Arms, and the man I sing, who, forced by fate,
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore.Virgil
Virgil’s Aeneid is perhaps the most overlooked classic in today’s world. And yet it’s the most approachable and the most needful. To read it is to find fellow sufferers on life’s path and the struggles they face. Understanding it, however, can be a bit of a challenge unless you are ready to set aside some of your modern presuppositions.
As with any other work of great literature, it’s far too easy to get bogged down in the details that don’t matter. Like appearances, or ideas about empire, or even the struggle between the sexes. But none of those outward things matter. Only the deeds.
And the men who perform them.
So, let’s take a look at the 5 ways we need to adjust our thinking.
Adjustment #1: Aeneas is in a pre-Christian world.
Tempted to say this is a good thing? You might think differently when you begin to read. The world Aeneas knew is far more brutal in many respects–as brutal as a world with totalitarianism.
We find out in The Aeneid that Hector’s widow was raped while she was still in mourning for her husband. Hector was murdered in The Iliad and Achilles dragged his body around the walls of Troy instead of giving his body for burial. Both the murder and the mutilation of the corpse were considered highly dishonorable in the ancient world. The rules of war dictated that when the retreat was sounded, both sides withdrew and any dead were given back for burial. Achilles did neither.
We also discover that the Greeks, when they conquered Troy did not spare anyone. Except for women pretty enough to keep as sex slaves and children who they could train up as slaves. The gods themselves aided in the city’s rape.
It’s nasty, brutal, and appalling. We’d call what the Greeks did at Troy war crimes.
Why is this even important? Well, there’s a growing tendency in the world to point the finger at religion as the point of contention. It’s religion that makes us do x, y, and z… Religion is the root of all the world’s ills.
I wouldn’t disagree with that sentiment in its entirety. I lived through 9/11/01 and through the Christian Fundamentalist movements of the 90s and 00s. I know better. But the issue isn’t the religion itself. It’s people using it and interpreting it to justify their own foibles.
Just as the Greeks did when they conquered Troy.
So, when we read The Aeneid, we are looking at a swath of human culture and human history that is every bit as much as we’d expect. We still see superstition, we still see suffering, and we still see seeming capricious divinities who don’t seem to care about human beings. It’s nothing new.
This means Aeneas’ world is our own world, mythical and ancient though it is. It’s still a tale of war and suffering and the people caught in the crosshairs.
What goddess was provoked, and whence her hate;
For what offense the Queen of Heav’n began
To persecute so brave, so just a man;
Involv’d his anxious life in endless cares,
Expos’d to wants, and hurried into wars!Virgil
Adjustment #2: The role of women in the world was more limited, but our reading needs to be more nuanced.
If you were to read The Aeneid without adjusting your mindset, you’d be appalled at how often the storyline seems to put women at the root of all the problems. But, they are also the means of safety and unity.
Venus, Aeneas’ mother, works hard to keep her son and grandson safe through their journey. She’s the one who first bids him flee Troy as it’s burning. She’s the one who even gets Neptune to smooth the seas after they escape Carthage so that they can sail up the Italian coast after the disasters of Sicily.
Aeneas’ landing in Latium, as foretold, is met with a proposed marriage between him and Lavinia, the only daughter and heir to the Kingdom of Latium. The Sybil who shows Aeneas through the Underworld is also a source of guidance and assurance. Women may be at the heart of the disasters that befall Aeneas’ fleet, but if so, then they are also the means of making Aeneas’ destiny manifest.
And, if you look more closely, it’s not mere women who cause the problems, it’s one specific goddess: Juno, Queen of the Gods. She detests Aeneas and the Trojan race. The fact that a few Trojans have escaped the destruction and are destined by Jove, her husband, for greatness still rankles her.
So, she beats Aeneas’ fleet apart with no thought that they would land at Carthage, a town she patronizes. She convinces the women traveling with the fleet to burn the ships at Sicily to force the Trojans to settle there instead of the promised Rome. She even convinces the queen of the Latians to stir up everyone against Aeneas because the king chose Aeneas as his son-in-law over a native Latian.
Does this make The Aeneid misogynistic? Well, if you want to get bogged down in that whole mire, then you can make that argument. But you’d be missing out on one of the biggest points the epic makes: the capriciousness of the gods.
For instance, Dido is a queen in her own right. She doesn’t have a man ruling with her, and she gains respect from the surrounding kingdoms through her own skill. The one thing she can’t withstand? A bunch of gods conspiring against her and she has Venus and Juno conspire to her ruin.
So, is it misogyny, or is it the capricious nature of the goddesses involved at issue here?
If you look, none of the human women mired in the problems Aeneas encounters truly acted of their free will. The women who burned the ships saw it was a goddess who was addressing them and acted accordingly because a goddess is far more powerful than a human prince, even if he is half-god himself. The queen of the Latians was driven made by Juno herself. Dido first fell to Cupid’s arrow and then to Juno’s machinations the combination of which drove her to suicide.
These women aren’t entirely responsible for their own actions–they were used.
This isn’t mansplaining or blaming everything that goes wrong on women. This is acknowledging that women get used as a means to an end–even by the goddesses who you’d think would have their best interests at heart.
In fact, if you look at the real details, women are possibly the biggest victims of the gods. And Virgil, male poet that he is, merely points it out.
