Halfway through Virgil’s Roman epic the Aeneid, the hero descends into the underworld. There he encounters not just the souls of the dead, but the souls of those about to live—a long line of future Roman luminaries, waiting to be born. Through them Virgil takes us on a triumphant tour of Roman history. We see Romulus and the Scipios, Cato, valiant Caesar. You can almost hear the drums and trumpets: the story of humanity presented as one glorious march of progress, from savagery to civilization, culminating in Octavian Augustus, Virgil’s own emperor.
From the moment it was published in 19 BC the Aeneid was hailed as the most successful and sublime celebration of empire ever conceived. Its author became famous as the patriotic poet par excellence of the West. His reputation was so powerful that long after Rome’s fall, leaders as disparate as Elizabeth I, Louis XIV, and Benito Mussolini borrowed his words to endorse and bolster their own authority. Even the Founding Fathers, who generally preferred Homer, appropriated Virgil’s language.
But beginning in the 1960s, a group of scholars, later dubbed the Harvard school, began to notice a number of alarming problems with such imperialist readings of the Aeneid. They pointed out incident after incident where Virgil undermined the sense of glorious progress, or even overturned it. Beneath the poem’s golden patina they found a far more pessimistic view, one that seriously questioned the idea of human progress and imperial power. This new reading hit Virgilian scholarship like a lightning bolt, revolutionizing and redefining our entire understanding of the Aeneid, Virgil, and Augustan history. Though the debate is ongoing, it is now the dominant interpretation in the field.
The question is: how did we miss Virgil’s real meaning for two thousand years? And what made it possible for this small group of scholars to point it out?
Relative to Homer, whose origins are obscure to the point of being fictitious, we know a lot about the poet named Publius Virgilius Maro. Virgil was born in 70 bc in the countryside near Mantua to a family of small farmers. His father was able to send him away to be educated, first at Cremona, later at Milan and Naples. From an early age he showed a passion for literature and philosophy, and in the course of his studies, he was befriended by Maecenas, the great Roman patron of the arts and adviser to Octavian, future first emperor of Rome.
Not long after, either through Maecenas or another literary connection, Virgil received an invitation to an audience with Octavian himself. It must have been an extraordinary first meeting: the man who would be Rome’s greatest poet, and the twenty-something youth who would become its most renowned ruler. We do not know what transpired in that conversation, only what followed—Octavian took Virgil under his protection, and gave him the financial freedom to spend the rest of his life writing.
Virgil lived during one of the most critical junctures in Western history. In the forty years from his birth until 30 bc, he witnessed a Rome continuously roiled with civil wars: first between Pompey and Caesar, then between the Tyrannicides (Brutus and Cassius) and the Triumvirs (Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus), and finally between Octavian and Antony themselves. The last man standing, Octavian, dealt the final blow to the tottering Roman Republic and founded the Empire. In other words, Virgil was born under a senate and died under a dictator.
Octavian was a savvy ruler, well aware of the power of propaganda, and it made sense that he would want pet poets. Virgil and his close friend Horace were welcomed into the emperor’s inner circle, and while both benefited from this association, they must also have known that the emperor scrutinized every line they wrote. The danger of displeasing Octavian was quite real: he had a hand in ordering Cicero’s assassination, and was known for his political purges. A few years after Virgil’s death, he exiled the poet Ovid for some overly cheeky verses.
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.
At the heart of the Harvard school’s argument is the Aeneid’s difficult ending. Aeneas begins the poem as a heroic underdog, the leader of a ragtag band of Trojans who survived the terrible Greek destruction of Troy. His destiny, he is informed, is to find a new homeland for his people in Italy. There he will marry and establish a line that will become a new and glorious ruling race: the Romans.
The first half of the Aeneid (Books I-VI) follows Aeneas’ travails as he desperately tries to reach Italy. They end with his famous visit to the underworld, where his father’s spirit gives him the Roman mission statement:
Others, I have no doubt,
will forge the bronze to breathe with suppler lines,
draw from the block of marble features quick with life,
plead their cases better, chart with their rods the stars
that climb the sky and foretell the times they rise.
But you, Roman, remember, rule with all your power
the peoples of the earth—these will be your arts:
to put your stamp on the works and ways of peace,
to spare the defeated, break the proud in war.
It is the last two lines that are most important: conquest must be balanced by the all-important clementia, mercy. That the command comes from Aeneas’ beloved father makes it all the more notable. But does Aeneas follow it?
