The mosaic displays Rome’s most famous poet Vergil (centre), surrounded by two Muses, Clio (left) and Melpomene (right).
In his lap, held with one hand, Vergil has a book scroll, that contains a line and a bit of his epic poem Aeneid (CIL VIII 22916 = CLE 2293 = ILS 9229 = ILTun 155):
Musa mihi ca(u)-
These lines come from the opening of the Aeneid, the very epic poem that describes how refugees from a war-torn country in the Near East had to find a new home abroad (lucky that Europe was not quite the fortress that it is today).
They were forced to navigate the Mediterranean by boat. They lost many of their family members and their friends en route. After an intermezzo in Carthage, they eventually arrived in Italy, where they established themselves after many a savage battle (Verg. Aen. 1.1–7, translation from here [with a minor modification]):
Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit
litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
vi superum saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram;
multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem,
inferretque deos Latio, genus unde Latinum,
Albanique patres, atque altae moenia Romae.
I sing of arms and the man, he who, exiled by fate,
first came from the coast of Troy to Italy, and to
Lavinian shores – hurled about endlessly by land and sea,
by the will of the gods, by cruel Juno’s remorseless anger,
long suffering also in war, until he founded a city
and brought his gods to Latium: from that the Latin people
came, the lords of Alba Longa, the walls of noble Rome.
Straight away, Vergil requests divine inspiration and support for his poem (Aen. 1.8-11) –
Musa, mihi causas memora, quo numine laeso
quidve dolens, regina deum tot volvere casus
insignem pietate virum, tot adire labores
impulerit. Tantaene animis caelestibus irae?
Muse, tell me the cause: how was she offended in her divinity,
how was she hurt, the Queen of Heaven, to drive a man,
noted for virtue, to endure such dangers, to face so many
trials? Can there be such anger in the minds of the gods?
Juno, it will turn out, was resentful for two chief reasons.
She still held a grudge against the Trojans, whose prince Paris had chosen Venus over her in a beauty contest (Paris’ judgement led to the Trojan war).
More importantly, however, Aeneas, the Trojan refugee, and his friends were about to come to Carthage, a project under Juno’s tutelage, where Aeneas would break Queen Dido’s heart … and thus lay the foundations of enmity that would eventually result in the Punic Wars and Carthage’s destruction by the Romans.
This is how she was offended in her divinity (quo numine laeso).
In the mosaic from Sousse/Hadrumetum, Vergil is presented as pondering just that very question:
How was she offended in her divinity, how was she hurt…?
A sentence, that he leaves incomplete.
As an epic poet, Vergil may have considered asking Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry, for support.
The mosaic artist knew better: Vergil in actual fact required the support of Clio, the muse of historiography, and Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, finding his way between cruel reality and a tragedy whose extent is hard to fathom:
Whence the offence, whence the hurt?
Looking at Sousse today, this ancient mosaic and its question could not be any more topical:
Whence the offence, whence the hurt?
39 people were killed yesterday in a horrendous and despicable gun attack claimed by Islamic State (IS) in Sousse (Tunisia), and an additional 36 were injured.
May the dead rest in peace.
May we find an answer to this question.
May we find an appropriate response that will help to stop the endless bloodshed in the (feigned) name of what Vergil calls the numen laesum, offended divinity, a hurt divine being’s will and plan.
Nothing good and lasting can come of it.