Virgil’s Aeneid

Oct 26, 2005


RH (Robert Harrison)

SB (Susanna Braund)

JM (Jim Morrison)


1 RH/  This is KZSU Stanford. Welcome to Entitled Opinions. My name is Robert Harrison and we’re coming to you live from the Stanford campus.


Those who have not learned to read the ancient classics in the language in which they were written must have a very imperfect knowledge of the history of the human race. For it is remarkable that no transcript of them has ever been made into any modern tongue unless our civilization itself be regarded as such a transcript. Later writers, say what we will of their genius have rarely, if ever, equalled the elaborate beauty and finish of the life long and heroic literary labor of the ancients. They only talk of forgetting them who never knew them. They will be soon enough to forget them when we have the learning and the genius that will enable us to attend to and appreciate them.”


Did anyone recognize the quote I just read? I know Andrea Nightingale did. Hi Andrea. I was reading from Henry David Thoreau‘s Walden. Thoreau lived for two years in a tiny log cabin he built for himself in the woods. There was nothing in it except the bare essentials; a bucket, maybe a broom, a chair and a table, and on the table Greek and Roman Classics, which as you can gather from the quote he read in the original. His interest in the classics wasn’t antiquarian. It was from those books that Thoreau learned what it would take to invent a father tongue for his new nation.

Thesis: almost all the great thinkers of the modern era knew their classics and knew them well.

Hypothesis: We ignore the ancients at our own peril.

We tend to forget that until relatively recently American education was based wholly upon Greek and Latin foundations. Think of it. As a high schooler Thomas Jefferson used to translate the Greek Bible into Latin and vice versa. It was said of President James A. Garfield that in moments of boredom or to amuse his friends he would take a pencil in each hand and compose sentences in Greek and Latin at the same time.

It was not so very long ago that a University Professor in the classroom would leave Greek and Latin quotes untranslated. The he began to provide a translation for the Greek but not for the Latin. Nowadays he must tell his students that there were once such things as the Greek and Latin tongues. That there once was a place called Athens. That there was once a Roman Empire. Pretty soon the Professor won’t even know that much. Oh he’ll know it in a way. But he won’t know what to make of it. And when you don’t know what to make of something you eventually forget about it.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, have you looked at a dollar bill recently? I mean really looked at it? I would like to ask you, if you’re listening, to pull out a dollar bill right now and check it out.

On the back side of the dollar bill you have the great seal of the United States of America. Check it out. Look at all those hieroglyphs. In the circle on the right there’s an eagle with outspread wings. The eagle, the bald eagle is our national symbol. But it is not our national symbol because it represents American freedom or the American wilderness. No, the eagle is the Roman bird of the Auspices. The bird of Jove. In it’s talons it holding the fasces, a Roman symbol of unity. It’s right talons grip a laurel branch yet another classical symbol. On the ribbons above the eagle’s head: epluribus unum. Now look at the left circle, that weird masonic symbol of a pyramid with an eye at the top. Above the pyramid move latin: annuit coeptis. Annuit coeptis: God favors our undertakings. That, believe it or not, comes from Virgil’s Aeneid book six. At the bottom more latin: Novus Ordo Seacolorum: a new order of the ages. Novus Ordo Seacolorun: a new world order as it were. That’s also Virgil from his fourth eclogue. It’s amazing what you get in a dollar bill.

Question, why is the great seal of the United States speaking in latin? Why is it talking Virgil? What does American have to do with Rome? Can we really understand what the founding of this nation was all about if we don’t know anything about Rome, it’s republic as well as it’s empire?

Friends, Romans, countrymen the ancient classics are not superannuated works that have nothing to do with us anymore than the word superannuated has nothing to do with latin. They have everything to do with us. They may in fact be more relevant to our times than any books ever written. That’s why we’re going to devote the next hour to one of the greatest poets of the whole ancient gang of them, Virgil himself. Who was Virgil? What do we have to learn from him? Why are we living today in what we might call a Virgilian age?

These are some of the questions we’ll be raising with my special guest  Susanna Braund who joins me here in the studios of KZSU. Susanna, welcome to the program.


