9-3 aeneid

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

9.3 (Summer 2009)


The Aeneid (commentary)


courtesy of artrenewal.org


From Arcadia to Empire: The Aeneid’s Elusive Allegory  (Part Two)

John R. Harris

Sections have been numbered consecutively with Part One of this essay, which appeared in the previous edition of Praesidium.


VI.  The False Dichotomy of Jupiter and Juno

To summarize and review: I have suggested, largely on the basis of the Aeneid’s first half, that Vergil embraces a pastoral vision of life wherein any notion of profound human progress (including the imperial notion) seems little more than a castle in the clouds.  An Arcadian, if we may so designate an Epicurean like Vergil whose convictions resonate sympathetically with Stoicism, believes that those people are happiest who depend least upon circumstance.  Our material surroundings (in this view) cannot be controlled: even when they please us, we must remain nervous about the duration of such pleasure, which could end momentarily and, indeed, decay into abject misery.  The inhabitant of the pastoral world is least touched by fortune’s vagaries because he plucks his food from the nearest branch, his delight from a well-tuned string, and his bedding from the grassy meadow.[1]  Since people possess little in this setting, envy is unknown, and wars practically unheard-of; for who would envy his neighbor a simple reed pipe, and what despot would undertake to swell his kingdom by invading rugged hills full of sheep?

Nevertheless, the human heart will eventually manufacture substance for frustration, even in Arcadia’s scaled-down Eden.  The singing contests of Vergil’s shepherds in the Eclogues seem to leave no more abiding ill will than do the athletic contests of Aeneid 6; but shepherds also compete for shepherdesses, and the runner-up enjoys no consolation prize in this agon.  Eclogue 10, the last of the group, ends with Gallus’s resolution to leave Arcadia—perhaps forever—to seek out his beloved, who has apparently chosen to desert him and shadow a soldier among the camp followers (perque horrida castra secuta est, 23).  Gallus admits that an insane love impels him to take up arms (44-45), though whether he intends to win back Lycoris by enlisting or by dueling with her soldier-seductor is unclear.  In any case, a passionate sexual attachment has placed him in almost the same circumstances as Aeneas: abandoning his homeland, traveling unknown places far and wide, preparing for mortal combat, hoping in the vaguest possible way that his love will at last accept his suit and remove his present misery (if not render him blissfully happy).

The serpent in the Vergilian paradise, therefore, is not a smooth-talking Maecenas offering the poet hard cash to write verses entirely opposed to his inclination.  Vergil’s vision was already one of tragic shortcoming before he ever turned his hand to epic: the Garden already and always implies the Fall.  As a Vergilian creation, Aeneas is deprived of happiness not so much by the literary necessity of trading his shepherd’s crook for a spear as by the moral inevitability of wanting what he cannot have.  Were there not a Jupiter in Heaven with an imperial mission, there would have been a love, a hatred, an ambition… some such psychic turbulence would at last have made the hero unfit for whatever Troy he might have reconstructed from the ashes or whatever idle days of dalliance he might have fashioned with Dido.  In a way, then, Dido was quite right to question Aeneas’s holy summons to sail onward: as the handsome stranger had corrupted her Arcadian settlement, so the Olympian vision has corrupted Aeneas’s capacity to find contentment.

Yet there must also be something very wrong with this equation.  Dido is driven on by the vengefully crazed Juno and by the incomparably coy Venus; Aeneas is called by the universe’s ruler to a life of noble self-sacrifice and civilizing imperium.  On the surface, the two motive forces appear to be opposites.  What has Mount Cithaeron to do with the Palatine Hill—what has passion to do with reason or excess to do with order?

To contrast Juno and Jupiter in this manner—the female force of passion with the male force of reason—is almost irresistible.  In my essay’s first part, I confided that I have in fact taught the Aeneid for years according to such a template; and the somewhat more time-honored (dare I write “clichéd”?) opposition of personal happiness to service of the state amounts to very nearly the same assessment.  Yet the central contrast of values here turns out to be not at all sharp—not as it originates in Juno and Jupiter, anyway, though scholars have sought to do much retrospective tidying up.  The two figures should be almost Manichaean polarities: instead, they are but alternate names for illusion.  Let us grant that Vergil typically conveys the frenzy inspired by Juno and her attendant Furies in images of blood, fire, darkness, and madness, while Jupiter’s forecasts and those of his messengers (cf. the spirits of future Roman heroes in Book 6’s Elysium) seem to sweep out a sublime amplitude of space and time (imperium sine fine dedi, 1. 279).  A delusional psychotic need not run berserk—the prospects seen only by his eyes may actually calm him down.  Jupiter is fully sold on his own grand plans for Rome, and the epic’s poetic environment compels us, naturally, to assume that all will come to pass as he desires.  He neither possesses the evidence nor exercises the power necessary to make his claims, however—a conclusion also twined into the very essence of Vergil’s poetic vision.  If he is not an insanely boastful Rodomonte, this Lord of the Universe, it is because he has real power over others to make them fetch and carry… but so does Juno.  The result is two competing cosmic energies—and they are indeed formidable potentates—who yet overreach their mighty arm’s span, both of them, one forever enraged at falling just short, the other seldom noticing his errors of calculation.

I allege, then, that the “problem” in Vergil’s poetic universe—the truth in it which threatens to trump artistic coherence with moral contradiction, hence transmitting a problem—lies in the epic’s warring gods.  The fault lines of these irreconcilable strains are never more obvious than in the Olympian council which opens Book 10.  Jupiter begins the discussion by reminding the assembly that he had forbidden a war between the Italians and the Teucrians (abnueram bello Italiam concurrere Teucris, 8).  Venus, whose role has always and exclusively been to protect her son’s interests—she does not gratuitously inflict erotic passion upon anyone in the epic (a fact deserving of a closer look later)—emphasizes now her son’s complete innocence of starting trouble.  With a genius for mediation which is also typical of her Vergilian persona, she proposes that the Trojans be allowed to settle on one of her sacred islands: neither they nor she will protest if the imperial project is scrapped.  She wishes no more than that her son be spared the destruction which nearly engulfed him in Troy (dirae valeam subducere pugnae, 50: “May I suffice to snatch him away from dire combat”), a fate more fitting to have been met on his home soil if he is only to meet it now in a strange land.

Then Juno weighs in.  Her fulminous rave is scarcely more than a string of rhetorical questions.  The Romans did not employ question marks in their script, and modern editors enjoy a certain latitude concerning where to use them and, indeed, where to place periods; hence this speech arguably consists of nothing but questions—about fourteen of them—with perhaps two or three very brief declarative utterances stitched in parenthetically.  In other words, Juno makes no case whatever (and the premises implicit in her questions are often patently false).  Her position consists strictly of an insane contempt and resentment—a sense of having been wronged which vaults incoherently from present to past to future and bullies half-truths into snide mockery.  She is the trouble: not the view for which she argues (no such view exists), but the raw fury which breaks out in argumentative fragments, is the trouble.

Yet the trouble is not the problem.  Trouble can often be analyzed and resolved.  The problem is that Jupiter (and whatever he represents, be it reason, formal authority, or something else) lacks control of the situation, though he makes a good show of being in command.  In a speech of ten lines (i.e., about a quarter as long as the two preceding it), he loftily proclaims his rather pusillanimous desertion of the Trojans:

“accipite ergo animis atque haec mea figite dicta.

quandoquidem Ausonios coniungi foedere Teucris

haud licitum, nec vestra capit discordia finem,

quae cuique est fortuna hodie, quam quisque secat spem,

Tros Rutulusne fuat, nullo discrimine habebo,

seu fatis Italum castra obsidione tenentur

sine errore malo Troiae monitisque sinistris.

nec Rutulos solvo.  sua cuique exorsa laborem

fortunamque ferent.  rex Iuppiter omnibus idem.

fata viam invenient.”

                                                            10. 104-11

“Receive, then, these my sayings and fix them in your souls.  Inasmuch as it has not been permitted to unite the Ausonians with the Teucrians, nor will your discord reach an end, that fortune which befalls either side today, that hope which either side carves out, be it Trojan or Rutulian, I shall endorse without distinction, whether the Italian camp is besieged by fate or the Trojan one by tragic error and ill omen.  Nor am I absolving the Rutulians.  Their efforts will bring to either party what fortune and fruit of labor it enjoys.  To all, King Jupiter will remain the same.  Fate will sort this out.

Were this Ariosto instead of Vergil, we might suspect a parody.  None of us will ever know what exactly Vergil had in mind when he filled the Olympian monarch’s mouth with such grandiose tergiversation.  Jupiter at once reduces the issue to a squabble between Venus and Juno, yet Venus has in fact offered to remove the bone of contention permanently.  Jupiter’s own fixation with founding a terrestrial empire is the source of Juno’s antagonism.  The rest of his pronouncement is dedicated to awarding the final say in the matter to destiny.  If a power in human affairs superior to his own will arbitrate the issue as it/they will, however, then by what authority did Jupiter conceive his imperial plan, to begin with?  The moral right in this matter is entirely with Venus.  Aeneas and his followers have been cruelly hounded to go west upon an ambitious and most perilous mission, impelled both by Jupiter’s fearful majesty and by his alluring promises.  Since he cannot keep his promises except by accident—since Fate will ultimately decide the case—he should allow the Aeneades to desist from their toil and settle in some peaceful backwater.  He has overstepped his authority, mighty though it is.

To juxtapose the Vergil’s Olympian conference with Homer’s at the beginning of Iliad 8 licenses us further in supposing the Roman poet’s intent to have been faintly wry.  We should never assume that an artist of Vergil’s sophistication would simply visit an epic topos because he is writing an epic.  Let us recognize, first of all, that he did not have to replicate any given Homeric scene—he ignores quite a few—and, secondly, that he is quite capable of replicating Homer’s material with extremely subtle sous-entendre.[2]  Such is the case here, I would argue.  In fact, Vergil may well be said to have turned Iliad 8 on its lofty ear.  Homer’s original has Zeus putting all the gods on notice to stay out of Troy’s war, asserting his authority in such powerful terms that only Athena ventures a few placatory words in the ensuing silence.  Aeneid 10 reverses this paradigm in ways that can scarcely be accidental.  Jupiter’s prohibition of divine participation in the Italian war is a disguised retreat from his own active involvement.  Despite its tone of high majesty, the speech is delivered in a few quick lines after Venus’s impassioned plea and Juno’s furious rant.  Homer’s Zeus asserts that he is greater than all gods and all men, and will cast the disobedient into deepest Erebos.  Vergil’s Jupiter looks altogether too much like the feckless and pitiful King Latinus “relinquishing the reins of command” and retreating indoors (7. 600) after his wife Amata has stirred up a hornets’ nest.

