As I mentioned in an earlier post, Adam Roberts has been blogging about the Aeneid, prompted by his reading of Seamus Heaney’s fragmentary translation. Adam concludes his most recent post on the subject with these thoughts:

One of the biggest questions about the Aeneid, one critics and scholars still debate, is whether it is a simply encomium for Empire, sheer Augustan propaganda; or whether (as in Shakespeare, who presents us with a similar difficulty) the surface celebration of the triumph of the state and the authority of the strong leader veils much more complex and critical sense of what Empire means. Since we nowadays tend to value complexity, and prize texts that hide cross-currents and ironies under their surface storytelling, it’s tempting simply to assume the latter. I have to say, I’m not convinced. We might think that condensing together into one dark-coloured and potent cube loss, punishment and imperial glory is to force three immiscible elements into an unstable emulsion, that the contradictions and tensions in the ideological structure of the poem will pull it apart. But I don’t think so. Of course we know that Empire is a grievous thing to be on the receiving-end of, as armies march into your homeland and subdue your way of life and prior freedoms to theirs. But Empire is hard work for the conquerors, too, However asymmetric the balance, it entails losses and punishments on both sides. Maybe the mixture in Aeneid 6 speaks to a simpler truth.

Indeed this seems to me likely — though that’s a point difficult for many of us to grasp, because we are so accustomed to literary culture as fundamentally adversarial in relation to the culture at large. This is an inheritance of Modernism, as Paul Fussell explained some years ago in a very smart essay; but it is a lasting inheritance. It explains why when critics call a writer or a text “subversive” it’s always a compliment. That a truly great artist could also be wholly supportive of his society’s chief political project scarcely seems possible to us.

I’m now re-reading (for, I believe, the fourth time) a book that I think of as one of the great monuments of twentieth-century humanistic scholarship, Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture (1940). As an interpretation of Rome’s passage from republic to pagan imperium to Christian imperium it is, I believe, unsurpassed and of permanent value. Cochrane believed that Virgil understood what Octavian was trying to achieve, endorsed it, developed and as it were poetically theorized it, all in a way that was recognizable to Octavian as his own work. In Virgil, Cochrane says, the Romans “at least discovered the answer by which their [cultural and political] doubts and perplexities were resolved; it was he, more than any other man, who charted the course of their imperial future.”

Here’s the key passage:

Viewed in the light of [Virgil’s] imagination, the Pax Augusta emerged as the culmination of effort extending from the dawn of culture on the shores of the Mediterranean — the effort to erect a stable and enduring civilization upon the ruins of the discredited and discarded systems of the past. As thus envisaged, it thus constituted not merely a decisive stage in the life of the Roman people, but a significant point of departure in evolution of mankind. It marked, indeed, the rededication of the imperial city to her secular task, the realization of those ideals of human emancipation toward which the thought and aspiration of antiquity had pointed hitherto in vain. From this standpoint, the institution of the principate represented the final triumph of creative politics. For, in solving her own problem, Rome had also solved the problem of the classical commonwealth.

This is what Virgil taught the Roman people, and continued to teach them for hundreds of years. In Cochrane’s telling, the later rulers of Rome betrayed this inheritance in multiple ways, but to Virgil’s articulation of the Roman mission — to regere imperio populos, Romane, memento / (hae tibi erunt artes), pacisque imponere morem, / parcere subiectis, et debellare superbos — there was simply no alternative, no other way of conceiving Roman identity. The Roman world long awaited a figure of comparable genius, a comparable sweep of imagination and force of language, to offer a competing vision.

Eventually, though too late, that figure appeared: Augustine of Hippo.


