On the Boat Race of Book V of the Aeneid

Racing to Nowhere
Ashok Karra

First event: four heavy-oared ships chosen out of the fleet,
All equally matched. Mnestheus with a lively crew
Commanded the Shark. He was soon to be an Italian
Mnestheus, from whom came the Memmii. Gyas was captain
Of the giant Chimaera, a ship like a city in size;
Dardanian youths in three rows with three banks of oars
Drove her forward. Sergestus, from whom came the clan of Sergius,
Set sail on the Centaur; Cloanthus from whom you Roman
Cluentii sprang, commanded the dark-blue Scylla.

– Aeneid V: 124-132, trans. L.R. Lind

Even if one knows nothing about the Memmii, the Sergii, and the Cluentii, one can still see that perhaps something symbolic is occurring in the boat race. The Chimaera is the ship of the many, and yes, it is a monster, but not quite the monster Scylla is. From the myth regarding Scylla, where a love triangle between Circe, Glaucus, and Scylla results in Circe turning her competitor into a monster, we can tell that Scylla implies the destruction of beauty by excessive eros. The composition of the Chimaera as a beast might serve to illustrate the diversity of the many, and how problematic it can be, as opposed to the tyranny and anarchy that Scylla implies. The Centaur, as Dr. Alvis has pointed out numerous times, symbolizes man as governed by his lowest passions wholly. If thumos mediates between the rational and appetitive in a well-governed human, then beastliness emerges when the appetitve – that which is literally below the thumotic, as it concerns the stomach and genitals as opposed to the heart – allies with thumos at the expense of the rational. And a Shark is pretty self-explanatory.

When we consider that the Memmii was a famous house from which tribunes frequently emerged and that the Sergii were those from whom Catiline emerged, it begins looking like the race is a metaphor for who rules at a given time, and why. Consider that Chimaera is competitive (it is passed by another ship) until Gyas literally kicks off his pilot, insisting his pilot, Menoetes, is too conservative. Menoetes wants to go out into the open sea when the turn in the race has to be made, and avoid the rocks that are a great threat for a large ship. Menoetes’ strategy makes perfect sense: it is not merely conservative, but takes into account that a large ship can get a bigger top speed if given time to accelerate. Gyas, though, is not happy with this, and forces a change. What is remarkable about that change is that the many favor Gyas. All laugh at Menoetes as he swims to shore (V: 195).

But the attempt to do as the other ships fails. The Centaur and the Shark then compete for the lead, the Centaur falling into rocks while trying to run a narrower course, and the Shark gaining the temporary lead based on Mnestheus’ appeal to the past experience of his own men, which was experience in running away from a burning Troy:

Now, now, rise up your oars, companions
Of Hector, my friends whom I picked from Troy at its final
Collapse, now show us the strength and spirit you showed me
Among the Gaetulan shallows, Ionia’s ocean,
And the ravenous waves of Malea. I do not desire
To tbe the first nor do I seek to win,
Although, oh – they will be the victors, Neptune,
To whom you have given that favor. Yet I am ashamed
To come in the last. At least do better than this
And keep off disgrace (V: 204-213).

Do not let the passivity of this speech fool you – yes, it looks like Mnestheus wants to avoid disgrace more than seek glory, and I am arguing they are not as “active” as another force, ultimately, as they will be beaten by Scylla. But passivity in the face of a greater force does not mean that these are not warriors we are seeing, people who differ from the many in that they are united in their ability to take up arms effectively, with discipline, and with eagerness. A shark doesn’t wait for a meal – these are opportunists, just gamblers not as bold as some others. The failure of the Centaurs was that they went out of control; otherwise, with focus, they are not only just as beastly, but just as dangerous.

What Virgil, I think, is suggesting we think about as we read this passage is: “What happens when a city makes a change in governance so as to abandon the ancestral?” His answer with the Centaur and Shark fighting for the lead is that the more violent elements of society begin to rule. Now this might not be the worst thing, inasmuch as we see some conservatism on the part of the Shark, and they are tied to those who will rule as tribunes. It also does not seem that they are only after glory.

What we’re seeing, in the abandonment of the ancestral, is the unleashing of passion, maybe even a move to what is perceived as a democracy, for as Machiavelli has noted, the one can found, but the many preserve. So all is well, right? The Shark may be militaristic, but only in the sense its crew wishes to avoid disgrace, and while their rule over the many tends to favor themselves rather than the body politic in its full diversity, the fruits of revolution do not seem so bad. This could be an improvement.

Unfortunately, it is Scylla that wins the race, as its men were

angered to think that they might
not hold their advantage, [and] eager to barter their lives
For glory (V: 244-7)

The piety invoked by Clothanus, where he will offer a bull on an altar, throw its entrails into the sea, and pour wine, express an attempt to bribe as many gods as possible all at once. Contrast this with Mnestheus’ attitude, where no control is assumed over the gods, only a plea is made. Scylla is absolutely a symbol for tyranny, and that it wins the race because of a change in the governance of the many has to make us wonder whether Virgil’s gloves are off in this chapter regarding the topic of empire. The awards given after the race only add to the fire of these suspicions, for while a historical outline of what might occur after a political change has been sketched, there is still more to reinforce this line of thinking. Scylla’s captain is given a golden and purple cloak upon which Ganymede’s story is told. Ganymede, while hunting, is himself hunted by Jupiter. No amount of praying or barking could call him back, for the most powerful god, wanting him for his glory, got what he wanted. There is no legal restraint when glory is all that matters, and Scylla’s captain testifies to this by his award. Armor is given to the Shark, as if to suggest that the same who represented the people before because of their strength (strength probably respected by the people in one sense or another), once change occurs, will be on another side. Strength of arms and opportunism do not create constancy to a cause or regime. Gyas, coming in third place, receives a pair of empty bowls. Nothing much is told about them, and they must be some sort of joke on Virgil’s part, I think. For the Centaur even gets a pretty good gift – a slave girl who reproduces and is good at crafts. The point of that is evident on my reading: under tyranny, those who lust the most will get say over what is considered best, and say over the future.

The only loser in the race is the attempt to govern for the sake of the many, while respecting its diversity. The mistake was, quite literally, change. If men have not really changed over the generations, then what was good governance once should be good governance in the present and future. But the ages of men do change – the Saturnian age is to what we are returning as the book progresses – and that cannot be discounted.

One could hold that divinity and providence are what man can know of a greater reason, and universal empire and the rule of law stem from that reason through piety. But I think a distinction needs to be made between what is inevitable when the cycles of history are considered, and what ought to be. The rule of law fits not-so-neatly into both categories, but tyranny can be said to be metaphorically descriptive of both, ironically enough. Virgil, on my reading, is very aware of this problem.

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