The Dubious Legend of Virgil's Pet Fly

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bust: Hulton Archive, Getty. Fly: iStock
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bust: Hulton Archive, Getty. Fly: iStock

Here at Mental Floss, we come across a lot of "facts" that, upon further examination, don’t hold up. Like, did Benjamin Franklin invent the concept of Daylight Saving Time? Not really. (Several ancient cultures seasonally adjusted their clocks, and Franklin only jokingly pondered having people wake up earlier. The modern version was proposed in 1895 by George Hudson, an entomologist who wanted extra daylight so he could collect more insects.) Do sea cucumbers eat through their anuses? Some, but not all. (One species, P. californicus, uses its backdoor as a second mouth.)

Other facts have been trickier to debunk because the historical record was being snarky or sarcastic: Was Amerigo Vespucci, for whom America is likely named, a measly pickle merchant? (Ralph Waldo Emerson said so, but he was probably being snide.) Did people in 16th century France wipe their butts with geese? (A quotation from François Rabelais's comic series of novels Gargantua and Pantagruel has been confused as evidence, but Rabelais was a bawdy satirist.)

Yet one of our favorite dubious fun facts—a Trojan Horse that has snuck into a handful of trivia books—concerns Virgil, the Roman poet and author of the Aeneid. The story goes that Virgil had a pet housefly, and when the insect died, Virgil spent 800,000 sesterces—nearly all of his net worth—for an extravagant funeral. Celebrities swarmed the poet’s home. Professional mourners wailed. An orchestra performed a lament. Virgil drafted verses to celebrate the fly’s memory. After the service, the bug’s body was ceremoniously deposited in a mausoleum the poet had built on his estate.

Virgil wasn’t losing it: It was all a scheme to keep the government’s fingers off his land. At the time (and this part is true), Rome was seizing private property and awarding it to war veterans. According to legend, Virgil knew the government couldn’t touch his property if his estate contained a tomb, so he quickly built a mausoleum, found an arthropod occupant, and rescued his house.

It’s a great story! It’s also unsubstantiated. None of Virgil’s contemporaries mention the poet throwing a lavish funeral—especially one for a housefly. The story probably has roots in an old poem that’s been (incorrectly) attributed to the poet called "The Culex." In the poem, a fly (or, depending on your translation, a spider or gnat) wakes up a man just as a snake is lurking nearby. The man kills both the insect and serpent, but soon regrets killing his winged protector. He builds the bug a marble headstone with this epitaph:

O Tiny gnat, the keeper of the flocks
Doth pay to thee, deserving such a thing
The duty of a ceremonial tomb
In payment for the gift of life to him.

Most scholars don’t believe that Virgil wrote "The Culex." But as Sara P. Muskat, a research assistant at the University of Pittsburgh during the 1930s, wrote in a short essay, Virgil was regularly the subject of this kind of mythmaking. Shortly after his death, people in his hometown of Naples alleged he was the founder of the city. (He wasn’t.) Others claimed he had been the city’s governor. (He hadn’t.) By the Middle Ages, Virgil was depicted as a magician or dark wizard who could communicate with the dead. (He couldn't.)

“There is then no evidence, ancient or medieval, that I can find to support the story that Vergil had a pet fly and gave it an elaborate funeral,” Muskat writes. “It seems quite inconsistent with Vergil’s usual behavior, and may indicate that the period of myth-making about Vergil has not yet closed.”

Like our friendly imaginary fly, perhaps it’s time for this factoid to bite the dust, too.

Werner Doehner, the Last Survivor of the Hindenburg, Has Died at 90

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Hindenburg disaster signaled the end of the Airship Era and the rise of Nazi Germany. As The New York Times reports, Werner G. Doehner, the last surviving passenger of the historic crash, died on November 8 at age 90.

Doehner was just 8 years old when he boarded the Hindenburg with his father, mother, brother, and sister in early May 1937. The family made up five of the 97 passengers and crew members who took the three-day flight from Germany to the United States.

In New Jersey, the German airship's voyage was cut short: It erupted into a ball of flame during its descent, an accident that likely resulted from static electricity igniting a hydrogen leak. Werner Doehner spent several months in a hospital with severe burns on his arms, legs, and face. His father and sister were among the 36 people who perished in the tragedy.

Doehner went on to live a long life. After the disaster, he returned with his surviving family to Mexico City, the place were he grew up. He continued to live there with his wife Elin and his son Bernie until 1984, when he moved to the United States with his family to work as an engineer for General Electric. Bernie Doehner shared that his father didn't like to talk about his memories of the Hindenburg disaster—though they did make a solemn visit to the site of the crash when Bernie was an adolescent.

Werner Doehner died of complications related to pneumonia earlier this month in Laconia, New Hampshire. He had been the youngest passenger on board the Hindeburg's final voyage, and at age 90, he was the last remaining survivor.

[h/t The New York Times]

61 Festive Facts About Thanksgiving

jenifoto/iStock via Getty Images
jenifoto/iStock via Getty Images

From the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to back-to-back NFL games, there are certain Thanksgiving traditions that you’re probably familiar with, even if your own celebration doesn’t necessarily include them. But how much do you really know about the high-calorie holiday?

To give you a crash course on the history of Thanksgiving and everything we associate with it, WalletHub compiled stats from the U.S. Census Bureau, the American Farm Bureau Association, Harris Poll, and more into one illuminating infographic. Featured facts include the date Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday (October 3, 1863) and the percentage of Americans whose favorite dish is turkey (39 percent).

Not only is it interesting to learn how the majority of Americans celebrate the holiday, it also might make you feel better about how your own Thanksgiving usually unfolds. If you’re frantically calling the Butterball Turkey hotline for help on how to cook a giant bird, you’re not alone—the hotline answers more than 100,000 questions in November and December. And you’re in good company if your family forgoes the home-cooked meal altogether, too: 9 percent of Americans head to a restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner.

It’s also a great way to fill in the blanks of your Thanksgiving knowledge. You might know that the president ceremoniously pardons one lucky turkey every year, but do you know which president kicked off the peculiar practice? It was George H.W. Bush, in 1989.

Read on to discover the details of America’s most delicious holiday below, and find out why we eat certain foods on Thanksgiving here.

Thanksgiving-2019-By-The-Numbers

Source: WalletHub

[h/t WalletHub]

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