Telum immedicabile: Plato on Vergil's Parthian Shot

John Stevens

            Among the more disturbing elements of the ending of Aeneid 12 is Jupiter's intervention in the battle between Turnus and Aeneas.  After the settlement of 10.111-113 (sua cuique exorsa laborem / fortunamque ferent.  rex Iuppiter omnibus idem. fata uiam inuenient) one expects a conclusion in which Jupiter will allow human events to play out as they will.  When he hurls the dira "against the omen of Juturna" and it beats it wings before Turnus (12.845-68), one asks how his declaration of book 10 is to be understood. A possible explanation lies in the Parthian shot, to which the hurling of the dira is compared in a simile (12.856-58).

            The Parthian shot is an unusual simile with which to saddle Jupiter: one usually thinks of it as the treacherous, even somewhat cowardly, tactic of the Parthians who pretend to retreat then turn and fire suddenly at their attackers.  There is a long literary tradition of "the unexpected bolt of justice" including depictions of dike in Hesiod and Aeschylus, but Vergil's added element of the treacherous enemy is unusual.  It should not be Jupiter, but Turnus who is treacherous.

            The Parthian arrow is immedicabile, an adjective used regularly in Plato to describe those who are "incurably" wicked, i.e., beyond the possibility of reform by punishment (Gorgias, Laws, Republic).  It is used at a decisive moment in Plato's Myth of Er of Ardiaios and other tyrants who are "incurably disposed to wickedness" (aniatôs exontôn eis ponêrian).  They attmept to emerge from their punishments under the earth and are suddenly and fearfully repressed by unnamed savage agents of divine justice (615e-616a).  In another passage of Republic (410a), Plato goes so far as to say that just as physicians heal the curable and let the incurable die, the good judge will reform souls that can be healed but will execute those that cannot, because "it is the best thing" for the city and for those suffering such afflictions.  

            Were there no other connection to the Republic, it would be unpersuasive to argue that Vergil had such a reference in mind. But there are at least two other passages in Aeneid 12 which point to Republic. In Aeneid 12.932 Turnus says, utere sorte tua.  The usual meaning of sors is a "lot", such as one might draw in an election, or metaphorically of the unpredictability and inevitability of death (Aen. 6.22).  But for Turnus to say "use your lot" in the sense "exercise your option" strains the usual sense.  In Republic, the drawing of lots explains allegorically the assignment of personal responsibility to man, by implying that we choose our lives and souls.  As Turnus speaks, it is Aeneas' moment of choice; and whether one interprets him to choose wisely or badly, it is undoubtedly a pivotal moment of choice.  It is all the more incongruous then that Vergil should have Jupiter intervene against Turnus in prepraration for such a decisive human moment.  Another possible allusion to Republic is the description of Aeneas as ira / terribilis (12.946-47) which might point to an etymology of Odysseus (< odussesthai, "to be angry at"), who is the hero of Plato's allegory in the Myth of Er, for choosing a private life.

            The explanation of this series of fairly obscure allusions to Plato might be explained as follows: that just as Aeneas is choosing and has chosen to be where he is, so also Turnus (whose name, if it has an etymological significance, is most likely tyrannos) is not suffering the treacherous blow of an enemy in the Parthian shot, but a fate he has woven for himself.  It is instructive in this regard that when Aeneas is wounded in 12. 319-23, he can be healed by his mother, goddess of love (12.411-24).  Unlike Turnus, he is pointedly "healable" and not a tyrant.  The contrast between the two men suggests the allegorical solution that Jupiter does not really intervene against Turnus, nor Venus for Aeneas, but that Turnus is condemned by the domination of his mind by passion, and Aeneas is saved by the domination within him of love for his city, his people, and civilization. Lastly, the Parthian element in the simile anticipates what Turnus does in his final speech: at the point of death, he turns suddenly, wheeling round to feign submission.  The tyrannical overtones of immedicabile prepare Aeneas and the reader to understand that Turnus is unable to make such a commitment.  He is ultimately immedicabilis.

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