Venus as Physician: Aen. 12.411–19

Marilyn B. Skinner

University of Arizona

As the struggle with Turnus and the Latins reaches its climax in the last book of the Aeneid, Venus involves herself several times in the struggle. The first of her interventions seems compassionate enough. In the mêlée following Juturna's disruption of the peace treaty between Trojans and Latins, Aeneas is wounded in the thigh by an arrow and helped back to camp by his lieutenants and son Ascanius. The physician Iapyx tries in vain to extract the arrowhead from the wound. Venus comes to the rescue bearing a sprig of dittany from Mount Ida on Crete and infuses it, along with ambrosia and allheal, into a bowl of water standing by. When Iapyx bathes the wound with this tincture, Aeneas' pain is allayed, blood ceases to flow, and the arrowhead drops unresisting into the doctor's hand.

Venus' timely assistance is illustrated in a well-known fourth-style fresco from Pompeii (Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale inv. 9009, from the triclinium of the House of Sirico). Remarkably faithful to the details of the episode, the painting shows Aeneas leaning on his spear, supporting himself with one hand on the shoulder of the weeping Ascanius (maerentis Iuli, 399), while Iapyx probes the injury with forceps. Venus arrives hastily, bearing the precious herb; her eyes are fixed with worry on her son's face. The fresco suggests that Vergil's readers—or, at least, the particular reader who commissioned this representation—viewed Aeneas' mother as an archetypal helper, coming to minister to him when need arises.

Yet the epic account raises questions. Although Venus is not usually a healing divinity, her plant lore is sound. Aristotle (HA 612a4), Theophrastus (HP 9.16.1), Cicero (ND 2.126), and the elder Pliny (NH 8.97, 25.92) all note that wounded animals chew dittany to expel the foreign object from their bodies. If this supposed herbal property was so widely known, it should have been the first remedy to which Iapyx resorted. Why is he unsuccessful? Why does his patron Apollo, as we are expressly told (12.405–6), fail to render aid—despite the help the god has given the Trojans on earlier occasions? Finally, there is a pregnant allusion to Dido's tragedy at this point. Servius ad 413 recalls the queen, smarting with love like a stricken deer: de hac herba in IV. ait de vulnerata cerva illa fuga silvas saltusque peragrat Dictaeos ("concerning this herb, he says in Book 4 about the wounded deer: 'in her flight she scours the woods and Dictaean glades'"). The deer searches for the therapeutic herb that grows only in one place, Crete: that is why the simile is localized there (Morgan 1994). The missile, though, is fatal (letalis, 4.73), buried too deep in her side to be extracted. What would have been of no avail in the case of the deer is now readily provided by Venus, whose machinations, ironically, had been responsible for the suffering of Dido, object of the original comparison.

In this paper I will suggest a possible explanation for Apollo's reluctance to become involved, and I will also re-examine the reference to dittany.  Delayed transfer of a figurative element into the economy of the narrative action is an instance of symbolic distortion, frequent in the last books of the Aeneid (Wofford 1992: 135–51). It is most commonly associated with overtly hostile powers such as Juno and Allecto. The disruptive force of this figurative device consequently undercuts Venus' maternal solicitude and exposes the arbitrary nature of her interventions.

Morgan, G. 1994. "Dido the Wounded Deer." Vergilus 40: 67–68.

Wofford, S. L. 1992. The Choice of Achilles: The Ideology of Figure in the Epic. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

15 minutes; handout will be provided

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