  1. Fascinating. I certainly agree that the blanket valorisation of 'subversive' as a piece of critical terminology (something I see all the time in my own students) is a foolish business: Jack the Ripper, after all, was thoroughly subversive of the British law and the rights of people to life. At the risk of telling you stuff you already know, one reason classicists get so agitated about this question with respect to the Aeneid is, in a way, structural. So the epic is in two 6-book halves; first Vergil's Odyssey books 1-6, then Vergil's Iliad books 7-12. This I think is deliberate design on the poet's part. Now, part 1 ends with that hugely influential bit of Latin you quote, as Aeneas's dead father instructs Aeneas in the core values of being a Roman: 'Your task, Roman, and do not forget it, will be to govern the peoples of the world in your empire. These will be your arts—to impose a settled pattern upon peace, to spare the defeated and war down the proud.' So far so good; but the second part, at the end of book 12, sees Aeneas battling Turnus, the Latin Achilles. Aeneas defeats (wars down) Turnus, and his enemy is on his knees before him begging for his life. But the poem ends with Aeneas killing him anyway. So much for parcere subiectis! The parallelism here, quite apart from anything else, makes it look as though Vergil is pointedly dramatising the inability of the founding Roman to what Romans are supposed to do. It provokes such cognitive dissonance in some classics scholars that they insist the ending we have is a mistake, and that Vergil would have revised it if he'd lived longer. Hard to credit that, I think.

    Cochrane takes the speech at the end of book 6 seriously, as a genuine expression of the Roman ethos, intended as such by its author and certainly received as such by generations of readers. I don't know (it's been decades since I last looked at his book) whether he also takes the ending of Book 12 seriously — as, let's say, a genuine dramatisation of what happens when ideals, no matter how genuinely held, go out onto actual battlefields.

  2. I stick by 'Vergil', by the way; it's what I was taught to call him as a student. And it is, you know, his name. But you can call him 'Virgil' if you like. Indeed, why stop there? I propose: 'the Emperor Awgustus'.

  3. Adam, many thanks for this. Cochrane says little about the ending of the poem, though his one comment on Turnus is interesting: "The Achilles of the West, his only crime was that he was a barbarian." He think links Turnus's death with that of Camilla, rightly enough, since — as you know — I think we both know this poem pretty well, though you know the Latin far better than I — Virgil uses exactly the same language to describe both deaths, though Cochrane doesn't mention this. Cochrane seems to think that Virgil wants to emphasize that the imperial progress will generate collateral damage, and such damage will be unpleasant and even grievous.

    But haven't we been hardened to this long before the death of Turnus by that of Dido? If we can swallow the cruelty meted out to her — capped off with Mercury's crass lie about the fickleness of women — then what happens to Turnus can't have the same effect. Cochrane thinks, and I think, that Virgil goes as far as he can to indicate how terrible a price many persons will pay for the founding of Rome without in any way hesitating to affirm that the price is worth it. As long as Turnus is alive, there is a potential rival for the hand of Lavinia, and therefore a potential hitch in the establishing of the Trojans in Italy. This cannot be. So he dies.

    But it's a very, very curious scene in which a great deal is going on. The explicit link with Camilla, for one thing. The obvious inversion of the death of Aeneas's kinsman Hector at the hands of Achilles: whereas before the man of culture (when he looks at Achilles' shield he sees the world he's trying to preserve) was killed by the man turned into a killing machine, now the man of culture kills the killing machine. But he can only do this by being himself transformed for a moment into a killing machine, and this he, the compassionate man, can do only by becoming Pallas — which he does when he sees that unlucky (infelix) belt. On his own accord and in his own mind, Aeneas hesitates; but when compassion for Pallas as it were possesses him — "I'm not killing you, Pallas is killing you" (Pallas immolat) — he becomes not the Hector of this poem but its Achilles: furiis accensus et ira /
    . Only in his piety can he assume this role, which he must assume if his task is to be completed.

    I don't know of a more emotionally and thematically complex moment in all of literature.

    Cochrane makes much of Sallust's idea that Rome must be governed by genuine authority (auctoritas) guided by wisdom (consilium) and protected by force (vis). At the very least this conclusion to the Aeneid reminds us what we're not going to be able to do without the vis.

  4. I used to always write "Vergil," but was shamed out of it by a professor in grad school who informed me that that spelling was the most arrant pedantry. After that I mended my ways, but now I know not what to think. (Is this a Britain vs. America thing, I wonder? Cochrane says "Vergil," but he was Canadian, so that doesn't help.)