The seventh book begins with Aeneas’ adventures in Italy. He forms an alliance with the king of the native Latin people, called Latinus, who offers his daughter Lavinia to Aeneas in marriage. Her sort-of fiancé Turnus is enraged, and with Juno’s encouragement raises an army against the Trojans. A bloody war begins.
The poem ends with Aeneas dispatching Turnus in a fit of wrath. Turnus, severely wounded and on his knees, yields, saying:
The victor and vanquished, I stretch my hands to you,
so the men of Latium have seen me in defeat.
Lavinia is your bride.
Go no further down the road of hatred.
It is difficult to imagine one who has been more thoroughly defeated. If Aeneas is to be the Roman his father envisioned, he should spare Turnus. But Aeneas does not spare him. He suddenly notices on Turnus’ shoulder a swordbelt belonging to his friend, the young prince Pallas, whom Turnus slew in a previous battle. All thoughts of mercy are cast aside. The last lines of the Aeneid read:
Blazing with wrath he plants
his iron sword hilt-deep in his enemy’s
Turnus’ limbs went limp in the chill of
His life breath fled with a groan of outrage
down to the shades below.
So much for Eliot’s hope of order winning out over disintegration. It is a deeply jarring finale, and even those who don’t read the Aeneid ambiguously have struggled with it. Some have tried to argue that Virgil intended to go back and write more, but died before he had the chance. Other scholars claim that Aeneas’ duty to his friend deservedly overrode his father’s command. The Italian poet Maphaeus Vegius was so disturbed by it that in 1428 he published a “supplementum” that tacked on a more comfortable closure: Turnus buried honorably, Aeneas married and deified.
Given the starkness of that final moment, it is difficult at first to imagine how so many readers ignored it for so long. But there are some equally powerful factors that conspired to obscure it.
First and foremost is the fact that the new-minted Emperor Augustus specifically requested that Virgil write the poem. The year was around 30 bc, and Augustus had just vanquished Mark Antony and Cleopatra to emerge as Rome’s sole leader. The Roman republic was officially dead, but this young man with his impeccable pedigree (adopted son of Julius Caesar, descendant of the great god Jupiter himself) seemed poised to usher in a new imperial era of peace. After over fifty years of civil war and exhausting politics, Rome was again a place of vitality and hope. The only thing lacking was a poem to immortalize its people’s unique powers of conquest, endurance, and ingenuity. Augustus let it be known that he desired such an epic, and modestly suggested himself and his mighty deeds as the subject matter. All eyes turned to Publius Virgilius Maro.
It must have been a tricky moment for this former farmboy. The poem was practically an imperial command, and Virgil’s life and livelihood were dependent upon the emperor’s good will. Rome’s other leading poets had already bowed out, including Virgil’s friend Horace, citing genre problems—they were lyric poets and unsuited to tackle such an epic subject.
Initially, Virgil seemed to accept the task at face value. In the Georgics, his poem that preceded the Aeneid, he announced that he was “girding [him]self to sing about the fiery battles of Caesar Augustus.” That story never came to be. Perhaps Virgil realized just how much imperial scrutiny he would be under if Augustus were his main character; perhaps he wanted the freedom of mythology over the facts of history. Whatever the reason, he shifted the epic’s subject from Augustus to his heroic ancestor, the half
It was a brilliant move, and may be regarded as a very quiet first step down the path to the subversive work he produced. But it was not widely noted, and did little to dispel the general view that the Aeneid was composed as an emperor-
pleasing celebration of all things Roman.
And celebrate them it does. It cannot be denied that the Aeneid is full of passages that praise Rome and its new emperor. From Jupiter granting the Romans “empire without end,” to a prophetic golden image of Augustus routing Cleopatra at Actium, we are reminded again and again of Rome’s divine destiny, realized through the power of the emperor. Given such dazzling grandeur, it is easy to lose sight of Virgil’s more subtle chiaroscuro effects. But, as the Harvard school’s Adam Parry puts it, Virgil always speaks with two voices, one of loud and “public triumph” and one of “private regret.” This quieter voice was all the more difficult to hear because it was unexpected.
Both contemporary Romans and later readers knew how unwise it was to threaten the image-conscious Augustus, and assumed that Virgil would not have dared to cross him. In the words of psychology, readers suffered from “inattentional blindness”: they did not see the shadows because they were not looking for them.
Sometime in the ten years between the Aeneid’s conception and its final draft, Virgil agreed to give his emperor a preview reading of three books. Virgil selected Book II, the story of the fall of Troy, Book IV, the love affair between the Carthaginian queen Dido and Aeneas, and Book VI with its visit to the underworld and triumphant pageant of Roman heroes.