To be sure, the King of the Gods is disobeyed in both cases.  Hera sets about deceiving Zeus with the utmost care, however—and let us remember that Zeus himself ultimately desires a Greek victory, as well: he is at odds with his consort only because a favor has been called in by Achilles’ mother.  Juno not only violates the infinitely more sweeping design of her husband with notable intrepidity: she actually wrests concessions from him when he discovers her treason.  Jupiter goes so far as to announce, “I give what you want, and I surrender myself willingly vanquished” (do quod vis, et me victusque volensque remitto, 12. 833).  The Ausonians shall keep their language and customs; the Teucrians shall mingle with them in blood, speech, and religious practice; the resultant race shall hold Juno in particular reverence (12. 834-840).   To us as to Augustan Romans (who were, after all, the resultant race), the compromise seems magnanimous: to the refugee culture so laboriously transported across the Mediterranean, it would prove terminal.  Was the sacrifice of language and religion somewhere in the fine print when Aeneas accepted his grand mission?  Jupiter himself, one must suppose, has either never imagined that mission in detail or never committed himself to its accomplishment as punctiliously as the Trojans believe.  As the epic concludes, he has found ample space to cut deals.  The hazy contours of that destiny which he forces upon mortals but cannot himself quite master turn out to supply, not a range for human free will, but a legalistic wiggle-room for divine promises.

A second Olympian scene adapted from Homer as the Aeneid concludes may hardly seem to suggest this same outrage, if only because it consumes a mere three lines.  We should be negligent, however, to overlook its implications:

Iuppiter ipse duas aequato examine lances

sustinet et fata imponit diversa duorum,

quem damnet labor et quo vergat pondere letum.

12. 725-727

Jupiter himself lifted two trays in balanced examination and placed in them the diverging fates of the two combatants [to see] whom the struggle would condemn, with what force death might impend

Of course, the provenance of this Jovian roll of the dice to decide if Turnus or Aeneas will die is Iliad 21. 208-213, where Zeus puts the fates of Hector and Achilles into a mysterious balance evident nowhere else in the epic (unless implicitly in a simile ending Book 12).  Much has been written about Homer’s tacit admission that Zeus is not, after all, in charge of human affairs.  For Vergil to have made the same admission seems less sensational to the naïve, since epic poets (so the reasoning goes) always imitate their predecessors.  Yet Vergil’s version of the Scales of Fate is really the more consequential—by far—to his poetic vision.  Homer’s Zeus is not the architect of human history, and never claims to be so.  He is greatly put out at the need to engineer a couple of weeks’ adversity for the Greeks during a ten-year war, and he blunders through the job with sullen inattention.  Vergil’s Jupiter, on the other hand, has from the very beginning insisted on a grand scheme that will change the world forever.  To find him tinkering with a wondrous gismo, therefore, that removes a critical decision from his hands must once again raise profound questions about the moral pedigree of his earlier exhortations.  Is he humanity’s guide to a higher level of existence, or a supernatural enfant terrible in search of amusement?

Naturally, Jupiter cannot be the latter of these, if only because he allegorizes (to some indeterminable degree) traits of human nature or trends of human society in a manner inconceivable to Homer’s residually oral mind and in his traditional Zeus Cloud-Driver.  Yet thanks to a lack of ultimate authority, Jupiter also cannot be the former—humanity’s benign beacon of progress.  Vergil has deliberately put his pater hominumque deumque in Homeric settings in order to expose the deity’s incapacity for fulfilling his own decrees, at least where they impinge upon human destiny.  We have something here—some psychic element or moral determinant or influence upon the phenomenon of luck—whose power surpasses the human, yet whose exercise of power is alarmingly human in the tendency of reach to exceed grasp.  Is Vergil saying that evil has the last word in the cosmos, and that some would-be mediator of supernatural status does not recognize or will not admit this?  Or is he saying that the last word is mere arbitrary chaos (after the Epicurean fashion), and that the mediator renders chaos malign by foolishly insisting that he can direct it?

VII.  Indexing the Divine to the Human: What Is Evil?

My portrait of Jupiter’s undependable, somewhat lubricious behavior in failing to deliver on his end of bargains has consistently anthropomorphized him, as the epic itself does and as any epic, perhaps, is required to do of the metaphysical.  The time has come to get a clearer picture—or a vaguer picture, more accurate in its superior abstraction—of what rests behind this reverend Old Man of the Skies with his big ideas.  For Jupiter’s imperial plan is no mere literary trope: it is a motivation which costs lives, many the lives of good people, all lives that need not have been lost as they were—in violence and anguish.  The cruel event which seems most to crystallize for many critics the inequity of sacrifice—the evil—lurking behind Jupiter’s grand scheme is the final scene of the epic as we have it: Aeneas’s slaying of Turnus.  In this essay’s beginning sections, I discussed the importance of imagery in designating points of alarm throughout the Aeneid.  Specifically, I stressed how fire and shadow are paradoxically intertwined, and how wounds or blood and then insanity are spun into the fiber.  I might have added (for this element, by no means universal in the cluster, nevertheless might pass for frequent) the evocation of a sacred setting violated, as when Pyrrhus slays Polites and Priam before the palace’s central altar or when Dido slays herself in a perverted religious ritual.  When Aeneas puts an end to Turnus, all five of these elementary images are present:

        … stetit acer in armis

Aeneas volvens oculos dextramque repressit;

et iam iamque magis cunctantem flectere sermo

coeperat, infelix umero cum apparuit alto

balteus et notis fulserunt cingula bullis

Pallantis pueri, victum quem vulnere Turnus

straverat atque umeris inimicum insigne gerebat.

ille, oculis postquam saevi monimenta doloris

exuviasque hausit, furiis accensus et ira

terribilis: “tune hinc spoliis indute meorum

eripiare mihi?  Pallas te hoc vulnere, Pallas

immolat et poenam scelerato ex sanguine sumit.”

hoc dicens ferrum adverso sub pectore condit

fervidus; ast illi solvuntur frigore membra

itaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras.

                                                 12. 938-952

The fierce Aeneas stood still in his armor, his eyes fluttering, and restrained his right hand.  Now Turnus’s words were on the very verge of winning him over as he delayed… when the ill-fated baldric of the boy Pallas appeared to him on that lofty shoulder, its straps gleaming with well-remembered rivets—Pallas, whom Turnus had lain low with a wound before bearing away that now-unwelcome trophy upon his shoulders.  The hero, after drinking deep with his eyes of a torturous grief’s remnants and relics, caught fire in rage and grew terrible in wrath: “So you, clad in the spoils of my people, intend to snatch yourself out of my hands?  Pallas makes of you an offering with this wound—Pallas exacts a penalty with this criminal blood!”  Saying thus, the fiery champion buried his sword in his opponent’s chest, whose members slipped into a chilly slackness.  The vital force, taken by surprise, fled with a groan into the shadows below.

I hasten to express my guarded support of Karl Galinsky, who has for years and at length exposed the anachronisms in certain critical treatments of this final scene.[3]  Galinsky rightly stresses (following Servius, Vergil’s ancient annotator) that the penalty for breaking a treaty—which Turnus has indisputably done, and not once but twice—is death.  Aeneas would be regarded by many, perhaps all, in a typical Augustan audience as exacting a righteous vengeance.  I would add that, although whatever new treaty Aeneas may hope to strike with the Rutulians would probably be better served by his sparing their prince, one would be hard put to imagine his explaining this purely political shift to old Evander, whose sole heir was slain while in the Trojan prince’s care.  It would also be naïve of any Vergilian to suppose that Juno and her minions would attempt no further traduction upon a living Turnus, despite their solemn vows and his.  Aeneas was wounded just before this final combat when such a pact was flagrantly violated with the divine connivance of Juno’s agent Juturna (12. 244-256).

Where I must part company with Professor Galinsky is in the matter of how Aeneas is affected psychically by the event.  Physically, he wins the duel.  Politically, he wins the war (and slaying its prime mover may have been a better policy, after all, than sparing him).  Legally, insofar as war has any laws, he is well within the bounds of accepted practice.  The scene’s baleful images, however, can leave us in no doubt that Vergil considers Aeneas’s soul a loser in the confrontation.  Thoughtful hesitation yields to a fiery rage ignited by Pallas’s glittering baldric.  Though no explicit word of madness such as insanus or amens is used, Aeneas is overtaken by furiis and becomes terribilis—unmistakable signs of departure from the rational state.  The recollected wounds of Pallas merge in his mind so seamlessly with the wound he suddenly purposes to inflict upon Turnus that he equates the two in the last epic words he will utter, declaring that his sword’s thrust will complete a kind of sacrifice (immolat) demanded by his young protégé’s slaughter.  A curtain of shadow falls as he executes his human offering—not only upon Turnus’s shocked and fleeting spirit, but upon his own recently lucid mind and, indeed, upon all of the epic that Vergil would ever write.

