Virgil Aeneid 9.314-50 (contributed by Caroline Lawrence)

I’ve been reading book 9 of the Aeneid. Not often studied, it is the book with the most battles in it. Aeneas has gone off to recruit help and left his band of Trojans holed up in a fort under the leadership of his son Ascanius who is probably only about 13 years old. When the Rutulians, led by Turnus, start to besiege the ramparts, it is like the siege of Troy all over again. The most famous passage of Virgil book 9 is the ‘night raid’ where the two young Trojan lovers Nisus and Euryalus venture out among the drunken, sleeping Rutulians in a doomed attempt to wreak a little havoc before going to fetch Aeneas. I am always struck by the cinematic writing of Virgil. He uses colour, movement, striking images and unusual points of view to great effect. In this bloody passage, each death is visceral, unique and memorable, even if it is only a line or two long.

I’ve recently discovered John Dryden’s metrical, rhyming translation
(finished about 1700, the year of his death) and I love it almost as much as the original:
Listen to this:
From dice and wine the youth retired to rest,
And puffed the fumy god from out his breast.
Or this:
The wound pours out a stream of wine and blood;
The purple soul comes floating in the flood.

I’ve chosen the gory passage beginning where the young lovers first cross the moat to indulge in a giddy killing spree.
Read on in book 9 for the noble but tragic death of the pair, a nightmarish account of a flaming tower’s collapse and the verse about winged rumour – famously found on a schoolboy’s tablet from Vindolanda

Egressi superant fossas noctisque per umbram
castra inimica petunt, multis tamen ante future                       315
exitio. Passim somno vinoque per herbam
corpora fusa vident, arrectos litore currus,
inter lora rotasque viros, simul arma iacere,
vina simul. Prior Hyrtacides sic ore locutus:
 “Euryale, audendum dextra; nunc ipsa vocat res.                    320
Hac iter est. Tu, ne qua manus se attollere nobis
a tergo possit, custodi et consule longe;
haec ego vasta dabo et lato te limite ducam.
Sic memorat vocemque premit; simul ense superbum
Rhamnetem adgreditur, qui forte tapetibus altis                      325
exstructus toto proflabat pectore somnum.
Rex idem et regi Turno gratissimus augur,
sed non augurio potuit depellere pestem.
Tris iuxta famulos temere inter tela iacentis
armigerumque Remi premit aurigamque sub ipsis                   330
nanctus equis ferroque secat pendentia colla;
tum caput ipsi aufert domino truncumque relinquit
sanguine singultantem; atro tepefacta cruore
terra torique madent. Nec non Lamyrumque Lamumque
et iuvenem Serranum, illa qui plurima nocte                           335
luserat, insignis facie, multoque iacebat
membra deo victus: felix, si protinus illum
aequasset nocti ludum in lucemque tulisset.
Impastus ceu plena leo per ovilia turbans
(suadet enim vesana fames) manditque trahitque                    340
molle pecus mutumque metu, fremit ore cruento:
nec minor Euryali caedes; incensus et ipse
perfurit ac multam in medio sine nomine plebem,
Fadumque Herbesumque subit Rhoetumque Abarimque,
ignaros, Rhoetum vigilantem et cuncta videntem,                  345
sed magnum metuens se post cratera tegebat;
pectore in adverso totum cui comminus ensem
condidit adsurgenti et multa morte recepit.
Purpuream vomit ille animam et cum sanguine mixta
vina refert moriens; hic furto fervidus instat.                           350

(= Dryden 420-471)

The trenches first they pass’d; then took their way
Where their proud foes in pitch’d pavilions lay;
To many fatal, ere themselves were slain.
They found the careless host dispers’d upon the plain,
Who, gorg’d, and drunk with wine, supinely snore.
Unharness’d chariots stand along the shore:
Amidst the wheels and reins, the goblet by,
A medley of debauch and war, they lie.
Observing Nisus shew’d his friend the sight:
“Behold a conquest gain’d without a fight.
Occasion offers, and I stand prepar’d;
There lies our way; be thou upon the guard,
And look around, while I securely go,
And hew a passage thro’ the sleeping foe.”
Softly he spoke; then striding took his way,
With his drawn sword, where haughty Rhamnes lay;
His head rais’d high on tapestry beneath,
And heaving from his breast, he drew his breath;
A king and prophet, by King Turnus lov’d:
But fate by prescience cannot be remov’d.
Him and his sleeping slaves he slew; then spies
Where Remus, with his rich retinue, lies.
His armor-bearer first, and next he kills
His charioteer, intrench’d betwixt the wheels
And his lov’d horses; last invades their lord;
Full on his neck he drives the fatal sword:
The gasping head flies off; a purple flood
Flows from the trunk, that welters in the blood,
Which, by the spurning heels dispers’d around,
The bed besprinkles and bedews the ground.
Lamus the bold, and Lamyrus the strong,
He slew, and then Serranus fair and young.
From dice and wine the youth retir’d to rest,
And puff’d the fumy god from out his breast:
Ev’n then he dreamt of drink and lucky play-
More lucky, had it lasted till the day.
The famish’d lion thus, with hunger bold,
O’erleaps the fences of the nightly fold,
And tears the peaceful flocks: with silent awe
Trembling they lie, and pant beneath his paw.
Nor with less rage Euryalus employs
The wrathful sword, or fewer foes destroys;
But on th’ ignoble crowd his fury flew;
He Fadus, Hebesus, and Rhoetus slew.
Oppress’d with heavy sleep the former fell,
But Rhoetus wakeful, and observing all:
Behind a spacious jar he slink’d for fear;
The fatal iron found and reach’d him there;
For, as he rose, it pierc’d his naked side,
And, reeking, thence return’d in crimson dyed.
The wound pours out a stream of wine and blood;
The purple soul comes floating in the flood.

night raid
Chosen by Caroline Lawrence. More about Caroline Lawrence.

The translation is by John Dryden.

The above text is provided by the Perseus Digital Library.

Read more of this text at the Perseus site.

Read the full story of Nisus and Euryalus in this excellent retelling of the story  by Caroline Lawrence :
http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Night-Raid-Caroline-Lawrence/dp/1781123667

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