Revisiting Lofty Arches: the Transmigration of Souls in Aeneid 6
By Erin Schott
As Penn professor Joseph Farrell has observed, “Vergil has always enjoyed a reputation as a poet interested in philosophical questions” (61). There is perhaps no passage in Vergil’s corpus that better exemplifies this statement than Anchises’s description of the transmigration of souls in Aeneid 6. Aeneas, visiting the Underworld to learn the destiny of Rome from his father, notices the souls in Elysium preparing to return to the land of the living. He asks his father why the souls wish for rebirth, and Anchises describes the process of transmigration. In the passage, Vergil invokes concepts from several philosophical schools, including the anima mundi of Stoicism, the imprisoned soul of Orphism, and the universal elements of Empedocles. The passage is not so much an endorsement of any particular doctrine as it is a survey of philosophies, invoked as they align with Vergil’s conception of the Underworld. Although the Aeneid has inspired countless dry questions on Latin AP tests, it is also a poem that asks deeper questions. Here, we see Vergil grappling with a problem that thinkers from ancient and modern times alike have pondered: what happens to the soul after death? The question has vexed philosophers for millennia; we have no answer for it and probably never will. But it is natural for anyone to wonder, be they a trailblazing philosopher or a confused college student, what comes next? I ask myself this question from time to time and often return to Aeneid 6. Although I do not personally believe in metempsychosis, I find something comforting in Vergil’s notion that souls forget their past experiences before they “revisit the lofty arches” of the upper world. And if I have learned anything from this Vergilian passage, it is that, in crafting our own theories of what comes next, we can use the ideas of earlier thinkers to arrive at explanations that we find satisfying.
Principio caelum ac terras camposque liquentis
lucentemque globum lunae Titaniaque astra 725
spiritus intus alit, totamque infusa per artus
mens agitat molem et magno se corpore miscet.
inde hominum pecudumque genus vitaeque volantum
et quae marmoreo fert monstra sub aequore pontus.
igneus est ollis vigor et caelestis origo 730
seminibus, quantum non noxia corpora tardant
terrenique hebetant artus moribundaque membra.
hinc metuunt cupiuntque, dolent gaudentque, neque auras
dispiciunt clausae tenebris et carcere caeco.
quin et supremo cum lumine vita reliquit, 735
non tamen omne malum miseris nec funditus omnes
corporeae excedunt pestes, penitusque necesse est
multa diu concreta modis inolescere miris.
ergo exercentur poenis veterumque malorum
supplicia expendunt: aliae panduntur inanes 740
suspensae ad ventos, aliis sub gurgite vasto
infectum eluitur scelus aut exuritur igni:
quisque suos patimur manis. exinde per amplum
mittimur Elysium et pauci laeta arva tenemus,
donec longa dies perfecto temporis orbe 745
concretam exemit labem, purumque relinquit
aetherium sensum atque aurai simplicis ignem.
has omnis, ubi mille rotam volvere per annos,
Lethaeum ad fluvium deus evocat agmine magno,
scilicet immemores supera ut convexa revisant 750
rursus, et incipiant in corpora velle reverti.
In the beginning, the inner spirit
nourishes the sky, lands, and liquid fields,
the shining globe of the moon and Titan’s stars.
The mind, melded into the limbs, stirs the whole mass
and mixes itself in the great body.
From there come the birth of men and beasts,
The lives of flying creatures and the monsters,
which the sea bears under its marble water.
Fiery is the force and celestial
the origin for all those seeds as much as
their harmful bodies do not hinder them
and earthly limbs and dying joints do not blunt them.
From this source, they fear and they desire,
they grieve and they rejoice,
and the souls enclosed in shadows and in a dark prison
do not see the air above.
And furthermore, when life leaves them on the last day,
All the vice and all the bodily diseases
do not entirely abandon the miserable souls,
And, for a long time, many hardened things must have grown within them in miraculous ways.
The souls are therefore beset with punishments and
pay the penance of old wrongs.
Some souls are exposed, suspended, to the empty winds,
and under a vast whirlpool the tainted crime
is washed away from others or burned by fire.
Each one of us suffers his own spirits.
Afterward, we are sent through esteemed Elysium
and a few of us occupy the lush fields,
until the long day has removed the hardened stain after a cycle of time has been completed
and abandons pure ethereal feeling and the fire of pure air.
And when all these souls have rolled the wheel for a thousand years,
god calls them back to the River Lethe in a great crowd so that, of course, the forgetful ones may revisit the lofty arches and begin wishing to return to their bodies.
Farrell, Joseph. “Philosophy in Vergil.” In The Philosophizing Muse: The Influence of Greek Philosophy on Roman Poetry, edited by Myrto Garanyi and David Konstan, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholarly Publishing, 2014, pp. 61-90.
Source for Latin: https://www.thelatinlibrary.com/vergil/aen6.shtml
Erin Schott (C’24) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies and English.