Responses to Virgil’s epic poem over the last two thousand years – from poetry to the visual arts – remains a central part of the history of western civilization.
In 1944, in his presidential address to the newly founded Virgil Society, T. S. Eliot called Virgil’s Aeneid ‘the classic of all Europe’, and made the claim that ‘Virgil acquires the centrality of the unique classic; he is at the centre of European civilization, in a position which no other poet can share or usurp.’ Seventy years later the Virgil Society still meets regularly in London, but Virgil has lost the centrality he once had in western education and culture. Yet the story of the responses to Virgil’s epic over the last two thousand years, in poetry, drama, music and opera, and the visual arts, remains a central part of the history of western civilization.
The enduring impact of Virgil’s last and greatest work, the Aeneid, is the result of a unique coincidence of moments in political and literary history at the time of its writing in the 20s BCE. In terms of political history, this was the decade in which the first Roman emperor, Augustus, established his new regime after the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. In an epic that is both praise of and critical engagement with the new order, Virgil tells the story of the Trojan hero Aeneas, legendary ancestor of the Romans and, more particularly, of the Julian family of Julius Caesar, of which Augustus was a member by adoption. Aeneas flees from his home city Troy, sacked by the Greeks at the end of the Trojan War, to a land in the west, Italy, where he marries an Italian princess and founds a new city, to be followed in time by the foundation of Rome. The Aeneid is an epic about origins and roots, a charter myth both for the city of Rome and for the foundation of the Augustan principate, the Roman Empire that would survive until the sack of Rome in 410 CE, to be revived in the thousand-year long Holy Roman Empire which lasted from the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 CE until its abolition by Napoleon. The Augustan principate was also a model for other imperial and monarchical powers. The Aeneid provided a template for many later epics, both in Latin and modern European languages, celebrating kings and emperors, or tracing legendary and historical foundations. For example, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, a romance epic which gives poetic form to the ideology of the British Protestant state under its queen Elizabeth I, is heavily indebted to the Virgilian model. As late as the late nineteenth century Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, drawing on a British legend of origins, have been seen as poems in a Virgilian tradition, both celebrating British empire and drawing attention to its costs.
In terms of literary history, the Aeneid is the supreme monument of Augustan poetry, the body of works by Virgil, Horace, Propertius, Ovid, and others, which for the first time created a canon of literature in Latin that could stand comparison with the classics of Greek literature, imitated and emulated by Roman poets. The Aeneid pays homage to and challenges the epics of Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey, seen as the very summits of literature in antiquity. From the time of Virgil’s death in 19 BCE the Aeneid was indeed the central classic and school-text of first pagan and then Christian Rome, and subsequently of post-classical Europe, in whose schools the reading of ancient Latin authors was at the heart of the syllabus down to the first half of the twentieth century. The post-Virgilian Roman epics of Ovid, Lucan, Statius and Claudian, all of which have had a major afterlife in the post-classical world, all engage intensively, and often critically, with the Aeneid.
A long line of Christian epics, beginning in the fourth century, rewrites the stories of the Bible in the elevated language and metre of the Aeneid. One example is the now little-read, but once well-known, Christiad, on the last days of Christ, by the sixteenth-century Italian neo-Latin poet Girolamo Vida, whom Alexander Pope mentioned in the same breath as Raphael as one of the luminaries of the Italian Renaissance. Vida is also praised, and imitated, by Milton, whose biblical epic Paradise Lost occupied, at least until recently, a position in English literature comparable to that of the Aeneid in Roman literature. Milton’s epic is a challenge in English to the Aeneid, as Virgil’s Latin epic challenged the Greek Homer. The Republican Milton elevates the values of the kingdom of God over those of earthly kingdoms and empires: the closing prophecy of the Second Coming with the promise of ‘New heavens, new earth, ages of endless date | Founded in righteousness and peace and love’ (Paradise Lost 12.549-50) corrects the promise of Virgil’s Jupiter to his daughter Venus that the Roman descendants of her son Aeneas will have ‘an empire without end’ (Aeneid 1.279). The universal rule of the Christian God replaces the universal Roman empire, whose providential history is plotted in the Aeneid.
Another significant displacement is from Italy, the land in the west from the Trojan Aeneas’ perspective, to lands still further west, the New World of the Americas. The Aeneid’s story of a fated journey to an unknown land by a hero who brings his gods with him was easily adapted to epic poems on the voyages of Columbus, and the bringing of Christianity to the American heathen. An early example of New World Latin epic is the last book of Girolamo Fracastoro’s Syphilis (1530), the poem which gave its name to the disease, and which tells of the discovery of a cure for syphilis in the New World. The Protestant settlers in North America also saw analogies between Aeneas’ journey of destiny to Italy and their own flight from a corrupt Old World to a New World.
The Aeneid offers a legend of origins for the momentous wars between the Romans and the Carthaginians in the story of Aeneas and Dido, the Carthaginian queen whose love turns to hate when the Trojan leader abandons her, at the command of the gods. This tale of tragic love has always been the most popular part of the Aeneid, and has called forth many responses and imitations. In his Confessions St Augustine reproaches himself for weeping for Dido when he read Virgil at school, rather than weeping for his own spiritual death. There are countless paintings of Dido, above all of her suicide in her despair at Aeneas’ departure, and a good hundred operas on the Dido story, of which Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Berlioz’ Trojans are classics in the repertory.
Finally, if T. S. Eliot’s claim for the centrality of the Aeneid has now dated, Virgil’s epic is far from moribund. Seamus Heaney, for example, had a deep and ongoing relationship with the poetry of Virgil. In his last collection of poems, Human Chain (2010), the sequence ‘Route 110’ is a virtuoso transposition of Aeneid 6, Aeneas’ journey through the Underworld, into Heaney’s journey through his own past and future. And in the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York, opened in May 2014, a prominent place is given to an inscription in letters reforged from salvaged World Trade Center steel, ‘No day shall erase you from the memory of time’. This is a translation of a line addressed by Virgil to two young warriors killed in a night-raid (Aeneid 9.447). The choice of quotation has been controversial, proof if it was needed, that the Aeneid can still arouse passions. ■