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The Aeneid

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Robert Baird View Drop Down

Joined: 24 Mar 2016
Location: Nanaimo, BC, Ca
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    Posted: 29 Mar 2016 at 07:00
  1. The Aeneid

    This is my response to a very laudatory article on Virgil's great work of Empire promotion which he properly documents had a major enduring impact until very recent times.

    Yes all true; but also true is the extent to which Empires have lied, cajoled and outright performed the most heinous acts (See John Paul II in 1999 apologizing for two millennia of those acts). Such a tortured history is the basis for sovereign rights after the Treaty of Westphalia which still maintains the boot of the second Reich on the neck of this planet's poor people.

    "In 1944, in his presidential address to the newly founded Virgil Society, T. S. Eliot called Virgil’s Aeneid ‘the classic of all Europe’, and made the claim that ‘Virgil acquires the centrality of the unique classic; he is at the centre of European civilization, in a position which no other poet can share or usurp.’ Seventy years later the Virgil Society still meets regularly in London, but Virgil has lost the centrality he once had in western education and culture. Yet the story of the responses to Virgil’s epic over the last two thousand years, in poetry, drama, music and opera, and the visual arts, remains a central part of the history of western civilization.

    The enduring impact of Virgil’s last and greatest work, the Aeneid, is the result of a unique coincidence of moments in political and literary history at the time of its writing in the 20s BCE. In terms of political history, this was the decade in which the first Roman emperor, Augustus, established his new regime after the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. In an epic that is both praise of and critical engagement with the new order, Virgil tells the story of the Trojan hero Aeneas, legendary ancestor of the Romans and, more particularly, of the Julian family of Julius Caesar, of which Augustus was a member by adoption. Aeneas flees from his home city Troy, sacked by the Greeks at the end of the Trojan War, to a land in the west, Italy, where he marries an Italian princess and founds a new city, to be followed in time by the foundation of Rome. The Aeneid is an epic about origins and roots, a charter myth both for the city of Rome and for the foundation of the Augustan principate, the Roman Empire that would survive until the sack of Rome in 410 CE, to be revived in the thousand-year long Holy Roman Empire which lasted from the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 CE until its abolition by Napoleon. {Then he was invested as the Holy Roman Emperor - so it was not ended.} The Augustan principate was also a model for other imperial and monarchical powers. The Aeneid provided a template for many later epics, both in Latin and modern European languages, celebrating kings and emperors, or tracing legendary and historical foundations. For example, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, a romance epic which gives poetic form to the ideology of the British Protestant state under its queen Elizabeth I, is heavily indebted to the Virgilian model. As late as the late nineteenth century Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, drawing on a British legend of origins, have been seen as poems in a Virgilian tradition, both celebrating British empire and drawing attention to its costs.

    In terms of literary history, the Aeneid is the supreme monument of Augustan poetry, the body of works by Virgil, Horace, Propertius, Ovid, and others, which for the first time created a canon of literature in Latin that could stand comparison with the classics of Greek literature, imitated and emulated by Roman poets. The Aeneid pays homage to and challenges the epics of Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey, seen as the very summits of literature in antiquity. From the time of Virgil’s death in 19 BCE the Aeneid was indeed the central classic and school-text of first pagan and then Christian Rome, and subsequently of post-classical Europe, in whose schools the reading of ancient Latin authors was at the heart of the syllabus down to the first half of the twentieth century. The post-Virgilian Roman epics of Ovid, Lucan, Statius and Claudian, all of which have had a major afterlife in the post-classical world, all engage intensively, and often critically, with the Aeneid.

    A long line of Christian epics, beginning in the fourth century, rewrites the stories of the Bible in the elevated language and metre of the Aeneid. One example is the now little-read, but once well-known, Christiad, on the last days of Christ, by the sixteenth-century Italian neo-Latin poet Girolamo Vida, whom Alexander Pope mentioned in the same breath as Raphael as one of the luminaries of the Italian Renaissance. Vida is also praised, and imitated, by Milton, whose biblical epic Paradise Lost occupied, at least until recently, a position in English literature comparable to that of the Aeneid in Roman literature. Milton’s epic is a challenge in English to the Aeneid, as Virgil’s Latin epic challenged the Greek Homer. The Republican Milton elevates the values of the kingdom of God over those of earthly kingdoms and empires: the closing prophecy of the Second Coming with the promise of ‘New heavens, new earth, ages of endless date | Founded in righteousness and peace and love’ (Paradise Lost 12.549-50) corrects the promise of Virgil’s Jupiter to his daughter Venus that the Roman descendants of her son Aeneas will have ‘an empire without end’ (Aeneid 1.279). The universal rule of the Christian God replaces the universal Roman empire, whose providential history is plotted in the Aeneid.

