The Flame of Rome
By Matt McKeown
As Jove rescued Æneas from the fires of Troy's destruction, so the divine Augustus saved the Æneid from its author's will.
In the year 683 ab urbe condita (i.e., from the foundation of Rome), in a village in northern Italy, a boy was born to a modestly well-off family. Only fifty-one years later, he died of a fever in Brindisi, near the southern end of the “heel” of the peninsula, asking some friends to dispose quietly of a manuscript he had not had time to finish. However, Emperor Augustus intervened and insisted on its publication; and so the Æneid of Publius Vergilius Maro, known in English as Virgil, was preserved for history.
The Æneid is not the only nor the first of Virgil’s works to be celebrated, even in his own day. His first major compositions were the Eclogues. This collection of pastoral verse drew the notice of one Gaius Mæcenas, a friend of the emperor’s, who gave patronage to a number of poets including Propertius and Horace. The Eclogues reflect something of the chaotic Roman political climate of the first century BC. Glorious hopes for the future are present, but chords of melancholy sound as well; one of the characters in the opening eclogue has lost his ancestral lands, which may be an allusion to the land redistributions Augustus effected as payment to his soldiers. Lost or unrequited loves also recur in several of the Eclogues, and it is from the tenth and last that we get the proverb amor vincit omnia: love conquers all.
After his adoption into Mæcenas’ circle, Virgil composed the Georgics, a didactic poem about farming. Didactic poetry is rather foreign to modern sensibilities, and farming feels like the last thing one would want to write poetry about! But didactic poetry was extremely common in past centuries, especially before literacy became widespread; and while we tend to think of the Romans primarily as conquerors and administrators, they liked to think of themselves as simple farmers. The Eclogues and the Georgics alike appealed strongly to their sense of values and identity (regardless of how realistic that sense was or was not).
But the narrowly-rescued Æneid is Virgil’s masterpiece. It falls, like Paradise Lost, into a class of works that C. S. Lewis called “secondary epic”: epics that draw on and transfigure earlier epic material to achieve their effects. Virgil modeled his epic on the two great works of Homer, in reverse order. Following Æneas, one of a handful of survivors from the sack of Troy, the first six books resemble the Odyssey, as he and his people wander the Mediterranean. The seventh through twelfth books parallel the Iliad, as the proto-Romans arrive in Latium (the central region of Italy, where Rome will one day lie) and have to fight a second war for their survival. The poem lights on many aspects of Roman history, establishing the old enmity with Carthage and alluding to the recent Battle of Actium in the prophetic design of Æneas’ shield.
However, Virgil introduces a new dimension to the narrative. The gods are heavily involved in both the Homeric and the Virgilian work; but the gods of Virgil have a hint of transcendence, and a sense of justice and purpose, that is lacking in the earlier epics. The Trojans are not merely looking for a place to settle: they are sent by Jupiter, to a homeland prepared by fate. The losses and strains of the journey—the deaths of Æneas’ wife and father, the heartbreaking forsaking of Dido, the shipwrecks and desertions—are felt, by both the hero and the reader, to be justified by the high destiny the Trojans are called to. Thematically, they are much more like the Israelites entering Canaan in the Book of Joshua than they are like the Greeks besieging Troy in the Iliad. This idea of a divine vocation elevates the epic in tone and power, and makes the periodic appearances of gods, monsters, and witches feel plausible, which likely accounts for much of the Æneid’s enduring popularity.
And its popularity has indeed endured. The fourth eclogue was widely interpreted as an unconscious prophecy of Christ in the Middle Ages, earning him a reputation as a sort of white magician. (The very fact that we spell his name “Virgil” comes from a pun on the word virga, wand.) Dante, in his own epic of love lost and won, of a just and imperial majesty, and of a divine purpose for man, chose Virgil as his symbolic guide and protector in hell. Few authors have enjoyed such a colossal impact on Western literature.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you liked this post, take a look at some of our other pieces here at the Journal, like this one on St. Augustine or this one on Plutarch, or this three-part series on the role of the great books in the history of Black American education. Or check out our weekly podcast, Anchored, hosted by our CEO and founder Jeremy Tate.