It has been a while. Admittedly, time constraints aside, I had a series of posts that I scuppered because they did not seem like they would be read charitably in this environment (on memory and statuary). I neither wanted to waste the time editing them to include current events, nor ignore them completely. If you have been missing these posts, you can find one of my reviews here. Meanwhile, I was happily reading Tacitus (book one excerpted, lol) when I came across the following interesting little anecdote, which has set me down a path of some philological detective work.
Fair warning: I am quite sleep deprived and probably less coherent and certainly less well edited than usual. I will clean this post up in a few days.
inlusit dehinc Neroni fortuna per uanitatem ipsius et promissa Caeselli Bassi, qui origine Poenus, mente turbida, nocturnae quietis imaginem ad spem haud dubiae rei traxit, uectusque Romam, principis aditum emercatus, expromit repertum in agro suo specum altitudine immensa, quo magna uis auri contineretur, non in formam pecuniae sed rudi et antiquo pondere. lateres quippe praegrauis iacere, adstantibus parte alia columnis; quae per tantum aeui occulta augendis praesentibus bonis. ceterum, ut coniectura demonstrabat, Dido Phoenissam Tyro profugam condita Carthagine illas opes abdidisse, ne nouus populus nimia pecunia lasciuiret aut reges Numidarum, et alias infensi, cupidine auri ad bellum accenderentur.
Nero now became the sport of fortune as a result of his own credulity and the promises of Caesellius Bassus. Punic by origin and mentally deranged, Bassus treated the vision he had seen in a dream by night as a ground of confident expectation, took ship to Rome, and, buying an interview with the emperor, explained that he had found on his estate an immensely deep cavern, which contained a great quantity of gold, not transformed into coin but in unwrought and ancient bullion. For there were ponderous ingots on the floor; while, in another part, the metal was piled in columns — a treasure which had lain hidden through the centuries in order to increase the prosperity of the present era. The Phoenician Dido, so his argument ran, after her flight from Tyre and her foundation at Carthage, had concealed the hoard, for fear that too much wealth might tempt her young nation to excess, or that the Numidian princes, hostile on other grounds as well, might be fired to arms by the lust of gold.
This story is carried over into the next two paragraphs, which I have neglected to include due to reasons of space. Interested readers very much ought to read the whole selection (16.1-3), but here I shall give a precis. Like many a speculator, Nero rushes ahead without his due diligence, he commits a great deal of resources (in the form of triremes) and the size of the treasure is magnified by rumour. When Bassus is unable to find the treasure he (and this is a typical Neronian theme, is it not?) either kills himself or has his property confiscated.
Throughout this passage, Tacitus is never too far from his best and the language and characterisation would definitely repay further study. Nero, for example, is elsewhere characterised as being avaricious and gold seems to be an ironic characteristic of his reign. We might ask ourselves why and how he fell for such a trick. I think there are two reasons, one obvious and the other less so. For the first, the story is repeated with some variation in Suetonius. This should not be surprising: Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny and Martial all must have more or less moved in the same circles and traded the same kinds of stories. In Suetonius (Nero 31-2) we learn that Nero’s failed venture left him unable to pay the soldiers and that he subsequently resorted to robbery and skimming from wills. We’re perhaps meant to laugh at Nero’s poor fiscal management, personally I think Suetonius and Tacitus probably have put the cart before the horse: it was poverty – from extravagance (Nero’s and Claudius’) and e.g the Pisonian conspiracy of 65 – which made Nero susceptible to this scheme. Everything about this stinks of a “fuck it, double down” kind of move that typifies some of the funniest trading stories I have heard. Like most people caught in a scam, he ultimately persuaded himself. This seems to me to cover why, what about how?
There are a lot of questions here, as much about the roles of memory, myth, literature, and history as the prosaic ones at the Neronian court. Think what this presupposes. That Dido existed. That she fled Tyre. That she left encumbered with gold she did not use. Why? Where did this come from?
