Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Aeneid: Virgil and His Times


Now that all that pesky romance between Aeneas and Dido was taken care of and thrown out the window, you can almost hear Virgil sigh a deep sigh of relief, rub his hands together, and say, “And now for some sports!”

Because that’s what happens next.  Turns out all that piggyback riding Aeneas gave his dad Anchises was for naught, because Anchises has died an off-screen death.  But unlike Aeneas’ wife Creusa, Aeneas remembers the anniversary of his dad’s death and decides to be Pious and honor his deceased father with some violence by having some War Games. 

See, much as he tried to paint Rome’s destiny as being a peaceful, united empire in The Aeneid, Virgil’s Rome was a pretty violent place.  Virgil lived during the tumultuous time that most people know best about Rome:

1) The Roman Republic fails and is taken over by a Triumvirate including Julius Caesar. 

2) Julius Caesar takes over the Triumvirate and pretty much declares himself Emperor.

3) Julius Caesar is assassinated and a new Triumvirate including Mark Antony and Octavian is installed.

4) Mark Antony moves to Egypt to live with Cleopatra

5) Octavian goes to war with Mark Antony

6) Octavian wins and installs himself as a Friend of the Republic…AKA Emperor Augustus.

So no matter how many times The Aeneid records prophecies about how Rome is a united and peaceful place, there was a lot of backstabbing—politically and literally—going on.

And the Romans were pretty good at violence.  Their military was one of the more organized operations for that time period.  In order to keep their borders safe from enemy countries, and to keep their subjugated nations in line, they had to be constantly at war or on guard against rebellions.  Just reading Virgil’s very detailed, very gruesome accounts of the deaths of King Priam or Queen Dido makes it clear that this was a culture saturated with bloodshed.  Eeven the his metaphors* describe the warrior characters as beasts, as if humans were no better than animals in this narrative.

Our modern western culture owes a lot of ideas to Rome, to be sure.  And because of that we tend to view them as civilized.  When we think of Ancient Rome, we think of men in togas sitting around debating and making speeches, of marble statues or columns.  In this way we kind of fall under the spell that the Romans themselves devised: they labeled themselves as the only civilized culture that existed, whereas every other culture was barbaric. 

But really when you read any history written DURING the Roman Empire (Seutonius’ The Twelve Caesars comes to mind), you’ll see a different Rome existed under the façade of civilization.  This is the Rome that Virgil was lauding in his epic poem, and this is the Rome that Aeneas is supposed to found as part of his destiny.  When we read The Aeneid and are shocked at the violence and the callous way human lives are spent for the glory of Rome, we have to make sure we understand what that “glory” actually would become.

*Which is kind of disappointing after Homer’s elaborate similes, my favorite of which is a long paragraph explaining how a man drew back his bow like a fisherman casting out a net and catching a fish.  Although Homer liked his animalistic similes as well:

As ravenous wolves come swooping down on lambs or kids
to snatch them away from right amidst their flock all lost
when a careless shepherd leaves them straggling down the hills
and quickly spotting a chance the wolf pack picks them off,
no heart for the fight so the Achaeans mauled the Trojans.


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