by Gregory Elder, professor of history and humanities at Riverside Community College, Redlands, California
"Unlike Homeric literature or "Gilgamesh," which were produced orally over a long period of time, "The Aeneid" was a composition by one man. At the end of the Roman civil war, shortly before the time of Christ, the emperor Octavian Caesar Augustus hired Virgil to write a poem to rival the great epic sagas of Greece to glorify the Roman state, and in the process glorify Caesar as well.
Virgil's task was all the more difficult, because Augustus Caesar had ended five centuries of republican democracy and replaced it with a military monarchy, which is a hard feat to legitimize. Virgil accepted the commission for a million gold coins and spent the rest of his life writing poetry. He was almost done when he took ill and died, but before his death he ordered the manuscripts burned. Caesar intervened and the imperialist manuscript was saved for posterity. For the next four centuries of the Roman Empire it was the required study of all educated people, and it remained popular in the Middle Ages right down to the modern day.
To glorify the emperor, Virgil avoided tacky subjects such as Caesar's mass executions and proscriptions or Roman war fleets sending their fellow Romans down to the bottom of the sea. Instead, he wrote a poem of the founding of the Roman people in remote antiquity by the alleged ancestor of Augustus, Aeneas, the last surviving prince of Troy. To justify the emperor, Virgil praised the emperor's ancestor who had lived 12 centuries before.
The saga opens with a storm, wrought by the blind fury of the goddess Juno, the vengeful queen of heaven. Juno was still angry at the Trojans because their prince, Paris, had favored Venus in the famous beauty contest of the goddesses. Juno also knew that her favorite people, the Carthaginians, would one day be destroyed by the heirs of the Trojans, the Romans. And so the furious goddess summoned her brother Neptune to call forth a great ocean storm, which pulverized the fleet and washed the survivors onto the shores of Africa, far from Rome and far from home. Virgil's gods and goddesses are quite simple: angry women, idiotic bimbos and wise men. Its not a subtle stereotype to use.
Once he survived the storm, pious Aeneas rallies his fellow survivors of the shipwreck and discovers the city of Carthage and its widow queen, Dido. Matronly Dido assists the shipwrecked Trojans and welcomes them at a banquet, which turns out to be her undoing. Dido asks Aeneas to tell the story of his adventures and he replies with the story of the Trojan Horse and the sack of his city by the cunning Greeks. Romans who heard this story would have doubtless smiled, for it justified their own recent conquest of Greece as appropriate payback. In the tale, Aeneas would have preferred to go down with his kinsmen fighting to the end, as all Romans should, but the gods commanded him to flee the doomed city and to found a new city in the west. As the hero tells the tale, Cupid, that most dangerous sniper of the gods, fires one of his arrows of love into the queen's heart and she falls in love with the Trojan Aeneas. After a short courtship, they end up in a "committed relationship," as we would say these days.
But this love affair irritates Jupiter, the king of the heavens. The high god has ordained that from the Trojan bloodline a people will be raised up to dominate the world forever, and bring order and law to savage peoples from Arabia to Britain, from Germany to Africa. For the Romans, love was a kind of madness, a weakness, which prevented men from clear thinking. Were they right in this, I ask my students" To remind the hero of his duty, Jupiter sends Mercury, the messenger god, to order Aeneas back to active duty and to abandon his love. Aeneas attempts to do this secretly, but his lover discovers his plans to abandon her in the night. She pleads with him and reminds him of their love. Aeneas replies that he never really regarded the relationship as permanent and decides to go. Apparently, men have not changed significantly since this tale was written. But when Aeneas turns to go, Dido curses him and his descendants and prophesies the Punic wars as vengeance, which will bring vast suffering to Rome in the third century B.C.
After many trials, Aeneas and his men land in Italy. But Aeneas knows, as all Romans believed, that dad is always right. But the hero was unable to consult his father because the old man had died. But in order to obey the will of the gods, he still had to speak with the old man. The solution he found, after consulting a prophetess, was to find the path to the land of the dead and visit his father in the underworld. Crossing the river Styx, he meets the dead, including many of the fallen heroes of the Trojan war, and sadly also meets the soul of Dido, who has taken her own life. When he attempts to comfort her, she scorns him and flees into the gloom. At this point in the poem, my female students generally agree that he deserved the snub.
But entering the sunny, grassy fields of Elysium, where heroes are to be found, he meets his father, who shows him a long line of great souls waiting to be born. Aeneas" father points out all the great heroes of Roman history yet to come, except the ones Augustus disliked. Aeneas then sees Caesar Augustus himself, the divinely favored crown of all Roman history. Setting such political propaganda on one side, it's worth noting that the actual Caesar Augustus is the same chap who gets a cameo mention in the New Testament's Christmas story, when "in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled." This decree, the Scripture tells us, caused Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, and there Christ was born. (Luke 2:1) There is an irony here that Virgil's prophecy of an abiding religious empire to be founded in the days of Caesar did indeed come true, but not in the way Virgil or Augustus could have possibly imagined.
After all of this grand prophesy, the hero's father reminds his son of Rome's unique destiny, which was greater than all other nations. He writes, "Others will cast more tenderly in bronze Their breathing figures, I can well believe, And bring more lifelike portraits out of marble Argue more eloquently, use the pointer To trace the paths of heaven accurately And accurately foretell the rising stars.
Roman, remember your strength to rule Earth's peoples " for your arts are to be these to pacify, to impose the rule of law, to spare the conquered, battle down the proud." ("The Aeneid" VI: ll.1145-1154, Fitzgerald translation) Six more chapters of war and conquest will follow this prophecy, but one note remains to be considered while Aeneas is in the underworld. When the time comes to leave the dead and return to the earth, Aeneas is confronted with two doors, one of ivory and one of horn. Through these doors dreams are sent out to the minds of sleeping men, prophetic and true dreams through the door of horn and false dreams through the door of ivory. Virgil tells us that Aeneas took the ivory door, the door of falsehood.
It is odd that Virgil makes the noble ancestor of great Augustus pass through the door of lies before returning to earth to found the Roman line. But it is just a stray verse and one hardly notices it. Indeed, the verse is just small enough to get past the emperor's censors. Perhaps Virgil was sending a quiet message to his more perceptive readers that the whole of his message extolling Augustus and his "divine mission" was actually a lie and a fantasy. Political propaganda, however magnificent and beautiful, and even from the pen of the greatest of authors, remains only that " propaganda. There is a lesson here for modern readers to heed."