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  • Ben Schafer

My Journey through 100 Books: The Aeneid


Modern cinema, particularly the superhero genre, has fallen in love with the origin story. Indeed, my sister finds that the first movie in a new trilogy is often her favorite because it is so full of promise and is key to giving the larger narrative its direction and drive. This week, we will be looking at the origin stories, so to speak, of the most powerful republics in world history: Rome and the United States of America. Specifically, we will be looking at Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid and William Bradford's autobiographical account regarding the Pilgrims known as Of Plymouth Plantation. As with the works of Homer, I will first go over each story in broad strokes before digging into important themes or insights both within each work and between the two. But today we start with Rome's answer to (or indeed outright theft of) Homeric literature: The Aeneid.


Following the collapse of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire under Octavian (who renamed himself Caesar Augustus), Rome struggled with its sense of identity. To that end, the poet Virgil reached back to Greek tales of the Trojan War and crafted a new narrative that would tie the rise of Rome to that fabled contest. His focus in this effort was on Aeneas, a brave but minor character in the story of The Iliad whose fate was left uncertain at the end of Homer's poems. The narrative begins, as with The Odyssey, in the middle of the action as the storm-tossed survivors of Troy land on the coast of North Africa and are taken in to the city of Carthage. Carthage would, centuries later, become the rival Mediterranean power to Rome and would clash for dominance of the known world in the Punic Wars. In this story, however, they are themselves a new civilization made up of refugees from Tyre (in modern-day Lebanon) and are led by the beautiful queen Dido. Dido's husband was murdered, leaving her widowed and in charge of the growing city. Through some manipulation by the gods, Dido falls in love with the strapping hero Aeneas who leads the Trojan survivors. Aeneas (in a parallel Odysseus' account of his travels to the Phaeacians) recounts their story to the Carthaginians, beginning with the destruction of Troy following the Greek infiltration inside the Trojan Horse and continuing through their many perils at sea as they struggle to find a new home but are constantly pushed by fate to their destiny in Italy. Aeneas, despite his love for Dido, gathers the Trojans and leaves Carthage. In despair, Dido throws herself onto a pyre, thus planting the mythical seeds of enmity between the Carthaginians and the Romans. After Aeneas makes a harrowing trip to the underworld to receive a vision of his (and Rome's) destiny from his father, the Trojans eventually make it to Italy where they find themselves embroiled in a tangled political web with various tribes. They make allies with some and enemies of others, and the last portion of the book recounts the bloody battles as Aeneas and his people forge their place in this new country. During the conflict, Aeneas is gifted magical weapons by Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge (at the behest of Vulcan's wife, Venus). These weapons include a shield that depicts all of Roman history yet to unfold, showing Aeneas' destiny to bring forth this mighty race (that will culminate in the rise of Caesar Augustus, Virgil's patron, to become the first Emperor of Rome). The Aeneid ends with a duel between Aeneas and his hated foe Turnus of the Rutuli tribe (echoing the duel between Hector and Achilles). Aeneas triumphs and initially intends to spare Turnus' life to build peace between the warring tribes. Then he sees that Turnus has taken the belt of Aeneas' slain friend Pallas as a war trophy and Aeneas slays Turnus in a rage. The book ends on that grim note, though whether this was meant as a warning to Caesar to exercise greater control than his mythical predecessor or simply occurs because Virgil died before he could craft a more satisfying ending is a matter of considerable scholarly debate.


While The Aeneid is clearly an homage (to put it generously) to Homer, Virgil's talent for epic poetry is no lesser for that fact. This is one of the great stories of Western civilization and Virgil's skill is so profound that Dante later uses him as a symbolic guide through the Inferno in Dante's Divine Comedy. Of particular note is the distinctly Roman character of Aeneas who becomes the embodiment of the Roman concept of virtus, a sense of masculine honor that (combined with the Greek concept of arete that we will examine in more detail in our look at Aristotle) would become the foundation for our more modern concept of virtue. Aeneas is a man of civic responsibility, exercising prudence and a willingness to sacrifice his own happiness for the greater good. He does not engage in hopeless combat against the rampaging Greeks destroying his home but rather rescues as many Trojan citizens as he can (going so far as to physically carry his ailing father out of the city). This is a rather stark difference from Achilles who went knowingly to his death at Troy in order to secure his own glory. Aeneas also sacrifices his own happiness with Dido so that his people can have a home of their own. It is clear at every turn that it is the good of his people and not his own destiny that drives Aeneas forward. Aeneas is organized and intelligent, but not a sly trickster like Odysseus. But Aeneas is also a form of a cautionary tale as even this exemplar of virtue fails to see the impact of his actions (such as the death of Dido) and fails to maintain self-control at critical moments (such as the killing of Turnus). For a popular emperor consolidating power over most of the known world, these are very prudent examples of the practical limits of the virtuous ideal. In the same way, Aeneas serves as a great picture of civic virtue but also shows that a world based purely on martial strength, no matter how nobly constrained, will ultimately be vulnerable to brutality and capricious action. As we learned from history, these lessons were not taken to heart for most Roman emperors and their people suffered for this fact.


I hope you enjoyed this look at The Aeneid and I invite you to catch up on my earlier looks at Homer's poetry. I will have more to say about The Aeneid this Thursday as I contrast its themes and style with that of Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation. As with the works of Homer, the Internet Classics Archive has the John Dryden translation available. If you find reading it difficult, I would recommend looking for a good audiobook edition that will allow you to appreciate the lyric quality of the poetry. As with the works of Homer, The Aeneid is a foundational work of Western literature that will be referenced in later works such as The Divine Comedy to The Canterbury Tales. Reading this work will not only allow you to enjoy a great story but will give you a deeper understanding of many elements of Western art that have come after it.

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