Monday, February 25, 2008

Week 06, Virgil's Aeneid

Notes on Virgil’s The Aeneid

There’s a strong sense of teleology in Virgil’s Aeneid—many noble gestures must be left aside because of the collective task to be accomplished. Aeneas’ personal actions seem to be always scripted by that larger task, haunted by necessity. In this sense, there’s a degree of sadness about the founding of the great Empire-to-be. Virgil understands what’s involved in the founding of empires, just like the man understood big banking when he said that robbing a bank is nothing compared to what goes into founding one.

As for the Trojans’ treatment of the Carthaginians, Virgil makes Aeneas and his men appropriate the good signs given to that people. Their founding period must be harvested to create the momentum leading Aeneas towards Italy. The legend of Troy allows Virgil to assert that the Romans are equal to or superior to the Greek heroes of the past. They may be younger, but their legends go back to the fall of Troy, Homer’s battlegrounds. The destruction of Troy is necessary to the founding of a new civilization. The Greeks can lend authority and serve as a mine of cultural materials, but ultimately it’s Rome that wins. Greek epic must be subsumed (as in Hegel’s term aufheben, participle aufgehoben—preserved and cancelled) into Roman literature and history.

Odysseus had a task, but Homer narrated its accomplishment by fully drawing out all of that hero’s dangerousness and tendency towards excess. Odysseus is familiar with restraint, but only because sometimes he doesn’t allow himself to be subject to it. Aeneas, by contrast, serves a task beyond his own horizons—he has to serve as the living agent of an entire people’s history, not just re-secure his own kingdom. That transpersonal goal forces him to betray Dido, a fellow exile who treats him kindly. Not everything he does is “pious” in a sense we can approve. Aeneas adheres to prophecy, sometimes to his own discomfiture. We might be excused for thinking that Virgil “read Freud” since so much of what Aeneas does seems driven by his status as an agent of civilization—his private erotic energy gets rerouted along lines favorable to Rome’s public, collective doctrine of imperium, not his own love life. At times, Aeneas is almost machine-like, driven by his dedication to the future Roman Empire. It may seem ruthless of him to leave so many friends and loved ones behind, first in Troy and then on the way to Italy, but he has no choice—Aeneas is a corporation man for Rome, Inc. He is the founder of an institution, so he must suit his words, actions, and even thoughts to the needs of that institution, repressing and redirecting his own private desires.

Of course, that necessity also means Aeneas suffers deeply, and seems noble and stoic in the worst of situations. For the Romans, self-sacrifice is one of the greatest virtues since Rome is bigger than any one person. Aeneas is endowed with insight into this (in the form of responsibility towards his crew and his people), and he bears it as a heavy burden. He is responsible for the success of a huge, impersonal order, and there will be little comfort for him either along the way or at the end. Odysseus’ desires are more immediate and personal—he wants to make his way back to his own wife and son, and reclaim his island kingdom.

The Aeneid isn’t really about Aeneas—it is about Rome. As Moses Hadas points out in his History of Latin Literature, no one said being an agent of destiny is easy (155). But Virgil believes in the Roman religion, and in the sanctity of Rome itself. He also seems to have been aware (as in Georgics IV) of Jewish millennialist prophecies, and he imports this messianic sense of history into his work on Rome. Augustus is a messiah-figure who first brings a sword, and then provides the prospects for peace and honor. Rome is on a divine mission of imperium, which will involve bringing order, stability, and civilization to the conquered and assimilated peoples. It involves making oneself and one’s civilization a model for others to follow.

The Aeneid justifies Augustus as the first Roman Emperor, and heralds a new day for Rome, with peace and stability at home and the export of Roman practices and ideals to supposedly less advanced peoples. (A modern analogue would be the French under Napoleon, or the British Empire.) The rationale we refer to as “imperium” surely developed over time, and no doubt there remained a strong element of profiteering and militarism in Roman conquests. But the ideological claims were also strong. The Romans felt that they had something worthwhile to offer others—improvements in their standard of living, and (to some extent) eventual citizenship.

But the celebration of peace betrays a strong need—times before Augustus were difficult and violent. Decades of strife preceded the civil wars that racked Italy before and after the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. Not until 31 BCE did Octavian (Augustus) defeat Marc Antony and Cleopatra to become sole ruler of what was now openly an empire, no longer a republic (even a dysfunctional one). Augustus kept up the semblance of Republican sentiment, but nobody really believed Rome would return to a republic any time soon, if ever.

Page-by-Page Notes on The Aeneid

Book 1

1056-57. The metanarratival moment: Aeneas gazes at images of his own struggles in Troy against the Greeks. Art has a lot of power at this juncture—the images help Aeneas to move forwards in his quest for temporary refuge with Dido, on the way to founding what will become Rome. There’s some irony in that fact that the temple is dedicated to Juno, who favors the Greeks, not the Trojans. But even in Juno’s temple, the Trojans hold their own. They have Zeus on their side (somewhat), along with Apollo, Aphrodite, and several other gods. In another sense, the legend of Troy, its artistic representation, makes action possible. Greek art makes Roman history go.

