The Last Night of Troy: The Helen Episode in Aeneid 2

Peter Hulse

Recently on the Antigone website, there have been several brilliantly argued posts discussing the problems of forgery and interpolation in the transmission of Classical literature – and, in one case, the creation of a ‘new’ Roman Emperor through the medium of faked coinage. All these pieces, mostly with right on their side, have argued the case for the prosecution. There is, however, one case that I believe can be defended.

Before I went to university, I tried to read as much of Vergil’s Aeneid as possible. I still remember reaching the so-called Helen Episode of Book 2 (verses 567–88) and being absolutely thrilled. It’s the last night of Troy. The Greeks have insinuated themselves into the city via the Wooden Horse and are now abroad and wreaking havoc. Aeneas is attempting to resist but it’s all in vain. His men are exhausted and have left him on his own.  It is then that he spies the woman who has caused all the trouble, the arkhē kakōn (“the begging of evils”),[1] Helen of Sparta and Troy, the daughter of Tyndareus.

The burning of Troy, Francisco Gutiérrez Cabello, 1657 (Museo de Bellas Artas, Seville, Spain).

The Helen Episode: Text, Translation and Notes

iamque adeo super unus eram, cum limina Vestae

servantem et tacitam secreta in sede latentem

Tyndarida aspicio:

“And now I alone was left, when I saw, keeping close to Vesta’s doors and silently hiding in the hidden temple, the daughter of Tyndareus;”

iamque adeo: is a very Vergilian way to begin a section of narrative. super unus eram: The tmesis of superesse is very effective. unus is isolated in the line as is Aeneas. The opening run of two syllable words stresses the initial moment. limina Vestae: Vesta-the Roman goddess of the hearth. In Greek Ἑστία. To a Roman reader’s mind, might that not emphasise the desecration that is taking place? servantem… latentem: The rhyming parallel participles enclose the silent woman in her (alliterative) ‘secretive place.’ Who is she? Tyndarida aspicio: The hated Tyndarid! A percussive and emphatic enjambment.

                           … dant clara incendia lucem

erranti passimque oculos per cuncta ferenti.            570

“the bright fires give me light as I wander and cast my eyes, here and there, over the scene.”

He spots her because she’s illuminated in the light of the fires that are destroying Troy. erranti… ferenti: rhyming participles again but the jingle emphasises his restlessness.

illa sibi infestos eversa ob Pergama Teucros

et poenas Danaum et deserti coniugis iras

praemetuens, Troiae et patriae communis Erinys,

abdiderat sese atque aris invisa sedebat.

exarsere ignes animo; subit ira cadentem              575

ulcisci patriam et sceleratas sumere poenas.

“She, fearing the Trojans’ anger against her for the overthrow of Pergamum, the vengeance of the Greeks, and the wrath of the husband she abandoned – she, the common Fury of Troy and her motherland – had hidden herself and was crouching, hateful creature, by the altars. Fire blazed up in my heart; there came an angry desire to avenge my ruined country and exact a penalty for her sin.”

illa… Teucros: the interlacing word order of the first line is very elegant. et poenas… coniugis iras: another beautifully balanced, chiastic line: the poenas of the Greeks against the anger of Menelaus. praemetuens: the prefix is crucial to the overall effect of the passage. She is fearful of the consequences of her actions but… communis Erinys: she is the Fury of both Troy and her homeland. abdiderat sese atque aris invisa sedebat./ exarsere ignes animo; subit ira cadentem: “No one will deny that human beings, like geese, hiss when they are angry”[2] and Aeneas is certainly angry. The end of 575 is very expressive.sceleratas sumere poenas: Aeneas will feel anger like this in the final few moments of the poem, when he catches sight of Pallas’ baldric, which Turnus is wearing as a trophy. As he strikes home, the words are similar: (Pallas) poenam scelerato ex sanguine sumit.

