Castaways in the Classical World

Homer, Virgil and Ovid

The stories of Aeneas in the Aeneid and Odysseus in the Odyssey are full of wanderings by sea. Aeneas can’t go home because Troy has been destroyed, and his destiny is to found Rome; Odysseus struggles for ten years to get home to Ithaca. In the course of their wanderings both heroes, and their companions, make a series of landfalls on remote and (usually) unknown islands. The islands are most often inhabited already, and this makes a big difference from modern (Defoe to the present) castaway stories. There’s the possibility of a rest, or a sojourn, for these seafarers, but Aeneas and Odysseus have a set final destination already. Settlement on the island cannot result, and anyway it is usually already inhabited. The excitement of the narrative lies in the fact that the seafarers’ reception by the inhabitants may be hostile, even horrible, or it may be hospitable, even seductive – or perhaps a combination of the two, as happens on the island of Circe, who turns Odysseus’s men into beasts (pigs), but then is forced by Odysseus to turn them back into men, and spends a couple of years with him as her lover.

These island visitations in the classical epics are not – with an exception to be discussed later – castaway stories. They are stories of civilization and savagery and how you can’t tell the difference, and in that general respect they do resemble many castaway stories. But here a list will have to suffice before we discuss a castaway story that is to be met with, in Virgil and in Ovid, the story of Achaemenides: Odysseus and the Laestrygonians (violent, but Odysseus began by plundering them); the Lotos Eaters (dangerously relaxing); Circe (dangerous, magical, seductive); Calypso (seductive; detains Odysseus for some years); Scylla and Charybdis (female like many others of these islanders; very dangerous; no chance of staying except as a corpse); and finally on this list, the Cyclops, Polyphemus (giant, solitary, primitive, cannibalistic). An intermediate case is Phaiakia, the island of Alcinous, Odysseus’s last island stop before he reaches his own island, Ithaca, and Penelope. The Phaiakians are hospitable, and refined; the princess Nausicaa whom Odysseus encounters when he lands after his raft is wrecked, can be grouped with other seductive women on islands, such as Circe and Calypso, but mainly by way of contrast, because the attraction that she and Odysseus feel for each other is human and not magical. Odysseus is naked and battered by the sea when he lands of Phakaia, but the place is civilised and hospitable. All these island encounters happen to Odysseus (and his men, while they are still alive), and all but the last are recounted by Odysseus at the court of Alcinous.

Aeneas retraces the wanderings of Odysseus, but with a difference. Odysseus leaves civilization soon after leaving Troy, and doesn’t rejoin it till he reaches the island of Alcinous. In the Odyssey the region of islands and monsters is separate from civilization. In the Aeneid region the region of monsters is mixed with that of settlement and Aeneas encounters monsters while trying to found a city. He recounts his adventures in book III of the Aeneid. His first try, ‘Aenea’, not far from Troy, is disrupted when the corpse of the murdered Polydorus begins to bleed and cry out while he is sacrificing. The Trojans move on and try a settlement on Crete, ‘Pergamea’, only for plague and crop failure to follow. Now they will make for Italy, but they have to avoid Greek islands, including Ithaca, and the many Greek colonies in eastern Italy. They avoid Scylla and Charybdis, about whom they were warned, though the dangers of these monsters are graphically described; they are attacked by the harpies, yet another group of female monsters, half-women, half-birds, malign and vile, though this attack happens after Aeneas’s men have plundered the harpies’ livestock, somewhat as Odysseus and his men made free with Polyphemus’s stores while he was out. Sicily has been colonised by the Greeks too, but in the grim region of Mount Etna the Trojans encounter the aftermath of Odysseus’s visit, and a castaway.

Eventually, after a disastrous storm, Aeneas lands in Libya, enjoys the hospitality of Dido and the Carthaginians, recounts his adventures to them, and tears himself away from Dido after falling in love with her – a departure, or abandonment, that leads to her passionate suicide. Virgil is following and varying Homer, and Carthage is roughly equivalent to Phaiakia, Dido to Nausicaa, though this time the story is much more intense and the outcome much more painful, as befits the fact that the Aeneid is seriously interested in the task of founding a city. (Dido is already founding a city, Carthage: hence the irony of Aeneas leaving her, at the gods’ command, to found Rome.)

Aeneas is much more dutiful and less inclined to adventure and distraction than is Odysseus. Religious duties – prayer, sacrifice, are often mentioned, as are prophecies and oracles: a total of twenty instances in book III by my count. Most of the decisions in book III are made by his father Anchises, and for much of the narrative Aeneas talks of what ‘we’ did or met with, rather than using the first person. This is the case with the Cyclops episode.

