Ancient History & Civilisation



The Aeneid follows closely in the footsteps of its Greek model the Odyssey. Odysseus and Aeneas both set off from the sacked city of Troy, both endure a series of wanderings in order to reach their destination. Once that destination has been reached, at the beginning of the second half of each poem, both heroes must undergo further trials before a climactic episode of military action that establishes them securely in possession of the land to which they have come, and securely in possession of a wife. But the two epics diverge radically because of the identity of their respective heroes. Odysseus is one of the Greek chiefs who have succeeded in their Iliadic goal of capturing and destroying Troy, and his journey is a homecoming, in a process of the rediscovery of his former self as the peacetime ruler of Ithaca and husband of Penelope. Aeneas is one of the defeated Trojans whose native city has been destroyed, and he loses his Trojan wife in the chaos of the departure from the burning city. His journey is into exile in search of a land that is new and strange to him, although promised to him by Fate. In the course of the journey Aeneas must come to terms with a new identity, as the leader of the remnants of his own people, the Trojans, and as the ancestor of a people, the Romans, whose city will only be founded centuries after Aeneas’ own lifetime.

The direction of Aeneas’ journey, from east to west, also has a significance lacking in the Odyssey, since this was also the direction of the transfer to Rome of the culture and power of the Greek world. In the first detailed prophecy of the promised land to which Aeneas must travel from Troy, the shade of his wife Creusa tells him (Aen. 2.780–1): ‘A long exile awaits you, and you must plough a vast expanse of sea, and you will come to the land of Hesperia.’ Hesperia, a Greek poetic name for Italy, means ‘land of the west’. A truly vast space of sea had to be ploughed in the early modern period to reach the western lands of the Americas, epic journeys to a new world followed by epic encounters with the peoples already living in those lands. Between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries these journeys and encounters provoked a body of epic, largely in a Virgilian mould, on the New World, and some of it written in the New World. European perceptions of the New World were to a considerable extent processed through existing cultural and literary filters, among which the classical tradition loomed large,1 and the Aeneid offered a particularly compelling set of parallels for the New World experience. The greatest transfer of political and cultural hegemony in the last two centuries has been from Europe to North America; although this shift postdates most of the texts to be examined in this chapter, with hindsight the Virgilian plot is a good fit in this respect also.

For a voyage of discovery into the unknown, the journey of the first ship, the Argo, opening up the seas for the first time to a remote destination, albeit in the far east, might seem a closer analogy than the wanderings of Aeneas. Indeed the discovery of the Americas seemed to have been predicted in a chorus of Seneca the Younger’s tragedy the Medea (301–79), which moralizes on the audacity and the evil consequences of the voyage of the Argo, concluding that (369) ‘every boundary-stone has been moved’, and looking forward to an age in the distant future (375–9) ‘when Ocean will loosen the chains of nature, the earth will be laid open in its immensity, Tethys [a sea-goddess] will uncover new worlds, and Thule will not be the most distant land’. The sixteenth-century English commentator Thomas Farnaby reported that the Flemish geographer Abraham Ortelius, creator of the first modern atlas, regarded these lines as a prophecy by the Spaniard Seneca of the discovery of America by his fellow-countrymen. (Their captain, Columbus, was himself of course Italian.) Columbus himself included the lines in his Book of Prophecies; his son Ferdinand, reading Tiphys, the name of the helmsman of the Argo, for Tethys in line 378, wrote in the margin of his copy of Seneca ‘This prophecy was fulfilled by my father, Admiral Christopher Columbus, in the year 1492.’2 The removal of ‘every boundary-stone’ through journeys into the unknown was given emblematic expression in the motto of Charles V (and now the motto of Spain), plus ultra‘further beyond’, with the image of the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar). The motto may have originated in a bold challenge to Dante’s warning that Hercules set up his pillars at the Strait ‘so that man should not travel any further’ ‘acciòche l’uom più oltre non si metta’ (Inferno 26.109, Ulysses’ comment as he comes to, and passes, the Pillars). Plus ultra makes an implicit claim to extend the Hapsburg Empire, and Christianity, to the New World.3

If Aeneas’ wanderings are limited to the eastern and central parts of the Mediterranean, his descendant Augustus had greater geographical ambitions. According to Anchises in the Parade of Heroes (Aeneid 6.794–6), he will ‘extend his empire beyond the Garamantes [in Africa] and the Indians’, to a land ‘beyond the stars and beyond the paths of the sun in its annual course’. In a mythological comparison, Anchises says that Augustus will go even further than did Hercules in carrying out his labours, or Bacchus in his triumphal procession through the east.

Torquato Tasso has this passage in mind in the prophecy of the voyage of Columbus put in the mouth of Lady Fortune, who steers the boat taking Carlo and Ubaldo to the garden of Armida in the Fortunate Isles (the Canaries) in Gerusalemme Liberata 15.32:

Thy ship, Columbus, shall her canvas wing

Spread o’er that world that yet concealed lies,

That scant swift fame her looks shall after bring,

Though thousand plumes she have, and thousand eyes;

Let her of Bacchus and Alcides sing,

Of thee to future age let this suffice,

That of thine acts she some forewarning give,

Which shall in verse and noble story live.

(transl. Edward Fairfax, 1600)

Even with her thousand feathers Virgil’s swift and all-seeing Fama (‘Rumour’/‘Fame’), from Aeneid 4, will have difficulty in following the sails of Columbus as they fly to a ‘new pole’. She can sing of Hercules (Alcides) and Bacchus for all she likes (with reference to Aeneid 6), but a mere mention of Columbus’ voyage will provide ample material for poetry and history.

But, setting aside the length of the journey, the journey of Augustus’ ancestor Aeneas was itself adaptable to the history of the New World in ways that the story of the Argonauts was not. The Aeneid is a story of the journey of exiles to find a new home in the west; of the fulfilment of a divinely ordained mission by a hero whose distinguishing virtue is his piety (pietas); of encounters with natives both friendly and hostile; of the discovery of a land that both preserves features of a Golden Age and a pastoral innocence, and is the locus of a Hellish violence;4 of settlement and colonization; of the foundation of cities and of empire, with an emphasis on the contrast between humble, almost pastoral, beginnings and the greatness, in time, of imperial civilization. Different selections of these elements were combined for the various narratives spun at various times about the New World.

