Ancient History & Civilisation



A rich account of the reception of classical antiquity could be given through a study of the successive reincarnations of some of the major heroes and heroines of classical myth and legend. Thus there are books tracing the journey through the last two and a half millennia of Hercules and Odysseus, of Helen and Electra, and studies of the Achillean hero; Oedipus and Electra have given their names to psychological complexes; Narcissus and Pygmalion have a rich afterlife in both literature and the visual arts. But although the Aeneid quickly established itself as the central literary text of the western Latin tradition, there is no subgenre of books on the theme or figure of Aeneas in the classical tradition. Even within Virgilian studies more narrowly conceived there are only two books (known to me) on the character and role of Aeneas.1

Dido is the Virgilian character who has achieved something like archetypal status, and to whose reception whole studies are dedicated. Aeneas has suffered in comparison with Dido, and although ways have been found to account for and even justify the relative taciturnity and inhibition manifested by Aeneas, above all in Book 4, the comparison with the abandoned Carthaginian queen continues to be odious. What is often perceived as the colourless quality of Aeneas’ character is largely the result of the roles forced on him by the plot of the Aeneid: rather than being strongly driven by an internal desire or ambition, he is forced into a mission by circumstances outside his control. Flight (fuga) rather than a self-willed search for a goal is his lot. This unwilling career he shares with Hercules, but Hercules is a larger-than-life hero who tests the limits of humanity in a way that Aeneas does not. Aeneas has much in common with Jason, a hero forced into a quest not of his choosing, and whose erotic history is tarnished by a lack of constancy and consistency. Jason too is a character without a very well-defined Nachleben, in contrast both to the archetypal journey of the Argo and to the main female character in the story, Medea.

As a character Aeneas comes to life most vividly in the anger that is provoked, in Aeneid 10 and 12, by the death of Pallas. But Aeneas’ attachment to the young warrior is not central to his ambitions and goals in the way that Achilles’ attachment to Patroclus, the Homeric model for the relationship between Aeneas and Pallas, is central to the Iliad. Rather than being something by which readers and the later tradition define the hero, Aeneas’ affection for Pallas and his consequent outburst of anger, leading to the death of Turnus at the end of the poem, create a problem in the assessment of the ancestor of the Romans to which succeeding centuries have responded in a variety of ways. In other respects Aeneas is more of a heros patiens than a heros agens.

The quality for which Aeneas is above all famous is his pietas, wider in meaning than English ‘piety’, denoting a dutiful respect towards the gods, country and family. The emblem of pious Aeneas is the image of Aeneas fleeing from Troy, carrying on his shoulders his father Anchises, bearing the gods of Troy, and with his son Ascanius at his side (Aen. 2.721–4). This is the text for perhaps the most famous single image associated with the Aeneid (see Chapter 9, p. 198). This is the hero at the crucial moment of flight, thinking of his duty to others, and appearing as one in a group, not in the splendid isolation of a Hercules or Achilles.

The group of Aeneas with father and son is also an emblem of Aeneas’ role as a bearer of tradition, transitional between one city and its culture and another city. Where he comes from and where he is going to are, in a way, more important than who he is. As a character in the Aeneid he is also transitional in the sense that he carries the burden of many characters in earlier literature and legend, and in turn he foreshadows and offers a pattern for persons in future Roman history, a ‘model Roman’ for every Roman, and above all for the latest and greatest Roman leader, Augustus.2 Intertextuality spills over into exemplarity. Virgil’s Aeneas already embodies vistas of reception receding into the past, which will be continued in future instances of reception of the Aeneid and its hero, in ancient Rome and after.

If for some readers the character of Aeneas threatens to dissolve into earlier models of heroism and later avatars, others have questioned whether he really deserves the label of ‘hero’ at all. He has been called an ‘unheroic hero’,3 and a ‘wimp’.4 In the introduction to his French translation of the Aeneid (Paris, 1668, 1681) Jean Renaud de Segrais records a view of Aeneas as (p. 35) ‘timid […] ungrateful […] too often with tears in his eyes, and in the end the character of piety which Virgil has given him is not as attractive as the character of love which our writers of romances give to their heroes’. Dryden, who was well read in French criticism of Virgil, complains of ‘wretched critics’ who ‘make Aeneas little better than a kind of St. Swithin hero, always raining’.5 De Segrais’ contrast between Virgil’s epic hero of piety and novelistic heroes of love helps to explain what might otherwise seem puzzling, that a character whose lacrimosity is notorious has also been charged by more recent scholars with indifference and taciturnity. A recent survey for high school teachers of approaches to the character of Aeneas has the title ‘“Frigid indifference” or “soaked through and through with feeling”?’6

