Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc’d by fate,
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore.
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore,
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latian realm, and built the destin’d town;
His banish’d gods restor’d to rites divine,
And settled sure succession in his line,
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.
The Roman poet Virgil died fifteen years before Jesus was born, and for many he seemed to be a pagan John the Baptist whose poetry bordered on prophecy. Even centuries after his death, as Dante set his pen to compose his masterpiece, he called on Virgil to be his (and our) guide through the afterlife. In the Divine Comedy, Dante gushed upon meeting him saying “You are my teacher. You, my lord and law, from you alone I took the fine-tuned style that has, already, brought me so much honour.” Ever the sage, Virgil’s message to him was corrective, not affirming: He was on the wrong road.
It’s tempting to assimilate masterful literature into a Christian context. In his book The Great Books Reader, John Mark Reynolds writes:
This triumph shaped a pattern for Christian intellectuals. They too could take the best of a great culture (in this case Greece and Rome) and appropriate them for Christendom. The Romans might feed Christians to lions, but if Christians emulated Virgil, they might turn defeat into victory. The blood of the martyrs might become the faith’s foundation.
Christians also considered evidence that Virgil may have been a prophet. Why? For one thing, Virgil wrote with divine-like command of his language and with wisdom regarding the human condition; his paganism is a step closer to the truth than Homer’s. His description of the afterlife was helpful to Christian apologists, and his defense of many traditional Roman virtues compared favorably with the more decadent members of his culture. Augustus looked good to believers living under Nero, and the Pax Romana made the spread of the Gospel easier.
Does approximation of pagan wisdom dilute the gospel or does it enhance the effectiveness of communicating Truth?
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.
D I G D E E P E R
If through the Iliad and Odyssey Homer is teacher of the Greeks, through the Aeneid Virgil is teacher not only of the Romans but of the Western world. No epic poet could replace Homer, founder of the Western epic tradition; every later epic is, in one way or another, an acknowledgement of and response to him. Yet Virgil transcends Homer; the Aeneid is an epic not simply of city and home but of a world-embracing civilization that establishes universal peace under the rule of law. Many of our ideas about statesmanship and civic duty, our understanding of the relationship between public and private good, and our concern for the rule of law find expression in Virgil’s tale of the wanderings and wars leading up to Rome’s founding.
Two basic themes are identified in the opening line, which can be rendered:
I sing of arms and the man . . .
In the Aeneid Virgil reworks the epic themes of Homer’s poems in reverse order: the wanderings of Aeneas and his small band of exiles from Troy—taken up in the first six books—remind us of the wanderings of Odysseus, “the man of many ways”; the battles of the remaining six books call to mind the war outside the walls of Troy, the context for Homer’s tale of the wrath of Achilles.
What Homer sings in two poems Virgil sings in one; from the first book we get a clear sense that the scope of the Aeneid is all-encompassing.
Jupiter prophesies of the Romans,
I’ve fixed no limits or duration to their possessions:
I’ve given them empire without end.
This prophecy of Rome’s future greatness sets the stage for Virgil’s epic; every Aeneid reader lives in a world in which this divine promise has come to fruition.
In the above excerpt from Book I, we are introduced to the story of Aeneas. Essentially, the poem relates the journey of Aeneas and his fellow Trojans as they endeavor to found a new city. Aeneas is a man of many sorrows, duty-bound to lead the remnant of his people to a new fatherland
hurled about endlessly by land and sea,
by the will of the gods, by cruel Juno’s remorseless anger,
long suffering also in war, until he founded a city
and brought his gods to Latium.
The poem’s action begins with a furious storm at sea brought on by Juno, queen of the gods, enemy of the Trojans. The ships of Aeneas are devastated, but thanks to the aid of other deities, he and most of his men make it to shore, seeking refuge in Carthage.
The significance of the encounter with Dido and the Carthaginians would be lost on no Roman reader: Carthage was the greatest of Rome’s adversaries in her competition for dominance of the Mediterranean; in Aeneas’s narrow escape (Book IV), we see a mythical prefiguring of Rome’s narrow escape from Hannibal’s invasion during the Second Punic War. Book I ends with Dido’s request that Aeneas tell her of the fall of Troy and of his subsequent wanderings.
From the beginning, Virgil refers to “pious” Aeneas, who repeatedly faces suffering and sacrifice for the sake of his people and by the will of the gods. His piety is not perfect, we might argue, but it becomes more so as the epic unfolds. In his journey through the Underworld (Book VI), Aeneas gets a glimpse of Rome’s future glory and receives what has come to be known as the Roman Mandate:
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. (Fitzgerald translation.)
Here the duty of Aeneas is linked to the duty of the Roman people. One way to read the Aeneid’s last six books is as a progressive realization of this mandate in preparation for Rome’s founding.
For the sake of universal peace under the rule of law, Aeneas and his men must engage in war to “battle down the proud.” This brings us to the epic’s final scene, where Aeneas is in single combat with Turnus, the fierce leader of the native Italians resisting the Trojan newcomers.
Although Turnus is overcome by Aeneas and makes a plea for mercy, Aeneas becomes enraged and “founds” [condit] his blade in Turnus’s chest. This “founding” reminds us of the poem’s opening lines, where we’re told that Aeneas will at last “found” [conderet] a city. Is the killing of Turnus necessary for the founding of Rome? Is it in accord with the Roman Mandate?
Throughout history, Virgil’s Aeneid has been viewed as a bridge between the classical and Christian traditions. During the Middle Ages, Christian authors saw the conquests of Rome as part of God’s plan to establish a universal peace in preparation for Messiah’s coming. This peace under the rule of law secured the possibility of pursuing one’s own salvation freely.
Furthermore, the Aeneid was vital to the development of the Christian epic tradition. Dante speaks of Virgil as il nostro maggior poeta, “our greatest poet,” and, again, has him serve as the pilgrim’s guide through the underworld in his Commedia. Dante presents Virgil as one who held a light behind himself for others to see the way to salvation.
Jeffrey S. Lehman is a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. He is also a fellow of the Center for Thomas More Studies and holds a PhD in philosophy from the Institute of Philosophic Studies at the University of Dallas.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).