Humanizing a Monster: The Saddest Scene in Latin Literature

As a high-school Latin teacher, I am tasked with guiding young minds through the world’s finest piece of propaganda literature, Vergil’s Aeneid. We read through substantial portions of the text in preparation for the AP Latin exam, but this reading is largely dictated by a syllabus of readings which do not include the part of the poem which I regard as the most emotionally affecting scene in all of Latin literature. This is the scene in which Aeneas describes his first glimpse of the cyclops Polyphemus:

“Hardly had he spoken, when we saw the pastor Polyphemus moving himself in a great mass among his flocks and seeking the well-known beach – a horrible monster, deformed, huge, whose eye had been taken. A broken pine guided his hand and firmed his step, while his woolly sheep kept him company; that was his one pleasure, the one solace in his suffering.” (Aeneid 3.655-661)

Vix ea fatus erat summo cum monte videmus
ipsum inter pecudes vasta se mole moventem
pastorem Polyphemum et litora nota petentem,
monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum.
trunca manum pinus regit et vestigia firmat;
lanigerae comitantur oves; ea sola voluptas
solamenque mali.

To be sure, Polyphemus is described as an object of horror, but lines 660-1 (ea sola voluptas solamenque mali) turn Polyphemus into an object of pity rather than revulsion. [Indeed, I think that this is intentional; throughout the poem, Ulysses is portrayed as an unequivocal villain, and Polyphemus can be read as one of his many victims here.] I made sure to include this scene on my class syllabus (though not required for the course), because I think that it is an excellent example of subtle psychological complexity on Vergil’s part. Yet, as I was discussing the scene with my students, it occurred to me that this complexity was not Vergil’s invention it all – Homer had already built this into the character of Polyphemus! In Odyssey Book IX, Odysseus is attempting to escape from Polyphemus’ cave by hiding on the underside of a ram, which is moving slowly in response to the burden. Polyphemus then addresses the ram:

“Oh gentle ram, why do you come from the cave behind the rest of the flock? You never before tarried behind the other skeep, but striding far before the others you snatched the mild blossoms, you came first to the banks of the rivers, and you ever desired first to return home in the evening. But now you are last by far. Are you worried about my eye, which that rotten bastard Noone and his awful friends took from me after wrecking my mind with wine – I do not say that he has escaped death. Would that you could be of one mind with me, and could tell me where that man has fled from my wrath. Once slain, his brain would drip through my cave here and there to the ground, and it would ease my heart from those troubles which that worthless bastard Noone gave me.” (Odyssey 9.446-460)

κριὲ πέπον, τί μοι ὧδε διὰ σπέος ἔσσυο μήλων
ὕστατος; οὔ τι πάρος γε λελειμμένος ἔρχεαι οἰῶν,
ἀλλὰ πολὺ πρῶτος νέμεαι τέρεν᾽ ἄνθεα ποίης
μακρὰ βιβάς, πρῶτος δὲ ῥοὰς ποταμῶν ἀφικάνεις,
πρῶτος δὲ σταθμόνδε λιλαίεαι ἀπονέεσθαι
ἑσπέριος: νῦν αὖτε πανύστατος. ἦ σύ γ᾽ ἄνακτος
ὀφθαλμὸν ποθέεις, τὸν ἀνὴρ κακὸς ἐξαλάωσε
σὺν λυγροῖς ἑτάροισι δαμασσάμενος φρένας οἴνῳ,
Οὖτις, ὃν οὔ πώ φημι πεφυγμένον εἶναι ὄλεθρον.
εἰ δὴ ὁμοφρονέοις ποτιφωνήεις τε γένοιο
εἰπεῖν ὅππῃ κεῖνος ἐμὸν μένος ἠλασκάζει:
τῷ κέ οἱ ἐγκέφαλός γε διὰ σπέος ἄλλυδις ἄλλῃ
θεινομένου ῥαίοιτο πρὸς οὔδεϊ, κὰδ δέ κ᾽ ἐμὸν κῆρ
λωφήσειε κακῶν, τά μοι οὐτιδανὸς πόρεν Οὖτις.

As horrifying as his earlier behavior had been, and as menacing as his threats to repaint his walls with Odysseus’ blood may sound, this speech is nevertheless given in the context of a much more deeply humanizing emotion: Polyphemus’ solicitous concern for his ram. He knows these animals, and evinces a tender regard for their well-being even in the midst of his own suffering. Indeed, this affectionate concern for his ram serves as a stark counterpoint to the actions of Odysseus, who throughout the poem shows no apparent serious regard for his companions. At no point in the poem does Odysseus show any outward emotional attachment to his men, and it is notable that even in his own tale of his sufferings, the loss of his men is primarily framed as something which happened to him. Polyphemus is thus portrayed as being, despite his monstrous qualities, a more compassionate figure than Odysseus.