However, one well-known anecdote on the subject perhaps does not mean quite what it seems to. One of W.B. Yeats’ favourite anecdotes, recorded by Ezra Pound in his ABC of Reading (London, 1934, 29) tells how ‘A plain sailor man took a notion to study Latin, and his teacher tried him with Virgil; after many lessons he asked him something about the hero. Said the sailor: “What hero?” Said the teacher: “What hero! Why Aeneas, the hero!” Said the sailor: “Ach, a hero, him a hero? Bigob, I t’ought he waz a priest”.’ But rather than reflecting a naïve – and hence unprejudiced? – judgement on the buttoned-up piety of Aeneas, the sailor may only have assumed that a character referred to 17 times in the poem as pater Aeneas was called ‘Father Aeneas’ because he was a priest, like a present-day ‘Father Malone’.7

Aeneas the perfect hero

One answer to the question of ‘what kind of a hero is Aeneas’ has been to claim that Aeneas is the perfect hero, the model of heroic and kingly virtue. To a modern readership, brought up on a ‘Harvard School’, or a ‘two voices’, reading of the Aeneid (see Chapter 1, pp. 16–18), this may seem strange, even counter-intuitive, but it is one of the oldest strands in the reception of the poem. It is linked to the close connection between epic, as a genre, and praise, a connection which goes back to the Homeric definition of narratives about the deeds of heroes as klea andron ‘the famous deeds of men/heroes’. Virum, the second word of the Aeneid (‘Arms and the man’), can as well be translated ‘hero’, as ‘man’. A philosophically slanted reading of the Odyssey saw in Odysseus the pattern of the wise and virtuous man, a tradition summed up in Horace’s claim in Epistles 1.2 that the Homeric epics contain a clearer and better account of moral philosophy than the treatises of Stoic and Academic philosophers: 17–18 ‘Homer set before us in Ulysses a useful model of what virtue and wisdom are capable of.’8 The stress is on the practical usefulness of reading Homer for learning how to live one’s life, the ‘useful’ (utile) being one half of the combination of the utile and the dulce, the useful and the charming, profit and pleasure, that Horace identifies as the two functions of poetry in the Art of Poetry (343). Horace here draws on a particular tradition of Homeric commentary, represented also in pseudo-Heraclitus’ Homeric Allegories and the pseudo-Plutarchan Life and Poetry of Homer. This philosophical and exemplary reading was partly sustained by the central place held by the Homeric poems in ancient pedagogy. Just as Virgil models his epic on the poems of Homer, so the tradition of commentary on Virgil that started from the time of the poet’s death followed in the tracks of Homeric commentary.

It was more difficult to see in the squabbling, amorous and irascible chieftains of the Iliad exemplars of virtue to be imitated, and, in order to extract a moral lesson from that epic, Horace in Epistles 1.2 sets them up as examples of vice to be avoided: Paris revealed his folly in refusing to hand Penelope back to the Greeks; Achilles and Agamemnon are driven by love and anger to quarrel with each other. In support of the notion that Virgil may have been thinking of moralizing commentary on Homer in constructing the character of Aeneas, it may be noted that in his extensive reworking of Iliadic material in the Aeneid Virgil includes a version of neither the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, nor the rape of Helen. It is true that Turnus tries to portray Aeneas as a wife-snatcher, a second Paris, but on any reasonable assessment of the fact he is deluded in this. Out of the list of vices that Horace says are practised both inside and outside the walls of Troy, (15) ‘discord, deceit, criminality, lust and anger’ (seditione, dolis, scelere atque libidine et ira), Aeneas can be charged only with lust (possibly) and anger (certainly, or at least if the kind of angry fits into which Aeneas falls are examples of a reprehensible kind of anger).

The connection between the genre of epic and praise and blame is reinforced by the subsequent linkage of epic with ‘epideictic’ or ‘demonstrative’ rhetoric, that branch of oratory whose business is praise or blame (as distinct from the rhetoric of the law-courts or of political gatherings). The Aeneid already contains specimens of this kind of oratory, in this respect too reflecting the Homeric poems and ancient Homeric commentary, which regarded the speeches of the heroes as providing outstanding models of what would later be formalized as ‘rhetoric’. At the court of Dido in Aeneid 1, before Aeneas and Achates emerge from the cloud in which Venus has wrapped them so that they can enter Carthage unobserved, the Trojan Ilioneus addresses Dido and praises his missing leader, 1.544–5 ‘we had a king, Aeneas: none was more just and pious, none was greater in warfare’.