Virgil would have done well on book tour. These three books are a perfect selection for a reading, each comprising a gripping and self-contained story for which no background is needed (other than Homer, which most educated Romans learned as children). But unbeknownst to him, this choice would set the tone for readers over the next two millennia. These three books, along with Book I, the story of Aeneas’ shipwrecked arrival at Carthage, became the most read and most beloved parts of the Aeneid, to the exclusion of the rest of the poem. They were seen as so endlessly stirring, passionate, tragic, and beautiful that readers saw no need to read further (St. Augustine counted his excessive love of Book IV as one of his sins). The work’s second half, with its longer story arc, battles, and speeches, proved less attractive.
This strange blindness to over half the poem extended to scholars and teachers in the ages to follow. Even today, textbooks almost uniformly excerpt from those four canonical books only. Likewise, there are numerous commentaries dedicated exclusively to the big four, but only a handful on the latter books. In America, the Advanced Placement Latin exam, founded in 1956, didn’t begin including selections from books ten and twelve until the new millennium and, sadly, these are to be dropped again starting in 2012. But imagine how it might change your understanding of Hamlet if you read just its first two acts. Or if you only made it halfway through Lord of the Flies; maybe the boys would work it out after all?
Translations played a similarly obscuring role, and none more so than John Dryden’s 1697 version of the Aeneid. Immensely popular, not only in its own time but for centuries after, it was crowned the gold standard against which all other translations were judged.
In his preface to the work, Dryden claimed to have captured the Aeneid’s spirit, but close analysis shows otherwise. In numerous places Dryden can be seen emphatically pumping up Virgil’s imperialism and smoothing away his ambiguities. Witness his treatment of Rome’s mission statement:
But, Rome, ’tis thine alone, with awful sway,
To rule mankind, and make the world obey,
Disposing peace and war by thy own
To tame the proud, the fetter’d slave to free:
These are imperial arts, and worthy thee.
My own, more literal translation reads:
You, O Roman, remember (for these will be your arts) to rule the people with power, and place a custom for peace, pardon those who have been cast down, and defeat the proud.
Dryden’s view of Virgil as gloriously pro-imperial can be seen in phrases like “awful sway,” “rule mankind,” “majestic way,” and “imperial arts.” But his most significant change is in the command to free the “fetter’d slave.” This is quite a bit narrower than Virgil’s original, which says nothing about fetters, and extends to all people who have been defeated. With this single stroke, Dryden undoes Virgil’s carefully crafted ethical crisis. According to Dryden’s Anchises, the only person Aeneas must offer mercy to is a “fetter’d slave.” Turnus, the unfettered suppliant, can be killed without a second thought.
In his book, History of the Idea of Progress, Robert Nisbet says, “No single idea has been more important than the idea of progress in Western civilization for nearly three thousand years.” The very dominance of this idea would of course have proved a further impediment to interpreting Virgil any other way. Yet one of the first steps toward reinventing the Aeneid dates to an era notorious for embracing this view: the Victorian.
Though Virgil had always been known as a poet finely attuned to pathos and “the tears of things,” in the Victorian era he began to earn a reputation for a deep-seated melancholy. Tennyson, in the same tribute where he names Virgil “lord of language,” also calls him “majestic in thy sadness/at the doubtful doom of humankind.”
Such a description is not inconsistent with the reading of Virgil as pro-empire, as Virgil’s exquisite empathy for Dido’s pain, or the death of young men in battle was well-known. Tennyson merely takes this a step further, painting Virgil as a sort of Christ figure, grieving for the folly of human frailty.
The poet and scholar Matthew Arnold echoed this same sentiment, citing the “sweet, touching sadness” and “ineffable melancholy” that hung over the entire Aeneid. But rather than using this to reinterpret Virgil’s ultimate conclusion, he assigned the sadness to Virgil’s extraordinary artistic sensitivity. Virgil, he argued, was so exquisitely attuned to literature that he was aware how much he was failing to adequately capture the heights of Roman accomplishment; his grief was for himself, as an imperfect poet. As W. R. Johnson notes in his seminal work on the Aeneid, Darkness Visible, Arnold gets the mood right, but the motivation wrong. It does, however, provide the foundation for acknowledging Virgil’s darker and more private tones.
