Humanizing a Monster: The Saddest Scene in Latin Literature (AP Vergil Week)

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.

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