Peter Martyr, in Decades of the New World, one of the earliest and most widely read accounts of Columbus’ voyages (1516), reaches for a Virgilian analogy to describe the state of Hispaniola (Haiti) at the time of Columbus’ arrival: ‘as when Aeneas arrived in Italy, he found Latium divided into many kingdoms and provinces, as Latium, Mezentium, Turnum and Tarchontem, which were separated with narrow bounds.’5 The first of a series of neo-Latin epics on Columbus’ voyage is the On the Navigation of Christopher Columbus by Lorenzo Gambara (1581, in four books).6 Gambara uses the Virgilian (and Odyssean) device of a story told at a dinner-table to introduce Columbus’ first-person narrative. Cardinal Granvelle rises to tell the story of Columbus as he had heard it from his father, who heard it from Columbus himself in Barcelona, and starts by alluding to the passage in Aeneid 6 on the future travels of Augustus to the ends of the world: ‘Let Greek poets be silent on the subject of Hercules’ journeys over countless parts of the earth, and on Bacchus’ travels deep into the Indies.’ Columbus, like Virgil’s Augustus, goes further still. However, Gambara is in general sparing in his use of Virgilian plot-structures and episodes. When the Spaniards land on an island inhabited by cannibals, a local interpreter warns them to flee in a repetition of the warning to Aeneas by the marooned Greek Achaemenides to flee from the land of the Cyclopes in Aeneid 3 (Fig. 13). Homer’s man-eating Polyphemus provided an obvious analogy for the West Indian cannibalism that so obsessed the European mind in its early encounters with the New World. Later, Gambara’s Columbus describes a valley reminiscent of the landscape of the Golden age, but home to a lethally poisonous tree, and plagued by occasional incursions of cannibals. Unmistakeable are the overtones of the Garden of Eden, the biblical myth which, together with the classical Golden Age, often provided a lens for viewing the more paradisiacal qualities of the New World, but with danger lurking at its heart. Virgil has his own counterpoint of the idyllic and the Hellish, both in the Arcadian Evander’s quasi-pastoral settlement on the site of the future Rome in Aeneid 8, from which the monstrous and murderous Cacus has already been eliminated by the time of Aeneas’ arrival, and in the Fury Allecto’s invasion of the pastoral idyll enjoyed by Sylvia and her pet-stag in the kingdom of Latinus, in Aeneid 7.

Gambara’s Columbus punctuates his narrative with hymns and prayers to the Christian god, and concludes with an account of his own politic manipulation of the religiosity of the natives of Hispaniola. At a moment of extreme danger he ‘predicts’ a lunar eclipse, which, through access to European science, he knows to be imminent, and thus persuades the Hispaniolans that the prophecy of their own gods (the Cemes) has been fulfilled, and that the Spaniards are indeed those ‘of whom our Cemes sung that they would come to the kingdom of Quiqueia, and would conquer all the surrounding kingdoms of the Ocean, where the sun directs his course to the shores of the west’.

Fig. 13. Achaemenides and Polyphemus. Engraving by Giuseppe Zocchi, in L’Eneide di Virgilio del commendatore Annibale Caro (Paris, 1760).

This prophecy of an empire in the west reworks the language of the oracle of the native Latin god Faunus in Aeneid 7 (98–101), who tells King Latinus of the arrival of foreign sons-in-law (the Trojans), whose descendants will rule the world, from the lands where the sun rises to the lands where it sets. The prophecy of the Cemes is worked as a structural, as well as linguistic, parallel with the Faunus prophecy in Giulio Cesare Stella’s Columbeis (1585, 1589; only two books of a projected four were written). Stella’s epic incorporates the divine machinery lacking in Gambara’s poem, in a far-reaching mapping of the Virgilian plot on to Columbus’ historical voyage. The 11-line prologue projects on to the canvas of the ‘new-found world’ (Columbeis 1.1 inuentum […] orbem) many of the elements of the 11-line prologue of the Aeneid: this ‘great-souled leader’ was the first to journey from Spain to a land on the other side of the world, as Aeneas, according to Virgil, was the first to travel from Troy to Italy. Like the Aeneid, the epic will tell of both journeying and wars. Pia bella ‘pious wars’ transfers to the battles fought in Hispaniola the defining virtue of Aeneas (Aen. 1.10 ‘a man distinguished by piety’). Aeneas’ mission is to found a city and to introduce gods to Latium; Stella places more emphasis on Columbus’ religious goals, 8–11 ‘he had much experience also in warfare, before he could establish safe dwellings for his people and institute pious rituals and sacred practices, whence (Christian) religion has now come to be held in the highest respect, venerated universally on new altars’. For this view of his goals Columbus bore an appropriate Christian name, Christopher, Christum-ferens ‘carrying/bearing Christ’. Where Juno is the great obstacle to Aeneas’ easy achievement of his fated goal, Satan is the theological obstacle to Columbus’ prosperous undertaking. The opening sequences of the main narrative of the Columbeis and the Aeneid launch the reader in medias res, at an identical point in their respective voyages. The hero’s fleet is sailing on calm seas when his divine enemy suddenly intervenes. Juno raises a storm; Stella’s Satan wishes that he too could raise a storm, but is deterred by the knowledge that it is God the Father’s firm resolve that Columbus should introduce Christianity to the New World. Avoiding too slavish an adherence to the Virgilian script, Stella’s Satan resorts to his accustomed arts of fraud and deception, and impersonates a crew-member in order to suborn one of his companions to mutiny.

Stella’s motivation of his epic plot through a Satan rebellious to the dispositions of God is an example of a very familiar Christianization of the opposition of Juno and her chthonic agents to Jupiter and Fate, which forms the major motivating drive of the plot of the Aeneid, and which already goes far in the direction of a dualism of Heaven and Hell. British Protestant and Spanish Catholic settlers in the Americas shared a stereotype of the New World as the Devil’s fiefdom, either a seductive but false paradise or a wilderness that needed to be transformed into a garden by Christian heroes.7 The label ‘Satanic epic’ has been given to the many theological epics of colonization written in Portuguese and Spanish America, in which Christian heroes battle Satanic adversaries. In these epics the Devil repeatedly raises storms against European sailors, as part of an epic struggle between Satan and God, for example in José de Anchieta’s On the Deeds of Mem de Sà (Coimbra, 1563), which portrays the third governor of Brazil as a Christian Ulysses, ousting Satan from the New World; or Gabriel Lobo Lasso de la Vega’s Mexicana (Madrid, 1594), in which Pluto/Satan’s attempt to persuade Neptune to sink Cortés’ fleet in a storm is thwarted by the archangel Michael.

