The Speech of Anchises

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1 Introduction

Around the midpoint of the Aeneid (6.724–751), the central epic poem of the Latin tradition, and embedded in its most overtly fictional part, the journey of Aeneas to the underworld, there is a philosophical passage of astounding beauty, which cuts through the mythical mode of the poem and lays out a grand vision of the cosmos and of the transmigration of souls. It is put into the mouth of Anchises, Aeneas’ deceased father, as an answer to the question of why souls gather in a great crowd around the river Lethe.

Neither strictly Stoic nor entirely Platonic, but in a sense both, the speech of Anchises became a locus classicus of what mainstream, non-sectarian philosophy had to teach about the cosmic god and the soul. It stands in the center of a web of intertextuality spun by ancient exegetes, which I hope to lay out on SARTRIX by and by. The most important companion text is the exegesis of Servius.

Because the speech is so beautiful, so comprehensive, and in many ways so exemplary, I have not confined myself to a straight translation, but give both a poetic and a prose version, both aiming to be both literal and literary (sections 2 and 3, respectively); then follow the Latin text as it has come down to us, and a reformatted version of the Latin which indicates all the nuances of pronunciation and poetic meter (sections 4 and 5, respectively).

My hope is that this curated version of the speech of Anchises may serve as a starting-point for readers’ deeper engagement with the philosophical and literary dimensions of Latin poetry.

2 Verse translation

First of all, heaven and earth and the tiding meadows,
(725) The moon’s candescent orb and the stars of Titan
Are sustained by a spirit within—suffused through their joints,
A mind moves the mass and commingles with the great body.
From it come humankind, animals, and the lives of birds,
And whatever beasts the sea bears under its glittering surface.
(730) Fiery is the strength and celestial the origin
Of these souls1—if only harmful bodies did not obstruct them,
Earthly sinews did not dull them, nor death-bound limbs.
Hence they come to fear and desire, grieve and delight; the heavens2
They cannot see, being shut up in gloom and a sightless dungeon.
(735) And even when one’s life, with the last daylight, has come to an end,
Still not all evil recedes from the miserable, not all and every
Ill of the body; by necessity, deep inside, there long
Fester many clots in incomprehensible ways.
For this, they’re disciplined with punishments, and for old evils,
(740) They pay their penalty: Some are on the rack, suspended
Upon the empty winds, other souls’ foul enormity
Is washed out under the vast surf, or burned away in fire.
We each undergo our own ghosts. From there, we are sent
Through wide Elysium, and some few of us reach the blessed fields,
(745) Until the long day, on the completion of a cycle of time,
Has wiped out the clotted stain, and leaves pure
The ethereal mind and the fire of simple wind.
When these have turned the wheel of a thousand years,
A god summons them all to the river Lethe3 in great force,
(750) So that, oblivious, they may behold the vaulted world above
Once more and conceive a desire to return into bodies.


1 More literally, “seeds”, or idiomatically, “sparks”.
2 More literally, “the airs”.
3 The river “Oblivion”.

3 Prose translation

This translation in prose is meant to be as different from the verse translation as possible, to show the polysemy of the Latin.

(724–725) Firstly, a spirit feeds the sky and the lands, the watery flatlands, the luminous sphere of the moon and the Titanian stars from within; (726–727) and a mind drives the whole mass, through whose limbs it is soaked, and it mixes itself with its great body.

(728–729) Hence is the origin of humans and animals, and the lives of birds, and whatever monsters the sea sustains under its marmoreal surface. (730–732) Fiery vigor and a celestial origin belong to those seeds – insofar as noxious bodies do not impede them, and terrene sinews and moribund limbs do not deaden them. (733) Hence, they fear and desire, they are pained and take joy. (733–734) And because they are locked in darkness and a blind carcer, the souls do not perceive the sky (lit. ‘airs’).

(735–738) Even when life, on the last day, has gone out, not every evil and not all corporeal afflictions entirely depart from the miserable, and many accretions must long continue to grow deep inside in strange manners. (739–740) Thus, they are tortured with punishments, and they pay the penalties for old misdeeds. (740–742) Some are racked hung up in empty winds, others’ corrupt sin is washed away under the immense sea or consumed by fire. (743) We all undergo our own respective Manes.