Ilioneus has a rhetorical purpose, to persuade Dido to receive the Trojans hospitably, and Virgil’s reader is not bound to take this as an unbiased and accurate description of Aeneas. Praising the hero is identified as one of the two overarching goals of the poet, rather than of his characters, in the late-antique commentator Servius’ definition of the ‘intention of Virgil’ as ‘to praise Augustus through his ancestors’ (the other goal being ‘to imitate Homer’). But the most extensive panegyrical reading of the Aeneid is found not in Servius, but in the other extant late-antique commentary, the ‘Virgilian Interpretations’ by Tiberius Claudius Donatus (not to be confused with Aelius Donatus, the source of much of the material in Servius).9 Tiberius Donatus maintains that Virgil was a supreme orator, and he assigns the Aeneid to the ‘genre of praise’ (genus laudatiuum); praise of Aeneas is fitting for the ancestor of Augustus, who should be shown as free from every fault and trumpeted in fame. In his detailed commentary Donatus exercises his casuistry to defend the hero against any possible charge of misconduct. With regard to the liaison with Dido, for example, he makes the points that Aeneas himself did not fall in love, as a common and base man might have, but that he was the object of love. Furthermore, when Aeneas met a beautiful and unaccompanied virgin (as she seemed, in reality Venus in disguise) in the woods in Book 1, he did not think of raping her, as many men might have (and one might add as an Ovidian god certainly would have done). Tiberius Donatus also defends Dido herself, in order that Aeneas should not be tarnished by association with an unworthy woman: she was a chaste, rich and beautiful woman, deceived by Cupid, not a woman who willingly cast aside her sense of shame.

The panegyrical reading of Aeneas has a very long history, and was a dominant strand in the Renaissance.10 Petrarch held that in Aeneas Virgil described ‘the demeanour and character of a perfect man’ (Fam. 10.4), and Maffeo Vegio, author of a 13th book of theAeneid, described Aeneas as ‘endowed with every virtue’. The seventeenth-century French critic René Rapin in his Comparison of the Poems of Homer and Virgil (Paris, 1664, 32–3), takes at face value Ilioneus’ list of Aeneas’ three main virtues: ‘the three supreme qualities which make up his essential character, religion, justice, courage, and which were the qualities of Augustus, whose portrait Virgil drew in the hero that he dedicated to him’.

The notion that an epic offers a portrait of virtues in action to be imitated by the prince or nobleman forms part of the self-presentation of the authors of new epics. In his ‘Letter to Raleigh’ Spenser says of The Faerie Queene that ‘The general end therefore of all the book is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline.’ The knights of the projected 12 books of the poem each stand as a ‘patron’ of a particular virtue (the Red Cross Knight of holiness, and so on), while ‘in the person of Prince Arthur I set forth magnificence in particular, which virtue […] is the perfection of all the rest, and containeth in it them all’. General statements of intent need not, of course, correspond closely to the detailed practice of a poet, any more than a moral and rhetorical tradition of reading Virgil is (we would feel) wholly adequate to the detailed texture of the Aeneid. While a moral allegory is continuously present in The Faerie Queene, modern readers will probably locate the real interest of that poem elsewhere.

Similarly, Dryden presents his long-cherished but never-realized ambition of writing a heroic epic of his own, apparently on an Arthurian or Plantagenet subject, as a panegyrical project: ‘I could not have wished a nobler occasion to do honour […] to my king, my country, and my friends; most of our ancient nobility being concerned in the action […] after Virgil and Spenser, I would have taken occasion to represent my living friends and patrons of the noblest families, and also shadowed the events of future ages, in the succession of our imperial line.’11 In the event it was into his translation of the Aeneid that Dryden worked allusion to the history and politics of his own day, showing himself in this a faithful translator of Virgil’s own mirroring of recent Roman history in the remote legendary narrative of Aeneas and the Trojans. The experiences and goals of Aeneas, an exile with a destiny of settling in a promised land, reflect in complex and not entirely panegyrical ways on the careers of both the exiled king James II and the invading William III.12 The complexity is not matched by the crude alteration for the publication of Dryden’s Aeneid of the engravings in John Ogilby’s 1654 Virgil to superimpose the features of William III on those of Aeneas.

The killing of Turnus

In the last scene of the Aeneid the fallen Turnus begs Aeneas to remember his own father Anchises and to have pity on Turnus’ aged father as Aeneas contemplates whether to kill him or not. Aeneas hesitates, but on seeing the sword-belt of Pallas which Turnus is wearing he explodes in anger and kills Turnus. This final action has been the greatest stumbling-block for modern readers in the way of a positive judgement of Aeneas, and more broadly of a positive evaluation of the epic as a whole. Already the Church Father Lactantius (c. 240–c. 320) argued that Aeneas’ angry vengefulness invalidated his claim to a true pietas (Divine Institutes 5.10). Running together Aeneas’ killings of the suppliant Magus in Aeneid 10 and of Turnus at the end of the poem, Lactantius puts his finger on the problem: how could a hero who ignored appeals to the memory of his own dead father, prime focus of Aeneas’ pietas, and who blazed out in a stubble-fire of fury, be truly labelled ‘pious’?

