|Synopsis||Following the siege and destruction of Troy in The Illiad, the last survivors of the city are now refugees seeking to fulfill a prophecy that their ancestors would become a great kingdom.|
|Author||Publius Vergilius Maro "Virgil"|
|Length||484 Pages (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)|
Earlier this year, I launched the monthly Classics Review column with a review of Homer’s The Illiad. Then in June, I followed it up with a review of Homer’s The Odyssey. Both of these poems represent two of the greatest works of surviving epic poetry from the ancient world. Many of its contemporaries were lost. It’s a miracle we have these two in any form. That said, students of classical literature will notice we haven’t covered the third major poem associated with the Trojan War. It’s currently not as popular as the two Homeric poems, but it is one of the most important works of literature in western history. Despite being a pre-Christian work of Pagan poetry, it’s a book that’s become a staple of the western canon for over two thousand years and one that stands among Christian thought as one of the most influential works of medieval Christian literature alongside masterpieces like Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Augustine’s Confessions, Thomas Aquinas’s Suma Theologica, and Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Spiritual Content: The poem was written in Rome when the ancient Greek/Roman pantheon of Gods was still being worshipped, thematically ideas in the poem would become very prominent in the Roman Catholic Church
Violence: Some excessive violence, gore, and warfighting that describe brutal death and suffering
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: Characters get married and consummate their marriages, nothing graphic described
Drug/Alcohol Use: Some casual drinking
Other Negative Themes: Themes of vengeance, violence, and conquest
Positive Content: Exploration of pilgrimage, growth, and piety
Today we’re going to be talking about The Aeneid, the pseudo-sequel to Homer’s Epic Cycle. That said, unlike the other poems in the Epic Cycle, it wasn’t composed by Homer. The poem wasn’t even composed by the Greeks, but by a Roman poet six centuries after the works that influenced it had been finished. By then, the golden age of Greece was in the distant past and what remained of it had already long since been conquered by the Romans (for contrast, more time passed between the composition of The Illiad and The Aeneid than has passed between Shakespeare and modern times).
Still, The Aeneid is technically a sequel of sorts to The Illiad and The Odyssey. It’s written in a Latin variation of the same hexameter the original Greek verse was written in, borrows many of the original characters, and heavily borrows the structure of the original two poems. The latter point is critical because “borrowing” is an understatement. The Aeneid is twelve books long and you can cleanly cut the book down the middle with the first six books homaging The Odyssey and the second six books homaging The Illiad. Like those books, it concerns the aftermath of the Trojan War, but this time follows the perspective of the surviving Trojans in their quest to find a new home.
In modern parlance, this has given The Aeneid a reputation of being highly derivative and unoriginal. Some contemporary readers even dismiss it as Homeric fanfiction and find the book to be relatively lifeless in comparison to the sprawling tone and feel of Homer’s masterpieces. At a first glance, it’s hard not to totally dismiss that claim. The Aeneid is a masterpiece of some sort, but upon first reading, its ideas do come off as colder and less immediate than its predecessor. Homer has aged a lot better for modern eyes and ears, if only because its deeply humanistic stories and writing style are more in line with modernist sensibilities. Modern readers tend to prefer an organic quality to their storytelling. We want stories where character and psychology drive the narrative and where we feel the people we’re reading are real people.
Upon consideration though, there’s a case to be made that The Aeneid surpasses and fulfills the ideas of Homer’s works in unique ways. The plot may superficially be lifted from his poems, but it’s being used for radically different ends. The Aeneid comes from a much older style of writing that’s more akin to the poetry of the Middle Ages. The weight of the story is found in its artificiality and overt symbolism. For Roman and Medieval readers, The Aeneid would’ve been a more meaningful text because its meaning is more rooted in overt symbolism and meaning. It’s engaging directly with the ideas of 1st-century Roman politics and identity, and its connection to them has fueled Europe’s feverish adoration and connection to the ancient world. For this reason, The Aeneid was actually the more preferred text of the three from the ancient world until very recently.
Readers adored The Aeneid because it fundamentally spoke to the story of their civilization and told a narrative that honored the ideas and history that knitted European and Christian civilization together into the Empires they became. You see that reflected in many of the most prominent Middle Ages texts from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regium Brittania (the book that popularized and inspired every major version of King Arthur mythos) to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Both texts directly create an apostolic secular heritage stretching from modern times to the earliest stories of western civilization.
