The Aeneid’s Serpentine Imagery: Book 2

This past year, in my first advanced Latin course, I was given a fantastic opportunity to study Vergil’s Aeneid. This epic poem telling of the Trojan hero Aeneas’ quest to found the Roman bloodline has been a cornerstone of the Western tradition since its creation over 2000 years ago.

One of the major issues at stake in the Aeneid is the conflict between the forces of order and the forces of furor, a Latin word referring to all the negative connotations of anger, chaos, madness, and destruction. The forces of order are represented by Aeneas’ journey to establish the Roman race, which is destined to control the world with its authority and thereby secure eternal peace. The culmination of this is supposedly the rise of Emperor Augustus, who ended decades of civil war, restored peace, and made himself the protector of the Roman state.

Generally, there are two interpretations of this conflict: an optimistic one, which says that fate, piety, and order win out against chaos, confirming the message of the Augustan regime, and a pessimistic one, arguing that reason and the Roman order collapse against furor. But this is really a spectrum, and scholars of the Aeneid can place themselves anywhere on it.

For this class, I examined the use of serpentine imagery throughout the epic. I found that serpents are the heralds of chaos, but are simultaneously associated with the agents of order. My conclusion was that the Augustan regime defeats furor and secures peace and order, but it must somehow take on the characteristics of that which it seeks to restrain to do so. I suppose this falls closer to the pessimistic view.

Starting in Book 2 of the Aeneid, the snake is mapped onto the fortunes of Aeneas and his people. Successes in his quest, although aligned with fate, nevertheless are connected to destructive influences.

The root of snake imagery is in Book 2 of the Aeneid, during the fall of Troy. Neptune, a god who wishes to destroy Troy, sends twin sea-snakes to devour the priest Laocoon and his sons in a long, disturbing passage (2.201-227). From the beginning, the serpent is placed firmly into the destruction mode, thereby coloring any future serpentine images with negative influences.

A Hellenistic-era statue depicting the horrific death of Laocoon and his sons, as they are consumed by the serpents. Now in the Vatican.

The slithering of the snakes is tied to the gliding of the wheels beneath the Trojan Horse through the Latin word for sliding (2:225: lapsu/2.235-6: lapsus). Snakes, then, seem to represent the furor of those forces leading to Troy’s destruction, including the deception and violence of the Greeks.

Two significant serpentine similes follow in Book 2: the first compares Aeneas and the Trojans, who have disguised themselves with Greek armor and startle an enemy warrior, to a snake “unseen among the rough brambles”(2.376-82) which causes a man to “flee backward, afraid”(2.380); the second compares the violent Greek warrior Pyrrhus to a snake “renewed, after its skin has been shed, and glistening in its youth”(2.471-5), shortly before he enters the citadel and brutally slays the king of Troy, Priam.

One way of viewing these similes is to suggest that Aeneas earns a moment of good fortune in battle that is outdone by a more powerful snake. The snake is a symbol of Trojan fortunes, whether those fortunes rise or fall: the twin serpents represent the forces of furor that would destroy Troy, while the Trojan snake acts as a temporary resurgence for the defenders, who ultimately cannot defeat the invading snake of Pyrrhus.

At the end of Book 2, two omens convince Aeneas’ father that it is time to flee from Troy: first, a flame appears upon the head of Ascanius, Aeneas’ son, and “licks”(2.684 lambere) at his hair, in the same way that the twin serpents did earlier. Then, a falling star “glides over the rooftops”(2. 695) in a way reminiscent of the gliding (lapsu) of the snakes.

A 1598 painting, entitled Aeneas’ Flight from Troy, by Federico Barocci.

These snake-like omens herald the revival of Troy and signal Aeneas’ escape from the ruined city towards his destiny. The snake represents Aeneas and the Trojans, in both the threats they face and the successes they enjoy in completing their destiny, which is at this moment to escape Troy in order to restore it in Roman form–a rebirth suggested by the shedding of the snake’s skin.

In this light, serpents appear to represent the accomplishment of order in the fulfillment of Aeneas’ destiny. Even so, the first appearance of a snake in Book 2 clearly established it as a sign of danger, violence, and chaos. This means that the forces of order and destiny somehow carry an element of furor within them.

That’s it for Book 2 of the Aeneid! In the following post, I’ll write about what I discovered as I examined the serpentine imagery of Book 5.

Sources: For a summary of how the Aeneid has been interpreted over the years, see Ganiban and Perkell. For more on snake imagery, see the other sources in this list. Knox and Rose were more helpful in regard to serpents specifically, but Nethercut and Putnam were also useful. 

  • Ganiban, R. T., Farell, J., Johnston, P. A., O’Hara, J. J., and Perkell C. G. (eds.). (2012). Aeneid Books 1–6. Newburyport, MA.
  • Knox, B. M. W. (1950). “The serpent and the flame: the imagery of the second book of the Aeneid,” American Journal of Philology 71: 379-400.
  • Nethercut, W. R. (1968). “Invasion in the Aeneid,Greece & Rome 15: 82-95.
  • Nethercut, W. R. (1971-72). “Imagery of the Aeneid,” Classical Journal 67: 123-43.
  • Perkell, C. G. (ed.) (1999). Reading Vergil’s Aeneid: An Interpretive Guide. Norman, OK.
  • Putnam, M. (1965). The Poetry of the Aeneid: Four Studies in Imaginative Unity and Design. Cambridge, MA.
  • Rose, A. (1982-83). “Vergil’s ship-snake simile (Aeneid 5.270-281),” Classical Journal 78: 115-21.

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