    Another significant displacement is from Italy, the land in the west from the Trojan Aeneas’ perspective, to lands still further west, the New World of the Americas. The Aeneid’s story of a fated journey to an unknown land by a hero who brings his gods with him was easily adapted to epic poems on the voyages of Columbus, and the bringing of Christianity to the American heathen. An early example of New World Latin epic is the last book of Girolamo Fracastoro’s Syphilis (1530), the poem which gave its name to the disease, and which tells of the discovery of a cure for syphilis in the New World. The Protestant settlers in North America also saw analogies between Aeneas’ journey of destiny to Italy and their own flight from a corrupt Old World to a New World.

    The Aeneid offers a legend of origins for the momentous wars between the Romans and the Carthaginians in the story of Aeneas and Dido, the Carthaginian queen whose love turns to hate when the Trojan leader abandons her, at the command of the gods. This tale of tragic love has always been the most popular part of the Aeneid, and has called forth many responses and imitations. In his Confessions St Augustine reproaches himself for weeping for Dido when he read Virgil at school, rather than weeping for his own spiritual death. {I wonder if this guy knows how true that is?} There are countless paintings of Dido, above all of her suicide in her despair at Aeneas’ departure, and a good hundred operas on the Dido story, of which Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Berlioz’ Trojans are classics in the repertory."

Not only is Virgil used as a template for continuing writers promoting varied outreaches of Empire - it is a road map that continues to shine a light for concepts such as Manifest Destiny as we see here.

Roman, remember by 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.

This passage is part of the speech Anchises delivers to Aeneas in the underworld, in Book VI, as he unfolds for his son the destiny of Rome. Virgil places his own political ideals in the mouth of the wise father, warning that the Roman nation should be more merciful than violent, even in its conquests. Virgil here propounds the values for which he wants Rome to stand, and which he believes he has, in his own time, let guide him. Anchises’s rhetoric here about the Roman Empire’s justification for its conquering of other peoples expresses the same justification that Aeneas and the Trojans make for settling in Rome. They defend their invasion by arguing that they bring justice, law, and warfare—with which they “pacify” and “battle down”—to the conquered. Especially in modern times, critics and readers have taken passages such as this one and labeled them propaganda for the Augustan regime. This criticism is valid, but when the values of a regime are expressed by a poet who shares those values, the line between art and propaganda becomes blurry."


Is Divine Providence the same ideological propaganda as the Divine Right of Kings which is still ensconced in our laws since the Treaty of Westphalia handed off the responsibilities of Kings to nations?

"Out of that chaos, like a Lotus flower out of pond muck, rose Octavian, later known as Emperor Augustus. Virgil was in Octavian’s social circle and began writing the Aeneid as Octavian consolidated his power, following his naval victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BCE.

Shrewd and subtle, Octavian was careful to avoid the mistakes of his great-uncle and adoptive father, Julius Caesar, who had begun to resemble a king — a dirty word to the Romans — and was murdered. So Octavian never called himself a king, but a princeps — “first head,” as in leading citizen (whence our word prince).

Over time, Octavian allowed the Senate and people of Rome — his genius manifested itself in this psychological coup — to bestow upon him ever greater powers and titles, increasingly mocking the non-use of the word king. In 27 BCE, the Senate began calling him Augustus, the august or blessed.

But to Virgil and most Romans of the time, all this was a huge improvement over the apparent alternative: more civil war. Augustus imposed peace, on Rome and on its empire. What we call the Pax Romana was really the Pax Augusta.

Augustus thus appeared to be the reluctant hero, the hero who wages war only to end war, who finally lets Rome reach its full, world-ruling and world-changing potential and mission. He seemed to be the end of Roman history, its telos.

What was needed was a story that would tell all of the past, starting before Rome even existed, as though everything inexorably led up to this man, this peace, by divine will."


Yes, subtle is the way that great deeds and heroes are created from murderous deceits.

The Battle of Cumae and all the other battles of the era are probably not unconnected with the combatants from the Trojan War, and yet these people switched allegiances often so it is hard to determine who is doing what for whom or to whom. Reserves or distant allegiances often were enough to swing the tide against any party to every contest. And the people behind the scenes sometimes enjoyed seeing their 'champion' or hero match up against their opposing foe who often was part of the developing nobility who once claimed descent from the Gods. So, a student trying to grasp this insane rigmarole which continued into the 20th Century is justified in wondering what is this ____ and why should we continue to learn about it. My reply to a comment like that is "We must end the game or Hegelian Dialectic which includes these fake gods and nobles who really are not as important as they like to have us believe. They destroyed the prior cultures and they will continue to do things of little or no value if we do not learn their games and act."

Edited by Robert Baird - 29 Mar 2016 at 08:10
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