We are at the point of Virgil’s Aeneid where Aeneas is on the road again. Troy was long gone, the idyllic romance with the Carthaginian queen Dido was over and he had to travel again to reach his promised land in Italy.
After their departure from Carthage, Aeneas and his people still didn’t end up in their desired destination. Instead of Italy a stormed forced them to land in Sicily again. They encountered a friendly tribe led by a fellow Trojan refugee Acestes. They happened to be in the location of the tomb of Anchises, Aeneas’ father who died there exactly a year ago. Aeneas decided that this occasion required games to be held. If we were to belive Virgil, the mythical ancestors of several well-suited Roman families took part in the games.
The Trojans and Sicilians competed in many disciplines – rowing, running, archery or boxing. Aeneas ensured that not just the winners, but all the participants who made a good effort were generously rewarded.
The programme started with a rowing contest. The race brought many interesting maneuvers. Gyas, the commander of one of the ships, threw his own helmsman into the see to take the helm himself. Sergestus, eager to win, let the ship go so fast and so wide that they ended up stuck on rocks. The first place went to Cloanthus, who possessed both sufficient rowing power and favour of Neptune, the god of the sea.
Running race was not less interesting. Nisus started the race as the fastest runner and he would have won, had he not slipped on sacrificial blood just before the finish line. Salios would take the lead at that moment, but Nisus didn’t let that happen. Against all the fair play rules he simply grabbed Salios and caused his fall. Why would he do such a thing? Because the runner that came after them, and continued to win the race, was none other than Euryalus, young and good-looking boy very dear to Nisus. Salios protested of course, but Aeneas settled the conflict by rewarding each of them.
The archers were particularly interesting to watch. Four contestants entered the competition. The goal was simple – shoot a pigeon tied to a wooden column, a mast from one of the ships. The first guy only managed to hit the column. The arrow of the second one cut the rope and freed the bird. Third one quickly reacted with an archery master’s prowess of the highest level. He swiftly shot his arrow and hit the dove in the sky. If you think that nothing could possibly top this, you are mistaken. The last participant was Acestes himself and won the competition despite the fact that there was no dove left for him to shoot. He fired his arrow anyway and is somehow burst into flames while flying. For that kind of miracle, he simply had to be awarded the first price.
The last activity on the programme was a mock battle exercise when the Trojan boys (including Aeneas’ son Iulus) rode out on horseback and performed some really impressive battle maneuvers in front of the eyes of their proud fathers. This spectacle was so successful that it stands as an inspiration for a noble tradition. In the times of late republic and in the times of the Roman empire, so-called “Troy games” were a popular pastime for the young Roman aristocracy. The likes of Cato the Younger in their teens took the role of Iulus and his friends.
But while the boys and men were enjoying themselves at the games, the women were up to no good. The goddess Juno, keen to make harm to Aeneas as always, asked Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, for her help. She was supposed to visit the Trojan women disguised as one of them and get them to burn their ships so that Aeneas wouldn’t be able to continue his journey to Italy. Although the plan seemed to work at the beginning, Iris was soon recognized as a divine being and her agenda was uncovered. On the other hand, letting the disguise disappear, she discovered that she could be very persuasive in her more natural form too and in a few more minutes a flame was consuming the ships. But while Aeneas had an enemy in Juno, he also had some powerful supporters among other gods. A rain started to fall when it was needed the most and the damage done to ships was minimal.
Nevertheless, Aeneas decided to leave some part of his followers there on Sicily in a newly established city of Acesta under the rule of Acestes. Mainly the old the sick and the women were happy to stay, while the young and strong followed Aeneas to Italy. Virgil says that it was the deceased dad Anchises who appeared in the hero’s dream and urged him to pick he bravest of his fellows to Italy. But there was one more thing that he asked his son to do – to step down to the underworld and see him in person.
Note: Dear reader, now would be a good time to admit that Virgil, a great poet as he was, was sometimes inspired heavily by his obvious role model Homer and borrowed a thing or two with great enthusiasm. The detailed description of the funeral games closely resembles the description of the funeral games in the Iliad held by Achilles to honour his deceased friend/cousin/possible lover Patroclus (Iliad Book 23). Homer clearly does such a great job establishing the golden standard of ancient sports punditry, that Virgil couldn’t resist and include a similar segment in his masterpiece as well.