Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

4.1: No Bounds in Space or Time

  • Page ID
  • Rome and the Underworld in the Aeneid. A Text-Linguistic and Narratological Analysis of Vergil, Aeneid 6.264-901 [1]

    Suzanne Adema

    Vergil’s Aeneid was published after Vergil’s death by order of emperor Augustus (first century B.C.). The epic tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan who survived the Trojan war. He travels through the Mediterranean world and fights on Italian soil in order to fulfill the task allotted to him by fate: lay the foundations of Rome and make possible its salvation by emperor Augustus (Conte 1994: 283). The Aeneid had strong ideological purposes and was meant to be a national epic, extolling the eternal power of Rome. This message is formulated by Jupiter in the first book of the Aeneid:

    (1) Aeneid, 1.278-279

    For the Romans I set no bounds in space or time (nec metas rerum nec tempora); but have given empire without end [2].

    As part of his quest, Aeneas crosses the bounds of space and time when he descends into the Underworld. Thereby, he leaves the Upper world and enters an eternal space in which spirits and Underworld deities, all allocated to specific places, repeat their actions in perpetuum (Aeneid 6.264 – 901).

    In this article, I give a text-linguistic analysis of this katabasis episode and argue that it may be interpreted as a means to suggest the lack of limits in time and space for Rome [3]. Rome was seen as ruling the world when the Aeneid was written and the katabasis episode may be seen as incorporating the space of the Underworld into Rome’s power, as Feldherr argues (1999). One message of the episode would be that Rome’s power was not limited to the spatial boundaries of the Upper world. We could perhaps take it one step further and argue that with the Underworld a sense of eternity is brought into the story of the very first beginnings of Rome, as if to emphasise that for this city the limitations of time, too, are lifted. In this interpretation, Aeneas experiences eternity in the space of the Underworld so that he is able to instigate eternity in the Upper world when he lays the foundations of Rome.

    This interpretation is supported by the presentation of the episode, particularly by the use of tenses. The episode is a text-linguistic mix of time and space, of narrative and description, of temporality and eternity. I aim to unravel this mix in order to gain more insight into the presentation of Aeneas’ experience of eternity. At some points in this episode, the narrator neatly separates Aeneas’ temporary visit from the eternal surroundings in which the visit takes place but at other points, the narrator obscures the boundaries between the restricted time of the living and the eternal space of the dead, with tense usage as his main tool. Both strategies can be found when Aeneas and the Sibyl, his guide, start their descent (example (2), (3) and (4)).

    The narrator begins the episode by asking the gods of the Underworld permission to unfold their secrets:

    (2) Aeneid, 6.264-269

    You gods, who hold (quibus est) the domain of spirits! You voiceless shades! You, Chaos, and you, Phlegeton, you broad hushed tracts of night! Suffer me to tell what I have heard; suffer me of your grace to unfold secrets buried in the depths and darkness of the earth. On Aeneas and the Sibyl went (ibant) dimly, beneath the lonely night amid the gloom, through the empty halls of Dis and his phantom realm, [...]

    In this first passage, the narrator uses an alternation between present and past tense forms to separate the temporary visit of Aeneas from the eternal space of the Underworld. He begins the katabasis episode with an invocation of Underworld deities, using the present tense to give a general characteristic of the deities: “You gods, who hold the domain of spirits!” (Latin: est). Thus, he suggests that these deities, and the Underworld too, exist in the time of narration. The next sentence contains a past tense form, “on they went dimly” (the imperfect ibant) making explicit that the Sibyl and Aeneas visited this eternal space at a specific time in the past. Thus, tense usage marks the transition from general information and narratorial comment to specific narrative taking place in the past.

    The narrative clause containing the imperfect tense forms ibant is followed by a simile (not quoted), after which a description is given of the entrance of the Underworld:

    (3) Aeneid, 6.273-289

    Just before the entrance, even within the very jaws of Hell, Grief and avenging Cares have set (posuere) their bed; there pale Diseases dwell (habitant), sad Age, and Fear, and Hunger, temptress to sin, and loathly Want, shapes terrible to view; and Death and Distress; [...] And many monstrous forms besides of various beasts are stalled (stabulant) at the doors, Centaurs and double-shaped Scyllas, and the hundredfold Briareus, and the beast of Lerna, hissing horribly, and the Chimaera armed with flame, Gorgons and Harpies, and the shape of the three-bodied shade

    This description is given in present tense forms (Latin: habitant, stabulant), a presentation suggesting that pale Diseases, sad Age, Fear, Hunger, and loathly Want still dwell at the entrance of the Underworld [4]. The return to the use of the present tense marks the transition from specific narrative (ibant in example (2)) back to general description, a transition from temporary to eternal. The description goes on for several lines (not all quoted) until the narrator arrives at the Chimaera, the Gorgons, and the Harpies.

    There, rather suddenly, the sequence of eternally valid situations is interrupted by a specific event of which Aeneas is the subject: “he grasps his sword” (corripit).