The argument might be made that, since the Aeneid was clearly unfinished, this gloomy scene receives more emphasis than it would have in a more evolved version.  The counter-argument would hold that Vergil’s becoming mired at just this narrative juncture has significance—that Aeneas’s renunciation of his higher, more humane powers may have plunged the author into “writer’s block” precisely because he felt the scene to be, in some very profound sense, the last word about the human condition.  Whatever might have followed Book 12, we must say at the very least that the hero’s virtue is compromised.  Galinsky dismisses Aeneas’s patently impulsive vengeance (note well that Vergil does not have him proclaiming soberly, “I am obliged to take your life in just recompense owed to my bereaved ally Evander”) as a merely human burst of anger.  We all get angry, do we not?  The verdict of Socrates, however, is that we ought not; and the original Stoics insisted that the true sage would not.  To be merely human in the epic context, then, is a kind of defeat, inasmuch as the mythic matter of the epic probes human possibility to its limits, while the allegorized myth of literate epic carries this probing in a distinctly moral direction.  If Aeneas cannot rise above the cycle of magnanimity corrupted by passion, then neither can we… and the Socratic life is a pipedream, and anyone who believes that he has transcended the misery of a weak, flawed will dwells in illusion.  This all amounts to more than being merely human: it imposes upon the human a very disappointing “mereness”.

No wonder, then, that the most eloquent critics of the Harvard school (i.e., those who reject the conclusion of Europeans like Galinsky that Aeneas’s anguish is just the cost of doing one’s duty) stress the final scene.  Writes Putnam:

… the question which confronts the critic of the epic’s final book is whether Aeneas, as he comes face to face with this composite of past antagonisms, maintains the standard of reason and restraint he has hitherto called his own.  That the answer must be negative appears only after careful consideration of the book’s events as seen through the poet’s imagination.[4]

Quinn is far more emphatic about the answer’s negative tenor:

The reaction he [Vergil] wants to prompt is plain.  We must condemn the sudden rage that causes Aeneas to kill Turnus when he is on the point of sparing him—and when his death no longer makes sense, for Turnus has acknowledged defeat….  The killing of Turnus cannot be justified: this is beyond doubt the judgment expected of us.  It is of course intolerable, from the point of view of plot construction, that Turnus should be left alive.  But if he is a competent poet, aware of the implications of his own fiction, Virgil must make Aeneas’ action both psychologically plausible and forgivable: we cannot be invited to condemn the poem’s hero at the very climax of the poem.[5]

     What I have written will explain why I find some of Quinn’s expressions excessive.  The killing of Turnus can most certainly be justified, and by much more than “plot construction”.  The justifications, however, originate in political contract, social expectation, and cultural custom.  (If sparing Turnus might have served a political purpose, as I have suggested, it would have done so precisely by surprising pleasantly the Rutulian spectators, who would understand that payback makes plenty of “sense” and that the cost of clemency is paid in vendettas not honored.)  Inasmuch as Aeneas does not avail himself of these motives, but simply runs berserk, he has betrayed his higher nature while satisfying the rule of war.

For war, contrary to the Harvard school’s tendency to argue, is really not the essential evil in the Aeneid.  It is highly symptomatic of that evil, and perhaps infallibly so; but the blunt act of killing another human being would not have dismayed even the most thoughtful Greek or Roman unless precipitated by passionate excess.  Seneca eloquently refutes the Aristotelian position in his first essay De Ira that “there can be no fight to the finish unless it [anger] fill the mind and inflame the spirit; yet it must not be used as a leader, but as a footsoldier”… to which proposition as a whole, the old Stoic adds, “That is false” (8. 9. 2).[6]  Seneca proceeds to cite several illustrations from Roman history and legend which discredit the “virtue” of running wild in combat: the inefficacy of huge-bodied Germanic barbarians in battle, the disorder of the valorous Gauls, the patience of Fabius before the Carthaginians and of Scipio before the Numantians (1 De Ira 11).  We must suppose, given the appearance of a commonplace created by these richly abundant examples, that the view expressed in the essay was widespread.

In fact, warriors who come to a bad end in the Aeneid’s second half often fall prey to passions in addition to or other than the Wüt of heated combat: passions like vain pride, or greed, or even sexual lust.  Did Turnus’s overweening arrogance not drive him to slay the valorous but scarcely tested boy Pallas—and then (a quite literally fatal excess) to strip his armor for a trophy?  The all but invincible Camilla falls when, having seen the enemy priest Chloreus’s lustrous gear, she “burns with a womanly love of spoil and plunder” (11. 782) and neglects to protect herself from a shaft launched by Arruns.[7]  The Trojan lad Euryalus somewhat anticipates Camilla’s fate when he tarries among the Italian besiegers slain in their sleep (yet another topsy-turvy overhaul of Homeric precedent) to load himself with choice armor—the sheen of which at last betrays him to an Italian squadron (9. 373-374).  As for lust, one cannot overlook the influence of Lavinia’s blush upon Turnus at the beginning of Book 12 (a scene much admired by Johnson).  Lavinia’s exquisite modesty immediately elicits from her would-be fiancé a craving for weapons: “love churns in him and he rivets his eyes upon the virgin; he burns for arms” (illum turbat amor figitque in virgine vulotus; ardet in arma…, 12. 70-71).

Battle, in short, is but the most direct expression of passion’s ruinous force.  To sublimate various aggressive impulses rather than allow them unimpeded access to lethal weapons is the “civilized” answer to the problem—but we who practice it sometimes think too highly of ourselves.  A heart that burns in a Vergilian complexity of flame, darkness, and blood is none the less mad for hiding behind smiles and fine manners.  It is a curious fact, indeed, that Vergil never appears to be less critically, more naively Homeric than in some of the second half’s battle scenes.  The catalogue of assembling Italian troops which ends Book 7 has none of that off-centered bizarrerie so evident in Carthage’s Trojan War frieze—nor does the actual fighting in Book 10, where the two armies have their first real head-to-head confrontation as Aeneas lands with his reinforcements.  We encounter passages like this one which seem little more than the newspaper’s “box score” of some sporting event:

nec longe Cissea durum

immanemque Gyan sternentis agmina clava

deiecit leto; nihil illos Herculis arma

nec validae iuvere manus genitorque Melampus,

Alcidae comes usque gravis dum terra labores

praebuit.  ecce Pharo, voces dum iactat inertis,

intorquens iaculum clamanti sistit in ore.

tu quoque, flaventem prima lanugine malas

dum sequeris Clytium infelix, nova gaudia, Cydon,

Dardania stratus dextra, secures amorum

qui iuvenum tibi semper erant, miserande iaceres,

ni fratrum stipata cohors foret obvia…

                                                     10. 317-328

… nor far from there did he [Aeneas] cast down to death hard Cisseus and huge Gyas, strewing their opponents with clubs; of no use to them were Hercules’s arms nor his strong hands nor their father Melampus, the companion of Alcides as long as Earth offered him labors.  And Pharus over there—as he stands and shouts, the hero plants a javelin in his open mouth.  You also, Cydon, unhappy boy whose cheeks have their first down, following in the footsteps of blond Clytius, your latest joy—you also are swept down by the mighty Dardanian’s hand; you would have lain, a pitiful sight, far from the affection which youths always bore you had not a squadron of brothers happened along…

To be sure, these lines have several distinctly Vergilian touches.  One could argue for the existence of a faintly “decadent” connection in Vergil, for instance, between the voluptuously feminine (or effeminate) and an anguishing demise, as we saw in Dido and as we see here in Cydon.  On the whole, however, the passage exhibits only straightforward Homerisms.  It is very nearly as clean of mad, smoking passion as one of the Aeneid’s athletic competitions.  Boys are at play with their clubs and javelins… only here, scuffed knees are replaced by slit throats and crushed skulls.

I must resist the view I have just sketched, nevertheless, because it is too simplistic.  True, the imagery of fire, darkness, madness, and sacrifice (though, naturally not that of blood and wounds) is suspiciously sparse in the epic’s second half by the standard, say, of Books 2 and 4.  Yet this cannot be because outright warfare is somehow more wholesome to Vergil than sexual love or plundering ambush.  Rather, it is surely because the second half produces more scenes in wide-angle focus.  Whenever Vergil represents combat from the eyes of a particular individual, it re-acquires its insanity.  Book 2 appears to chronicle an uprising of violent lunatics because it is entirely related from Aeneas’s very limited perspective.  The Carthaginian frieze is much more puzzling—yet it leaves no doubt that the Trojan War is being recalled through a series of painfully intimate snapshots.  What creates the puzzle is how or why the frieze’s invisible artist would or could have chosen such a vantage, as if a city were to commission a portrait of its most distinguished citizen and receive something in the vein of Ingres.

That the epic’s second half is less given to close-ups and more inclined to panoramas should not surprise us, since Aeneas has now ended his search and shifted into the very public, very active fulfillment of his fully clarified mission.  The mission’s clarity, though—and here lies the essential point—obscures deep truth about the human soul precisely by drawing attention to the public stage.  The operative tension behind the Aeneid’s sense of evil is not that between letting victims live and killing them, or between acting uncertainly and acting with a clear plan: it is that between an act’s perceived, public image and its hidden, spiritual roots.  We do not see what passes through Aeneas’s mind as he overthrows Cisseus and Gyas… perhaps nothing at all does.  Perhaps, like a good samurai (in the un-angry fashion recommended by Seneca), he simply executes proper sword thrusts with proper aim and quickness.  At critical moments when Vergil again admits us to his hero’s thoughts, however, we generally find a soul crackling in fury’s bonfire.  This is really no Arjuna, no Sanjuro, but a being so far from stone-like detachment that his inner coherence is constantly melting.

The primary evidence here is Aeneas’s response to the news that his young protégé Pallas has been slain.  The old images of a psyche in collapse suddenly re-populate Vergil’s hexameters.  Aeneas is “on fire” (ardens, 10. 514).  In his imagination—which we have abruptly entered—he sees Pallas and Evander as they greeted him upriver, collegial hands extended, festive tables set (515-517).  Without any transition whatever, as if striking straight through this filter of pleasant recollections, the Trojan captain seizes the four sons of Sulmo, then four more of Ufens, and delivers them living to be sacrificed over Pallas’s fiery pyre, their blood poured into the flames (517-520).  Immediately thereafter, one Mago begs the hero for his life in the name of young Iulus.  Contemptuously, Aeneas rejects the suit and executes the suppliant with ritual precision.  The verb “immolate” (immolare) is again used in 541 (it had occurred in 519, and was certainly implicit in Mago’s slaying) when Aeneas finishes off—with an irony lost on him but not on us—the priest Haemonides like an offering before an altar.