The problem continued to be felt in the Renaissance, as witnessed in rewritings of and supplements to the Aeneid.13 Ariosto has more than one bite at the cherry. Cantos 18–19 of Orlando Furioso tell the story of Medoro and his friend Cloridano, who attempt to recover the body of their commander and engage in a night-slaughter of the enemy, in a repetition of the Nisus and Euryalus episode in the Aeneid and of the episode of Hopleus and Dymas in Book 10 of Statius’ Thebaid, an episode itself closely modelled on Virgil’s Nisus and Euryalus. The self-contained Nisus and Euryalus episode in Aeneid 9 has been read by modern Virgilians as a mise-en-abyme of the Aeneid as a whole:14 when Medoro is caught by the Christian captain Zerbino, Ariosto switches model to the end of the Aeneid. Fired by ira ‘anger’ and furor ‘fury’ (the Italian and the Latin words are identical in form), like Aeneas when he sees Pallas’ sword-belt (Aen. 12.946–7 furiis accensus et ira | terribilis ‘fired by fury and fearsome in his anger’), Zerbino tells Medoro that he will pay the penalty. But when his eyes light on the beautiful face of the young boy he is overcome with pietade and does not kill him. Pietade here means simply ‘pity’, a meaning that pietas rarely has in the Aeneid, and then only in association with the meanings that relate to a sense of duty. This is an example of the development of the ‘repressed remorse’ and lacrimosity of the Virgilian epic into the chivalric virtue of an uninhibited pitifulness in the medieval and Renaissance romance, as Virgilianpietas evolves into the ‘pity’ of the Romance languages.15 In the next stanza Medoro pleads for the burial not of his own body (as Turnus does), but of that of his commander, and he so moves Zerbino that ‘d’amor tutto e di pietade ardea’ ‘he was all afire with love and pity’ (19.12.8). Pietade as ‘pity’ is now associated with Zerbino’s reaction to Medoro’s pious devotion to the dead Dardinello, together with a love fired both by the boy’s physical and by his moral beauty. Thus Ariosto avoids the terrible ending of theAeneid, where violence is the product of a clash between competing claims on Aeneas’ pietas, and where any possibility of pity on Aeneas’ part for the fallen Turnus is obliterated by his love for the dead Pallas.

In the final duel in Orlando Furioso between Ruggiero, ancestor of Ariosto’s patrons the d’Este family, and the monstrous Saracen Rodomonte, the ambiguities of the duel between Aeneas and Turnus are wiped away. Rodomonte is labelled an ‘impious giant’, the extreme representative of the contrast between the pious Christian army and the impious Saracens, and he is associated with the mythical monster Typhoeus. In Virgilian terms Rodomonte is more of a Mezentius, despiser of the gods, than a Turnus. Dryden in his translation of the Aeneid goes in the same direction, building up a contrast between a generous-spirited Aeneas and the violence and disorder of Turnus’ followers.16 Turnus shares the last two lines of Dryden’s Aeneid (12.1376–7) with Mezentius (10.1312–13), ‘The streaming blood (10.1312 ‘crimson stream’) distained his arms around, | And the disdainful soul came rushing through the wound.’ In Virgil’s Latin the last line of the poem, ‘with a groan his life fled indignant down to the shades’ (12.952 = 11.831), is shared by Turnus with the dying Camilla, a more sympathetic victim of the war in Italy than Mezentius. Ariosto’s Rodomonte finally alienates the reader when he rejects Ruggiero’s offer of mercy, and attempts to stab him in the back.

Tasso sanitizes the final duel in a similar way, making the behaviour of his hero conform to a code of honour that Renaissance critics had found wanting in Aeneas’ killing of Turnus. In Canto 19 of Gerusalemme Liberata the Christian Tancredi wounds the pagan Argante, and begs him to surrender. Argante refuses, and continues to fight. Again he is brought down, and in answer to Tancredi’s repeated request that he surrender, he stabs at Tancredi’s heel, a Satanic move, alluding to the serpent ‘bruising the heel’ of the seed of Eve. Tancredi is left with no alternative but to kill him.17

The death of Argante is not the end of Gerusalemme Liberata. The abrupt close of the Aeneid in the heat of Aeneas’ anger with the flight of the dying Turnus’ soul has never ceased to disconcert, and finds few imitators. After killing Argante Tancredi gives thanks to God and sees to his enemy’s burial. Nor is this even the final duel in the poem. In Canto 20 the pious Goffredo, leader of the Christian army, comes across the wounded Altamoro, who offers a ransom in exchange for his life. Like Aeneas in answer to the offer of a rich ransom by the Italian Magus in Aeneid 10, Goffredo refuses the ransom, but unlike Aeneas he spares his enemy’s life, replacing Virgilian vengeance, in the case of both Magus and Turnus, with Christian mercy.

