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A NOTE ON VIRGIL, AENEID 5.315-19.

Haec ubi dicta, locum capiunt, signoque repente corripiunt spatia audito limenque relinquunt, effusi nimbo similes, simul ultima signant, primus abit longeque ante omnia corpora Nisus emicat et ventis et fulminis ocior alis.

The meaning of the expression simul ultima signant in Virgil's description of the foot race in the memorial funeral games for Anchises has been controversial since ancient times. The interpretation implied by R. A. B. Mynors's Oxford text printed above is that the word simul in line 317 is a conjunction and that the expression refers to the final section of the race. The sense presumably is: `As soon as they trod the last stretch' Nisus came out in front, whereas previously the runners had all been in a bunch, pouring forth like a storm cloud from the start. This interpretation, which requires a full stop in the middle of line 317, was proposed by F. H. Sandbach(1) in response to problems generally acknowledged in the line as traditionally punctuated, that is, with a lighter pause after similes and a full stop at the end of the line--as, for example, in F. A. Hirzel's Oxford text: effusi nimbo similes: simul ultima signant. With this punctuation the last three words of the line have been taken to mean either that the runners fix their eyes on the finish, which gives a meaning to the verb which is difficult in the absence of any reference to the eyes, or that other people apart from the runners mark out the finishing line, which gives unexceptional sense to the verb but an implausible timing to the operation: it is odd indeed to leave the marking of the finish until after the race has started. These and other suggestions are discussed by Sandbach and R. D. Williams,(2) who believe that they are untenable.

While it seems to me that the criticism is correct, I think that the alternative proposed is not satisfactory, above all because this interpretation of simul ultima signant requires an immediate shift to the later stages of the race in the same line as that in which its start is being described. It is true that striking incidents happen in races in ancient poetry only towards the end of the race, but some description at least is given to the earlier part, and without it the transition seems intolerably abrupt. The words corripiunt spatia, locked as they are between signo and audito, and followed by limen relinquunt, can hardly refer to anything more than the explosive speed with which the race starts, and not to the progress of at least half of the race. Virgil undoubtedly used as a model the funeral games of Patroclus in Book 23 of the Iliad, and in both the chariot race and the foot race there the first parts, though unimportant, are given eleven lines (362-72) and nine and a half lines (758-67) respectively.(3) Moreover, the sense given to the word simul seems inappropriate to the context. Why should Nisus' move away from the rest be specified as taking place `as soon as they begin to trample the last stretch' (Sandbach)? Similar expressions occur in the Homeric competitions. In the chariot race, when the competitors were completing the final stage ([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) back to the sea, then the skill of the drivers became apparent and at once ([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) the horses ran at full stretch; then ([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) the team of Eumelus quickly got in front ... (Iliad 23.373-6). Likewise in Homer's foot race: they ran at full stretch from the start ([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]),(4) then ([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) Aias quickly got in front; but when they were completing the final stage ([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) at once (([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) Odysseus prayed ... (Iliad 23.758--68). The pattern of Virgil's race is similar in that the major interest is directed towards the final stage: they were close to the end (fere spatio extremo ... sub ipsam finem) when Nisus fell (A. 5.327-9), so certainly it could be argued that the words simul ultima signant might derive from Homer's [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. However, it should be noted that the idea of immediacy occurs in Virgil not in the adverbs accompanying the main verbs but in the conjunction introducing the temporal clause. Now, while it is reasonable to say `When they were completing the final stage, all at once ...', it is less natural to say `As soon as they trod the last stretch', for the immediacy now applies to the start of the context within which the interesting event occurs and not to the object of interest itself. When in addition to this one wonders why the verb `marked' (signant) has been selected to indicate this stage of the race, as if the footprints were a relevant factor to be taken into account, it looks as if the words simul and signant are not quite at home for the job which the new interpretation wants them to do.

With the traditional text, however, leaving aside the disputed expression simul ultima signant, Nisus gets away from the crowd at the start; then the description of the position of subsequent runners subtly implies the progress of the race until, with the mention of the fifth runner, there is already a suggestion that the race is well advanced (si plura supersint, 325), and then we are ready for the dramatic event towards the very end (iamque fere spatio extremo ... sub ipsam finem, 327-8). This seems perfect and is lost if ultima anticipates the indicators of progress. The description is similar to the start of the ship race at lines 151ff.: Gyas is the first to take the lead, then comes Cloanthus, then two ships, Pristis and Centaurus, vie with each other: et nunc Pristis habet, nunc victam praeterit ingens Centaurus ... (156-7). The description of placing introduces a sense of the ship race as an ongoing process which leads the reader up to the halfway mark. It would be a pity to lose the similar effect in the foot race, and I can only ask the reader to compare the two races in Homer and Virgil's ship race with attention to the progress of the race in order to see how the procedure attributed to Virgil in the foot race is unsatisfactory. That may always be Virgil's fault, but then again, it could be a product of the new reading.