The suggestions of human sacrifice to a human friend fallen would be doubly sacrilegious to the ancient mentality: they are also further borrowings from Homer.  Again, we must refrain from understating the effect of these horrors by arguing weakly that Vergil was just following his Greek master.  He was doing far more.  He kneaded these grotesque acts of vengeful excess into the Aeneid precisely to alert us to the excess.  The slaughter of the kneeling, beseeching Mago is indeed a dress rehearsal for the slaughter of the supine, surrendering Turnus, with all its tones of smoke-black, fire-yellow, and blood-red.  If the raging Aeneas at the epic’s end has not labored in the same seething state of spirit throughout the Italian war, he clearly has known many such moments since Pallas’s slaying under his protective custody.  The parallel with Achilles’ tying up a dozen captives for later sacrifice on Patroclus’s pyre (Iliad 21. 26-32), far from draining this scene of consequence, rather implies a reverse judgment directed over Vergil’s shoulder at Homer.  Pious Aeneas has shown none of Achilles’ petulance and arrogance.  He is on a divinely sanctioned mission, not a plundering expedition; not a childhood friend dismayed at his inaction, but a close ally’s only son entrusted to him, has been cruelly cut down; and he never insults gods who cross his path, but wages war by the book; yet now we find the nobler figure reduced to a ravening animal no less than the hubristic, self-engrossed demigod.  Homer, like any traditional singer of songs, followed the evidence of the senses and the temporal flow of battle in extroverted narration.  Vergil, like the brooding designer of Carthage’s perverse frieze, isolates and rivets scenes which trap the invisible horrors of personal motive—of spiritual annihilation.  He suggests that such horrors were there all along, but that Homer and his successors had been allowing them to slip through the net because “real time’ always moves steadily.  “Real time”, that is, cannot convey the realities of spiritual time.

As if to stress that his goddess’s son is not just another Achilles—a fair-haired terror whose flights of frenzy are unique, and even awe-inspiring—Vergil quickly turns the tables on Aeneas.  In fact, the inversion is shocking, probably to Aeneas himself.  Suddenly he is Turnus, opposing the insistent boy Lausus.  “Why do you rush to your death,” cries Aeneas, now strangely cool, “you who would dare strength much greater than your own?” (10. 811).  Of course, Lausus is trying to draw Aeneas’s lethal fury away from his father—an act of filial piety which painfully resonates with the dutiful eagerness of Pallas.  The effort indeed costs the young man his life, and buys his father Mezentius only enough time to voice an abysmally desperate and pathetic reflection upon his entire existence: “My child, I marred your good name with my crimes….  I should have paid down this guilty breath of mine for all the deaths I caused” (cf. 891-894).  Mezentius had once tyrannized his tribe in a selfish dream of empire.  Now he stares into the frightful chasm of an old age not only passed in exile, but passed in utter loneliness, his beloved son having died so that he might eke out a few more hateful years.

In many ways, it is too late for Mezentius to die, and he knows it.  Insane with grief (871) and badly wounded though he already is, he flings himself upon Aeneas and, indeed, acquires the death that might have spared his son if it had come earlier.  Interestingly, critics never seem to take issue with Aeneas’s fulfilling this distraught father’s desires in a thrust almost identical to that which parts Turnus’s spirit from his body.  Death is too welcome here—the coup de grace to the recumbent victim’s neck is the only possible release from unthinkable misery.  To be sure, Aeneas’s fiery rage has now been extinguished: there is no baldric of Pallas taunting his gaze, but only the fresh blood of a youth very like Pallas on his sword.  That Mezentius’s final words also anticipate Turnus’s while hiding a deep contrast with them is also acutely poignant.  Turnus asks that his body be restored to his father, Mezentius that his body rest with his son’s and that their remains be protected from the vengeful subjects he has wronged.  Had the death scenes of these two Italian champions somehow been inverted in narrative time—first Turnus, then Mezentius—the Aeneid might have ended on a note of hard-won optimism: the hero’s explosion of vengeance would have preceded a final revelation that a man far more deplorable than Turnus can yet love his son, loathe the life he has led, and thank his executioner while asking of him a favor that no one else on earth would grant.  Imagine the sobering estimate in the epic’s closing lines of just how futile the reign of passion turns out to be… the lacrimae rerum would truly flow.

But Vergil does not even allow us the modest optimism of tears.  Surprised by human misery at the apex of his rage in Book 10, Aeneas nevertheless cannot retain the lesson for the climactic day of Book 12.  The light of spiritual awareness does not spread like a dawning day in the Aeneid: it fades in and out like the frigid rays of a cloudy, wintry noon which soon yield to an early dusk.

VIII.  The Divine as Allegory: Human Nature or Blind Fate?

For the greatest frustration this magnificent work must have inflicted upon its author—a man whose artistic vision was so defeated that he urged his masterpiece’s destruction in his last will and testament—must surely be, not that it recognizes the tremendous moral strain of life, but that it cannot chart a path per aspera ad astra for those who toil: the anguish endured by Aeneas is of no personal profit, no benefit to the soul.  The loss of his homeland and kinsmen, of his wife, of his father, of his lover, of his allies… all of this cannot substantially change him as a man by leaving him wiser, capable of better decisions when similarly tragic circumstances recur.  Like Sisyphus, he can only roll the stone up the eternal slope as commanded until another accident jolts it from his hands and the command from on high is repeated.

The command from on high: yes, we have established that Jupiter is in charge, though not in charge—that he rules Aeneas, though he creates in Aeneas the mistaken impression that he rules everything else.  Were there such a “reign of passion” as I mentioned above when imagining an more optimistic end to the epic, then the battle lines for Vergilian heroes would be relatively simple: resist passion whenever and insofar as possible, like a true scion of Socrates.  That people in Vergil’s world cannot resist passion indefinitely is not really the fly in the ointment.  Stoic philosophers themselves disagreed about the human capacity for doing so.  Epictetus, for instance, thought that the sage could be ruled perfectly by reason at all times, Seneca that the struggle was an eternal ascent… but not a Sisyphean ascent, to be re-begun at the bottom ever so often.  Victories against passion can be provisional without being nullified.  What forever nudges the stone free of the Vergilian Sisyphus’s embrace is not passion, but misrepresentation of the moral ascent’s slope: the implicit but deceptive mapping of a smooth incline whose pits and fissures the commanding voice at the top, itself yoked to an upward gaze, cannot see.

Of course, this voice is Jupiter, myopic weaver of grand designs.  Let us note immediately how shocking an allegory begins to arrange itself around these unequal members.  If Juno and her minions are the passions which assail the individual human being, then the challenge the individual confronts is internal: i.e., how to master impulse so that it does not overrule fairness, duty, and the other elements of that objectivity arising from reason’s use.  In the Aeneid, however, this challenge is never genuinely posed.  Jupiter usurps the role of reason, but in fact his objectivity is bogus.  At no point does he teach, nourish, or model lessons of self-discipline based on understanding the individual’s limits.  Instead, he fathers an alternate kind of passion that mimics reason by inspiring serenity: the passion for a terrestrial paradise, a community of mortals free of mortal limitations, a Shangri-La which will restore the forsaken pastoral garden and forever preserve it from future longing.  Some men have been known to escape love’s predations (or know in the secret vault of their heart that they have done so) by spending their lives in wait for the ideal woman, some have thwarted ambition by convincing themselves that the perfect job lay just over their horizon, and some have justified insouciance to abusive government by extolling the abusers’ utopian blueprint.  Perhaps no passion is more potent, in a sense, than Fantasy, precisely because it possesses the ability to neutralize more immediate varieties; yet perhaps none is so tragic, since Fantasy is at last a passion.  Its victims at last must suffer when they realize that they have been duped.  In the meantime, a great deal of ruin and carnage has piled up around the dreamer’s hookah: people he might have helped were he not so intent upon a rising star, personal opportunities he might have exploited had he not instantly scorned them as less than perfect, lessons of anguish he might at least have preached were he capable of appreciating the true terms of his bondage.   Victims of other passions wear deep scars, or perhaps die young: victims of this one successfully evade birth, and hence fail to live at all.

Seen from such an angle, Jupiter grows allegorically much clearer than any association with calm reason or masculine authority could ever make him.  Those latter associations exist in him, to be sure, as does a further one I have proposed with the public, the observable, the empirical.  How on earth could some personification that sounds as Baudelairean as Fantasy be connected with reason, authority, and public activity?  Precisely because Fantasy is the antithesis of these yet is able to conceal its tension with them by impersonating them.  The persona of Fantasy is none other than a blank, pliant being behind a persona, an actor’s mask.  The introverted imagination supplements the character flaw of timidity, gullibility, uncertainty—of social ineptitude—by creating a context within which “waiting and seeing” is the best policy.  Fantasy removes the need for instant and well-aimed action, for it either postpones critical decisions or (as Aeneas finds out to his misery at Jupiter’s hands) it embarks upon any action at all which gives it a posture for the time being, confident that necessary refinements can be added later.  Its artificial calmness, as I have said, mimes reason; its mimesis of the rational life apes an austere masculine role—the captain steering to a distant destination, unmoved by the moment’s waves and winds; and the extroversion of infantile wishes into a design where nothing appears to remain subjective—where each wish’s self-indulgence is now gloriously obscured by the objective vapors of the chasm, cloud, or horizon to which it has been transplanted—is the very essence of this most sublimated passion.  Other examples of passionate disease gnaw on gritty material obsessively.  Envy hears the chink of coins in the rich man’s pocket.  Lust peeks inside a blouse.  Greed can analyze a column of figures more closely than Descartes.  Hatred notices every nuance in an adversary’s casual chuckle.  Fantasy, however, generates a film before the senses as an octopus escapes behind its ink: new sensations—better ones—are substituted in the confusion.  And the most appealing thing about the substitutes is that they indeed convince as sensations.  They win the fantasist to the proposition that he is not doing exactly what he is doing—that he is not running away from reality.