“Once the siege and assault of Troy had ceased, with the city a smoke-heap of cinders and ash, the traitor who contrived such betrayl there was tried for his treacher, the truest on earth; so Aeneas, it was, with his noble warriors were conquering abroad, laying claim to the crowns of the wealthiest kingdoms in the western world. Mighty Romulus quickly careered towards Rome and conceived a city in magnificent style which from then until now has been known by this name. Ticius constructed townships in Tuscany and Langobard did likewise build homes in Lombardy. And further afield, over teh Sea of France, on Britain’s broad hilltops, Felix Brutus made his stand.”
The Roman Poet Virgil and Caesar Augustus
Publius Vergilius Maro, or Virgil as he’s come to be known, was born in Northern Italy in 70BC during the early reign of Caesar Augustus. During this time, the Roman Republic had just converted forcefully into the Roman Empire after a century of political turmoil and civil wars. In less than a hundred years’ time, Christ would begin his earthly ministry in the east and begin the long four-hundred-year history that would end with the conversion of the Roman Empire to Roman Catholicism. Unlike Homer, we actually know a shocking amount about Virgil as an artist and figure in Roman politics. Maybe that’s not surprising given he was a man alive well beyond the convention of written language (which Homer was not in the 9th century BC). As a result, we can speak more plainly about the artistic intent and background of the poem than either of its progenitors.
Virgil would move throughout the Empire across his life as a Roman citizen outside of Rome, but his work set him apart among his peers (including notable contemporary poets and writers like Horace, Ovid, and Livy) and eventually earned him the position as Caesar Augustus’ favorite poet. During his service to the Empire, he wrote multiple collections of poetry on behalf of the state. The two notable publications were The Eclogues (37BC) and The Georgics (29BC). Both were simple, but extremely popular works of nostalgic poetry that wrote romantically about the early age of Rome when it was mostly a rural nation of farmers and shepherds. Virgil was brilliant enough to capture the technologically advancing Roman Empire’s yearning for simplicity, heroism, and virtue in his poetry.
With the completion of two popular works under his belt, Virgil set forth to create his final magnum opus. For the final years of his life from 29BC-19BC, Virgil set to work on his most ambitious work: a sequel to The Illiad which would retell the mythical origin story of the founding of Rome. The story would be an allegory for the modern development of Rome, a defense of the Empire and Caesar Augustus’ brutal reign, and a popularization of the myth that Rome’s rulers were descendants of Trojan Warriors and therefore partially demigods.
Aeneas, the hero of The Aeneid, is mentioned several times during the plot of The Illiad. He’s a Trojan prince, warrior, and the only major warrior of Troy to survive the conflict. The Romans believed he had historically sailed west to Italy and became the descendant of Romulus and Remus, the supposed founders of Rome. The great Roman historian Livy wrote of Aeneas in his magnum opus The History of Rome (27BC), eight years before The Aeneid was published:
“It is generally accepted that after the fall of Troy the Greeks kept up hostilities against all the Trojans except Aeneas and Antenor. These two men had worked consistently for peace and the restoration of Helen, and for that reason, added to the certain personal connexions of long standing, they were allowed to go unmolested… Aeneas was forced into exile by similar troubles; he however was destined to lay the foundations of a greater future…. The Trojans could no longer doubt that at last their travels were over and that they had found a permanent home. They began to build a settlement, which Aeneas named Lavinium after his wife Lavinia.”The Early History of Rome, Livy
As the Claremont Institute’s Spencer Klavan writes, “Caesar Augustus himself claimed to be a descent from Aeneas and thus from his mother, the goddess Venus. If Aeneas was intrepid, prudent, god-favored, and just cosmopolitan enough to rule abroad—then Rome’s first emperor would be, too. The new Roman regime needed a retelling of its founding myth, an epic to rival the Homeric poems. Virgil’s Aeneid did the trick, and then some: for centuries, it has loomed over the Western imagination as a towering monument to classical antiquity’s most astonishingly powerful civilization.”
