The city of Troy is burning, and a few forlorn figures are fleeing through the darkness. Aeneas leads the way, accompanied by his father Anchises and his young son Ascanius. Not far behind, his beloved wife, Creusa, follows on.
Suddenly, a member of the group sounds a warning: the Greeks are approaching! The ominous patter of their footsteps can be heard; the bronze of their armour glints in the darkness. Panicked, Aeneas veers away from the well-worn path, desperate to escape detection. The group follows him on an erratic course. All too late, however, they realise someone has gone missing. Creusa has disappeared. Having lost track of her husband and family, she will never again be restored to them.
The events of this scene might seem dramatic enough in their own right: a conflagration in a great city; a panicking hero; a lucky escape from the enemy; perhaps most striking of all, a husband’s loss of his beloved wife, a wife’s loss of her beloved husband. And yet, when Virgil presents this scene to us in the second book of his epic poem, the Aeneid, he adds to it yet a further layer of emotion, intensity and piquancy. Creusa – or rather the ghost of Creusa – subsequently reappears to her grief-stricken husband while he searches for her, desperately but in vain.
Virgil’s presentation of this scene, in which Creusa delivers a heartrending message of farewell, is powerful enough in terms of tone, expression and characterisation. But there is more to the scene than its literary interest. As a recent book has emphasised, for many centuries it was customary to read Virgil’s depiction of Creusa’s farewell as a passage which could function for readers as a kind of training in emotional life – as a primer in empathy, in depth of perception and in the understanding of self and other. This can be true, perhaps, for us too today.
Grief, Exile, Love
What is it to say goodbye to a loved one? This is a question we may not choose to ask in the ordinary course of events. But the question can catch up with us in spite of our choosing. So it is for Creusa, who finds that her relationship with her husband has suddenly been brought to an abrupt end.
The Latin of her farewell speech to her husband, which takes up fourteen lines, runs as follows:
“quid tantum insano iuvat indulgere dolori,
o dulcis coniunx? non haec sine numine divum
eveniunt; nec te comitem hinc portare Creusam
fas, aut ille sinit superi regnator Olympi.
longa tibi exilia et vastum maris aequor arandum,
et terram Hesperiam venies, ubi Lydius arva
inter opima virum leni fluit agmine Thybris.
illic res laetae regnumque et regia coniunx
parta tibi; lacrimas dilectae pelle Creusae.
non ego Myrmidonum sedes Dolopumve superbas
aspiciam aut Grais servitum matribus ibo,
Dardanis et divae Veneris nurus;
sed me magna deum genetrix his detinet oris.
iamque vale et nati serva communis amorem.”
“Sweet husband, what use is it to indulge so much in mad grief?
These things are not happening in the absence of the divine will of the gods;
And it is not right for you to carry Creusa from here as a companion,
Nor does that ruler of Olympus up above allow it.
Your exile will be long and you’ll have to plough over the vast surface of the sea,
And you will come to the land of Hesperia [=Italy], where the Lydian Tiber
Flows with a gentle course among the rich fields of men.
Happy circumstances and a kingdom and a royal wife have been provided for you there;
Drive away your tears for your beloved Creusa.
I will not see the proud houses of the Myrmidons or the Dolopians,
Nor will I go to serve the matrons of Greece
As a Trojan woman and daughter-in-law of Venus.
But the great mother of the gods holds me on these shores.
And now farewell – and preserve your love of our shared son.”
Reading this speech, we might be struck by its matter-of-fact pragmatism and its unnerving sense of perspective. Rather than gushing with anguish and despair, with outpourings of sorrow and lamentation, Creusa focuses not so much on her own situation, as that of her beloved. She tries to focus his mind on the futility of grief, on the importance of his looking to a happy future far from Troy, and on the need to accept that her own fate has – alas – been set in stone. And she hurries him along with an air of concern – instructing him with a series of imperatives designed to elicit action.
Making use of a prophetic sense that she has gained in death, she makes reference to some of the hardships that will soon confront Aeneas: an exile notable for its sheer length, and the gruelling journey he will have to make by sea. These details, alongside her insistence that the gods have dictated that their union must now end, place an unflinching realism at the heart of her speech.
