The epic foundations of the Roman State

The Aeneid - Virgil, Cecil Day-Lewis, Jasper Griffin

Here I am, sitting on my parents' couch back in Adelaide on a brisk Sunday morning after seeing my football team lose last night and now I am wondering what I am going to write about the Aeneid. There is certainly a lot that I want to write about this epic poem but I really don't know where to start - so I got up, walked around the back yard and realised that all I was thinking about was the pubs that I was going to visit so that I could take a photo of them, and why I was doing such a pointless exercise, so instead I decided to come back inside, with my cup of tea, and simply do what I normally do, and that is to just start writing (and it seemed to have worked).

Anyway, the first thing that struck me as I was reading this story (and there is quite a few things, as you can tell by my updates) was that this is basically a story about a group of boat people (or refugees) who are fleeing war and persecution and are looking for a new place to call their home. The further interesting thing is that pretty much most places that they go (with the exception of Carthage) they are unwelcome and face an incredibly hostile reception. The entire second section of the book have them arriving at the land that they have been told by the gods that will be their home involves them fighting the current inhabitants.

It is interesting to reflect on this because we have, at the time of its writing, a story of the origins of the Roman Empire, the greatest empire that has existed in the Mediterranean basin, which is painted as having arisen from a ragtag collection of refugees. Maybe this is why there is so much hostility towards refugees in many of our Western Nations these days because this history which in effect forms apart of our collective history, shows how powerful and influential foreigners arriving at our shore and establishing a new home can be. Maybe there is some collective fear that by allowing refugees to settle in our home they will end up dominating and undermining our own identity and pushing us into a lower social status and lower economic order (not that this is what happened with the Romans – even if the story is true, which I do not believe is the case, the Roman Empire arose as an amalgamation of cultures, and was also very inclusive in its makeup, at least early on).

Another thing that struck me about the story is how similar it is to the story of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt and the settlement in Palestine. In the Aeneid we have the Trojans fleeing persecution and looking for a new place to live – an exodus if you will. They land in one place and face disease, and then move to another place and face war. However the gods (Venus I believe) appears to Aeneas and tells him that she already has a land set apart for him and that this place is not it (a promised land, if you will). As such they then travel to this promised land and set themselves up only to discover that the current inhabitants do not want them them, so they go to war, and despite the odds being squarely against them, they end up winning and establishing themselves (the conquest, if you will).

The funny thing is that it is not as if Virgil would not have known about the stories of the Jewish history, and no doubt, if he had been exposed to it (the Old Testament was available in Greek, and Judea was a part of the Roman empire at the time, thanks to Pompey and Julius Caesar, so it is not a stretch of the imagination for him to have read the stories himself), it could have influenced him in writing this poem. Further, it helped me reflect on some of the themes of Augustine's City of God, where in that work he writes about two kingdoms, the kingdom of God, as reflected in the story of the Jews, and the kingdom of men, as reflected in the story of Rome. Here we have similar origins for both peoples, which creates more of a connection between the two kingdoms that I initially realised.

The final thing that I wish to reflect upon in this story is how it works to establish the foundations of the Roman Empire and the reasons behind their antagonisms against Carthage and Greece. Personally I do not believe the events in the Aeneid even occurred (which is actually moving away from my belief that all myths have some grain of truth in them, some much more than others). The reason that I suggest that is because this appears to be little more than a work of propaganda which no doubt sets up the reasons for the hostilities Rome has faced with the Greek and Cartheginian world. The hostility towards the Greeks is established by connecting the Romans with the Trojans, and that the reason that Rome invaded and conquered Greece was simply because of that long memory regarding the defeat at Troy. In effect what this was is payback. Then we have the establishment of the wars against Carthage by having Aeneas visit, and fall in love with, Queen Dido of Carthage. However, because he was not destined to remain in Carthage he had to leave, and this resulted in the suicide of Dido and the beginnings of the animosity between the two city states.

Of course, my position of the origins of these hostilities had more to do with two (or in this case three) empires all competing over control of the same lake (or the same piece of real estate, as is the case with the Greeks because Greece had long established cities in Southern Italy) and when that occurs, hostilities were no doubt going to begin. However, the nature of the historical discourse at the time was much different to our view of the world, and as such much more concrete reasons that exist beyond economic intentions had to be created (such as the reason for going to war against Troy was not that Agamemnon wanted to create an Aegean Empire, but because Paris kidnapped Menelaus' wife and they went to war to get her back). What I have noted though is that the Aenied had such an impact upon the culture of the Roman Empire that historians since had accepted this story as the origins of the Roman Empire (and some writers, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth had extended it to Britain as well).