For centuries, ambitious rulers have cloaked themselves in the mantle of patriotism they found in Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid. Elizabeth I minted coins with words from Virgil (70–19 BC), and America’s Founders quoted him on the nation’s great seal. Benito Mussolini had Virgil’s books reissued and his likeness printed on stamps, and even staged a bimillennial extravaganza in 1930.
On its surface, the Aeneid is an imperialist screed, telling of the half-god Aeneas’s travels from his Trojan homeland to subdue the backward Latin peoples and found Rome. But scrubbing away the patriotic varnish, beginning in the 1960s, researchers discovered in Virgil “a far more pessimistic view, one that seriously questioned the idea of human progress and imperial power,” writes classics scholar Madeline Miller. That reading has since become accepted among many classicists. Why did it take so long to come to the fore?
Some of Virgil’s dim view of conquest is hiding in plain sight. Aeneas travels to the underworld to meet past and future Roman greats. “You can almost hear the drums and trumpets,” Miller says, but tellingly, on his way out, Aeneas bypasses a door for “true shades” and instead departs through a second one, for “false dreams.” His father’s ghost entreats Aeneas to “spare the defeated,” and in the final lines, a native Latin begs for his life. Aeneas stabs him through the heart.
Virgil had cause to hide pathos in hoorah. Taken under the protection of the young Octavian, adopted son of Julius Caesar, Virgil saw his homeland splintered by civil wars that destroyed the Roman Republic and enthroned his sponsor as emperor in 27 BC. Not for nothing was Octavian the “last man standing”—a ruthless dictator, he had aided in Cicero’s assassination and later exiled Ovid for work he considered immoral. Tasked with writing an epic featuring the new emperor, Virgil wisely chose a more distant subject, and when asked for a reading, the good poet recited excerpts from the more heroic episodes. To this day, these are the only portions of the Aeneid printed in many textbooks.
Translators, too, have downplayed the Aeneid’s calls for mercy and peace while embroidering language of conquest. Victorian scholars later picked up on Virgil’s melancholy but failed to answer the questions it raises. It wasn’t until the 20th century, with its wars, genocides, and leaders “unmasked as self-serving, incompetent, or fallibly human,” Miller says, that Virgilian scholarship turned a corner. Bernard Knox had fought in World War II, and Miller recounts the future classicist’s story of finding the Aeneid amid the rubble of an Italian village, opening it, and reading, “A world in ruins . . . For right and wrong change places; everywhere / So many wars, so many shapes of crime.”
The advent of modernism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought with it a rejection of forced coherence and facilitated the new reading of Virgil, as did the New Criticism, a literary trend favoring close textual analysis. Both movements were well suited to the study of a poem composed over a period of 10 years at the painstaking pace of three lines a day, by an author who “speaks with two voices” and had every reason to sweat each word.
THE SOURCE: “Tape Delay” by Madeline Miller. Lapham’s Quarterly, Spring 2012.