1059. The Trojan remnant’s speaker pleads that defeated men don’t go plundering—true, but ironic since the Trojans will be responsible for much sorrow in Carthage before they leave. And of course the Romans will later defeat the Carthaginians in a series of devastating wars.

1060-62. Dido welcomes Aeneas and pays homage to him, offering him equal terms in her kingdom. That kingdom is itself new—they’re building it just as Aeneas lands there, in fact. He will usurp all this energy, frustrating it at the source and stealing it for the benefit of the Trojan survivors.

Book 2

1063-70. The Wooden Horse-inspired finale to the Trojan War is here recounted—as the saying goes, “fear the Greeks, even when they bear gifts.” Still, Aeneas can’t afford not to engage in some deceptions and betrayals of his own when it’s his turn to carve out his destiny and follow the gods’ orders. On page 1075, however, Coroebus’ stratagem to don Greek armor backfires—at this point, the Trojans are not licensed to do such deceptive things.

1070-75. What limitations does Virgil impose on Aeneas as an individual hero? How has Hector undercut Aeneas in his desire to go down fighting? Only Hector could have single-handedly saved Troy—too late for that; Aeneas’ job is different. Single combat isn’t his province—leading the entire people is his task.

1076-80. One of the most replayed scenes in ancient legend and history is the subject here—the death of old Priam even shows up in Hamlet, spurring Hamlet on to take his tardy revenge. Aeneas’ narration affirms Greek heroism in the sense that Priam taunts Neoptolemus with Achilles’ chivalry towards a grieving father. But Neoptolemus’ slaughter of the old man shows that Achilles was the exception, not the rule. Homer sometimes portrayed the Trojans as feminine and weak, but Virgil represents the Greeks as liars and barbarians.

1079-85. After Aeneas’ mother Aphrodite brings home to him the futility of clinging to Troy, she sends him off to gather his family. Now that the gods of Troy have gone from their burnt-out altars, what is left? Piety to one’s ancestors and the hope of a new beginning elsewhere, a new place for the gods to dwell and favor the Trojan remnant. But not everyone will be allowed to come along—Creusa must die with the old order, so that Aeneas may have his new Italian wife as already foretold by Hector’s shade. Pietas must be broadened to incorporate loyalty not just to family, but even more so to the state and its imperatives. Those who want to go with Aeneas are mostly young people, without strong enough ties to “ruined Ilium” to make them go down with the City.

Book 4

1085-88. Dido’s affections for Aeneas are described as “madness,” and herself as prey to a hunter. In classical times, this kind of reference wasn’t necessarily a putdown, but in Virgil’s case it seems to be—Dido is the victim of a noble species of madness. She is not fully in control of herself, and (although the gods seem to be behind her lovestruck condition) that problem is more than enough to seal her doom.

1088-93. Juno contrives to detain Aeneas, and Venus slyly goes along, probably knowing that her son will eventually be roused to set sail and abandon Dido to madness. King Iarbas is angry over the marriage to a foreigner when Dido, whom he had helped, has already rejected him. So he prays to Jupiter. Dido’s passion is not politically astute, and (with Rumor’s help) it destabilizes her country, stripping it of foundational purpose. The Queen tries to shape events according to an essentially private passion—something a ruler can’t afford to do. Jupiter sends Mercury to harangue Aeneas, and the tactic works—he immediately turns his mind to his role as guardian of his Trojans and renewer of Trojan power in Italy. The episode reminds me a bit of Circe’s captivity of Odysseus. Like Odysseus, Aeneas wastes a lot of time doing nothing while his kingdom’s danger increases.

1093-98. Aeneas decides in favor of deception—he’ll just leave in mid-winter when Dido isn’t expecting him to sail. She confronts him, calling him a liar and cheat. He covers up by pretending that he never intended to deceive her and that besides, he wasn’t actually married according to Trojan custom. This is a low point for Aeneas, at least in terms of heroic quality. His will is not his own at this point, and he must sacrifice his private and personal desires for the greater good of Troy (and the future Rome, a kingdom he won’t live to see). He openly describes Italy as his “love.” The pursuit of kingdom and eventual empire can’t allow a female get in the way. Virgil seems entirely conscious of the contradiction here—Romans prize honor and loyalty above all, but the founding of the state in which those values are so highly prized was accomplished by an act of betrayal. That Dido is the leader of Rome’s future enemy (and not a Trojan or Italian) doesn’t entirely remove the contradiction.

