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Is the Aeneid a Celebration of Empire or a Critique? (newyorker.com)
52 points by drjohnson 6 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 13 comments





It is an odd work. Homer’s works are well constructed, but extemporized from, probably, many public performances. However Virgil was more Tolkien than Homer, writing an epic divorced from public performance. Personally I think to ascribe anti imperial (or pro) ideology to the book is anachronistic. I don’t think the ancient world would have seen ideology as a force in the ascendancy of empire. These things are the result of chance and the will of the gods in the ancient world. Philosophy in Virgil’s time had much more to do with how to handle life as it came at you rather than how it ought to be shaped (think Marcus Aurelias’s Meditations).

If anything ideology was more pervasive than now. People back then did not see themselves as playthings of chance, or subject to random chance - they, like now, actively debated courses of action and took charge of their life. Read the Philippics or Thucydides or Cicero for evidence of people who thought they could make their own decisions.

If anything Roman society was more committed to ideological explanations of the world; since Livy they attempted to understand their dominance as evidence of their particular manifest destiny and innate qualities. Internal politics were equally marked by ideological distinctions between the optimates and the populares. The Gracchi brothers are good examples of politicians who tied their careers closely to ideology.

The alternative to ideology is naturalistic and mechanistic explanation - and that was something ancient society almost completely lacked. There were no economic theories of development, no theories of international relations, no sociology. I would suggest that Romans understood their ascendency in almost completely ideological terms.


> Homer’s works are well constructed, but extemporized from, probably, many public performances.

I was listening to a greek history podcast where it was suggested that the performance of Homer's works wasn't for entertainment, per se, but as part of public religious rituals, and that the formulaic aspects of it (the wine-dark sea) are similar to the kinds of ritualistic repetitions you get see in the catholic mass for example (amen, peace be with you, etc). The catalogue of ships makes more sense if you think of it as an oft repeated public ritual that was striving for inclusion for audiences across the greek world. They also suggested that it wasn't often performed all at once, but different sections of it would mark different special occasions-- again, similar to the way the bible is used in Mass. I'm not at all a greek history expert, but it was interesting.


That kennings etc. show that the Homeric poems come from an oral tradition, was eventually accepted on the basis of Milman Parry's studies of Balkan folk poetry. That folk poetry (and similar traditions worldwide like the Kyrgyz Manas) is for entertainment. So, there is no need to claim that Homeric recitation must have been bound with religious ritual. Certainly Homer's forebears might have performed at public festivals that also included a religious element, but that doesn't mean the poetry was of the same nature.

You may be right, for instance Machiavelli didn't exist until the Renaissance.

Rome of that age was very self aware of the histories of the many city states that had risen and fallen before them, as I think the very story describes. The personal choices made by leaders of those many prior city-empires were the very reasons for each to fail on the global stage. The Aeneid was the zeitgeist of Roman manifest destiny under the imperial banner.

Is The Stars and Stripes Forever a celebration of the US?

"The subject world shall Rome's dominion own, And, prostrate, shall adore the nation of the gown. An age is ripening in revolving fate When Troy shall overturn the Grecian state, And sweet revenge her conqu'ring sons shall call, To crush the people that conspir'd her fall. Then Caesar from the Julian stock shall rise, Whose empire ocean, and whose fame the skies Alone shall bound; whom, fraught with eastern spoils, Our heav'n, the just reward of human toils, Securely shall repay with rites divine; And incense shall ascend before his sacred shrine. Then dire debate and impious war shall cease, And the stern age be soften'd into peace: Then banish'd Faith shall once again return, And Vestal fires in hallow'd temples burn; And Remus with Quirinus shall sustain The righteous laws, and fraud and force restrain. Janus himself before his fane shall wait, And keep the dreadful issues of his gate, With bolts and iron bars: within remains Imprison'd Fury, bound in brazen chains; High on a trophy rais'd, of useless arms, He sits, and threats the world with vain alarms.”

(http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:19...)

Editors of Virgil have pointed out that he grew up in badly unsettled times, with civil wars. A bit of imperial peace looked pretty good compared to that.


This is literally an essay topic for every high-school Latin program.

It is hard not to see the contrast between Vergil's pathos for the costs of war and the Iliad's celebration of aggressive machismo. And yet the Aeneid is ideologically committed to the Roman project of empire as a civilising force.

The best modern parallel is something like Saving Private Ryan, which combines sympathy for the costs and losses of war in general with full support of the motivations of the particular war. Neither work is remotely subversive (they skate close to being outright propaganda for their militaries and societies), but both are profoundly humanistic.


I took Latin a long time ago, but one passage supporting your point sticks in my brain. Virgil is recounting the many steps that led to the Empire, and he says something like, "Of such great difficulty was it to found the nation of Rome." To me it read like he recognized the awesome power and accomplishments of his civilization, but at the same time he saw the amount of blood that it cost to achieve that greatness. The two were not separable, and the theme was not about one or the other, but both as one.

Whatever it is, it's not very good. It always seemed a very pale imitation of the Odyssey to me. If I'm reading semi-mythical Roman history, I'd rather tackle Livy. Or better yet Sallust or Appian.

I disagree; I found the Iliad to be quite boring, either with Achilles not fighting due to the slave girl, or Achilles defiling the body of Patroclus for far to long.

I didn't know the material when I read these, and I was looking for the sack of Troy. I found it in Virgil, and it was well paced.


The only way reading the Iliad made any sense to me was as history told by and for mob bosses. The primary concerns are honour and 'face', stealing stuff and killing people with maximum brutality. I think it is hard for a modern reader to admire any of the figures in the Iliad, but seen as a story of rival gangsters, it makes much more sense.

Like most great literature, it's an insight into the reader. How you interpret aeneid says more about you than the book. No different from the bible or hamlet.



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