    (4) Aeneid, 6.290-292

    Here on a sudden, in trembling terror, Aeneas grasps (corripit) his sword, and turns (offert) the naked edge against their coming;

    “Grasps” (corripit) is a so-called historical present and indicates an event in the past, but the word order of the Latin sentence is such that a reader arriving at this verb form for the first time cannot immediately interpret it as such: corripit hic subita trepidus formidine ferrum/Aeneas. The Latin verb form occurs at the beginning of the sentence, only providing the information that “he/she/it grasps”. After interpreting the present tense clauses “pale Diseases dwell” (habitant, l. 275) and “many monstrous forms are stalled” (stabulant, l.286) as denoting everlasting situations, a similar interpretation of “grasps” (corripit) might present itself, raising the expectation that some Underworld creature is grasping eternally next to the Gorgons and Harpies. It is only when the reader continues reading the Latin sentence and moves to hic, subita and eventually the nominative Aeneas, that he knows that Aeneas is the one who grasps and that corripit, therefore, should be interpreted as a specific event of the past (a historical present).

    The interpretation of corripit, in turn, invokes a reinterpretation of the preceding present tense forms. It is now clear that they did not (only) give some general description of eternal space. They describe the frighteningly real and present creatures wriggling along the path followed by Aeneas at this very moment in the story.

    In this sequence of present tense forms, the narrator pays attention to Aeneas’ experience of this eternal space, rather than to the space alone. This emphasis is achieved by combining description and narrative, and space and time therewith, into one seamless travelogue of a trip through an eternal environment. If we want to distill the separate components of this mixture, more information is necessary. In the next section, I will, therefore, discuss the narratological and text's linguistic properties of Latin narrative and description. The second section deals with the technicalities of how the narrator merges eternal, temporary, narrative and description in this episode, thus presenting Aeneas’ visit to the Underworld as an experience of eternity. In the third section, I will argue that Aeneas, with the help of the Sibyl, even instigates eternal situations in some parts of the Underworld. Lastly, I aim to show that in a significant region of the Underworld Aeneas himself becomes part of this eternal space, forgetting about Upper world time. He needs his guide, the Sibyl, and his father to remind him of his inevitable task in the Upper world. Aeneas has experienced eternity, but only for a brief period of time. It is not his fate to enjoy the eternity of the Underworld, it is his fate to instigate eternity in the Upper world by laying the foundations of Rome.

    Narrative versus Description

    In narratological approaches (e.g. Genette 1969, Chatman 1990, Bal 1997), descriptions are often seen as a pause, in which the action comes to a standstill (definition taken from De Jong & Nünlist 2007). In text linguistic approaches (e.g. Bonheim 1982, Smith 2003, Kroon 2007, Adema 2007, 2008), descriptions also lack temporal progression. Descriptions are characterized by spatial progression or a spatial relation between situations, whereas narrative (used in a narrow sense) is characterized in these approaches as those parts in which there is temporal progression or a temporal relation between events.

    One of the text's linguistic markers of narrative and description is tense usage [5]. As far as tense usage is concerned, there are two possibilities for both description and narrative in Latin. Descriptions are presented in present tense forms (cf. example (2)) or in imperfect tense forms (Adema 2007, 2008, Kroon 2007). Narrative passages contain an alternation of imperfect and perfect tense forms (cf. ibant in example (2)) or they are presented in so-called historical presents (cf. corripit in example (4)) (Adema 2007, 2008, Kroon 2007).

    The narrator of the Aeneid mainly uses the present tense for both description and narrative (Adema 2008). Despite the use of the same tense in these two discourse modes, narrative and description generally are clearly separated components of the story in the Aeneid, as is illustrated in example (5) [6].

    (5) Aeneid, 1.157 – 174

    The wearied followers of Aeneas strive (contendunt) to run for the nearest shore and turn (vertuntur) towards the coast of Libya. There, in a deep inlet lies a spot (est in secessu longo locus), where an island forms (efficit) a harbor with the barrier of its sides (obiectu laterum), on which every wave from the main is broken (frangitur), then parts (scindit) into receding ripples. On either side (hinc atque hinc) loom heavenward huge cliffs and twin peaks, beneath whose crest (quorum sub vertice) far and wide (late) is the stillness (silent) of sheltered water; above (desuper), too, is (imminet) a background (scaena) of shimmering woods with an overhanging grove, black with gloomy shade. Under the brow of the fronting cliff (fronte sub adversa) is a cave of hanging rocks; within (intus) are fresh waters and seats in the living stone, a haunt for nymphs. Here (hic) no fetters imprison (tenent) weary ships, no anchor holds (alligat) them fast with hooked bite. Hither (huc), with seven ships mustered from all his fleet, Aeneas takes shelter (subit); and, disembarking with an earnest longing for the land, the Trojans gain (potiuntur) the welcome beach and stretch (ponunt) their brine-drenched limbs upon the shore.

    The first two lines of this example contain two subsequent actions of Aeneas and his men. Both the action “strive to run” (contendunt) and the action “turn towards” (vertuntur) are presented in present tense forms. Due to this sequence of events time progresses in these lines, making this a narrative passage in text's linguistic terms (Adema 2008: 9).

    The presentational sentence “there in a deep inlet lies a spot” marks a break in the progression of time, and the next eleven lines are a pause in narratological terms [7]. The present tense forms of this sequence (est; efficit; frangitur; scindit; minantur; silent; imminet; tenent; alligat) are connected to each other by means of spatial words and adverbial clauses (e.g. hinc atque hinc; desuper; intus). The explicit references to the spatial relation between these states of affairs make this a typical example of a description in text's linguistic terms [8].