(743–744) Thereafter, we are guided through Elysium, and a few of us obtain those abundant fields, (745–747) until, when the period of time has been completed, the long day has taken away the accreted blot, and it has left the etherial mind, and the fire of fine air, pure: (748–751) when they have turned the wheel for a thousand years, a god calls them all forth in a great crowd to the Lethaean river, manifestly so that, without memory, they should return to the domed upper world, and conceive a desire to go back into bodies.

4 Received Latin text

The text of the Aeneid has come down in a fairly stable form, so it is not necessary to refer to a specific edition.

Principio caelum ac terras camposque liquentis¹
(725) lucentemque globum lunae Titaniaque astra
spiritus² intus alit, totamque infusa per artus³
mens⁴ agitat molem et magno se corpore⁵ miscet.
inde hominum pecudumque genus vitaeque volantum⁶
et quae marmoreo fert monstra sub aequore pontus.
(730) igneus est ollis⁷ vigor et caelestis origo
seminibus, quantum non noxia corpora tardant
terrenique hebetant artus⁸ moribundaque membra.
hinc metuunt cupiuntque, dolent gaudentque, neque auras
dispiciunt clausae tenebris et carcere caeco.
(735) quin et⁹ supremo cum lumine vita reliquit,
non tamen omne malum miseris¹⁰ nec funditus omnes
corporeae excedunt pestes, penitusque necesse est
multa diu concreta modis inolescere miris.
ergo exercentur poenis veterumque malorum
(740) supplicia expendunt: aliae panduntur inanes
suspensae ad ventos, aliis sub gurgite vasto
infectum eluitur scelus aut exuritur igni:¹¹
quisque suos patimur Manis.¹² exinde per amplum
mittimur Elysium et pauci laeta arva tenemus,
(745) donec longa dies perfecto temporis orbe
concretam exemit labem purumque relinquit
aetherium sensum¹³ atque auraï¹⁴ simplicis ignem.
has omnis,¹⁵ ubi mille rotam volvere¹⁶ per annos,
Lethaeum ad fluvium deus evocat agmine magno,
(750) scilicet immemores supera ut convexa revisant
rursus et incipiant in corpora velle reverti.

Grammatical glosses

1: liquentīs = liquentēs (
2: spīritus ( = πνεῦμα
3: artūs (
4: mēns = gr. νοῦς
5: corpus = gr. σῶμα
6: volantum = volantium (
7: ollīs = illīs (
8: artūs (
9: et = etiam
10: miserīs (
11: īgnī (
12: Manīs = Manēs (
13: sēnsus = gr. νοῦς
14: aurāī = aurae (
15: omnīs = omnēs (
16: volvēre = volvērunt (

5 Reading text

Unlike in Greek, Latin orthography does not indicate elisions (dropped sounds) or accentuation, nor (usually) vowel length. Since all this information is vital for recitation, however, I here give a modified Latin text that does indicate all these things.

Prīncípiō caêl’ àc | térrās | campôsque liquéntīs
(725) lūcentémque glóbum | lū́nae | Tītāniáqu’ástra
spī́ritus íntus álit, | tōtámqu’īnfûsa pèr ártūs
mêns ágitat môl’ èt | mágnō | sê | córpore míscet.
índ’ hóminum pecudúmque génus | vītaêque volántum
èt quaè marmóreō | fért mônstra sùb | aéquore póntus.
(730) ī́gneus ést óllīs | vígor èt | caeléstis orī́gō
sēmínibus, quàntum | nôn nóxia | córpora tárdant
terrēnîqu’hébetant | ártūs | moribundáque mémbra.
hínc métuunt cupiúntque, | dólent | gaudéntque, nèqu’aúrās
dispíciunt claúsae | ténebrīs | èt | cárcere caécō.
(735) quîn èt suprḗmō | cùm lū́mine | vîta relîquit,
nôn támen ómne málum | míserīs | nèc | fúnditus ómnēs
corpóre’ excêdunt | péstēs, | penitúsque necéss’ ést
múlta díū concrêta | módīs | inolḗscere mī́rīs.
érg’ exercéntur | poénīs | veterúmque malôrum
(740) supplíci’ expéndunt: | áliae | pandúntur inā́nēs
suspêns’ àd véntōs, | áliīs | sùb | gúrgite vā́stō
īnféct’ ēlúitur | scélus aùt | exū́ritur ī́gnī:
quísque súōs pátimur | Mā́nīs. | éxinde pèr ámplum
míttimur Ēlýsi’ èt | paúcī | laêt’ | árva tenêmus,
(745) dônec lónga díēs | perféctō | témporis órbe
concrêt’ exêmit | lâbem | pūrúmque relínquit
aethérium sêns’ àtqu’|aúrāī | símplicis ī́gnem.
hâs ómnīs, ùbi mílle | rótam | volvêre pèr ánnōs,
Lēthaê’ àd flúvium | déus ḗvocat | ágmine mágnō,
(750) scī́licet immémorēs | súper’ ùt | convéxa revī́sant
rûrsus èt incípiant | ìn córpora | vélle revértī.

