rather

pointless. The De excidio Troiae historia, falsely ascribed to Dares of Phrygia,

contains a rationalized occurrence of the equine motif—the horse’s head set as

a sign to show the gate by which the Greeks should enter the city—which the

Alpha redaction includes along with the wooden horse. (Text: Alpha redaction, ed. J. Louis-Jensen [1981], 73)

Polydamas explained how they should lead their entire army to the city by

night, and he said a horse’s head would be set over the gate by which they

were to enter the city. And a horse had been made of wood; it had been placed by the

city gate. And they put some troops in it to open up the city gate that night and lead

in the Greeks. (RE)

4. Thor Substituted for Jupiter

Both in this redaction of the saga and in the Beta and Hauksbók redactions,

the name Thor is substituted for Jupiter because Thor is the Norse god of



thunder. Such substitutions are routine whenever a suitable Norse equivalent

can be found for an Olympian god who enters into the story of Troy. (Text:

Alpha redaction, ed. J. Louis-Jensen [1981], 75)

None of the Greeks was more furious than Neoptolemus Pyrrhus. First he

killed King Priam at Thor’s altar and then each of the others. Each now fell

dead among the others in his seat or his bed. Neoptolemus had a great

broad-ax and struck with both hands, one over the other. And most people

would think that he was not human as he attacked, covered with blood, all

through the night. (RE)


I I I . V I R G I L’ S T E X T S A N D T H E I R U S E S




Quintus Caecilius Epirota, a freedman of Cicero’s friend Atticus, is reported by Suetonius to have begun lecturing on Virgil already by about 25

b.c.e. Likewise, Hyginus, a freedman of Augustus, is said to have written

criticism of Virgil’s poetry. These two exemplify the intense interest that Romans showed in commenting upon Virgil’s works almost as soon as they

became available to a reading public.

In surviving texts, commentary on Virgil sometimes appears in the midst of

notes on various authors and topics. Such is the case with the Noctes Atticae

(Attic Nights) of Aulus Gellius (born between 125 and 128 c.e.) (see above,

I.C.27). Macrobius’s Saturnalia is comparable in that it purports to record

dialogues on the evening before the festival of Saturn (probably in 383) covering a number of topics; Virgil has particular prominence, not surprisingly,

since he is represented as epitomizing knowledge of grammar, rhetoric, philosophy, and religion (see above, II.G.2 and II.H.2, and below, IV.C).

Full-scale commentaries on the poems of Virgil are quite varied in the goals

they set for themselves. The most renowned and influential Virgil commentary

is that of Servius, the fourth-century grammarian. (A character by the name of

Servius takes part in Macrobius’s Saturnalia, where he is identified as being a

young man.) Servius left a commentary that would appear to have incorporated much of the best of his predecessors, most notably Aelius Donatus, whose

work was subsequently lost (apart from the dedicatory epistle, the vita of Virgil

that was based on Suetonius, and the introduction to the Eclogues: see above,

Image not available

Figure 3. John of Garland, Parisiana poetria, chapter 2, Rota Virgilii, Oxford, Bodleian

Library, MS Lat. Misc. D. 66 (formerly Admont, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 637: German, late

fourteenth or early fifteenth century), fol. 8r (by permission of the Bodleian Library,

University of Oxford)


I V. C O M M E N T A R Y T R A D I T I O N

II.A.1). Servius’s commentary survives in two main forms, the longer being an

expansion from a later date (probably seventh or eighth century) supplemented with additional material from Donatus’s lost commentary and other

sources. This longer and later form is designated Servius auctus or Servius

Danielis, after Pierre Daniel, who published it for the first time in 1600. Both

forms approach Virgil’s poems line by line, sometimes even word by word, focusing on matters of grammar and Latinity, history, and religion. The literary

interpretation is concerned more with identifying Virgil’s sources of inspiration

in earlier poetry than with presenting an overall interpretation of any given


Active at approximately the same time as Servius (fourth to fifth century)

was a commentator conventionally known as Iunius Philargyrius. Neither

commentator mentions the other. Like Servius’s commentary, Philargyrius’s

Explanatio in Bucolica Vergilii (Exposition of Virgil’s Eclogues) is transmitted in

longer and shorter versions, usually designated I and II. Two later commentaries, both anonymous, the Scholia Bernensia (Bern Scholia) on the Eclogues

and Georgics and the Brevis expositio (Brief Exposition) on the first and part of

the second book of the Georgics, appear to rely heavily on Philargyrius. His commentary reveals a tendency to explain the Eclogues in terms of political allegory.

Not to be confused with Aelius Donatus—and no relation to him—Tiberius Claudius Donatus was the late-fourth- or early-fifth-century author of

Interpretationes Vergilianae (Virgilian Commentaries), a line-by-line commentary on the Aeneid dedicated to his son. Unlike the commentary of Servius,

Donatus’s work is essentially a prose paraphrase of the poem that aims to study

comprehensively the rhetorical continuity of the Aeneid. The Interpretationes

Vergilianae o√er extensive observations on the emotions and outlook of the

principal characters in the epic. Politically, Donatus views the Aeneid as being a

sustained panegyric of Aeneas and hence also of Augustus. Probably because

Donatus was not a professional grammaticus and instead favored a rhetorical

approach, his commentary exercised virtually no influence in the subsequent

grammar school tradition, particularly in contrast to Servius’s ‘‘best-seller.’’