The Virgilian theological scaffolding also supports the plot of José Antonio de Villerías y Roelas’ Guadalupe (Mexico City, 1724), an aetiological narrative of the events of 1531 leading to the institution of the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Pluto/the Devil, expelled from the lands of the east (Europe), has taken refuge in the Americas. Through the exertions of the conquistadors Charles V has extended his empire beyond the remotest limits traversed by Alexander the Great or Augustus, and threatens Pluto in his last retreat. Pluto is given a monologue that opens with the first words of Juno’s monologue in Aeneid 1 (37 = Guadalupe 1.114), ‘To think that I should admit defeat and give up my plan’, as he deliberates how to expel the Spanish ‘heroes’ from what he regards as his own land. The scene switches to Heaven where the Virgin Mary beseeches God to fulfil her hopes of an empire in the west, in a replay of the scene in Heaven in Aeneid 1, following on the storm, in which Jupiter reassures Venus that she will see the world empire promised to the descendants of her son Aeneas. The theological Virgilian stage is set for the human narrative of Juan Diego’s visions of the Virgin, and the miraculous flower icon with which he finally persuaded Bishop Zumárraga to believe him.8

New World epics echo in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Satan embarks on a journey of discovery to ‘another world, the happy seat | Of some new race called man’ (Paradise Lost 2.347–8). His aim is to ‘conquer this new world’ (4.391), and after the Fall he returns to Pandaemonium ‘the great adventurer from the search | Of foreign worlds’ (10.440–1). When Adam and Eve hide their nakedness with leaves after the Fall, they are compared to American Indians such as ‘of late | Columbus found […] so girt | With feathered cincture’ (9.1115–17).9 Satan’s credentials as an epic voyager and quester have often been noted. His flight through the ‘fighting elements’ is compared in a simile to the epic voyages of the Argo through the Clashing Rocks, and of Ulysses through Scylla and Charybdis (Paradise Lost 2.1016–20). But the theme of the journey of an exile in search of a new power-base to replace what he has lost also reminds the reader of Aeneas. A particular moment in Aeneas’ journeying is invoked when Satan first comes to the border of Eden, whose ‘hairy sides’ are protected with dense forest, ‘A sylvan scene, and as the ranks ascend | Shade above shade, a woody theatre | Of stateliest view’ (4.140–2). The word ‘theatre’ activates the etymology of ‘scene’, ‘stage-building’ or theatrical ‘set’ (Greek skēnē), the word used in what in Latin is a very live metaphor to describe the wooded cliff that forms the backdrop to the harbour where the Trojans make landfall in Carthage, Aen. 1.164–5 ‘Above there is a backdrop (scaena) of quivering woods; a dark grove overhangs with its shivering shadows.’ The theatrical metaphor prepares Virgil’s reader for the ‘tragedy’ of Dido; Eden will be the setting for the tragedy of the Fall (Paradise Lost 9.5–6 ‘I now must change these notes to tragic’).

As well as anticipating the future epic voyages of Ulysses, Jason and Aeneas, Milton’s Satan also blazes a trail, so to speak, for Vasco da Gama, the hero of the national Portuguese epic, Camões’ The Lusiads (1572). Milton frames Satan’s journey from Hell to Eden with similes of journeying in the Indian Ocean: Paradise Lost 2.636–42 (as Satan sets off from Hell) ‘A fleet […] | Close sailing from Bengala, or the isles | Of Ternate and Tidore [in the Moluccas]’; 4.159–62 (as he arrives at Eden) ‘As when to them who sail | Beyond the Cape of Hope, and now are past | Mozambic, off at sea north-east winds blow | Sabean odours from the spicy shore’. The Lusiads narrate da Gama’s voyage round the Cape of Good Hope to India both as a defining moment in the history of Portugal and as the foundation of the Portuguese maritime trading empire. As in the Aeneid, a primary plot restricted to a limited section of time is set against a much wider backdrop of cosmic and human history which, through internal narrative, prophecy, and ecphrasis, gives larger meaning to the hero’s experiences. In the opening stanzas Camões advertises his debt to classical epic, and to the Aeneid in particular, at the same time as he claims to overgo the ancient models (1.1, 1.3, in Sir Richard Fanshawe’s 1655 translation):

Arms, and the men above the vulgar file,

Who from the Western Lusitanian shore

Past ev’n beyond the Taprobanian isle [Sri-Lanka],

Through seas which never ship had sailed before;

Who (brave in action, patient in long toil,

Beyond what strength of human nature bore)

  ’Mongst nations, under other stars, acquired

  A modern sceptre which to heaven aspired.

Cease man of Troy, and cease thou sage of Greece,

To boast the navigations great ye made;

Let the high fame of Alexander cease,

And Trajan’s banners in the East displayed:

For to a man recorded in this piece

Neptune his trident yielded, Mars his blade.

  Cease all, whose actions ancient bards expressed:

  A brighter valour rises in the West [i.e. Portugal].

In a Virgilian brand of divine machinery, which recognizes its own fictionality, da Gama’s voyage is furthered by Venus, who sees in the Portuguese many of the qualities of her beloved Romans. The blocking figure is not Juno, but Bacchus, jealous at the thought that his own Indian triumphs will be put in the shade by the Portuguese achievement. Early on, in the second canto, in another rerun of Jupiter’s prophecy to Venus of Roman history in Aeneid 1, Jupiter reassures Venus with a prophecy of Portuguese successes in the east, climaxing in the promise that their naval triumphs over the heathens of the east will set the seas aflame even more violently than did the battle of Actium, the climax of Roman history as portrayed on the Virgilian Shield of Aeneas at the end of Aeneid 8. Virgil’s tendentious presentation of Actium as a conflict between the Olympian gods of the west and the monstrous gods of Egypt translated readily into Christianity’s long-lived crusading ideology. Camões’ Jupiter sees Actium replayed in the far east; geographical proximity made Actium a handy prefiguration of the battle of Lepanto, off the west coast of Greece, in 1571, the decisive Catholic naval victory over the Ottoman Turks.10

