Some Christians wonder if there is value in reading pagan classics like “The Aeneid.” I argue that we do well to interact with the stories that have shaped our world and to see how they glimpse, and miss, the truths of divine revelation.
I recently re-read The Aeneid with some of my older sons as part of their schooling. We had just recently read The Odyssey and Herodotus, and, to us, The Aeneid significantly paled in comparison. I am sure this is in some way rooted in weakness on our part. However, while the work was not as engaging, I realized several ways in which my understanding was enhanced as I read The Aeneid once again.
Some Christians wonder if there is value in reading such pagan classics (despite the fact that Christians have read these with profit for centuries), so I thought it might be worthwhile for me to share a few observations about how The Aeneid helped and challenged us:
1. First, woe to those who would live under such gods! All the Greek and Roman myths make this clear, but it was a good reminder once again how capricious and deceptive these gods are. They change their plans and allegiances readily and provide scanty assurance for humans. This makes me appreciate all the more the character of the one, true God and the privilege of knowing Him. The holiness of Yahweh stands out brilliantly against the backdrop of these gods. Unlike Jove he never deceives or seduces women. He is never duped by other gods. This is why the Psalms so often refer to this faithful God as our Refuge, Rock, or Fortress. It is important to know that our Redeemer is such a God.
When the gospel first spread around the Mediterranean world, it proclaimed this Christian God in contrast to the gods of The Aeneid. No wonder many found this portrait of God so compelling.
2. The Aeneid raises the question of the purpose of life. In The Aeneid, glory trumps all. The chief end of man is to achieve fame, to do something brave or honorable enough that people will never forget. Thus one young man says to another, “I hold life well spent to buy that glory you aspire to” (9.181-82) as he joins him in a bold exploit which will cost their lives. Or in another place it is stated:
“Every man’s last day is fixed.
Lifetimes are brief, and not to be regained,
For all mankind. But by their deeds to make
Their fame last: that is labor for the brave” (10.650-53)
The goal of life is to achieve eternal fame. However, while bravery and honor are important, according to the Bible they are not the ultimate end of man. Pleasing God is. In The Aeneid there is concern for pleasing the gods, but it is not the ultimate goal. If you can achieve glory by opposing the gods, then that is greater. Perhaps this is due to the fact that it was so hard to figure out exactly what would please these gods!
If humanity were our only audience, then the Roman outlook (portrayed by Virgil) would be correct. But, if God is also our audience, then His opinion matters more than men’s. Then it remains true that life is brief and that we must make the most of it. However, lasting fame from men for bravery would not be the highest good. Lasting approval from God would be the goal, and He tells us that comes first from trusting Him, and then by obeying Him. Thus Paul says, “We also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him [God]” (2 Cor 5:9).
3. The problem with one-night stands is illustrated with devastating clarity. The Aeneas and Dido story is paradigmatic. Having fallen for Aeneas, Dido gives herself to him fully, thinking that he has, for all practical purposes, married her. In the end he says, “Well, not really.” The heartache and destruction that follow are typical. It does not help that in the story, Aeneas has to abandon her in order to obey the gods. Virgil refers to “the grief of lovers bound unequally by love” (4.721-22), referring to the problem that arises when one is more devoted than the other. This is why vows of marriage are to be exacted before consummation, to call both parties to declare an equal commitment. Of course, Virgil’s language might remind us as well of Paul’s warning about being unequally bound (2 Cor 6:14).
4. Virgil nails the problem of hubris. In spite of the differences Christians must have with Virgil, he is helpful in pointing out the problem of overweening pride. The following line is my favorite on this point:
“The minds of men are ignorant of fate
And of their future lot, unskilled to keep
Due measure when some triumph sets them high” (10.701-03)
Indeed. Virgil has taken the measure of the human condition. We are unskilled at keeping a reasonable assessment of ourselves once we have some success. So Spurgeon also once stated,
“Consciousness of self-importance is a hateful delusion, but one into which we fall as naturally as weeds grow on a dunghill. We cannot be used of the Lord but what we also dream of personal greatness, we think ourselves almost indispensable to the church, pillars of the cause, and foundations of the temple of God.”
5. Virgil unintentionally highlights the significance of the resurrection. Aeneas (like Odysseus in Homer) is required to descend to the Underworld and return. He is told,
“The way downward is easy from Avernus,
Black Dis’s door stands open night and day.
But to retrace your steps to heaven’s air,
There is the trouble, there is the toil” (6.187-90)
Everyone eventually follows the “way downward” but coming back to the land of the living “There is the trouble”! Of course, Aeneas is successful (like Odysseus before him), but it is interesting to find in this first-century, foundational Roman story this point about the difficulty of coming back from the dead. The Christian message that storms the Roman world is that Jesus did not just slip into the Underworld, but actually died and then accomplished “the toil” of returning to life. The Christian message then declares that Jesus accomplished this on behalf of all who believe in him, so that all believers—not just the heroes of the epics—can experience this resurrection.
6. In Virgil (indeed in all of Greco-Roman mythology), the world as we know it came to be as a result of a war in heaven. The Titans did rule but were overthrown by their children, the current gods. It struck me that this has parallels in the Bible. Here also there was a rebellion in heaven where one of the “sons of God,” an angel, sought to overthrow the Almighty. However, in the Bible the rebellion failed. It is no surprise that the fallen story presents the rebellion as successful.
7. Virgil follows Greco-Roman mythology in that a bad marriage is central to the way history plays. The discord between Juno and Jupiter is central to the Trojan War as well as to the wanderings of Aeneas. This relates to my point above about the difficulty of living under such gods. But here I find once more that the pagan myth is on to something. Marriage is indeed central to the cosmos, to the working-out of history, and the central marriage is troubled. He institutes human marriage at the beginning for various purposes, including prefiguring his plan to redeem for himself a people, to call out a Bride for his Son (Eph 5). So the working-out of history is to a large degree the story of this marriage. And the marriage is troubled, but not because the Groom is lustful and unfaithful. Rather, it is because the Bride is inconstant. Nonetheless, the biblical story, unlike Greco-Roman mythology, has a conclusion, in which the Groom redeems, restores, and sanctifies his Bride. Thus, at least Virgil does understand that human marriage reflects spiritual realities that shape the story of humanity.
These are a few reflections from my own, non-professional reading of Virgil. We do well to interact with the stories that have shaped our world and to see how they glimpse, and miss, the truths of divine revelation. This can be instructive—and fun, as well.
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The featured image is “Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia” (1787) by Jean-Joseph Taillasson 1745-1809 and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.