Paris abducting Helen, Gavin Hamilton, 1784 (Museo di Roma, Rome, Italy).

scilicet haec Spartam incolumis patriasque Mycenas

aspiciet, partoque ibit regina triumpho,

coniugiumque, domumque, patres, natosque videbit,

Iliadum turba et Phrygiis comitata ministris?               580

occiderit ferro Priamus, Troia arserit igni?

Dardanium totiens sudarit sanguine litus?


“So is she to look unscathed on Sparta and her native Mycenae, and parade a queen in the triumph she has won? Is she to see husband and home, parents and children, attended by a train of Ilian ladies and Phrygian captives? For this is Priam to have perished by the sword? Troy burnt in flames? The Dardan shore so often sweated in blood?”

scilicet: what follows must be played out in his head – it is an internal monologue. We don’t have to imagine Aeneas shouting his curse aloud. partoque ibit regina triumpho: the heavy sarcasm is the point: she will return in triumph, in spite of the troubles of which she has been the ultimate source. coniugiumque, domumque, patres, natosque: the items in this list are hammer blows in Aeneas’ self-interrogation. The repetition of –que emphasises this. Iliadum turba et Phrygiis comitata ministris? To cap the injustice, she will be able to flaunt a triumphal procession of captured slaves. Aeneas anticipates Helen’s gloating use of a domestic retinue of Trojan (noble, female) survivors. occiderit: three stand-alone, future perfects – expressive of Aeneas’ disturbed self-questioning. They are closely linked to simple future tenses: aspiciet, ibit, videbit. What are the consequences of what seems bound to happen. sudarit sanguine litus? A wonderful image. It might have Ennian or Lucretian ancestors but is a vivid climax to the tricolon.

non ita: namque etsi nullum memorabile nomen

feminea in poena est, (nec habet victoria laudem),

extinxisse nefas tamen et sumpsisse merentis             585

laudabor poenas, animumque explesse iuvabit

ultricis flammae, et cineres satiasse meorum.”

talia iactabam et furiata mente ferebar,

“‘Not so! For though there is no glorious renown in punishing a woman and such victory gains no honour, yet I shall win praise for blotting out villainy and exacting just recompense; and it will be a joy to have filled my soul with the flame of vengeance and satisfied the ashes of my people.’ Such words I blurted out and in frenzied mind was rushing on…”

non ita: the rhetorical questions that have gone before are powerfully answered in this strong enjambment. nec: a telling parenthesis. extinxissemerentis: another marvellously crafted and vivid line – the rhyming infinitives power the argument forward. Again, Aeneas’ anger hisses. animumque… et cineres satiasse meorum: Aeneas’ monologue concludes with two magnificently biting and pointed expressions: “have filled my soul with the flame of vengeance and satisfied the ashes of my people” is language heightened to the degree that one almost expects Aeneas himself to self-combust with anger.[3]

Aeneas and Helen, Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard, 1822 (Musée de Valence, France).

Then comes the wonderful moment, when Aeneas is restrained from this act of extreme violence by the appearance of his mother Venus, whose radiant light dispels the night’s darkness. This clear light of the goddess’ appearance is contrasted with the blazing firelight in which Aeneas caught sight of Helen (dant claram incendia lucem, 569). That was the fire of Troy’s ruin and of the destructive passions it evoked. By contrast, Venus brings the clarity of divine and human reason. She calms Aeneas’ fury; she reminds him of the human and family ties from whose recollection the sight of Helen, destroyer of families, had distracted him; and she makes it clear to him, as her speech develops (601–3), that not Helen, nor Paris, is to blame for all that savage destruction, but the merciless will of the gods:

cum mihi se, non ante oculis tam clara, videndam

obtulit et pura per noctem in luce refulsit                 590

alma parens, confessa deam qualisque videri

caelicolis et quanta solet, dextraque prehensum

continuit roseoque haec insuper addidit ore:

‘nate, quis indomitas tantus dolor excitat iras?

