The Flaming Arrow of Classical Education: Funeral Games in the Aeneid as Symbol and Hope

Aug 12, 2013

“Suddenly, right before their eyes, look, a potent marvel destined to shape the future!”
The Aeneid, Book V. ll. 575-6


The funeral games for Anchises in book five of the Aeneid provide a necessary respite from the piercing drama and tragic end of Dido in book four—which concludes with the arresting imagery of Dido atop a funeral pyre and her sister Anna sobbing with grief. And so book five opens with Aeneas—“steeled for a mid-sea passage,” looking back at the burning pyre, splitting the waves under a dark, ominous sky, searching for his destiny. Far into the high seas, though, he and his crew are beset by thunderstorms and "cloudbanks wrapped around the sky." What better place, he asks, to wait out the storm than at Sicily, the home of his father’s bones and his friend Acestes?

It might seem natural, then, to give a cursory reading to the funeral games in book five, viewing them as a mere resting place between two larger episodes—Dido's tragic death in book four and Aeneas’s visit to the underworld in book six. But might I suggest a more reflective and conscious reading of book five? The funeral games are a symbol of Roman history and formation (its past and future); a representation of empiric destiny; and a model for how the Aeneid itself (and classical education more generally) can nourish our children.

Shortly after landing at Sicily, Aeneas prepares to honor his deceased father, Anchises, on the one-year anniversary of his death. As Aeneas announces his plan to celebrate the happy, buoyant rites, he makes a tri-fold connection between his father’s bones, the plan of the gods, and a future city: “here we stand/by the very bones and ashes of my father—not,/I know, without the plan and power of the gods… And may it please my father,/once my city is built with temples in his name, that I offer him these rites year in, year out” (5.67-69; 72-74). Not only does this link suggest that the rites are thematic and important, but it also serves as a means for Virgil to set up his primary symbol in the book—the funeral games.

Aeneas first outlines the funeral games and of what they will be comprised: a ship race, a foot race, a boxing match, an archery contest, and a horse-riding performance. He then invites to the games the household gods, Penates Publici  (likely sacred objects Aeneas rescued from Troy), as well as the gods their host Acestes worships. Even this reveals an important link between the gods, the funeral rites, and their present location of Sicily—which might turn out, at this point in the narrative, to be their destined land. For later in the book, the Trojan women, inspired by Juno and Iris, will make a strong case with fire for Sicily to be their destined home: “‘How many reefs, how many sea-miles/more that we must cross! Heart-weary as we are!’/They cried with one voice. A city is what they pray for” (5.678-680).

The inauguration of the funeral games also contains key figurative elements. When Aeneas invites everyone to partake in the games, he begins by ascending the tomb to pour libations to honor his father. Ascanius, Aeneas’s son, and other young men follow suit (5.90). For here, in this poignant funereal space, are three generations of Roman identity and formation—an image that could well be on the cover of the Aeneid: Anchises, in the tomb, represents the Trojan past; Aeneas, atop the tomb, represents the present and vital link between the past and the future; and Ascanius, approaching the tomb with other young men, represents the Roman future.  Too, the words of Aeneas in this sacramental moment atop the tomb support this: “Hail, my blessed father, I salute/your ashes, your spirit and your shade… Not with you would it be my fate to search for Italy’s shores/and destined fields” (5.97-101).

The fact that Virgil frames the symbolic history and future of the Roman race in the context of sacrament suggests the sacred calling and destiny of the Roman people—they are born from unmixed wine, fresh milk, and hallowed blood (5.95)—a race chosen by the gods and destined for greatness (per ardua ad astra) and holiness (pax romana).

As well, this might hint at the purpose of reading the Aeneid and for classical education—it is a liturgical calling, reborn from the sacred education of the past, necessary and essential for our children’s destiny and future.

But let's return for a moment to Aeneas ascending the tomb to pour libations in honor of his father. Virgil follows this salient event with a surprising, if not shocking, turn. Just as Aeneas finishes his eulogistic words in honor of his father, a serpent “slithers up from the shrine’s depths,/drawing its seven huge coils… calmly enfolding the tomb, gliding through the altars” (5.104-106). Aeneas, as we might expect, stops, struck by the sight. "The snake slowly sweeping/along his length among the bowls and polished goblets/tasted the feast, then back he slid below the tomb" (5.108-111).

Why does Virgil inhabit this sacred scene with a snake? Is the snake, as Aeneas asks when he resumes his father's rites, the genius of the place or his father’s familiar spirit? Or might the snake foreshadow something murky about the future Roman state—perhaps the questionable cost of empire? The inherent complexity and allusive nature makes the Aeneid such a valuable and essential read for those pursuing a classical education; its myriad levels engender literal and analogous reading, thinking, and discovery. 