I suspect the ultimate source of the myth may well be Virgil. Mid-way through the first book of the Aeneid, Aeneas, and crew (well, seven remaining ships’ worth) have arrived at a promontory somewhere in Africa. Aeneas and Achates set off hunting and stumble across Venus in the guise of some sort of Amazonian local. I suppose the poet is aiming for a funnier version of the scene with Odysseus and Nausikaa, but what is more interesting for us is the way in which Virgil uses Venus to give us, his readers, some rapid exposition. These lands are ruled by Dido, who was (like Bassus) origine Poena from the city of Tyre. Her brother Pygamlion murdered her husband out of avarice and lied to her, pacifying her with hope…
|ipsa sed in somnis inhumati venit imago||But in sleep came the very ghost of her unburied|
|coniugis; ora modis attollens pallida miris||husband, raising his pale face in wondrous wise,|
|crudelis aras traiectaque pectora ferro||the cruel altars and his breast pierced with steel|
|nudavit, caecumque domus scelus omne retexit.||he exposed, unveiling all the blind horror of the house.|
|tum celerare fugam patriaque excedere suadet||Then, he persuades her take speedy flight and leave her country,|
|auxiliumque viae veteres tellure recludit||and as an aid to her road, he revealed long kept in the earth|
|thesauros, ignotum argenti pondus et auri.||treasures – a weight gold and silver, unknown.|
|his commota fugam Dido sociosque parabat.||Moved by these things, Dido prepared both flight and company.|
I strongly suspect that these lines were the direct origin of the rumour Nero fell for in Tacitus and Suetonius. Note that in Virgil the treasure is presented as an auxilium viae rather than something to be hidden in the earth for future generations. This is obviously more logical, but I wonder also whether Virgil’s own sad experience with land appropriation and resettlement made him more attuned to the physical requirements thereof. Dido did not originate with Virgil, but this really seems to me to be the kind of Virgilian invention.
Just how firm is the tradition behind Dido anyway? Wolfgang Kullman speaks of a faktenkannon, that is to say, a series of hyper-traditional facets/actions of any given character that oral tradition cannot reasonably alter. This is one of those useful German neo-analytical heuristics that sadly is rarely used in Anglo scholarship. As time goes on and orality becomes less productive, these strict bounds loosen, but there are still some rules. Some sense of canon. Achilles can have a secret meeting with Helen, but he cannot actually sack Troy any more than Patroclus can.
I mention this partly to funnel interested readers towards Neo-Analytic scholarship but largely to establish that the level of variation open to Virgil was quite, well, varied within these constraints. The fewer extant sources, the better. That the legend of Dido originated with actual Semitic speakers seems to me largely probable. “Dido” is not, to my (limited) knowledge, analysable as Semitic but the alternate name provided by the tradition – Elissa – seems to have Canaanite origins (e.g Elishat, the Greek even retains stress on the first syllable). Nevertheless, it is also obvious that much of the myth shows heavy Greek influence: the characterisation of eastern royal harem politics, Punics as wealthy, greedy, schemers, even the origin of the so called Dido problem betrays Greek etymological games (the name for the Carthaginian hinterland, Byrsa, comes from the Greek for hide). We can rule out direct Punic influence for the broader details, though now I am really sad that the pseudo-Aristotelian Carthaginian Constitution did not come down to us. It is obvious that the major sources for the myth must have been Greek, though we are scarcely better off here.
Timaeus, writing in the 3rd century BC, scarcely survives. We tend to assume that Dionysius of Halicarnassus reused much of his work, but his section on Aeneas (1.44-75) does not mention Dido or Carthage at all. If Timaeus spoke of Dido at length (and he may have), there was at that time no link with Aeneas. Another historian, the fantastically named Pompeius Trogus, goes into greater detail on Dido’s story but likewise omits Aeneas. Well, as far as we can tell – he survives only in epitomes. It may be significant that both Pompeius Trogus and Dionysius were writing during the Augustan era, and that they reflect the timbre of antique learning at court. Who knows?
So, whilst it looks like the antiquity of Carthaginian Dido is without question, it seems like Virgil may have invented the meeting between Dido and Aeneas. The one potential exception is Naevius (or Apple-Bro, if you like). Naevius wrote an epic on the Punic Wars and so would have had ample opportunity to talk about the putative ancestors of the Carthaginians. What is more interesting, is that we know he mentioned Aeneas. Does the Virgilian version begin with Naevius, then? It is possible, even probable, but far from certain. After all, there is no reason to suppose that Naevius’ Aeneas and Dido ever met, besides artistry. It is entirely possible Naevius did little more than enumerate separate founding myths to contextualise the two warring sides before bringing them together (sort of like Herodotus). Nor are the assurances of commentators/excerptors/rudebois like Servius and Macrobius that such and such a bit of Virgil translatus est especially reassuring. God alone knows what their criterion is, how consistent they are, or whether they have even read the Republican era poetry to which they are referring.
Instead, much hangs on a possible reading of a single fragment (fr. 23) of Naevius, saved by the late grammarian Nonius Marcellus:
|blande et docte percontat Aenea quo pacto Troiam urbem liquisset||With charm and learnedness s/he asked in what manner Aeneas left behind the city of Troy.|
You can see how ambiguous this is. The bibliography is larger than I am willing to tackle, but my sense is that the communis opinio doctorum assumes that the speaker is Latinus. Certainly the new Loeb seems to think so, which re-orders the fragment as 19 and pairs it with the birth of Romulus at 20, nisi fallor. Maybe my mind is clouded by Virgil but this does not seem right to me. Blande may or may not be marked vocabulary, but it is used of Dido by Virgil (blandiisque…vocibus) and it hardly seems fitting for a rugged, rustic, king like Latinus. Likwise docte seems to suit Dido more than he. Who can forget Dido’s confident questioning of Aeneas? As she herself says: non obtusa adeo gestamus pectora Poeni. Surely the whole point of Latinus and his aborigines is that they aren’t at the centre of events post Trojan war?
