Friday, March 19, 2021

No Mean City - Aeneas and the Fall of Troy

A dense stream of coloured rockets now began to mount from the haze among the battleships, emptying on the sky their brilliant clusters of stars and diamonds and smashed pearl snuff-boxes with a marvellous prodigality ... The very sea seemed to tremble. I had had no idea that we were so near, or that the city could be so beautiful in the mere saturnalia of a war. It had begun to swell up, to expand like some mystical rose of the darkness, and the bombardment kept it company, overflowing the mind. To our surprise we found ourselves shouting at each other. We were staring at the burning embers of Augustine's Carthage, I thought to myself, we were observing the fall of city man.

Lawrence Durrell, Clea


I never gave up; never stopped believing. I passed like flame with my men through the night, dispatching as we went a host of enemy souls to Tartarus. We thought we were on top; saving hearth and home. But numbers were against us and the Greeks in truth were pinning us down, boxing us in for a futile last stand. They pushed us back inside the palace. I looked, I saw, and the reality of our defeat was shockingly clear. The roof was shot through with holes. Fires raged everywhere. We stumbled over fallen pillars, coughing in the smoke and on our guard for walls and ceiling caving in on us. A detachment of Greeks surrounded us. We fought for our lives in Vesta's colonnade. I did what I had to do and did it well, but out of the side of my eye - in the courtyard, at the High Altar itself - I beheld foul and sacreligious deeds that cry out to Heaven for vengeance still. 

Hecuba, our Queen, sat huddled with her daughters on the Altar steps. King Priam stood beside them, donning his ancient armour. 'Do not deceive yourself, old man,' chided Hecuba. 'You cannot turn the tide. Your place is with us at this sanctuary. The gods will protect us here.' But Priam was resolute and continued to arm himself. Then the horror began. Polities, their youngest son, came sprinting into the courtyard from the opposite colonnade, mouth agape and eyes agog, for behind him was that great Greek brute Pyrrhus, savagery inscribed on every line of his bestial face. The monster flung his spear. It pierced the boy in the back of the neck and Polites fell face-down with a clatter. He twitched and writhed and then lay still, blood soaking the ground. At this, Priam threw his own spear. It was a good throw and Pyrrhus only just lifted his shield in time. But the shaft was deflected and the behemoth bore down on the King. Priam spoke quickly: 'Achilles, whom you presume to call your father, would never have committed such an impious act. He gave me the body of Hector, my eldest son, when I pleaded for it, but you have slain my youngest at my feet and at the High Altar to boot.'

These were Priam's last words. Pyrrhus ripped off the old King's helmet, grabbed him by his fleecy hair and hauled him up the steps, our sovereign slipping in his own son's blood as he was dragged along. 'Tell Achilles,' roared Pyrrhus, 'when you see him in Hades, how disappointed you are in his son. He will laugh you to scorn, for he longed for this night and fought and died to make it happen. Now despair and die.' And with that he slew Priam with his sword, stabbing him in the heart, then severing his head from his trunk. At a signal from Pyrrhus a squadron of Greeks appeared and took hold of the women and children - who were shaking in silence, too numb to scream - leading them off into the shadows. Then Pyrrhus abandoned the scene and marched out of the courtyard. I wanted to follow him and avenge this unholy slaughter, as my battle was over and I had nothing now to detain me. Our enemies lay dead at my feet. It must have been a harder fight than I had thought for I was completely alone. My own comrades too had either fallen lifeless to the ground or else slinked silently away.

I had no fear of Pyrrhus. He was a one-dimensional fighter and I had outclassed him more than once during the course of the war. I had already set off in pursuit when I saw Helen herself, lit up by the light of the Moon, kneeling in prayer in the colonnade, her back towards me, just to my left at the statue of Vesta. Her body heaved. violent sobs coursed through her, and my mind was overwhelmed with bitterness and hate. 'Now, here's a better target for revenge,' I reasoned, 'for he is just a thug and ape, a slave to his barbaric nature, while she is the source and author of  our downfall. So why in the name of justice should she return to Sparta and live the life of a Queen while our own Queen, Hecuba, is sold into slavery? No, it shall not be.'

