Review of the Aeneid by Virgil
By PAUL D. MILLER
Reading Homer feels like spending time with a rustic, patched-together story. Homer matches odds and ends of an oral tradition that weaves various memories into a grand story about the olden times of courage and sacrifice. Virgil, by contrast, is a dictator’s propagandist. The Aeneid is much more coherent and smooth than the Iliad or Odyssey, but it is also told for a very different reason. Homer pointed back to heroes and their flaws to show future generations models of how to live. Virgil reached back for the placement of his story so that he could invent prophesies about how great his patron was. Homer feels rugged and leathery and worn and trusty. Virgil is slick salesmanship and a shiny body hiding a fundamentally cheap product.
That’s a little unfair to Virgil. He manages to weave a terrific story together that touches on wanderings, love, death, the afterlife, war, the fall and founding of empires. I just felt cheapened or taken advantage of in the passages where Virgil digresses to illustrate how Aeneas’ adventures revealed how the Romans were going to kick butt in another thousand years. Yet I still found immense pleasure immersing myself again in the ancient world. Virgil brings to vivid life the terror of the seas, the sacred duties of filial love, the mystery of pagan religion, the kingly place of honor among all virtues, and, above all, the bloody horror of ancient warfare. This was the Song of Roland without Catholicism. It was Gondor, rated R and without Gandalf.
The ubiquity of animal sacrifice—every other episode involves the slaughter of a few dozen oxen or bulls—suggests the universal human need to kill something to get the gods’ attention. Perhaps the Old Testament sacrificial system is God’s way of turning a natural human instinct to His purposes. He took a firmly human institution and stamped it with His character.
The good guys in Virgil are the ones who honor their parents and elders, and the father-son bond carries special weight. Aeneas carries his father on his back out of the burning city. Later he descends to the underworld just to talk with him again. The old boxer defeats the young upstart in a victory of grizzled toughness over youthful energy. Pallas’ death is given special weight. Lausus saves his father, Mezentius, and is killed; Mezentius then seeks to avenge his son’s death and is killed in perhaps the most moving passage of the book.
There is a hopelessness at the heart of the pagan worldview. You live your life—either good or bad—and then you end up dead. All dead envy the living, for to be alive is to be at the height of one’s possibilities. To be dead is simply to be a shade, a has been, for all eternity. There is little to hope for, and little reason to care, ultimately.
Which perhaps accounts for the insane bloodlust. The last half of the book, a mini-Iliad (as the first half is a mini-Odyssey) is grotesquely violent. Spears, swords, and javelins pierce bellies, chests, thighs, and brains. Oceans of blood and buckets of brain are spattered all over Aeneas’ fight. Which stands to reason: if this life is all that counts, and if you are going to spend the rest of eternity looking back on your brief life in envy, then no one else’s life fundamentally matters and you’ll fight like a possessed and rabid demon to win all the fame, glory, riches, and women you can, by any means possible. The story does seem to reflect the truth that civilization is built on violence. Aeneas cannot found his city without war. Statebuilding is a coercive and bloody business.