“Two millennia later, we are still warring over the meaning of Virgil’s Aeneid.”
rma virumque cano (Of arms and the man I sing). So opens Virgil’s Aeneid, Rome’s grandiose epic of a Trojan exile fated by the gods to sojourn across the Mediterranean, sow the seeds of Rome’s rivalry with Carthage, and begin the conquest of the Italian Peninsula and plant the spear that would forge the eternal city. For much of Western history, Virgil’s Aeneid was the epic; in fact, T.S. Eliot called it “our classic.” The classics, of course, have fallen on hard times, especially Virgil. Is it an epic of unadulterated propaganda to the Augustan regime? Or is it something subtler, even noble, intoxicating, and alluring? Two millennia later, we are still warring over the meaning of Virgil’s Aeneid.
It is often said that history is written by the victors. Only people who do not know history assert this. Demosthenes was a loser; he organized the Athenian and Theban alliance against Philip II of Macedon and lost, but his speeches have been preserved by posterity, and he remains the indispensable voice of late fourth century ancient Greece. We can even go as far as to say that Plato was a loser, and he wrote the most enduring corpus of Greek literature we have; Plato was no friend of Athenian democracy, and his teacher, Socrates, was condemned to death (yet we remember Socrates and not the men who sentenced him to death). Plato, moreover, was a failed political advisor, yet we still read him as an authoritative voice in political philosophy.
Virgil was the undisputed poet laureate of Rome. Four hundred years after his death, a young Saint Augustine informed his readers in the Confessions that he was, as a young student, educated in the poetry of Virgil and wept for Dido while oblivious to the cries of his own soul as a lusty teenager. While Virgil is the most famous of the Augustan poets, another poet named Horace had served as an officer in the armies of Brutus and Cassius that were defeated at Philippi. Horace, of course, wrote a lot too, even though he was on the losing side. The greatest source of the republic’s declination is the greatest loser of them all: Cicero.
We know little of Virgil. But if his poetry is reflective of the yearnings of the losers of the Caesarian Civil War; Rome’s poet laureate may have been sympathetic to the republican cause. The pastoral idyll, something that Virgil brought to fruition as Arcadia, is the imaginative idyll sung of by everyone from Cicero to Horace to Livy—that famed historian who was considered a sly propagandist rehabilitating Pompey, another one of the losers of the Civil Wars.
Virgil was, for Dante, the great poet of love. And love is one of the major themes of the Aeneid.
When Virgil sings of battle and Aeneas, we are posed with a dilemma. Virgil’s entire life had been defined by war. Only after the Augustan settlement was a century of war wiped away and peace consummated. Is Virgil singing that man is, in essence, a warlike creature as he himself experienced and lived through? Or are war and man juxtaposed against each other? Perhaps Virgil was casting war—“a cruel teacher” according to Thucydides and an ever-present danger—as standing in contradistinction to the heart of man? There are two subjects that Virgil sings of in his opening verse: war and man. Are they inextricably interlinked, overlapped but with different aims, or antagonistic to each other but cruelly fated to do battle in the harsh cosmos called life?
Love, History, and War
If we still remember Virgil, it may be because Dante selected him as his guide through hell and purgatory. Why did Dante, a Florentine poet and failed politician, choose a poet who died one and a half millennia ago (at the time of Dante’s life) as his guide? Virgil was, for Dante, the great poet of love. And love is one of the major themes of the Aeneid.
Amore, pietas, and laborem form the trinity of Virgil’s governing troika in his infamous epic. In fact, they are all interlinked. Aeneas’s love for his father and countrymen is what earns him the epithet pious—or dutiful. But duty is also something laborious. Aeneas labors, and he labors hard. He struggles, in other words, precisely because he loves. He struggles to save his aging father and family as he flees a burning Troy. He struggles against the anger of Juno, Queen of Heaven, to save his family and countrymen as they sail across the stormy seas of the Mediterranean before their landfall in Carthage. He struggles against the desire of his own heart in his falling in love with Dido, Queen of Carthage, whom he must abandon to reach Lavinian shores. He struggles in Italy to secure the land for his countrymen, son, and bride-to-be (Lavinia). All of Aeneas’s labors are governed by a dutiful love throughout the epic. Interestingly, praying—not war—is the activity that Aeneas engages in most during the poem.
Yet war is prevalent throughout the epic. Aeneas is driven out to sea by the conclusion of war: the sack and burning of Troy by the Greeks. The final books detail the Trojan invasion of Italy, defended by the spurned Prince Turnus who dies by Aeneas’s sword. In Dido’s lair, Aeneas recounts the horrifying burning of Troy and killing of Priam; Dido will later kill herself in despair by thrusting Aeneas’s sword through her breast and falling atop a smoldering pyre cursing Aeneas and his descendants—thus giving mythopoetic justification for the Punic Wars.