Following Jupiter’s prophecy in Canto 2, Camões continues to track the Virgilian plot as Jupiter sends down Mercury to ensure that the Portuguese are given a friendly welcome by the king of Melinde, to whom da Gama narrates the history of Portugal and the story of his own journey so far, just as Aeneas tells Dido his story in Aeneid 2 and 3. This is a visit to Carthage minus the erotic. In this epic, sexual gratification is not an obstacle to the mission, but a reward. After the Portuguese sailors have reached Calicut and evaded various plots fostered by Bacchus, they sail to an Island of Love where Venus has arranged that the sea-goddess Tethys and the Nereids should bestow their favours on da Gama and the Portuguese. This bower of bliss is also the place for further supernatural revelation, both of cosmic and geographical secrets and of further glorious Portuguese discoveries in the future. This positive realignment of erotic desire and epic goals, in sharp contrast to the disruptive effects of love on the fulfilment of the designs of Fate in theAeneid, is in keeping with a more general tendency in Renaissance epic to harmonize the motivations of love and fame. Partly perhaps in self-exculpation, Camões explains that his sexy episode on the Island of Love is in fact an allegory for the thrill and delight of the sweet honour won by daring action (9.88–95).

Christian reworkings of the Virgilian plot, particularly in the virulent, and prevalent, strain of the ‘Satanic epic’, inevitably tend to demonize the enemy Other. But modern criticism of Renaissance epic, like twentieth-century criticism of the Aeneid, has looked insistently for voices of the defeated, sometimes speaking to the reader in a direct appeal, and sometimes struggling to make themselves heard through the repressive deformations of the epic victor. This kind of criticism has in part developed independently in the work of classicists and early modernists, in both cases dancing to the tune of a turn in twentieth-century literary and cultural studies to the political and ideological (see Chapter 1, pp. 16–18), but there are also examples of the influence of Virgilian on Renaissance studies, and vice versa.

No one has done more to cross-fertilize the two disciplines than David Quint, who in his 1993 Epic and Empire discusses the topos of the epic curse, the imprecation of the defeated, which has the power to project into the future a point of view opposed to that of the epic hero. In the Aeneid Dido has her revenge on the perfidious – as she sees him – Aeneas with her famous dying curse in which she calls down further suffering and an early death on Aeneas, and eternal enmity between the Carthaginians and the Roman descendants of Aeneas. Dido reaches over the centuries to conjure up Hannibal and the Punic Wars. Her curse is modelled on Polyphemus’ prayer to his father Poseidon, after his blinding by Odysseus, that if it is fated that Odysseus should return home, it should be a late and painful return. Some have seen in the Homeric Polyphemus episode a reflection of encounters between early Greek colonists and traders and less civilized peoples in the Mediterranean world.11 Certainly in the later reception the Cyclops became a figure both for the cannibalistic primitives who infest newly discovered worlds, and for the victims of colonialist oppression.12 Dido is a much more obvious victim than Polyphemus, and if she finally turns into a threatening monster, this, many readers may feel, is no less than Aeneas deserves. Her demonization at her death, and after (when she will turn into a raging Fury), also comments on the Roman demonization of the historical Carthaginian enemy and the one-eyed Hannibal.

Camões puts his epic curse in the mouth not of a north-African monster, but a monster at the southern tip of the continent. Near the centre of The Lusiads, as the Portuguese approach the Cape of Good Hope, they encounter the terrifying apparition of Adamastor, a dark cloud that materializes into the features of an evil-looking giant (5.37 ff.). Adamastor is the personification of the Cape, and he is also a monstrous likeness of the negroes, initially welcoming but soon turning hostile, who threaten the Portuguese in the preceding episode. He is a descendant of the Homeric and Virgilian Polyphemus, and thus another example of the easy identification of hostile natives with the classical Cyclopes; the honey-gathering Hottentot in the previous episode is described as ‘more savage than the brutish Polyphemus’ (5.28). Virgilian, rather than Homeric, is the merging of an anthropomorphic monster into a feature of the landscape, following the imagistic equation in Aeneid 3 of Polyphemus with the volcano Etna.

This embodiment of the natural and human dangers of the Cape promises to avenge himself on the presumptuous boldness of the Portuguese sea-journey into undiscovered waters, violating the secrets of nature. He prophesies a series of shipwrecks and sufferings on land that will afflict future Portuguese expeditions. In response to da Gama’s question as to who he is, Adamastor replies that he was one of the Giants, sons of Earth, who warred against Jupiter. Adamastor joined in the war as the only way to realize his love for the sea-goddess Thetis. Tricked by Thetis, he tried to escape from his shame by searching out another world. There, after the defeat and punishment of his brothers, he was metamorphosed into the Cape, for ever encircled by the waters of Thetis and for ever frustrated of his desire. Camões is also highly Virgilian in building into his historical epic allusion to Gigantomachy, the myth of the war between the gods and giants (see Chapter 5, p. 98).

Another example of the epic curse occurs in the Harpies episode in Book 3 of the Aeneid, in a contamination of material from the Argo legend with the matter of the Odyssey. In a strange episode of innocence and guilt the Trojans come to what seems the peaceable landscape of the islands of the Strophades, where happy herds of cows and goats graze at will, a quasi-Golden Age scene, which the Trojans violate by slaughtering animals for food. It turns out that these are the herds of the Harpies, who attack and pollute the Trojan feast (Fig. 14). The Harpy Celaeno, foreshadowing Dido’s curse in Book 4, predicts that although the Trojans will reach the promised land of Italy and found a city, it will only be after fierce hunger has forced them to eat their tables, a dire threat which is fulfilled in comic mode when they ravenously eat a kind of pizza base for their first, vegetarian, meal on reaching Latium. The Trojans’ unwitting violation, on the Strophades, of what belongs to another can be read as a reflection or prefiguration of the damage, albeit unintentional, that their coming brings to the human inhabitants of first Carthage and then Latium.