2 SB @ 7:54/  thanks Robert.


3 RH/ It would help it I turned on your microphone.


4 SB/ Thanks Robert.


5 RH/ Yeah, Susanna Braund is professor of classics here at Stanford. She specializes in latin literature and it’s reception in the modern era.  So she’s uniquely qualified to address some of these weighty topics with us.

So, Susanna, you’ve only been at Stanford for a year and before that you were teaching at Yale.


6 SB/  That’s right.


7 RH/  And you are  from England originally.


8 SB/  I am.


9 RH/  And I noticed, if I may say so that you have a great poster on your office door of the mugshots and finger prints of Jim Morrison that were taken by the New Haven police after he was arrested on stage during a Doors concert in New Haven.


10 SB/  That’s right.


11 RH/ I’ve never seen that poster … when in the … where did you get it?


12 SB/  I got it in New Haven Connecticut. I thought if New Haven Connecticut is famous for Yale, then maybe I should display on my office door something that New Haven Connecticut was infamous for: the arrest of Jim Morrison.


13 RH/  Yeah, and ..nah but still sometimes infamous things create some king of living memory long term memory so, … ah, are you a Jim Morrison fan?


14 SB/  Mmm um, yeah.


15 RH/   That’s good, I thought I was the only die hard Morrison fan among the faculty that I knew of so I’m glad there’s at least two of us. I’m sure there more they’re just not known to me.

Susanna, we’re going to talk about Virgil and some of these questions we’re raising but not to take anything for granted for our listeners can we just remind ourselves who was Virgil, when was he writing, why is he one of these great poets of the ancient golden age?


16 SB/  Oh, you’ve asked a whole bunch of questions there?  Well, he was writing in what we call the first century BCE. He was born in north Italy in Mantua in 70 BCE. He died in 19 BCE not having completed the Aeneid, his big epic poem.

Prior to that he had worked on, all his poetry is wonderful I should just say that, he’d written some pastoral poetry which we call the Eclogues which are meditations on loss and love set in the countryside but often with city and war themes intruding into the countryside so a real balance of optimism and pessimism and that may be his hallmark throughout all his poetic works.  So a very delicate set of ten short poems very carefully crafted, that’s the Eclogues. And then he wrote his work that he called the Georgics, a work in four books of middling length. These are, …if you look at it superficially the Georgics is a manual for the farmer. But that’s not really what the poem is at all because the Romans knew about farming and they had prose manuals that they could turn to if they really wanted to know what time of year to sow their crops and what kind of bugs would attack their crops and so on and so forth. Virgil’s Georgics is much more a meditation, I think, about the relationship between human beings and nature. Again he gives us different aspects in different parts of the poem. Sometimes he gives us a picture of human beings and nature in cooperation so that nature pulls forth her bounty for human beings. Other times in the poem he represents the human beings has having to impose their will on nature and having, really to act violently in order to extract their produce from the ground. And the poem is held in a very fine balance. And it’s true of the Eclogues, it’s true of the Georgics, and it’s true of the Aeneid as we’ll discuss.  Different critics read these poems differently. Some people read these poems pessimistically. Some people read them optimistically.


17 RH @ 12:03/  Yeah, we’ll get into that. …um … the great seal of the United States. That Novus Ordo Saecolorum comes from the fourth Eclogue that we were just talking about. Now that Eclogue has had a  quite a history, you know, after Virgil, and it’s a very special, at least during the middle ages the Christians saw it as somehow prefiguring the coming of Christ on the part of a poet who was born obviously before Christ, died before Christ. What is the fourth Eclogue about? Why does America take a quote from the fourth Eclogue and what can we say about it’s importance?


18 SB @12:43/   Yeah, it’s the best known of these ten short poems. It’s a poem that celebrates the birth of a child. And the birth of a child is taken to symbolize the beginning of a new golden age. It’s really a utopian poem.  It’s full of utopian motifs. Virgil imagines the child being born and then growing into a boy and then growing into adolescence. At each stage of the child’s life this is the next step to the golden age. The ancients seemed to think that … they saw life as a decline from a golden age in the distant past so for Virgil to celebrate a return to the golden age says something about what he’s feeling at that moment in time.

