Templum desertae Cereris:  Mothers and Children in Aeneid 2-3

Stephen C. Smith

In his note on Aeneid 2.714, Servius offers three possible interpretations of the phrase desertae Cereris:  Ceres’ temple has been abandoned (1) because her priest has been killed or (2) because of the long siege, or (3) the temple is dedicated to Ceres “abandoned” by her daughter.  Heyne accepts the second interpretation, while Wagner rejects this view and, following Vitruvius, explains that the temple is simply set in an out of the way spot; Forbiger, Henry, Conington-Nettleship, Page, and Austin give the same explanation, transferring the epithet desertae to  templum.  While the seclusion of the temple does provide a safe location where the Trojan refugees might assemble, it adds little more to the narrative.  On the other hand, Servius’ third possibility—that Ceres herself has been abandoned—has either been dismissed or simply ignored by most critics, with the exception of Page and Williams.  Far from being an “improbable” interpretation of desertae Cereris, however, the idea of “abandoned Ceres” fits neatly into a motif of mothers and children which runs from the middle of Aeneid 2 to the middle of Aeneid 3.  This motif is not merely ornamental but instead helps to tie the two halves of Aeneas’ narrative together and to connect the destruction of Troy with the founding of Rome.

An important aspect of this motif in Book 2 is the threat of separation.  When Venus restrains Aeneas from killing Helen, her primary argument is that he is abandoning his human family, but she seems to include herself in this group as well.  Creusa tells Aeneas that she is being held back in Asia (perhaps significantly) by magna deum genetrix; her last words are of her little son Ascanius, whom she will not see again.  Between these episodes falls the reference to Ceres who, like Creusa and (potentially) Venus, is bereft of her child; her temple is the appropriate rendezvous for those about to leave their homeland.

In Book 3 the possibility of the reunion of separated mothers and children which predominates, just as in myth Ceres does eventually recover her daughter.  On Delos, Apollo gives the Trojans a somewhat ambiguous oracle:  antiquam exquirite matrem.  Anchises interprets this to mean Crete, the ancient home of mater Cybele and the Trojans’ ancestor Teucer; when a plague proves Anchises wrong, the Penates direct Aeneas to Italy, another ancestral homeland.  En route, the Trojans stop at Actium and Aeneas visits the Trojan settlement at Buthrotum, where Helenus and Andromache rule.  Andromache, like Creusa, is a mother separated from her child, but she, like Buthrotum itself, looks always to the past, whereas Creusa pointed Aeneas to the future.

Crete and Andromache are “false” mothers, representing not the possibility of reunion but of real or symbolic death.  Helenus, however, points the way to the true antiqua mater:  when the Trojans find a white sow nursing her piglets, they will have reached their new homeland.  The searching children will be reunited, as it were, with a mother, just as Proserpina and Ceres are reunited each year.

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