Virgil’s Harpies episode is the basis for the first encounter of Columbus with the New World in the earliest extensive neo-Latin verse account of Columbus’ voyage, in the third book of Girolamo Fracastoro’s Syphilis (1530), a didactic poem on the disease to which it gave its name.13 The poem combines medical description and theory with mythological and historical narrative, in a mixture of didactic and epic which is itself highly Virgilian. The story of the hunter Ilceus who is inflicted with syphilis after unwittingly killing a stag sacred to Diana, and who undertakes a descent to the Underworld in search of springs of quicksilver, is an aetiological tale giving an origin for the toxic mercury cure for syphilis. It is modelled on the epic-style narrative of Aristaeus at the end of the fourth Georgic, the explanation for the ox-sacrifice (bugonia) by which Aristaeus restores his bees after they have been wiped out by plague. Ilceus’ descent also alludes to Aeneas’ descent to the Underworld in Aeneid 6, itself an epic adventure with strong didactic elements.

Book 3 of the Syphilis tells of the discovery in the New World of the cure for syphilis of the guaiacum tree (a hardwood genus whose species include the national plants of Jamaica and the Bahamas), in a layered narrative that imposes a pattern of rash presumption followed by punishment and then redemption on both the natives of Hispaniola and the Spanish newcomers. In verses that allude both to the Trojans’ first sighting of Italy in Book 3 of the Aeneid and to their arrival in Latium at the mouth of the Tiber in Book 7, Fracastoro’s Columbus reaches Hispaniola, to find an idyllic landscape where gaily coloured parrots fly about. The Europeans immediately shatter the peace with gunpowder, often presented as a Hellish invention in Renaissance epic, shooting and killing large numbers of the birds. One of them escapes and, perching on a crag, tells the attackers that they violate birds sacred to the sun, and utters a dire warning that imitates Celaeno’s prophecy in Aeneid 3: the Europeans will not found cities and introduce Christianity to the New World until they have suffered terribly at sea and in battle, and been inflicted with the plague of syphilis. Their tribulations will include ‘Cyclopes’, another reference to the cannibalistic Caribs; in this context Fracastoro archly footnotes the ultimate source for the epic curse in the Cyclops Polyphemus’ imprecation against Odysseus.

Fig. 14. The Harpies attack the Trojans. Engraving by François Chauveau, from Michel de Marolles, Les Oeuvres de Virgile traduites en prose (Paris, 1649).

This is followed by the emergence from the woods of the black natives, and the friendly reception of Columbus by their king, in a scene modelled on the reception of Aeneas by the Arcadian king Evander, on the site of the future Rome, in Aeneid 8. That meeting will have as a tragic consequence the death in battle of Evander’s son Pallas. The possibility that European–Amerindian relations may not always be cordial is hinted at in Fracastoro’s focus on the colourful and variegated garb of both ‘kings’, the native ruler and Columbus, as if they were two human parrots – joined in friendship now, but for how long? It happens to be the day of an annual ritual in which sufferers from syphilis are healed with lustrations and a branch of guaiacum. The native king explains the origin of the ritual, narrating the story of the ancestral sin of the shepherd Syphilus who in a time of drought denied the divinity of the Sun and instead worshipped the human king. Divine punishment followed in the form of syphilis, until the nymph Ammerice pronounced that in response to the sacrifice of a black cow Juno will make a tree grow from which will come salvation. This is a second version of Virgil’s Aristaeus epyllion, with overtones of a Christian doctrine of salvation, and perhaps containing historical Christian allegory: Syphilus has been seen as a figure for Luther, challenging the Roman Catholic Church.

The Syphilis is a good example of the vitality and utility of Virgil’s poetry at a turning-point in modernity. Fracastoro finds in it a useful tool with which to think about the discovery of a new world and new peoples; the beginnings of western colonialist imperialism; cultural and moral responses to a major event in the natural world, the appearance of syphilis, a disease that was to embed itself in European consciousness for the next four centuries; and possibly also to think about the upheavals in religion caused by the Reformation. The Harpy-parrots episode is a shocking example (at least to modern sensibilities) of the wanton violence inflicted on the New World by its European discoverers, who do not even have the Trojans’ excuse of hunger in slaughtering the cattle of the Harpies, even if the weight of allegory and aetiology in the following episode detracts from a genuine sympathy with the human inhabitants of Hispaniola. But at least the natives are given a voice, of a kind, just as the peoples and their leaders whom Aeneas meets and fights in Latium are also allowed a point of view, which many modern readers find more sympathetic than that of Aeneas himself.

A more extensive, and overtly sympathetic, portrayal of a native people who opposed the European colonist is found in Alonso de Ercilla’s La Araucana, on the wars of 1553–9 against the Araucanian (Mapuche) Indians, in which the author himself had fought (written and published in three parts, 1569, 1578, 1589).14 Regarded as the best Spanish historical epic, its narrative of the freedom-loving and fiercely resistant Indians has made it central to the national culture of Chile, and it has been the subject of a number of anti-imperialist readings, or at least readings for ‘further voices’. David Quint structures his discussion according to the superimposed models of Virgil’s Aeneid, an epic of empire, and Lucan’s Civil War, the narrative of the destruction of the Roman Republic. TheAeneid is the template for a plot of imperial conquest, the Civil War for the celebration of, and lament for, Araucanian resistance to Spanish imperialism. Quint shows how Ercilla used publication by instalments to suspend Virgilian closure, in a way that exploits the narrative aimlessness of both Lucan’s Civil War and the Italian romance. Thus the first part ends (where the Aeneid began) with a storm at sea, which Aeolus, the Homeric and Virgilian king of the winds, is powerless to control, and which is still raging at the beginning of the second part. The second part, like the last book of the Aeneid, concludes with a duel, here between two Indian heroes, Rengo and Tucapel, but the last canto ends with a fatal blow about to descend – which, at the beginning of the third part, turns out not to have been fatal. This is a trick learned from the interruption of a narrative at a moment of greatest suspense in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Craig Kallendorf, on the other hand, reads La Araucana as a commentary on the ideological tensions within the Aeneiditself, and focuses, for example, on the conflict between reason and anger in both poems. Ercilla’s sympathetic interest in the emotional states of Indian women is indebted to a reading of Virgil’s Dido. But Ercilla also takes issue with Virgil when telling the story of the Indian wife Lauca, wounded in the battle in which her newly wed husband was killed, who begs to die too, but is healed and sent back to her people. The narrator is reminded of Dido, whose true story, of fidelity until death to her first husband, he tells at length (Cantos 32–3), correcting Virgil’s slanderous version of Dido’s passion for Aeneas (see Chapter 3, p. 53).15

