Tragedy, Epic, and the Real

On 3 October, 2013, a boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa, a small island in the Mediterranean between Tunisia and the island of Malta, south of mainland Italy. The vessel is reported to have carried up to 500 people who were hoping to escape their dismal living conditions in Eritrea and Somalia. More than one hundred people drowned, when their boat caught fire, possibly in an attempt to give a light signal to nearby vessels.

This is the youngest (reported) incident in a series of horrendous accidents, giving but a superficial idea of the unfathomable level of despair that will cause people to leave their home country, to sell everything they have, to join a forlorn hope and to risk everything, including their very lives.

We read and hear about this (and similar) stories in newspapers, on the internet, on broadcast media. Does it make us feel anything, or do we prefer to call it tragic, perhaps even do the decent thing and donate money towards the survivors’ support, and, after a moment of silence and contemplation, move on in our daily lives, feeling safe in the assumption that this does not relate to us? Or have we become numb?

When our everyday experiences exceed what we appear to be able to grasp, we tend to create narratives, to resort to images. One might thus be tempted to call the journey of those whose boat sank today an ‘Odyssey’. Except, the Odyssey is about coming home. What the trip that ended tragically today really was (and will continue to be for the survivors), is something else – a version of the trip of Aeneas, fleeing the ruins of Troy, ultimately hoping to arrive in Italy, to find a new home for himself, his family, and his men.

On their way across the Mediterranean, Aeneas and the Trojans, too, encounter many a nightmare while seaborne. In the first book of the Aeneid, for example, they have to endure a horrendous storm, raised by Aeolus, by order of Juno, a storm that will send the Trojans to Carthage, where things get a lot worse before they eventually get better:

From pole to pole it thunders, the skies lighten with frequent flashes, all forebodes the sailors instant death. Straightway Aeneas’ limbs weaken with chilling dread; he groans and, stretching his two upturned hands to heaven, thus cries aloud:

“O thrice and four times blest, whose lot it was to meet death before their fathers’ eyes beneath the lofty walls of Troy! O son of Tydeus, bravest of the Danaan race, ah! that I could not fall on the Ilian plains and gasp out this lifeblood at your hand – where, under the spear of Aeacides, fierce Hector lies prostrate, and mighty Sarpedon; where Simois seizes and sweeps beneath his waves so many shields and helms and bodies of the brave!”

As he flings forth such words, a gust, shrieking from the North, strikes full on his sail and lifts the waves to heaven. The oars snap, then the prow swings round and gives the broadside to the waves; down in a heap comes a sheer mountain of water.

(Vergil, Aeneid 1.90–105, transl. H.R. Fairclough)

This is a powerful scene of great emotional immediacy from one of the great classics of European literature, and as such it is read frequently, all over the world.

One tends to be impressed by the greatness of Vergil’s words, characters, and narratives. But one hardly ever envisions this to be a story that could be real – and right at the beginning of the Aeneid, Vergil already tells his audience to await the happy ending:

Arms and the man I sing, who first from the coasts of Troy, exiled by fate, came to Italy and Lavine shores; much buffeted on sea and land by violence from above, through cruel Juno’s unforgiving wrath, and much enduring in war also, till he should build a city and bring his gods to Latium; whence came the Latin race, the lords of Alba, and the lofty walls of Rome.

(Vergil, Aeneid 1.1–7, transl. H.R. Fairclough)

For most of the time, one tends to leave the two versions of the same story unconnected: the tragic real (as encountered today) and the epic narrative, written for entertainment. It is on occasions like today that one must ask, just how much more powerful and moving one’s experience of such disasters do become, once one starts reading the two versions against each other.

Clearly some people coming to Europe, fleeing their home countries and arriving in Italy, after a horrendous trip across the sea, where many a man dies, appear to be considerably luckier than others. One must hope that the survivors will be able to find happiness after all – skipping the stories that ensue in the Aeneid after the foreigners reach Italy. One must not forget, however, that there is a second issue: the causes in the native lands of those who decided to embark on this trip, which (very much like in the case of the Trojan war) are not altogether home-made.

Will today’s news story, like that of Aeneas and his men, eventually find its own Vergil, and even become part of a positive narrative of history? This could give some meaning to today’s tragic loss of human lives after all.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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  1. Pingback: Europa, Europe, and the Compelling Imagery of the Latin Inscriptions | The Petrified Muse

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