Or, Virgil’s Legendary Guide to the West
The following are my notes from the 2022 Raggant Fiction Festival. Audio and video are here.
The Rented Mule Epic
On almost any 21st Century list of epics, Virgil’s Aeneid is the rented mule. You need it to carry the burden of Western Civilization through a fairly gnarly section on the world timeline, but it’s not the epic you care about. You don’t treat it like a pet, you beat it, freely, like a rented mule.
Could we have been such chronological snobs to have a festival about monumental myths that have shaped western man and left out Virgil? Not unless we also wanted to leave out Dante, who consciously patterned his Divine Comedy after Virgil and, even more significantly, turned Virgil himself into a character to guide the pilgrim Dante through the Inferno and Purgatorio. We’d also have to ignore how culture itself went west from Athens to Rome, leaving unanswered the shift from Spartans to Caesars, skimming over the world into which the Logos took on flesh, and in which, to some extent, we still live. Like it or not, we are sons of Aeneas.
We could no more ignore Virgil’s myth than we could Thomas Jefferson while staring at Mt. Rushmore.
I will admit, I didn’t like it. When we decided on the epic theme for this Fiction Festival, the one thing I knew is that I did not want to talk about the Aeneid. Bleh; boring. I offered to buckle up with a number of other options, Dante or Milton or Beowulf or perhaps even Spenser. But Providence had other purposes, and I could do no other. If Aeneas is a reluctant hero, I was at least reluctant to start my journey with him (though I am not a hero). Knowing my calling, it was my duty to love this epic in front of you so that you might appreciate it more.
Duty Is a Four Letter Word
I said it was my duty to battle my previous boredom with this book. The zeitgeist, or common cultural and moral climate, of the 21st century is to dismiss duty. We don’t think about our duties, we deny that things are our duties. We like to think we are our own people, supposedly equal and equally allowed to do whatever we want. Modern man doesn’t have anyone else to answer to but himself; if there is a God, then He is irrelevant.
This is one of the reasons why the Aeneid doesn’t resonate the way it used to. Duty to family, and duty to the (appropriate) gods, is what drives the plot of the poem. Aeneas, at least initially, doesn’t want to leave Troy (even though it’s in flames), and then he doesn’t want to leave Dido (even though she is a hot mess), and doesn’t really even seem up to making the final kill. It’s only as Aeneas realizes and remembers and takes up his responsibilities that he can establish a civilization. He is on a mission from God (in his case, Jupiter, the “Almighty Father” and “chief power of the world,” along with the Fates).
If stories are profitable to get our loyalties tied up in the right places, and they are, and if stories are good for stimulating our affections for something bigger than ourselves, and they are, then hopefully it will become obvious why the Aeneid has shaped, and might become useful again for, Christians in the tossed and troubled days of Western Civilization.
Have you read the poem? Do you know the story? Are you familiar with Virgil and his pre-Christ context?
Virgil, full name Publius Vergilius Maro, was born in 70 BC and lived until 19 BC in Italy. He was well known from two other collections of pastoral poems, the Ecologues (37 BC) and the Georgics (29 BC). He was more than a pop artist, but yet also that, like the Robertus Dylanus of his day.
Virgil lived in a politically volatile time. Caesar Augustus was taking Rome from a Republic to an Empire, and in doing so killed off some high-profile enemies. Whether or not Rome was looking for an identity, it at least was looking for some solidarity. Virgil’s story was a way to give the Romans an origin story that they could hold to, patriotically, and come to unity and peace (under Caesar’s rule).
The original #MAGA: Make Augustus Great Again. Rome had to be great, dang it. Show us why. Invent it if you need to.
Virgil worked on the Aeneid for over ten years, plodding along some days producing only two or three lines. He also wanted it burned. Legend has it that on his deathbed he pleaded with his friends to destroy it, but they didn’t, and Augustus ordered it to be published.
The poem is just under 10k lines. It is written in Latin, in dactylic hexameter, just as Homer’s epics, though Homer wrote in Greek. (For what it’s worth, a few months ago Mr. Callender and I were talking and he said that we really needed a Latin expert to talk about the Aeneid. Here I am talking about the Aeneid; I am not a Latin expert. But, I did make it through a few hours of an online course that works through the Aeneid in Latin, and…I really enjoyed it. Turns out, the original is a lot more fun and colorful. I re-read Fitzgerald in English, and, meh; it’s the recommended Omnibus version, and often recommended online. But, yeah, the Latin itself magna gloria est).