More complex still is an assessment of the relationship between the Old and New Worlds in what some claim to be the most Virgilian of Shakespeare’s plays, The Tempest. This is one of the few Shakespearean plays for whose plot there is no single obvious model in an earlier text, and in an effort to fill that vacuum a number of critics have argued that the Aeneid underpins the play. These days the ‘brave new world’ of Prospero’s island is often read through the lens of early modern voyages of discovery and colonization to the New World of the Americas, a fashion reinforced by later twentieth-century ideological and post-colonialist readings of Shakespeare. New World readings of The Tempest tend to refer to details in a plethora of early modern accounts of discovery and settlement,16 but it is worth asking how far the play can be understood as a New World reading of the Aeneid itself, comparable to the texts examined hitherto in this chapter.17

A number of obvious allusions to the Aeneid punctuate The Tempest, but what they all add up to is rather puzzling. One answer would be that they are incidental, and that, familiar as Shakespeare clearly was with Virgil, like any Renaissance grammar-school boy, he does not respond as profoundly to Virgil as he does to Ovid.18 The Tempest, like the Aeneid, opens with a storm that drives a ship off course, in the case of the Trojans away from their journey to Italy and on to the shores of north Africa, in the case of Alonso and his men in the course of a journey from north Africa to Italy (Naples). In both Virgil and Shakespeare the literal storm also functions as a symbol for turbulence on the psychological and political levels. Ferdinand’s greeting of Miranda (I.ii.489–90): ‘Most sure, the goddess | On whom these airs attend’ translates Aeneas’ address to the first person he meets on the shores of Carthage, his mother Venus in disguise, Aeneid 1.328 o, dea certe, a passage that was often used in contexts alluding explicitly or implicitly to Queen Elizabeth (see Chapter 3, pp. 60–2). Most puzzling is the business about ‘widow Dido’ between Adrian, Gonzalo, Antonio and Sebastian (II.i.62–83), which plays with the two versions of Dido, chaste and unchaste, and which obtrusively prompts the reader to think about both the similarity and dissimilarity between the Virgilian and Shakespearean texts. Thus Adrian corrects Gonzalo: ‘She [Dido] was of Carthage, not of Tunis’, where Alonso’s daughter had been married to the king of Tunis: true, but the modern Tunis is very close to the site of ancient Carthage. How should we gauge the distance between the Virgilian and Shakespearean plots? Ariel’s entrance as a Harpy to make the banquet disappear at III.iii.64 ff. is based on the Harpies episode in Aeneid 3, adapted in the New World narrative of Fracastoro’s Syphilis; and there are Virgilian elements in the masque in IV.i.

The Tempest’s Virgilian plot is that of an exile, Prospero, who finally achieves a homecoming, but in his case to his original home in Milan, rather than a new home in Italy, as in Aeneas’ case. The role of Aeneas is divided between Prospero and Ferdinand, whose love for Miranda, with their subsequent wedding, blessed by the masque of Iris, Ceres and Juno, is a happier version of the doomed love-affair of Dido and Aeneas, solemnized in the cave in a demonic and elemental parody of a wedding overseen by Juno (Aen.4.165–8). The marriage of the daughter of the rightful duke of Milan to the son of the king of Naples avoids the problems that arise when the ancestor of the Romans is entangled with the foreign Other in the person of African Dido.

At the same time Prospero’s island opens a space on to a strange and non-European world, the New World to which specific allusion is made by Ariel’s reference to ‘the still-vexed Bermudas’ (I.ii.267), and by the name of Caliban’s god Setebos, a Patagonian deity. Caliban’s name is an easy anagram of ‘can[n]ibal’. Gonzalo’s designs for ‘the plantation of this isle’ (II.i.131–57) draws on Montaigne’s provocative description of prelapsarian savages in his essay ‘Of the Cannibals’, and envisages a Golden Age dispensation. Cannibalism and utopianism are constant features of early modern images of New World landscapes and societies,19 foreshadowed in the combination of the idyllic and the Hellish in Virgil’s Latium, the Trojans’ ‘new world’ (see p. 152 above). Prospero’s enslavement of Caliban (and Ariel) has been extensively analysed for what it may reflect of relations between European colonizers and the native peoples they encountered in the New World. In Virgilian terms, Caliban is yet another descendant of Polyphemus inAeneid 3, a frequent model in New World narratives for hostile, and especially cannibalistic, natives. The only profit he has drawn from Prospero’s teaching him language, and the only way he can get back at his master, is in ‘know[ing] how to curse’ (I.ii.423–4): the vengeance of the Odyssean Polyphemus, whose curse is an immediate model for the defeated Dido’s curse against Aeneas.

If we follow the narrative logic of landfall after a Virgilian storm and the other allusions to the story of Dido and Aeneas in the play, Prospero’s Mediterranean isle is a version of Carthage, rather than a place on the other side of the Atlantic in the New World. Shakespeare superimposes different geographical frames on one another, in awareness of how the Virgilian narrative of Aeneas’ wanderings in a Mediterranean world familiar to readers and audiences of both Virgil’s and Shakespeare’s time can be projected on to stranger and remoter topographies. Virgil already achieves this in Aeneid 3 by exploiting Sicily’s traditional status as a home of wonders, and making the Roman province into something of a big game reserve for primitive monsters. In early modern New World rewritings of the Aeneid the ‘western land’, Hesperia, is no longer the by now very familiar Italy, but unknown lands in a much more distant west. Prospero’s island is both somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean, where feuding Europeans work out their differences; somewhere on the more distant, and non-Christian, shore of north Africa; and somewhere in the Americas, Virginia perhaps or Patagonia. Individual perspective and genealogy help to link these disparate locations. The one occurrence of the phrase ‘new world’ in the play is in Miranda’s famous exclamation (V.i.205–6) ‘How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world | That has such people in’t!’ Prospero replies to her, ‘’Tis new to thee.’ To Miranda the world is new because she sees it populated for the first time by human beings other than herself and her father (and Ferdinand), while to Prospero this is a tiresomely familiar crowd. ‘’Tis new to thee’ might also be taken as a comment on the way in which familiar places and texts, such as the Aeneid, can be made to embody visions of new lands and new peoples.