Following this scene, the funeral games begin. When the first event, the ship race, gets underway, it too can be seen as symbolic: The Trojans are “off to the races"—racing for Roman identity (in the text) and empire (in real life). And this, I might argue, was Virgil’s intent; he was writing as much for his Roman countrymen as he was for Augustus. One purpose of his epic was to write a nation into being, to form, from the power of verse, a country with purpose and design, myth and history. Thus, the imagery of the funeral games is both suggestive and symbolic, a literary technique employed by Virgil for specific purpose: to represent the mytho-historical past, the Augustan present, and the empiric future.

Still more, during the arduous, embattled ship race, Mnestheus spurns his crew by reminding them of their vital role in the Trojan past, “Now put your backs in the oars, you comrades of Hector!/You are the ones I chose, my troops at Troy’s last stand” (5.214-215). Then he invokes the name of Neptune, suggesting the god might pick the winner, reiterating the importance of the gods’ involvement in the games. This is developed on a deeper level though, when Cloanthus, the captain of one of the four ships, “flung his arms to the sea and poured/his prayer to the gods and begged them to hear his vows” (5.261-262).  He prayed and the depths heard him; Cloanthus obtains the victory.

A few events later, the archery contest presents a direct and symbolic intervention by the gods. Acestes raises his bow and launches an arrow high into the air. Right before their eyes, the arrow turns to flame and blazes out in fire, “a potent marvel destined to shape the future! So the outcome proved/when the awestruck prophets sang the signs to later ages” (5.575-77). The people of Troy and Sicily froze and prayed to the gods. Aeneas identifies this as an omen. He then presents Acestes with a gift from old Anchises himself. And the gift, fittingly, is a richly-engraved mixing bowl given to Anchises from the Thracian Cisseus—which hearkens back to the past (Anchises) and to Greek mythology (Cisseus was the wife of Telecleia, the daughter of King Ilus of Troy). Again, we see the intricate amalgam of myth and history; the flaming arrow is both symbol and hope, marking the games as mimetic (μίμησις) and signifier. We might then, as students and teachers in classical education, let the arrow become our own symbol for the power and potential of the Aeneid in our study.

Finally, but possibly most importantly, the young boys ride in, “trim in their ranks before their parents’ eyes” (5.607). The games peak with the arrival of the final event, the equestrian games. Ascanius and the young boys cause quite a stir as they pass; indeed, they command a gaze in their symbolic function—the people “murmur a hum of admiration”(5.611)—for in the narrative, they reflect the possibility and hope of a nation. The boys’ equestrian “games” are, after all, mock displays of war—that which engenders and enables a nation and empire. The display of these boys in their representative function is reiterated by what they wear, given ornate description by Virgil over several lines—“wear their hair bound tight,” “braided gold encircle each boy’s neck," "each bearing a pair of lances" (5. 611-619).  Virgil describes each troupe as shining in the sun (5.619). And shine they do, in more ways than literal—the Trojans in the narrative and the Romans in the Virgil's context. 

The equestrian games, in a way, foreshadow the programmatic function of the Ara Pacis, the “Altar of Augustan Peace,” built about five years after the publication of the Aeneid and commissioned in honor of Augustus’s return to Rome from conquests in Gaul and Hispania. As the Trojans in book five murmur a hum of admiration for Ascanius and the boys on horses, which represent their future nation, so the Romans must have gushed in reverence for the children carved on the Ara Pacis, chiseled to represent an empire without end. The children, then, provide a symbol of hope—meant to elicit looks and murmurs, and to convey the future power of the Roman nation.

I cannot help but think of classical education as an Ara Pacis-like structure on which our children are formed and chiseled—one last hope for saving them and for preserving our future. I cannot help but think of the illuminative potential that a perusal of the Aeneid has for us—forming our minds on the power of verse, allusion, myth, and history.

Coincidentally, the frieze on the west side of the Ara Pacis is crowned with scenes of Aeneas sacrificing. Here I think of Aeneas in book five, high atop his father’s tomb, sacrificing the past as he sees, far into the destined future, a radiant Ara Pacis. And here I think of our children, standing on the Aeneid, becoming before our eyes high whipped arrows blazing into flames—“potent marvels destined to shape the future!”

David Wright

David Wright

David M. Wright is the Director and Writer of the Upper-School Literature Curriculum at Memoria Press. He has taught AP Literature and English with a focus on the Great Books for the last ten years. He received his master’s degree in English Lit. from DePaul University, completed the CIRCE Teacher Apprenticeship program, and is currently working on a PhD at the Univ. of Louisville. He is the Founder and Director of the annual Climacus Conference in Louisville, KY.

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