As Book 6 begins, Aeneas, in pursuit of his’ dead father, Anchises’ invitation to visit him in the underworld, has reached Cumae on the Italian coast near modern Naples. Here there is a famous prophetic shrine to Apollo, kept by his priestess the Cumaean Sybil, and an entrance leading from Earth to the other world. The Sybil is a grim figure who rages terrifyingly when possessed by the God, and in her more composed moments provides Aeneas with invaluable knowledge and wise advice. In this extract, she utters the latest in the long series in the poem of prophecies about what the future holds for Aeneas and his Trojans in Italy: this sets the scene for the central plot lines of the second half of the poem.
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At Phoebi nondum patiens immanis in antro
bacchatur vates, magnum si pectore possit
excussisse deum ; tanto magis ille fatigat
os rabidum, fera corda domans, fingitque premendo.
ostia iamque domus patuere ingentia centum
sponte sua vatisque ferunt responsa per auras :
‘o tandem magnis pelagi defuncte periclis
(sed terrae graviora manent), in regna Lavini
Dardanidae venient (mitte hanc de pectore curam),
sed non et venisse volent. Bella, horrida bella,
et Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno.
non Simois tibi nec Xanthus nec Dorica castra
defuerint ; alius Latio iam partus Achilles,
natus et ipse dea ; nec Teucris addita Iuno
usquam aberit, cum tu supplex in rebus egenis
quas gentis Italum aut quas non oraveris urbes !
causa mali tanti coniunx iterum hospita Teucris
externique iterum thalami.
tu ne cede malis, sed contra audentior ito,
qua tua te Fortuna sinet. Via prima salutis,
quod minime reris, Graia pandetur ab urbe.’
Talibus ex adyto dictis Cumaea Sibylla
horrendas canit ambages antroque remugit,
obscuris vera involvens : ea frena furenti
concutit et stimulos sub pectore vertit Apollo.
Not yet possessed by Apollo, the seer rages wildly
in the cave as though to shake the great God from
her breast ; so much the more he tires her raving mouth,
ruling her savage heart, and moulds her with his pressure.
Now the hundred huge mouths of the house opened
of themselves and bore the seer’s response on the air:
“You are done with the great dangers of the sea (though
graver ones await you on land), the Trojans (put that
care from your heart) will come to the realm of Lavinius,
but wish they had not. Wars, dreadful wars I see, and Tiber
foaming with much blood. You will not lack
a Simois, Xanthus or Greek encampment: a second
Achilles is born in Latium, he too of a goddess, nor will
Juno anywhere turn her attentions from the Trojans,
while you, suppliant and in need, what cities or peoples
of the Italians will you not appeal to! Again the cause
of such great evil will be a foreign wife and bride-bed.
But do not surrender to misfortunes, confront them
all the more daringly, where your fortune allows you.
The first road to safety, as you will least expect,
will open via a Greek city.” In these words,the Cumaean
Sybil intones from the shrine her dread riddles
and roars from the cave, wrapping truths
in enigma; Apollo shakes the reins as she raves,
and turns his goad under her breast.