Answering questions about the character of Aeneas by continuing beyond the end of the Aeneid is also the strategy of the 13th book of the Aeneid, in Latin, written by the early fifteenth-century Italian humanist Maffeo Vegio.18 This skilful pastiche of Virgil’s manner, which was regularly printed in editions of the Aeneid down to the eighteenth century, tells of the burial of Turnus, the wedding of Aeneas and Lavinia, the foundation of Lavinium, and finally the translation of Aeneas’ soul to the stars as a reward for his virtuous actions. Vegio’s Aeneid 13 is full of speeches of praise (of Aeneas) and blame (of Turnus), giving a distinctly ‘epideictic’ quality to the work.19 Vegio provides the resolutions and reassurances that Virgil so stunningly withholds at the end of Aeneid 12. Vegio imposes closure partly through ring composition. After marking the end of the war in Italy with formal sacrifice, Aeneas addresses the Trojans, keeping his earlier promise that in the event of his defeating Turnus, Latinus should retain his throne, and offering himself not as a ruler but as an example of virtue, 13.97–9 ‘Latinus will bear the lofty sceptre […] But learn to follow my example in war and excellence in battle, and in piety’ (at bello uos et praestantibus armis | discite me et pietate sequi).20 This echoes the praise of Aeneas to Dido by Ilioneus, in the first book of the Aeneid, quoted above (1.544–5), ‘we had a king, Aeneas: none was more just and pious, none was greater in warfare’ (quo iustior alter | nec pietate fuit, nec bello maior et armis). Would it attribute too much allusive cunning to Vegio to see a pointed disjunction, in Aeneas’ rephrasing of Ilioneus’ words, between the claim to military prowess and piety, on the one hand, and the title of king, on the other? Or is the ceding of the royal sceptre to Latinus by Aeneas itself an exemplification of the virtue of justice, which Aeneas does not here mention by name?

Good kings and allegorical heroes

Ilioneus’ speech in praise of Aeneas to Dido is the starting-point for one of the few modern readings of the Virgilian Aeneas within a framework related to panegyric of the ruler, Francis Cairns’ attempt to see the hero as an exemplification of the virtues of the ‘good king’ as laid out in the ancient treatises on kingship.21 Cairns makes a good case for the relevance of this tradition, although many will feel that the complexities of the Virgilian narrative transcend any simple mapping of the schemata of the kingship treatises on to the person of Aeneas. Cairns’ book, which coincidentally appeared in the same year, 1989, as Kallendorf’s In Praise of Aeneas, makes no reference to the late-antique and post-classical ‘epideictic’ reading of the Aeneid. But this is a good example of how a largely neglected strand in the later reception of the Aeneid may interact fruitfully with interpretation by modern classicists. In this case this is because Renaissance panegyrical readings of epic are continuous with kinds of scholarship and criticism current in antiquity, and which are a part of the historical context within which Virgil himself worked.

Medieval and Renaissance receptions also converge with modern in another way of reading Aeneas, not as either the perfect hero, or a consistently flawed and weak human being, but as a man on a path towards a greater strength of character and maturity. It is uncontested that the Aeneid is in important ways an epic of passage and transition, in terms of history, cultural and literary authority. It is perhaps paradoxical that there is no agreement on the extent to which the character of the hero undergoes any development. One widespread view has been that Aeneas makes the transition from being an old-style Iliadic hero, motivated by epic anger and the desire to fight to win personal glory, to being a new-style ‘Roman’ hero, learning to take on the responsibilities of leadership and to place the good of the community before his own interests. Against this may be set the fact that the emotions of fury and anger which impel Aeneas to kill Turnus in his last action of the poem are barely distinguishable from the fury and anger that hurl him into a suicidal defence of the city on his first appearance, in absolute chronology, on the night of the sack of Troy (2.316–17 furor iraque mentem | praecipitat; 12.946–7 furiis accensus et ira | terribilis).

One approach that had some traction in the twentieth century was Richard Heinze’s use of a philosophical model for spiritual and moral development, the Stoic notion of the path to wisdom undertaken by the Stoic student ‘making his way’ (proficiens) towards a perfect wisdom that is attainable by very few. Making progress rather than achieving the goal is what matters.22 A philosophical subtext in a classical epic would not in itself surprise: almost from the beginning of Greek scholarship and criticism there was a view that the Homeric poems contained deep philosophical truths, and this was an exegetical tradition of which Virgil was well aware. Similarly, from its beginnings and through into the Renaissance, interpretation of the Aeneid is permeated by the conviction that the poem contains philosophical messages, particularly but not exclusively in the Underworld in Book 6. The first part of the Speech of Anchises (6.724–51) is unambiguously a specimen of natural-philosophical didactic on the nature of the world and of the soul, with Platonic and Stoic affiliations (see Chapter 2, p. 24). Anchises describes the progress of the disembodied soul, as the taint of the body is cleansed through elemental purgation by wind, water and flame, until a few choice souls are given access to the Elysian Fields. This is a process that bears some analogy to the broad outline of the story of Aeneas in this life, as he endures the fires of Troy and the winds and waves of the storm in order to reach his promised land of Italy.23 That might suggest a Platonizing allegory of the story of Aeneas, of a kind that is well attested in the Renaissance (see below), and which Virgil himself might have found in (now lost) Middle Platonic interpretations of the sufferings and wanderings of Odysseus in the Odyssey.