    After the block description, the narrative mode is taken up again with “Hither, with seven ships mustered from all his fleet, Aeneas takes shelter”, an event denoted by the Latin present tense form subit. This action of Aeneas is a specification of “turn towards the coast” (vertuntur) in line 158 as it indicates that by turning his ships towards the Libyan coast, Aeneas takes shelter. This means that, after the description, the narrator takes up his narrative at the same moment at which he has left it. The description is a neat unit (une unité nettement demarquée, Hammon 1993: 165f), interrupting and suspending the narrative. The long, tranquil description of a peaceful place, similar to a harbour no less, fits perfectly at this point in the story. The pause creates a moment of peace in the ongoing story, just before Aeneas too will find some peace and quiet after the turmoil of a storm.

    Both in the descriptive and in the narrative component of this example the present tense is used. In the description, the present tense might be meant to suggest that this place still exists at the time of narration (Schwartz 2002: 18), but it cannot be ruled out that these present tense forms need to be interpreted as historical presents. We should acknowledge the ambiguity of present tense descriptions occurring within the present tense narrative, as Kroon (2007) suggests for such descriptions in Ovid’s Metamorphoses [9]. The events of Aeneas’ quest take place in a space that might (still) be real. Nevertheless, the presentation of this space (description) and the presentation of Aeneas’ quest (narrative) tend to be clearly separated in the Aeneid, as in example (5).

    The katabasis episode is exceptional in this respect. There, the eternal space of the Underworld and the events of Aeneas’ quest are not presented in clearly separated components of the text, but the narrator completely merges present tense description with present tense narrative. Thus, he gives emphasis to both the temporal and the spatial aspects of Aeneas’ experience of the eternal space of the Underworld.

    Experiencing Eternity

    Underworld descriptions in the Aeneid are no static, separate units in which the story comes to a halt, but they are an integral part of the storytelling [10]. Aeneas travels through the eternal space of the Underworld and gazes upon it. The narrator uses Aeneas as a traveller and an observer (focalizer in narratological terms) to merge the separate text's linguistic categories of narrative and description into one blended discourse mode (cf. Mosher 1991, Hamon 1993: 170, Herman 2002: 298, 2009: 131).

    Whenever the text indicates spatial progression, the time of the story advances, because Aeneas moves or because his gaze falls upon a new part of the Underworld. This means that spatial progression, characteristic of the description mode, coincides with temporal progression, characteristic of the narrative mode. The key elements in this blend of discourse modes are movement and focalization (Zoran 1984, De Jong 1987, Landau & Jackendoff 1993, Hamon 1993: 173ff, Herman 2002: 298, 2009: 131) [11].

    The element of movement is introduced into the episode in its very first narrative clause, which states that Aeneas and the Sibyl “went on (ibant) dimly, beneath the lonely night amid the gloom, through the empty halls of Dis and his phantom realm” (see example (2)) [12]. According to Herman (2002: 263-99, 2009: 131) motion verbs such as ibant (from the verb ire, to go) and references to paths help readers to construct a story world [13]. In Story Logic (2002: 278) he claims that “the notion of paths is an especially important one in narrative domains, since paths imply motion from one part to another and thus dynamic or emergent spatial properties of the sort characteristic of narratives.” Herman uses the term path in a more abstract sense but in the Underworld, there is a literal path (via) by means of which the notion can be illustrated, the road that leads to the waters of Tartarean Acheron:

    (6) Aeneid, 6.295-318

    From here (hinc) a road (via) leads (fert) to the waters of Tartarean Acheron. Here (hic), thick with mire and of a fathomless flood, a whirlpool seethes (aestuat) and belches (eructat) into Cocytus all its sand. A grim ferryman guards (servat) these waters and streams, terrible in his squalor – Charon, on whose chin lies (iacet) a mass of unkempt, hoary hair; his eyes are staring (stant) orbs of flame; his squalid garb hangs (dependet) by a knot from his shoulders. Aeneas, as he is aroused and amazed (miratus motusque) by the disorder, cries (ait): “Tell me ...”

    It is implied that Aeneas and the Sibyl move along the road, reach the river banks and see Charon. The implication is made explicit in line 317, in which Aeneas is presented as aroused and amazed (miratus motusque) by all the things he sees at those river banks: Aeneas turns out to have, indeed, followed the path. Thus, the description of this road was at the same time a narrative of Aeneas’ walk along it. The passage both shows text-linguistic characteristics of description (e.g. the spatial adverbs hinc, hic) and displays the temporal progression characteristic of narrative, added by means of the implied movement of Aeneas and the Sibyl.

    Likewise, the (implied) movement of the eyes of an embedded focalizer can make spatial progression coincide with temporal progression [14] The passage in example (7) is neither purely narrative nor entirely descriptive.

    (7) Aeneid, 6.548-558

    Suddenly Aeneas looks back (respicit), and under a cliff on the left (sub rupe sinistra) sees (videt) a broad castle, girted with a triple wall. A rushing flood of torrent flames encircles (ambit) it, Tartarean Phlegeton, and rolls (torquet) along thundering rocks. In front stands a huge gate, and pillars of solid adamant, that no might of man, nay, not even the sons of heaven, could (valeant) uproot in war; there stands (stat) an iron tower, soaring high, and Tisiphone, sitting girt with bloody pall, keeps sleepless watch (servat) over the portal night and day (noctesque diesque).

    The specific parts of the Underworld are related spatially in this passage (e.g. sinistra, ambit). The element of time plays a role because of the governing verb forms “looks back” (respicit) and “sees” (videt), which imply a movement of Aeneas’ eyes at every spatial progression. Thus, the description is integrated into the narrative.

