David West

The young often ask why the sixth book of the Aeneid begins so tediously, Why linger over the Sibyl and her cave? Why the story of Daedalus and its depiction on the doors of the temple of Apollo? Why the gloomy and implausible Misenus episode and the long account of his funeral?


The answers begin with Aeneas' promise to the Sibyl:

Then to Phoebus and Trivia a temple of solid marble
shall I found, and holy days in the name of Phoebus. 70
For you, too, there awaits a great shrine in our kingdom
and here I shall place your oracle and the riddling prophecies
spoken to my people, and to your service, o gracious one,
I shall dedicate chosen priests. Only do not consign your words
to leaves, to be confused and mocked by every wind that blows, 75
Sing them in your own voice, I beg of you.

This is a post eventum prophecy of the dedication on 9 October 28 BC of the temple of Apollo on the Palatine by Octavian, three months before he took the title of Augustus. Details are in place. Line 69 accords with the placing of the statue of Apollo between those of his mother Latona and his sister Diana (Trivia, Hecate). Line 70 alludes to the festos dies in nomine Phoebi, the Ludi Apollinares inaugurated in 212 BC, but, to quote Austin on the line 'Virgil's readers would think also of Augustus' revival of the Ludi Saeculares in 17 BC, already at the planning stage in the poet's lifetime (see on 792 f.).' The undertaking in line 72 was fulfilled when Augustus dedicated the temple and took the Sibylline oracles from the stone chest where they were kept under the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol and deposited them in two gilded coffers under the statue of Apollo. Suetonius Life of Augustus 31 dates this event to 12 BC, If this is correct, then this move, too, was being planned in advance and Virgil had access to the counsels of Augustus. The chosen priests were originally only two (Livy 5,13.6) but by Virgil's time they were fifteen, the XVviri sacris faciundis, This was the commission, chaired by Augustus, which was to organise the Ludi Saeculares.
Prophecy by leaves, as mentioned in lines 74-6 is fully explained at Aeneid 3.445-452:

The maiden priestess writes her prophecies on leaves 445
and sets them all in order, leaving them sealed in her cave
where they remain unmoved and in their places.
But when the door turns in its sockets and the slightest breath falls
on the delicate leaves and draught from the door throws them into confusion,
she never troubles to catch them as they flutter in her rocky cave, 450
and restore them to their places to join up her prophecies,
So men depart unadvised, and loathe the shrine of the Sibyl,

When, therefore, in 6.74-6 Aeneas begs the Sibyl not to entrust her prophecies to leaves but to sing them in her own voice, this is, in oracular terms, a post eventum prophecy that Aeneas' descendant Augustus will call in books of prophecies in Greek and Latin and burn them, destroying also Sibylline verses which did not meet with his approval (Suetonius Life of Augustus 31).
The cave of the Sibyl miraculously survives, It is 16 feet in height, and is now 376 feet long although it was in Virgil's day nearly 100 feet longer. On the west side open six or more galleries with windows and at the entrance to each of these are traces of what appear to be door sockets on the floor. It has been suggested that one cord passed through rings attached to each of these doors could have opened them all at once and contributed to the effect described with some poetic exaggeration by Virgil in 6.43-5:

The side of this Euboean rock had been hollowed out into a vast cavern,
into which there led a hundred openings, a hundred mouths,
and from them streamed a hundred voices-the Sibyl's prophecies.

At the beginning of Book Six Virgil has celebrated the oracle of the Sibyl delivered in her cave under the temple of Apollo at Cumae and has authenticated the continuance of her cult by Augustus in the temple of Apollo dedicated on the Palatine in Rome in 29 BC. The reason is obvious, In 31 BC Octavian became master of the world by his victory at Actium and claimed that the victory was given him by Apollo. Apollo was the special god of Augustus and the Sibyl was his prophetess, Virgil's Aeneid is written partly to praise Augustus, and the episode of the Sibyl and he cave includes praise for Augustus' religious policy. So too does the episode of Daedalus and his temple doors.


