The Ship Of Aeneas: A Unique And Mysterious Vessel


In life and in history, there are a great many things we do not know, and will never know.  Corporeal images recede slowly into the mist:  some to return, some to glimmer faintly without revealing tangible form, and some never to be seen again.  It is the way with things.

I was given a chance to reflect on this in a tantalizing passage near the end of Procopius’s History of the Wars (VIII.22).  (Readers will be reminded that the legendary founder of the city of Rome was said to be a refugee from the Trojan War named Aeneas.  He escaped from Troy in the chaos that surrounded the fall of the city.  His wanderings are, of course, recounted in Virgil’s Aeneid).   Procopius claims to have seen the actual boat that Aeneas used to come to Latium:

Still, the Romans love their city above all the men we know, and are eager to protect all their ancestral legacy and preserve it, so that nothing of the ancient glory of Rome may be obliterated.  Even though they lived long under barbarian sway, they preserved the buildings of the city and most of its adornments, those which could withstand so long a lapse of time and such neglect through the sheer excellence of their workmanship.  Furthermore, all the memorials of the race that were still left are preserved even to this day, among them the ship of Aeneas, the founder of the city, an altogether incredible sight.  For they build a ship-house in the middle of the city on the bank of the Tiber and, depositing it there, they have preserved it from that time.

I will now explain what sort of a ship this is is, having seen it myself.  The ship has a single bank of oars and is very long, being 120 feet in length and 25 feet wide, and its height is all that it can be without becoming impossible to row.  But nowhere in the boat is there any piecing together of the timbers at all, nor are the timbers fastened together by any iron device, but all are of one piece, a thing strange and unheard of and true only, as far as we know, of this one boat.  For the keel, which is a single piece, extends from the extreme stern to the bow, gradually sinking to the middle of the ship in a remarkable way and then rising again from there properly and in due order until it stands upright and rigid.  All the heavy timbers that fit into the keel (and the poets call “oar-stays,” but other call them “shepherds”) extend each from one side all the way to the other side of the ship.  These, too, sloping down from either end, form a remarkably shapely bend in order that the ship maybe fashioned with a wide hull, whether nature originally carved out the timbers and fashioned this arch according to the needs of their use, or the sweep of the ribs was properly adjusted by craftsmen’s skill and other devices.

Each plan, furthermore, extends from the very stem to the other end of the ship, being of one piece and pierced by iron spikes for this purpose, that by being fastened to the timbers they may form the side of the ship.  This ship thus constructed makes an impression when seen that transcends all description, for the nature of artifice always makes those works which are most cunningly built not easy for men to describe, but by means of innovations so prevails over our usual habits of mind as to defeat even our power of speech.  None of the timbers has either rotted or given the least indication of being unsound, but the ship, intact throughout, just as if newly built by the hand of the builder, whoever he was, has preserved its strength in a marvelous way even to my time.

Is this true, or is Procopius mistaken?  Editor Anthony Kaldellis notes in a footnote that no other writer has ever said anything about the “ship of Aeneas.” If this was the actual vessel, it would have been almost a thousands years old by the time Procopius saw it.  This is not impossible, of course; Viking ships exist today that are much older than that.  But it is odd that no other ancient writer saw fit to mention this relic.

The editor refers us to few verses of the Aeneid (IX.85) that allude to the wood of Trojan ship construction:

Pinea silva mihi multos dilecta per annos,

lucus in arce fuit summa, quo sacra ferebant,

(“A sacred grove was at the mountain’s peak where they brought me ritual offerings, a pine forest dear to me for many years…”).  This reference does not help us much, but it is all we have.  We know nothing more of the ship of Aeneas.  Studies show that pine is a durable wood; if it was treated with pitch, it might have lasted a very long time.  This is a topic deserving of serious study by someone with a specialized knowledge of ancient Mediterranean ship design and construction.  (Anyone with information on this topic is requested to contact me).

Was Procopius carried away by his enthusiasm, or tricked by some ambitious local tour-guide?  (Herodotus was also played by cunning Egyptians who fed him tall-tales about the construction of the pyramids.)  We do not know.  The truth flashes before our eyes, and then recedes into the mist.