Maybe I am just suffering from a Virgilian mirage, and it is now impossible to think of Latinus and Saturnian Italy outside of this. Ah well. There are worse diseases. Whatever the case, I think it is clear that Virgil built up his Dido – and the relationship between her and Aeneas – significantly more than any previous Greek or Latin source. Whilst his has came down to us at the dominant version, it may not necessarily have been held as such by the cognoscenti:
si proponam eis interrogans, utrum verum sit quod Aenean aliquando Carthaginem venisse poeta dicit, indoctiores nescire se respondebunt, doctiores autem etiam negabunt verum esse
if I question them, asking whether what the poet says is true, that Aeneas ever came to Carthage, the poorly educated will reply that they do not know, while the better educated will indeed say that it is untrue
Augustine Confessions 1.22
Augustine was a Punic by descent and may even have known of some local legends about characters like Elishat and Pumayyaton. But then he probably pronounced his /s/ like /sh/. What a nerd. What is amazing is that a throwaway, explanatory, piece of the Aeneid could end up defrauding the Emperor of Rome. Especially given the time scale. Let’s say the Aeneid was “published” in 19 BC, and that Nero fell for this between 65-8 AD. That is a shockingly quick turnaround. Admittedly, the success of the Aeneid was by any definition shockingly quick. Caecilius Epirota must have burnt his hands snatching it from the funeral pure; Horace had Livius Andronicus beaten into him one generation, the next saw Roman school children the empire over learning arma virumque cano. Years and years ago I read a book (Gowing’s Empire and Memory) which argued that Nero’s generation was the first to grow up without a functional memory of the Republic, its institutions, mores and – now I add, literature – it was convincing back then, and I can’t help but think that this whole situation might have been avoided if Nero and his gang just #ReadTheirTexts.
 Due to the sheer size of the text and paucity of time, I am taking the translation directly from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/tacitus/annals/16*.html
 To be honest, I am rarely confident I am on sure footing indicting Claudius’ fiscal administration like this, it feels right but I would not test my reading in a court of law. But then few Roman emperors besides Anastasius (491-518) showed anything like fiscal restraint or common sense….
 Had Caesar been born in the late 20th century, I guarantee he would have become an options trader and/or cocaine addict.
 Incidentally, I may be leaning too hard on this name as evidence for Punic ancestry (outside Tacitus’ wry comment; Suetonius simply calls him an eques – not an equus as I excitedly thought at 4am ☹). But aren’t several people named Bassus/Bas(s)ianus associated with the Severans all the way down to Junius Bassus in the 4th c?
 With the passing of men like West and Burkert, it seems like Homeric scholarship is destined never to rise above the level of “but mommy said it’s all oral tradition uwu uwu uwu”. Ugh. These people certainly do not understand the concept of “tradition”. I would venture likewise for “oral” too, except they’re consistently trying to self-fellate within their scholarship so, yeah, they understand that word.
 Does anyone outside of the classically trained refer to it as the Dido problem? My senior school Maths teacher did, but then he went to a local grammar. Most seem to refer to it as the Isoperimetric Problem. Thanks Jacob Steiner… if you want more on this, start here: https://www.maa.org/press/periodicals/convergence/the-sagacity-of-circles-a-history-of-the-isoperimetric-problem-the-work-of-jakob-steiner
 I think it incredibly likely. Dido – we have said, based on her alternate name – almost certainly had Semitic providence. As do several other Punic characters like Pygmalion. Timaeus probably followed a more antique tradition that puts Dido a generation or three later than the Trojan war.
 Personally, I think Naevius was more than capable of this. I think much of his reputation has been coloured by Ennius’ cruel and bitchy dismissal…
 There is nothing unique about this in classical literature. A lot of our commentating authors are considerably less well read than we might at first seem. Though I think only Homerists have worked this out systematically…for Republican Latin poetry see Jocelyn, H. D. (1964). Ancient scholarship and Virgil’s use of republican Latin poetry. I. The Classical Quarterly, 14(2), 280-295 and sequel. For Naevius see Luck, G. (1983). Naevius and Virgil. Illinois Classical Studies, 8(2), 267-275
 Is it often/at all used of men? As a student, this is the sort of thing you would assiduously check on TLL…
 When will PhDs and theologians finally accept than when God told Augustine tolle et lege the first part was an injunction to lift some fucking weights? “oh, I don’t want to go the games”.