All hail, O earth! all hail, my household gods!
Behold the Destin’d place of your abodes!Virgil
Adjustment #3: Greek and Roman mythology and culture are very different.
So, The Aeneid was a surprise. In school, I read my Homer, but I never got as far as Virgil. Aeneas is far too often associated with Odysseus or Achilles. We were taught, and taught wrongfully, that the Romans culturally appropriated Greek culture and mythology.
This is only half-true. The Aeneid has Greek gods and goddesses. It has Greek heroes, and it has references to Greek mythology in many different places. However, it is not Greek. You could, perhaps, call it fanfiction and be more accurate. But cultural appropriation? That’s taking it a little too far.
In the first place, there is continual reference made to “country gods” these are the Roman Lares and Penates, the goddess Vesta, and the various other gods, such as Tiberinus, who are named in the later books of The Aeneid.
You do not, nor will you ever, find these in any of the Greek sources for mythology or civic identity. The Greeks did not have “household gods” in the same way the Romans did. Now, we know from the Hebrew Torah that household gods were part of Sumerian culture because Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, married Rachel, who took her household gods with her when she left her father’s house.
What are these? Well, for the Romans, the Lares and Penates were the gods of the household, to put it simply. They protected the family unit. If you go re-watch Gladiator, which I highly recommend you do for anything concerning the Roman Empire, then you will find General Maximus honoring more specifically the Lares, or ancestors, and using images of his wife and son. This was, as with Aeneas, a sign of devotion and virtue.
In The Aeneid, you’ll find this expressed in how Aeneas observes his father’s funerary rites. He holds games in honor of his father, and awards prizes. In other words, he puts on a very small-scale Olympiad. But with a much different purpose. The modern-day Olympics offer a chance for the nations of the world to come together in peace.
The games Aeneas proposes are there to honor his father’s spirit and memory by all the members of his company, in particular the sons, to show their own skill in the things which would have been prized in the ancient world: battle skills.
A heroic poem, truly such, is undoubtedly the greatest work which the soul of man is capable to perform. The design of it is to form the mind to heroic virtue by example.John Dryden
Adjustment #4 This is quest literature which means it’s not all about fighting and conquering.
What is the fundamental difference between The Iliad and The Aeneid? There’s an ultimate creative point to Aeneas’ journey from burning Troy to the future site of Rome. There is a stated goal for the epic: Aeneas must go to Italy and make a home for the Trojan people so they can fulfill their destiny.
In The Iliad, the confederacy of Greek kings isn’t there for a larger purpose. Only one of them is there to repay the insult offered when his own wife deserted him. The rest are there for spoils and destruction. The violence in The Iliad is therefore pointless. Senseless even.
Even the openings of the two poems couldn’t be more different. The Iliad begins with an emotion: rage. The Aeneid begins with two things: action and a man.
Virgil is clarifying that he’s singing about deeds and about the man who performed them. It’s purposeful. It’s not about a bunch of boys playing with their toys and causing destruction.
It’s what we now know as the quest. Only for Aeneas, it’s a quest for home, for a land that was promised, for a new life in a new place. Because he’s been called to it. It’s a destiny he seeks. It’s closer to the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt in some ways.
Translate this into modern-day terms and it’s the quest of every refugee in the world. It’s the quest for a home, for a place to establish an identity, away from the fires of Troy.
Conquest isn’t on anyone’s mind. In fact, when Aeneas arrives in Italy, he has no intention of doing battle, conquering, or taking up arms. When he arrives in Latium, his request is a place to rebuild Troy and to build temples to honor his country’s gods. Nothing more.
Conquest comes because the King of the Latians decides Aeneas makes for a better son-in-law than the man he’d already had in mind for his daughter. And that Aeneas is a foreigner rankles not only the Queen of the Latians, but the ousted would-be son-in-law.
The pious chief, who sought by peaceful ways
To Found his empire, and his town to raiseVirgil
Adjustment #5: The “moral” of The Aeneid is just as about different peoples coming together as it is about national identity.
Virgil and The Aeneid could be falsely accused of nationalism if you stick to the surface meaning. Again, that would be a mistake because it’s only surface-level and ignores some of the more vital details.
Time and again in The Aeneid, aid has to be rendered to the Trojans from more than just their own “cultural” gods. They are refugees seeking refuge. And do you know what they find? They always find succor. That’s just as powerful a commentary for today’s world and one with far more meaning in it.
We can look at Virgil’s epic as a massive piece of cultural appropriation, of Western colonial sentiment, of misogyny, or racism. But all of those would be false readings and it would be maligning a writer who doesn’t deserve it.
The reason The Aeneid, even over and above anything Homer wrote, is such a must-read has more to do with the story of displaced people finding their home and turning their misfortune into something memorable.
Now that has little to do with nationalism, racism, or any other -ism you care to name. It has everything to do with one race seeking its destiny and the others cheering them on. And, it’s part of what makes Virgil’s epic the read resource for poets and writers well into the 20th century.
Sticking to the surface-level -isms you think are there is no way to enjoy any work of literature, particularly one as inspirational as The Aeneid.
So, what is The Aeneid really all about? That is part of what we’ll be exploring this month. It’s not about the ultimate destiny of the Roman Empire, although that is most certainly a theme. But it’s not the only theme. Nor it is the reason why it remains a classic.
Thank you for reading!
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