Is it my suggestion, then, that Aeneas is this fantasist?  If he is, he certainly pays most grievously for whatever comfort the far-and-ever-farther-horizon may offer him.  Yet passion does exact a payment: hence the vast agreement among various ancient doctrines (and “ancient” need not be restricted to mean the classical Mediterranean world) that the passionate life is the wrong path.  Furthermore, if we are correct in reading the Aeneid allegorically, at least insofar as divine activity intersects its plot (and there is really no other remotely plausible way to approach the work), then Aeneas is not alone in his delusions, but potentially an Everyman.[8]  True, he hears the voice of Jupiter more than most.  In doing so, he is also drawn away more than most from the more immediate and sensual passions.  Dido takes the initiative in their tragic affair, and having once been lured to orbit her, Aeneas entertains not a thought of frustrated ambition or diminished grandeur until Mercury again gilds the horizon.  He never craves any privilege or possession set immediately before him.  Indeed, there is no clear indication that he ever meets Lavinia at close quarters—the princess for whose part in a celestial future he risks his own life and everyone’s in his charge.[9]  That the passion of vengeful fury is not a stranger to him (we see this as early as the self-reported scene in 2. 567 ff., where he contemplates killing Helen) simply proves fantasy itself to be a passion.  In other words, its faraway visions cannot indefinitely protect one from the more corrosive passions of day-to-day living and do not pass muster, therefore, as wisdom or philosophy.  No doubt, Aeneas wants desperately to be a moral beacon for his defeated and exiled people, and his longing is an honorable, noble one.  He is plainly not seeking to justify a self-centered retreat from action as everything around him goes to hell in a handbasket.

Nevertheless, there is a kind of passivity—an intellectual and spiritual passivity—in his exhausting trek westward.  The expectation of a new Arcadia, this time purged of the old one’s liabilities, relieves the visionary of having to address perennial Arcadian problems: lost lambs, wolves, weeds, snakes.  The Serpent.  Aeneas’s addiction to fantasy is of the advanced variety that actually submits him to far more rigorous physical labors than merely breaking rough earth to cultivate a garden would have done… but then, to break ordinary earth would be to accept all the former torments of existence as continuing possibilities.  The “laziness” of fantasy (and fantasizing is more like the sin of idleness than like any other of the deadly seven) involves a luxuriating in the postponement of facing facts.  This alluring restfulness is familiar to those who have faced too many facts too closely and too quickly.  I believe that Primo Levi offers us a similar portrait of spiritual exhaustion in Se Non Ora, Quando?—a fictional work, but most of it gathered from the testimony of Eastern European Jews who were scarcely more accepted by the Russian partisans in whose ranks they fought than by the Nazis dedicated to their extermination.  As the novel ends, a rag-tag group of these people has survived World War Two and is preparing to embark for the new Jewish state rumored to be in the making.  One cannot but suppose that Aeneas’s fictional comrades would have responded with the same longing to the prospect of a clean slate, a new start; or to be more pertinent (since the Trojans are fictional), that many Romans of Vergil’s own day, having lost family, friends, possessions, and traditional beliefs all within a few nightmarish years of civil war, would have coddled the golden mirage of a distant paradise rather than shredded it with rigorous examination only to be left in utter despair.[10]  T  One can be quite clever enough to discern a delusion of mythic proportions within The New Start (known well to Romans as res novae, commonly clamored for by the economic underclass), yet still be unable to resist its magnetism emotionally.

The historical or quasi-historical bits and pieces from which a temple to Roman Progress might be constructed were not negligible.  Romans were well aware of their humble origins—why would they not have been?  The more backward the first settlements appeared in legend, the better the hand of destiny could be discerned in the emergence of a nation which nudged aside the Gauls from one border and Carthage from another (cf. the confidence in divine favor expressed by Cotta in Cicero’s De Natura Deorum 3. 2. 5).  The queue of souls waiting to be born into distinguished leaders which Aeneas views in Elysium is not pure fantasy; neither are the prophetic scenes embossed by Vulcan upon the hero’s new shield.  The she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus, the uneasy era of the kings from which the republic would burst defiantly—the Gauls whose siege of Rome was undermined by a gaggle of geese sounding a nocturnal alarm—the conspiracy of the wicked Catiline, and especially young Octavian’s glorious rout of the fascinating Cleopatra’s fleet at Actium… all of these grand moments find a place in the divine artisan’s handiwork, and certainly not all are sanitized of allusions to bloodshed.  Consider these lines:

… raptabatque viri mendacis viscera Tullus

per silvam, et sparsi rorabant sanguine vepres.

nec non Tarquinium eiectum Porsenna iubebat

accipere ingentique urbem obsidione premebat;

Aeneadae in ferrum pro libertate ruebant.

illum indignant similem similemque minanti

aspiceres, pontem auderet quia vellere Cocles

et fluvium vinclis innaret Cloelia ruptis.

in summum custos Tarpeiae Manlius arcis

stabat pro templo et Capitolia celsa tenebat,

Romuleoque recens horrebat regia culmo.

                                              8. 644-654

… and Tullus was having the remains of the liar dragged through the forest, where they bedewed the brambles with scattered blood.  Not missing, either, was Porsenna’s ordering that the exiled Tarquin be taken back, and then the city to be oppressed with an immense siege.  Aeneas’s descendants were rushing to arms for liberty.  You could see that tyrant like unto one indignant, unto one threatening, because Cocles had dared to sweep away the bridge and the maiden Cloelia to swim the river, her chains broken.  And there, on the Tarpeian Rock’s summit, stood Manlius before the temple, defending the lofty Capitolium, while nearby the yet-recent palace of Romulus bristled with thatch.

Unlike Iliad 18’s Shield of Achilles, this miraculous creation has no pastoral scenes; or, rather, the pastoral has been infused with the martial as citizen-shepherds claim their freedom.  Obviously, some of the gilding must have a ruddy cast; for Mettus of Alba Longa, who has betrayed a treaty (the viri mendacis of 644), is drawn and quartered.  We never see this wretch’s face, however—only the forest’s bespattered foliage.  The ferocious siege of Rome ordered by Porsenna, likewise, is represented by a bridge’s destruction and a maid’s bravely swimming to safety.  Porsenna’s indignant, menacing appearance comes closest in the passage above to being a “narrow-angle shot”; but Vergil’s use of the adjective similis—not once, but twice—insistently reminds us that we are only viewing an artistic panorama, whereon things can merely be “like unto” rather than indisputably and profoundly known.  Manlius’s defense of Rome’s most sacred precinct is again framed picturesquely, like Mettus’s dismemberment.  Rather than the appalling kind of detail abundantly supplied by Aeneas’s Book 2 narrative—Ucalegon’s house afire, Cassandra’s rape before Minerva’s altar, etc.—we witness only rugged slopes, vistas punctuated by new columns and gables, and the equivalent of a log cabin.

This prophetic panorama joins Elysium’s Queue of Unborn Heroes in being fluidly sequential rather than lingering over individuals and in framing occurrences with observable detail rather than shrouding them in metaphors of fire, shadow, blood, and madness.  It is closely akin stylistically to a typical Homeric battle scene, as we noted above of Book 10’s fighting before Aeneas hears of Pallas’s death.  The similarity is extraordinary, since the passage already enjoys a direct Homeric connection—the Shield of Achilles.   Vergil is trying to tell us something very important through this visual artwork, as he did with the Carthaginian frieze, and I think it goes as follows: the Homeric world is an illusion.  Its isolated facts and their sequencing need not be so.  Perhaps the Achaians really did invade Troy, Agamemnon really offend Achilles into withdrawing from the war, Patroclus really assume his friend’s armor only to be slain by Hector… and the rest.  The illusion is that such a tale, or such a history, can possess moral coherence—that it can sensibly display human courage, honor, grief, pity, and enlightenment laboring toward a fruitful evolution.  All of the events on Aeneas’s shield, too (as far as Vergil was concerned), had already come to pass… and yet, not so—or no more than a man can be said to pace the battlements when his restless ghost, instead, is stirring.  The shield’s scenes, like the early fighting in Book 10 and the Queue of Souls, lack depth.  They ignore the anguishing subjective experience of individuals whose thoughts and feelings fail to register in the artist’s medium—be that artist the reverend Homer, the male-only club of Elysium, or the virile smithy Vulcan.  They are the common fantasy of the boy’s world, where thrust sticks won’t gouge out eyes or cast stones break teeth.  The joy of the Jovian game must be held to the forefront: incidental injuries must not be allowed to spoil it.  And this game, of course, is best played in the mind, in anticipation.  It would perhaps never be played at all if one could know beforehand how many participants would in fact lose eyes and teeth—and lives.

So the fantasy does not necessarily deserve to be branded a lie, though many critics have remarked on the extreme slipperiness of prophecies and omens to their mortal recipients in the Aeneid.[11]  These anticipatory fantasies, especially, may still qualify as incomplete truths, since their projections are not yet due.  Maybe, this time, they will happen more healthily than previous applications of their model would lead one to hope.  Indeed, upon consideration, one must grant that there is really nothing to separate the style of the macabre Carthaginian frieze from that of the shield except that the frieze’s scenes have already occurred in deeply tragic or gruesome terms known to everyone.  How is the drawing and quartering of Mettus narratively any different from the desecration of Hector’s body (both descriptions employ the key verb raptare) other than in the latter’s being the very core of an immense cultural collapse, while the former must have possessed little context or resonance even for Vergil’s most erudite readers?  As well as refusing to examine present details too closely (and because it refuses to do so, no doubt), fantasy depends upon the susceptibility of “minor details” to complete alteration in the future.  The past, to an intelligence like Jupiter’s which insists on optimism, has been marred by bad luck, and bad luck can be surmounted by repetition.  No wonder this allegorical Lord of Fantasy dithers with Olympian scales when faced with decisions whose criteria he prefers not to analyze: to him, a happy roll of the dice may bring all to fruition this time!