The true turning point, however, was the twentieth century, with its massive upheavals of everything from literature to technology. Many of these were driven by the horrors of World War I, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and Vietnam. As historian Paul Fussell notes, these events “reversed the idea of progress.” Philip Gibbs, World War I journalist and correspondent, puts it another way: “[We] had been taught to believe that the whole object of life was to reach out to beauty and love, and that mankind, in its progress to perfection, had killed the beast instinct, cruelty, blood-lust, the primitive savage law of survival by tooth and claw and club and ax. All poetry, all art, all religion had preached this gospel and this promise. Now that ideal had broken like a china vase dashed to hard ground.”
In these tragedies, the world saw triumphant empire after empire broken to pieces. Leaders that had once been followed with near-religious fidelity were unmasked as self-serving, incompetent, or fallibly human. The sheer scale of our ability to destroy each other—with mustard gas, nuclear weapons, machine guns, napalm—was staggering and unabsorbable. In the trenches of World War I, in Dachau, there was no glory, no drums and trumpets. The dream of a golden age was gone.
And with it went the old traditions of Virgilian scholarship. As the great classics scholar Bernard Knox tells it, he rediscovered Virgil as an Allied soldier serving in Italy during World War II. He was taking shelter in an abandoned building when he saw a copy of the poet’s works amid the rubble and flipped it open. His eye fell upon a passage that read, “A world in ruins For right and wrong change places; everywhere/So many wars, so many shapes of crime.” Knox was not part of the original Harvard school, but he was emblematic of a new engagement with Virgil—a sudden ability to see him fresh, wiped clean of his obscuring traditions.
If war was the motivation behind reinterpreting Virgil, modernism, with its jarring disjunctions and alienations, was the tool. It gave scholars a rubric for identifying, as W. R. Johnson puts it, Virgil’s “twilight moods.” Uncomfortable moments that had been dismissed for years were suddenly able to be acknowledged. Chief among them was Aeneas’ departure from the underworld. After he finishes admiring that same glorious pageant of future Roman heroes, he finds himself before two gates. One is made of horn and is, Virgil tells us, for “true shades.” The other, made of ivory, is for “false dreams.” And Aeneas, founder of the gleaming vision of Roman history we have just seen, leaves through the latter.
Like Aeneas’ killing of Turnus, this moment is deeply unsettling, and over the years readers have tried to ward off their discomfort on technical grounds—Aeneas isn’t dead, so he can’t leave through the “true shade” gate. But it is hard to imagine such a thoughtful poet building one of his most important moments on a legal quibble. Modernism gives us a much better answer: that it is indeed unsettling, and purposefully so. Virgil deliberately crafts a strange and disquieting anticlimax to his vision of glory, one which cannot help but raise doubts about all that has come before.
The other indispensable tool in rediscovering Virgil was the New Criticism, a school of literary interpretation that originated in America alongside modernism, and advocated “close reading”—thoroughly analyzing texts down to the level of the word. This style was perfectly matched to Virgil, a master of painstakingly careful and layered composition. The Aeneid alone took him ten years, a rough average of three lines a day, and its structure bears witness to the effort: a slow-building concatenation of linguistic echoes that eventually carries the power of an avalanche.
One of the clearest examples of this may be seen in Virgil’s use of the verb “condere” at both the beginning and end of the poem. In Latin, “condere” can mean many things—to found or establish, to bury, to store up wine. At his epic’s beginning, Virgil tells us that establishing—“condere”—the Roman race was a heavy task, full of suffering. At the end of the novel, Aeneas buries—“condere” again—his sword in Turnus’ side, killing him. A brilliant and subtle way to show the reader that the Roman race’s origins were at the point of a sword.
The closest thing we have to a portrait of Virgil is an imperial-era mosaic, discovered in Tunisia. In the center sits a somber Virgil, with the Aeneid open in his lap, flanked by muses. On his left stands Clio, the muse of history; on his right, we might expect the muse of epic poetry, patron of Virgil’s chosen medium. Instead, the artist has given us Melpomene, the muse of tragedy. It is the perfect iteration of Virgil’s message to us: that history is more tragedy than triumph. For two thousand years it has been hiding in plain sight.
Although the Harvard school’s interpretation of Virgil is hardly unanimous, it has saturated the field to the point that it is now taught in many high schools. And while it is astounding that it took us two thousand years to look past Virgil’s surface, it does not necessarily represent a failure. As the nations of the young West fought to define themselves, Virgil stood as proof that, evidence of Rome itself notwithstanding, “empire without end” was not only possible, but worth the struggle. We saw in him what we needed to see: a hope of immortal civilization. Then, when the world cracked around us, we again took from Virgil what we needed: comfort that progress and ideal empire was an illusion, and had always been so. Perhaps there are more revelations yet to come.