The most novel, the most alien, character in the play, Caliban, is not in fact an indigenous cannibal, but the son of an emigrant from Algiers, a place on the same north African coast as Carthage and Tunis. His mother, the witch Sycorax, has elements of the classical witches Medea and Circe, who are also among the models for Virgil’s Dido. Is the north African Sycorax herself perhaps an incarnation of Dido, who on her abandonment by Aeneas turns first into fearsome witch and, on her death, into vengeful Fury? Was she pregnant with Caliban by Aeneas? Critics note that Sycorax’ ‘history is curiously parallel with’ that of Prospero,20 one of the Aeneas-figures within the main plot of The Tempest – as the personal histories of Dido and Aeneas within the Aeneid have much in common.

Caliban, whose literary ancestry includes the Virgilian Polyphemus, shares with the latter’s model, the Odyssean Cyclops, the distinction of having been adopted as a self-image by black writers protesting at their disenfranchisement and demonization by their former colonialist masters, at the same time as they assert their own independence, commenting on the inhibitions created by the imposition of a language not their own, for example in Aimé Césaire’s Black Theatre adaptation of The Tempest (La Tempête, 1969).21

The providential plot of the Aeneid held a lasting appeal for the Protestant settlers and colonists of North America.22 John Smith’s A Map of Virginia (1612) includes a brief history, ‘The Proceedings of the English Colony in Virginia’, divided into 12 chapters like a prose Aeneid, in which Smith brings to unknown shores a divinely guided people, and confronts a Turnus-like enemy in the person of Powhatan.23 In their wars with the natives the settlers saw themselves as a chosen people unjustly attacked. New-Englands Tears(London, 1676) by Benjamin Tompson, the first North American poet born in America, is a series of verse episodes on King Philip’s War that ornaments its narrative with references to the Aeneid, and identifies the Native Americans as ‘Rutilians’, the people of Aeneas’ enemy Turnus. Tompson supplied prefatory poems for Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), ‘perhaps the supreme achievement of American Puritan literature’.24 Subtitled ‘The Ecclesiastical History of New England’, it is a prose epic on the religious history of Massachusetts which alludes repeatedly both to the Aeneid and to the great Protestant reworking of the classical epic tradition, Milton’s Paradise Lost. The first sentence of the Introduction outlines the plot of a providentially guided flight from Europe to a land in the west, bringing religion to a new homeland:

I write the wonders of the Christian religion, flying from the depravations of Europe, to the American Strand; and, assisted by the Holy Author of that Religion, I […] report the wonderful displays of His infinite Power, Wisdom, Goodness, and Faithfulness, wherewith His Divine Providence hath irradiated an Indian Wilderness.

The next sentence turns from the introduction of gods (Aen. 1.6) to Aeneas’ other main purpose, foundation, with ‘the first settlement of colonies’; not the least important foundation for Mather is that of Harvard College. The motto on the title-page of Book 1 ofMagnalia revises the last line of the proem to the Aeneid (1.33): ‘So great a labour it was to found a people for Christ’ (Tantae Molis erat, pro CHRISTO [instead of Romanam] condere Gentem). The Virgilian subtext also rises to the surface in Mather’s first Latin quotation in the main text: ‘The reader will doubtless desire to know, what it was that tot Volvere casus Insignes Pietate Viros, tot adire Labores, Impulerit’ (‘drove men outstanding in piety to go through so many misfortunes, to confront so many labours’, adaptingAen. 1.9–11). The answer is the faith of the Protestants, the collective hero (plural uiros, not singular uirum), the ‘Blessed Remnant’ fleeing from ‘Satan’s world’. As in many other examples of the Christianized Aeneid, the goddess who persecutes Aeneas, Juno, has metamorphosed into Satan.

The history of the theocracy’s victories over Satan, in this prose exemplar of the ‘Satanic epic’, comes to a climax in the last book of the Magnalia on Ecclesiarum Praelia ‘Battles of the Churches’, culminating in the greatest ‘temptation’, the Indian wars. Biblical and Virgilian allusions continue to converge. Phips’ victory over the Indian king Philip is a repetition of the Israelites’ entry into the promised land, but Arma uirosque cano is the Virgilian heading for this last book of warfare, the Virgilian-biblical battles with which the true Church consolidates its advance into the New Jerusalem.

The Virgilian mission of foundation, and Aeneas’ core value of pietas, retain their relevance as American history moves towards the Revolution and the foundation of the Republic. In 1760 George Washington purchased for his mantelpiece ‘A Group of Aeneas carrying his Father out of Troy, with four statues, viz. his Father Anchises, his wife Creusa and his son, Ascanius, neatly finished and bronzed with copper’.25 In a poem ‘Addressed to General Washington in the year 1777’, after the battles of Trenton and Princeton, Annis Boudon Stockton, wife of one of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence, compares Washington to Aeneas:

Not good Aeneas who his father bore,

And all his household gods from ruined Troy,

Was more the founder of the Latian realm,

Than thou the basis of this mighty fabric

Now rising to my view, of arms, or arts;

The seat of glory in the western world.26

‘The seat of glory in the western world’ is the subject of Joel Barlow’s epic poem The Vision of Columbus (1787), revised and expanded as the ten-book Columbiad (1807, and subsequent editions).27 In its day it was a bestseller, but also attracted adverse criticism. Epic in nineteenth-century America mutated into new forms in verse and prose, and in retrospect it is easy, perhaps too easy, to dismiss The Columbiad as a dinosaur of literary history. The Virgilian template is signalled in the opening lines: ‘I sing the Mariner who first unfurl’d | An eastern banner o’er the western world, | And taught mankind where future empires lay | In these fair confines of descending day.’ Barlow also locates himself within the earlier tradition of New World epic: the first two lines allude to a reference to Ercilla’s La Araucana in William Hayley’s An Essay on Epic Poetry (1782) (Epistle 3.241–2), ‘In scenes of savage war when Spain unfurl’d | Her bloody banners o’er the western world’. Columbus’ imperialism, by contrast, will be more peaceful. Barlow places at the head of The Columbiad the stanza on the fame of Columbus’ voyage from Canto 15 of Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata (see above, p. 151).

We first come upon Columbus, discoverer of the western world, during his imprisonment after his third voyage. The form of the poem is a series of visions of the future history of the Americas, vouchsafed to him by an angel in The Vision, replaced in The Columbiad by ‘Hesper’, the personification of Hesperia, the land of the west. The ultimate models for this panorama of futurity are the Virgilian Parade of Heroes and the Shield of Aeneas, partly mediated through the imitations of those Virgilian passages by Milton on the Hill of Vision from which the archangel Michael shows Adam the future history of the world in Paradise Lost 11, and by Camões, on the mountain top from which the sea-goddess Tethys shows Vasco da Gama a panorama of the universe and the earth in the last book of The Lusiads. Not the least of the Virgilian qualities of The Columbiad is its ambition to sum up a long previous epic tradition.