As a devoted student of Arcadia, Vergil would understand that fantasy is truly the Serpent in the Garden.  Fantasy teases us with the notion of change—of tinkering here and there, of removing this or that source of tedium.  Change, to the fantasist, must inevitably mean progress.  Even the creation of something worse will improve the world, since it will designate an alternate path as the next one to follow after doubling back (also known as “finding oneself”).  Never remain still: play the game tomorrow for another win, if you win today—and play it for a first win, if you lose.  As long as the rules never change, the prospect of a perfect game remains ever alive in the game’s eternal repetitions… and then another perfect game.  This is what every boy dreams of (for it seems to be a distinctly boyish dream): to play a legendary, one-of-a-kind game… and then to play another.  In terms of the Arcadian fantasist, the dream is of Arcadia’s inviolable security and innocence supplemented by a daily dose of newness—of “higher truth”: a logically sustainable vision, perhaps, within the Garden’s ground rules, but a practical absurdity.

The Garden, in short, doesn’t have to be destroyed by invasion for its joys to grow vitiated and exile from it inevitable.  The human imagination will suffice to spoil terrestrial tranquility.  If one were to purge ascetically one’s craving for women, comforts, respect, and power, one would still face a formidable succession—an innumerable succession—of days ever the same.  Something has to lend drama to being, to make a better sameness.  The Gallus of Eclogue 10, we may recall, leaves his flock to chase after a girl who herself has chased after a soldier; were he to overtake her, wherein would he profit?  His reward, surely, will be simply to have chased—to have lived a tomorrow not anticipated from yesterday.  And yet, in one of those tomorrows, he forever fancies himself living at last with his Lycoris, thus recreating the Garden.

Seen in this fashion, fantasy is perhaps an equal blend of idleness and vanity: a spiritual listlessness unwilling to wrestle with facts whose twin sister is a spiritual presumption that “new facts” always await discovery.  Eve’s attraction to the Apple must have been half aversion to the acid of vital limits and half craving for the sweetness of the unknown (Tacitus’s omne ignotum pro magnifico est).  Very little in the Aeneid suggests that its hero has not had a lifetime’s fill of excitement (unless we consider the indomitably visionary Jupiter to be wholly in the hero’s mind, and not a more generalized allegory).  Aeneas is not vain in this sense: i.e., in the sense of Milton’s Eve.  He does not crave “unknown knowledge”—only unknowable: the knowledge that tomorrow will be the same as yesterday.  The saddest of ironies, perhaps, is that he cannot settle in Delos or Carthage or Sicily because they all lack the golden surety of impregnability—they can never be a clean enough slate, a new enough start.  Hence this good, humble, pious man must continue to wander without the security he desires above all else because any real set of circumstances is too transparently insecure.

IX.  The Tragically Neglected Mediation of Venus

We have strayed far from the fiery passions of this essay’s first half, all inspired by female-tinged metaphors (usually goddesses).  If I am right to associate the role of fantasy in Vergil’s epic with male forces, then we witness an odd rendering of familiar stereotypes; for the male is commonly held to represent energy, activity, engagement in the real world, etc. (as demonstrated by—among other things—the dark sun tan of male heroes in Greek vase painting).  Vergil need not be disputing such associations.  Indeed, by accepting them implicitly and then turning his explicit attention to male fantasies of stellar achievement, he produces nothing less than a theory of how things go so very wrong in the world; for the more visceral, “female” passions enjoy a much wider territory to ravage if the “male” passion of fantasy can lure male energy beyond the borders of the routine.

One whopping surprise remains, however, in this allegorical soup of perennial stereotype and brilliant invention: Aeneas’s mother Venus.  Of course, her interpretation should be the most evident of all, on the basis of immemorial paradigms—hence the tendency of critics (among whom I must number myself of earlier years) not to devote the necessary care to it.  We instantly suppose that the patron goddess of erotic love must represent the passion most celebrated for its seductive powers.  Furthermore, as nugatory a role as sexual love plays in most of this epic, it certainly occupies center-stage in Book 4; and here Venus appears to be instrumental in igniting a fatally excessive passion in Dido.

Two points must be stressed of Book 4, the first actually drawing us back to Book 1.  There Venus sends Cupid to infuse Dido with a passionate sexual attraction to Aeneas.  This he does most expertly:

ille ubi complexu Aeneae colloque pependit

et magnum falsi implevit genitoris amorem,

reginam petit.  haec oculis, haec pectore toto

haeret et interdum gremio fovet inscia Dido

insidat quantus miserae deus.

                                          1. 715-719

When he [Cupid] had hung in embrace from Aeneas’s neck and filled himself with a potent love for his feigned father, he sought the queen.  Dido clung to him with her eyes, then her entire breast, not knowing all the while what a mighty god was ambushing her—the pitiful woman!—as she fondled him in her bosom.

Clearly, Cupid is the immediate inspiration of Dido’s fatal passion: Venus only resorts to him as a strategy for neutralizing the ever-volatile Juno’s vengeful fury.  The lines above were anticipated by the queen’s already being metaphorically afire (ardescit, 713), so there is some room even to maintain that Cupid’s machinations are redundant.  In the cited passage, the divine boy’s tactics are described as “ambushing” (insidat), but the suggestion of poison also runs throughout the encounter.  (Indeed, implevit creates a very odd image which somewhat strains the verb’s usual sense: Cupid appears to be siphoning off Aeneas’s psychic imprint into his own body and then transferring this—with hints both erotic and vulnerating—into Dido’s breast.)  Why a male deity to deliver the heady venom of sexual longing?  Perhaps because Dido does not merely lust after Aeneas; and, for that matter, perhaps because Vergil understands that very few people merely lust after other people.  There is often, even in the most carnal attraction, an implied narrative—a fantasy.  In Dido’s case, much of the narrative is about to be spelled out in Books 2 and 3.  We are told later that she wants to hear the suffering exile’s tale over and over, feeding on it every bit as much as she feasts her eyes upon his figure (4. 78-79: and cf. 4. 3-4: “The man’s great courage and the great honor of his tribe continually courses through her mind”).  Dare I mention Gallus again—that shepherd who never pines so painfully for his lover as when she has left him for another, thereby involving him in a drama, a mission?

The poison Cupid delivers is a story.  His gender tips us off that Vergil finds in ravenous sexual passion a species of fantasy in which the glandular craving emphasized in our scientific age is but a secondary cause, a “parent”.  Venus, then, is not directly guilty of Dido’s seduction.  This is true in a less material but more profound sense, as well.  Her reason for sending Cupid, to begin with, is plainly stated as a fear—an extremely well-justified fear—of atrox Iuno (1. 662); and, indeed, when Juno realizes that she has been out-maneuvered, it is she who elevates Dido’s distress to mortal tragedy by insisting upon a “marriage”.  Venus, though knowing that Juno’s objective is to derail Jupiter’s imperial design and hence bound to remain unattained, accedes because, as she openly declares to her adversary, she is not demens (4. 107).  More cryptic is her smile or furtive laugh at the end of this exchange: dolis risit Cytherea repertis (128).  We cannot know whether to translate these words as meaning that Venus smiles because of Juno’s hidden wiles or because of her own.  The Venus familiar to us in the rest of the Western tradition would readily be moved to giggle about a short-term gain over a rival, wrought at tremendous cost to an innocent third party: Venus the ravishing ninny, the hare-brained sexpot.  Yet nothing in the Aeneid validates this image.  In fact, Vergil has just told us about twenty lines earlier of Venus’s sensing that she has been lied to by the Queen of the Gods (sensit enim simulata mente locutam, 105).

The truth is almost surely, then, that Venus has strung together a temporarily feasible compromise that will preserve her son’s safety for the nonce.  Such is precisely her function throughout the epic.  Again and again, she is not demens, but rather bluntly practical.  She sees, not the tears of things, but their lurking dangers, and she splices together uneasy truces so that her son may blunder unharmed through a gauntlet of murderous passions in pursuit of a fantasy from which she cannot wrest him.  She is a mother, with all the astuteness, discretion, and willingness to cut deals that a mother’s love can generate.  Twice she appeals to Jupiter, Lord of Fantasies, as he runs the risk of losing her son entirely from sight while bathing his eyes in Olympian clouds.  We have seen already how ineffectual was her attempted mediation during the council of the gods which begins Book 10: her complete concession of the imperial mission in return for Aeneas’s settling somewhere in secure anonymity is flatly rejected by Jupiter—who thereupon casts the hero upon the mercy of the Fates.  Yet the gambit proved not entirely fruitless, inasmuch as His Impotent Omnipotence did at least warn all the gods (in a grand periphrasis for Juno) away from the terrestrial war.  By this point, too, Venus has already equipped her son with divinely forged armor.  The great shield’s selected scenes from Rome’s glorious future, along with the highly selective style in which these scenes are conveyed, were all Vulcan’s doing.  Venus was content to give Aeneas a technical edge in any hand-to-hand encounter.

We can trace this prudent maternal influence all the way back to Book 1.  Here the first colloquy with Jupiter (parallel to Athena’s with Zeus as the Odyssey opens) is unencumbered by Juno’s presence, yet fully anticipates the exchange in Book 10.  Venus pointedly mentions the escape of Antenor from Troy and his subsequent settling in Illyria, where he has “given a name to his tribe, gathered the Trojan forces, and now rests nestled in an enduring peace” (1. 242-249).  No anxiety about lost imperial laurels flows from her; rather, she implies that her son and his followers, no less worthy than Antenor, deserve the same treatment if their only other option is to be buffeted about the Mediterranean.  As later, Jupiter rejects this veiled plea for an inglorious but tranquil refuge while remaining incapable of directly addressing the problem posed by Juno.  Neptune has already quieted the seas, in any case, so his intercession is fortunately not required at the moment.  He smiles loftily, kisses his daughter, and proceeds to unfurl the grand historical vision which apparently accounts for his chronic abstraction before a celestial drawing board.  Finally he vows to send Mercury down to Carthage lest the Trojans meet with a rough reception there from the new city’s bellicose inhabitants.  Venus, knowing the value of such aid, hastens to Carthage herself, where she playfully encourages her son, then wraps him in a protective mist of invisibility.  This much she might have done without appealing to her father; and, indeed, she goes further, enlisting Cupid in her defensive efforts and thus inaugurating the tragedy of Queen Dido.  Yet one must conclude that sneaking around behind Jupiter’s back is not her style.  As feckless and naïve as she knows his “will” to be, her nature is to keep him apprised of reality—of how far Juno has trespassed upon his inattention, to be exact.  She would prefer to be a mediator, and she is so.  Nevertheless, she is painfully aware that mediation enjoys very limited possibilities of success in this universe, and she will make shift to ensure alternate means of her beloved son’s surviving.