Virgil’s construction of the war imagery of the Aeneid draws on real historical memory: the memories of the Romans who have a memory filled with the blood and fire of war. Virgil’s description of fires, beheadings, and battles would have had a particular resonance with his Roman audience. They would have known all too well what he was alluding to.
In Dido’s halls, the Carthaginian Queen—herself an exile—welcomes Aeneas and the Trojans, and the Trojan prince tells her of the final hours of Troy. Here is the first subtle nod to Virgil’s beliefs. He associates the recently vanquished Pompey with the memory of the tragic King of Troy.
When Aeneas speaks of “the monarch who once had ruled in all his glory the many lands of Asia, Asia’s many tribes. A powerful trunk lying on the shore. The head wrenched from the shoulders. A corpse without a name,” he is not only referring explicitly to Priam in this context. He is also alluding to Pompey, that “monarch who once had ruled in all his glory the many lands of Asia” and who, upon his defeat at the hands of Caesar, fled to Egypt where he was beheaded and became “A powerful trunk lying on the shore. The head wrenched from the shoulders. A corpse without a name.” That Pompey is tied to Priam, that tragic king of Troy who was immortalized by the Romans, indicates Virgil’s hand in seeking to immortalize Pompey just as much as Livy did in his History. The eminent classicist Bernard Knox wrote of this subtlety: “Any Roman who read these lines in the years after Virgil’s poem was published or heard them recited would at once remember a real and recent ruler over ‘the many lands of Asia,’ whose headless corpse lay on the shore. It was the corpse of Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey), who had been ruler of all the lands of Asia.”
While the Third Punic War laid to ash that great city on the North African coastline, the absence of such a worthy enemy became a cause for Roman decline.
But Aeneas’s erotic rendezvous with Dido is more than a eulogy for Priam (and the Pompeiian republican cause); Virgil humanizes Rome’s mortal enemy. Cato the Elder, whenever he finished speaking in the Senate would close his speeches with the infamous words “delendam esse Carthaginem.” Carthage was the mortal enemy of Rome, vanquished and turned to a pillar of salt and ash because of the scourging fire of Roman war. Yet Virgil was at the forefront of humanizing and eulogizing Rome’s archnemesis, which would reach its fullest fruition in the humane portrayal of Hannibal in Silius Italicus’s Punica.
As we know, as the Romans knew all too well, the conflict between Carthage and Rome was a result of two clashing cities seeking dominance over the Western Mediterranean. The First and Second Punic Wars had sapped Rome of much of her strength; only a combination of luck and perseverance led Rome to triumph. But Carthage, reduced as she was, remained. While the Third Punic War laid to ash that great city on the North African coastline, the absence of such a worthy enemy became a cause for Roman decline. Almost six centuries later, this sentiment was still echoed by that conflicted Roman bishop of North Africa Saint Augustine.
Romans were raised to hate Carthage. However, Virgil turns Dido into an entirely tragic and human figure, someone whom we—as the Roman audience did—sympathize with. Dido believes Aeneas is a godsend, a heaven-sent match for her sexual loneliness. The two elope on a hunting party and have sex in a cave during a storm. Dido believes this act seals their marriage bond. However, the gods have other plans. Aeneas must not dally and, instead, return to the ships and proceed on his journey to Italy. So the gods intervene and Aeneas flees Carthage leaving Dido weeping and cursing in a storm of pathological emotions.
Dido’s death is one of Virgil’s greatest accomplishments in the poem. Not only does he humanize the Punic Other that was so reviled in Rome’s history; he also draws upon the Third Punic War and its memory to humanize Dido further. Weeping and cursing Aeneas, Dido thrusts Aeneas’s blade into her death-devoted heart and falls on a pyre immolating herself. The fact that Dido uses Aeneas’s own blades signifies Rome’s culling thrust. That she also falls into a burning pyre and is immolated in the flames evokes the memories of Carthage’s burning (as well as Troy’s burning), which casts Carthage in that sad and tragic light. A great city, a welcoming people, a beautiful queen, vanquished at the hand of sword and fire.
After fleeing Carthage, Aeneas buries his father in Sicily and offers prayers and funeral games in his memory and the memory of the Trojan dead. The journey continues. On they sail to Italy and make landfall only to find the place inhabited.
