Why Aeneas’ Story of Exile Makes it Perfect for Today’s World

The Aeneid’s focus on Rome’s ultimate destiny as an empire is only one aspect of the tale. There’s another, more potent, which resonates from Virgil’s own past to our own present: exile, displacement, and the challenges which come from being a refugee fro your homeland. 

The Aeneid has been many things over the centuries. It’s been the model for rulership for European kings, the inspiration for quest literature, the source of national myths from Ancient Rome to Arthurian Britain, and the model for Dante Alighieri’s personal journey from damnation to salvation in The Divine Comedy. 

But do these things make it less relevant to today’s world? With widespread democracy, self-determination, and history being viewed in more critical terms, does yet another distinctly European piece of literature still have a place at the table of world literature? 

I think if we view The Aeneid not as a national tale, but as a story of exile, then we might find a very different tale in the offing because while Aeneas and his people wander the Mediterranean basin they also get something which we probably aren’t expecting–hospitality. 

Virgil’s connection to exile is more personal than just a mythical connection to Troy. 

When Virgil writes of exile in The Aeneid, he’s writing from first-hand experience. After the Civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar, large tracts of land were seized from the surrounding Italian countryside and redistributed to soldiers who had fought for and been loyal to Julius Caesar. One of the regions where these seizures took place was Tuscany. Virgil’s home country.

If you read the Ecologues by Virgil, the upshot was that many peasants, Virgil’s family included, were thrown out of their homes and off of their lands. It’s just as well that Virgil’s father had at some point earned enough money to buy his freedom and send his son to school because while Virgil made an appeal to get the land back, we have no records to say that he was successful. 

Think this is harsh? It was done elsewhere too. 

Henry VIII did it during the English Reformation. Former church lands were auctioned off to the highest bidder–often people loyal to the King and to the new Protestant Religion. None of these people were peasants. They were the biggest losers of the bunch because they even lost the right to graze their cattle on common land. 

In the United States, they seized lands owned by people loyal to the British Crown after the Revolutionary War and sold them at auction, regardless of whether the original owners were living or dead. This is, in fact, part of the subplot of James Fenimore Cooper’s The PioneersIn fact, it’s almost a little too much like what Julius Caesar did to the native Tuscans.

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The role of hospitality in the ancient world is slightly different from what it is today. 

Aeneas receives and provides hospitality on the foreign shores where he lands. He lands on a few unfriendly shores, but he also lands on shores where he is provided aid. This isn’t exactly the same kind of aid we think of today. It was part of a cultural tradition surrounding the rules of hospitality. And it was sacred. 

The Greeks called the rules of hospitality xenia, the patron of which was Zeus, king of the gods. Later known as Jupiter or Jove to the Romans. Which means rules observed were richly rewarded. Rules broken were viciously punished. The whole epoch of the Trojan war? That was basically Zeus punishing Troy for Paris’ abduction of Helen. It broke the rules of xenia

The rules were very clear and based upon reciprocity for both guest and host. Guests couldn’t rob, steal, seduce spouses, rape servants (or others), or burden their hosts. This means they didn’t consume more than they needed and they didn’t try to profit off their host. Hosts had to provide protection, shelter, and sustenance to their guests and make sure they were at least comfortable.

Gift-giving was also part of the relationship, as we can see in The Aeneid when Aeneas sends back to his fleet for specific pieces of treasure to give to Dido. We’d call them hostess gifts today, but in the ancient world, the gifts could be of great value. 

Providing and receiving hospitality did several things for exiles in particular. It gave them a chance to rest, true, but it also helped them network, forge alliances, and get resupplied. We see this in other literary works too. Most of King Arthur’s adventures wouldn’t have been possible without hospitality. Neither, coincidentally, would most of the events in The Lord of the Rings.

More importantly, hospitality was a way of showing respect towards one another on a very basic, human level. One party provided basic human needs, the other provided human friendship and respect in return.

The only way we see ancient-style hospitality at place is during times of war and even then not all of it gets media attention. When Russia invaded Ukraine a little over a year ago, neighboring countries like Poland demonstrated exactly how hospitality worked in the ancient world. What did they do? They opened their doors, their borders, and gave Ukrainian refugees shelter. As did other countries.

We see it as a rarity almost to where when it happens, it’s seen as major news. But in the ancient world, it would have been the obligatory thing to do. If you weren’t enemies to one another, why wouldn’t you help people who’d just had a really horrible time of it?

In today’s world, we’ve become accustomed–too accustomed–to the idea that it’s government that is supposed to do those things. Nations provide foreign aid, and non-profit organizations provide any range of services from medical care to food. Private individuals who take it upon themselves get very little press time, although we know they exist. 

The problem with the government doing anything, however, is that they usually only help those nations that are in the national interest to help. This means if you don’t have food, fuel, or some other vital raw ingredient, good luck getting any help from anyone.

But, I digress

The ancient way of hospitality isn’t always possible in today’s world. 

Having houseguests, or welcoming strangers under your roof isn’t necessarily the done thing anymore for a variety of reasons. For many, if not most, households, this burden is almost too great these days. The pace of life is not what it once was and neither is the working world, or the earning power. 

Even the way households are set up isn’t the same.

Households in Aeneas’ day were far larger than they are today. Children didn’t always leave the family home when they grew up. They stayed put and lived together so you could have three or four generations in the same house. You also had a wider availability of domestic help available which meant doing laundry, fixing meals, and still taking care of day-to-day tasks were a little bit easier.

The trend over the past decade for children to move back home with their parents is actually returning to a way of living that was, up until recently, the status quo for most of the world.

Hosting in the ancient, and even in more modern times had other financial benefits too. House parties, for example, were a huge cost, but they were also places where business could be transacted, networking done, and alliances formed. 

This isn’t always how our world works anymore. Business and pleasure are almost ruthlessly separated unless it’s part of a specific company’s “culture.” It’s unfortunate too because it was far more individual than it is now and it not only provided social interaction and mixed business with enjoyment, but it meant you got to observe your associates on a more human level. 

Those benefits, however, aren’t necessarily in play for most people. And, times are hard enough that for the majority of people public aid rendered isn’t always supposed by those same people. As someone who isn’t in the upper echelons of society, I can understand that entirely. 

Photo by Belle Co on Pexels.com

Should we add the practice of hospitality to the long list of things to correct in today’s world? 

I think it should, but not on a national or public level. It needs to be a part of our personal development and not a political issue.. As I noted earlier, we can’t all have houseguests. We can’t all spend our days socializing either. Some of us actually require solitude to get our work done. I know this blog certainly wouldn’t happen without a certain level of reclusiveness. 

But that doesn’t mean we can’t show our hospitality in other ways, either. There are any number of things you can do to show hospitality, even if you don’t have the energy or houseroom. Inviting a friend out for coffee is one way. Offering to bring something when you’re invited to someone’s house for dinner is another. Oh, and don’t forget the host’s gift! Or, you can take dinner over to someone’s house when they’re ill or you know they’re going through a rough patch.

Yet another is to send what you can to organizations who help people who are currently in the same situation Aeneas and his people were in. You may think of it as charity, and it is, but it can also be hospitality from afar. 

What do you think? How are you going to incorporate hospitality in your personal growth? 

Thank you for reading!

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2 thoughts on “Why Aeneas’ Story of Exile Makes it Perfect for Today’s World

  1. A rich mine of info, Kathleen!

    Liked by 1 person

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