It worked. The poem became one of the most popular works of its time and was continually published for centuries and millennia. It became the central thematic starting point for world culture’s understanding of the Roman Empire. As Charles Williams, the great thriller author and literary critic among the Inklings wrote of it:
“The subject of the Aeneid is single – it is the founding of Rome. There is however a second subject which though subordinate in the poem is in fact the cause of the poem and therefore its true subject; that is the salvation and settlement of Rome by Caesar Augustus… To Virgil, Augustus was almost a divine savior, if not quite. The world had peace; the civil wars of a century were concluded, and the order and genius of Rome were free to impose themselves on an otherwise chaotic world.”Page XI-XII The Story of the Aeneid by Charles Williams
The Story: Of Arms and the Man I Sing
As with the great Homeric poems, The Aeneid begins its story in medias res with a convoy of refugee ships sailing across the Medditerrian Sea. Their leader is the mighty Aeneas, the last surviving prince of Troy following the aftermath of the Trojan war. When a mighty storm begins to churn by the hand of the furious goddess Juno (Hera), all but seven of the ships are destroyed at sea. Neptune (Poseidon) takes pity on the humans, and umbridge against a goddess that would dare trample upon his domain, and saves the remaining ships who wash ashore in Libya near the City of Carthage.
As we discover, Juno is frustrated by a prophecy heard amongst the gods that Aeneas is destined to form a great future city named Rome and it will reign destruction upon her patron City of Carthage in the distant future. Contemporary Romans would have understood this as a reference to the Punic Wars, where Rome lost many of its legions in combat against the brilliant Hannibal the Great. Rome would eventually conquer Carthage and liberally salt the earth of that city so it would never grow into a threat again. In a desperate bid to stop the prophecy from coming to pass, Juno has set to conspire in every way possible to stop Aeneas from achieving his destiny.
“The father of Men and Gods, smiling down on her with the glance the clears the sky and calms the tempest, lightly kissing his daughter on the lips, replied: “Reliveve yourself of fear my lady Cythera, the fate of your children stands unchanged, I swear. You will see your promised city, see Lavinium’s walls and bear your great-hearted Aneeas up to the stars on high. Nothing has changed my mind. No your son, believe me – since anguish is gnawing at you, I will tell you more, unrolling the scroll of fate to reveal it’s darkest secrets. Aeneas will wage a long, costly war in Italy, crush defiant tribes and build high city walls for his people there and found the rule of law… There, in turn, for a full three hundred years the dynasty of hector will hold sway in Ilia… Then one, Romulus, reveling in the tawny pelt of a wolf that nursed him will inherit the line and build the walls of mars after his own name, call his people Romans. On them, I set no limits, space or time: I have granted them power, empire without end.”The Aeneid, Book I, Page 56, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition by Robert Fagles
As he lands upon Libya, he’s quickly introduced to the local princess Dido. She’s the founder of her kingdom and the two immediately fall deeply in love. They consummate their marriage, begin building the walls of her city, and start getting comfortable together. It’s during this part of the book we receive the flashbacks to the Odyssey homage. Aeneas discusses what it was like to escape Troy. He tried several times to stand and fight, dying for his country, and yet he’s haunted repeatedly by the ghosts of Hector and his wife who warn him to find the household gods and idols of King Priam and escape. He manages to whisk them and his surviving family members away from the burning city, witnessing the death of his king in the process.
Without anywhere to go, the refugees gather together and build boats before setting sail east for anywhere they can settle. Initially, they rebuild on one island only for the settlement to be ravaged with diseases. They sail further and begin encountering some of the same dangers Odysseus dealt with on his journey. He crosses paths with Odysseus’ wake at least once when he stumbles upon the island of Polyphemus, but for the most part, the Trojans avoid most of the cursed pitfalls of their progenitor. Most of the supernatural entities never make an appearance. Aeneas even briefly stops on the island of the Cyclops long enough to save a greek soldier Odysseus left behind, transporting him to safety (tentatively these events could be assumed to be happening simultaneously with Odysseus’ journey, give or take a few weeks).
Carthago Delenda Est: Piety and the Foundations of Rome
Upon hearing the story of Aeneas’s odyssey (Aeneassy?), Dido falls in love with him and the two begin planning a life together. Unfortunately, Jupiter’s (Zeus’s) prophecy is still hanging over his head and every minute he remains in Carthage is damaging the possibility he might complete his quest. Jupiter sends Hermes to Aeneas to remind him of his destiny and that he has a duty to his heirs to give him a kingdom. Aeneas attempts to sneak away in the night, but is confronted by Queen Dido.