I reached for my sword, determined to strike, but before I could touch it my mother Venus stood before me in a vision of unparalleled beauty, surpassing both Sun and stars in radiance and glory. Helen's fabled allure, even in good times, was the feeblest of flames in comparison. 'Aeneas, my son,' she said. 'Do not waste your energy on senseless vengeance. Troy is doomed. The gods decree it. You need to go home now, leave the city, and take with you your father, wife and child. I have cast a protective shield around your house but the charm will not last and the Greeks will soon arrive and the same fate which befell Priam, Hecuba and Polites will fall upon your family too. So make haste now. I will guide you.'

My blessed mother led me out of the palace and through Troy's blazing streets and squares. Dead bodies, both Greek and Trojan but mainly Trojan, lined the roads. The smell was rank. The fighting continued. I could see and hear it all around, but it was happening in small, isolated pockets now. The resistance was almost crushed. The Greeks had won and it broke my heart to witness it and not be able to change it. Twice, as we walked, a phalanx of soldiers passed by and I expected to be attacked and drawn back into the fray. But it never happened. We moved as if invisible. Despite my mother's brilliance, no-one saw us. Their eyes were held fast.

'I blame myself,' I said at length. 'I knew in my heart that there was something wrong with that horse. Signs and omens were given, yet I pushed them from my mind and now our fate is sealed.'

'Blame neither Helen nor yourself,' replied my mother. 'A strong delusion came down upon you all. It was ordained by the gods. Look, I will show you.' And she pulled back the veil which conceals from us the deeds of the immortals. I saw them at work - huge shapes of dread and awe - Minerva, flying above the city, whipping the Greeks into a frenzy of destruction; Juno, standing atop the South Tower, guiding their ships into the bay; Neptune roaring in and ripping down the defensive wall that he himself had built; and Jove watching on serenely from above, as if it was all part of his plan, something that had to happen in this and no other way.

I looked away and shook my head in sorrow and dismay. Venus clasped my hand consolingly. 'This is no mean city,' she said, 'even in its fall. But Troy is not your destiny, my son. Jove, your grandfather has declared it. You are called to sail the seas and bring to birth a city and an empire that will know no end. So make haste now. The future draws you on.'

With that she left me, and before long I found myself outside our house. There was great relief and joy when I stepped inside from both my family and the servants. But I had no time to waste. I sat down with Anchises, my father, Creusa, my wife, and Ascanius, my infant son, and urged them to join me without delay and leave their home and city. 'My mother has appeared to me,' I said. 'She told me it is not my destiny to stay ... that I must sail away and found another city ... I don't know where or how ... that I must bring you all with me.'

I stumbled over my words. My story seemed out of place - it sounded so strange in that homely, familiar place. I worried that they wouldn't believe me, though Creusa certainly did. She nodded her head vigourously as I spoke but Anchises glowered and banged his hand down on his arm-rest. 'Never,' he said. 'Never will I leave Troy. This is my home - where I was born, where I have lived and where I will die. I stood my ground the first time the city fell. I will not abandon her now. I will not turn tail and flee.'

I got down on my knees. 'But father,' I implored, 'we have to,' and I went through the story again, repeating everything the goddess had said. But he was unmoved. I was beginning to think I had done all I could and that my mother would not want me to leave without Anchises whom she had once so loved. 'I will stand outside the door,' I said to myself, 'and fight to the death to preserve my loved ones and my house.' I stood up and opened the door. 