Note on spelling

When a final vowel (or vowel + m) is elided, I replace the dropped letters with an apostrophe while retaining the word division, except that, because qu cannot be a final sound in Latin, I leave no space after –qu’, thus e.g. ‹cael’ ac› but ‹Titaniaqu’astra›.

Unstressed short vowels are unmarked (e.g. a) or marked with a grave accent (à) if stress might be expected, unstressed long vowels are marked with a macron (ā), short stressed vowels with an acute accent (á), long stressed vowels/diphthongs with a macron and acute (ā́) or with a circumflex (â), depending on their position. For the spelling of accents (acutes, graves and circumflexes), I have largely drawn on sources collected in Philomen Probert, Latin Grammarians on the Latin Accent: The Transformation of Greek Grammatical Thought, 2019.

Word breaks marked by ‹|› indicate caesuras (or dihaereses); see below in the key to the metrical analysis.

Metrical analysis

724: dsssds (14 syllables) penth. heph.
725: sdssds (14 syll.) penth. heph.
726: ddssds (15 syll.) penth.
727: dsssds (14 syll.) penth. heph. bucol.
728: dddsds (16 syll.) heph.
729: sdsdds (15 syll.) penth. bucol.
730: dsdsds (15 syll.) penth. heph.
731: dssdds (15 syll.) penth. bucol.
732: sdsdds (15 syll.) penth. heph.
733: dddsds (16 syll.) trit. heph.
734: dsdsds (15 syll.) penth. heph. bucol.
735: sssdds (14 syll.) penth. bucol.
736: dddsds (16 syll.) penth. heph. bucol.
737: dssd (15 syll.) penth. heph.
738: dsdd (16 syll.) trit. heph.
739: sssd (14 syll.) penth. heph.
740: dsds (15 syll.) penth. heph.
741: ssds (14 syll.) penth. heph. bucol.
742: sdds (15 syll.) penth. heph.
743: ddss (15 syll.) penth. heph.
744: ddssds (15 syll.) penth. heph. bucol.
745: sdssds (14 syll.) penth. bucol.
746: ssssds (13 syll.) penth. heph.
747: dsssds (14 syll.) bucol.
748: sddsds (15 syll.) trit. heph.
749: sdddds (16 syll.) penth. bucol.
750: dddsds (16 syll.) penth. heph.
751: ddsdds (16 syll.) penth. bucol.

Key to the metrical analysis

Dactylic hexameter has six metrical meters or feet, each either a dactylus (d), i.e. a long and two short syllables, or a spondee (s), two long syllables. Here, as usually, every line ends in ds.

penth. = penthemimeter, a caesura or word break after five half-feet (–⏔–⏔–).
trit. = katà trítos trokhaîos, a caesura after two feet and a trochaeus (–⏔–⏔–⏑).
heph. = hephthemimeter, a caesura after seven half-feet (–⏔–⏔–⏔–).
bucol. = tetrapodia bucolice, after four full feet (–⏔–⏔–⏔–⏔). This last is technically a dihaeresis, not a caesura, because it coincides with the end of a metrical foot.

– = long syllable
⏑ = short syllable
⏔ = long syllable or two shorts