Yet, putting Odyssean knavery aside, I think that the lines in the Aeneid reflect a very close reading of the Odyssey. Polyphemus tells his ram that murdering Odysseus would alleviate the sufferings in his heart (κὰδ δέ κ᾽ ἐμὸν κῆρ λωφήσειε κακῶν), but once the ram has left the cave, he is deprived of his chance at attaining this relief. Consequently, it is literally true that his flocks are now his only comfort. So, while it may appear that the phrase “that was his one pleasure, his one solace in his suffering” (ea sola voluptas solamenque mali) is included simply to heighten the pathos of the scene and underscore the humanity of even a monster like Polyphemus, it turns out that this brilliant psychological conceit is deeply rooted in a few lines of Homer.

13 thoughts on “Humanizing a Monster: The Saddest Scene in Latin Literature

    1. There’s no doubt about that, since his Eclogues were so heavily modeled on Theocritus (and indeed, may be the only instance of imitation which is better than the original!). I was about to include the Polyphemus and Galatea comparison, but it was getting late so I just posted what I had. I will probably do a second post with Theocritus and other sources.

      I wonder about the ancient claims that Homer is philodysseus; considering his position as the protagonist in the Odyssey, there really isn’t that much said explicitly in his favor. At least in terms of reception in antiquity, it seems that the tragedians read Odysseus as a villain, and regularly portray him in the worst light, where other famous Homeric knaves (Agamemnon, for example) are given more complex and even sympathetic treatment in the plays. Perhaps later generations were simply missing some of the deeper insinuation in the poem.

      I will also note that Odysseus himself is, in a real sense, responsible for his men’s death in Polyphemus’ cave; he brought them there and violated the laws of hospitality first. It’s not clear to me that Polyphemus should have been expected to act in any other way, especially given (as you point out) the way that Odysseus’ merciless slaughter of the suitors is foreshadowed and eagerly anticipated throughout the entirety of the poem.

  1. Also, I think you’re totally right that Vergil is capitalizing upon tensions already latent in the Odyssey. Even though Homer is so famously and allegedly “philodysseus”, it seems clear that we are supposed to consider to what extent Odysseus is better–or even worse–than the Cyclops. Polyphemos might eat six of Odysseus’ men, but Odysseus locks the door of his home and kills 108…

  2. A few (tangential) thoughts prompted by reading the reading.

    ‘litora nota’ (3.657) reminded me of observations by Virginia Knight (‘The Renewal of Epic’ 1995) on Circe in Argonautica 4, esp. concerning a qualification of Circe’s harbour as ‘famous’ (κλυτός, A.R. 4.661) to the effect that there ‘famous’ is not the narrator’s evaluation of the Argonauts’ perception but a signpost to the reader. It’s ‘famous’ because we’ve (potentially) been there before as readers of the Odyssey. ‘nota’ could be taken two ways (at least): comment on Polyphemus’ familiarity with the location (he’s a creature of habit) and a nod to the reader.

    The reader of the Odyssey might recall it as the setting of the memorable final exchange between Odysseus and Polyphemus; including as it does the identity reveal and the curse (Od. 9.475f.), an exposition the reader has been waiting for since Athena’s summary (1.68f.). Or, as noted already, it might remind of the shore in another text in which one habitual action (tending the flock) was replaced by other (pining for Galatea): ὁ δὲ τὰν Γαλάτειαν ἀείδων | αὐτόθ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀιόνος κατετάκετο φυκιοέσσας (‘and there on the weed-strewn shore, singing Galatea, he used to melt away,’ Theoc. 11.13-14).

    The latter is likely where my own sympathies originate. Re-readings of Odyssey 9 become complicated by a reading of Theocritus and a young Polyphemus in love, or by this Vergil passage in which you draw on the imagery of the good shepherd caring for the flock (or we could look at Metamorphoses 13 etc.). Barchiesi does a good analysis of the Theocritean and Odyssean Cyclops at the beginning of a 1993 article on Ovid: ‘Future Reflexive: Two Modes of Allusion and Ovid’s Heroides’.

    A further complication arises from the use of character-text in these accounts. Odyssey 9 is narrated by Odysseus (and to a Phaeacian audience who have ‘previous’ with Cyclopes). Aeneas narrates Aeneid 3 (and the passage is preceded by the embedded speech of Achaemenides who gives a rather negative evaluation of life as a Cyclops’ neighbour). I’m all for a nuanced Polyphemus and clearly your sympathetic reading stimulated a little mental ramble on my part – it can get very messy though!

    Last point on a dastardly Odysseus as a Cyclops himself – a good recent article on this by Tim Brelinksi in Classical Quarterly (2015) makes these connections: ‘Medon meets a Cyclops? Odyssey 22.310-80.’

  3. Thanks for the CQ article, I had not seen that yet. The following article almost makes Odysseus into a Cyclops:

    Pura Nieto Hernandez. “Back in the Cave of the Cyclops.” AJP 121.3 (2000) 345-366.

    Segal 1994, 213 also notes a similarity between the two (Charles Segal. Singers, Heroes and Gods in the Odyssey. Ithaca, 1994.)

  4. This is a great example, I think, of how Virgil frequently looks to be presenting good and evil as simply black and white on the surface, but then is actually presenting far more complex views underneath it. I always found that Pallas’s death doesn’t move me as much as Lausus’s, despite knowing Pallas better by that point. The connection of human emotion to the enemy in Mezentius’s grief I find far more moving than anything the ‘good guys’ experience in that war.

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