    At the same time, the passage is a clear example of the merging of temporary and eternal. In the last sentence, the adverbial clause “night and day” (noctesque diesque) indicates that at least the present tense form “keeps watch” (servat) represents an eternal situation. That is, Tisiphone is not just keeping watch over this portal when Aeneas happens to look at her, but it is, in fact, her eternal task to do so.

    The adverbial clause “night and day” influences, in retrospect, the interpretation of the preceding present tense forms. After the historical presents “looks back” and “sees”, we might have been inclined to interpret “encircles” (ambit) and “rolls” (torquet), too, as historical presents. At the end of the passage, however, we learn that they can and should be interpreted as eternal situations as well: the river Phlegeton will always encircle the castle (ambit) and will perpetually roll along thundering rocks (torquet). The use of the present tense for both the events of the past (respicit, videt) and the eternal situations (ambit, torquet, stat, servat) turns Aeneas into the observer of a timeless and perpetual tableau vivant [15].

    The eternal and the temporary meet in the Underworld as its eternal space is confronted with a living being, who travels through it and is himself bounded by a restricted amount of time. This results in a presentation in which narrative and description as well as the temporary and the eternal seem to become one odyssey through an eternal space. Aeneas’ visit is presented as an experience of eternity.

    In the Aeneid, description and narrative are usually presented as separate components, as was illustrated by means of example (5). The deviation of this in the katabasis episode is striking and should be given significance. My interpretation would be that Aeneas needs to experience this eternal space before he can become the instigator of that other eternal space, viz. the city of Rome. This interpretation is corroborated by the presentation of two specific encounters. In the next section I discuss these encounters, aiming to show that Aeneas already instigates eternity during his visit of the Underworld. Thus, his Upper world task is foreshadowed in the Underworld.

    Instigating Eternity

    Most Underworld descriptions in the Aeneid consist of present tense forms and are in some instances even accompanied by adverbial clauses which make their eternal duration explicit (e.g. noctesque diesque in example (7)) [16]. Nevertheless, there are several situations in the katabasis episode that are not denoted by present tense forms, but by imperfect tense forms [17]. The imperfect tense forms under consideration denote situations of Underworld residents who have not yet reached their final destination. As such, these imperfect tense forms describe the few situations that are, in fact, temporary within the perpetual realm of the Underworld [18]. There is, for instance, a group of souls who will fulfill a second life on earth, as Anchises explains (Aen. 6.713-718). These souls need to drink from the river Lethe to forget about their previous life.

    (8) Aeneid, 6.703-709

    Meanwhile, in a retired vale, Aeneas sees (videt) a sequestered grove and rustling forest thickets, and the river of Lethe that drifts past (praenatat) those peaceful homes. About it hovered (volabant) peoples and tribes unnumbered.

    When Aeneas sees (the historical present videt) those specific souls hovering about the river Lethe, the situation of that hovering is a temporary one. This explains the use of the imperfect tense to present this situation (volabant). In contrast, a present tense form (praenatat) describes the eternal course of the river Lethe: “that drifts past those peaceful homes”. The example illustrates that, in the katabasis episode, the present tense (praenatat) is used for the universally valid features of the Underworld, whereas the imperfect tense (volabant) is used for temporary situations taking place during the specific time frame of Aeneas’ visit.

    This insight into the particular application of the present and imperfect tense within this episode can be used to come to a new interpretation of two passages, both accounts of a reunion of Aeneas with an old friend. An analysis of the imperfect and present tense forms reveals that Aeneas and the Sibyl help these Underworld residents in accepting their eternal fate. Thus, Aeneas and the Sibyl change temporary states into everlasting ones.

    The first passage is a meeting between Aeneas and his former helmsman, Palinurus. The imperfect tense form agebat indicates how he was moving along the river banks of the Acheron when Aeneas arrived there:

    (9) Aeneid, 6.337

    Lo! there passed (agebat) the helmsman, Palinurus, ...

    Palinurus is not allowed to cross the Acheron because his body has not been buried. Therefore, he asks Aeneas to take him along on his crossing of the Acheron (Aen.6.363ff). The Sibyl rebukes Palinurus for this impious proposal (Aen.6.373ff), but also promises him that he will be buried, and that the land will be given his name (Capo Palinuro, in the southwest of contemporary Italy). Palinurus now knows that there will be an end to his stay at the river banks of the Acheron. This prospect seems enough for Palinurus to reach an eternal state of happiness:

    (10) Virgil, Aeneid 6.382-383

    By these words his cares are dispelled (emotae) and promptly grief is driven (pulsus) from his anguished heart; he rejoices (gaudet) in the land called after him [19].

    Therefore, I propose to interpret the present tense form “rejoices” (gaudet) as an eternally valid situation, rather than as a temporary one. That is, gaudet should not be seen as a historical present but as an everlasting situation of joy, contrasted to Palinurus’ temporary situation of agebat (example (9)). By their visit, the Sibyl and Aeneas make Palinurus accept his fate and turn his temporary hardship into eternal happiness.

    The other passage is the final meeting between the former lovers Dido and Aeneas. Aeneas and the Sibyl have reached the Mourning Fields, where the victims of love reside. Dido, too, is a victim of love, since she committed suicide after Aeneas had to end their relationship. It is, therefore, no surprise that Aeneas and the Sibyl find her in these Mourning Fields, among other unhappy lovers.

    (11) Aeneid, 6.445-451

    In this region he sees (cernit) Phaedra and Procris, and sad Eriphyle, pointing to the wounds her cruel son had dealt, and Evadne and Pasiphaë. With them goes (it) Laodamia, and Caeneus, once a youth, now a woman, and again turned back by Fate into her form of old. Among them, with the wound still fresh, Phoenician Dido was wandering (errabat) in the great forest.

    Aeneas is the onlooker of eternal situations in the first lines of this example (vv. 445-449), as he sees (historical present cernit) how unhappy lovers reside forever in the Mourning Fields (present tense form it). Whereas the activities of the other unhappy lovers are presented as everlasting situations, Dido’s wandering is denoted by means of the imperfect tense form errabat, indicating that this is a temporary situation in the past of the narrator and, thus, that it is not Dido’s eternal activity in the Underworld.

    I would like to give meaning to this difference in tense and argue that the other unhappy lovers are destined to stay in the Mourning Fields forever, but that Dido leaves them behind at the end of her encounter with Aeneas, after he has spoken to her for one last time. At this point, Dido flees to her husband Sychaeus:

    (12) Aeneid, 6.472-476

    At length, she flung (corripuit) away, and still his foe, fled (refugit) back to the shady grove, where Sychaeus, her lord of former days, responds (respondet) to her sorrows and gives (aequat) her love for love.

    The perfect tense is used as the main tense of the narrative in this excerpt (corripuit and refugit). Nevertheless, the present tense is used in the subordinate clause to tell how Sychaeus responds to her sorrows and gives her love for love (respondet and aequet). In my opinion, this alternation between the perfect tense and the present tense separates the temporary from the eternal. The perfect tense is used to narrate events of the past, while the present tense forms denote everlasting situations: it is with Sychaeus that Dido will spend eternity. The final meeting with Aeneas has brought her closure [20].

    When and Dido seem to have found eternal peace (present tense forms). The analysis of tense usage shows that with the help of the Sibyl Aeneas is able to instigate eternal situations. Aeneas and the Sibyl met Palinurus and Dido, the latter were still in a temporary state of unhappiness (imperfect tense forms), but when they left them behind, Palinurus.

    Becoming Part of Eternity: O terque, quaterque beati! 

    Aeneas’ visit to the eternal space of the Underworld reaches its climax when he reaches the regions of the Underworld where those renowned in war dwell. Among these are his fellow fighters at Troy. Standing in their midst, Aeneas is no longer a temporary observer of situations that will last forever. He seems to be part of the Underworld and seems to have reached his own desired destination.

    The passage starts when Aeneas meets his old friend Tydeus (occurrit), and Aeneas bemoaned the Dardan chiefs (ingemuit), as he looks at them (cernens):

    (13) Aeneid, 6.477-493

    Thence he toils (molitur) along the way that offered itself. And now they gained the farthest fields (iamque arva tenebant), where the renowned in war dwell (frequentant) apart. Here Tydeus meets (occurrit) him; here Parthenopaeus, famed in arms, and the pale shade of Adrastus; here, much wept on earth above and fallen in war, the Dardan chiefs; whom as he beheld (cernens), all in long array, he moaned (ingemuit) – Glaucus and Medon and Thersilochus, the three sons of Antenor, and Polyboetes, priest of Ceres, and Idaeus, still keeping his chariot, still his arms. Round about, on right and left (dextra laevaque), stand (circumstant) the souls in throngs. To have seen him once is (est) not enough; they delight (iuvat) to linger, to pace beside him, and to learn the causes of his coming.

    The present participle cernens comes from a verb of seeing (cernere, to see) and seems a cue for a blend of narrative and description, similar to those quoted as examples (3), (6) and (7) (cf. also example (14)). The following enumeration of Trojan (Dardan) chiefs befits such a blend of discourse modes: time progresses as Aeneas looks from one eternal Underworld resident to another (“Glaucus ... his arms”).

    The present tense forms “stand round about” (circumstant), “is” (est) and “delight” (iuvat) may, at first sight, represent eternal situations, as they seem typical for a timeless tableau vivant featuring yet another group of eternal Underworld residents. However, this particular tableau is not an eternal one of which Aeneas is a mere observer. On the contrary, the image contains Aeneas, since he is the grammatical object of these clauses: it is him around whom they stand and him they want to see. This, of course, makes the situations temporary and not eternal. The Trojans will not stand around Aeneas and watch him forever.

    Nevertheless, the narrator seems to do his best to suspend the interpretation of these present tense forms as historical presents by hiding Aeneas in this sentence. The situations have Aeneas as their grammatical object, yet in the Latin sentences he is never mentioned explicitly, not even by means of a pronoun (circumstant animae dextra laevaque frequentes,/ nec vidisse semel satis est; iuvat usque morari/ et conferre gradum et veniendi discere causas). For now, it seems as if Aeneas has joined his old friends in their eternal activities and will be one of them once more. The observer is absorbed by the timeless tableau vivant he was looking at.

