Patrick Hunt: Virgil’s Aeneid – the Harry Potter of Pompeii


A colleague saw Patrick Hunts new book,  Myth and Art in Ekphrasis, and asked curiously, “Ekphrasis?  Where’s that?”

What do you say after such a question?  A small city in Hellenic Turkey?  The latest flashpoint in Iraq?  Patrick gave an answer to an intimate, early evening gathering at the Stanford Bookstore on Tuesday: “It’s not a place, but a kind of a place.”  Or rather a long conversation between poets, painters, composers, lasting over the centuries.

“Ekphrasis,” of course, is the translation of one work of art into another medium – traditionally literature, but in others as well.  Think of Virgil’s Dido and Aeneas becoming a Henry Purcell opera more than 1,500 years later.  The moral of the story:  “Great art inspires great art.”

The archaeologist made some interesting connections from ekphrastic remnants.

For instance, he read the passage from Virgil‘s Aeneid (XII 391ff) “[They] brought Aeneas, gashed and bleeding, whose long lance sustained his limping step”  (I’m using A.S. Kline’s translation below):


Hunt hunting the Alpine haunts of Hannibal

“He struggled furiously to pull out the head of the broken
shaft, and called for the quickest means of assistance:
to cut open the wound with a broadsword, lay open
the arrow-tip’s buried depths, and send him back to war.

Now Iapyx, Iasus’s son, approached, dearest of all to Apollo,
to whom the god himself, struck by deep love, long ago
offered with delight his own arts, his own gifts,
his powers of prophecy, his lyre, and swift arrows.
But Iapyx, in order to delay the fate of his dying father,
chose knowledge of the virtues of herbs, and the use
of medicine, and, without fame, to practise the silent arts.
Aeneas stood leaning on his great spear, complaining bitterly
amongst a vast crowd of soldiers, with Iulus sorrowing,
himself unmoved by the tears. The aged Iapyx, his robe rolled back
in Paeonian fashion, tried hard in vain with healing fingers
and Apollo’s powerful herbs: he worked at the arrow uselessly
with his hand, and tugged at the metal with tightened pincers.”

Venus heals the hero with the herb dittany, which even the goats roll in to heal their injuries. Hunt broke his foot in the Alps a few years back while looking for the lost Hannibal and had to climb downhill for a day with a broom as a crutch, so the Virgil’s image of fallen Aeneas is more than a little evocative for him.  And of course the doctor is using forceps – apparently a standard feature of an ancient Roman doctor’s toolkit.  Then Patrick pointed to an image from Pompeii (also the book’s cover, above) – the same scene, with the goddess hovering nearby as Aeneas is treated with herbs and the doctor’s painful, prodding forceps.  Exactly as written.

Virgil’s poem – which he once wished to burn, he was so dissatisfied with it – was painted on this Pompeii wall within a decade after the poem was written.  What does it all mean?

“Harry Potter status,” answered one student.  Voilà!

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3 Responses to “Patrick Hunt: Virgil’s Aeneid – the Harry Potter of Pompeii”

  1. Roseanne Sullivan Says:

    Interesting. Good thing Virgil didn’t burn the Aeneid! But what’s a limping sleep? And how could it be sustained by a staff? ” [They] brought Aeneas, gashed and bleeding, whose long lance sustained his limping sleep”

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Probably “step” — I’ll correct on that assumption till I can look at my notes in the morning.

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