The “Aeneid” was only possible because the Roman people had the memory and consciousness to make it possible. It is up to us to ensure that its living well of memory doesn’t dry up. Without it, the “Aeneid” will pass into the dustbin of history like the corpses of Priam and Pompey.
The grandest image of Virgil’s Aeneid is the shield forged by the god Vulcan in the eighth book of Aeneas’ adventure to “Lavinian shores and Italian soil.” Virgil pays homage to Homer, his master and mentor, who also describes a grand image on a shield forged by the gods for Achilles. But where Achilles’ shield is filled with the images of mythos and pathos, Aeneas’ shield is filled with the spectacle of history and triumph. In the two shields from the two poets, we see the supersession of mythos and pathos with historical memory.
Poetry as a medium for history is quintessentially Roman and is the enduring invention of Virgil. The Greeks had poetry and Homer wrote poetry. But Homer’s epic is not filled with the memory of history as is Virgil’s Aeneid, and Greek poetry doesn’t rely on the recourse to history to move the story forward as Virgil’s Aeneid does. The Aeneid, in many ways, is self-conscious of history. Even the supposed mythological stories that lay at the heart of the epic are filled with the imagery of Roman memory and prefigure the memory of Roman history.
When Aeneas makes landfall in the safe harbors of Carthage and is introduced to the erotically charged and voluptuous queen of the land, Dido, he sooths her with his voice in retelling the destruction of Troy. When Aeneas weeps for Priam, “[T]he monarch who once had ruled in all his glory the many lands of Asia, Asia’s many tribes. A powerful trunk lying on the shore. The head wrenched from the shoulders. A corpse without a name,” (2.688-692) Virgil recourses to imagery and memory of Pompey in describing the tragic fate of the King of Troy. As the great classicist Bernard Knox says, “Any Roman who read these lines in the years after Virgil’s poem was published or heard them recited would at once remember a real and recent ruler over ‘the many lands of Asia,’ whose headless corpse lay on the shore. It was the corpse of Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey), who had been ruler of all the lands of Asia.”
Priam and Pompey are therefore associated together as tragic figures. Both men represent the old, the past, hewn down by the fires of war and the birth of the new. Indeed, this dynamic relationship between past and present, between old and new, is a major theme throughout the poem. Both men situated themselves, at least in death, in the Orient. Both men, at least in death, were cut down by warriors from the west. Of course, this Occidental-Oriental tension is also played out through the epic just as it was playing out in the real lives of the Roman readers and listeners of Virgil, which is somewhat ironic given Rome’s geographic position in the Occident which adds to the sense of ironic tension in the minds of Virgil’s Roman readers. (We’ll return to this subject in a bit.)
The relationship between Aeneas and Dido is heartbreaking, to say the least. Dido’s previous husband had been killed which forced her, and her attendants, to flee across the Mediterranean. Being a migratory people, she opens herself to fellow migrants. Aeneas is enraptured by Dido and Dido by Aeneas. Had Aeneas not been the chosen vessel to “found a city, bring [the] gods to Latium, source of the Latin race, the Alban lords and the high walls of Rome,” he would have stayed in Carthage to consummate their love. But the gods, as we know, had other intentions; and history, as we know, cannot stop.
Dido’s death is filled with the memory of the Punic Wars. Dido’s death-devoted heart thrusts her atop a pyre to kill herself while cursing eternal vengeance on the children of Aeneas. Dido’s curse, of course, provides a mytho-poetic justification for the three Punic Wars that Carthage and Rome fought for supremacy over the Mediterranean and, as such, for the future of Western civilization. Moreover, Dido’s death in an immolating flame would have been something Virgil’s Roman audience knew well. The death of Dido in an all-consuming fire evokes the memory of the burning of Carthage and Cato the Elder’s famous proclamation “delendam esse Carthaginem.”
During the Third Punic War the Romans had laid siege to the once great city and jewel of the Mediterranean. After a three year long siege the Romans stormed the city and put an end to the Carthaginian threat once and for all. Scipio Africanus the Younger, the commanding general of the Roman army, torched the city to prevent Carthage from ever being a thorn in the side of Rome’s ambitions again. The city burned and burned leaving not a single stone atop another.