The vision compensates Columbus for his personal loss of liberty with the glorious prospect of the triumph of Freedom in America. Freedom succeeds to Despotism in the moral world, as Order succeeds to Chaos in the physical world, a very American take on the Virgilian equation of cosmos and imperium, the natural and the political orders. On the Virgilian Shield of Aeneas ‘the sons of Aeneas [the Romans] rushed into battle in defence of liberty’ (8.648), but Republican liberty is subordinate to praise of the one great man Aeneas in the Aeneid. In his Preface Barlow criticizes Virgil for writing and feeling ‘like a subject, not like a citizen. The real design of his poem was to increase the veneration of the people for a master, whoever he might be, and to encourage like Homer the great system of military depredation.’ Virgil’s pax Augusta is very different from the celestial and cosmic peace celebrated in the Hymn at the beginning of Columbiad 8, after three books narrating the revolutionary wars.

For Columbus the vision is also a mental journey from exile to the fully developed potential of the New World homeland. In chains, and debarred from the pleasant lands that he has discovered, he re-experiences the Miltonic Satan’s loss of Heaven and Adam’s loss of Eden (1.89–96):

Land of delights! ah dear delusive coast,

To these fond aged eyes for ever lost!

No more thy flowery vales I travel o’er,

For me thy mountains rear the head no more,

For me thy rocks no sparkling gems unfold,

Nor streams luxuriant wear their paths in gold;

From realms of promised peace for ever borne,

I hail mute anguish, and in secret mourn.

But like the exiled Aeneas Columbus is promised the glorious future of a ‘fame to come’ (Aen. 6.889, summing up the Parade of Heroes), although, again like Aeneas, long after his own lifetime (1.165–70): ‘Now raise thy sorrow’d soul to views more bright, | The vision’d ages rushing on thy sight; | Worlds beyond worlds shall bring to light their stores, | Time, nature, science blend their utmost powers, | To show, concentred in one blaze of fame, | The ungather’d glories that await thy name.’ Hesper goes on to make explicit not the Virgilian, but the biblical, analogy, of Moses’ sighting from Pisgah’s height of the promised land of Canaan, which he will not enter himself.

Barlow turns Virgilian prophecy into a hymn to progress, with a concluding utopian vision of a world congress of the nations assembled to establish the political harmony of all mankind, as the symbols of political and religious oppression are thrown away. Earlier, after the conclusion of the War of Independence, Barlow warns his fellow-countrymen of the evil of slavery, through the person of Atlas, the guardian genius of Africa, who denounces to Hesper the crimes of the western continent (8.189–304). Atlas, a relative both of Virgil’s man-mountain Atlas in Aeneid 4 and of Camões’ Adamastor, threatens America with a convulsive geological catastrophe should she continue to ‘hold inthrall’d the millions of my race’.

The catastrophe turned out to be not a natural disaster, but the convulsion of civil war. Post-bellum receptions of the Virgilian plot offer less optimistic views of ‘Aeneas in America’, particularly on the part of the Southern Agrarian writers who lamented the loss of traditional values in the industrialization and urbanization led by the northern states after sthe Civil War.28 This group of writers were attracted by the values of the Eclogues and Georgics. They also redistributed the roles of the Greco-Trojan myth, seeing the ‘Northerners as the upstart Greeks, Southerners as the older, more civilized Trojans’.29 In ‘Aeneas at Washington’ Allen Tate imagines an Aeneas who has fled to a ‘new world’ that turns out to be America. But the lost ‘glowing fields of Troy’ merge into the ‘thickening Blue Grass’ of the southern states. In the new nations’ capital this Aeneas remains in exile:

I stood in the rain, far from home at nightfall

By the Potomac, the great Dome lit the water,

The city my blood had built I knew no more […]

Stuck in the wet mire

Four thousand leagues from the ninth buried city

I thought of Troy, what we had built her for.

At the beginning of the poem ‘I myself saw furious with blood | Neoptolemus […] Priam | cut down, his filth drenching the holy fires’, a close adaptation of the Virgilian eyewitness account of the death of Priam in Aeneid 2. This ‘I’ melts into the first person of a modern who has survived the horrors of the American Civil War, coinciding with a reading of the Virgilian sack of Troy as a figure for the civil wars that destroyed the Roman Republic, and out of which were salvaged the foundations for the Augustan principate. In Aeneas’ next words we hear the tones of a Southern gentleman: ‘In that extremity I bore me well, | A true gentleman, valorous in arms, | Disinterested and honourable.’ For this Aeneas it is now too late for anything other than a dispassionate detachment: ‘I see all things apart, the towers that men | Contrive I too contrived long, long ago. | Now I demand little.’

In ‘The Mediterranean’, written a little earlier (1932), Tate plays the part of the American abroad. The subject is a picnic in a secluded bay in Provence, reached by boat, in which the ‘feasters’ repeat the experience of the Trojans on reaching Latium and fulfilling the Harpies’ curse by eating the bread ‘platters’ of their meal: ‘and in our secret need | Devoured the very plates Aeneas bore’. On holiday in Europe, Tate and his fellow-Americans can enjoy the fantasy of ‘tast[ing] the famous age | Eternal here yet hidden from our eyes’, a mythical moment that has not yet unfolded all the history prophetically contained within it. In answer to the question ‘What country shall we conquer’, the reply is given in the last five lines:

Now, from the Gates of Hercules we flood

Westward, westward till the barbarous brine

Whelms us to the tired land where tasseling corn,

Fat beans, grapes sweeter than muscadine

Rot on the vine: in that land were we born.

That the momentary contentment of the picnic is not lastingly fulfilled in the ‘promised land’ of the last stanza is suggested by the epigraph to the poem, Quem das finem, rex magne, dolorum? ‘Great king, what end do you grant to our woes?’, a slight adaptation (dolorum for laborum ‘labours’) of Venus’ anxious question to Jupiter after the storm in Aeneid 1 (241). Even after the westward continuation of Aeneas’ journey and fated mission to America, the question remains to be asked.

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