…when my gracious mother, never before so brilliant to behold, came before my eyes, in pure radiance gleaming through the night, manifesting her deity, in beauty and stature as she appears to the lords of heaven. She caught me by the hand and stayed me, and spoke these words besides with roseate lips: ‘My son, what great resentment thus stirs ungovernable wrath?’[4]

Helen saved by Venus, Jacques Sablet, 1779 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA, USA).

Superb? Exciting? Vergil at his Best?

When I arrived at university, I gradually discovered that learned Vergilians didn’t think this passage was by the ‘greatest poet’ at all. Perhaps the best press that the passage has received comes from a doyen of Vergilian scholarship who, after enumerating all the technical problems that he sees in the Helen Episode, concludes that it is “the writing of a remarkably talented scholar-poet, determined to prove that he is Vergil.”[5]

Some of the commentators say that the language used is almost too Vergilian – that it’s somebody who knows the work of our poet and is desperate to force into one short passage every mannerism that will fit. The hardest point to counter for defenders of the Helen Episode is the undeniable fact that these 22 lines are not preserved in any ancient manuscript, or quoted by any ancient commentator apart from the Servius (AD c.400). If you inspect the most important Medieval manuscript of Vergil, the Codex Mediceus (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 39.1, written around AD 450) the passage is not there:

The elegant rustic capitals move directly from Aeneas’ abandonment by his comrades deseruere omnes… dedere (565–6) to the appearance of his mother, introduced by a cum clause (589), made awkward by the omission of the balancing cum,at the beginning of the episode (cum limina Vestae, 567). The first cum arouses Aeneas’ passions, the second calms him and draws him back to his real responsibilities. The same omission occurs in other ancient witnesses to the text: the whole of the Helen Episode seems to have been neatly excised.

Bust of Helen of Troy, Antonia Canova, 1810s (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK).

Is that the End of the Matter?

Macrobius (AD c.400) offers his readers an acute paragraph about the difficulty of Vergil (Saturnalia 5.18.1):

sed de his hactenus, quorum plura omnibus, aliqua non nullis Romanorum nota sunt. ad illa venio quae de Graecarum litterarum penetralibus eruta nullis cognita sunt, nisi qui Graecam doctrinam diligenter hauserunt. fuit enim hic poeta ut scrupulose et anxie, ita dissimulanter et quasi clanculo doctus, ut multa transtulerit quae unde translata sint difficile sit cognitu.

“But enough about such things, most of which all Romans know, while others are known to at least some. I come now to those matters that are dug out of the secret places of Greek literature, and are known to nobody, unless they have absorbed Greek learning with attention. For Vergil was learned in an exact and minute manner, both evasive and almost secretive in his learning: as a result, the sources of many of his borrowings are difficult to recognise.”

There could be a history behind the genesis of the Episode of Helen that, to use Macrobius’ phrase, is difficile cognatu and still needs to be disentangled. There can, however, be no doubt that this section of the poem loses coherence without it. Take out lines 567–88, and Venus’ lovely intervention to calm Aeneas’ passion, clear his mind, and demonstrate that not Helen but the gods should be blamed for the destruction of Troy, makes little sense unless her son has been on the verge of killing Helen in blind passion. If the Helen passage goes, then the Venus passage must go with it, and the apocalyptic vision of the gods tearing down Troy; the poetic loss would be appalling – as well as uncalled for.

Portrait of Macrobius from a 12th-century manuscript of his commentary on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis (Dream of Scipio) (Copenhagen, Det Kongelige Bibliotek, NKS 218 4° , f.46v).

Why is the Helen Episode Missing?

Clearly, Vergil, that most learned of poets, spent some of his time in a well-stocked library, whether in Rome or on the Bay of Naples.[6] There was no shortage of possibilities. Perhaps he consulted experts in the same way that Cornelius Gallus accepted the dedication of the Erōtika pathēmata (predigested summaries of obscure and difficult Greek tales) from Parthenius of Nicaea. Perhaps, one day in Augustus’ Palatine Library, he came across something really strange, made some notes – maybe even turned it into verse – and the passage never got properly integrated into the greatest poem of the greatest poet (Dryden was wrong), even though it fits so well. Perhaps the stories about the two editors of Vergil, Varius and Tucca, working on their own initiative after the poet’s unexpected death in 19 BC are true, and they removed the passage because we can’t have our hero attacking a woman. Whatever the reason, a literary accident occurred, and text was lost.