The preeminent stage for showcasing what Venus does best must surely be Book 2, when she appears to Aeneas just as he is about to slay the wanton, faithless Helen.  The encounter is reported in Aeneas’s own words: it has none of the distance typical of divine/mortal exchanges in the epic, the hero’s alma parens being clearly a goddess and “of such a kind and magnitude as she is wont to be seen by other sky-dwellers” (qualisque videri / caelicolis et quanta solet, 591-592).  In fact, besides Mercury, no other Olympian ever appears directly before a waking mortal and speaks (and Mercury may indeed be in partial disguise: cf. 4. 277-278).  This disarming visitation wrenches Aeneas from a state of vindictive lunacy (furiata mente ferebar, 588).  Never herself demens, the divine mother chastises her son for his iras: Quid furis, she scolds—“Why do you thus rage?” (594-595).  She reminds him of his decrepit father, his defenseless wife, and his young son, who would not have remained alive until now if her protection had not held at bay the swarming Greek forces (ni mea cura resistat, 599).  Then, in a truly spectacular panoramic revelation, she lifts the veil which normally hides immortals to mortal eyes and displays before Aeneas great Neptune sapping the city’s walls with his trident (610-611), implacable, raging Juno (saevissima… furens, 612-613) inciting enemy troops to stream through the Skaian Gates, Minerva atop the citadel glittering in her Gorgon-headed shield (615-616)[12]… why, Father Jupiter himself is strengthening Greek spirits and stirring the gods against the Trojans (617-618)!  To stand against the will of destiny in this manner is the very height of folly.  Aeneas is to follow her back to his family at once.  “I will never leave your side,” she concludes, “and I will bring you safely to your own threshold” (nusquam abero et tutum patrio te limine sistam, 620).

This is a truly remarkable passage—sui generis in the epic.  First, we find the goddess directly comforting Aeneas.  Though part of the allegory herself, we must suppose, Venus’s trope enjoys an intimacy lacking in whatever the other divines express.  She does not hold aloof like Jupiter, who sits on his throne secure that Aeneas will prevail yet tips very little of destiny’s hand for him to see.  She reveals herself in her fully supernatural presence, and also gives Aeneas a glimpse of other such presences, which are plainly intended to be off limits to his eyes.  Secondly—and perhaps this is properly an extension of her comforting function—Venus does not lie to her son with any passionate perversion of the truth.  She might well have dwelt upon the dangerous exposure of his family until she had excited a crazed terror in him—but she assures him, rather, that his household is safe in her care for the time being.  She prefers to reach him through a head-on confrontation with the situation’s dismal realities.  Not a word escapes her about the higher destiny awaiting him elsewhere: her only concern is that right here, right now, nothing good may be done.  She focuses his attention, not on a utopian castle in the western clouds, but on the single possible option that remains open to him to save himself and his family for another day.  One might almost call her the Aeneid’s missing voice of rationality!

That, I believe, would be going a step too far.  Rationality is durably missing in Vergil’s cosmos, because passion has infected every corner of it.  A kind of passionate red-shift (if I might coin a metaphor from physics) has forced all perceived reality through a set of distortions which constantly fix it to the left of where it should be.  Quotidian envy and resentment are rendered murderous; daydreaming which costs little more than productive time turns to a nation-building project paid for in thousands of lives; and, perhaps most curiously of all, selfless love of one’s fellow man—the agapê of the New Testament—blurs into the passion which drives us to capture other bodies and to generate children.  For such, after all, is Venus: she cannot not represent “venery”—her alliance with it is too close.  If Vergil is saying anything by associating her with self-sacrificing love, it can only be that our incorrigibly passionate, deluded species has the best chance of blundering into a truly idealistic love when it suddenly finds, after a spell of passionate indulgence, children on its hands.  An undying love of her son is what brings Venus into the vicinity of reason—certainly more often into that vicinity, and closer to it, than any of the other gods.  Love of family draws Aeneas back from butchering Helen in a suicidal eruption of righteous fury.  Love of his slain son redeems Mezentius from a despicable tyrant to a truly tragic figure.  Indeed, Jupiter is probably brought into contact with reality just enough not to lead the world to ruin by the love of his pleading daughter Venus.  None of the many unsavory female deities associated with mad, murderous passion, by contrast, is ever portrayed in any sort of filial relationship.

Might not this “Venus force” have been sufficient to insinuate a very modest degree of optimism into Vergil’s great work, if only he had lived to complete it?  One would have supposed so… but then, the comparatively selfless love of parent for child and child for parent also perversely fuels the fires of rage on occasion.  Aeneas slays Turnus because Pallas is suddenly recalled to him; and what may very well outrage him most about Pallas’s fate is the ineffably destitute state in which it has left Evander, the boy’s father.  (No doubt, he can and does imagine this state by picturing himself deprived of Ascanius.)  Love of her daughter also appears, at least in some measure, to drive the crazed Amata to incite Turnus and foment rebellion against Latinus.  The loss of her child, more even than of Hector and her entire extended family, has driven Andromache mad.  One may say as much of Dido, inasmuch as she seems convinced that, had she conceived a child by Aeneas, she would have been content to remain behind discarded: “not then would I seem wholly snatched up and then cast off” (non equidem omnino capta ac deserta viderer, 4. 330).

No doubt, as long as men and women continue to have children, a strong motive will endure to resist seething fury, rapacious greed, and the rest, as well as to cling to references of practical sanity while the heady lunacy of “progress” and “change” threatens to sweep all order over the precipice.  Yet Vergil apparently did not find this motive sufficient to justify a realistic personal optimism—as opposed to a publicly projected optimism, bought and paid for by the “Consul for Life” Augustus, radiating from the political state.  Perhaps epic, being so public a genre (whether or not funded from public coffers), is simply not the place to adumbrate the only kind of optimism an Arcadian can accept: that of saving lambs from wolves.

IX.  Final Remarks

Critics who work within academic convention will reject the analysis I have just offered as “universalist”.  The Aeneid and other ancient texts, they will argue, can only be understood within the cryptic, almost Gnostic framework formed of literary precedent and historical influence.  Authors are people living in a certain place at a certain time.  Only scholars who know the relevant minutiae of place and time are competent to set about deciphering the semiotics of a given work.  To claim that any author would or could write any text from irrepressibly human motives known to all places and times—and that any reader living centuries and leagues away from him could substantially appreciate a text thus intended—is to invite a blacksmith to do the delicate work of a watchmaker.  One should waste as little time as possible with such “interpretation”.

I fully share W. R. Johnson’s distaste for this supercilious view.  If we human beings were not deeply bound by judgments of value—of beauty, horror, decency, duty, and so on—then there would be no “classics”: i.e., no bequest of literary works treasured through the ages.  While the highest echelons of the academy have come precisely to the conclusion that canonical works are mere propaganda draped in hallowed garb, classicists should be the last to embrace such cynicism, since it undercuts their reason for being.  A work is classical because it orients us with a true and steady bearing, like Polaris; it orients us by handling a subject like violent death or thwarted love or maturing through hardship in a way that distills an essential human experience; it distills this experience by attending to the changeless conditions of human existence beyond a sometimes confusing cloud of cultural oddities.  If cultural oddity is all that distinguishes us above the level of biology, then the study of literature is a “mug’s game”.  One man’s Mede is another man’s Persian (as classicists joke): the violent killing of a teenager may shock a parent in Peoria, but a parent in Palestine—or perhaps even in Morelia, if not Houston—just shrugs it off, as if a car were to stop running or a well to dry up.  For one person, sucking the brains out of a fetus with a syringe is the most diabolical of murders; for another, it is a blow for the liberation of women.  Quot hominess, tot sententiae, concludes Terence: as many opinions as people.

As much as I admire Johnson, however, he himself seems to flail with unique awkwardness when the moment comes finally to summarize the Aeneid’s essential message.  Almost half of the long passage below is one sentence—and that the worst sentence, I have no doubt, ever to slip past this eloquent commentator’s eye:

An Epicurean hero, excruciatingly responsive to pain moves through a world where hou an kratêi archein (Thucydides 5. 105. 2 [“might makes right”]) is law, where sick fantasies seem on the verge of becoming essential realities, and where men’s natural limitations become so magnified that their virtues seem in danger of being transformed into the opposing vices.  The same Epicurean hero, his freedom and reason perfected in Stoic obedience to the commands of good patriotism and holy destiny, moves in a world where freedom and reason lose their significance as justice and truth, which are their proper agents, glimmer fainter and dissolve in vengeance and deception.  Aeneas is an extraordinarily good man, but in the world where he is fated to suffer and to act, goodness is (or is perhaps) not enough, nor is reason, nor is freedom.  Courage, in a sense, is almost enough, and Vergil’s poem is not about winning battles but about losing them and learning how to lose them.  At a moment in time when the possibility of rational freedom seemed, to a sensitive observer, jeopardized and its uses uncertain, Vergil summoned up the strength to imagine us in our utter vulnerability and desolation, and, refusing the old impossible consolations that were being newly counterfeited, he affirmed our moral strength by insisting on our moral weakness and on the real evils that threaten the goodness we might grow towards if we could resist the belief that we have won through, that the worst was past, that evil was outside us and was real in the way that good is real.[13]

If Johnson, having immersed himself in Vergil’s philosophical, political, and social environment, can pull together no more coherent conclusion than this, what shall we say of lesser scholars who pick around the great poem’s edges for a faint echo of Lucretius or Apollonius of Rhodes to write about?  Vergil the Existentialist, finding only absurdity in a world beyond good and evil—is that the message?  That life is lunacy?  If we do not at last approach this text with the resources of our natural humanity to help us wrest some kind of sense from its labyrinth, what is left to us?  Servius’s annotations about the meaning of certain dates and rites?

