Four lines in Virgil

There is a line that describes Aeneas’s hair standing on end and his voice sticking in his throat—three times, and the fourth time it is Turnus.

Aeneas has retraced his steps and is frantically searching the streets of Troy for his lost wife Creusa, when suddenly a wraith of her appears:

quaerenti et tectis urbis sine fine furenti
infelix simulacrum atque ipsius umbra Creüsae
visa mihi ante oculos et nota maior imago.
obstipuisteteruntque comae et vox faucibus haesit.
II 772-774

When Aeneas starts to found his new city on the coast of Thrace, he sees the hideous omen of a tree dripping blood from its roots and then he hears the ghost of Polydorus speaking:

tum vero ancipiti mentem formidine pressus
obstipuisteteruntque comae et vox faucibus haesit.
III 47-48

When Aeneas is busy helping Dido to build her city, he is suddenly visited by Mercury with orders from Jupiter that he must leave at once:

at vero Aeneas aspectu obmutuit amens,
arrectaeque horrore comaeet vox faucibus haesit.
IV 270-280

When Jupiter decides that the time has come and that Turnus is to die, he sends one of his fiends, the Dirae, first to warn Juturna that helping her brother is useless, and then to confront Turnus himself, which she does in the shape of an owl*, flying in the face of Turnus and taking away his strength and courage:

olli membra novus solvit formidine torpor,
adrectaeque horrore comaeet vox faucibus haesit.
XII 867-868

These are not repetitions in the manner that Homer uses them. They are a motif, and in all four cases they mark a supernatural message:

  • the first is from Creusa, whom Aeneas has just lost, with a joyful prediction;
  • next from Polydorus, murdered long before, with a terrible warning;
  • then from Mercury with a command from Jupiter;
  • finally a Dira from Jupiter, directly intervening to bring defeat to Turnus.

Every one marks a pivotal moment:

  • Creusa tells Aeneas of his destiny to found a new city in Hesperia;
  • Polydorus stops him founding the city in a land polluted by a hideous crime;
  • Mercury tells him that Rome, not Carthage, is to be his home, for his descendants;
  • Jupiter brings death to Aeneas’s rival and frees him to found his city.

* With a shocking irony, Virgil describes the Little Owl, Athene noctua—symbolic of that goddess, whose presence in the Odyssey brings comfort and courage.


¶ See also John Sparrow, Half-Lines & Repetitions in Virgil, OUP 1931.