Unspeakable Barbaric
Gore in the Aeneid

Shari Nakata

Luther College

The word tabum, defined in the OLD as "a viscous fluid consisting of putrid matter, etc.," and often rendered by translators simply as "gore," occurs five times in the Aeneid (3.29, 3.626, 8.197, 8.487, 9.472), in the context of five separate passages.  In each passage, tabum issues, naturally, from dead bodies and body parts.  Since bodies and body parts litter the landscape of the Aeneid, which abounds in physical violence, tabum might be expected to occur in the poem much more often than it does.  Close examination of the five passages where tabum does occur indicates that unspeakable acts, performed by individuals represented or characterized as barbaric, are responsible for the gruesome scenarios played out in each instance.

Tabum first occurs in the context of the Thracian king Polymestor's treacherous murder of the Trojan prince Polydorus (3.49-56), in violation of fas omne (3.55).  Aeneas tells us that when he attempts to uproot myrtle branches for his altars, he sees a horrendum et dictu...mirabile monstrum (3.26) when atro liquuntur sanguine guttae/et terram tabo maculant (3.28-9).

A violation of hospitality on a much larger scale takes place in the context of Polyphemus' slaughter and consumption of Odysseus' men, an event recalled by Achaemenides (3.613-27).  Polyphemus, he says, is nec visu facilis nec dictu adfabilis ulli (3.621), one of a tribe of infandi Cyclopes (3.644) living in caves.  As a highlight of his eyewitness account of Polyphemus' gruesome meal, he relates that vidi atro cum membra fluentia tabo/manderet (3.626-7).

The cave-dwelling Cacus, described by Evander as semihominis (8.194), as a monstrum (8.198), and as effera (8.205), used to slaughter men (we are not told how) and decorate his doors with their heads: foribusque adfixa superbis/ora virum tristi pendebant pallida tabo (8.196-7).  Eden (1975, p. 77) here cites Ovid, Heroides 9.89, where this practice is transferred to the barbaric Thracians.

Evander goes on to describe the infandas caedes (8.483) and facta.../effera (8.483-4) perpetrated by the Etruscan king Mezentius: mortua quin etiam iungebat corpora vivis/componens manibusque manus atque oribus ora,/tormenti genus, et sanie taboque fluentis/complexu in misero longa sic morte necabat (8.485-8).  Eden (1975, p. 140) here cites Augustine, Contra Iulianum Pelagianum 4.15, (citing Cicero's Hortensius), where this practice is attributed to Etruscan pirates.

Tabum occurs, finally, even in the context of the Rutulians' act of vengeance for the massacre carried out by Nisus and Euryalus: ipsa arrectis (visu miserabile) in hastis/praefigunt capita (9.465-6) for all the Trojans to see, and they are suitably horrified, simul ora virum praefixa movebant/nota nimis miseris atroque fluentia tabo (9.471-2).  Hardie (1993, p. 158) here cites Plutarch, Crassus 26.3-4, where this practice is attributed to the barbaric Parthians.


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