It is the Cyclops episode that produces a castaway tale in the Aeneid; this is later retold in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The equivalent episode in the Odyssey is dramatic, bloody, and complicated. Polyphemus (this being the name of an individual Cyclops) traps Odysseus and a dozen of his men in his cave and gruesomely eats some of them, but they are there because they have been eating his cheeses. This complicates – if no more – Polyphemus’s horrible, cannibalistic and crude violation of the rules of hospitality. Odysseus’s cunning and toughness is vivid in their escape: he tells Polyphemus his name is ‘Nobody’; he makes him drunk (he has prudently or luckily brought some strong wine with him); he waits till Polyphemus has removed the huge boulder blocking the entrance to his cave (no one else could have lifted it, and had they killed him once the wine had put him into a drunken sleep they would all have remained trapped), and only then attacks him, though the delay leads to several more men being eaten. Odysseus and his men then bore out the Cyclops’s single eye with a sharpened pole; and at last, the boulder removed and Polyphemus blinded, he and his men fasten themselves in hiding under Polyphemus’s sheep and manage to exit the cave. Then, when he thinks their departing ships are far enough away from land, Odysseus taunts Polyphemus – who had yelled to his fellows that ‘Nobody’ was attacking him – with his real name; whereupon Polyphemus endangers the ships by throwing boulders, and, what will have a much worse consequence, curses the man whose name he now knows to his father Poseidon, who will whip up a storm that will drown all but Odysseus. The contrast between the clever Odysseus and the loutish, brutal Polyphemus remains, but is not absolute, because Polyphemus is pathetic in his blinded aloneness and Odysseus is foolhardy in his boasting. Further, Homer had told us of Polyphemus’s neat arrangement of his sheep fold and his care for his sheep (‘A practiced job/He made of it’), and – strikingly – the drilling out of Polyphemus’s eye is not only gruesome but is imaged as a piece of work:

Turning it as a shipwright turns a drill

in planking, having men below to swing

the two-handled strap that spins it in the groove.

This emphasis on the practical and on work is characteristic of Homer, and links Polyphemus and Odysseus for all that they are in such contrast.

Aeneas arrives in the aftermath of this blood-stained story, in which the horribleness of Polyphemus’s cannibalism (given in detail) is revenged by the horribleness of the boring out of his eye (given in ferocious detail), and Odysseus’s cunning and toughness (the fake name, the strong wine, the blinding, the trick with the sheep) is almost outdone by his unwise boasting. The contrast of civilized and savage which underlies the story (and is brought out, for instance, in the account of the Cyclopes’ savage, solitary way of life, without community, laws, agriculture, and so on) is undermined in this violence. That may well be the point. It is something that haunts both the Iliad and the Odyssey – the times when civilization gives way to atrocity and extreme bloodshed. This happens again at the end of the Odyssey, when Odysseus’s slaughter of the suitors (and the servants and maids who collaborated or slept with them) contends in our response with the joy of his reunion at last with Penelope. Penelope has been heroic in her restraint, and we might wonder at how much

Odysseus’s heroism is involved with unrestraint, given this slaughter.

The castaway in Virgil’s revisiting of the Cyclops story is Achaemenides. Achaemenides was one of Odysseus’s men trapped in the cave, experiencing the full horror of what happened there, but he was overlooked, left behind as Odysseus sailed away, and then condemned to a terrified skulking existence in a wilderness roamed by vengeful Cyclopes. (Not just Polyphemus, but a hundred others.) By the time Aeneas arrives on the coast he is starving and in rags. He seems barely human – the text doesn’t say ‘we saw a man’, but ‘nova forma viri ignoti’ (literally, ‘the new form of an unknown man’). Yet in almost the same breath we are told that he is Greek. He appeals to the Trojans to take him away from this horrible place, even if they then throw him overboard:

Si pereo, hominum manibus periisse iuvabit

(‘If I must die, at least I’ll have died at the hands of humans’)

