116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Poetry, Philosophy, and the Ivory Gate in Aeneid 6.

Robert Stoops, Western Washington University

When Virgil has Aeneas and the Sibyl exit through the gate of false or deceptive dreams, he is giving his more sophisticated readers an indication that the tour of the underworld, and more importantly, the Stoic framework of the epic should be taken with a grain of salt.


As they enter the underworld Aeneas and the Sibyl pass by a collection of insubstantial monsters and a tree laden with empty dreams. Later they exit through the ivory gate of deceptive dreams. As noted already by Servius, this framing seems to indicate that the tour of the underworld is not be taken as literally true. This is not surprising, since a poem is largely fiction. Elsewhere in the Aeneid insubstantial ghosts convey information that is valid within the poem. Venus employs deceptive appearances but gives her son accurate information. But the choice of the ivory gate does raise questions: in what sense is the underworld tour false, does it have any truth value beyond the narrative of the poem, and if the visit to the underworld is true only in a qualified sense, how far does this qualification apply to the rest of the poem?  The passage through the ivory gate should be seen as Virgil’s knowing wink to his friends, indicating that he knows what he is doing in constructing his epic. He is not asserting the truth of the description of Hades, much less of the lesson in Stoicism 101 given by Anchises.

This interpretation suggests that Virgil may not have abandoned have his Epicurean worldview, but rather adopted a Stoic framework for other reasons necessitated by the nature of his project. The Homeric epics had long been read allegorically, usually within a framework of Stoic philosophy. If Virgil wanted to write an epic to compete with Homer, that epic had to be susceptible to interpretation as philosophical allegory. Stoicism was the popular philosophy in Rome at the time, and its social/political utility for public poetry was obvious. In introducing the journey into the underworld, Virgil reminds his audience of his presence as the poet. Significantly, the poet Musaeus stands in the center of a group of benefactors gathered in Elysium and towers above the others. The poet benefits society by creating images that convey truths in non-literal ways.

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