Philosophical readings of the Aeneid begin early. Seneca the Younger (Ep. 76.33) takes the words in which Aeneas tells the Sibyl that no hardship can take him by surprise, since he has mentally anticipated all eventualities (Aen. 6.105), as the utterance of a Stoic sage. Modern scholars agree with Seneca that Virgil, here as elsewhere in the Aeneid, is using the language of the Stoics. They would not subscribe to a tradition of schematic and overarching allegorizations of the poem as a ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ type of narrative, starting in late antiquity and continuing into the Renaissance. We should not, however, forget that what seems to us an implausible way of reading Virgil is continuous with a tradition of allegorizing epic and of finding philosophical and spiritual truths in the texts that has a long pedigree in the ancient world itself.

One of the strangest documents in the history of Virgilian interpretation is the Exposition of the Content of Virgil according to the Moral Philosophers of the sixth-century north African Christian writer Fabius Planciades Fulgentius.24 Fulgentius recounts the appearance to him in a vision of Virgil, in the pose seen in pictures of poets deep in poetic meditation. Virgil explains that in the 12 books of the Aeneid he has given ‘an extensive account of the condition of human life’. He then reveals how the stages of life are plotted across the epic: the shipwreck in Aeneid 1 represents the hazards of childbirth, in a storm raised by Juno, goddess of childbirth. Aeneas meets but does not recognize his mother Venus, as newborns are not capable of understanding what they owe to their mothers. Wrapped in a cloud he can see but not talk to his companions in Carthage, like an infant as yet incapable of speech. The stories of Books 2 and 3 are like the fairytales used to amuse children. The death of Anchises marks the youth’s rejection of paternal authority, after which he gives in to the stormy passion of love in Book 4, until reason/Mercury gains the upper hand. The games in honour of Anchises in Book 5 mark the return to the memory of the father now that Aeneas has reached a wiser age. Fulgentius is expansive when he comes to Book 6, the book which lends itself most readily to philosophical and theological allegory: Aeneas comes to the temple of Apollo/the place of learning, and the descent to the Underworld is a journey to the secrets of knowledge and wisdom. The encounter with the shade of Dido is a penitential memory of the lusts of his youth; this is not totally unlike the notion of some modern critics that Aeneas’ meetings in the Underworld with a series of people from his past are a kind of psychotherapeutic working through of his past from which the hero will emerge strengthened for the trials that lie ahead. Fulgentius’ Virgil is resolutely a pagan, but his explanation that Anchises, whom Aeneas meets in the Elysian Fields, is to be understood as (Helm 102) ‘the one God the father, the king of all things, dwelling alone on high’ makes him sound not unlike the Christian God: perhaps to avoid collapsing Virgil’s teaching into the Christian truth, Fulgentius immediately proceeds to rebuke Virgil for nodding when he peddles the fallacious doctrine of the reincarnation of souls.

Having grown up and completed his moral education, in the second half of the Aeneid the perfected hero Aeneas, armed with the ‘blazing good counsel’ of the weapons forged by the fire-god Vulcan, confronts a number of enemies who are identified as personifications of vices: Turnus is ‘fury’ (furor), opposed by the arms of wisdom; his sister Juturna is persistence in ruin, and Turnus’ charioteer Metiscus, impersonated by Juturna, is drunkenness. This way of reading is not entirely alien to more modern interpretations which see in the Aeneid a more abstract clash between furor and ratio ‘reason’, or between furor and pietas. Fulgentius’ reduction of individual characters to one-dimensional vices or virtues may be compared to the fully allegorical narrative of Prudentius’ Psychomachia ‘War for man’s soul’ (c. AD 400), a highly Virgilian battle narrative which stages a series of encounters between personified virtues and vices, and which is a central text for the medieval and Renaissance history of personification allegory. The closest that a modern reader might allow the Aeneid to come to this kind of schematic allegory is in Aeneas’ visit to the site of Rome in Aeneid 8, where King Evander, whose name etymologizes in Greek as ‘good man’ (eu + aner – one of the few etymologies that Fulgentius gets right), tells the story of the fight between Hercules and the monster Cacus, whose name means ‘bad’ (Greek kakos). But although it is hard to see anything but evil in the frenzied Cacus, his opponent Hercules is complex in character and motivation, and Virgil/Evander does not present him as the simple figure of virtue and wisdom that he is in some ancient philosophizing allegorizations.25

