Fama Flammaeque Furentes

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Between clear, wrinkleless sea and sky, Aeneas and his crew sail towards Italy, their new, long-sought home. In this opening passage of Book V of the Aeneid, first Aeneas and then the rest of the crew see behind them a small, red-orange glow on the African shore from which they have just departed, and a foreboding silence spreads upon the ship. No whispered suggestions taint the air. They all remember Dido’s desperation, rising from Cupid’s deepening wound into seething despair during the departure of Aeneas, her lover destined to found a great but distant city. But throughout the remaining seven books of adventure and conquest, they do not discuss what that red glow was; their minds and hearts remain set, despite the many tragedies behind them, upon the divine plan for them to establish a city that will grow to unite the known world: Rome.

On the African shore, Carthage, the city burgeoning at the beginning of Book II, consumes itself in flames emanating from a funeral pyre wrought by its queen, Dido, for herself. The city, once buzzing like bees building their hive in harmony, now hisses with flames, rumors, and echoed secrets. Beginning in the middle of Book IV, it is rumors, or, in Vergil’s Latin, the deity Fama, that begins to stir the city into chaos at the news of Aeneas and Dido’s initial love affair, which is, on a hunting trip away from the city, consummated during a storm, in the dark, secret recesses of a cave. Book IV ends with Fama coursing at full strength and swiftness through the streets of Carthage, while the flames of Dido’s funeral pyre rise.

In both passages, Vergil’s Latin mirrors Fama’s spread through alliteration, anagrammatic play, and repetition; these repeated sounds and their shifting sense signal the distorting effect of Fama on the social fabric of a city once active and ordered. Fama, daughter of Terra or Mother Earth, emerges with Aeneas and Dido from the depths of the cave and, ultimately, brings the dark chaos of the underworld to reign in Dido’s heart and in her city.

Line 175 of Book IV is the first line to describe the nature of Fama’s movement while establishing the persistent sense of doubling in the lines to come: mobilitate viget viresque adquirit eundo (“by motion she increases, and she acquires strength by advancing”). Not unlike Anglo-Saxon hemistiches, the line is separated by a caesura near its middle and features an alliteration connecting the two halves of the line. Viresque builds upon viget and increases the strength of the “v-” sound in the middle of the line. Yet, while the sonic quality has concentrated around this “v” sound and the repeated “-ir” in the second half of the line, the meaning of the line does not change between the two halves: Fama increases, or acquires strength, by motion, or advancing. The line’s sense merely doubles. Grammatically, the line begins and ends with adverbial ablatives that are approximate synonyms (mobilitate and eundo). So, the reader’s perception of growth through repeated sounds is illusory; it does not correspond with the static meaning of the line. This line has set the fundamentally distortive quality of Fama, for it is in Fama’s nature to appear as if it is “advancing” while it stays the same, to gain strength but not substance by empty motion.

Fama herself was born of Terra, in spite of the triumphant Olympic gods; she stalks on the ground while her head is inter nubila (“among clouds”). The clouds obscure the clear orienting quality of the sky, the domain of the gods. From earth, she looks to be in league with the gods, but her work is in subversion and discord rather than in divine governance. Fama, who is born pedibus celerem et pernicibus alis, the “swift-footed and quick-winged” sister “of Titan Enceladus and huge Coeus,” exercises her disproportion in her haste. She is the foil of Mercury, the messenger of the gods who glides smoothly through chaotic clouds, and of Mercury’s Titan ancestor Atlas, who appears in line 247; Fama instead is a horrendum monstrum (“hideous monster”). While gold-sandaled Mercury brings messages directly to individual people, Fama spreads like a plague in her excessive hurry, relying on grim excitement to feed her monstrous body with eyes, tongues, “blaring mouths,” and “pricked up ears.” But this description from Vergil is itself a product of Fama, for he interrupts the description in line 179 with a parenthesis, ut perhibent or “as they say,” conditioning his description as deriving from some anonymous “they.” Through history, Fama’s many mouths have obscured and falsely inflated even our vision of her. She is made of rumors.

Throughout these rumors of Rumor, the doubling of sounds continues to resound within and across the lines.

monstrum horrendum, ingens, cui, quot sunt corpore plumae
tot vigiles oculi subter, mirabile dictu,
tot linguae, totidem ora sonant, tot subrigit aures.
Nocte volat caeli medio terraeque per umbram,
stridens, nec dulci declinat lumina somno; …………………………………185
luce sedet custos aut summi culmine tecti,
turribus aut altis, et magnas territat urbes;
tam ficti pravique tenax, quam nuntia veri.
Haec tum multiplici populos sermone replebat
gaudens, et pariter facta atque infecta canebat: ……………………….190