Venus preventing her son Aeneas from killing Helen of Troy, Luca Ferrari, c.1650 (Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide).

It’s happened before. In 1899, a young student named E.O. Winstedt, examining a manuscript from the 11th century in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, discovered, to his astonishment, that it contained 36 lines of Satire 6 – 34 of them constituting one continuous passage – which existed in no other text. A scholar of some renown later commented, “I should not be surprised, if a new manuscript of Juvenal turned up tomorrow with half a dozen new passages (several of them shocking), and with a totally irregular provenance and descent. The Dark Ages were a time of confusion.”[7] Well, it’s not happened yet; but it well might.

Another instance of a passage going missing and then making a reappearance occurred when the 1523 Aldine edition of Silius Italicus published 81 lines of the poem (8.145–225) which are found in no manuscript and in none of the previous editions, although some of the editors had pointed out that there must be a lacuna in the text. Several other examples of a similar nature could be quoted. This all seems to show that strange accidents (especially when copying from papyrus roll to codex)[8] can occur in the transmission of an ancient text.

Virgil Writing his epitaph at Brundisi, Angelica Kauffman, 1785 (Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA, USA).

As mentioned above, the only source for the Helen Episode is Servius’ commentary on Vergil. Now, Servius had a contemporary reputation as the most learned man of his generation in Italy.[9] I suspect that he was, also, one of the luckiest. I believe that he found the missing lines, in whatever form, during his scholarly research for his immense commentary on Vergil and modestly (see below), mentioned them when writing up his notes.[10] He might well have thought that they had been sublatos nec immerito (“taken away, and not without reason”)[11] but his approach to scholarship guaranteed that he would document them.

It is, of course, impossible to prove conclusively that this is what happened to the Helen Episode. However, I still feel, even when, so many years have passed since the first time I read it, that we should rejoice, as would be the case if this passage were a modern discovery recently announced in The Times or on the Antigone website: we should take away the square brackets[12] and accept that, despite the quibbling of scholars, the lines describing Aeneas’ anger against the clandestinely lurking Helen enrich the total pattern of the poem that Vergil is intent on developing over a broad canvas. It’s great poetry!

Peter Hulse is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham. He has made a special study of Apollonius of Rhodes but has a wide-ranging interest in all aspects of the Classical world. He has written previously for Antigone about a medieval Latin poem about chess, the first discussion of the game in Europe, about the tale of some American Argonauts, and about the arrival of the celebrity Caecilius in Blighty. He used to teach Latin, Greek and IT, but, even now, with a lot more leisure, he has not forgotten about his old friend Lucius Caecilius Iucundus!

Further Reading:

For Virgilian authorship:

G.B. Conte, “The Helen Episode in the second book of the Aeneid: structural models and a question of authenticity,” in The Rhetoric of Imitation: Genre and Poetic Memory in Vergil and other Latin Poets (trans. C. Segal, Cornell UP, Ithaca, 1986). Conte bases his defence of the passage on Vergil’s imitation of an Iliadic model, Achilles’ wrath against Agamemnon and Athena’s intervention: “The underlying Homeric structure… straddles the two dividing lines between the challenged and unchallenged parts of the text” (p.204).

L.M. Fratantuono,. Vergil’s Camilla and the Authenticity of the Helen Episode (Studies in Latin Literature and Roman Histor 16, Editions Latomus, Brussels, 2012) 198–202. The author argues strongly that Vergil frames the early and late movements of his poem with the question of a warrior’s killing a young woman; Book 2 presents Aeneas ready to slay Helen, and Book 11 has Arruns slaying Camilla. The Helen episode furnishes the Aeneid with narrative unity by providing a foreshadowing of and balance to Arruns’ killing of Camilla.