“So, you traitor, you really believed you’d keep this a secret, this great outrage? Steal away in silence from my shores? Can nothing hold you back? Not our love? Not the pledge once sealed with our right hands? Not even the thought of Dido doomed to a cruel death?The Aeneid, Book IV, Page 138, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition by Robert Fagles
Aeneas, driven by his duty, decides he must leave her behind to her fate and sails the seven ships of Trojan refugees north. Stricken with grief, Dido takes her servents to a pire and commits suicide by burning herself and all of their possessions together, cursing the descendants of Troy that her death might summon a Carthaginian who could eventually take revenge upon his descendants.
“That is my prayer, my final cry – I pour it out with my own lifeblood. And you… harry with hatred all his line, his race to come: make that offering to my ashes, send it down below. No love between our peoples, ever, no pacts of peace! Come rising up from my bones, you avenger still unknown, to stalk those Trojan settlers, hunt with fire and iron, now or in time to come, whenever the power is yours. Shore clash with shore, sea against sea and sword against sword – this is my curse – war between all our peoples, all their children, endless war!”The Aeneid, Book IV, Page 149, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition by Robert Fagles
The tragedy of this small subplot is palpable. Dido’s rage and pain mark some of the most emotional moments of the entire poem as these characters grapple with the fact they have great destinies they can’t provide for each other. This story is, in many ways, the most notable and emotional part of the story of The Aeneid. It’s the most tragic, personal, and painful poetry of the work and deeply cuts to the core of the central tension that makes up the story’s moral vision. For a story that’s otherwise very morally simplistic about the nature of empire and war, this story in particular captures the subtextual tragedy of the poem more than any other part of the story. It fundamentally says the thing Virgil is most desperately trying to get across to his audience: civilization is a hard-won victory.
Virgil is acknowledging the universal and uncomfortable realities of human life. He’s saying to found a civilization is to water the soil with blood and that it’s worth spending blood to create great civilizations. He’s also acknowledging this is a tragic reality. In our modern times, this is a truth modern people are DEEPLY struggling with. America, Canada, and other European countries are caught in a debate about how much of western civilization is salvageable in light of the history of colonialism and racial animus. Virgil is acknowledging the painful tension between civilization and history and rooting it clearly in Aeneas’ and Dido’s relationship. Rome MUST be founded to fulfill history, and Dido MUST lose her husband. Rome WILL face Carthage in combat again in the centuries to come and pay the price for its sins. All of those realities are horrific, but the fact Rome stands in spite of those realities is what is most important.
Such a story was clearly pertinent for ancient Rome. As Spencer Klavan writes for the Claremont Review of Books, this kind of moral question was present back then as their civilization was dealing with tumultuous chaos and violence.
“Aeneas is here presented with the choice of indulging his personal attachments, as Augustus’ rival Marc Antony did with Cleopatra, or pressing ruthlessly on toward his political goal, as Augustus himself did by destroying both Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium.”
Subtextually, Aeneas was the moral stand-in for Caesar Augustus. The fact he chose Rome over epic romantic conquest and temptation speaks to his character and helped lend legitimacy to the Roman Empire.
It also speaks to Aeneas’ most notable character trait. If one has to define Aeneas, there’s one word that most frequently defines his character: piety. If Achilles is enraged and Odysseus is brilliant, Aeneas is pious, loyal, and a proper servant of the gods, his family, and his heritage. Aeneas is the quintessential virtuous man who does the right thing because it is the right thing to do. Since the gods have given him a great destiny, he must obey it and suffer the inequities and pains it brings him.
Confronting the Father in the Underworld
If any segment of The Aeneid has stood the test of time, it’s Aeneas’ famous confrontation with his father in the underworld. The segment reflects many of the archetypical aspects of the Campbellian hero’s journey. The hero must face the possibility and reality of death, die to himself symbolically, and emerge into the world a changed man. One must face the chaos and disorder of reality to pull order out of it.
That’s very much the case for Aeneas. Late in his voyage, he’s approached in a dream by an apparition of his dead father and called to follow a Sibyl to the entrance to the underworld. While there, he passes the ghosts of Dido, Priam, and his other fellow warriors who greet him and then ascends to the Elysian plane where his father is. It turns out the fates have deemed his father Anchises as worthy of a “second body” and taken to a green heavenly plane where souls are allowed to live comfortable, sweet afterlives. There, he’s given a full understanding of the prophecy that will define his life’s work, sufferings, and journeys. He’s even given a vision of the future history of Rome that will come to pass after he succeeds.
“So come, the glory that will follow the sons of Troy through time, your children born of Italian stock who wait for life, bright souls, future heirs of our name and our renown: I will reveal them all and tell you of your fate.”