Then Creusa said to Anchises: 'Reverend father, if you do not do as Aeneas urges then you are abandoning this little one' (she meant Ascanius) 'to death or slavery, depriving him thereby of the future Venus must have in mind for him.' There was a short silence. I surveyed the dismal scene outside. Then Creusa called out, 'Look Aeneas, look!' I turned and saw little Ascanius standing between my wife and father. Small tongues of fire were dancing and flickering around his face and hair yet they singed him not and there was no smell of burning. At first I thought they were reflections of the thousand fires engulfing Troy that night. Then I came closer and saw that they were real. I felt their heat. So must have Ascanius but the flames were a source of wonder and joy to him. He laughed and smiled, eyes twinkling in delight.

My father's eyes shone too. He leant forward in his chair. First he looked at Creusa, then at me, then at the smoking night sky behind my head. 'O most high and holy Venus,' he intoned. 'You who loved me once and bore me this son. If these darting fires are a sign that I should leave my home then send another portent that I should know beyond all doubt.' At this there came a thunder-clap that shook the house and seemed to move the very earth. But Anchises leapt straight up, as if young and vigourous again, and pointed to the door. Creusa, Ascanius and I turned to look. A ball of blue and white light streaked across the sky from right to left, a trail of golden sparks following on like a pennant in its wake. 

Now this could, I suppose, have been a flare sent from the Greek ships or some sort of rocket attack on the city. But I knew in my heart and mind that it wasn't. Whence then the thunder? Whence the instant response to my father's supplication? Like him, I took it as a sign - confirmation of everything I had seen and heard when my mother appeared to me. For though she had looked so real and her voice and bearing carried such authority, I had struggled to shake off the sense that it had been an illusion caused by the stress of the situation. But now I knew that my vision was true. I began again to have hope for the future and the loss of the city weighed less heavily on me. 

Creusa and the servants made up a basket of food and drink, while my father gathered up the icons of the Trojan gods - Apollo, Diana and Venus. 'I'll carry these,' he told me. 'Your hands are too blood-stained to hold anything sacred.' Anchises was too old to walk quickly so I bore him on my back while I took Ascanius by the hand. Creusa closed and locked the door, then we arranged with the servants that they would go one way to the rendezvous - the ruined temple of Ceres by the Eastern Gate - and we would go another. The fewer we were in number, the less conspicuous we would be. So off we went, Creusa following a pace or two behind. A knot of Greeks loomed up at one point and we had to make a detour through the alleys, so that by the time we reached the ruins the servants were already there waiting for us.

It was then that I realised that Creusa was missing. Sick with anxiety, I left my father in charge and retraced my steps back to our house. But it was already ablaze and there was no sign of Creusa anywhere. I was out of my wits with panic and fear. 'Creusa! Creusa!' I cried, not caring any more about the Greeks discovering me. They could all go to Hell. No answer came though, and I turned around to face the way I had come, not knowing what to do.

Then I saw her in front of me. 'Thank Heaven,' I exclaimed, and ran to put my arms around my her but there was nothing to hold onto save the empty air. My arms went right through her. Then I knew that the worst had happened and that what I was looking at was not the wife I had known and loved for all these years but only her shade. Then it spoke: 'Aeneas. My love. Do not mourn me overmuch, for it was fated tonight that I should stumble and fall and so depart this world. I saw your mother, as soul split from body, and she told me this and more. She said that you must spend the winter building ships in the forest high above the city. Italy is your final destiny, and you will marry again there - marry into royalty - and become the first in a never-ending line of kings.'

A horn blew far away, somewhere down by the bay, and as if in response the image of Creusa disappeared and I was left all alone in a maze of burning houses. Sorrowful beyond measure, I made my way back to the camp. When I got there I was astonished to find that twenty or thirty townsfolk had joined our little group. I had no idea how they had learned about our escape and I still don't. I had no time to ask, for from that moment on we were busy day and night following the instructions Venus had given me through the voice and image of my beloved wife. 

Dawn was breaking as I led my platoon up the winding path to the mountain-side forest. The night of horror was over. I did not realise it fully then - I would not have dared to think such a thing possible - but the time of revelations had already begun.

Adapted from Book II of Virgil's Aeneid