But he is Greek, and Greeks do not figure well in the Aeneid. The Greeks took Troy by treachery and trickery, using the wooden horse, and then massacred or enslaved the inhabitants. We have just had Aeneas’s account of all this (in book II). The Greek who persuaded the Trojans to take the wooden horse (with its hidden warriors, including Odysseus, called Ulixes in Latin) into the city was Sinon. He came to them as a hapless fugitive, seemingly, with a tale of his mistreatment by his fellow countryman – Ulysses was prominent in this fiction, which helps to make it credible, because in the Aeneid he is usually seen as cunning and ‘dirus’ (harsh). Out of generosity as well as gullibility, the Trojans accepted and believed Sinon. Achaemenides’s speech now to Aeneas and his men has similarities to Sinon’s speech to the Trojans that led to the fall and destruction of their city, and in fact Virgil reuses some of the same lines. The precedent for being kind to Greeks is not good. Achaemenides hesitated when he saw the Trojan ship, and then kept running; Anchises, who takes the lead among the Trojans, also hesitates (‘haud multa moratus’ – after not much delay). Achaemenides has a difficult job – he has to persuade the Trojans to help him, yet admit that he is Greek. A stranger asking for hospitality or help has to say his name and where he is from – hence the irony of Odysseus saying his name is ‘Nobody’ – and in doing this Achaemenides has to say he is a Greek from Ithaca. The negotiation is a subtle one. Achaemenides will go on to describe Polyphemus’s blood spattered den and how he witnessed his companions being eaten after their brains have been bashed out. This fits what we know of Polyphemus from Homer, but it is true that Achaemenides has every reason to emphasise to the Trojans how ghastly Polyphemus is. When Polyphemus is actually seen a little later he is a giant but pathetic figure. Anyway, humanity overcomes enmity and lingering memories of Greek treachery and the Trojans accept Achaemenides. The first encounter of strangers is always tense in Homer and Virgil, especially when one is wild (the unkempt, half-naked Acheamenides here, or the naked Odysseus encountering Nausicaa on the island of Alcinous) or monstrous; but even encounters between civilized stangers have this quality. We have just seen the meeting of Aeneas and Dido, which began the poem in the order of its telling in book I: Aeneas, hidden by Venus in a kind of mist, hesitates to reveal himself to Dido, though they are in a temple, in the civilized city that Dido is founding, and she and the Carthaginians have already been welcoming to others of Aeneas’s party.

[As is typical of the Aeneid in comparison to the Odyssey, the Achaemenides incident is a bit less exciting than the encounter with Polyphemus in Homer – we lack the cunning and the imprudence of Odysseus – but more politically serious, with its implications for the enmity of Greeks and Trojans. The classical Greeks and Romans were colonisers and founders of cities, and this experience colours the Aeneid. The destruction of Troy was recounted not long before in the Aeneid, and the whole bent of the rest of the poem is that this destruction of a great city must and will be redressed by the founding of Rome, a fated event and a task that has been imposed on Aeneas. How the inhabitants in place respond to the coming of the Trojans to Italy will be the subject of the second half of the poem. The notion of settling uninhabited territory such as a desert island doesn’t figure in either poem. (In Homer, the Greeks in fact land first on an uninhabited island, with plenty of goats on it, just off the coast; it is at this point that we are given an account of the Cyclopes, how uncivilized they are; but Odysseus is not content with this island and its goats, he wants to see the Cyclopes for himself, and the adventure with Polyphemus follows.)

Achaemenides tells the Trojans his name and origins (he went as a soldier to Troy because he was poor), and only then gives the horror of his experience: the inside of the cave filthy with Polyphemus’s bloody feasts:

Visceribus miserorum et sanguine vescitur atro

(‘the flesh and dark blood of wretched human victims’)

— as if Polyphemus is habitually an insensate cannibal, which is not the impression you get from Homer.

Achaemenides then tells how he personally saw Polyphemus eat two of his comrades, bashing them against the rock first, but consuming the still trembling limbs. After this we get a brief account of the blinding of Polyphemus, no detail on how the surviving Greeks got out of the cave, and then Achaemenides’s sudden exclamation to the Trojans:

Sed fugite, o miseri, fugite atque ab litore funem rumpite.

(Fitzgerald’s translation here is closer to the original:

As for yourselves,

Put out to sea, put out to sea, poor fellows;

Break your hawsers!)

As the text continues, the Greeks don’t flee yet, but we may associate this warning by Achaemenides with the series of prophecies and dreams that have punctuated book III of the Aeneid, all of them telling the Trojans to move on, or to flee.