“Once Anchises has led his son through each new scene and fired his soul with a love of glory still to come, he tells him next of the wars Aeneas still must wage, he tells of Laurentine peoples, tells of Latinus’ city, and how he should shun or shoulder each ordeal that he must meet… And here Anchises, his vision told in full, escorts his son and Sibyl both and shows them out now through the Ivory Gate. Aeneas cuts his way to the waiting ships to see his crews again, then sets a course straight on to Caieta’s harbor. Anchors run from prows, the sterns line the shore.”The Aeneid, Book VI, Pages 207+212, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition by Robert Fagles
Aeneas’ descent into the underworld is one of the quintessential moments of The Aeneid insofar as it marks a moment of delineation. It happens just before the poem’s halfway point and marks the moment its central character begins to grapple with the full implications of his story. He begins to see the long march of history from the ruins of Troy onward. It marks the moment Aeneas is less bothered by the trauma of loss and begins to look forward to the excitement of a new future that awaits him. His soul is “fired,” and he begins to look forward instead of backward.
Aesthetically though, Book Six has had another great significance in the history of literature. This chapter is largely the chapter that’s inspired most fictional renditions of the dualistic afterlife culture has conceived of since. The Christian understanding of Hell as a place of suffering beneath the blissful fields of Elysium is in some ways visually inspired by its portrayal in The Aeneid. As the literary critic Bernard Knox writes in the introduction to my edition, in context with the portrayal of the afterlife in Dante’s Divine Comedy:
“… there are [wide] resemblences – the special place in both poems for suicides, and for those who died for love. And on a broader scale between Elysium and Paradiso , between Purgatorio and Virgil’s “souls” who are drilled in punishments they must pay for their old offenses, with the difference thatin Dante the souls who have finished purgation drink the water of Lethe and go to Paradise, where in Virgil, except for those who go to Elysium, they go after drinking the water of Lethe, back to life in a fresh incartion to become the Romans.”The Aeneid, Introduction, Page 38, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition by Robert Fagles
The War for Italy: Trojans and Latins
After brief stops in Sicily and a casual descent into the Underworld to seek advice from his dead father regarding the prophecy, Aeneas finally reaches the shores of Italy. It’s been a long journey for the surviving crew, but he’s finally reached the place that will become Lavinia and eventually Rome. Upon arriving, Aeneas becomes connected with the local population of Latiniums who initially welcome him amongst them. Surprisingly, their king Latinus actively welcomes the orphaned Trojans as royalty and offers to let them marry into their royal family. He even offers to marry his daughter to Aeneas and welcome him into the Latin royal family.
“I have a daughter. Signs from my father’s shrine and a host of omens from the skies forbid me to wed her to a bridegroom chosen from our race. Our sons-in-law will arrive from foreign shores: that is the fate in store for Latium, so the prophets say, a stranger’s blood will raise our name to teh starts. This is the one the Fates demand. So I believe and if I can read the future with any truth, I welcome him as ours.”The Aeneid, Book VII, Page 222, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition by Robert Fagles
Alas, this isn’t met happily by all involved. The local Prince Turnus is offended by this opening of arms to foreigners that seek to colonize his land, and he proceeds to seek war against Aeneas for the fate of Italy. The king’s daughter Lavinia was rightly his to marry. What follows in the remaining six books is the war for Italy. By now, the stakes are set. We know the goddess Juno is conspiring supernatural forces against him and his mother Venus is standing by his side. Jupiter gathers the gods in council at the beginning of Book Ten and agrees to let the Fate’s will play out to their end. This war will be decided solely by the decisions of Aeneas and Turnus.
Again, the style here borrows heavily from The Iliad. It’s war poetry and by now the reader likely knows the moral stakes of these characters’ actions. The poem instead focuses on the ebb and flow of battle and gives us striking descriptions of the cost of those battles as men are slated to fulfill Aeneas’ and Turnus’ destinies. There are brutal sieges, horrific deaths, one of Aeneas’ allies named Pallas dies in a similar fashion to Patroclus’s death, and eventually, Aeneas faces Turnus in direct combat. It all leads up to its final bitter conclusion. Unlike The Iliad which ends in a somber funeral and a lament for the destruction to come, The Aeneid ends with an execution. It ends with the final confrontation of Aeneas and Pallas at the end of the battle wherein Aeneas is given a choice to show mercy to his foe or punish him brutally for his choices. He chooses the latter, and the poem ends somewhat abruptly.
