The Aeneid’s Serpentine Imagery: Book 5

Last time, we saw that the symbol of the snake in Book 2 of the Aeneid represents the fortunes of Aeneas and the Trojans, thereby influencing the forces of order and destiny with an element of furor, or chaos. Now, I’d like to take a look at Book 5, in which the funeral for Aeneas’ father, Anchises, is held.

While the Trojans are preparing sacrifices for the spirit of Anchises, a massive serpent appears at the grave. It “calmly”(placide) and “harmlessly”(innoxius) consumes the offerings (5.84-95). According to the system associating the serpent with Trojan fortunes, this snake marks a moment of respite for the Trojans: the malevolence of the snakes involved in the defeat of Troy are replaced with a sense of calm benevolence and protection by a peaceful guardian spirit.

To commemorate Anchises, here is an image of him in his youth, alongside his lover, Venus: 1822 painting by Jean-Baptiste Paulin Guérin.

For now, the trials endured by the Trojans are over; no longer are they to be victims of chaos and furor, which have been embodied in the fall of Troy, their endless years of wandering, and the passionate, raging emotions of Book 4 (the infamously tragic love-affair of Aeneas and Dido).

The other significant serpent image of Book 5 confirms this view: after the ship race, a damaged ship returns to shore “like a serpent caught on a road-stone, whom bronze wheels have struck sideways, or whom a traveler, by a grievous blow with a rock, has left mangled and near-dead”(5.273-5: Qualis … viae deprensus in aggere serpens / aerea quem obliquum rota transiit, aut gravis ictu / seminecem liquit saxo lacerumque viator).

The Trojans have been battered and tossed about (1.3: iactatus) during their journey, and so too is this snake injured due to misfortune upon the road, yet still it lives; thus, the Trojans survive, despite the countless sufferings they have experienced, and now, under the guardianship of the Anchises-serpent, Aeneas and his people prepare to head towards the accomplishment of their destiny in Italy.

The image of the snake in Book 5 seems to a benevolent one, aligned with Trojan interests. Since Book 2, the serpent has heralded Troy’s revival, guided Aeneas on his quest, and now continues to provide a sense of protection as the Trojans approach their destiny. Even so, all these serpentine images remind us of the initial destruction wrought by snakes during the Fall of Troy.

What did I conclude from these observations? Order and fate do win out against furor, and so will Aeneas establish the Roman race and Augustus his Pax Romana. However, this outcome will necessitate further devastation and the adoption of the serpent’s malicious qualities by the agents of order.


Sources: For analysis of the ship-snake simile, see Rose. For more on snakes in Book 5, see Galinksy and Putnam. See especially Nethercut on the general idea that Aeneas’ quest, the rise of Rome, and the success of Augustus are corrupted by negative influences in the Aeneid, including snakes.

Galinsky, G.K. (1968). “Aeneid V and the Aeneid,” American Journal of Philology 89: 157-85.

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.

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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