The death of Dido by fiery immolation as she thrust Aeneas’ blade (a symbol of war) into her breast only to collapse in the engulfing flames is nothing more or less than the haunting memory of the Punic Wars which nearly laid waste to Rome and the violent destruction of the North African city by sword and fire. Carthage became for Rome what Sodom and Gomorrah was to Abraham and Lot. Carthage was laid waste and became a city of burnt ash and salt just as the image of Dido’s death reminds us.
The culminating battle between Aeneas and the Latins, led by Turnus, is also filled with the repository of Roman history and consciousness. Rome, we must recall, started out as a single city among many cities in the Italian Peninsula. The Latin race was not yet united under a single political banner. The Latins were diverse and the peninsula reminiscent of Hellenic Greece in being a collection of city-states and colonies. As Rome expanded outside of her seven hills she came into a series of deadly conflicts with the neighboring peoples. And the war between the Trojans and the Latin shepherds and hunters, who formed a substantial portion of Turnus’ army, reminds the Roman reader of the three centuries of the Latin Wars fought to bring unification to the Italian peninsula under those “high walls of Rome.”
Additionally, the fact that Turnus is the leader of the Latin armies also represents the complicated legacy of Greek colonization and the Roman-Hellenic Wars where Rome eventually triumphed over the sons of Achilles and Alexander. Prior to the Latin Wars, the Greeks were the most powerful and advanced people on the Italian peninsula. The Etruscans may have been tyrannical, but the Greek colonies on the southern portion of the peninsula were always a mark of embarrassment for the Romans. They were not Greek. And they took no pride in Greek subversion of Roman culture. Cato the Elder went as far as to expel the Greek playwrights and intellectuals for subverting the martial and manly virtues and values of the Roman people.
It is fitting that the triumph of Rome comes at the expense of a great warrior who has Greek blood coursing through his veins. Turnus is the Achilles of the West. Like his Greek forebear, Turnus is a man who cannot control his passions. Enraged that Lavinia is now promised to Aeneas, he gathers his allies and armies to make war in the name of Eros and Thanatos. Yet this image is also reminiscent of another man who brought the world to war because of his lust for a woman, a man who would appear in the culminating image of the shield of Achilles, though on the losing side. Turnus is not only the Achilles of the West and the specter of Greece over Italy, he is also Mark Antony and the specter of his passion which brought Rome further down the hole of war.
In fact, the conflict between laboring and dutiful Aeneas with erotic and pathological Turnus is the great clash of civilizations. Cato the Elder wrote the first Latin history of the Romans and, as mentioned, was famous for his anti-Greek views. Cato believed that Greek softness would destroy the traditional values of the Roman people. The pathological nature of the Greeks, especially as contained in their literature, led Cato to conclude that if Greek ideas infiltrated Roman culture they would lead to the moral degeneration of the Romans. Hence why he expelled the Greek playwrights and intellectuals when he was consul. Cato defended the laboring nature of the Romans and their dedication to filial piety against the erotic and self-centered conceit of the Greeks. This is recapitulated in Aeneas as the model Roman, hard-working and dutiful to the gods and his father, and Turnus, the model Greek (as imagined by Cato), who is pathological and moved by emotion more than duty or rationality.
The real reason that Turnus is slayed by Aeneas is because Rome had emerged victorious in the unification of Italy, expelled the Greeks from the peninsula, and defeated the Greeks in the Roman-Greek wars. Turnus—who “track[ed] down [his] roots [to] Inachus and Acrisius, Mycenae to the core!”—had to die at the hand of the founding father of Rome because Aeneas’ killing of Turnus prefigures the Roman subjugation of the Greeks and the extirpation of the Mycenaean counterweight to Rome. The slaying of the Achilles of the West reminds the Roman reader of the long and arduous struggle against Greece.
In killing Turnus, Aeneas throws off the dark specter of Greece haunting Rome and vindicates Cato the Elder. (We mustn’t forget that the enemies and murderers of Julius Caesar took refuge in Greece and were assailed as Greeks rather than as Romans.)
But before Aeneas could slay Turnus, Vulcan had to forge a shield so that Aeneas could wield it into battle. The shield is composed of many of the great images of Roman history. As Virgil describes the shield forged in the laboring fire of Vulcan’s forge:
There is the story of Italy,
Rome in all her triumphs. There the fire-god forged them,
well aware of the seers and schooled in times to come . . .
the mother wolf stretched out in the green grotto of Mars,
twin boys at her dugs, who hung there, frisky, suckling
without a fear as she with her lithe neck bent back,
stroking each in turn, licked her wolf pups
into shape with a mother’s tongue.