And last but, by no means least, we may cite a passage from the mighty commentary-cum-excursus on the Aeneid by James Henry:

Concerning these verses, the following opinion has been expressed by Charles James Fox in a letter to Gilbert Wakefied, then a prisoner in Dorchester gaol (Russell’s Mem. of Fox, vol. 4, p.411): of Fox, vol. 4, p. 411) : “If the lines omitted in the Medici MS. are spurious, they are, I think, the happiest imitation of Virgil’s manner that I ever saw. I am indeed so unwilling to believe them any other than genuine, that rather than I would consent to such an opinion, I should be inclined to think that Virgil himself had written and afterwards erased them on account of their inconsistency with the account he gives of Helen in the Sixth Book.” Mr. Fox should have said : —”The verses are genuine, for none but a Virgil ever wrote them, and there never was but one Virgil. By that one only Virgil therefore they were written, and are absent from the more ancient MSS., because expunged along with the four introductory verses by Tucca and Varius, whose mutilation of the poem was antecedent not only to any MSS. of it now existing, but to any even so much as perusal of it after it had passed out of the capsule of the author.”

Gilbert Wakefield (1756–1801) was an English Classical and Biblical scholar, as well as a controversialist.

Against Virgilian Authorship

G.P. Goold, “Servius and the Helen Episode,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 74 (1970) 101–68. There is a wonderfully succinct summary of the arguments of this very important article here, which clearly lists Goold’s arguments seeking to show that the author of the HE is not Vergil. Yet even Goold had to admit (section 10 of the summary) that, even if the author is not the Mantuan, he remains a considerable poet.

C.E. Murgia, “The date of the Helen Episode,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 101 (2003) 405–26. Further arguments against, but with a very useful bibliographical detail of supporters on the opening page.

N. Horsfall, Vergil, Aeneid 2, A Commentary (Mnemosyne Supplement 299, Brill, Leiden, 2008).

N. Horsfall, “Fraud as Scholarship: The Helen Episode and the Appendix Vergiliana,” Illinois Classical Studies 31/2 (2006) 1–27.

N. Horsfall, The Epic Distilled (Oxford UP, 2016).

Horsfall is a supporter of Goold’s arguments (“his magisterial discussion means I can be very brief” in Horsfall (2008) 553). He does write a detailed commentary on the HE (2008, 570–86), fully detailing the Vergilian features of the passage (“strongly Vergilian language and imagery,” ibid. 561).


1 For an excellent discussion of the subtleties of this phrase, see the first chapter of Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey, A Father, A Son and An Epic (Knopf, New York, 2017) pp.8ff.
2 L.P. Wilkinson, Golden Latin Artistry (Cambridge UP, 1963) 54
3 Nicholas Horsfall’s attempts here to downplay the power of such language (“how easy it has become to dash off half a page of sub-Vergilian hexameters”: 2008, 585–6) are surely not meant to be taken seriously.
4 The translation is owed to both Horsfall’s commentary and Goold’s Loeb.
5 Horsfall in his commentary on Aeneid Book 2, p.565.
6 For the libraries to which Vergil might have had access, see Horsfall (2016) 28–9).
7 Gilbert Highet, Juvenal: A Study (Oxford UP, 1954) 336.
8 An explanation along these lines has been proposed for the loss of the lines from Juvenal, Satire 6; see further Watson and Watson (2014) 53.
9 He was lauded by Macrobius for his ‘learning’ (doctrina) and ‘modesty’ (uerecundia) at Sat. 1.2.15: Servius inter grammaticos doctorem recens professus, iuxta doctrina mirabilis et amabilis verecundia (“He established himself as a teacher among the grammarians, both marvellously learned and likeably modest.”).
10 They are referred to three times: in the preface, at 2.566, and at 2.592.
11 The full phrase used by Servius is: aliquos hinc constat esse sublatos, nec immerito (“it is agreed that some verses have been taken away from here, and not without reason”). See further Horsfall (2008) 554.
12 See Mynors’ Oxford text of Vergil, at pp.144–5.