“Aeneas, ferocious in armor, stood there, still shifting his gaze and held his sword-arm back, holding himself back too as turnus’s words began to sway him more and more… when all at once he caught sight of the fateful sword-belt of Pallas… Aeneas, soon as his eyes drank in that plunder – keepsake of his own savage grief – flaring up in fury terrible in his rage, he cries ” Decked in the spoils you stripped from the one I loved – escape my clutches? Never- Pallas strikes this blow, Pallas sacrifices you now, makes you pay the price with your own guilty blood!” In the same breath, blazing with wrath he plants his iron sword hilt-deepin his enemy’s heart. Turnus’ limbs went limp in the chill of death. His life breath fled with a groan of outrage down to the shades below.”The Aeneid, Book VII, Page 222, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition by Robert Fagles
If The Aeneid were a modernist novel, I would say this is the final moment of tragic irony. This is the moment the refugee has fully transformed from a victim into a tyrant. This is the moment he stands in the same spot Achilles stood as he sacked Troy. This would be Aeneas’ fall from grace, but it isn’t; this is the full moment of fulfillment for his character. There is no reflection on the horror of death or the somber realities of warfare. There’s no bloodcurdling imagery of these soldiers being left to the vultures and dogs. There’s no reflection as the lives of individual soldiers pour out of their mangled bodies like blood. There’s no irony to this moment. We already know from Jupiter’s monologue that Aeneas’ fate is sealed and he will lead Lavinia for another three years as their king. We know he’ll integrate their civilizations, allowing the sons of Troy to learn Latin. We know the future is settled. In this final moment, Rome’s fate has been solidified in an act of cruelty and certainty.
Is The Aeneid a Proto-Christian Epic?
Through modern eyes, this is hard to read. This is bronze age morality being rewritten as a propagandistic morality play about the greatness of Rome. As such, it’s easy to dismiss if you don’t look past the most immediate and cynical read on the poem. For one, not all scholars believe this is actually the true ending of the poem. Virgil died before fully completing everything he wanted to do with the poem in 19BC. Many researchers have wondered if there was supposed to be a longer ending following Turnus’ execution. Alas, we will never know Virgil’s intent for sure. What we do know is the present text of The Aeneid became, as the poet T.S. Elliot called it, “the classic of all Europe.”
Underneath this hard story about duty, violence, and destiny, there is something churning beneath the surface. There are morals and virtues Virgil himself would never have imagined would blossom in the millennia after his death. As Louis Markos, professor of English at Houston Baptist University, writes:
“The Aeneid was the primary text of western history and identity for millennia. Although most readers today, whether they be teachers, students or critics, prefer Homer… to Virgil, for well over a thousand years, it was the Roman poet who was universally hailed as the greater of the two… Whereas our overly self-conscious age has found greater solace and enjoyment in the spontaneity and unmediated power of Homer than in the sophistication and allusiveness of Virgil, our pre-Romantic heirs found in the Aeneid a purpose, a pathos and a profundity that moved and thaught and challenged them… It was Virgil who taught Christian Europe the shape of history, the cost of empire, the primacy of duty, the transience of fame, the inevitability of death, the pain of letting go, and the burden of adopting new strategies.”C.S. Lewis’s List: The Ten Books That Influenced Him Most, Page 49
G.K. Chesterton, the great early 20th-century Catholic journalist, similarly meditated on The Aeneid as a story of great importance to western culture, comparing to something of a companion to The Bible.
“In tracing to Trojans the foundation of his beloved race and replace, he began what may be called the great Trojan tradition which runs through medieval and modern history. We have already seen the first hint of it in the pathos of homer about Hector. But Virgil turned it not merely into a literature but into a legend. And it was a legend of the almost divine dignity that belongs to the defeated. This was one of the traditions that did truly prepare the world for the coming of christianity and especially Christian Chivalry… This is why the popularization of the Trojan origin by Virgil has a vital relation to all those elements that thave made men say that Virgil is almost a Christian. It is almost as if two great tools or toys of the same timber, the divine and the human, had been the hands of providence, and the only thing comparable to the Wooden Cross of Calvary was the Wooden Horse of Troy.”The Everlasting Man, by G.K. Chesteron, Pages 152-153
Despite being a Pagan work of propaganda, The Aeneid contained within itself elements of the divine. It seeded strange ideas into the mind of the Roman citizenry that would fully blossom less than fifty years later with the arrival of Christ’s ministry. Like the Old Testament, it captured a strange world order in which the world itself lived in the shadow of a great collapse. It captured the terror and horror of wandering lost in the wilderness. It also captured the transformation of the world into something greater than it initially was. Just as the Christian is called to a path of painful and terrible transformation, Aeneas is called to found a great civilization from the ashes of a fallen one.