Allegorizing interpretations of the career of Aeneas as a progress through the ages of man to a perfection of wisdom have a long life, through the Middle Ages and on into the seventeenth century.26 The twelfth-century commentary attributed to Bernardus Silvestris interprets the Aeneid as charting the conflict between the body and soul, establishing a one-to-one correspondence between ages and books: Aeneid 1 = birth, 2 = boyhood, 3 = adolescence, 4 = youth, 5 = manhood. Dante touches briefly on the ages of man allegory in the Convivio (4.26), illustrating the presence in Aeneid 4–6 of the five virtues appropriate to the second of his four ages of man, youth. The most important Renaissance Italian Virgilian scholar, Cristoforo Landino (1424–98), whose commentary on the whole Aeneid was frequently reprinted in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, developed a detailed and lengthy version of the moral allegorization of the first six books of the Aeneid in his dialogue the Camaldulensian Disputations (1472) (see Chapter 2, pp. 36–7).27 Landino follows in the steps of Fulgentius and Bernardus, and adds a Platonizing gloss to the allegorization. Aeneas moves through a hierarchy of virtues, from the ‘civic’ virtues (Carthage for Landino is above all the place where Aeneas engages in the political life), through the ‘purgatorial’ virtues’, from which he emerges purified, reaching the perfection of the contemplative life and putting the active life behind him. The final stages of this development take place in the descent to the Underworld in Aeneid 6. Developing a typology of interpretations of the descent that goes back to Macrobius (see Chapter 2, p. 36), Landino identifies the correct interpretation of the descent in Aeneid 6 as the ‘descent’ of the light of reason into contemplation of the nature of vice and evil, so that the soul can free itself from them.

The typology of descents had also entered the fourteenth-century commentaries on Dante. Landino was himself the author of a major commentary on Dante, and it is likely that his reading of the Aeneid was to some extent influenced by his exegesis of Dante, whose Divine Comedy substitutes for the wanderings of Aeneas in search of a home and a destiny the journey of Dante/everyman through an education in vices and virtues towards a Christian summum bonum.28 The Divine Comedy could be described as an allegorization of the Aeneid, and more specifically of Book 6, writ large. Marsilio Ficino, the leading Florentine Neoplatonist, claims that Virgil and Dante are both Platonists, in the preface to his translation of Dante’s On Monarchy: ‘Virgil was the first to follow this Platonic order of things, which was then followed by Dante, using the vessel of Virgil to drink at the Platonic springs.’

This kind of allegorical interpretation of the hero’s progress towards moral perfection is a presence in much Renaissance epic and in the commentaries thereon. Torquato Tasso composed his own ‘Allegory of the Poem’ (1581) to his Gerusalemme Liberata, according to which the three main Christian heroes correspond to the parts of the Platonic tripartite soul (Godfrey = Understanding, Tancredi = Concupiscence, Rinaldo = Irascibility). In Book 2 of The Faerie Queene Spenser offers a version of this approaching more closely to the schematic flatness of personification allegory in the characters of Cymochles (sensual abandonment) and Pyrochles (fiery anger), opposed to the hero Guyon, the Knight of Temperance.

The Spenserian knight with the most straightforward ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ kind of career is the Red Cross Knight in the first book of The Faerie Queene, the ‘Legend of Holiness’. The Red Cross Knight’s quest intersects at various points with themes and motifs from the Virgilian story of Aeneas. After overcoming the temptations of pride and despair, and the lures of a false woman, Red Cross is prepared for his final duel with the dragon by being taught repentance and the way to heavenly bliss in the House of Holiness, culminating in a vision from the Mount of Contemplation of the celestial Jerusalem, the final goal of his pilgrimage, and a city which, Red Cross acknowledges, outshines the Fairy Queen’s earthly city, Cleopolis (‘Glory City’), another name for London, the Troynovant, ‘New Troy’, founded by the Trojan Brut. Spenser’s ‘Legend of Holiness’ overgoes the secular goals of the Aeneid. The book also adds a supplement to the ending of Virgil’s epic in the manner of Vegio’s Book 13, since it continues for a canto after the climactic slaying of the dragon in Canto 11 with an account of the following celebrations, and the betrothal of Red Cross to Una.