I no longer live close to a large university research library with holdings specifically related to the Classics.  In composing this essay, therefore, I rummaged through a lot of matter in my personal library.  I possess for a dozen sequential years the annual Transactions of the American Philological Association (TAPA), and I naturally recurred to these.  The contents, however, proved utterly useless in advancing my investigation of Vergil’s epic as a literary document: i.e., a synthetically creative presentation of the patterns that significantly shape human life.  One article informed me that the kinds of wood (or the “woods”) used in the Aeneid’s Trojan Horse anticipate those used to construct the Trojan fleet, thus “illustrating the essential dualism of Vergil’s world”.  The naïve author never deals a word’s notice to the fact that the kind of hardwood locally available for one project would necessarily be chosen for the other.  Another article delights equally in the intricacy of the Nisus-and-Euryalus episode’s literary allusiveness.  This author insists that we would have to comprehend how Vergil was “mediating” between “Homeric idealism” and “Euripidean cynicism” to appreciate Aeneid 10’s meaning, as if something like “frustrated idealism” would not be comprehensible without Homer and Euripides staking out its polarities.  Still another article reveals that the Gallus of Eclogue 10—a real poet of Vergil’s acquaintance—was being complimented by the final idyll’s tortuously allusive juxtaposition of him with the Greek neoteric master Callimachus.  Gallus the shepherd in Vergil’s fictional Arcadia—i.e., the character who embraces a distressful, footloose destiny—does not seem to fulfill a literary role worthy of a researcher’s attention.  After all, anyone could hazard a few comments at so superficial a level; and if the interpretation is obvious, it must not be correct, because the neoteric poet’s goal was to speak in heavily veiled allusions to a select few.

I offer no names because they are quite beside the point.  In fact, I should note that aspiring classicists must write in this vein if they intend to advance in their career.  The study of the Classics (and of literature generally, for classicists are only the worst offenders) must be made and kept so arcane that unhallowed outsiders may never hope to penetrate its sanctum.  The result is perfect absurdity, in Vergilian studies as in so many other areas.  According to the discipline’s best minds, we must believe that a pivotal Roman masterpiece more than ten years in the writing—an immense work never finished, and of grave concern to its author on his deathbed—was dedicated to such soul-searching objectives as expressing “refrigerator magnet” platitudes, mixing and matching dialogue from respected Greek authors, and (if we may extrapolate from the Eclogues to the Aeneid) complimenting a friend by casting him as a character similar to one in a famous story.  This is as much as to say that the guiding lights of today’s Classics programs have no idea why writers write.  One may as well hypothesize that Beethoven liked loud finishes because he was deaf.

Such implied theories of artistic creation are not so much wrong as pedantic, to be sure, since Vergil surely had precedents which served as models, surely entertained a bland opinion once in a while, and so forth.  Furthermore, to claim that poets like Pindar and Bacchylides wrote primarily to laud paying patrons is not outlandish.  Yet the classical establishment tends to treat too many ancient poets (especially those of Rome) as neo-literate improvisators singing for their supper—a view which may reflect its own workplace’s circumstances more than cultural fact.[14]  A highly literate author who requires more than a dozen years to write fewer than ten thousand verses and frets over the result to his dying day is not “grinding it out” for a pourboire.  Vergil’s country had very nearly perished in a civil war; in a sense, it had indeed done so—the republic would never revive.  Thoughtful people do not struggle through such times unscathed; and when—or if—cicatrices form over their wounds, creative endeavor is often part of the healing.  For a mature intelligence seriously to maintain that the primary motive of Vergil’s epic was to fashion a Byzantine rhombus of allusions to Euripides or to twist Homer into a long-playing eulogy of his paymaster seems to me insufferably mean-spirited.

It is perhaps even more indecent for a society like those of the contemporary West, poised on the brink of self-nullification, to neglect its own predicament so far as to refuse the lifeline offered it by the great artists and thinkers of its past.  A few years ago, V. D. Hanson and John Heath penned a very fine book titled Who Killed Homer?  The usual list of suspects was dismissed.  Architects of standard television fare, miserly politicians who refuse necessary funding to public schools, and other culprits outside the academy have been implicated by academics for years in the reigning philistinism of Western cultural meltdown.  To Hanson and Heath, however, the classicist himself is the Brutus who inflicted the most unkindest cut of all—and I most heartily concur.  Classical Studies could not more efficiently chase away eager, earnest young minds with a serious interest in cultural renewal if they extended their enigmatic bombast to requiring that majors walk the campus clad in sandals and togas.

I think I know why literate novelists and poets (as opposed to clan bards) write: I know why I do, and my observations apply to most other creative spirits I have encountered.  We write because we are deeply disturbed by existence’s incoherence—the very thing Johnson clumsily described above, which is the starting block of a creation and not its finish line.  A column of figures will not add up, yet it must, for life to work in the least well.  We flag the suspicious values with images, therefore (since we are seldom mathematically gifted and cannot settle the matter through equations), and we follow these images through a day, a week, a year.  They haunt certain types of scene like a ghost coming back to protest a foul murder; if we pay close attention to them, they may at last produce metaphors which bear a kind of answer.

This is no childish code which tells a secret neighborhood club in whose treehouse the next meeting will occur.  It is the stuff of dreams, nightmares, fixations, and obsessions.  Fire, darkness, blood, madness… head-in-the-clouds optimism, the mother’s love-unto-death of her child… such images are as powerful to the human mind now as they ever were—and a case could be made that our culture needs to heed them more narrowly at this historical moment than ever before, since current technology is conferring upon “progress” the ability to be terminal.  Today we are so drunk on the next horizon that we may, indeed, even lose that loving contact with our children which Vergil found to be our most redeeming quality.  The world’s most sophisticated nations have lost all interest in reproducing; their elite prophets and wizards foresee terrestrial immortality within reach through the mechanism of “nanobots”—a watershed beyond which reproduction will either be unnecessary or a matter for the laboratory’s assembly line.  For amusement, we will dawdle in Virtual Gardens whose terms we re-define at will and whimsy.

This does not sound to me like a society which has outgrown its need for classical literature.  I devoutly wish that those who teach the Classics would outgrow their exhibitionist need to be socially eccentric and intellectually aloof.



[1] Cf. the term used by Epictetus and other Stoics for that which is good, ta proairetika (lit. “things selected formerly, preferred”), emphasizes choice, whose mere presence in any situation is required to introduce either good or bad moral value.  That which has not been freely chosen must be considered morally irrelevant.

[2] For instance, W. R. Johnson (op. cit., 52-53) draws several fine distinctions between Hector and Turnus as they enter the duels that will end their respective tales and their lives.

[3] Galinsky seems to have mounted his first defense in “The Anger of Aeneas,” American Journal of Classical Studies 109 (1988): 321-348; and then in “How to be Philosophical about the End of the Aeneid,” Illinois Classical Studies 19 (1994): 191-201.

[4] Michael C. J. Putnam, The Poetry of the Aeneid (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1965), 156.

[5] Kenneth Quinn, Virgil’s Aeneid: A Critical Description (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul,1968), 271.

[6] Note that even Aristotle, as Seneca cites him, rejects any role for battle fury in command decisions.  One must also conclude that earlier Greeks found Achilles’ wrath excessive.  His desecration of Hector’s body, especially, at last forces Zeus to rein him in.  We shall see that Vergil echoes these Iliadic hints of human sacrifice to show where Aeneas’s rage passes out of bounds.

[7] In a passage very worthy of closer analysis, Arruns’s prayer to Apollo actually disparages personal glory in the interest of saving comrades’ lives (patrias remeabo inglorious urbes, 12. 793).  An outraged Diana shoots Arruns down at once after he liberates his fellows from Camilla’s scourge, thereby re-confirming the Aeneadic pattern of good men destroyed by vengeful goddesses.

[8] Cf. Gordon Williams’ second chapter in Technique and Ideas in the Aeneid, “The Gods in the Aeneid (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1983), which offers four distinctly different tropological approaches to Vergil’s gods.  I find especially interesting Williams’ thesis that divine intervention only tends to reinforce the “very idea or emotion [that] already exists in the human being concerned” (34).  This formulation more or less defines how the allegorical activity of gods in the epic does and would have to operate.

[9] The medieval Norman French Roman d’Eneas found this absence of courtly tête-á-tête insufferable, and corrected the deficiency at great length.

[10] Along with Levi, I cannot resist citing Chapter 17 from Jules Romains’s Journées dans la Montaigne (the twenty-first novel in Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté, [Paris: Flammarion, 1958]).  The footloose journalist Jallez, having survived World War I and also a dangerous ideological pilgrimage to the new Soviet Union, sits admiring the view from his Geneva apartment, which frames natural majesty with the setting for the League of Nations.  “Vu de près ce travail grouille de mesquineries,” reflects Jallez (1150)—but he quickly rationalizes his negligence of “seeing up close”.  Nevertheless, he so keenly senses that his progressivism is highly aesthetic—that his minor function in the League allows him to write and dream endlessly—that he ends up reproaching himself for a “voluptuous” kind of excess.  .

[11] E.g., Susan Ford Wiltshire has finely observed that Aeneas has no such help in reading the Shield’s images as he enjoyed in Elysium: “Even in his rare moment of happiness, he is ignorant and uncertain” (Public and Private in Vergil’s Aeneid [Amherst: U of Michigan P, 1989], 32).

[12] Minerva—or Tritonia Pallas, as Vergil designates her here—never displays the Greek Athena’s poised, rational nature in the Aeneid.  She appears, rather, to settle somewhere short of Juno’s vocal insanity (she utters not a single word in the epic) and near the purely predatory savagery of the Furies.

[13] W. R. Johnson (op. cit.), 153.

[14] I make this suggestion without irony.  It is entirely possible that contemporary academics espouse or ridicule theories with such anxious attention to political trend and professional survival that they cannot imagine any intellectual’s thinking in any other fashion.


John Harris is president and founder of The Center for Literate Values.  He received his doctorate in Comparative Literature from the University of Texas at Austin, and is now employed as a visiting lecturer by the Tyler branch of that system.