Arma virumque cano is the first line. It’s providential, and amusing, because when I (reluctantly) agreed to teach Maggie Latin when we were homeschooling, this is the second little phrase that Latin for Children Primer A has the students memorize. What I had no clue about then, is that even in these first words, Virgil is giving a shout out to Homer. The Arma, arms or weapons, look to the second six books of twelve in the Aeneid, but they also reflect the Iliad, Homer’s story of war. The virum is the man, yes, Aeneas, but also Odysseus in the Odyssey. The first six books of the Aeneid are similar sailing struggles. Even cano, I sing, connects with Homer’s song.
The main character is Aeneas. The story is called Aeneid, and not The because there is no definite article in Latin. That said, this is definitely definite; this is the Aeneid above all. Aeneas is in the Iliad, a super small role. Aeneas and Odysseus lived at the same time, and, it’s possible that they are stuck on Mediterranean seas around the same time. On the biblical timeline, this is probably just a bit before David becomes king in Israel.
Virgil writes almost a thousand years later, with the foreshadowing and prophecy making Rome’s power appear fated.
The poem sets up the hero, Aeneas, and the antagonist, which is mostly the goddess Juno (Jupiter’s wife), but it includes the Greeks and the Carthiginians and the inhabitants of Italy.
Aeneas not only admits that he is weak, he is also defeated. We find Aeneas as Troy is ransacked by the Greeks. Aeneas loses his city, his wife, and has to carry his father out of the burning wreckage to escape in ships (the subject of numerous works of art). They set sail, and Juno stirs up Aeolus to send winds against them to destroy the fleet, but Neptune doesn’t take kindly to others messing with his surf. Some ships are lost, others make port in Carthage, where Aeneas and Dido, the queen, fall in love and get married, of a sort, a relationship consummated but not covenanted.
But the gods remind Aeneas that he has to keep going; Jupiter sends a messenger. Aeneas is called, by duty, to get to Italy and plant a people who would become Rome.
Dido is humiliated and enraged and kills herself, lighting herself on fire in a big pyre. (She’s found in Dante’s second level of hell in the Inferno).
Aeneas and his men make port at another stop, and here Aeneas is shown the door to the underworld where he goes, and sees not only Dido (awkward), but also his dad (Anchises), who reiterates that Aeneas must keep going to found a great people.
By the time Aeneas comes back from the realm of the dead at the end of Book VI, he is ready for his responsibility. His ships sail up the coast to the mouth of the Tiber River, he greets the current king, Latinus, who promises his daughter to Aeneas. That makes Turnus angry, a local prince, and the second half of the poem, Books VII-XII, are all about the various battle scenes. Finally, and abruptly, Aeneas faces Turnus in single-combat, and kills him.
Number One on the Romans Times
Though Virgil didn’t even want the thing published, the Aeneid became a bestseller almost immediately. How many people in Rome could read? How many scribes were making handwritten copies? Hard to say. Even Augustus probably didn’t read the whole thing. But it resonated with the Romans.
And why wouldn’t it? This was a story about their awesomeness. It gave them an origin story for their civilization that was Jupiter’s own desire, with the blessing of most of the gods, and the inevitability of the Fates. Remus and Romulus were descendants of Aeneas, and how could the Empire not be great? They had Virgil’s 20/20 hindsight and artistic flair to help them embrace their greatness.
Like Dido, Without Dying
When it comes to shaping Western man, the Aenied didn’t stop in first century Rome. Many men have loved Aeneas.
For fun, many medievals played Sortes Vergilianae, flipping open a Virgil book to a random page, blindly pointing at a sentence, and taking that as a prophecy (e.g., Hadrian, Charles I, others). This is also known as bibliomancy, “foretelling the future by interpreting a randomly chosen passage from a book, especially the Bible” (New Oxford American Dictionary).
Augustine couldn’t stop referencing it. In his Confessions he refers to reading Virgil again and again as a young student, and early after his conversion struggled with how it benefitted him compared to eternal things. Years later, he loved to point out how wrong Virgil was in The City of God, with some 44 interactions just with the Aeneid, probably because so many people were familiar with it. Even if Augustine loved to beat it like a rented mule, he still didn’t want to kill it.
Christians throughout the medieval period had a much more sympathetic, and appreciative take on the Aeneid. Maybe it was because they could take it as a good story more than a tool of the Caesar.
Dante certainly kept Virgil in the game. Dante gave Virgil as good a place as any pre-Christian could get. Though Virgil wasn’t welcome in Paradise because he didn’t believe in Christ, he went as far as he could with the light he had. Virgil is the poetic example and the philosophical expert. Virgil had already guided Aeneas through the underworld as an author, now Virgil could be used by an author to guide some more. Virgil was legendary.
Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin regularly quoted Virgil. Translating Latin passages on sight was a standard entrance requirement at many colleges. (source)
In C. S. Lewis’ list of books that affected him the most, G. K. Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man was number two (after a book by George MacDonald). In The Everlasting Man Chesterton argues that Virgil’s world, as represented in the Aeneid, was the largest possible world into which the Christ would come. Chesterton wrote:
Virgil had the best news to tell as well as the best words to tell it in. His world might be sad; but it was the largest world one could live in before the coming of Christianity. (The Victorian Age in Literature (source))
the popularisation of the Trojan origin by Virgil has a vital relation to all those elements that have made men say that Virgil was almost a Christian. It is almost as if two great tools or toys of the same timber, the divine and the human, had been in the hands of Providence; and the only thing comparable to the Wooden Cross of Calvary was the Wooden Horse of Troy. (Everlasting Man, Location 2366)
It turns out, on Lewis’ top ten list, the Aeneid itself was number three. He loved it. He identified in various ways with the reluctancy of Aeneas, but knew that he had a duty to do. Lewis wrote a 180+ page introduction to Paradise Lost and included numerous reflections on the Aeneid. He even translated about a third of the poem himself, and we should wish that he had finished, because it is an attempt to get rhythm into the lines.
“Of arms and the exile I must sing, of yore / Guided by fate from Troy to the Lavinian shore.”
Lewis probably lived in one of the last generations that, as a group, sensed duty. Those who lived through, and especially those who fought during, the World Wars had more of a mind about their obligations. That said, Lewis even more was upset by the modern mindset, was consciously devoted to being an old Western man.
We have such little sense of duty, and this is mostly because we have such little sense of God.
Mrs. Bowers shared a great essay with the speakers creatively titled, “The Epic”, published in 1914. I learned a lot from reading it.
Lascelles Abercrombie (who was awarded a professorship at the University of Leeds instead of Tolkien in 1922) distinguishes between “Heroic” epic, what could also be called “Primary” or “Authentic” or even “Primitive” epic, compared to “Literary” or “Secondary” or even “Artificial” epic. Lewis, in his Preface to Paradise Lost spends multiple chapters on this distinction (Chapter 6 – “Virgil and the Subject of Secondary Epic”).
Homer, and Beowulf and the Song of Roland, for example, are Heroic, where “vehement private individuality freely and greatly assert(ed) itself.” It’s as if the men were too great not be sung; the greatness of the story demanded poetic expression. Milton, and certainly Virgil, are intentionally, self-consciously writing. They used poetic expression to make a story great.
But Abercrombie asserts that the “gods” were not really things that men believed in, they were more cultural and verbal leftovers. “Virgil is more decorous; but can we imagine Virgil praying, or anybody praying, to the gods of the Aeneid?” The “supernatural machinery” must ride the line between fanciful and functional, but there is no actual faith required.
I couldn’t disagree with that more. Aeneas did not leave Troy or leave Dido or fight Turnus except that he was convinced that that is what the gods wanted him to do. “I sail for Italy not of my own free will” (IV.499). He was on a mission from god. The Aeneid is not just the telling of events, but the telling of “vital destiny” (Abercrombie), and destiny is determined outside of ourselves.
Almost every reader who reads any background knows that Aeneas is known for his piety. There is no piety without a god/gods to be dutiful to. We don’t get epics without deity.
- sic volvere Parcas “thus the Fates will roll out” history (line 22)
- Aeneas first speech: “God will grant us an end”
- Jupiter told Venus that her son will found imperium sine fine, “rule without end.”
- “Aeneas came as one ordained, / Brought by palpable will of the unseen” (XI.318)
- In the end, Vicit iter durum pietas, “piety has conquered the hard road”
Aeneas could barely hold himself together. He complains of his inabilities for the majority of the story. He was set up to suffer, and suffer big time. It was only divine assurance, prophecy, repeated, that sent him forward.
This is why it resonates not just with Romans, but with believers in the true God, maker of heaven and earth. God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility (courage and endurance) may be difficult to understand together, but no God leaves us with “man’s sovereignty” and that is an anti-epic. Scientific formulas (without a God who created science) have not made men more courages than men who had least had supernatural categories such as the Fates.
Read negatively, our protagonist is a weak and whiny little boy who ends up becoming the worst possible version of himself as an authoritarian tyrant. Read positively, our protagonist is a broken man who against all odds becomes strong and overcomes great suffering to establish a greater society. Read atheistically, there is no hero and no story and no West because there is no God.
So Virgil’s legend is legendary, and it gives us a guide, limited as it is.
“It was Virgil who taught Christian Europe the shape of history, the cost of empire, the primacy of duty, the transience of fame, the inevitability of death, the pain of letting go, and the burden of adopting new strategies.” (Louis Markos, C. S. Lewis’s List, 49)
Virgil’s poem is heavy with the weight of history, prophecy, and glory. Men want to know where they’ve come from and what they should do. They want to know how to be great. And they cannot do this unless they know their mission from God.