  5. Yes, really interesting. The Dido episode is complicated by the poem's insistence that this is the fault of the gods, not of Aeneas. Aeneas himself keeps saying so: the gods told him to leave, so he left. But that only raises the question (and you really make me want to fish Cochrane's book out of the library to read it properly) of how well Roman pietas maps onto the virtues of the faithful Christian. Aeneas after all goes around introducing himself to people by saying 'sum pius Aeneas' … I think it was Edward Gibbon, no slouch in Vergil fan-boy terms, who groaned aloud at this: 'can you bear it?' he used to ask. You see his point.

    You're right about the Pallas component in that final show-down. But it's desperately underdetermined in the Aeneid I've always thought. In the Iliad we are made to feel how intensely Achilles loved Patroclus. But Aeneid has only just met Pallas, hardly knows him.

  6. But Aeneid has only just met Pallas, hardly knows him.

    A possession of convenience, then, let's call it. Useful in the moment.

  7. What you say about the complex skew mirroring of Achilles/Hector in Aeneas/Turnus is spot-on. Still, I'm not sure if I'm following your argument about the 'convenience' of this final killing. Is it that there's an aspect of pietas, under the aegis, as it were, of vis, that licenses the suspension of mercy? Better not have a rival for Lavinia's affections and so on? Seems a bit cold-blooded. And surely there's no place for that in an Augustinian (or, to accomodate your preferences, an 'Awgustinian') continuity-Roman-empire Christianity. Is there?

    'Pietas' is a difficult concept for a modern mind to grasp I think. Or maybe it's just my mind that finds it hard. I mean, your piety is world-famous, but even you would baulk at going around introducing yourself, 'hello, I'm Pious Alan'. Wouldn't you? Piety has an important place in Christianity, even if only as an ideal to chase after, but the conspicuous performance of piety is a different matter, isn't it? The widow's mite, and so on.

  8. Obviously I'm not trying to deny Cochrane's main thesis. But the continuities between the Vergilian Roman ethos and the Christian ethos are themselves complexly skew, I think. Still, who am I to argue with a man who wrote one of the two most influential books about Rome in the 20th-century (Syme the other)? And not only that, but invented Warp Drive too!

  9. Is it that there's an aspect of pietas, under the aegis, as it were, of vis, that licenses the suspension of mercy? Better not have a rival for Lavinia's affections and so on? Seems a bit cold-blooded.

    That is indeed my understanding of Virgil's position, and Awgustus's. Pietas cannot be exercised without an acceptance of the role of vis, even when one is temperamentally disinclined to violence. Does that seem cold-blooded to you? If so, then surely you are wrongly placing pity for one man (Turnus) or one woman (Dido) before pity for the whole world, which will suffer enormously if the pax Romana is not established. Shall Turnus live and the whole world continue in barbaric disorder, lacking wise governance? Shame on you, Roberts, for entertaining such a notion.

    Of such reasoning are great empires born.

    I would love to be able to tell you (as I think would Cochrane, and I don't mean Zefram Cochrane) that Christianity altogether repudiates such reasoning. It is after all the reasoning shared by Caiaphas (“It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not”) and the hypocrite Angelo in Measure for Measure:

    > ISABELLA: Yet show some pity.
    > ANGELO: I show it most of all when I show justice;
    > For then I pity those I do not know,
    > Which a dismiss'd offence would after gall;
    > And do him right that, answering one foul wrong,
    > Lives not to act another.

    Yes. I would love to tell you that.

  10. Further: Cochrane's thesis is that in their various and contradictory ways figures as diverse as Julian and Constantine lay the groundwork for a Christian revision of Romanitas that is not simply an abandonment or rejection or even an inversion. But perhaps more of that in another post.

  11. TO my shame I admit I lack the personal ruthlessness necessary to found an empire.

    In an attempt to bring this abstruse discussion back to contemporary relevance, I was thinking to myself: which US Presidents might we imagine occupying an Octavian role in a modern-day equivalent? It's possible, I suppose, to imagine Lincoln (indeed I was rather disappointed that, according to Google, no enterprising 19th-century American poet wrote either a Lincolneid or a Lincolnead). But what chance of a Trumpead? 'Your task, American, and do not forget it, will be to build an enormous wall along the border with Mexico; and somehow to make Mexico pay for it.'