“…the process is a long and painful one. In Book II, when Aeneas is called by the ghsot of hector to abandon Troy and seek a new land, the makes it clear that he does not want the job that has been assigned to him by Jupiter. He would rather die defending his beloved city from the greek invaders… In the end, it takes two more ghostly visitations by his goddess mother and his wife’s wraith to convince him to leave Troy and lead the survivors to Italty. But his education does not stop there. Having lost his wife, Aeneas goes on to lost his father, his lover and his friend. Again and again, Aeneas tries to find an excuse to end his journey and settle down but each time the gods propel him forwards. Finally, the unwilling, recalcitrant hero is forced to face his own mortality by descending into the underworld. But when he returns to the land of the living, he is a new man, a proto-Roman whose far distant descendent will be Caesar Augustus.”C.S. Lewis’s List: The Ten Books That Influenced Him Most, Page 62
Professor Markos suggests The Aeneid primed the western world for an eschatological view of the universe; a belief that things are always progressing towards the fulfillment of history and the tragedies of reality are justified by that fulfillment.
“in an eschatological universe, things do not simple”happen”; every event in the present is linked to other events in the past and future. Indeed, the full and final meaning of any given event cannot be known until we reach teh end of the historical process and look backward… [This view] of the Aeneid and the Bible is also a prophetic one, filled with signs and symbols and portents that provide clues of what is to come. Thanks to the hopeful, riddling prophecies, those who live their lives within the eschatological universe need not despair when met with failure, suffering or death… In a similar manner, Virgil presents the horrific Fall of Troy as a Felix Culpa, a conflaguration out of which would one day rise the mighty phoenix of the Roman Empire.”C.S. Lewis’s List: The Ten Books That Influenced Him Most, Page 51
The Aeneid was so prescient on this vision that many medieval Christians took to referring to Virgil as a proto-Christian prophet whose vision of the ultimate fulfillment of history helped seed the minds of the Roman Pagans for the incarnation of Christ. He has successfully boiled down a thousand years of history, philosophy, and literature into the most distilled poem of the ancient world, and in doing so, embodied the best values therein. Prominent voices like Dante even went so far as to compare Virgil and Aeneas with Christian Saints. Many took note of a strange and cryptic line in The Eclogues that referenced an approaching savior who would bring harmony to mankind. It was likely he was addressing Augustus’ son, but many centuries of Christian readers believed Virgil had somehow literally prophecied Christ twenty years before his birth.
“Certainly it was no coincidence that both Aeneas and Paul began their journeys in Asia Minor and ended them in Rome. And certainly, Aeneas’s movement from East to West was not only geographical but moral and ethical as well, taking him from the tyrannical kingdoms of the East to the democratic republics of the west.”C.S. Lewis’s List: The Ten Books That Influenced Him Most, Page 58
It’s for that reason The Aeneid keeps appearing over again throughout the history of Christian literature and thought. Everyone from St. Augustine of Hippo to Michaelangelo referenced The Aeneid in their work. Just consider how much it affected the most popular apologist of the 20th century!
C.S. Lewis and Dante Alighieri: The Aeneid as a Conversion Story
C.S. Lewis considered The Aeneid one of his most influential works of literature. When asked late in his life to pick ten books that most influenced him, he listed it alongside George MacDonald’s Phantastes, G.K. Chesterton’s Everlasting Man, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, William Wordsworth’s Prelude, Charles William’s Descent into Hell (ironically a book titled after a quote from Virgil “facilis decensus averno“), and other great contemporary texts of theology and history. Lewis apparently held it such high remark that he briefly embarked on a personal translation of the book, which now survives only in fragments, as seen in A.T. Reyes’ book C.S. Lewis’ Lost Aeneid: Arms and the Exile. He apparently read Virgil enough to quote him in Latin offhand in some of his surviving letters and mentioned that it and Prelude were the two non-Biblical poems he most meditated on during his spiritual journey.