    The idea that Aeneas becomes an inextricable part of the Underworld at this point in the katabasis is corroborated when we compare example (13) with the description of the Elysian Fields, presented somewhat later in the episode. The structure of the latter passage is very similar to that in example (13), as it also contains an enumeration of names (Ilus ... Troy) and situations in the present tense (stant, pascuntur, sequitur). Even the phrase “to right and left” (dextra laevaque) is used in both excerpts:

    (14) Aeneid, 6.649-659

    Here is Teucer’s ancient line, family most fair, high-souled heroes born in happier years – Ilus and Assarcus and Dardanus, Troy’s founder. From afar he [sc. Aeneas] marvels (miratur) at their phantom arms and chariots. Their lances stand (stant) fixed in the ground, and their unyoked steeds browse (pascuntur) freely over the plain. The same pride in chariot and arms that was (fuit) theirs in life, the same care in keeping sleek steeds, attends (sequitur) them now that they are hidden beneath the earth. Others he sees (conspicit), to right and left (dextra laevaque), feasting on the sward, and chanting in chorus a joyous paean within a fragrant laurel grove, from where the full flood of the Eridanus rolls (volvitur) upward through the forest.

    The present tense situations in this example, stant, pascuntur, and sequitur, are indeed eternal situations, and Aeneas is their observer (miratur, conspicit), as he is in other parts of the Underworld. It is the eternal connotation of present tense forms such as stant, pascuntur, and sequitur in example (14) that brings about the idea that also the present tense situations circumstant, est and iuvat in example (13) will last forever.

    Aeneas himself seems to feel at home among the souls of Trojan warriors. Example (15) shows that Aeneas longed to be with them, in the Underworld, at at least one moment in his life. When Aeneas found himself in the middle of a storm, he envied those of his fellow warriors who fell before Troy:

    (15) Aeneid, 1.94-101

    O thrice and four times blest (O terque quaterque beati), whose lot it was to meet death before their fathers’ eyes beneath the lofty walls of Troy! O son of Tydeus, bravest of the Danaan race, ah! That I could not fall on the Ilian plains and gasp out this lifeblood at your hand – where, under the spear of Aeacides, fierce Hector lies prostrate, and mighty Sarpedon; where Simois seizes and sweeps beneath his waves so many shields and helms and bodies of the brave!

    This exclamation yields significance to the presentation of Aeneas as one of the souls of fallen warriors in example (13). If he had died before Troy, as he wishes in example (15), the fields described in example (13) are the place where he would have spent eternity, as Servius (a fourth-century commentator of the Aeneid) has pointed out [21].

    Aeneas would have wanted that, and the narrator almost lets him by presenting Aeneas’ encounter with his fellow warriors as the ultimate synthesis of the living and the dead, the Upper world and Underworld, the temporary and eternal.

    Inevitably, however, the Sibyl reminds Aeneas of who he is and where he is, a living person among the dead. In contrast to the souls of the dead, he does not have eternity at his disposal (Aen. 6.535-539). Aeneas can only stay in the Underworld for a fixed amount of time, because he needs to fulfil his task as the creator of an eternal realm in the Upper world, the city of Rome. It is Aeneas’ crucial role in the existence of Rome that keeps him from staying among his friends forever – tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem (“So vast was the effort to found the Roman race”), as the narrator exclaims at Aeneid 1.33.

    The motif of Aeneas’ limited time in the Underworld is repeated at the end of the episode. Finally, Aeneas has reached his father Anchises who shows him the future of his race, the great Roman people. This encounter was the very purpose of Aeneas’ Underworld visit (cf. Aen. 5.731-737). At the end of the encounter, the narrator tells us that Aeneas and Anchises “wander at large over the whole region in the wide airy plain, taking note of all”, the present tense forms vagantur and lustrant:

    (16) Aeneid 6.886 – 892

    Thus they wander (vagantur) at large over the whole region in the wide airy plain, taking note of all (lustrantur). After Anchises had led his son (natum) over every scene, kindling his soul with longing for the glory that was to be, he then tells of the wars that the man (viro) next must wage, the Laurentine peoples and Latinus’ town, and how he is to face or flee each peril.

    The present tense situations vagantur and lustrant have no inherent end points, and Aeneas and Anchises might have walked and enjoyed these fields forever. A temporal adverbial clause (“After ... was to be”) indicates their endpoint, however, and denotes what Anchises did during their walk. Again, a pleasant situation is ended by means of a reminder of the task Aeneas needs to fulfil in the Upper world: “the man (viro) must wage wars (bella)”.

    It is striking that Anchises shows all the details of the fields in which they dwell to his son (natum, l.888), and that he then reminds the man (viro, l.890) of the wars that need to be fought. Aeneas is no longer (seen as) a son when he leaves the Underworld, but at that moment he is, once and for all, the man with a greater task, the man of whom the narrator sings in his very first line: arma virumque cano (Aen. 1.1).


    The text's linguistic approach taken in this article has shown that the present tense is used ingeniously to create the effect of a journey through an eternal space, allowing Aeneas to experience eternity. The approach has also brought about a difference between Underworld residents that have reached their final destination and residents that are still struggling to find eternal peace. Among the latter were Palinurus and Dido, but Aeneas and the Sibyl help them along their way. Thus, Aeneas helps to create eternal situations in the Underworld.

    Aeneas’ own experience of the eternity of the Underworld is limited, as the Sibyl and his father tell him again and again. In the episode, Aeneas is an observer and instigator of eternity, but he never truly becomes a participant of it, although he does come close once. The instigation of eternity in the Underworld corresponds with Aeneas’ role in the history of Rome and we may even conclude that Aeneas cannot stay in the Underworld because he needs to bring eternity to the Upper world. There, he will lay the foundations for Roma Aeterna, a city for which Jupiter himself has set no bounds in time and space (Aen.1.278/9, example (1)).


