My blogging of late has been light. This has been due in part to other writing projects (an article on a potentially spurious passage in the Aeneid and my next children's book), preparation for multiple Roman re-enactment performances, and the selfish concern that topics other than politics would get swallowed in the pre-election hubbub. Nonetheless, on this night of all nights, I am going to post about Vergil and so-called "gay marriage."
As my A.P. students have been reading Book IV of the Aeneid, it has occurred to me that Vergil has something to say on the matter of redefining marriage. After describing a meeting between Juno and Venus, Vergil gives us a famous scene. Dido, the queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, the leader of the Trojans, go forth on a royal hunt. A thunderstorm drives them to the same cave where they take refuge. Let's see what Vergil says happened then.
prima et Tellus et pronuba Iuno dant signum; fulsere ignes et conscius aether conubiis summoque ulularunt uertice Nymphae. (IV.166-168)
"Earth foremost and Juno the matron of honor Give the sign. Lightning flashed, and the sky was witness To the wedding and the Nymphs cried out from mountaintop."
We see here all the elements of a Roman wedding. We have a matron of honor, the goddess of marriage no less. There are witnesses, the cries of well-wishers, and even a celestial version of the traditional torch-lit procession in the lightning. Surely this is a bona fide wedding.
Yet just four lines later, in line 172, Vergil give us this.
coniugium uocat, hoc praetexit nomine culpam.
"She calls it marriage, and with this name she covered her shame."
Disaster ensues. All work on the new city of Carthage ceases. Aeneas ceases to pursue his fate of establishing a new Troy. Jupiter eventually sends Mercury to Aeneas with the message to pull his head out of the boudoir and get back to the business of leading his people to their destined home. The resulting conversation between Aeneas and Dido is not pleasant. After she has, in a masterful thirty lines of poetry, simultaneously attacked Aeneas and pleaded for him to stay, he replies in a measured tone.
...nec coniugis umquam praetendi taedas aut haec in foedera ueni.(IV.337-339)
"I did not ever hold forth the torches of husband nor did I enter into this pact."
Crassly put, "I don't see any ring on your finger."
What is going on here? Scholars have enjoyed wrestling with this for centuries, and part of Vergil's genius as an author is to leave the issue unresolved. Dramatic tension is interesting. One thing these lines point out, however, is that just because you call it a marriage does not make it so. You can have all the trappings you want, but that alone does not produce a genuine marriage.