Now we have Achaemenides’s account of his time as a castaway, starving, eating berries that are stony (‘lapidosa’), skulking to avoid the fearsome tribe of Cyclopes – at which point in his narrative Polyphemus himself comes into the view of Achaemenides and the Trojans, huge, grotesque, blinded – both monstrous and pathetic – he talks to his favourite ram – he washes his empty eye socket – and then the tribe of Cyclopes gathers, like a wood of the tallest trees. This image of the tribe of Cyclopes as being like tall trees begins a kind of diminuendo. In this image the Cyclopes are seen from a distance, as a phenomenon of nature, not as gruesome. Now the Trojans take to the sea, silently (‘taciti’, in contrast to Odysseus’s boasting); Polyphemus senses or hears them anyway, but can do nothing but utter a huge bellow which causes the land itself, including Mount Etna, to bellow in response. The Trojans take Achaemenides with them, though they have evidently left in some disorder, given that they try to be silent but make a noise, and at first head in the wrong direction, back towards Scylla and Charybdis.

The Cyclops episode in the Aeneid contrasts civilization (the subtleties of the exchanges between Achaemenides and the Trojans; the generosity of the Trojans in accepting the Greek castaway), and savagery (the horrible cannibalism and unchained woe of Polyphemus). Achaemenides is the conduit for our and the Trojans’ perception of Polyphemus’s savagery – the Trojans only see him and the other Cyclopes at the end of the episode, and are not involved in the suffering and retaliation and cunning inside the cave as were Odysseus and his men. Achaemenides is reduced to fear and wretchedness, if not savagery, but is still able to make an eloquent (and honest) plea to the Trojans, and to warn them of danger (‘sed fugite, o miseri’). Later as they sail down the Sicilian coast he tells them the names of the places he had already seen in his journey with Odysseus (more diminuendo; and again these are Greek colonies, cities indeed). Book III modulates into topographical poetry. Achaemenides is left behind somewhere (so we assume), and the Trojans’ wanderings continue.

The element of empathy in Achaemenides is prominent in Ovid’s rendition of the story in book XIV of the Metamorphoses. This time we will glimpse what Achaemenides must have felt when his comrades forgot him, which is passed over in Virgil. The story in Ovid’s hands becomes one of horror, suffering and pity: feeling. Achaemenides recalls his ‘terror’, ‘timor’, ‘horror’, ‘tremor’; he uses timere (to be afraid) and ‘pertimere’ (to be very afraid), and ‘tremescere’ (to begin to shake). The contrast of savagery and civilization is less important in this rendition. Ovid is a poet of blendings not distinctions. The Cyclops is a brutal cannibal, inhuman, but humans in Ovid are themselves creatures of feeling and libido, and this poet is a lot less interested in what makes for order and rule. The encounter of Achaemenides and the Trojans is not really dramatized.

At this point in the Metamorphoses, Ovid is giving us incidents from Aeneas’s adventures, without really aiming at a consecutive narrative, and interrupting with various stories of metamorphoses which occur to him in passing, for instance in connection with Circe, where an account of the experience of Odysseus’s men (turned into pigs, then back into men) segues into an account of Circe’s desire for the beautiful boy Picus, turned into a woodpecker when he refuses her. In Ovid the culmination of the story of Aeneas is his becoming a god, helped by Venus. The settlement in Italy that will lead to foundation of Rome is mentioned, but without much force. After the story of Achaemenides we in fact go back to Odysseus’s adventures (the island of Circe).

Ovid’s retelling begins in the text when Achaemenides arrives in Italy, ‘iam suus’ (‘quite himself again’, in Horace Gregory’s translation) – in contrast to the ‘in medias res’ effect in Virgil when an unknown almost not-human individual suddenly appears to the Trojans. He tells his story to an old comrade, a certain Macareus, also one of Odysseus’s men. (Macareus is friendly, but feels no need to apologise for leaving Achaemenides in Polyphemus’s den.)

Achaemenides story is full of feeling – first, unqualified gratitude to Aeneas for rescuing him – with an implicit contrast to how his own comrades forgot him (he says, ‘possimne ingratus et immemor esse?’ ‘How could I forget or be ungrateful [to Aeneas]?’). Then, the memory of what he felt when he was marooned:

quid mihi tunc animi (nisi si timor abstulit omnem

sensum animumque) fuit, cum vos petere alta relictus

aequora conspexi? Volui inclamare, sed hosti

prodere me timui.

What were my feelings, then (if fear had not robbed me of all sense and feeling), abandoned, seeing you making for the open sea? I wanted to shout to you, but feared to reveal myself to the enemy.

(How did I feel (fear took my senses) when

(Myself deserted) as I saw you sail –

Your ship take wings to steer the open seas?

I yearned to shout, to call you back, to save me,

And yet I feared the blinded Cyclops more.)

