Sunday 9 September 2018

Virgil and the 9/11 Memorial

by Caroline Lawrence

The 9/11 Memorial Museum opened to the public in 2014. It is impressive on many levels but what interests me most is a quote from Virgil
 on the wall of the Memorial Hall, deep underground: No day shall erase you from the memory of time.

The capital letters of the quote are just over a foot tall, forged from steel recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Centre. The quote is surrounded by 2983 squares of paper, one for each life lost, in shades of blue trying to remember the colour of the sky on that September morning’.

When the memorial first opened there was some controversy about the use of the quote based on its original context. 

So when did Virgil say No day shall erase you from the memory of time?

And why?

He didn
t actually say it in a speech, like a Caesar or a Cicero. 

He wrote it down in a poem, his great epic poem: the Aeneid

And yet in a way he did say it. 

Here are the two verses from which the 9/11 quote was pulled:

Fortunati ambo! writes Virgil, si quid mea carmina possunt, nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo... Literally: Lucky pair! If my verses have any power, no day ever shall remove you (plural) from the memory of time.’ Aeneid IX.446-7

Modern bust of Virgil at his tomb in Naples
These words are not put into the mouth of a character in the poem, they are the words of the poet himself. This is one of the few places where Virgil steps out of the story, as it were, to utter this prayer: if my poem lasts, so will the memory of what you did.

So who are the lucky pair? And what did they do?

The short answer is that they are two teenage refugees from a war torn city who die in a failed raid against the inhabitants of the land they hope to settle. 

For the longer answer, we have to go back to the sack of Troy.

Remember the story of the Trojan Horse?

How it wasn’t really a Trojan Horse but a Greek Horse, full of soldiers?

How they sneakily smuggled themselves into the city they had been besieging for ten years?

How the Greeks dropped out of the giant horse’s wooden belly in the middle of the night and set about burning Troy and killing everyone in it?

Well, the Greeks didn't kill quite everyone. Aeneas was a hero who had fought in the Trojan war escaped with his aged father and young son. 

Trautmann 'Burning of Troy' 1759
Once safely outside the town walls, Aeneas hides on the slopes of Mount Ida among the trees of a sacred grove. Over the next few days and even weeks he receives a steady trickle of refugees from the sacked city, many of them probably traumatised orphans. Aeneas is conscientious, responsible and also reputedly the son of a goddess (Venus). So he soon became their natural leader.

For various reasons, Aeneas decides to seek a new place to live rather than rebuild the old one. So he cuts down the trees of the sacred grove, uses the wood to make a dozen ships and sets off in search of his 
New Troy’

'Where Aeneas Disembarked' restaurant in Ostia
For seven years Aeneas and his twelve boatloads of refugees sail the Mediterranean. The children grow up. The older refugees die and are buried on strange soil. This is the fate of Aeneas's father. Aeneas’s young son Ascanius, probably about seven when they fled Troy is fourteen when they finally find the place to build their new city: on the banks of the River Tiber in Italy, eight hundred miles west of Troy.

Virgil famously modelled the first six books of the Aeneid (the sea voyage) on the Odyssey and the last six (land battles) on the the Iliad

When Aeneas sails up the river Tiber, it seems to him that there is enough space for them to settle. One of the local kings is even happy to marry his daughter to the Trojan. But other Latin tribes are unhappy, especially the Rutulians, whose leader Turnus was engaged to the princess now promised to Aeneas. 

The Rutulians threaten to attack
The refugee Trojans hear rumours that Turnus is planning to attack them, so they build a wooden fort on the banks of the Tiber. When Aeneas hears that Turnus is on his way, he leaves his fourteen-year-old son Ascanius in charge and goes off with a couple of scouts to seek additional forces from an Etruscan a few miles upstream. 

No sooner has Aeneas is gone, than Turnus arrives with many allied troops. The Trojans retreat to the safety of the fort and although Turnus calls them cowards, they refuse to come out and fight. But the fort on the banks of the Tiber is wood, not stone, and Turnus threatens to burn it down in the morning. He wants to force them to come out and be slaughtered. Having burned the Trojan ships so that they can’t escape by river, Turnus and his troops surround the fort and settle in for the night. They celebrate their anticipated victory with food, wine and dicing.  

Euryalus and Nisus
Meanwhile in the fort, Ascanius assigns guards to patrol the ramparts and watch for a night attack. At midnight guards are changed and two youths come up together. Their names are Nisus and Euryalus. Virgil's description hints that Euryalus is about Ascanius’s age, fourteen, and Nisus is about seventeen or eighteen. They may be lovers or just good friends, but they are devoted to each other. In my retelling of their story in The Night Raid, a book for teens, I have them meeting during the sack of Troy when Nisus is seven and Euryalus ten or eleven. I try to imagine how traumatic it must have been for the two boys to flee the burning city.

Now, seven years later, they are once again besieged with a threat of burning and destruction. As the two friends pace the lofty ramparts of the wooden fort and look down on the sleeping enemy, the older boy has an idea. If just one of them could creep unseen through the sleeping enemy troops, he might reach Aeneas and bring back reinforcements before dawn, thereby saving his comrades and winning glory for himself. Euryalus won’t hear of Nisus going on his own; they will go together. They have hunted together in the woods and think they know the way. This is something they feel they can do.

They take their proposal to young Ascanius who is standing by a campfire with some of the older Trojan leaders, worrying about what to do. They eagerly agree to Nisus’s plan and promise the two friends great rewards if they succeed. Without offering sacrifice or taking the omens, they almost push the two friends outside the fort. Nisus and Euryalus go down into a ditch and when they come up they are among the sleeping enemy soldiers. 

At first all goes well as they sneak through the snoring enemy. Then they discover how easy it is to kill drunken and sleeping enemy soldiers. Soon they forget the urgency of their mission and start to loot as well as kill. Euryalus, the younger boy, takes a shiny helmet and puts it on. This is their fatal mistake. A band of enemy allies have just arrived on horseback to join Turnus. They see the moonlight flashing on the bright metal of the helmet and chase the youths into the dark and tangled woods.  

Confused by the limited visibility and unaccustomed weight of the helmet, Euryalus stumbles into the open and is surrounded by the enemy. 

Nisus has been hiding in the woods, but when he sees his young friend surrounded by enemy troops, he runs out of the woods crying Me, me! Kill me instead! But Euryalus is already mortally wounded. He falls like a white poppy beaten down by rain. Instead of turning around and running for safety, Nisus makes a suicidal rush into the heavily armed soldiers. Pierced by several swords, he falls dying on top of his friend to protect his body from mutilation. 

This is when Virgil steps out of the poem to state that the two will never be forgotten if his verses have any power. 

The quote shows one thing common to humans in the past two thousand years: the desire not to be forgotten. And more than that: the desire to be well-thought of. This is true not just of the warrior and his victim but of the artists who help us remember.

You can read the original Latin HERE. It starts at line 175 and our quote is at line 447. You can read the English poet Dryden’s translation HERE. You can read what various scholars have said about the controversy HERE. And you can read my version of the story in The Night Raid

A version of this post first appeared on the now defunct Wonders and Marvels blog in 2014...

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