I’ve been captivated once again by the wonderful style and substance of Vergil’s Aeneid.
But this year I’ve been particularly nerding out because my three Year 12 Latin tutoring students are all studying book VI, the journey to the Underworld, which was the book I studied when I was in Year 12.
In this book, the man destined to found Rome – Aeneas, the Trojan son of Venus – must descend into the land of the dead to pay a visit to his father. He knows full well that it is a difficult and dangerous task, so he begs a wise woman, the Sibyl of Cumae, to guide him to the Underworld. She helps him, but gives him some backhanded assurance:
…facilis descensus Averno:
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est.
Easy is the descent to Avernus;
Night and day the door of black Dis lies open.
But to recall your steps and to escape to the upper air –
This is the trouble, this is the toil.
– Verg. Aen. VI.124-9
Vergil’s Underworld is full of contrasts – the monsters, the gloom, and the despair of souls who died before their time gives way to the sunny fields of Elysium and the promise of Rome’s future glory. When Aeneas meets his father, the old man tells him great things about the unborn heroes of Rome. But for all its triumphant praise of heroes-to-be, the book ends on a tragic note with the death of one who died far too young, Marcellus, the 19-year-old nephew of Augustus.
In fact, the eulogy for young Marcellus is said to have been so moving that Octavia, the wife of Emperor Augustus, fainted when she heard it recited.
Much later, when [Vergil] had refined his subject-matter, he finally recited three whole books for Augustus: the second, fourth, and sixth–this last out of his well-known affection for Octavia, who (being present at the recitation) is said to have fainted at the lines about her son, “…You shall be Marcellus” [Aen. 6.884]. Revived only with difficulty, she ordered ten-thousand sesterces to be granted to Virgil for each of the verses.
– Aelius Donatus, Life of Virgil, 32 (source)
In the end, Aeneas and the Sibyl leave the Underworld in a way that has left scholars puzzled for thousands of years. There was said to be two gates of sleep out of the Underworld, one made of simple horn, the other of shining, gleaming ivory. Out of the gate of horn, true shades left to give prophetic dreams; but out of the gate of ivory, false dreams deceiving flew. Aeneas and the Sibyl, for reasons best known to Vergil, take the gate of ivory as their escape. Was it all a false dream? Was it something to do with them being mortal and imperfect, and so not pure enough to use the gate of true shades? We can’t really know – the book ends on an enigma, shrouded in doubts and questions. But the mystery makes this book strangely more alluring.
As I’ve been going through the set passages with my Year 12s, I’ve prepared a fair number of questions on each section about literary features and contextually relevant points about mythology and Rome’s golden age. For the benefit of any students or tutors who would like to run through some of these questions on their own, I’ll put these up. I haven’t proofread them, so there may be some minor typos. But I know how handy it is to have free things to adapt and use as you see fit.
All caveats aside, here are the questions:
I hope you can get a good use out of these practice questions, if they ever come in handy for revision.
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