“What god can help me tell so dread a story?
Who could describe that carnage in a song - “
Well, the answer of course is Virgil, a poet of the era of Augustus’ Rome. Why does he write it? Many literary critics have condemned the Aeneid for being state propaganda. Of course it is. Openly, proudly so! Many others have condemned it for connecting strongly to other epic poems of the Ancient world, most notably of course Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Of course it does. Openly, proudly so!
The Aeneid is a perfect example of a change of imperial power and education from one dynasty or area in the world to another, a “translatio imperii et studii”. Whenever empires rise, and are in need of legitimacy, they make sure to incorporate literature, art and other cultural achievements of suppressed or defeated powers, thus creating a fictitious historical connection that justifies their claims to greatness and world dominance.
The Greek culture has been widely exploited to establish a tradition of unbroken rule and lawful power in Europe, and the Aeneid is an early example of fiction supporting the dynastic claims of a whole people.
Constructed as a sequel to the Iliad, and thus taking place at the same time as the Odyssey, it tells the story of Trojan refugee Aeneas and his family, who are on a quest to find a new home for themselves after surviving the destruction of Troy by the Greeks. After many adventures, mirroring Ulysses’ problematic navigation in the tricky waters of the Mediterranean, they land in the country where “fate” tells them to found a new empire based on Aeneas’ descendants. Here they turn from refugees to usurpers of power and fight a bloody war to finally declare themselves victors over the native peoples in the area which will become known as Rome, or Italy.
So far, so good. Translatio imperii, check!
Roman culture is in many ways a direct copy and paste of earlier Greek achievements, and their Olympus is mostly identical, just renamed. But there are peculiarities within the Aeneid that give it a specific flavour and make it enjoyable to read.
For example, Aeneas’ visit to the Underworld is hilarious, and he meets both past and future celebrities of his tribe. The modern reader may wonder how life in the Underworld works out practically, with Creusa, Dido, and eventually also Lavinia all joined together in their love for Aeneas? Is polygamy acceptable in the Underworld, if it is only practised as serial monogamy on earth? But those are amusing, theological reflections that the heroes do not dwell on.
Much more interesting are the godly powers that support or oppose Aeneas’ cause, with Venus, his mother, being his most ardent advocate in Olympus, and with Juno being his most hateful enemy. A combination that puts Jupiter in a pickle, of course.
Aeneas manages to have weapons of mass destruction delivered by the joint effort of Venus and Vulcan, and it is of peculiar interest to archaeologists that his shield carries the future of Rome written down for him: a prophetic text! Or a wonderfully amusing way to establish legitimacy through translatio historiae? Rewriting history when needed for political purposes is not an invention of Orwell’s 1984
. Dante later added his own journey to the Underworld under the guidance of experienced traveller Virgil - translatio studii - as illustrated in The Divine Comedy
, and beautifully painted by Delacroix, in another simultaneous leap forwards and backwards in history, creating connections between times and characters:
What made me read the ancient text, and stick it out until the end, despite being frustrated at times when the war turned into repetitive, graphically described slaughter, involving heads cut open so that brains are split in half, and any other imaginable mutilation of human bodies, over page after page?
There is the interesting question of heroic ideal, alive and terrifyingly deadly still in World War I and II, of “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, the famous line from Virgil’s contemporary Horace’s Odes. One young man in the Aeneid puts it quite bluntly: if I win, I will bring home lots of booty, and if I fall, I will be an immortal hero. Either way, my father will be proud.
There are the relationships between men and women, and the role of women in general. Camilla, the warrior virgin modelled on Amazons Hippolyta or Penthesilea, the mighty Carthaginian queen Dido, who has a strong mind of her own, and Lavinia, the booty for the winner in the war, are all different representatives of ancient women’s roles and status in society. For the modern reader, the goddesses in the Olympian council are more amusing types, playing the political advocates of the causes they support, fearlessly, adamantly, and in eternal frustration over the slow pace of the action, and over the cacophony of a polytheistic assembly, all with equal right to speak and lobby - and to which they add incessantly. Quite like international committees nowadays, weighing different claims, needs and justice against each other!
General verdict: if you love mythology, historical processes as mirrored in fiction, graphic war scenes, unhappy love, and stormy seas, as well as the neverending story of human fight for power and legitimacy, then the Aeneid is highly recommended.
I enjoyed it all, and will close with a bow to Dido, my favourite ancient, tragic heroine so far! She did not really get a chance, representing Carthage. Her suicide was a necessary construction to symbolise the wars to come:
Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam, said Cato, and Dido was just one of many to suffer from Roman power play. A mighty queen, nonetheless!