The second half of the Aeneid details the relationships forged by Aeneas with the locals of Italy, principally the local warrior-prince Pallas, King Latinus, and his daughter Princess Lavinia—which also brings him into a quarreling relationship with Turnus, the leader of the Rutuli peoples who feels spurned having been betrothed to Lavinia.
Turnus is the “Achilles of the West”; he has Greek blood coursing through his veins. Turnus also leads the Latins in their resistance to the Trojans turned Romans. This represents the complicated legacy of Greek colonization in the Italian Peninsula. Prior to Rome, the Italian peninsula was split between the tyrannical Etruscans to the north and the pathological but civilized Greeks in the south (and in Sicily). It is fitting that the great conflict between Aeneas and his Trojans-turned-Romans is against Turnus and his Greek spirit. It is, ironically and paradoxically, the ultimate showdown between the West and East (notwithstanding the fact that the Trojans were easterners who, according to the story, sailed west and then subsequently conquered the East).
The values of pietas, laborem, and amore are pitted against erotic thanatos, the very pathological emotion that leads Turnus to war. When the champions ready their forces for battle, a great melee ensues. Men and women are hacked to pieces. Blood drenches the soil. War has come to Italy.
When Aeneas enters battle, he carries with him into battle—in a nod to Homer—a great shield. Where the shield of Achilles was donned with the imagery of myth, Aeneas’s shield is covered in the imagery of history. As we have already been discussing, Virgil relies on historical imagery as his leitmotif to elicit emotion and signification from his Roman audience. Pompey. The Punic Wars. Now Antony and Cleopatra. For the central image on the shield of Aeneas are the bronze ships that fought at Actium and brought to an end the reign of eastern thanatos and the triumph of civilized order once more under the banner of Augustus Caesar:
“There is the story of Italy,
Rome in all her triumphs. There the fire-god forged them,
well aware of the seers and schooled in times to come…
the mother wolf stretched out in the green grotto of Mars,
twin boys at her dugs, who hung there, frisky, suckling
without a fear as she with her lithe neck bent back,
stroking each in turn, licked her wolf pups
into shape with a mother’s tongue.
Not far from there
he had forged Rome as well and the Sabine women
brutally dragged from the crowded bowl…
And here in the heart
of the shield: the bronze ships, the Battle of Actium,
you could see it all, the world drawn up for war,
Leucata Headland seething, the breakers molten gold.
On one flank, Caesar Augustus leading Italy into battle,
the Senate and people too, the gods of hearth and home
and the great gods themselves…
And opposing them comes Antony leading on
the riches of the Orient, troops of every stripe—
victory over the nations of the Dawn and blood-red shores
and in his retinue, Egypt, all the might of the East
and Bactra, the end of the earth, and trailing
in his wake, that outrage, that Egyptian wife!”
The shield worn by Aeneas, in contrast to the regalia of Turnus, also tells us something important. Aeneas’s shield was forged with hard labor, laborem, while Turnus is adorned in stolen paraphernalia stripped from those whom he has killed. When Aeneas gets the upper hand against the Achilles of the West, Aeneas is about to take pity on Turnus until he looks down and sees the military belt of his slain friend Pallas. In a moment of rage, Aeneas thrusts the culling blow. Turnus dies, and his soul is dragged off to the underworld. That is where the epic ends, though we know Virgil had not yet finished the epic and even requested it burned right before he died. Luckily, his friends disregarded the last wish of Rome’s grandest poet.
What is the impetus of the story at the heart of the Aeneid? It is the battle between love and war, between civilization and eros, laborem and thanatos. Rome wins not because it is more savage than her competitors—though this is historically debatable, that is not the point of poetry—but because the Roman heart is moved with love and, yes, even sympathy. For that is the message being communicated by Virgil’s subtle hand.
Aeneas is a man of love. He loves his father. He loves his countrymen. He loves his gods. He is driven across stormy seas and dark caves by the spirit of love manifested in piety, duty. It is his duty as an instrument of the gods—to be sure—but also as a creature of love to bring a civilization rooted in love, amore, into existence as the buttress against the death drive of pure erotic thanatos that Virgil associates with the Greek East (however fair that is). Pure passion is deadly, as we find out with Dido and Turnus.
However, Virgil does not dehumanize the enemy. On the contrary, Dido and Turnus are sympathetic characters. This, again, is one of the great achievements of Virgil’s hand. He turns the hated enemies of Rome into human and sympathetic creatures, humans with a heart and soul that we learn to weep with and for—as Augustine said—while never balking at our relational preference for Aeneas and his desperate band of voyagers and exiles. Turnus, after all, is even described in glowing terms: “his build magnificent.” But it is as if Virgil is also singing to his audience that the true spirit of love includes the quality of sympathy. Do not hate, for those who hate curse and bring forth death. Dido and Turnus are the two characters who utter curses of death and, therefore, die. This is true even if we no longer see them from the lens of pure hatred as the Romans of the past had viewed Carthage and Greece.