In lines 182 and 183, tot repeats four times, extending its paired particle quot into the ensuing lines. These repetitions provide the same illusory sense of movement as they list different parts of Fama’s one body. The repetition of dental consonants and other mute consonants mixed with “s” sounds continues in the next five lines, providing the lines with a hissing sibilance (lines 185 & 186), but now the vowels, the substance of the words, change slightly into similar sounds. Line 187 begins with turribus and ends with territat urbes; the “t,” “r,” and “b” sounds have been rearranged and relocated. The ending phrase still begins with “t” and ends with “b” and “s” but the vowel “u” has been exchanged for the vowel “e,” as turr- becomes terr- and -bus becomes -bes. Similarly, in line 185, the first syllable dulci becomes decli- in declinat. In lines 188 and 189, tam shifts to tum and tenax (“constant”) and nuntia (“messenger”) finish the flourish of dental sounds, crescendoing amidst the hissing, doubling, and repetition, into the truth that Fama delivers falsehood with a mangled appearance of truth. Before we hear the rumor itself, her low chant warps fact into fiction in line 190, as facta becomes infecta.

When Fama emerges again in the middle of Book IV, she is impia Fama furenti (“irreverent, raging Rumor”) and she whispers Aeneas’ departure to Dido before Aeneas can tell her, inspiring Dido to bacch[or] (“rage”) through her city in agonizing passion. Bacchatur, here, links Dido’s movement to bacchants, women followers of the wine god Bacchus, who famously dismembered Orpheus because he would not reciprocate their erotic desires. It is Fama who bacchatur through the disintegrating city in the final lines of Book IV. Fama has followed Dido since she and Aeneas left the cave and now leads Dido towards a stunning, public death.  Sleepless Dido confronts her death trepida and trementis (“restless” and “quaking”). Whereas her pity-soaked passion for Aeneas had her leaving, in line 77, her words half-said, in lines 659 and 660, the sounds of her words echo in alliterations and doubling: “Moriemur inultae, / sed moriamur” ait. “Sic, sic iuvat ire sub umbras,” (“I will die unavenged, but let me die,” she said. “Yes, in this way guide me under the shadows”). Fourteen lines later, the participle morientem, or “dying,” concludes the shifting of morior’s inflections, though Dido still twitches on her sword, before the stillness of total, physical death.

Fama rages in bacchanalian frenzy as the funeral pyre’s flames and citizens’ shrieks rise into the air, which in our first passage had transformed from auras (“air”) to aures (“ears”) from line 178 to line 183. But this air in line 668 is aether, the higher, clearer air the gods breath. At the beginning of Book IV, lightning struck the aether in line 167 like a “wedding torch,” a sign of approval from Juno and Earth, the mother of Fama, as Dido and Aeneas began their love affair and released Fama from the wooded cave’s primal darkness. Witnessing this faux-wedding from the heights of nearby hills, wood nymphs sobbed their wedding song. Now, at the end of Book IV, human shrieks resound in this heavenly firmament, signaling dire disorder and the full achievement of Fama, whose head is in the clouds though she is earthbound.

The hidden, fevered desires within Dido as she wandered the streets in the opening lines of Book IV were furens and now the flames feeding on her funeral pyre course mad through Carthage’s streets, in the alliterative phrase flammaeque furentes. Her well-ordered city, its walls and buildings, burn, as Troy had burned previously, but the person closest to Dido suffers most acutely. Her sister Anna questions Dido in disbelief as Dido passes into the Underworld. These lines invert Fama’s movement by paralleling Anna and Fama: as Fama moves caeli medio terraeque (184), Anna rushes to her sister through the middle of crowds, per medios (674).

audiit exanimis, trepidoque exterrita cursu
unguibus ora soror foedans et pectora pugnis
per medios ruit ac morientem nomina clamat … ……………………….674

Alliterations and sound repetitions recur in lines 673 & 674: exanimis and exterrita, as well as the sister sounds of ora soror…pectora and morientem. Anna’s grief embodies the transformations Fama effects and unmasks these transformations’ evasiveness, as she searches directly for the truth of her sister’s deceptions and half-truths. Before she receives answers, Book IV is over. Its ending words feature Fama’s signature dental consonants, alliteration, and emptiness: in ventos vita recessit (“life dissolved into the wind”).

Despite Dido’s desire for cruel Aeneas to see her fire (lines 661-2), Aeneas will not see this devastation, beyond its small, distant glow on the shore. The final words of line 661 (ab alto) recur again, altered in the last words of line 665 (ad alta). Aeneas, who, in the middle of Book IV, is likened to an oak rooted in earth below but rising into the aether above, comes ab alto and returns ad alta, unlike the descending, vanishing flash of lightning. He, in Dido’s and in many readers’ eyes, is cruel for his departure. But this faithful son of Venus, who has listened to the gods, will not incite or suffer the wild shrieks that rise from hidden, gnawing desires ad alta into the aether above Carthage. Holding a sobered sadness in his magnam pectoram, his view is clearer and wider. He sails the still seas before him towards a city ordered and appointed by the gods.