“Lewis learned from meditating on his past and from frequent rereading of the Aeneid (and the Bible) that this world is not our home, that we are merely passing through on the way to a greater country. Such reflections make the Pagan Aeneas morose and stoic, but not the Christian Lewis, for Lewis knew personally, as Aeneas could not, the living and the loving God who propels and orchestrates our eschatological universe. Unlike Aeneas, therefore, Lewis knew many moments of joy and intimacy when the Good, the True, and the Beautiful drew tangibly near. Nevertheless, the lessons of Virgil remained strong in his mind.”C.S. Lewis’s List: The Ten Books That Influenced Him Most, Page 64
Of course, we cannot discuss the work of Virgil without discussing how to affected his most beloved student. Dante Alighieri, the man who wrote the Divine Comedy, wrote of Virgil as his “master.” He alludes to Virgilian concepts throughout his poetry and wrote Virgil as a character into his epic poem. Like many before him, the poem seeded the concepts of prelapsarian paradise and eschatological joy in his heart just as his mind was veering towards despair and nihilism.
“While I was rushing downward to the lowland, Before mine eyes did one present himself, Who seemed from long-continued silence hoarse. When I beheld him in the desert vast, “Have pity on me,” unto him I cried, “Whiche’er thou art, or shade or real man!” He answered me: “Not man; man once I was, And both my parents were of Lombardy, And Mantuans by country both of them. Sub Julio was I born, though it was late, And lived at Rome under the good Augustus, During the time of false and Iying gods. A poet was I, and I sang that just Son of Anchises, who came forth from Troy, After that Ilion the superb was burned… “Now, art thou that Virgilius and that fountain Which spreads abroad so wide a river of speech?” I made response to him with bashful forehead. “O, of the other poets honour and light, Avail me the long study and great love That have impelled me to explore thy volume! Thou art my master, and my author thou, Thou art alone the one from whom I took The beautiful style that has done honour to me.”The Divine Comedy, Canto I, Longfellow Translation
As the literary critic Bernard Knox writes:
“Not only are there striking resemblences between Dante’s account of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso and Book 6 of The Aeneid, not only does he choose Virgil as his guide throug the first two countries of the next world, he thanks him also for the gift of bello stilo, which Virgil had given to the Latin Language, and which Dante has recreated for the Italian.The Aeneid, Introduction, Page 37, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition by Robert Fagles
Just as Aeneas must convert from a Trojan into a Roman, so must the Christian discover his truest self in Christ. For both Lewis and Dante, Virgil was a vital guide in their spiritual journeys that helped them conceptualize the ideas that would come to make them more fully and meaningfully Christian men.
I end with these quotes partially because they’re fun to read, but also because the reflections of these artists reflect the full breadth of this strange work of poetry and the effect it’s had on men from every culture, denomination, and philosophy of the west. The Aeneid captures many of the ugliest and most uncomfortable traits of western civilization; violence, chauvinism, and imperial yearning. It also captures the tensions of all of those things. It speaks to the prelapsarian world that we all yearn for, and then presents the journey we’re all called to take as humans. Whether we’re fundamentalist Protestants, cradle Catholics, converted Anglicans, Pagans, Atheists, or students of Aristotelian virtue, we all find ourselves in a world that is not the one we want to be in. We’re trapped on the seas of life, traveling the pilgrimage from Asia Minor to Rome just as Aeneas and Paul before us, in search of our truest selves.
Just the fact this book contains the multitudes to inspire the spiritual journeys of men from radically different cultures and time periods suggests Virgil may have accidentally struck gold more deeply than he ever imagined. Virgil has been the master of poetry for two thousand years. He’s helped guide people on their journies from the first century onward. The Romans famously took lotteries where they’d read random lines of the poem and try to predict their futures using them. Now we read the poem as the progenitor of Christian thought. Maybe in attempting to challenge Homer for the title of history’s greatest poet, he accidently succeeded in ways he never imagined.
Virgil’s Aeneid is the poem of all Europe – the story of a civilization searching for its truest and most earnest self in the fires of failure and destruction.
+ One of the Most Perfect Works of Poetry to Ever Come Out of the Roman Empire
+ Themes and Ideas that Would be Widely Embraced by the Christian World
+ Fascinating Homage to Homer's Illiad and Odyssey
- Somewhat Derivative Story
- Much of the Poem Feels Superfluous
The Bottom Line
The Aeneid is one of the most essential works of poetry in western history. It's endured for over 2000 years and remains one of the most studied and influential works of literature ever written.