  12. I cast my Google search a little wider and discover this poem: The Burden Bearer: An Epic of Lincoln, by Francis Howard Williams (Philadelphia, 1908)

  13. There could perhaps be an American Aeneas, but for much of the country's history it would be very difficult to make a case for an American Octavian, because that would constitute a de facto endorsement of the Caesarist project — and this is what at the Founding the emergent nation explicitly set itself against. Thus the constant performances of Addison's Cato, with the colonies collectively playing the role of Cato in opposition to King George's Caesar. Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" was universally understood at the time as a channeling of Cato. The Roman models for the new nation were uniformly republican, with George Washington's identification with Cincinnatus being most fundamental. All of this had to recede far into the background before Americans could think of any of their Presidents as associated with the imperial project. And IIRC, when William Manchester called his biography of Douglas MacArthur American Caesar he was repeatedly explicit that he was referring to Caesar as general, not as emperor.

    But I can easily imagine Trump building that wall and shouting, "That'll debellare those goddamn superbos."

    Sorry for the arrant pedantry here; I've been thinking about this stuff a lot lately.

  14. I've followed this discussion with great delight. If I may insert some humorous pedantry of my own:

    A few fellow graduate students and I were toying around with latinizing some Trump mottos. I channeled my best Vergil (or, well, perhaps Ovid) and turned "make America great again" into the hexameter "parui homines, facite ut Troiae arx iterum optima fiat."

  15. Mapoulos: impressive! The tricky thing is getting it to scan properly, which is more than I can manage. 'Plebes dilata facite ad gentem quæ ante in parvo'.

  16. Perhaps this is moving too far afield, but right after I read Mr. Poulos on parui homines I read this: “Hitler was the supreme practicant and product of the ‘self-magnifying’ craze, the genre of little-man literature which culminated in Mr Atlas’s bodybuilding and in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936). Germans had been reading Briefsteller guides on how to write persuasive letters and studying manuals on charm, table manners and impressive conversation for at least a century before a more ambitious, chest-expander literature on how to ‘bend others to your will’ became popular in Europe and America around the end of the 19th century. Even the mild Carnegie trained speakers to be angry about something, and his bestseller (five million copies in his lifetime) includes a whole section on how to be a leader. A brimming box of tricks was available to overcome the ‘little man’s’ sense of powerlessness in times of slump, hyperinflation and political chaos.”

  17. The 'little man' Hitler comparison doesn't seem to me off-the-point, I think. So Syme's Roman Revolutions book, mentioned above, was published the same year as Cochrane's. Syme's argument is that the expansion of Rome's empire had pushed the business of actual governance beyond what the old senate and consul model could manage, and that Octavian's accession to power was essential if Rome was to continue: a military strong-man leader capable of both assuming dictatorial powers and at the same time persuading the people that actually he was restoring the Republic. For a British classicist to make that argument at the same time that Hitler ruled Germany was a remarkable thing (though Syme was New Zealand-born, he'd spent all his life at Oxford). I need to read Cochrane properly, but doesn't he make the argument that what Christianity did was build on Roman values of the primacy of coherence and creative integration? But if your coherence and integration depend upon a 'strong figure' at the top, then your always going to be at the mercy of the calibre of your Octavian. Or your Augustine.

  18. I can see that the Cincinnatus ideal is of great importance to Americans. I suppose it's why your Presidents all spend their post-Presidential lives opening lavish libraries with their names on it: our version of back to the plough. 'Yes, I used to possess the power to turn the world into a nuclear desert, but look at me now! I'm a librarian!'

  19. Any republican modesty inherent in the office of President ended with the two Roosevelts. Lincoln had power but under extraordinary circumstances, and his 19th century successors did not imitate him (nor could they have). AR: The latter parenthetical phrase is equivalent to "nor could they have done".

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