Not far from there
he had forged Rome as well and the Sabine women
brutally dragged from the crowded bowl . . .
And here in the heart
of the shield: the bronze ships, the Battle of Actium,
you could see it all, the world drawn up for war,
Leucata Headland seething, the breakers molten gold.
On one flank, Caesar Augustus leading Italy into battle,
the Senate and people too, the gods of hearth and home
and the great gods themselves. . . .
And opposing them comes Antony leading on
the riches of the Orient, troops of every stripe—
victory over the nations of the Dawn and blood-red shores
and in his retinue, Egypt, all the might of the East
and Bactra, the end of the earth, and trailing
in his wake, that outrage, that Egyptian wife! (8.743-808)
The very shield that Aeneas carries into battle bears the stamp of Rome’s mastery of the world. There is no mistaking that Aeneas will prevail as the victor over his rivals. The central masterpiece of Vulcan’s laborious effort is the great battle of Actium, the final victory of Rome over the Oriental barbarians (or so conceived in the mind of the Romans) and the Romanization of the world. The Battle of Actium, on the shield Aeneas carries with him into battle, is presented as the culminating triumph of Rome, of civilization, of duty and labor against the spirit of pathos and eros that enslaved the Orient (including the Greeks) and needed slaying by its contrasting spirit of laborem and pietas (embodied by Aeneas and the Romans).
That Aeneas marches off to war with a shield telling the story of Rome ensures that the shield also reminds Roman readers of the hardship of civilization and the labor involved in producing Romanitas. The story of Rome, which Virgil’s readers and listeners would have known well, thus began with Aeneas and the story which Virgil was now telling. The hardship of civilization is the very seed of Rome. Additionally, the unity between laborem and pietas in the epic is bound up in the shield itself. The shield is a product of labor that was forged through hard-work and is the instrument of Italy’s civilizing. Turnus, by contrast, plunders and steals; after killing Pallas, Turnus takes his battle belt as a trophy. Aeneas’ duty, his laboring duty, is to bring civilization to Italy (and the world) through the sword and shield.
The shield, then, bearing in it the labor of Vulcan and telling the story of Rome’s triumph over the world, entirely foreshadows and prefigures the subsequent thousand years of history up to the time of Virgil and Augustus Caesar. Aeneas’ battle against Turnus, the Latins, and the barbarians who aid him, is nothing less than a mytho-poetic recapitulation of the memories of Rome’s historical battles against the Latins to unify Italy, her conflicts with the Greeks, and the final destruction “of the Orient” and its “troops of every stripe,” which marked the triumph of civilization and the will of the gods. The triumph of Augustus Caesar at the Battle of Actium and the restoration of order to a disordered world is, therefore, the continuation of what Aeneas had begun in bringing order to the disordered world of Italy.
The war with Turnus and his allies calls to mind the very culminating battle for civilization itself: The Battle of Actium with the forces of labor, duty, and order arrayed against the forces of pathological eros and disorder. The “troops of every stripe” that constituted Antony’s army are the same diverse multitude of troops who fight with Turnus. “Men in their prime from Argos, ranks of Auruncans, Rutulians, Sicanian veterans on in years, Sacranians in columns, Labicians bearing their painted shields . . . topping off the armies rides Camilla, sprung from the Volscian people” (7.922-934). As Virgil described the brilliant and shining gathering of the armies, and especially Turnus, “his build magnificent,” the Roman audience would have been instantly reminded of that grand glittering of bronze ships and armies that is the central image on Aeneas’ shield of war, which also marked the end of Hellenism and the beginning of Romanitas just as the death of Turnus symbolized the same throwing off of the Greek specter over Rome and the world.
While Homer was providing a new poetic metaphysic in his epic, Virgil’s project was just as ambitious if not grander in reaching into the wellspring of memory and Roman self-consciousness to fill his epic with allusions and direct references to the very images and stories which moved the Roman heart and soul; indeed, the soul of the West, precisely because of Aeneas’ triumph over Turnus and his “troops of every stripe” was the victory of Western civilization over its competitors. Virgil was interested in telling the story of Rome by going back into its past and relating how the seed of the past will blossom into the flower of the future. Instead of drawing on mythological consciousness and imagery, as Homer did, Virgil tapped from the living memory of history and the personages that had moved history forward to its bloody climax at Actium.
