Citizens of the twenty-first century, learn from us to respect and honor your traditions. You seem so fascinated with novel, untried ideas that you often overlook the wisdom of the past. If we forget that legacy, we cease to be who we are.
Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with we who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?
Virgil: On Tradition
We Romans are firm believers in tradition. The word “tradition” means “to hand down,” and that is what I and my ancestors have done for a thousand years.
It all began with Aeneas, when Hector’s ghost passed on to him the household gods of Troy and constrained him to take them with him to Italy. From one generation to the next, in an unbroken chain of obligation, those sacred Lares and Penates were handed down. Had any father along the way forsook them or failed to protect them and entrust them to his son, they might well have been lost. But that is not the Roman way.
Citizens of the twenty-first century, learn from us to respect and honor your traditions. You seem so fascinated with novel, untried ideas that you often overlook the wisdom of the past. To make matters worse, you often consider it an argument against a course of action that it has been practiced previously by your father’s generation. You actually seem to think that the new should and must always trump the old.
My friends, that way madness lies. To build a great house, one must have a solid foundation. Only the trees whose roots are strong will survive the storm. A nation cannot move forward unless it is grounded in what came before.
My Rome was made great by the long line of heroes who gave of themselves that the legacy that began with Aeneas would survive and thrive. How did they find the courage to accomplish such things? They found it in the stories that their fathers handed down to them of the heroes that came before. They knew that their heroic acts were not performed in a vacuum, but participated in all the noble actions of their ancestors.
I hope none of you imagine that I invented the deeds of Aeneas out of my own head. Far from it! The memory of those deeds was handed down to me by poets and historians and philosophers. I merely gathered them together and presented them in a fresh, imaginative way that I hoped would preserve them for all time. Since you are still reading my epic today, I trust that I succeeded in my goal.
Tradition does not merely consist in old ways of doing things. Tradition includes the whole storehouse of ideas, actions, passions, and dreams that was entrusted to us by our forebears. If we forget that legacy, we cease to be who we are. We become rootless wanderers cut off from those innumerable invisible ties that give shape and meaning to our individual lives and to the collective life of our nation.
Still, all that is not to say that honoring tradition is the same thing as slavishly imitating it. My counsel to you is not simply to reproduce the past accomplishments of your ancestors, but to build on their actions in such a way as to make something that is, simultaneously, old and new. You honor the past, not by worshipping it as a dead letter, but by letting its spirit invigorate you as you move forward.
Consider one of the cities that Aeneas visited on his long journey to Rome. While sailing along the western coast of Greece, Aeneas, to his great joy and surprise, came upon a city built by Helenus, son of Priam, and his new wife, Andromache, the widow of Hector. With meticulous care, the two displaced Trojans had recreated their lost city in miniature, replete with a small scale model of the mighty Scaean Gates of Troy and a dry rivulet which they named Xanthus, after the swiftly-flowing river which had once supplied their city with its water.
Oh, how my weary Aeneas longed to burn his ships on the spot and spend the rest of his days in this new Troy. But that was not his calling. Were Aeneas merely to rebuild Troy in a new land, he would have dishonored the memory of those who had died when the city went down in flames. He was to honor the tradition of his ancestors by building something better and finer on the bedrock of the past.
So Aeneas learned a second time when, led down the river Tiber by the gods, he came upon that sacred terrain of seven hills that would one day be the city of Rome. As he met and spoke with the lord of that land, he was told a tale of an earlier Golden Age when the gods dwelt with men, and there was peace and plenty for all. Like Troy itself, that Age had passed away and could not be regained, but that did not mean its existence had been in vain.
A time would come when the seeds from that seemingly lost civilization would mingle with the seeds of fallen Troy to create an empire that would establish a new Golden Age that would spread across the Mediterranean from Italy to Greece to Asia Minor to North Africa.
But before that happened, one more wrestling with tradition had to take place, a wrestling that, to my mind, embodies the very nature of maturity and defines a good kind of change that builds on, rather than effaces, the past.
From the moment Aeneas left Troy, he had been dogged and shadowed and menaced by the wrathful Juno, wife of Jupiter. It was she who blew him off course again and again, who helped to orchestrate his failed romance with Dido, who brought rebellion to Aeneas’s crew and civil war to Italy.
Only at the end, and at the insistence of Jupiter, did Juno finally lay aside her wrath—but at a price. If it was Jupiter’s unalterable will that the Trojan survivors should establish themselves in Italy and lay the foundation for Rome, so be it. But they must only be allowed to do so by the loss of their name. They must merge fully with the Italians, taking on their traditions and uniting them with their own.
And so, my friends, by that strange and glorious mingling was Rome truly born. Nothing precious from her Trojan heritage was lost, but much was gained that made that heritage all the more precious, all the more unique, all the more lasting.
May your age learn to do the same!
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from “Æneas and His Father Fleeing Troy” (c. 1635) by Simon Vouet (1590-1649), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.