Virgil’s oeuvre is comprised of three works: a series of bucolic dialogs called the Eclogues, a didactic piece on farming called the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid. He was admired and loved during his lifetime; Horace called him “half of my soul,” and the poet Propertius, hearing Virgil was at work on the Aeneid, pronounced, “Make way, Roman authors, make way, Greeks/Something greater than The Iliad is being born.”
After his death in 19 BC, Virgil’s reputation only continued to grow. Aside from being the inspiration for poets like Lucan and Statius, and later Dante, Edmund Spenser, and John Milton, Virgil was also embraced by early Christianity. This was due to a fascinating miscommunication regarding his fourth eclogue, which foretold the birth of a boy who would usher in a golden age. In all likelihood, he referred to the forthcoming child of Octavian’s sister (who would, inconveniently, turn out to be a girl), but Christians, eager to forge connections to pagan high culture, saw it as a prophecy of the birth of Jesus. A rumor spread that St. Paul had gone to pay homage to his tomb in Naples; others began to scour the Aeneid for mystical messages. In an impressive act of creative appropriation, the Christian poetess Proba retold the life of Jesus using only lines from the Aeneid as material. The tradition of Christianizing Virgil culminated in his serving as Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory.
In the political sphere, ambitious nations sought every opportunity to align themselves with his poetry as a way of claiming to be the next glorious Rome. Elizabeth I of England stamped her coinage with a Virgil quote to commemorate her defeat of the Spanish Armada. Half a century later, the English poet Richard Fanshawe called Charles I the “Augustus of our world” and dedicated to his son a new translation of Book IV of the Aeneid. Similarly, the French poet Pierre Perrin dedicated his new translation of Virgil’s Aeneid to Cardinal Mazarin, the power behind Louis XIV’s throne, saying, “Sir, the famous century of this grand author, does it not seem to have come around again? Is Paris not now a Roman triumphant? Is our monarch not a nascent Augustus, in his first years already the most victorious, already the most august of kings? And your eminence, sir, are you not a faithful Maecenas?”
And then there was America, with no less than three quotes attributed to Virgil emblazoned upon its great seal: annuit coeptis, “he approved the undertakings;” novus ordo saeculorum, “a new order of the generations;” and e pluribus unum, “out of many, one.” If America was going to stand up to the powers of Europe, it was going to do so with all the power of Golden Age Rome behind it.
Benito Mussolini was quick to recognize Virgil’s potential as a propagandistic tool, and in the hopes of encouraging patriotic fervor, he subsidized a new edition of the poet’s works. In a similar vein, he held a bimillennial celebration of Virgil’s birthday in 1930, and issued stamps with the poet’s likeness on them.
Even a modernist like T. S. Eliot joined in the chorus, putting aside his disillusionment to hail the Aeneid as “the Classic of all Europe.” Writing these words towards the end of World War II, Eliot’s emphasis on this poem seems almost superstitious, as though invoking its bright vision of order would help vanquish the ugly chaos and disintegration that had become synonymous with the modern era.
But it was not to be. Less than twenty years later, those same forces of chaos and disintegration would be discovered within the core of the Aeneid itself.
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