Literary scholarship advances different explanations - that the flight of Daedalus is an analogue for the journey of Aeneas; that Daedalus' grief for the loss of his son is to be connected with other powerful father and son relationships in the Aeneas story. that labyrinths are often associated with the world of the dead and therefore that the labyrinth on the temple doors anticipates the descent of Aeneas into the Underworld; that the description of the doors is a coded exposition of the Augustan attitude to the plastic arts; that the difficulties of Daedalus arose from a sexual problem, his invention which enabled Pasiphae to receive the bull, and similarly that there had been a sexual difficulty in Aeneas' recent past in Book Four,
Different readers may well be affected by such associations, more perhaps by those at the beginning of the list than by those towards the end, but the episode must be read in its historical context. In 38 BC Octavian was almost killed in a sea battle against the fleet of Sextus Pompeius off Scyllaeum just above the Straits of Messina. Defeated and shipwrecked, he spent the night in the mountains, without food or supplies, and was fortunate in that his beacon fires attracted the attention of the thirteenth legion. This experience was enough to convince Octavian that Sextus' command of the seas had to be broken, and that to this end a secure naval base had to be established.
Lake Lucrinus was tucked into the north arm of the Bay of Naples separated from the sea only by a narrow causeway said to have been built by Hercules, The much larger Lake Avernus lay a few miles inland to the north. Agrippa repaired and strengthened the Lucrinus causeway and cut a channel through it to allow access for shipping. He also cut a canal between Lucrinus and Avernus, and so created an outer harbour and a larger and more protected inner basin, in which a fleet could be built and kept safe with all its stores and installations. This was the Portus Iulius already celebrated by Virgil as one of the wonders of Italy in Georgics 2,161-4. But Cumae had a part to play in the strategic design. Agrippa dug a tunnel from its harbour through the tufa rock on which the town was built, to connect with another running north-east and south-west through the hills to Lake Avernus, and yet another through hills between Avernus and Lucrinus, The concept is clear. Cumae with its citadel protects the Portus Iulius from attack from the north west and Sicily and the tunnels give swift communications and transport between the two bases, invaluable in the event of enemy interference or adverse winds making it difficult to round Cape Misenum, This is the greatest engineering achievement of the Augustan era, and it made possible the defeat of Sextus Pompeius and the destruction of his fleet at Naulochus in 36 BC.
Here a conjecture is necessary, There is some evidence of Augustan work on the temple of Apollo, but even if there were no such evidence, it would be certain that Augustus would not have walked away from Cumae in 36 BC without leaving a trace there of this crucial victory over an enemy that had nearly brought about his own destruction. The conjecture is that after Naupactus Augustus refurbished the temple of Apollo at Cumae and the cave of the Sibyl, It is Augustus' style to build monuments and it is Virgil's style to celebrate them in his poetry, witness, for example, the Portus Iulius at Georgics 2.161-4, the Actium monument at Aeneid 3.279-88 (see West Greece and Rome 41(1994) 57-61 and Stahl in Vergil's Aeneid (1998) Duckworth, 61-6), the Pulvinar at Aeneid 5,288-90 (compare Res Gestae 19.1), the Mausoleum at Aeneid 6. 874, the temple of Juppiter Tonans at Aeneid 8,349-54, the portico of Augustus' temple of Apollo on the Palatine at 10, 495-505 (see Harrison in Stahl, 230-7). It was Augustus who boasted of refurbishing 82 temples in Rome in 28BC, and dedicated the most splendid of all Roman temples to Apollo to celebrate the victory at Actium. It is beyond belief that he could have left Cumae without refurbishing its temple of Apollo.
If this argument succeeds, the splendour of the Apolline temple at Cumae as described by Virgil is praise of Augustus and a commemoration of his campaign against Sextus Pompeius, and the bronze doors of the temple in the Aeneid depict the story of Daedalus because they did so in reality. These were the doors that Octavian had seen and had restored to leave his mark there and commemorate his victory.