His repression of his urge to cry out to his comrades contrasts with Odysseus’s shout to Polyphemus, which Achaemenides mentions next:

vestrae quoque clamor Ulixis
paene rati nocuit.

(Ulysses’ shouting almost wrecked your ship.)

‘Clamor’ contrasts with ‘volui inclamare’.

When the Cyclops heaves huge rocks at the departing ship Achaemenides again expresses empathy:

et, ne deprimeret fluctus ventusve carinam,

pertimui, iam me oblitus in illa

and, forgetting I was not on board the ship, I was terrified that the waves and air they displaced would sink her.

(I, forgetting

That I was not on board, sweated in fear

His storm of falling granite, stones, and clay

Would shake the waves until the ship went down.)

This story of his feelings, working back as it were from his rescue, only now gets to the fearful threat of the Cyclops (‘his dead eye’ – ‘inanem luminis orbem’), and to the scene of the Cyclops eating Achaemenides’s comrades, even more detailed and gruesome in this telling:

visceraque et carnes cumque albis ossa medullis
semianimesque artus avidam condebat in alvum;
me tremor invasit: stabam sine sanguine maestus,
mandentemque videns eiectantemque cruentas

he filled his greedy jaws with flesh and entrails, bones full of white marrow, and warm limbs. Trembling seized me: I stood there, pale and downcast, watching him chew and spit out his bloody feast, vomiting up lumps of matter, mixed with wine.

(He sucked the marrow of their bones, their tender vitals.

Warm limbs, fresh blood. And as I saw him eat,

Working his jaws, spitting the bones away,

Or belching out the rest, I took a chill,

Terror in my bones.)

After this, his narrative of his time hiding and starving, the appearance of a ship and his successful appeal is brief, but very compressed and vigorous:

… mortemque timens cupidusque moriri
glande famem pellens et mixta frondibus herba
solus inops exspes leto poenaeque relictus
… et movi: Graiumque ratis Troiana recepit!

trembling at every sound, scared of dying but longing to be dead, staving off hunger with acorns, and a mixture of leaves and grasses, alone, without help or hope, left to torture and death. … and

a Trojan ship received a Greek!

(I caught a fear of death, yet welcomed it,

And at odd hours starved on grass, leaves, acorns,

Until …

…I seemed to move them and a Trojan ship

Then took a Greek on board.)

There’s no detail on what he said to the Trojans or how they decided to accept him. We are closer to the genre of horror, the sensational traumatic experience coming out of a clear sky, and we are further from the consideration of civilization and savagery, and the savagery in civilization, as in the boring out of Polyphemus’s eye in Homer, or the atrocities and brutalities of the fall of Troy in book II of the Aeneid. Achaemenides is no longer a stranger to be welcomed back into humanity after his ordeal, even though an enemy, but a civilized man (‘quite himself again’) recounting a horrible past experience, a vessel of feeling about himself and others. He moves on to ask Macareus about his experiences, and Macareus in turn tells the story of Circe and Odysseus’s men.


Thanks to Ewan Coffey for illuminating discussions of Virgil.

1 They sail past Ithaca, ‘et terram altricem saevi exsecramur Ulixi’ (cursing the land that bred cruel Ulysses).

2 Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Odyssey, 1961,

3 ‘a strange individual,/ A man unknown to us’ is C. Day Lewis’s translation. The translations in brackets are all from C. Day Lewis’s version of the Aeneid (1952). That by Robert Fitzgerald is also good (1981).

4 See 3.602-3 (Achaemenides) and 2.77f. (Sinon); 3.608-9 and 2.74f.; 3.610f. and 2.146f.. The parallels are noted by R. Deryck Williams his edition of the Aeneid books I to VI, pp.319-322.

5 Virgil’s repetitions are pointed: Achaemenides is calling the Trojans ‘miseri’ as he was described as ‘miserandaque cultu’ when first sighted.

6 The text has Polyphemus responding to ‘sonitum vocis’ (literally, ‘sound of voice’} – so how could they have been silent? This bothers the editors and translators; Day Lewis has ‘stealthily’ for ‘taciti’; Fitzgerald has ‘in dead silence’ and then ‘he heard the splash [of the oars]’. In any case, the contrast with Odysseus is clear enough.

7 Quotations here and below are from A. S. Kline’s and then Horace Gregory’s translations of the Metamorphoses. Kline is much more accurate; Gregory has the advantage of being in verse.

8 The passage is not quite as compressed as Gregory’s verse translation makes out, because he overlooks the best line: ‘solus inops exspes leto poenaeque relictus’.