Misappropriation and Misapprehension: Vergil on 9/11

Memorials are difficult: what do we wish to remember, and how, and why? This becomes all the more apparent, the more prominent and the more emotive a monument is in its context.

Recently, there has been some (renewed) debate over the use of a quotation from Vergil’s Aeneid (Aen. 9.447) for the  9/11 memorial in New York.

The memorial, the critics say, allegedly ‘misuses a passage’ by removing it from its original context – commemorating the death of friends rather than mourning randomly inflicted carnage.

In the line’s original context, the poet celebrates his poetic prowess that will result in eternal memory of Nisus and Euryalus, two valiant Trojan warriors, who were close friends (with clear homoerotic undertones in the narrative).

The line(s) in question read thus (Verg. Aen. 9.446-9; translation from here):

Fortunati ambo! si quid mea carmina possunt,
nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo,
dum domus Aeneae Capitoli immobile saxum
accolet imperiumque pater Romanus habebit.

Happy pair! If my poetry has the power,
while the House of Aeneas lives beside the Capitol’s
immobile stone, and a Roman leader rules the Empire,
no day will raze you from time’s memory.

Line 447 (nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo), rendered ‘no day shall erase you from the memory of time’ in the memorial’s inscription, invokes Euryalus’ own words, some two-hundred lines earlier (Aen. 9.281-3):

(…): me nulla dies tam fortibus ausis
dissimilem arguerit; tantum fortuna secunda
haud adversa cadat. (…)

(…) No day will ever find me separated from such
bold action: inasmuch as fortune proves kind
and not cruel. (…)

At any rate, Vergil’s line (as is true for many lines of many of the classical poets) appears to have become somewhat iconic already in antiquity – one can find it, for example, almost verbatim, in a funerary poem from the City of Rome (CIL VI 25427 = CLE 1142, final lines):

fortunati ambo si qua est ea gloria mortis
quos iungit tumulus iunxerat ut thalamus.

Happy pair, if there is something to that glory of death,
as their tomb had united them like a bedchamber.

One may, of course, wonder if it is a case of ‘misappropriation’ of Vergil’s lines that happens in the 9/11 memorial – as opposed to that Roman tombstone, where the setting is not altogether dissimilar to that in the Aeneid.

Before one jumps to bold conclusions, however, one should be mindful of the fact that Vergil himself was one of the keenest promoters of such forms of ‘misappropriations’, except that in his case we tend to think of artistic borrowings.

The line in question, as used in the 9/11 memorial, is an example of that. Some five years before Vergil died (and left an unfinished Aeneid to be burnt by the Emperor Augustus), Propertius had written the exact same thing – at Elegies 3.2.25-6, which in turn is a reference to Horace’s famous Ode 3.30 monumentum exegi aere perennius (translation from here):

fortunata, meo si qua es celebrata libello!
    carmina erunt formae tot monumenta tuae.
nam neque pyramidum sumptus ad sidera ducti,
    nec Iovis Elei caelum imitata domus, (20)
nec Mausolei dives fortuna sepulcri
    mortis ab extrema condicione vacant.
aut illis flamma aut imber subducet honores,
    annorum aut tacito pondere victa ruent.
at non ingenio quaesitum nomen ab aevo   (25)
    excidet: ingenio stat sine morte decus.

Happy the girl, who’s famed in my book! My poems are so many records of your beauty. The Pyramids reared to the stars, at such expense; Jupiter’s shrine at Elis that echoes heaven; the precious wealth of the tomb of Mausolos; not one can escape that final state of death. Their beauty is taken, by fire, by rain, by the thud of the years: ruined; their weight all overthrown. But the name I’ve earned, with my wit, will not be razed by time: Mind stands firm, a deathless ornament.

Propertius celebrates the fame of the girls he commemorates in his erotic elegies – so is Vergil, too, to blame of misappropriation?

Be that as it may.

Vergil’s line, borrowed by those who designed the 9/11 monument, has a history in the context of funerary commemoration – both in literary imagination and in real life (and death), and its context reminds us that there are things more lasting than any built structure ever will be (with the possible exception of the Egyptian pyramids): poetry.

This may not be such a bad thing to remember.

Whether this is what we were supposed to remember, as intended by those who used the line, is a different matter, of course.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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