A quarter of the 235 lines which precede the descent to the Underworld is devoted to the drowning and funeral of Misenus (149-182 and 212-235). As Austin writes on 156-182, 'death and burial encompass the miracle by which a living man can descend to the Underworld,' Another aspect of this episode is that it gives an aetiological explanation of Mount Misenus as the funeral mound of the hero, just as Mount Caieta is explained as the funeral mound of Aeneas' nurse Caieta at the beginning of Book Seven.
Misenus was drowned at Cape Misenus between Cumae and Portus Iulius, but there was another who died in that area, Halfway between Portus Iulius and Cape Misenus is the port of Baiae, and Marcellus, nephew and possible heir of Augustus, died there in his twentieth year in 23 BC. The elaborate funeral of Misenus supervised by Aeneas would stimulate thoughts of the great funeral of Marcellus supervised by Aeneas' descendant Augustus in 23 BC as described by Cassius Dio 53. 30. 1 Lines 212-35 are not only the archetypal Roman funeral which lent authenticity to current Roman practice, but also a typically Virgilian link between the experience of Aeneas and the experience of Augustus, Even the famous imitation of Ennius Annales 175-9, where Virgil describes the felling of timber for Misenus' funeral pyre, has a contemporary bearing:

Down came the pines, The ilex rang under the axe. 180
Beams of ash and oak were split along the grain by wedges,
and they rolled great manna ashes down from the mountains.

Strabo 5.4,5 relates how Agrippa felled the forests round Lake Avernus during the creation of Portus Iulius.2 The Misenus episode is therefore concerned not only with the punishment of a man's pride and sorrow at the death of a comrade, with pollution and burial, and with the provision of aetiologies for a familiar landmark and contemporary funeral rites, it is also an Augustan element and opens this book with a death and funeral so similar to the death and funeral of Marcellus which ends it, that it gives a potent structure to the whole.
The Cumae / Portus Iulius complex was a brilliant strategic device to cope with fighting on two fronts, to check the raids of Sextus Pompeius along the coast of Italy north of the Bay of Naples, and to build a fleet which could destroy the enemy ensconced in Sicily, To cope with Antony in the later campaign leading up to Actium it was enough to face east, and although Lake Avernus was unfathomably deep Lake Lucrinus was inconveniently shallow. So Octavian moved his naval base to the more commodious harbourage of Misenum and that remained the principal naval base of Rome in the early Empire
The political dimension of the opening of this book therefore includes a public acknowledgement of the assistance of Apollo in Octavian's wars, together with specific commemoration of the naval bases at Cumae and Misenum which made possible the crucial victories at Naulochus and Actium. There may also be an anticipation of the death and funeral of Marcellus.

1 Similarly, Columna in his 1527 edition of Ennius suggests that the Romans felled the trees in order to build their first triremes and quinqueremes to enable them to protect the shores of Italy and harry the Carthaginians in Africa, unde non temere conjicimus. hic lignorum apparatum ad construendam classem fuisse descriptam.

2 According to the most natural understanding of Propertius 3. 18, 9 -10 Marcellus, too, was drowned:
Overwhelmed by these (waters?) he sent his face down into the waves of the Styx
and that great spirit wanders in your lake,

Since Baiae is addressed in line 8, and Marcellus is in the waves of the River Styx, 'your lake' is presumably Avernus, as it is in Strabo 5.4.5. The difficulty about this is that Cassius Dio (53.30) gives a different account of the death of Marcellus, whereby a physician called Antonius Musa had cured a dangerous illness of Augustus by prescribing cold drinks and cold baths. A short time later Marcellus fell ill, but died when Musa treated him in the same way. These two accounts are not necessarily contradictory. Either Marcellus did not drown and Propertius is speaking metaphorically, or else Marcellus, falling ill while in the luxury resort of Baiae, was drowned after deciding one day to take the cold water treatment in Baiae's lake Avernus. If Marcellus was in fact drowned at Baiae, a contemporary of Virgil would have been bound to think of him during the reading of the opening of Book Six.