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On Reading a Classic: Virgil’s Aeneid

      One of the beneficial challenges of teaching at Cair Paravel Latin School, a classical Christian school, is that teachers and students read the classics.  Sometime in the dog days of the last weeks of the school year our excellent Latin teacher’s enthusiastic speech in convocation inspired me to read Virgil’s Aeneid.      

      Why, you may well ask, would anyone take on the task of reading a two thousand-year-old poem of twelve books and over three hundred and fifty pages?  Why?  Because it is a classic.  This reason immediately raises the questions of what is a classic[1] and why should we read them.[2]

      I shall define a classic as a work of such profundity of thought and excellence of expression that it has endured over an extensive period and has become both a standard and an inspiration not only for individuals but also for entire and varied cultures.  Written with polished gravity at the foundation of the Roman Empire and serving as the epic of that empire which became the basis for much of Western civilization, the Aeneid certainly fills the bill.

      We read such works because they teach us not only about ourselves and our time and place but also about all mankind in all times and places, even in the light of eternity.  The questions they raise, the answers they give, and the style in which they are written shape our thoughts, our character, and our tastes.  Given some patience and a bit of work, the classics can also bring to us pleasure.  Virgil’s Aeneid is a good story and worth the time and effort.

      I am not competent to judge well Virgil’s style, although his ability is clear in the translation of the great English poet and dramatist, John Dryden.[3]  Two examples must suffice. He displays the alluring beauty of Venus, Aeneas’s goddess mother in these lines:

                  Her neck refulgent, and dishevel’d hair,

                  Which, flowing from her shoulders, reach’d the ground.

                  And widely spread ambrosial scents around:

                  In length of train descends her sweeping gown;

                  And by her graceful walk, the Queen of Love is known (1.402-406).

Also, throughout his poem, Virgil eloquently captures war’s tragic destructiveness and the sorrow that it causes—a sorrow that reaches even to the heights of heaven.

Then Jove, to soothe his sorrow, thus began:

                  “Short bounds of life are set to mortal man.

                  ‘T is virtue’s work alone to stretch the narrow span.” …

                  This said, the god permits the fatal fight,

                  But from the Latian fields averts his sight (10.466-473).

      The great theme of the Aeneid is encapsulated by the scene in which, amid the destruction of Troy, Aeneas carries Anchises, his lame and aged father who bears their country gods and relics, and he leads his small son by the hand.  This is the theme of pietas or piety.  The modern use of the term to describe an individual’s practiced devotion to God is included, but for the Romans pietas meant one’s devotion to and faithful service of one’s gods, people and family.  Aeneas exemplifies pietas to the generations before him, his father, his people and the future generations represented by his son.

      However, Aeneas is not just an individual example of pietas.  In his person he is the one who continues the heritage of Troy and establishes Rome, the great empire that would rule the lands surrounding the Mediterranean and even beyond. Thus, he has a calling to fulfill, and by his portrayal of Aeneas’s struggle to fulfill that calling Virgil touches profoundly on the human condition, man’s fate.

      The famed opening stanza states the theme of man and his fate.

                  Arms, and the man I sing, who forc’d by fate,

                  And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,

                  Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore.

                  Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore,

                  And in the doubtful war, before he won

                  The Latian realm, and built the destin’d town;

                  His banish’d gods restor’d to rites divine,

                  And settled sure succession in his line,

                  From whence the race of Alban fathers come,

                  And the long glories of majestic Rome (1.1-7).

Man’s fate is harsh.  Aeneas experiences the harsh cruelty of powers beyond his control.  He is forced into exile by the goddess Juno’s cruel hatred.  The poet seeks to relate, “For what offense the Queen of Heav’n began/To persecute so brave, so just a man.” Thus, the Aeneid is treating the age-old question of why the good suffer.  It also questions whether there is any justice in the world. “Can heav’nly minds such high resentment show/Or exercise their spite in human woe” (1.8-11)? At the same time, even the gods cannot rule over fate, as Juno admits, “Then am I vanquish’d?  Must I yield?  … so Fate will have it” (1.37-39).

      This is the stuff of Greek tragedy, but Virgil is no tragedian.  Fate is not just an impersonal force that ruins all human endeavors.  Fate is also destiny, a calling.  Aeneas’s fate is not that of an Oedipus.  He is the progenitor of Rome who with his men is called to “endure and conquer.”[4]  As Eliot explains, “Aeneas is … a man fulfilling his destiny … by surrendering his will to a higher power behind the gods who would thwart or direct him.”[5]

      The vocation to fulfill his destiny sets him apart from Turnus, “the man without a destiny.”[6] No matter how we might try to sympathize with Turnus as a man without a destiny, he is unable to submit his passions to a cause greater than himself.  There is only the power struggle.  He merely destroys.  He does not build.  Could there be a fitter warning for an age like ours that admits no higher power in our public life?

      This is not to say that Aeneas is perfect.  Far from it.  First, he falls to Queen Dido’s seduction and is tempted to abandon his vocation.  Warned by Mercury and reminded of his duty, Aeneas repents.  However, Dido’s fate is tragic.  She prefers to cover her illicit lust with a lie. 

                  The queen, whom sense of honor could not move,

                  No longer made a secret of her love,

                  But call’d it marriage, by that specious name

                  To veil the crime and sanctify the shame (4.170-172).

But hers is not the mere sin of calling a sexually immoral relationship marriage.  She abandons her royal vocation.  “Forgetful of her fame and royal trust/Dissolv’d in ease, abandon’d to her lust” (4.194-195). Ultimately, consumed with selfish lust, she forgets who she is and perishes.  Then, even in the end Virgil highlights Aeneas’s weakness.  The Aeneid is a martial poem.  Virgil is singing of “arms.”  The passions of men are enflamed by war.  Aeneas in a rage of vengeance slays Turnus, who has pleaded for mercy (12.930-952). 

      Yet despite his failings Aeneas and, one imagines, those of the Romans whom he represents are called to a destiny of greatness in service to something beyond themselves and even beyond their time.  Virgil counsels us that we humans are fulfilled not by seeking our own selfish individualistic interests but by service to a cause greater than ourselves.  Barely a generation would pass before another and far greater came not to do his will but the will of the one who sent him and to serve rather than to be served.  Perhaps in this way too Virgil’s Aeneid was a kind of preparatio evangilica.

[1] One answer to this question can be found in T. S. Eliot’s brilliant essay “What is a Classic?” found in his collection of essays On Poetry and Poets (London: Faber and Faber, 1957), pp. 53-71.

[2] Italo Calvino provides an entertaining and accessible justification to this query in his article “Why Read the Classics?”  It is available online at

[3] Dryden’s translation is not literal; so, the line references to the Aeneid are only approximate.  In order to help the reader using a different translation find the quotations, I’ve often included a broader range of lines. 

[4] This very loose translation of Aeneas’s words encouraging his men (1:198) does, however, sum up admirably his and their mission.

[5] Eliot, p. 68.

[6] Ibid., p. 63.

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