    Adema, S. M. (2007) “Discourse Modes and Bases in Vergil’s Aeneid”, in: Allan, R.J. and M. Buijs (eds.) The Language of Literature: Linguistic Approaches to Classical Texts, Leiden, 42-64

    —(2008) Discourse Modes and Bases. A Study of the Use of Tenses in Vergil’s Aeneid, Amsterdam

    Adema, S.M., Stienaers, D. (2011) “Tekststructuur en tijdgebruik in Latijnse narratieve teksten. Geïllustreerd met passages uit Caesar, Livius, Ovidius, Tacitus en Vergilius”, Kleio 40.3, 116-143

    Austin, R. G. (1977) P. Vergili Maronis: Aeneidos, Liber Sextus, Oxford

    Bal, Mieke G. (1985) Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, Toronto

    Bonheim, H. (1982) The Narrative Modes. Techniques of the Short Story, Cambridge

    Bremmer, J. (2009) “The Golden Bough: Orphic, Eleusinian, and Hellenistic-Jewish Sources of Virgil’s Underworld in Aeneid VI”, Kernos [En ligne], 22, mis en ligne le 26 octobre 2012, consulté le 12 février 2013. URL:; DOI: 10.4000/kernos.1785

    Conte, G. B. (1994) Latin Literature: A History, Baltimore-London

    Fairclough, H. R. (1999) Virgil, Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid, Cambridge (Mass)-London

    Feldherr, A. (1999) “Putting Dido on the Map: Genre and Geography in Vergil’s Underworld”, Arethusa 32, 85-122

    Genette, G. (1969-1972) Figures I – IV, Paris

    —1980, Narrative Discourse, An essay in method, Ithaca-New York

    Hamon, P. (1993 [1981]) Du Descriptif, Paris

    Herman, D. (2002) Story Logic, Lincoln-London

    —(2009) Basic Elements of Narrative, Chichester

    Jong, I. J.F. de (1987) Narrators and Focalizers: the Presentation of the Story in the Iliad, Amsterdam

    —(2001) A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey, Cambridge

    Jong, I.J.F. de, Nünlist R. (eds.) (2007) Time in Ancient Greek Literature, Leiden

    Kroon, C. H.M. (2007) “Discourse Modes and the Use of Tenses in Ovid’s Metamorphoses”, in: Allan, R.J., Buijs M. (eds.) The Language of Literature: Linguistic Approaches to Classical Texts, Leiden, 65-92

    —(2012) “Voce voco. Some text linguistic observations on Ovid Heroides 10”, Mnemosyne 65, 238-250

    Landau, B., Jackendoff, R. (1993) “‘What’ and ‘where’ in spatial language and cognition”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16, 217-265

    Mosher, H. (1991) “Towards a Poetics of Descriptized Narration”, Poetics Today 3, 425-45.

    Mynors, R.A.B. (1969) P. Vergili Maronis, Opera, Oxford

    Norden, E. (1957) P. Vergilius Maro Aeneis Buch VI, Darmstadt

    Pieper, C. (2012) “Voce voco. Ariadne in Ovids Heroides und die ‘weibliche’ Stimme”, Mnemosyne 65, 219-237

    Pinkster, H. (1999) Latin Syntax and Semantics, London

    —(1999) “The Present Tense in Virgil’s Aeneid”, Mnemosyne 52, 705-717

    Quinn, K. (1968) Virgil’s Aeneid: a critical description, London

    Schwartz, F. R. (2002) Lucans Tempusgebrauch. Textsyntax und Erzählkunst, Frankfurt am Main

    Smith, C. S. (2003) Modes of Discourse. The Local Structure of Texts, Cambridge

    West, G. S. (1980) “Caeneus and Dido”, Transactions of the American Philological Association, 315-324

    Zoran, G. (1984) “Towards a Theory of Space in Narrative”, Poetics Today 5.2, 309-335


    1. I am indebted to Niels Koopman, who is currently writing a dissertation on narrative and description in Greek war narrative, for his useful commentary on an earlier version of this article. I would also like to thank Mark Hannay for editing this article.

    2. All translations (sometimes slightly altered) are taken from: Fairclough, H. 1999. Virgil: Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid, part 1&2. (Loeb). The Latin texts are based on the OCT (Mynors 1969). A (historical) present in the translation represents a Latin (historical) present.

    3. The corpus of this article consists of the narrator text of Vergil’s Aeneid 6.264 – 6.901. Despite the vast amount of literature on the katabasis episode, a text linguistic approach has not yet been used to come to a better understanding of this passage. For a discussion of the thematic significance of the representation of space in this episode (vis-à-vis the representation of space in Augustan Rome), see Feldherr (1999). For an introduction into this episode see the commentaries on Aeneid VI by Norden (1903) and/or Austin (1977). Norden also discusses the sources of Vergil’s katabasis episode, among which, of course, Homer’s nekuia (Odyssee, book XI) (for a discussion of Orphic, Eleusinian, and Hellenistic-Jewish sources, see Bremmer (2009)). The merging of eternal and temporary in Vergil’s sources and, thus, the way in which they function as his model in this respect fall outside the scope of this article, but would be an interesting topic for further research.

    4. The description starts with a perfect tense form, posuere. This perfect tense form denotes a situation resulting from an event in the past, as is also the case in the English translation ‘they have set their bed’. This interpretation of the perfect tense form posuere is due to the combination of the tense and the specific meaning of the verb (Pinkster 1990: 232, Adema 2008: 64).

    5. Other text linguistic markers are spatial adverbs (description) or temporal adverbs (narrative). For a more detailed discussion of discourse modes in Latin narrative, see Adema (2007, 2008) and Adema & Stienaers (2011).

    6. Descriptions similar to example (7) are found at Aen.4.247-251; Aen.6.43-45; Aen.7.12-15; Aen.7.563-570; Aen.8.416-422; Aen.8.597-599; Aen. 11.522-529. Most descriptions are block descriptions in the Aeneid, but an exception is, for instance, the description of the river Tiber (Aen.7.30-34).

    7. In terms of De Jong (2001:317-318), this is a ‘landing type-scene’. Such scenes often contain an embedded focalizer (e.g. Aen.7.30-34). Here, however, there is no indication in the text that Aeneas and his men (subject of the previous clause) are the focalizers. On the contrary, the presentative clause with which the description begins, suggests that the primary narrator presents this description.

    8. The states of affairs tenent and alligat are not spatially connected to the other states of affairs. As such, they are not descriptive in a strict sense, but give information about this natural harbour.

    9. See also Kroon (2012) for a combined narratological and linguistic approach of Ovid’s Heroides X, in which the present tense is used for a merge of the genres of epic and elegy (cf. also Pieper 2012).

    10. See note 15 for an enumeration of these Underworld descriptions.

    11. Zoran (1984: 321) considers both ways movement.

    12. Movement verbs occur throughout the episode (Aen.6.384; 411; 424; 477; 634; 638; 678; 898). The simile at the start of the episode (6.270-272) describes the walking along a path (iter) “under the niggard light of a fitful moon”.

    13. Herman uses the term path in the sense of Landau & Jackendoff (1993: 223).

    14. Aeneas often is the subject of a verb of seeing in this episode, both in narrator text and in speeches of other characters who invite him to look at something (Aen. 6.323; 325; 333; 340; 426; 446; 452; 495; 498; 548; 549; 557; 651; 656; 703; 761; 771; 779; 788; 792; 817; 818; 825; 826; 855; 860). The motif of an (unsure) observer occurs in the simile in lines 6.453- 454.

    15. Example (7) illustrates a technique that is the reverse of the technique in examples (3) and (4) (l. 273-294). The latter passage starts with an eternal tableau vivant and ends with a reminder that this tableau is the frighteningly real and present environment of Aeneas, and not just a sketch of the entrance of the Underworld.

    16. Everlasting present tense descriptions of the Underworld are found at 6.273-289 (example (3)); 6.295-304 (example (6)); 6.417-418; 6.426-449; 6.550-558 (example (7)); 6.640-665 (example (14)); 6.705.

    17. In sum, the corpus contains 18 indicative imperfect tense forms, and in eleven of these cases an Underworld resident is the subject (see note 18). It contains 136 indicative present tense forms, of which 66 should be interpreted as everlasting situations and 70 as present tenses used as the main tense of the narrative (historical presents). The corpus also contains 22 perfect tense forms used as the main tense of the narrative (for other uses of the perfect tense, see Adema 2008).

    18. In the katabasis episode, eleven imperfect tense forms occur of which Underworld residents are the subject. These situations are not universally valid: one imperfect tense form indicates a situation that took place in the past of the souls under consideration (dum vita manebat in 6.661) and ten imperfect tense forms are contemporaneous with Aeneas’ visit, but not eternally valid. Apart from the imperfect tense forms in example (8), (9) and (11), these forms are the following: ruebat, stabant and tendebant in 6.304-314 (describing how souls are waiting for Charon’s boat, they have not reached their eternal dwelling yet); sedebant in 6.411 (denoting how souls are transported in Charon’s boat); tenebat in 6.469 (taking place during the meeting between Dido and Aeneas); lustrabat and recensebat (Anchises waiting for Aeneas’ arrival). Of course, there are, in addition to these imperfect tense forms, a few imperfect tense forms in this episode of which the Sibyl and/ or Aeneas are the subject and that, for that obvious reason, are not universally valid situations (ibant in 6.268; latebat in 6.406; lenibat and ciebat in 468; iamque tenebant in 6.477; rigabat in 6.699; videbat in 6.860).

    19. I interpret the adverb parumper in the Latin text as meaning ‘quickly’, ‘in a short period of time’ rather than ‘for a short period of time’.

    20. West (1980) also observes this change in Dido in this excerpt, but he does not base himself on tense usage. He draws an analogy with Caeneus (6.448). Caeneus had changed, during life, into a man, but is now female again (only her name remains male). Dido, too, returns to her ‘old form’ in the Underworld, as she now is again what she was before she met Aeneas, viz. Sychaeus’ wife.

    21. Servius does this in his comment on a line in Aeneas’ final speech to Dido: line 6.466 (extremum fato quod te adloquor hoc est. Transl: This is the last word Fate suffers me to say to you). According to Servius, Aeneas says this either because he will become a god later (aut quia deus futurus est) or because Aeneas thinks that he will be in the realm of heroes, not in that given to Lovers (aut, quod melius est, quia post mortem tenebit alterum circulum, viris fortibus scilicet, non amantibus datum). The latter is the more likely option, as Servius already states. According to the mythical tradition Aeneas is indeed deified (cf. Verg. Aen.1.259f and Ovid. Met.14.603ff), but Aeneas obviously does not know this as he speaks to Dido in the Underworld.

    • Was this article helpful?