Are any of us surprised, after years of watching police and self-proclaimed vigilantes abusing and killing African Americans—and of white juries letting them go free—that we finally have 1960-style riots on our hands, complete with burning buildings? Donald Trump encouraging police officers to rough up their suspects has led directly to the George Floyd murder, although the primal racism that I explored a couple of weeks ago is also a key factor. The literary image that comes to my mind is the rioting wives in Book V of The Aeneid.
It is one of the strangest episodes in Virgil’s epic. Heretofore, the wives haven’t been mentioned at all, let alone been named, yet here they are, mad as hell and setting their husbands’ ships on fire.
African Americans will relate to their pent-up rage, even though the parallel isn’t exact. To this point, Aeneas has considered, and rejected, a series of sites in which to settle down: Thrace, the Trojan settlement of Buthrotum, the Stophades, Crete, Carthage (with Dido), and now a Trojan settlement on current-day Sicily. However, Aeneas’s sense of destiny, voiced by Jupiter, decrees that he set his eyes on the Latin kingdom further north, even though he could settle for their present location. After seven years of wandering, the wives aren’t having it.
The Trojan men, who don’t bother to consult them, are off playing sports. (More precisely, they’re honoring the death of Aeneas’s father with Olympic-style funeral games). Juno, the goddess of the hearth who opposes Aeneas’s imperial ambitions, sends down her messenger Isis to stir things up:
Juno brooding, scheming,
her old inveterate rancor never sated. Iris flies,
arcing down on her rainbow showering iridescence,
and no one sees the virgin glide along the shore,
past the huge assembly, catching sight of the harbor
all deserted now, and the fleet they left unguarded.
But there, far off on a lonely stretch of beach
the Trojan women wept for the lost Anchises.
Gazing out on the deep dark swells they wept
and wailed: “How many reefs, how many sea-miles
more that we must cross! Heart-weary as we are!”
They cried with one voice. A city is what they pray for.
All were sick of struggling with the sea. So down
in their midst speeds Iris—no stranger to mischief—
Iris takes the form of wife Beroe and proceeds to enflame the rest:
Oh, my poor doomed people! What is Fortune saving you for, what death-blow? Seven summers gone since Troy went down and still we’re swept along, measuring out each land, each sea— how many hostile rocks and stars?—scanning an endless ocean, chasing an Italy fading still as the waves roll us on.… What prevents us from building walls right here, presenting our citizens with a city? Oh, my country, gods of the hearth we tore from enemies, all for nothing, will no walls ever again be called the walls of Troy? We’re never again to see the rivers Hector loved, the Simois and the Xanthus? No, come, action! Help me burn these accursed ships to ashes. The ghost of Cassandra came to me in dreams, the prophetess gave me flaming brands and said: ‘Look for Troy right here, your own home here!’ Act now. No delay in the face of signs like these. You see? Four altars to Neptune. The god himself is giving us torches, building our courage, too.” Spurring them on and first to seize a deadly brand, she held it high in her right hand, shook it to flame and with all her power hurled the fire home.
A peacemaker intervenes but the wives, like the rioters, are too aroused to halt for long:
[A]t first the women wavered, looking back
at the ships with hateful glances, torn between
their hapless love for the land they stood on now
and the fated kingdom, calling still—when all at once
the goddess towered into the sky on balanced wings,
cleaving a giant rainbow, flying beneath the clouds.
Now they are dumbstruck, driven mad by the sign
they scream, some seize fire from the inner hearths,
some plunder the altars—branches, brushwood, torches,
they hurl them all at once and the God of Fire unleashed
goes raging over the benches, oarlocks, piney blazoned sterns.
As I say, the wives have been ignored to this point, but their riot gets the men’s full attention. Aeneas’s son Ascanius, sounding like various city mayors, veers out of the horse race that he’s winning and comes riding in to save the ships:
Out in the lead, Ascanius, still heading his horsemen, still in triumph, swerves for the ships at full tilt, his breathless handlers helpless to rein him back, and finding the camp in chaos, shouts out: “Madness, beyond belief! What now? What drives you on? Wretched women of Troy, it’s not the enemy camp, the Greeks—you’re burning your own best hopes! Look, it’s your own Ascanius!” Down at his feet he flung his useless helmet, the one he donned when he played at war, acting out mock battles….
Although the rioters retreat, the ships are still on fire:
Despite all that, the flames, the implacable fire
never quits its fury. Under the sodden beams
the tow still smolders, reeking a slow, heavy smoke
that creeps along the keels, the ruin eating into the hulls,
and all their heroic efforts, showering water, get them nowhere.
At once devoted Aeneas ripped the robe on his shoulders,
called the gods for help and flung his hands in prayer:
“Almighty Jove, if you still don’t hate all Trojans,
if you still look down with your old sense of devotion,
still respect men’s labors, save our fleet from fire!
Now, Father, snatch the slim hopes of the Trojans
out of the jaws of death! Or if I deserve it,
come, hurl what’s left of us down to death
with all your angry bolts—
overwhelm us here with your iron fist!”
Jove helps out with a timely rain shower, after which the Trojans arrive at a good compromise. Counselor Nautes advises Aeneas that those who wish to should venture on while the rest can stay with Acestes, head of the Sicily settlement:
You have Acestes, a Trojan born of the gods,
a ready adviser. Invite him into your councils.
Make your plans together. Hand them over to him,
the people left from the burnt ships and those worn out
by the vast endeavor you’ve begun, your destiny, your fate.
The old men bent with age, the women sick of the sea,
ones who are feeble, ones who shrink from danger:
set them apart, and exhausted as they are,
let them have their walls within this land.
If he lends his name, they’ll call the town Acesta.”
Our own solutions are not so simple since the problems are systemic. Racism runs deep within police departments and deep within the country as a whole. Given rightwing cops, white nationalist provocateurs, anarchist groups, and opportunistic politicians, we can expect more mischief. Fortunately, we also have wise counselors, including rapper Tiger Mike, Rev. Al Sharpton, and various enlightened mayors, who are attempting to find a way forward.
The burning boats have sent a warning signal that we cannot ignore. We must make productive use of them.