The modern hero

Modern Virgilian criticism has largely turned away from laudatory or philosophical readings of the character of Aeneas, and emphasized instead his backslidings, his moments of weakness and doubt, with a perhaps disproportionate focus on the hero’s lethal outburst of anger at the very end of the poem. In part this fashion has been politically determined, by a sometimes visceral reaction against the idea that Virgil might have written up a hero as a panegyrical foreshadowing of Augustus. In part it reflects a wish to claim for Virgil’s hero the complexities and frailties of the twentieth-century human condition as diagnosed by psychoanalysis, existentialism and the modern and post-modern novel. A recent book by the Italian classical scholar Guido Paduano on ‘The birth of the hero’29 sees a movement towards modernity in a comparison of the Homeric Achilles and Odysseus with the Virgilian Aeneas. Paduano’s gaze lights not on Aeneas’ outburst of anger at the end of the Aeneid, but on the moment immediately preceding, as Aeneas hesitates (12.940 cunctantem) whether or not to kill Turnus, a moment of hesitation that is indeed the most striking divergence from the Homeric model, the duel of Achilles and Hector. Paduano (198) makes a connection with the First Player’s rehearsal of ‘Aeneas’ tale to Dido’ in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the point at which Pyrrhus is briefly distracted from striking Priam: II.ii.419–24 ‘For, lo! his sword, | Which was declining on the milky head | Of reverend Priam, seem’d i’th’air to stick. | So, as a painted tyrant, Pyrrhus stood | And, like a neutral to his will and matter, | Did nothing.’ Within the structure of the Aeneid modern critics perceive a ring between the merciless killing in Book 2 by Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, of, firstly, a son of Priam, Polites, and then Priam himself, and the killing by the ‘new Achilles’, Aeneas, of another son with an aged father, Turnus, at the end of Book 12. Do Shakespeare’s hyper-sensitive literary antennae register that connection? Be that as it may, within the economy of Shakespeare’s own play, the image of a momentarily frozen Pyrrhus mirrors the incapacity to act of Hamlet, often seen as the most modern of Shakespeare’s characters. Paduano generalizes to the following statement: ‘In the last moment of unease suffered by Aeneas before his victory may be glimpsed an unease constitutive of the human condition.’ On the dust-jacket this has become a sales point: ‘the “all too human” Aeneas, torn apart by the contradictions of a modern society’.

The foregrounding of a doubting and hesitant Aeneas, and the attention to the end of the poem, have been reinforced, consciously or not, by the famous doubt said to have been experienced by his creator Virgil at the end of his life, according to the story that in his final illness he asked that the Aeneid be burnt.30 A kind of autobiographical allegory of the poem’s hero has become fashionable recently thanks to metapoetical and self-reflexive readings.31 There is a rudimentary foreshadowing of this approach in the tendency in ancient lives to find biographical details in poets’ works. An extreme example from the beginning of the Renaissance, forced out by an especially close bond of sympathy between an early modern writer and Virgil, is the comment written by Petrarch in the margin of his text of Virgil against the last line of the Aeneid (‘with a groan his life fled indignant down to the shades’): ‘Virgil, you were too accurate a prophet of your own fate; for as you spoke these words, your life too deserted you, also fleeing indignant, if I am not mistaken.’

An intermittent identification of Virgil with his hero helps to structure the mental journeying of the dying poet in Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil (1945), a novel described by George Steiner as ‘represent[ing] the only genuine technical advance that fiction has made since Ulysses’.32 In the second of the novel’s four movements, ‘Fire – The Descent’, Virgil experiences a katabasis which merges into an apocalyptic vision of burning cities. Here perhaps is another example of a creative writer feeling connections within the Aeneid on the pulse: Michael Putnam and others have drawn attention to the infernal quality of Aeneas’ experiences on the night of the sack of Troy in Aeneid 2, whose final catastrophe, as Aeneas makes his way out of the burning city, is the loss of his wife, a repetition of Orpheus’ loss of Eurydice in the fourth Georgic.33 In a further association on the part of Broch the fires of the burning cities become the fires of rebirth, but what may be reborn is nothing so earthly as the creation of new cities in Italy out of the ashes of Troy. In the dying Virgil’s mind the thought is followed by an urgent whispering that everything that has served a false life must disappear, that all of Virgil’s writings must be burned. Like Aeneas, Broch’s Virgil is also an exile, journeying to a place even more unknown than is Italy to Aeneas, a place that transcends Virgil’s own time and place in Augustan Rome, and for the expression of which his own poetic art falls hopelessly short. Virgil’s loss of control over his own poem, and the failure of communication, are the prelude to a final movement to reintegration as Virgil undergoes another journey through the Underworld, but this time reaching a Garden of Eden where the fourth Eclogue becomes a Christian reality. Broch’s take on Virgil is profoundly indebted to Theodor Haecker’s view of Virgil as ‘a soul Christian by nature’ (anima naturaliter Christiana: see Chapter 6, pp. 143–7), and in fact shows little evidence of any detailed immersion in the text of the Aeneid itself.

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