These considerations suggest that the difficulties of the passage are not yet solved and that there is room for further discussion. It could be that the unfinished state of the text at Virgil's death has left us with a passage that never was complete, and that the traditional form, unsatisfactory as it is, represents the best his first editors could do with it. It was long ago noted by Heyne(5) that simul ultima signant may have been suggested to Virgil by Homer's [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. The likeness is so strong that I think it should be a central feature of interpretation of our passage, and almost in itself constitutes a considerable argument against Sandbach. It is, however, the whole line of Homer which is relevant, not just the one expression, for this line occurs at the beginning of both the chariot race and the foot race (Il. 23.358, 757): [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. In both races a general pattern is visible: prizes are announced, an invitation is issued, competitors are named, they assemble in line, Achilles points out the [GREEK TEXT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and the race begins. It should be noted that in this sequence the lining up for the start and the pointing out of the [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] occur in the same verse. If simul ultima signant does reflect Homer, the natural place for it to occur is after locum capiunt, linking the two actions as in Homer. It is therefore very tempting to think that Virgil may have had a similar verse, and that 315 originally ran: haec ubi dicta, locum capiunt, simul ultima signat, the last words meaning 'at the same time he designated the finishing line'. It is true that there is no explicit mention of Aeneas to match that of Achilles, but if Virgil mentally supplied dedit after dicta, the omission of the name generates no confusion, for Aeneas has just finished the speech to which haec ubi dicta (dedit) refers. In Homer the address by Achilles precedes the description of the entrants, so that Achilles needs to be named again when the narrative reaches the time for him to point out the finish, but Virgil has his competitors listed before Aeneas' address, which leads directly into the verse under consideration.

If the line appeared as I have suggested, and the passage were left incomplete at the poet's death, Varius and Tucca may have been confronted with something like this:
   haec ubi dicta, locum capiunt, simul ultima signat. 315 signoque repente
   corripiunt spatia audito limenque relinquunt 316 effusi nimbo similes. 317
   primus abit...


In such circumstances it might well appear as if line 315 had alternative endings, when a simple way to tidy the text would be to remove simul ultima signat to the end of verse 317 and close up the gaps by treating signoque repente as the true end of verse 315, while maybe at a later date signat would be changed to signant to suit the plural subject by someone who understood it to mean, perhaps, that the runners kept their eyes on the finish. It would also be possible to explain the traditional reading by a mechanical error, a scribe's eye moving down to signo instead of simul, with the consequent omission of simul ultima signat, which would before Servius' time have found its way via the margin back into the text at the obvious but incorrect place at the end of verse 317, to which it would be adapted by a change of number in the verb. This last stage is mere speculation, but at least one can see how the manuscript order might have arisen if, as the Homeric parallels strongly suggest, Virgil did actually write line 315 as above, in a section of text which is additionally marked by the presence of two unfinished lines (294 and 322) as one on which more work still needed to be done at his death.

(1) F. H. Sandbach, CR 7 (1957), 102-3.

(2) R. D. Williams P. Vergili Maronis AENEIDOS liber quintus (Oxford, 1960), pp. 105-8. Williams supports Sandbach but prefers to take simul ultima signant as meaning `As soon as they came in sight of the finish', referring to A. 2.423 (ora sono discordia signant) for signare in the sense of discernere. So also in his The Aeneid of Virgil i.419. But the reference to sound (SOHO) is important and there is nothing to correspond in 5.317; if Williams's translation is acceptable, it is hard to see why he objects to the traditional `they fix their eyes on the goal'. For this reason I treat Sandbach's translation as the proper interpretation of the text as he punctuates it.

(3) For comparable care in recording the earlier sections of a race see Stat. Theb. 6.405-68 and 593-615; Sil. It. 16.317-75 and 482-7; Quint. Smyrn. 4.194-8, 512-24, and 530-62. One case where the early stages are not mentioned is Theb. 4.638--41, but this brevity is a rerun in which no incidents of any sort occur.

(4) [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is ambiguous and is used at Od. 8.121 to indicate the start and at Il. 23.332 and 338 the turning post. Williams (p. 108 n. 2) suggests that II. 23.758 ([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] the first description of any part of the foot race, may have been understood by Virgil to mean: `They went full out once they had passed the turning point'. It is always possible that Virgil so took it, but the interpretation seems to me to be entirely unlikely, in that it would leave the Homeric race without even a start (`they stood in line and Achilles indicated the finish/turn; once they had passed the turning point ...'). Support for the more obvious interpretation may be found in Quintus Smyrnaeus, whose foot race at 4.1 85ff. is closely dependent on Homer: the two contestants come forward, [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (193) ... Eris urges them ... [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ... (195-6). It is clear that Quintus took [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as the end of the race and [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as the starting line, and the latter word is indisputably understood likewise in the chariot race (4.507) and very probably so in the horse race (4.550-51).

(5) C. G. Heyne, P. Virgilius Maro 4ii, ed. G. P. E. Wagner (London, 1832), p. 768.

M. DYSON

qaclasic@uqadm.cc.uq.edu.au University of Queensland
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Author:DYSON, M.
Publication:The Classical Quarterly
Date:Jul 1, 1998
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