Just as part of the Roman understanding of themselves was bringing order to a disorderly world, or at least that is how Augustus Caesar understood his place and role in history, the story of Aeneas is very much of a princely warrior bringing order to a disordered world as hitherto mentioned—an image that Virgil’s readers would have all too readily equated with Augustus Caesar, whom is prophesied about during Aeneas’ descent into the underworld. When Aeneas and the wayfaring Trojans make landfall in Italy we get a foreshadowing of this long and arduous struggle for civilization: “That sight was bruited about as a sign of wonder, terror: for Lavinia, prophets sang of a brilliant fame to come, for the people they foretold a long, grueling war.” War is how order is brought about in the Roman psyche. And war certainly dominated the recent memory of the Roman people. There was rarely a decade without war, especially in the century leading up to the coronation of Augustus Caesar. Thus, it isn’t surprising the climax and culminating chapters of the Aeneid deal with war.
The war that Aeneas wages is necessary to bring us up to the present day (Virgil’s present day) with Augustus Caesar as the new Aeneas. All history, Virgil informs us, had been moving to the glorious victory of Augustus at Actium and the extension of those “high walls of Rome” over Europe and Asia. As Virgil says, “How Fate compelled the worlds of Europe and Asia to clash in war! All people know the story, all at the earth’s edge, cut off where the rolling Ocean pounds them back and all whom the ruthless Sun in the torrid zone, arching amidst the four cool zones of the earth sunders far from us” (7.255-261).
That clashing of Europe and Asia, so recent in the memory of Romans as men like Crassus, Pompey, and Julius Caesar all ventured into the Orient, is thus placed back as the very founding movement of Roman history. The clashing of Europe and Asia in the Aeneid evokes the exotic adventures and “grueling war[s]” against Parthia, Egypt, and the Jews which had recently transpired. Again, in reading or listening to these words the Roman reader would have instantly known what Virgil was describing and deliberately evoking.
Virgil’s ability to draw from such a diverse and extensive wellspring of memory and consciousness testifies to his genius and the importance of story, memory, and consciousness to the Roman people. Every sentence of Virgil’s grand epic touches the memory of his readers. It awakens and enlightens the mind and moves the soul to pity, compassion, and anger all the same.
This reaching into the wellspring of consciousness, of memory, of history, is the leitmotif that Virgil employs to push his story forward. As he needs, he taps into the living memory of the Roman mind to produce the grandest of imagery drawn from the reality of Roman history. In fact, from Dido to Turnus—the Punic Wars to the Greek Wars—we see the progression of the epic as contingently tied to the memory of Rome’s chronological history, culminating, of course, with the Battle of Actium and the triumph of order and civilization. And that is precisely how the epic ends, with a grand battle and the triumph of order and civilization in a strange and disordered land. The closing of the Aeneid is the image of the Battle of Actium and the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra.
In an age when other histories of Rome were being written, Virgil had the audacity to tap into the living wellspring of the Roman psyche and tell a tale that T.S. Eliot rightly called “our classic.” Virgil’s epic will remain the quintessential Western epic, so long as there is a West whose patrimony runs through the same history and personages that moved the Aeneid from start to finish. Virgil draws on the consciousness of memory and history to fill his story with the particular consciousness of a particular people and their particular patrimony. Yet it wasn’t until the 20th century that the memorialized historical consciousness which Virgil drew on was the memorialized historical consciousness that the West taught and romanticized in art, music, and poetry. The memorialized historical consciousness that Virgil drew from was the same that Pascal drew from when he wrote in his Pensées, “How fine it is to see, with the eyes of faith, Darius and Cyrus, Alexander, the Romans, Pompey and Herod working, without knowing it, for the glory of the Gospel!”
To construct the past, the mystic seed of Rome’s origin, Virgil dipped into the living consciousness of the present. In doing so he united past and present together. Indeed, he offered a comforting future from this union of past and present in challenging and changing times. The liveliness of the Aeneid, its blushing and passionate characters and their actions, were drawn from the realities of history and Rome’s lived experience.
The Aeneid was only possible because the Roman people had the memory and consciousness to make it possible. Virgil’s well of memory was living when he wrote his masterpiece. It is up to us to ensure that its living well of memory doesn’t dry up. Without it, the Aeneid will pass into the dustbin of history like the corpses of Priam and Pompey.
Author’s Note: All citations of the Aeneid are from the translation by Robert Fagles.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Venus Receiving the Arms of Aeneas from Vulcan” (c. 1630) by Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.