We can also see in her a clear sense of solidarity with Aeneas and his predicament. Despite acknowledging the loss of their union and the reality of Aeneas’ impending hardships, Creusa wants him to see that a happy future does lie ahead for him. In her unflinching way, she informs him that he will find a new wife when he makes it to Italy to set up a new kingdom there. And there is no sense that she begrudges him this future, in spite of her own absence from it.
Aeneas can proceed from Troy, moreover, consoled by the knowledge that Creusa is not being condemned to a life of servitude among the Greeks. The finality of her death turns out to be a kind of protection, then, and even a possible form of comfort to her husband, in the face of this grim prospect. Had she been taken hostage, the same could not have been said.
It is not difficult to find in Creusa’s words a kind of selfless dignity and generosity of spirit. We might see these as qualities personal to Creusa, or perhaps as qualities that she embodies as a good Trojan. They are qualities, certainly, that we see exhibited in Homer’s Iliad (whose story Virgil continues in the Aeneid) by the Trojan king Priam and his son Hector. In the Aeneid there is a degree of unclarity as to Creusa’s relationship to the Trojan royal family, but in other Roman writers she is known as a daughter of Priam and a sister to Hector.
Creusa might equally be said to exemplify a kind of Stoic detachment from her unhappy predicament, as well as a Stoic acceptance of her fate. She could be argued, on this view, to be channelling central ideals of this Greek philosophy, one which Virgil seems to give voice to in various passages of the Aeneid.
She might further be said to exemplify a dutiful and self-forgetting pietas, that cardinal Roman virtue that Virgil is concerned to celebrate explicitly elsewhere in the Aeneid. This is the virtue that Aeneas himself will be seen to rely upon as he fulfils his mission to establish a new home for the band of refugees with whom he will escape from Troy. Its hallmarks are a sense of social responsibility, of loyalty to the gods, of acting for the common good.
Tears, Turmoil, Parting
But can we commend such values without reservation here? Even if we appreciate that Creusa really wants Aeneas to leave Troy quickly, for his own safety, we might nevertheless feel that there is something just a little cold, even a little heartless, about the way she conveys her final message to him. Where is her expression of grief? Why is she so calm and seemingly composed in such sad circumstances? Creusa is already a ghost when she addresses Aeneas. Perhaps it is the state of being literally bloodless that causes her to give a speech that might itself seem devoid of passion?
We learn in the following passage that Aeneas responds to Creusa’s farewell by making repeated unsuccessful attempts to embrace her ghostly form, crying floods of tears as he does so. Aeneas responds to the loss of his wife with an outpouring of grief. By contrast, Creusa’s own sense of loss seems less obvious, although at the end of her speech she reminds Aeneas of his continuing duty of care for their ‘shared’ son. Her farewell thus ends with a touching emphasis on how the connection between them will live on in the person of Ascanius.
To enter into the turmoil of this scene between parting spouses, to consider Creusa’s phrasing, and her generosity of spirit, even as we may feel there is a degree of coldness accompanying it, can be, I have suggested, an opportunity for reflection. There is of course no trusty handbook, no simple formula on which to rely, as we try – when the time comes – to say goodbye to those we love. But Virgil’s scene offers us a context in which we can think through some of the issues, and to decide how far – if at all – we might wish to resemble Creusa in our own final conversations.
Aeneas, Creusa and Dido
The mediaeval school pupil reading Creusa’s words might have been encouraged to look at this short excerpt of the Aeneid in isolation, to enter – as we have done – into the mood of the scene it conveys. But we need also to remember, finally, some wider context: that Aeneas is recalling the last words of his Trojan wife not simply for his own purposes (or for those of his readers) but for a special listener who is following his story. This listener is Dido, queen of Carthage, in whose palace Aeneas has recently arrived, and to whom he is telling the story of his exile.
For Virgil’s storytelling, Creusa’s death is important, since it prepares the way for his new love affair with Dido, and – eventually – for his marriage to Lavinia (his destined future wife in Italy). For Aeneas, Creusa’s parting words are consoling because they are words of understanding: they salve his conscience and allow him to embrace these future loves. There is perhaps no better indication that Creusa leaves Aeneas with an openness to the future awaiting him than that she leaves him be, to continue his life without her. Even when Aeneas visits the Underworld in Book 6 of the poem, Creusa does not appear to her husband. Their final conversation has indeed been a letting go.
Gavin McCormick teaches Classics at North London Collegiate School.