1098-1106. This part is mostly about Dido’s “fatal madness.” The Queen tricks her sister Anna and gets her to make a pyre with all the artifacts of her love for Aeneas atop, and then ascends the pyre, feverishly thinks through the situation, and stabs herself. This is an emotional high point in the epic—but the character who gives fullest vent to unrestrained passion is doomed. Virgil acknowledges the power of passion, but dramatizes its harsh consequences and insists upon containing the passions. He also emphasizes the notion that the gods wanted it this way, so really there was nothing Dido could do. She’s a magnificent character, but it’s not in the fates that she should succeed. Aeneas isn’t entirely robotic here—as T. S. Eliot would say, “only those who have strong personalities know what it is to try to escape from them.” We are conscious that he is making a sacrifice. On 1105, Virgil’s teleological, typological emphasis shows: Dido’s scream and the subsequent noise is like the fall of Carthage itself—of course that looks forward to the final destruction of Carthage in the Third Punic War in 146 BCE (see Polybius’ account). Juno is hardly unsympathetic, favoring the Greeks and disliking the Trojans as she does—so she sends Iris down to cut the necessary lock of Dido’s hair for passage to the Underworld. As for Augustan distance from Dido, the historical necessity of this is obvious—there’s perhaps even some cruelty in the magnificence accorded to this precursor of a people that the Romans crushed. Anyhow, it may also be that her passion represents an always potential danger—giving in to private, individual feelings at the state’s expense. To be Roman involves knowing what is not Roman, what one may fall prey to.

Book 6

Like Dante after him, Virgil is concerned to bring order to our perception of the underworld as an ethical universe. He sticks to concrete descriptions and categories, and Aeneas’ experience in the underworld is tied to the demands of Roman teleology. Things were much wilder and less clear-cut in Homer’s Odyssey, and Odysseus departed the underworld just before its terrors overwhelmed him. Aeneas behaves with piety towards the dead: Misenus will have his burial, and Palinurus will receive compensation. But Deiphobus, betrayed by Helen, remains in tattered “skin.” As for Dido, she remains hostile and prefers Sychaeus. It will be war to the death with Carthage. We are treated to a vision of the new line of rulers, especially Lucius Junius Brutus.

1109. Palinurus’ story is told, and the Sibyl is firm in dealing with him. The dead mustn’t be allowed to assert primacy over the living Aeneas.

1110. Charon’s distrust of Aeneas must be overcome; the future of Rome is the subject to be addressed here, and that is more important than protocol in Hades.

1112. Dido’s anger is unquenchable even in death. The dead continue to hold on to the attitudes that characterized them in life, and again we see how conflicted the Roman concept of heroism is: we know that Aeneas had betrayed Dido, so this moment must be an anguished one for him.

1113-14. Deiphobus rails at Helen and that wily Greek, Odysseus.

1115-17. Rhadamanthus’ judgments are described. In general, Hades is a well structured place, more so than it is in The Odyssey. At 1117, we hear of the blessed and how they live: Orpheus, Dardanus, and others.

1118-23. Anchises surveys the future of Rome. At 1119, the souls of a thousand nations are represented as “bees.” The text suggests that the source of life and history is spirit, and describes Lethean and Orphic purification. Aeneas learns his personal future: Lavinia and their son Silvius. Alba Longa is to be the precursor of Rome. As for Romulus, his mother was the priestess Rhea Silvia, and his father was Mars. Augustus Caesar is here, too. So are Numa and his descendants, and the account covers Rome’s art of pacifying other people—one of its great strengths, according to Virgil’s Anchises, who says to Aeneas, “Roman, remember by your strength to rule / Earth’s peoples—for your arts are to be these: / To pacify, to impose the rule of law, / To spare the conquered, battle down the proud.”

1123-25. Marcellus, Augustus’ nephew, is lamented in advance, by way of indicating both the joys of victory and the frustrations of dynastic hopes. Aeneas is sent back through the Ivory gate of false dreams. Perhaps that is the case because he must act more from impulse than from conscious guidance by the underworld. He must not be directed too closely if he is to accomplish his destiny in an authentic way. Structurally, Book 6 caps off Aeneas’ wanderings. Virgil will cease striving with Homer and his old stories. In Book 7 he announces that he is ready to move on to characterizing the deeds of the new race forging itself out of the defeated Trojans. “Back to the future,” in other words, and the focus will be on human enterprise, although the gods still have an important part to play.

Book 8

1125-29. Venus orders up a shield, rather like the one Achilles’ mother Thetis had made for him. The literary device here is ekphrasis, the verbal description of a visual art object. Rome’s crises and founding acts, and heroism and law-giving, are central to this book. This path will end at Actium in 31 BCE, where the future Augustus Caesar will defeat “Asiatic” Mark Antony and Cleopatra. The book ends with a procession of conquered races, subjugated to the Roman people.

Book 12

1129-34. The history that Virgil describes after Book 6 is complex and at times painful; the founding of a whole race of people involves much loss, confusion, and sacrifice. The Trojan remnant find that whenever a new nation is founded, it is founded over another people that was already there. When Aeneas spreads his picnic table, so to speak, he spreads it on somebody else’s lawn. He will need a special alliance with the gods to be successful. Lavinia, Aeneas’ future bride, was already promised by Latinus of the promised land, Latium, to Turnus, King of Rutulia. Turnus leans on Latinus to stir up a battle. Throughout, Latinus’ heart isn’t in this fight, really—he wanted a peaceful union with the Trojans, while Aeneas wants to fight Turnus in single combat. But a battle must come for the founding of “Second Troy.” In Book 12, Aeneas kills the implacable Turnus, who won’t mingle with or be co-opted by the newcomers and who had killed Pallas, son of Aeneas’ Italian-colony ally Evander, founder of Pallanteum. Turnus has his virtues, but it is Aeneas who is the true “Roman” hero.

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