Sunday, February 2, 2014

Western Tradition Compendium: Virgil

Virgil – Aeneid

When we think civic pride, we think of the nation. Nationalism is the pride in one’s nation that allows politicians to say why we are more blessed than our neighbors. Yet while civic pride arose first in the west with the Greek city-states, it is not from them we get the term. ‘Civic’ finds it root in ‘civis’, the Latin for ‘citizen’. And so, with the Virgil’s great epic of civic pride, we enter the world of Rome.
            Aeneas, our hero, flees the wreckage of Troy, Homer’s Ilium, and ends up on the coast of North Africa, Carthage, what in modern times we call Tunisia. It is particularly fitting that these are the two places Aeneas had lived before Rome, for in early Roman history the Greeks and Carthaginians will play the defining roles. Virgil’s epic ties up these animosities nicely. The Greeks, to whom the Romans owed much culturally (as any student of mythology knows), were represented by the wily Odysseus who burned the tragic city of Troy. In historical reality the Romans achieved quite the political coup in 148 BCE – they finally subdued the Greeks in the fourth Macedonian War, and two years later defeated Carthage in the third and final Punic War. Carthage was once as powerful as Rome, with impregnable walls, a mighty navy, and a threatening location barely more than fifty miles from Sicily. In Virgil the interlocking of these two power’s fates is seen in the tragic love of Carthage’s Queen Dido for Trojan Aeneas, who abandons her on the shore, restless for better things – namely Italy.
            By the time Virgil’s poem was complete the Republican phase of Rome was at a close. For some 500 years Rome had been a Republic, but our poet carefully also includes in his myth the foundations, genealogically, of the Julio-Claudians: arguably the west’s most famous ruling dynasty. Virgil (70 BCE- 19 CE) lived to see the rise of Caesar and Augustus, and made sure the epic of the Roman people was tied to their fate. Unlike the Greek works we’ve seen, the Aeneid is designed to give rise to a mythological shared past to an increasingly diverse people. Expansion of Roman territory had been largely completed under the Republican state. (For example, after defeating Carthage and famously salting the earth that naught might grow, the Romans decided to set up camp, with North Africa as the breadbasket for the Republic’s hungry citizenry.) Rome in Virgil’s time stretched from Egypt to Spain, Syria to France. It was not its full historical extent, but with such widely different peoples a unifying epic may have come as some relief to Augustus, attempting to rule the largest domain seen yet in the western world.
            Yet from the burning of his city, to tragic love, to fighting off the native Italians and subduing the peninsula of the Latins (which comprises half the epic) – Aeneas’ conflict ends on a positive. Through the strife Aeneas eventually ends the war, kills the bad guy, and can settle his new homeland. So with Augustus, who ruled from 27 BCE to 14 CE, the wars against his rivals and subduing of the continent ended in the ‘pax romana’, a period of stability and relative peace that would last for hundreds of years in the continent and Mediterranean.

            The ancient world has left us with five epic poems, the two from Homer, one from Virgil, one from Ovid, and one from Lucretius. Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ is a work of great beauty, but little historical value. Lucretius’ philosophical epic will be dealt with later. As such Virgil’s work is that last literary epic we will encounter for nearly a thousand years. But more than that it represents one of Rome’s most lasting legacies to the ideas that shape western civilization: pride in one’s nation, in part through a shared, semi-mythological past. Anyone who has translated the French national anthem or seen Leutze’s ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ knows the legacy of Virgil’s epic in modern times.

No comments: