USU 1320: History and Civilization
History and literature share much in common, not only the written word but
the exploration of humanity. If history sets out to tell explicitly what-really-happened-in-the-past,
fictional stories do much the same by engaging the readers' imagination
and appealing to their sense of logic about what's possible or likely to
have happened. That is, to be effective, literary works depend on the readers'
ability to see some larger truth behind the façade of made-up characters
and situations and to connect fiction with fact because of the story's immediacy
and pertinence to the audience's world. Thus, literary authors hope the
reader will connect with their work somehow and see that it's not just a
story but, as Vergil puts it, sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia
tangunt ("there are tears for what's happened and mortal matters
touch the mind"). In the end, history and literature have a similar
agenda, to reflect truth—however imperfectly—and, in doing so,
illuminate the human condition.
Literary and historical styles are not all that different, either, since the principles which drive and govern literature also inform history to some extent. For instance, if a historian's work does not provide some readership with a certain level of reading enjoyment, it tends not to be read, making its impact just that much less widespread and instrumental in the formulation of our understanding the past. Indeed, a good story lies at the heart of every influential historical work, so it behooves historians not only to examine the substance of literature for the history it may contain but also to study the methods used by writers of fiction in advancing their art.
With that in mind, we will look at two of the greatest authors in ancient Western civilization: Homer and Vergil. They rank among the best "singers of tales" who've ever lived. The epics they composed contain and use history liberally and, by visiting these works, we learn much about the past and the ways in which history and literature overlap.
Homer was called by the Roman writer Quintilian "the river from which all literature flows." Homer is indeed among the first and finest literary voices in European civilization. However, that his work is of such an extraordinary quality, exhibiting a fully developed sense of narrative and human psychology, is somewhat ironic. It means that with Homer Western literature emerges into history full-blown, which gives us little chance to gauge the evolution of literature in the West. That is, by being so superlative at so early a date—some would argue no writer has ever surpassed the quality of Homer's narrative—he is not only the beginning but also the culmination of Western literature, and it's all been downhill from there! Whatever one's opinion, it is certainly worth the effort to learn ancient Greek just to read Homer in the original.
With such acclaim surrounding him, several important questions concerning Homer have naturally accrued over the years. Who was he? How could he be so good an author, living when he did? As brilliant and realistic as his characters and situations seem, is it possible that his epics reflect actual history? These are the questions which swirl like dust around our feet as we walk the Elysian fields of Homeric epic.
An epic is a long, narrative poem in which the central character, usually depicted as a hero of some sort, struggles against great odds—sometimes death literally—to achieve a noble end. Most often, the story involves gods or, at least, the supernatural in some respect, which serves to aggrandize humanity in its all-too-often vain quest for heaven and immortality. The hero's inevitable failure only underscores the tragedy of mortal weakness inherent in us all. In capturing all at once this sense of human grandeur and frailty, Homer's works are unsurpassed.
Homer is the author of the two epics preserved entire from ancient Greece: The Iliad and The Odyssey. In The Iliad, the Greeks have sailed across the sea to besiege the Trojans in their walled fortress-city of Troy, also called Ilium (hence The Iliad). The story centers around Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors at Troy, but when Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek expedition, insults and enrages him, he stops fighting, a devastating blow to the expedition. The theme of The Iliad is Achilles' anger at Agamemnon, a short but explosive outburst which nearly undermines the Greeks' efforts to bring down Troy.
For the majority of this epic, Achilles refuses to fight until in Book 16 his best friend Patroclus begs to go into combat in his place and, after Achilles reluctantly agrees, is killed by the greatest of the Trojan warriors, Hector. With his rage now redirected at Hector, Achilles forgives Agamemnon and returns to the fighting. There, he brutally slaughters all Trojan defenders he meets, including Hector whose body he refuses to surrender for burial but instead relentlessly tortures and abuses.
Homer's epic ends with the meeting of Achilles and Priam, Hector's father, the elderly King of Troy. Achilles, at last, consents to return Hector's body to Priam who buries his son amidst much lamentation, for with the death of their greatest defender the Trojans know their doom is sealed. Contrary to common belief, The Iliad does not recount the famous Sack of Troy or the story of the Trojan Horse. Those stories were included in other Greek epics now lost. Indeed, the most famous version of this story to emerge from antiquity comes not from a Greek at all but the later Roman poet Vergil.
The Odyssey, Homer's other surviving epic, takes place after the Trojan War, as the Greeks return home—or try to—actually very few make it back to Greece alive or, if they do, live very long after getting home. For instance, the commander Agamemnon returns safely to his hometown Mycenae, only to have his treacherous wife Clytemnestra murder him the very day of his homecoming while he's in his bath. This couple had marital difficulties prior to the war, and during the ten years he was off fighting at Troy, she took up with another man. So, before he can discover her infidelity, she kills him.
Thus, the central character of The Odyssey is not the commander of the Greek forces or their best warrior but Odysseus (in Latin, Ulysses), a very different sort of hero from the violent, angry Achilles. Odysseus is a "thinking" man who doesn't rush home like Agamemnon but ultimately sneaks back into town. Also unlike Agamemnon, Odysseus returns to a faithful but beleaguered wife, Penelope, whose very name has come to represent marital fidelity.
At the opening of the epic, Odysseus has been away from his homeland Ithaca for nearly twenty years, and in the meantime lazy, greedy suitors have descended on the noble Penelope. They are seeking her hand in marriage, because with it come Odysseus' kingdom, power and wealth. With a mind no less subtle than her husband's, Penelope has managed for many years to hold off these suitors, as she waits and hopes for her husband's return. When at last he does, he defeats and kills them.
One of the most remarkable traits of Homer's work is its modernity. That the characters' motivations and reactions seem so realistic—especially their insecurities and negative qualities: their greed, petty jealousy and stubbornness—makes Homer's work accessible and very appealing even to an age as far removed from ancient Greece as ours. And a crucial element in this charm is that Homer's epics display the full range of human emotion, from comic to tragic, and in some unexpected places.
For instance, in the midst of the grave and gruesome Iliad, Homer finds humor in, of all places, the gods' interactions. In Book 14 (near the midpoint of the epic), the Greeks have been suffering from the absence of Achilles on the battlefield and because Zeus, the most powerful god and the head of the Olympian pantheon, has lent his support to the Trojans as a favor to Achilles' mother, an attractive sea-nymph. For several reasons, this situation enrages Hera, the queen of heaven and Zeus' wife, who detests the Trojans and favors the Greeks in the Trojan War.
Typical of polytheistic deities, Zeus and Hera quarrel and oppose each other in the management of the universe they oversee purportedly together. For instance, Zeus has a mission, as he sees it, to assert his masculine authority and document his creative powers broadly—in other words, he has many love affairs with goddesses, nymphs and mortal women—the result of which is no shortage of semi-divine heroes at large on earth. As far as Hera is concerned, all of these liaisons and their miscreant offspring are illegitimate, and her husband's management of the war—mismanagement as far as she's concerned!—must be stopped.
Therefore, the queen of the cosmos conceives a plan for distracting her husband and opponent long enough that her agents on earth can help out the beleaguered Greeks. She decides, moreover, that the proper way to pay him back for both misjudgments is to seduce him herself—it's typical of comedy that the lustful husband's punishment for philandering is that he ends up making love to his own wife, the one female he doesn't want to bed!—she assumes that, while they're otherwise engaged, he'll be distracted from the war and won't notice if her henchmen inflict some damage on the Trojans.
But to make this work, Hera can't just walk up and throw herself at him—he would be immediately suspicious—she must make him want her so bad he doesn't have any idea it's all her plan to subvert his. That requires underhandedness and understanding and underwear.
So she visits the goddess of sex and borrows a special garment of hers, the "girdle of Aphrodite" which makes the woman wearing it irresistibly attractive to men. She, then, goes to Mount Ida near Troy, where her husband is sitting and watching the war unfold below. With that, the stage is set for Homer's comical version of their divine encounter, the so-called "Seduction of Zeus" (Iliad 14.292-351):
Clearly, a comical passage! Note how Hera almost loses her temper when Zeus starts listing off his mistresses and the children they bore him but, given her plan, has to settle for reminding him about Hephaestus, one of the few legitimate sons he's sired. It all ends in what looks to be a stereotypical, beatific, flower-strewn scene of bliss among Homer's "blest Olympians" but is, in reality, a hefty helping of underhanded intrigue and sexual politics.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum is a heart-wrenching passage from Book 17 of The Odyssey. Odysseus has at last returned to his homeland Ithaca but, rather than simply walking in the door and announcing his presence, he's decided, like the crafty thinker he is, to scope out the situation first. So, he disguises himself as a beggar and, along with a friendly and loyal swineherd Eumaios who does not recognize Odysseus as his long-lost king, the wanderer goes for the first time in twenty years to visit his palace and home. There he sees the ravages that have been perpetrated on his kingdom by the greedy, boorish suitors who have been courting his wife and abusing his wealth for many years.
Among those ruins, the first thing that catches his eye is a dog named Argus (or Argos). Odysseus had raised Argus as a puppy but now so many years later the hound lies sick and mistreated at the gates of the palace. Of all those waiting at home for Odysseus to return, Argus is the first to recognize his master. Here is Homer's rendition of the touching reunion of "Odysseus and Argus" (Odyssey 17.290-327):
The force of The Iliad and The Odyssey, their resplendent humanity and complex psychology, have assured them enduring prominence in the canon of Western literature. But could they be more than must-reading? Is there history behind them, truth within the fiction? To answer questions like these, we must first know all we can about the author.
Of the poet known as Homer, the Classical Greeks and Romans record little worth mentioning, at least to anyone seeking historical fact. Ancient tradition states he was blind. A number of cities claimed to be his birthplace and various scholars in antiquity assigned his birth date to several different centuries. One modern writer jokes that only shows his mother suffered several false starts before finally giving birth. For the historian, the gap between the man and the material that comes down under his name is vast, made all the worse since it includes a long dark age (1100-800 BCE). That's virtually all that can be said with certainty about the poet Homer—well, almost all!
An important breakthrough in modern Homeric studies came in the first half of the twentieth century. This insight originated with the study of the text of Homer's epics which are constructed in a very curious manner, employing unusual, repetitive phrases throughout. For instance, when a character responds to what another has said, Homer often separates their speeches by saying somewhat mechanically "And so he answered in winged words." or, as we saw above, "Zeus the master of cloud said in reply to her."
Also, the plot of the epics doesn't always make sense, at least not when they're taken as a whole. For example, over the course of The Iliad several heroes die twice, and in The Odyssey the sorceress Circe tells Odysseus to go visit the Underworld to find out from the dead seer Teiresias how to get back to his homeland Ithaca. When Odysseus does that, Teiresias tells him all sorts of things but not how to get home. So Odysseus returns to Circe's island and she tells him how to return to Ithaca. Why didn't she just tell him the answer to his question the first time he asked?
The same is not true, however, of passages in close proximity to one another. They always make sense. Long recognized as a peculiarity of Homeric style, the incoherence of some passages which are widely separated from each other—called weak joins—gave rise to a number of theories explaining Homer's occasional lapses in consistency: he was a careless writer cranking out epics like repetitive romance novels, or he had poor long-term memory, or he was really a committee of epic poets who couldn't agree on details and patched together their own favorite bits without regard for others' work. Despite their ingenuity, these theses run counter to the basic coherence and excellence of The Iliad and The Odyssey which argue strongly against any hypothesis postulated on the author's lack of talent or skill, both well-attested elsewhere in the works.
A much better solution to this conundrum was suggested by Milman Parry, an American scholar working in the 1920's and 1930's, who studied a type of poet called an oral bard found at that time mainly in remote pockets of the area then called Yugoslavia where ancient narrative traditions still persisted. In such places, very few people could read or write so they depended on "story-tellers" for entertainment. As Parry observed, these bards composed poems "orally"—that is, they made up long epic poems on the spur of the moment in front of an audience—and though it's hard to imagine such a thing today, Parry showed that it was, in fact, possible for trained poets to compose complex verse like Homer's seemingly off the cuff when they used what Parry called oral formulas, repetitive phrases which fit certain metrical slots in a line of verse.
As Parry began to compare Homer's and the Yugoslavian bards' poetry more closely, he noticed several significant points of similarity. For example, the modern bards' verses were full of formulaic phrases, just as Homeric verses are. Sometimes these took the form of exact reproductions of earlier phrases and at other times adaptations crafted to fit a slightly different position in the verse. Parry's thesis also explained another thing passed down about Homer, that he was blind. Eyesight is unnecessary for an oral bard. It is indeed one of the few professions in antiquity from which blindness did not exempt a person. The immediate implication of Parry's discovery was that Homer was an oral bard.
It also explained why there were "weak joins" in Homer's epics. These were the product of a poet and an audience who couldn't go back and check what had been said before because it wasn't written down. After all, that sort of inconsistency would be all but imperceptible in oral poetry—who could remember one particular hero's death which had been described hours ago, if even in the same performance—all of which implied something much greater, much more significant about Homer and the society he lived in: they couldn't read or write, or else why create oral poetry? That is, the "river from which all literature flows" was illiterate!
Adding weight to Parry's thesis was something which had actually been noticed before but no one had seen its significance: the characters in Homer never read or write anything. Although they often talk about creating poetry—at one point, Homer even gives a detailed picture of a bard singing at a royal banquet—they always sing their verse, never read it in a written form. Writing itself is mentioned in all of The Iliad and The Odyssey only once, when Homer recalls the hapless Bellerophon who carried "baleful signs" (i.e. a written message), words he cannot read, which tell the intended recipient of the message to kill its bearer. Shakespeare lovers will recognize this motif from the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sub-plot in Hamlet. Homer's oddly negative recollection of writing is well suited to a culture in which writing had once existed—in early Greece there had indeed been a type of writing now designated "Linear B"—but by Homer's day it was at best a distant memory.
While oral theory provides many good answers, it's not without its complications. For instance, how is it possible that an oral bard's text was preserved in the absence of writing? Common sense and history make it clear that oral culture and all its artifacts disappear quickly once literacy appears on the scene. One answer is that Homer just happened to live at precisely the right juncture in time—when the alphabet was first being introduced to Greece around 800 BCE—and was able to dictate his oral poems to scribes who recorded his words. If he'd have lived any earlier, there wouldn't have been a writing system with which to preserve his work; any later, and the oral tradition on which his verse depends would have been displaced by written literature and forgotten. It is to our great good fortune—an unbelievably lucky coincidence, in fact—that such a poet lived at such a moment when his words could be written down. But, as they say, stranger things have happened.
There is, of course, another and far more troubling possibility, that there never was a Homer, that he's just another piece of invented history, little more than a prehistoric name which echoed down the halls of later Greek antiquity and was used to give coherence to a body of early oral literature whose real origins were by then lost in the mists of a distant, undocumented age. In that case, the Homeric epics are, in reality, a pastiche of imperfectly remembered "oral" performances which were assembled as a unified text only long after their day—this is a different way to account for the "weak joins"—and which were given credible authority by ascribing them to some great early figure who may,in fact, have lived once but whose authorship of these works was hardly verifiable. The existence of rhapsodes (literally, "stitchers of song"), performers who recited Homeric epic before the Greek public centuries after Homer's day, argues for just such a process in which the text was "woven" together at some point. Furthermore, that there appears to have been some variability in the content of Homer's epics even as late as the classical age (500-400 BCE) argues strongly against the notion that The Iliad and The Odyssey represent the finished and polished work of one real-life poet named "Homer."
If so, however, Homer is one of the most successful and pervasive invented histories ever concocted. All ancient evidence posits the existence of a historical Homer, and such uniformity cannot be set aside lightly. Moreover, the general coherence and quality of the epics make it problematical to turn "Homer the poet" into "Homer the poetic invention." But whether they come from a real man or not, what history, if any, can be gleaned from Homer's epics?
To put it another way, can we expect an oral poet living several centuries after the fact, in a period of general illiteracy and economic hardship—and an artist, moreover, who composes verse spontaneously in a public performance—to preserve reliable history? It seems unlikely. Without written records where would he find sources to base his presentation of the past on? And even if they existed, he was illiterate and blind, so he couldn't read them. The probability that his work contains accurate reflections of the past seems not great.
The answer is not as simple as that, however. Other oral poets, such as those who composed verse during the Middle Ages (500-1500 CE), sometimes preserve in their poems important historical facts, things which can be validated through other sources. Nevertheless, at the same time they can also confuse major points of history—such as, on which side of a conflict a famous leader fought or what city he attacked—making it virtually impossible to sift fact from fiction if we didn't have other histories to guide us.
It must also be born in mind that Homer's oral poetry, just like many a record of the past, was primarily—albeit not solely—meant to be entertaining, and under such circumstances it's natural to expect a bard to sacrifice historical accuracy for narrative thrills and poetic pyrotechnics. That is, if there's no documentation of the historical Odysseus ever owning a dog like Argus, should Homer omit this touching passage from The Odyssey just because there's no proof it actually happened? Historians might advise him so, but no artist or producer ever would, and I doubt many audiences either.
It's also wise to remember that epic poetry like Homer's was, no doubt, all the early Greeks had for history, and they must have clung fiercely to the memories it embraced. Just as no one today has sanction to rewrite the Bible, they surely resisted attempts to make drastic changes in the received text, whatever it was. This would be especially true after the epics had achieved a certain status in their culture. And indeed to the Greeks of later antiquity, a sacred quality pervaded Homer's stories of Troy, an aura of awe later transferred to the author himself, undercutting any suggestion that the Trojan saga is outright fable and fiction, completely devoid of any historical core.
So, most likely, some details in Homer represent valid recollections of the past—archaeology has, in fact, confirmed many of the specifics he mentions about armor and ship design in the second millennium (ca. 1200 BCE)—the question is which details are right and which are wrong. Without external sources like archaeological data to corroborate them, it's impossible to say. Certainly, the vision of a "historical Troy" where events happened in the exact manner Homer describes is stretching credibility, but Troy is also clearly not an El Dorado or Atlantis either, places that exist only in the landscape of someone's imagination. As we will see in the next Section, an archaeological site in modern Turkey may, in fact, contain the remains of Priam's city itself. The threads of history are, without doubt, woven into the fabric of Homeric epic, though unraveling fact from fiction is in many cases beyond our ken.
The historical circumstances of the Roman poet Vergil, the other great master of ancient epic, are quite unlike those surrounding Homer and show another way that literature and history can intersect. About Vergil we know a great deal, and all of it with relative certainty, first and foremost, that there once was a man named Vergil who wrote The Aeneid. Moreover, Vergil's poetry reveals his personality, his mind, that he was a man thoroughly trained in literate discourse, where precision of expression reigns supreme—you won't find "weak joins" or oral formulas in Vergil!—and The Aeneid is replete with the sort of detail which only countless revisions and close attention to the niceties of written style provide.
More than just the writer, the man himself also emerges with some clarity from the historical data. We know, for instance, the year and day of both his birth and death (October 15, 70 BCE and September 20, 19 BCE)—to put this in context, we don't know the exact year in which Julius Caesar was born—moreover, we're told even about Vergil's family. To wit, although he came from a relatively poor background, he was well educated.
Vergil's ascent to glory as a writer is also clearly documented. His earliest recognition rests on a type of verse called "pastoral poetry"—poems about agriculture and life in the country—and his two first published works (The Eclogues and The Georgics), both of which still survive, belong to that genre. After great success at that, he was recruited by the Roman Emperor Augustus to compose a grandiose epic about Rome, a remarkable change of pace for a man who was up until then the Roman equivalent of a "country-western singer." Nevertheless, he accepted the imperial mandate, a task which consumed the final decade of his life.
In addition to all that, the historical information about Vergil clues us into his method of composition. A slow and meticulous worker, he wrote at the rate of about twenty lines of poetry a week (equivalent to a few paragraphs), which meant his patron Augustus would have seen very little, if any at all, of The Aeneid for quite some time after he commissioned the work. Such perfectionism was, however, the hallmark of Vergil's style, resulting in a carefully crafted verse of unparalleled depth and beauty, and Augustus was perfectly aware of this when he hired Vergil so he probably didn't press the poet to go public with his work before Vergil felt it was ready.
It's also possible that Vergil's insistence on "quality control" was, in fact, a tactic he used to assert greater artistic autonomy over his poetry. In particular, it would have ensured that the emperor had no real input into the poem's creation, at least in its initial phases, allowing Vergil to speak freely. In Augustus' Rome, it was the custom that rich and powerful patrons like the emperor paid a poet for his verse and from that expected certain things, such as that the poet would praise his patron, or at least not criticize his regime. So, one of the major questions about Vergil's highly polished verse is whether or not he took the opportunity his perfectionism afforded to speak his mind through his poetry. And if so, what was he trying to say?
The only way to answer that question is to examine the text of The Aeneid closely, which, on the surface at least, seems fairly benign. It doesn't even deal directly with Roman politics or the world in which Vergil and Augustus lived, but treats, instead, a mythological character, Aeneas, the fictional hero who led the Trojans to Italy after the Greeks destroyed their city. At the same time, it's not completely clear that this was the subject the emperor expected Vergil to treat in his epic, but whatever the case, Augustus certainly got more than he paid for. The Aeneid is one of the greatest works of literature ever written, definitely the best ever written on a government grant.
But before he could finish the poem, Vergil died. The text we have, what he left behind, amounts to a completed "first draft"—and a masterpiece by anyone's estimation, except perhaps the super-scrupulous Vergil—seeing, however, that he would be unable to polish his work as he was accustomed to, he asked on his deathbed that the manuscript be burned. Countermanding this last wish, Augustus had it preserved and the pieces of the manuscript assembled as best they could be for publication. The Aeneid, thus, includes about fifty half-finished lines, the only obvious witness to its imperfection. Would that most works of literature which their authors considered finished were half so "incomplete"!
Upon its first appearance in the literary world of Rome, The Aeneid became a best-seller. Hailed as a classic on its arrival by virtually everyone, it was used almost immediately in schools to teach Roman students about literature and good writing, a function it has served ever since. This instant stardom goes some way toward explaining why we know so much about Vergil today. He was recognized within his own lifetime as the genius he truly was and, when there were still people alive who remembered him, his biographical data were recorded and, because its author's star has never faded over the last two millennia, that information was preserved.
On the surface, The Aeneid does indeed appear to glorify Rome and Augustus' rule, but underneath the façade of laud and laurels tossed at the emperor's feet runs a countercurrent of bedeviling questions and triumphs framed in failure. That's what makes this work of literature so interesting to historians. It suggests that Vergil worked behind his boss' back and encoded in his poem a greater, darker truth about Rome, subverting the very message he'd been paid to advertise. While there is nothing like Procopius' vicious attack on Justinian in The Anecdota, beneath Vergil's epic runs a subtext that challenges the propaganda of the Augustan regime at the same time he sings its praises. And even if Augustus after reading The Aeneid had wanted to ask Vergil what he meant by including troubling details at certain points, he never had the chance. The poet was dead, the epic was enshrined as immortal verse and it was too late to take any of it back.
One of the most interesting riddles posed in The Aeneid involves the central character himself. Long before the rise of Rome, Aeneas was a well-known figure in Greek literature. He shows up several times in The Iliad and rarely acts like much of a hero, certainly not one by the Roman standard of virtus ("manliness, courage"). Homer's Aeneas, for instance, boasts about his prowess in battle and then proceeds to lose almost every fight he's in because he's not a very good fighter, hardly the way the Romans saw themselves. Worse yet from the Roman perspective, as the son of the goddess Venus and a mortal shepherd named Anchises, the Greek Aeneas is protected by the gods, who on one occasion even rescue him from certain death in combat. Not much virtus there either. The best that can be said of this Aeneas is that he's beloved of the gods.
So in sum, this particular character seems, on the surface at least, rather "un-Roman," which makes him a troubling choice to play the archetype of any world conqueror like Rome. It's as if we today were saddled with a story about the young George Washington who lied about the cherry tree and didn't tell the truth. What's an American poet going to do with that picture of our founding father?
But what surely frightened off other Roman authors may have held out intriguing possibilities to Vergil. Inherent in Aeneas' character is the sense that the gods loved him especially and for him reserved not only the opportunity to escape death at Troy but also to found a new race destined for greatness. But why? Why him? What was there in Aeneas that made him so attractive to heaven?
Vergil's answer was that Aeneas was pius, Latin for "loyal, dutiful." Thus, pius Aeneas became Vergil's literary equivalent of an oral formula, his catchword for a new, updated version of the character based on the traditional Greek Aeneas but reflective of Vergil's age more than Homer's. This "loyal" man, who respects his country and family as any good Roman should, evolved in Vergil's hands into a sort of hero very different from the bloodthirsty berserkers who hack their way across The Iliad. The new Aeneas was a "thinking man," but not a crafty one like Homer's Odysseus who wins by trickery and disguise, rather a tragic figure who watches his world crumble around him and struggles to understand why, and when he can't, questions the callousness of the very gods who always protect and preserve him, wishing they'd just let him die. In the end he's a man who fights depression as much as anything else, a model for all those who have ever lost and lived.
Like a sort of public servant ill-suited to life in an age that imagines itself "heroic" and is anything but, Aeneas has been conscripted by forces beyond his control—in particular, Venus, his domineering goddess-mother—to perform a task he feels unequipped for, to settle Italy and found the Roman race. And in the course of chasing that dream which is not even his, he loses most of his family, his men, his sense of well-being, and the only two women he'll ever really love: his wife Creusa, and his lover Dido, the queen of Carthage. As he watches all these crushed beneath the machine of a divine injunction mandating Rome one day, he wonders about the purpose of all this destruction and at the end, after twelve books, never really finds an answer.
It's not hard to believe that Vergil, enlisted as he was to write an epic for Augustus, has left some picture of his own life in the portrait he draws of Aeneas' travails. And so it must also have seemed to the many public servants who spent their lives laboring for Rome, but really for a master, the emperor Augustus. Little wonder, then, The Aeneid was so popular with the Roman reading public in the day. They could relate to a hero who kept hearing all about the glories he was creating—or that would be created one day—when in reality he and they were both enthralled to someone else's vision of a glorious new age dawning. Their futures, just like Aeneas', were being driven by someone else's sense of history.
At the beginning of the epic, Vergil leaps just as Homer does in medias res, "into the middle of things." The story opens many years after the Fall of Troy, as Aeneas is sailing across the Mediterranean Sea, seeking a new homeland for his ragged band of Trojan refugees. The first time we meet Aeneas, he encounters a great storm sent by the goddess Hera—she goes by the name of Juno in Roman myth—a maelstrom dispatched to destroy Aeneas and his men whom Juno hates. For several reasons she wants Aeneas dead, not least of which because her husband Jupiter, the Roman equivalent of Zeus, has a plan for the Roman people, that some day they will conquer the whole world, and she opposes her husband's desires in this regard as in so many others.
The first picture we get of Aeneas is on the deck of his ship with Juno's storm raging all around him. As he sees his ships sinking and men drowning, he collapses in hopelessness, weeping, helpless to prevent their destruction, and says:
This initial glimpse at Aeneas is unusual in more ways than one. First, a hero surrendering to fate and praying for death even before the story has had a chance to begin is not how ancient epic typically depicts its central characters. So, while Aeneas looks back to Troy, Vergil clearly looks ahead to a new type of hero, one who is aggrandized not by his virtus but his humanitas ("humanity"), a Latin word that had been coined by the great Roman orator Cicero only a generation earlier. Second, and even less characteristic of early epic, Aeneas in this scene is talking to himself—that is, thinking aloud—so right at the outset of the poem, Vergil takes the reader inside the central character's mind, the sort of place Homer rarely visits with his listener. Because it focuses more on the characters' feelings than their exploits, The Aeneid has been rightly called the first modern psychological novel.
Aeneas and those of his men who survive the storm wash up on the shores of North Africa, where settlers from Tyre (a city on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean) are building a new home under the guidance of their queen Dido. This settlement will later grow into Carthage, a city-state whose name carried powerful historical connotations for the Romans of Vergil's day because it was in their ancestors' defeat of the Carthaginians during the second half of the third century BCE—two centuries before Vergil's life but an enduring memory in the collective conscience of his contemporaries—that the Romans had cleared the way for their conquest and eventual domination of the Mediterranean. While that history is as yet far off in the future for the characters of The Aeneid, Aeneas' encounter and tragic love affair with Dido prefigures the war between Rome and Carthage, an irony no Roman in Vergil's day could or would have missed.
Protected by his divine mother who makes him invisible, Aeneas wanders inland and stumbles upon Carthage under construction. There, he enters Venus' temple just as Dido comes to worship. At that moment, the goddess strips away her son's invisibility, and the queen can't help but fall in love with him—he is, after all, the very son of Love—and eager to welcome the handsome stranger, Dido hosts a great feast in honor of the errant Trojans. Their Roman descendants centuries later, so Vergil suggests, will destroy the very halls in which Aeneas and his men dine that evening.
In the second book of The Aeneid, Aeneas recounts for Dido and her court how Troy fell, including the famous episode of the Trojan Horse. Because he had personally witnessed this devastation, Aeneas' story is all the more compelling but Vergil focuses less on that than the pain the hero feels as he recalls seeing his home sacked and burnt. As we noted in Chapter 1, eyewitnesses do not always provide the most reliable accounts of what-really-happened-in-the-past, and Vergil, it seems, agrees. Besides the fact that Aeneas did not see everything that happened during the destruction of Troy—he is, after all, only one man and could not be everywhere at once—the gruesome disaster has clearly left a scar on his psyche, especially as he recounts searching for his wife amidst the smoke and carnage of that ghastly night. At long last, he found not her but her ghost who tells him to gather what's left of his family and friends and flee. In shock and numb with grief, he obeys this command from beyond the grave.
The high point in Book 2 comes as Aeneas relates the slaughter of Priam, the aged King of Troy, at the hands of Achilles' brutal teenage son, Pyrrhus. According to Aeneas, this bloodthirsty adolescent invaded the glorious, ancient palace of Troy, setting fires and snuffing out lives wherever he went. While chasing Polites, Priam's youngest and last surviving son, he stumbles upon the inner sanctum where Priam and his aged wife and many daughters have withdrawn to hide from the carnage raging around them. Pyrrhus seizes Polites in this holiest-of-holies and defiantly slits his throat before the very eyes of his helpless parents and the gods.
A ghastly moment, and even more so for those who know what was happening in the Rome of Vergil's day. The foundation of Augustus' newly formed government rested on a century of civil war. Just the generation before, Julius Caesar had made Rome his own by winning over important legions whom he convinced to fight against their own state. In the end, Caesar met Rome on the field of battle and won.
The result was the extermination of the Roman Republic, and an autocrat installed in power. The turning point of those wars and the most crushing defeat the Roman Senate suffered came when Pompey, Caesar's most formidable rival, lost the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BCE, the Senate's last real hope of defending their independence. Pompey was forced to flee to Egypt, where he was greeted by people he took to be allies. He was instead ruthlessly butchered, his beheaded corpse left floating in an Egyptian tidal pool—"a head ripped from its shoulders, and a corpse without a name" is a fitting description—and it was at this crux in history that many Romans looking back called the time of death for their Republic, and the conception of Augustus' Empire. In casting Priam's death as a clear recollection of Pompey's, it seems obvious Vergil is commenting in some way on current events. In that respect at least, The Aeneid cannot be seen as invented history, pure or simple.
In Book 3, Aeneas continues his narrative, relating to Dido where his wanderings after the fall of Troy have taken him. Although having sailed for many years around the shores of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, he has yet to find the land called Italy promised to him by the gods. His and his men's spirits are at an all-time low and they despair of ever again having a place they can call home.
In Book 4, Dido seeks to comfort the charming stranger—and marvelous story-teller!—and after being caught in a rain storm when they're out hunting one day, they launch into an intense love affair. Ultimately, however, the gods summon Aeneas away to serve his destiny and found the state of Rome. Told he has no choice in this regard, the hero goes to Dido and tries to explain why he has to leave. She, blinded by love, denounces and curses him, and after he leaves, stabs herself with his sword out of grief. Her body is cremated on a funeral pyre and, as he's sailing away, Aeneas looks back at Carthage and sees smoke in the distance but doesn't realize it's all that's left of his beloved, benighted Dido. Carthage is now just another city he's fled in smoke and ash and the death of a woman he loved. Ruin, it seems, is the reward for being pius.
In Book 5 Aeneas' father Anchises dies, and in Book 6 the hero enters the Underworld at the gods' bidding to receive from his father's ghost a vision of the future. Pius Aeneas does his duty as always and, because the gods insist, confronts the horrors of Hell. The worst Hades has to offer him, however, is not the battalion of infernal monsters that live and lurk down there—not that there aren't plenty of those!—the darkest miseries Aeneas faces on his journey through Hell are his own personal demons, seeing dead friends from Troy and companions who've died on the trip west.
But most horrific of all the terrors the hero encounters in the Underworld is the soul of Dido. Unaware as yet that she had died until he sees her ghost, he surmises correctly that his departure was the cause of her demise and begs her to forgive him. In one of the great silences of all literature, she just stares at him and says nothing. Toward the end of her life, she had tried to convince him not to leave her but he did, and he deserves not one word more. And in one of the great poetic similes of all time, Vergil says she passes away from him "like the moon behind a cloud."
Finally, shaken to the core as any man would be who's lived through both literal and personal hells, Aeneas at last meets the spirit of his father Anchises who comforts him—or tries to—by showing him why he must endure. He takes his son to see a pageant of the future, a parade celebrating all that Rome will be and do one day. In a sort of triumphal procession of Romans-yet-to-come, the great generals and statesmen of Vergil's past, which is of course Aeneas' future, form a procession lining up in chronological order to meet their coming destinies, a seemingly endless tableau of patriots who kill their rebellious kin, fathers who execute their own sons in the name of Rome, and it culminates with a shadowy figure, who Anchises explains is Marcellus, Augustus' nephew, a young man who had died in 23 BCE while Vergil was writing The Aeneid. This final figure in Aeneas' far distant future and Rome's most recent past is the very picture of unfulfilled promise, the perfection of imperfection, as yet again Vergil's times intrude upon the mythological epic.
Like Aeneas' account of the fall of Troy and Priam's gruesome slaughter on the altar, this passage, too, ends on a discordant chord with odd echoes of Vergil's times. After he's finished watching the triumph of Rome-yet-to-be and finally departs the Underworld for the upper airs, Aeneas leaves, according to Vergil, through a gate with a curious significance. These are the last words of Book 6 of The Aeneid, the exact midpoint of the twelve-book epic:
Aeneas exits the Underworld by passing through the ivory gate, the road which false dreams take! What is Vergil saying here? Was the "Triumph of Rome" which Aeneas just witnessed a false dream which he's now carrying up to the world above, a dazzling lie of some sort meant to deceive the Romans with the hope of glory into wreaking centuries of war and carnage by which to fill up Hell? To die and recycle your soul, that's the purpose of Rome? With no further explanation, Vergil returns to the story.
In the second half of The Aeneid (Books 7-12), Aeneas and his bedraggled followers at last settle in Italy, much to the displeasure of a local people called the Rutulians. Led by Turnus, they force Aeneas and his men into open warfare, principally over which of the two of them—Aeneas or Turnus—has the right to marry Lavinia, a native Italian princess whose hand in marriage brings with it her father's kingdom. The war at first goes in Turnus' favor when he scores a victory by killing one of Aeneas' dearest friends, a young man named Pallas. To salt the wound, Turnus strips Pallas' body of its armor and proudly wears it as a badge of victory.
The Aeneid ends with a final showdown between Aeneas and Turnus, who fight one on one. Enraged over Pallas' death and the dishonor of his memory, Aeneas advances on Turnus with bloodthirsty fury. Dazed and overwhelmed by his foe's uncontrolled savagery, Turnus turns and runs, but eventually Aeneas pierces his leg with a mighty spear throw, pinning him down helpless on the ground. The Aeneid ends with Aeneas standing over the fallen Rutulian who begs for his life:
And that's it. That's the end of The Aeneid. As far as we know, these are, in fact, the last words ever spoken by the greatest writer in Western Civilization, except perhaps "Would someone please burn what I just wrote?"
The link between the myth of Aeneas and the political realities of Vergil's day seems all too readily apparent here. What exactly Vergil is trying to say through The Aeneid may not be clear, but that he has a message of some sort is. To have a person of his intelligence and status in the Roman world commenting on the events of his time is something historians can't afford to dismiss lightly, which is why they have to know how to read literature, not just recite dates and accounts and laws. The simple truth is that fact can be—and often is—encoded in fiction.
"Encoded" is the problem. How do we decide what Vergil really meant? Our only recourse is to examine the text of The Aeneid carefully and try to sift the author's message from the tale he's telling by looking at the big picture: how the characters evolve, what happens to them, what choices they make.
The Aeneid begins with a man who's seriously—one could argue, clinically—depressed, a hero who's witnessed the deaths of many he cherished and wishes openly he were among his deceased friends. That Aeneas looks back at the past in grief and weeps. The epic ends with an angry, murderous avenger who presses death down upon a suppliant kneeling before him. This Aeneas looks back at the past in rage and kills. From wounded thinker to butchering Fury, Aeneas has somehow turned into the likeness of Pyrrhus, the brutal teenager who so roundly disgusted him—and any compassionate reader!—when Aeneas told Dido how Achilles' heir slaughtered Priam on the altar of the gods at Troy.
But what does all this mean for Rome, for history? Why does Vergil leave us with a portrait of his hero as both executioner and founder, builder and killer? Was that how he interpreted Rome's progress, an evolution from some pitiful, downtrodden band of refugees into a murderous army serving cynical gods who care only for some plan they've conceived to breed more ruthless, vengeful, pius adherents? Was that what Vergil saw when he looked back over Roman history and reviewed the major events of his day, particularly the century-long civil war which left the collective democracy of Rome floating as dead and headless as Pompey in some distant land, while the purported liberator—the master really!—Augustus fed the public a diet of poetic propaganda, the very verses Vergil and his peers were paid to write?
And what of the Gate of Ivory? Is Vergil saying the Grandeur That Was Rome is nothing more than a "false dream"? Does that make The Aeneid Vergil's way of asking his contemporaries, "Can a people, who commit genocide on not just the rest of the world but themselves as well, be trusted by heaven to hold up the torch to tomorrow? That is, after all, what my patron Augustus would have all you Romans believe." Are such penetrating and dangerous questions lurking subtextually here?
No one can answer these riddles, because The Aeneid is a work of fiction, a mask the perfectionist poet wore to protect his artistic autonomy and the freedom to speak his mind, to the extent any work of literature can relate what its author believes. But w hen openness and honesty are muted, writers must veil their message in invented history and trust the public to decode it. Lies, in this arena, are solemn agents of the truth and an all-important key in understanding what-really-happened in the past.
Victorians saw Hamlet as a wilted wallflower,
but in the 60s he was sort of the prototypical angry young man . . . The
way people think about Hamlet seems to be a mirror for the way we view
our current cultural moment.
Great questions are what great literature brings to the feast of history. In unfolding the past, fantasies and stories can sometimes say more about what-really-happened than the "historical" records which have been preserved. Homer, for instance, opens up a world where literature is only just dawning but the human heart is fully formed, where a noble dog's death is worth his master's tears and gods don't always act with the dignity their exalted status demands. That's as good an explanation for the chaos of human life as any other that's ever been offered.
From Vergil's verse, we hear a very different tune, the muffled echoes of dissident voices lamenting the very regime they work for, offstage cries of freedom squelched from those whose hearts have not as yet been crushed. Like any type of history, literature cannot stand alone as a gateway to the past, but it provides historians a path that's fuller and richer, embracing a more complex understanding of what-really-happened-in-the-past, and takes us a step or two closer to truth. Historians may hope but cannot ask for more.