Una salus victis, nullam sperare salutem.
A Latin phrase, orphaned from context: the darling of tattoo artists, graduation speeches, and bumper stickers. This one, though, is a little obscure.
It’s from Book II of the Aeneid, when Aeneas recounts for Dido the fall of Troy. It is a story of refugees, a multigenerational family forced to flee their war-torn home and seek shelter in a new land. It is a story all too familiar to us, retold in different iterations across the annals of time.
But before Aeneas shoulders his aged father and takes his little son’s hand, before he loses his wife in the flames and leads the survivors of Troy to found what would become Rome, he says this line. Literally translated, it reads: The only safety for those conquered is to hope for no safety at all.
Salus, like most Latin words, carries many meanings. It can mean entire or whole, as in the notion of safe and sound. It can mean health and prosperity, preservation and deliverance. It encompasses in a word all that is right with the world. Yet Aeneas uses this word not in a speech of hope, but one of despair. He tells Dido how he has rushed out to find his homeland in flames, knowing all is lost. He has come upon a band of Trojan soldiers, and it is with this line that he stirs them to one last act of heroism. He tells them, in effect, they have nothing more to lose. In that blackest absence of salus, the inversion of the rightness of the world, they find the fuel to light their way.
It is a dark, ugly fuel; not the clean-burning kind. It is also not limited to victims of war, famine, or the countless other horrors to which we have become so numbingly inured. Perhaps it is precisely this normalization of disaster that primes us to so readily accept the reversal of salus, to feel so comfortable finding sanctuary in despair.
There is a certain attractiveness to losing all hope. At least, then, we have hit rock bottom. Once we have accepted this, nothing is off limits. We are absolutely free – to do nothing, to do the wrong thing, to follow Aeneas into the heart of a dying city. We can lash out unrestrained at those around us, where propriety might have held us in check when the world was still right. We can push ourselves well past our limits, foot pressing harder on a real or imagined gas pedal. We can self-destruct.
The soldiers Aeneas inspires with his words die. He would have, too, had he remained in that mad sanctum of chaos. What saves him? It begins with, of all things, a murder. Aeneas sees King Priam gruesomely slain while clinging to an altar, mere moments after the killer murders one of the king’s children before his eyes. It is not the horror of this act that shocks Aeneas out of his trance, but the reminder that he, in fact, does have something left to lose – his own father, his own child. It is enough to fill him with fear, and fear is but the other face of hope.
There is more to the story: a goddess mother, for one, who clucks her tongue and tells her son to snap out of his blind madness. We ordinary folk have no such luxuries. But we do have people who try to call us back to the world – as Venus does Aeneas – who do their best to remind us that our pain is only a part of a greater whole. In the end, Aeneas steps out of his sanctuary of despair and remembers how to hope.
I used to read this line differently. It was a rallying cry, my invisible tattoo to proudly brandish on my 30th hour of call. The more fires there were around me – coding patients, complex cases, challenging colleagues – the louder I heard Aeneas’s battle cry. I tapped into that tarry fuel of despair to keep me going when I was running on fumes.
It took a cross-country move during a pandemic to grant me the distance needed to see how close I was to burning out. Now when I read the Aeneid again, I see in my favorite line a warning. When there is no salus and the world is not all right, when we are stretched past our breaking point, when we are utterly conquered – that is when despair is most tempting. It is much harder work to hope. Hope may make us vulnerable, expose us to the dangers of failure or disappointment; it is no sanctuary. But without it, we can’t solve, repair or heal. We can only run into the fire.
Elizabeth Koch is an anesthesiologist in Buffalo, NY. She completed residency at Stanford University and medical school at the University of Michigan. As an undergraduate, she double-majored in Classical Languages and Literatures and Biomedical Sciences.