Dreaming of Peace and Mercy
On the surface, it would seem as if the Aeneid is an epic of war. It is, in fact, an epic desiring peace. War and fire surround the epic, but, as the classical tradition is known to us, the underworld revelation is the most significant part of any epic poem.
When in the kingdom of the dead, visiting the heroes of legend and being told the history of the future—which includes the Julii and Augustus Caesar—another image lurks surrounded by the death and historical glory Aeneas sees: the very image that the republican idyll dreamt of, a secluded and peaceful valley with dancing humans governed by peace and joy. Near the end of Aeneas’s descent to receive the revelation of what he is laboring for, it is not an image of Roman grandeur but the gentle slopes of a green valley that reveal to us what it is that Virgil is hoping for—and what Aeneas is struggling to achieve:
Intersea videt Aeneas in valle reducta seclusum nemus et virgulta sonantia silvae Lethaeumque, domos placidas qui praenatat, amnem. hunc cicum innumerae gentes populique volabant; ac velut in pratis ubi apes aestate serena floribus insidunt variis et candida circum lilia funduntur, strepit omnis murmure campus.
Meanwhile, in a quiet valley, Aeneas sees a secluded grove and roaring forest thickets and the river of Lethe rippling past many peaceful homes. In the valley danced innumerable peoples and tribes. Out in the meadows, with the blue skies of summer shining overhead, bees land and feast on many-hued blossoms and stream round lustrous flowers and lilies, and all the green pastures murmur with the buzzing and humming of life. [My translation.]
This image of a green valley, murmuring and buzzing with life, joyful laughing, and dancing, is the true spirit that guides Virgil.
Dancing and joyful humans, singing with the harmonies of nature around them—a multitude of all peoples—is the image of peace that Virgil is singing about. Arcadia, in other words, is the real fruit of Aeneas’s labors. It is not the humbling of the proud in war or the formation of civil law and dominion across the Mediterranean. This image, in fact, is the image that truly startles Aeneas, “Struck by the sudden sight, Aeneas, all unknowing, wonders aloud, and asks: ‘What is the river over there? And who are they who crowd the banks in such a growing throng?’”
There is plenty of death that surrounds Aeneas in his underworld descent. This image, however, is the exact opposite of the death-devoted heart of Dido, the departed soul of his father Anchises, or the myriad of other dead Romans of history. This startling image is the Arcadian idyll that Virgil believes is the true goal of Roman civilization and the restful and happy place that the human heart—of all tribes and peoples—desires.
This image of a green valley, murmuring and buzzing with life, joyful laughing, and dancing, is the true spirit that guides Virgil. The praise of Augustus Caesar is incidental. Augustus is praised only because he is a mere bridge to the Arcadian idyll and the peace of humans and nature united in a waltz of happiness. Augustus is not praised in the poem at all on this account. He just gets his two cheers for the eternal applause we lavish on this valley of rolling hills and life in its serene joy and harmony which so move the heart and startle us—as it did Aeneas—to know more.
We know that Virgil did not complete the Aeneid. The Aeneid, as we have it, is an incomplete poem. It is my sincere belief that had Virgil finished the poem we would have witnessed Aeneas, Lavinia, and Ascanius in green valleys, surrounded by tall trees, blossoming flowers, and the humming buzz of bees drinking sweet nectar from the flowers. Peace was the ultimate desire for Virgil and Aeneas. And the ultimate manifestation of that peace—through the blood, fire, and mud of war to be sure—is the Arcadian image that Virgil wrote about in his other poems and gave a revelatory glimpse to Aeneas and all of us in “our classic.”
Through blood and war, struggle and pain, death and perseverance, that sacred grove of green pastures and dancing animals is the home we all seek. Arcadia was, after all, the Roman equivalent of what we call Paradise—parádeisos, a garden teeming with life. That was the reality that Aeneas’s labors aimed for, and it was the reality that Virgil’s magnificent epic sought to communicate in alliance with the other republicans who ended up on the losing side of the civil wars. This sliver of paradise is the one place where Aeneas, Dido, and Turnus may finally live the life of loving tranquility denied to them by the decree of fate, history, and the gods.
Paul Krause is a teacher, writer, and classicist. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory.