Speaking out of Turn(us): Virgil as Hermeneutic Guide in Cassius Dio 76.10-12

Julie Langford-Johnson

University of South Florida

Cassius Dio records a curious incident in the final stages of Septimius Severus' Second Parthian War (A.D. 199).  Ctesiphon had fallen and Severus set about besieging the city of Hatra, a city incredibly wealthy because of the offerings at the shrine of its sun god (76.12.2).  Severus' first assault on the city accomplished very little except "to destroy his own siege engines, sacrifice his men and wound many others" (76.10.1).  Though the Romans at one point broke through the outer walls, Severus reined them in, apparently in hopes that the city would surrender of its own accord.  When the Hatrans failed to do so, the European troops refused to rejoin the battle and only the Syrian contingent would obey the emperor's command to attack. In the midst of this disastrous campaign, a tribune of the Praetorians by the name of Julius Crispus pithily quoted from the Aeneid 11.377: "In order that Turnus may marry Lavinia, we are meanwhile perishing all unheeded."  For this clever insight, Crispus was executed.

At first glance, it may appear that Crispus quoted the Virgilian passage only to show the futility of the war.  Jupiter had already decided for Aeneas long before Turnus first took up his spear and likewise, Severus was fighting a battle which could not be won.  Yet the comparison also has gendered and ethnic implications that directly challenged Severus' carefully manicured self-image.  The pithiness of the reference instantly transformed the emperor's emphatically Roman, emphatically male image into a helpless puppet secretly manipulated by Juno's interference but patently driven by his passion for Lavinia.  In this comparison, the emperor's traditional cluster of gendered male traits (active, powerful, public) play the slave to feminine qualities (passive, weak, private).  Ethnicity also plays a part in this recasting of the emperor; Severus becomes the Rutulian, the champion of the losing side who fights not for a Latin princess, but for a Syrian one, a prize which seemed too extravagant to the European troops. With only the Syrian troops for support, Severus' non-Roman, non-Italian heritage is underlined, despite the emperor's insistence elsewhere upon his romanitas.

If Turnus is Severus, however, the implied comparison of Julia Domna to Lavinia is still more apropos.  Virgil's Lavinia is silent but always present (even by her absence) as is Julia Domna. The Syrian empress was, after all, the Mater Castrorum, a title earned by her accompaniment of her husband on campaign.  With Crispus' comment, Julia/Lavinia became the prize and cause for the war. Ethnically, the two women were closely associated with the territory upon which the battles occurred; in the empress' case, the proximity of Hatra to Emesa and her association with Ba'al might well have linked her with the worship of the sun god at Hatra.  Still more important, the bodies of Lavinia and Julia Domna were to bring forth important posterity; Lavinia brought forth the Roman race, whereas Julia Domna was the vessel and guarantor of legitimacy for the future emperors Caracalla and Geta.  It was probably no accident that Crispus' comment came at a moment when Julia's coinage unabashedly advertised her maternity in Rome.

In the end, Crispus' pithiness was a little too clever for his own good, but the intertextual plays that his comment invite allow us to hear echoes of subversive critiques of the emperor and his family that his execution was intended to silence.  And however one envisions Virgil in regard to the Augustan regime, he is in this instance, at least, the mouthpiece of the subversive.


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