Whereas Tiberius Claudius Donatus set himself deliberately in counterpoint

to the scholastic tradition, Priscian, who lived and taught in Constantinople in

the late fifth and early sixth centuries, toed the line in representing the approach

taken to Virgil by schoolmasters. Although Priscian has been best known since

the twelfth century for his eighteen-book Institutiones grammaticae (Principles

of Grammar), he occupies a prominent place in the Virgilian tradition for his

Partitiones (Enumeration of the Parts of Speech), or Praeexercitamina (Preparatory Exercises)—exemplary grammatical exercises based on the first lines

of each of the twelve books of the Aeneid. The Praeexercitamina o√ers one of the

I V. C O M M E N T A R Y T R A D I T I O N


closest approaches we can gain to the actualities of how Virgil was read in

grammar schools.

Occasionally Servius (see below, IV.B) and Philargyrius (see above, II.A.5–

6) o√er allegorical interpretations of episodes in Virgil. The mid- or late-sixthcentury Fabius Planciades Fulgentius (see below, IV.F) produced an Expositio

Virgilianae continentiae (Explanation of the Content of Virgil) that goes beyond mere allegorical moments to unfold instead a sustained allegorical interpretation of the Aeneid. In so doing, he anticipates e√orts that would be made

by at least two later commentators, first Bernardus Silvestris, or pseudoBernardus Silvestris, in the twelfth century (see below, IV.Q), and Cristoforo

Landino (1424–98) in the fifteenth (see below, IV.V). All three of these authors construe the first six books in Neoplatonic terms, as describing the maturation of the hero from early sin and confusion to eventual grace and understanding; all three accord particular weight to the sixth book, as the culmination of

the maturing process that holds their interest above all else in the Aeneid.

Although the sheer number of surviving manuscripts confirms that commentaries of the Servian type ruled the grammatical roost, the allegorical interpretations exercised a sway much greater than a simple count of extant copies

would suggest. Part of their influence derived from the ways in which aspects of

their approach to the Aeneid percolated into more traditional interpretation, as

can be seen in the excerpts from the ‘‘Aeneid Commentary of Mixed Type’’ (see

below, IV.U); even more of it can be traced in the responses to Virgil of great

poets, who were less concerned with the minutiae that Servius relished than

with the overall meaning of his poetry, which—whether we find their results

agreeable and convincing or not—was the paramount concern of the allegorical interpreters. Whether allegorizing or not, commentaries on Virgil became a

staple of medieval libraries and classrooms. As the early-eleventh-century

schoolmaster Egbert of Liège commented pithily in the Fecunda ratis (The

Richly Laden Ship) (1 [‘‘Prora’’ (The Prow)], lines 923–24, ed. E. Voigt

[Halle a. S., 1889], 154): ‘‘Qui sine commento rimaris scripta Maronis, / Inmunis nuclei solo de cortice rodis’’ (You who delve into Virgil’s writings

without a commentary gnaw at the shell of an untouched kernel). (JZ)



1. Quintus Caecilius Epirota

(first century b.c.e.)

Caecilius was a freedman of Cicero’s friend Atticus (110–32 b.c.e.), living under Augustus. The discussion is from Suetonius, De grammaticis 16.3.


I V. C O M M E N T A R Y T R A D I T I O N

(Text: Suetonius, De grammaticis et rhetoribus, ed. R. Kaster [Oxford, 1995],


Primus dicitur Latine extempore disputasse, primusque Vergilium et alios

poetas novos praelegere coepisse; quod etiam Domiti Marsi versiculus indicat: Epirota, tenellorum nutricula vatum.

He is said to have been the first to hold extempore discussions in Latin, and the

first to begin lecturing on Virgil [circa 25 b.c.e.] and other modern poets; the

latter point is also suggested by the line of Domitius Marsus: Epirota tenellorum nutricula vatum (Epirota, the dear nurse of delicate little bards). (The

Lives of the Caesars, vol. 2: The Lives of Illustrious Men, ed. and trans. J. C. Rolfe,

LCL 38 [1914], modified by MP)

2. Gaius Iulius Hyginus

(early–late first century b.c.e.)

Hyginus was a freedman of Augustus (Suetonius, Vita Augusti 20.1) and head

of the Palatine library. In Suetonius (De grammaticis 20) he is reported to have

written criticism of Virgil’s poetry (Grammaticae Romanae fragmenta, ed. G.

Funaiolo [Leipzig, 1907], 528–33, frags. 3–11). Suetonius leaves unclear

whether the criticism took the form of ‘‘a line-by-line commentary, or a work

dealing with discrete quaestiones (including textual problems), or (less likely)

both’’ (Suetonius, De grammaticis et rhetoribus, R. Kaster, ed. [Oxford, 1995],

24). In Noctes Atticae Gellius (see above, I.C.27) cites Hyginus’s work both as

commentaria in Vergilium (1.21.2, commentaries on Virgil) and as (at least

four) libri de Vergilio (16.6.14, books on Virgil). See also Noctes Atticae 10.16,

on Aeneid 6.365–66 and other instances of Virgil’s supposed chronological


3. Quintus Asconius Pedianus

(3–88 c.e.)

Asconius Pedianus wrote Contra obtrectatores Vergilii (Against the Detractors

of Virgil). See VSD 46 (see above, II.A.1) as well as Grammaticae Romanae

fragmenta, ed. G. Funaiolo (Leipzig, 1907), 544 (under Perellius Faustus).

He is singled out as the source for the anecdote, attributed to Virgil, that it

would be easier to snatch his club from Hercules than a verse from Homer.

4. Lucius Annaeus Cornutus

(born circa 20 b.c.e.; banished by Nero in 68)

A Stoic philosopher, Cornutus was a teacher of Persius and Lucan (see above,

I.C.9) and a friend of Silius Italicus (see above, I.C.18), to whom one of his



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