So we call the fourth Eclogue, it’s often called the messianic Eclogue because people have interpreted the child as being Christ. However I should say that this debate about who the child was was in doubt even in antiquity within a few years after Virgil’s death. The poem itself was written in 40 BCE. So it’s 40 years even before the birth of Christ. And the poem is dedicated to the consul, the Roman Consul of that year, a guy called Polyo. The political context is not irrelevant here. Virgil is writing at a time of great uncertainty. We’ve had the assassination of Julius Ceasar four years before in 44 BCE. There is chaos in Rome. The power is in the hands of a triumvirate; Antony and, Octavian who in the future will be the emperor Augustus, and Lapidus. Those three, the three of them are struggling for power.  And nobody could have known in 40 BCE which of those guys would come out on top. If you had to put a bet on it in 40 BCE you would have said Antony, I’m sure you would have said Antony. Octavian was his side kick and also very sickly and we hadn’t seen his vision and his military success and his forcefulness at this point.


19 RH @ 15:10/  Was it Cleopatra that, …had it not been for Cleopatra would it have been Antony?


20 SB/  Yes, probably.  The whole world would have turned out differently. Maybe that’s too big a statement but European history would have turned out differently because if Antony had won he would have made his capitol in the east in Alexandria in Egypt and I think lots of things would have been  very different.

The first sure source that we have that identifies the child explicitly in this poem as Christ is Augustine around 400 CE and this is because of various similarities in the prophecy that Virgil gives us in the poem, similarities to Old Testament passages. Isaiah in particular. What Virgil is doing here in this poem is actually deploying some material from the Cybelline oracles which the Romans respected very much and turned to at times of crisis and strife. Virgil is definitely using terminology that we find in the Cybelline oracles which foretell a savior. But to take that step of reading this as, reading Virgil as a proto-Christian is a very big step. I mean it’s not uncommon once you’ve got the Christian empire, they want to appropriate a lot of pagan material, pagan poetry. But it’s a very totalizing view which I think is completely unjustified.


21 RH @16:38/   Yeah, I’m not willing to agree with you entirely yet on that because, …I hope when we start getting into the Aeneid we might find that for someone like Dante, you know, probably the most Christian poet who ever wrote we know that when Dante wakes up in the dark wood and he’s completely lost and bewildered it’s Virgil, the ghost of Virgil, whose been dead for 1300 years who comes to rescue him and becomes his guide throughout the whole journey through hell and even up the mountain of purgatory. For Dante it was not just the fourth Eclogue and the prophecy of a new world order because of a child being born but he saw like many other people in Virgil a kind of proto-Christian ethos about the need for certain kind of mercy and justice and various other things. So perhaps  when we start discussing the Aeneid I’ll try to make the case that if you were a Christian in the Middle Ages reading the Aeneid could give you grounds for seeing in him a kind of Christian sensibility about the kind of compassion for the vanquished and a …yeah a certain ethic of mercy and justice but we’ll save that …


22 SB/  Sure


23 RH/  Well why don’t we turn to the Aeneid since time goes very quickly on this program that’s on of my experiences here so …ah, The Aeneid, the great epic that we know that Octavian then becomes Augustus, becomes the first real emperor of the Roman Empire. Wins out over his rivals and Virgil writes this epic in order to ostensibly celebrate the founding of the Roman Empire and to glorify it, no?


24 SB/ Yep, that’s right Virgil is living at this pivotal moment in history as it turns out although I’m not sure that he or his contemporaries could have known exactly how pivotal it is. As you say, Robert, it’s the moment we go from Republic to Empire. Actually scholars really debate the date of that was it the battle of Actium when Octavian defeated the fleet of Cleopatra and Antony or was it in, well that was 31 BCE, or was it in 27 BCE when Octavian actually takes on the name Augustus. Those are two of the possibilities. There are a number of others.

So Virgil does seem to be responding to the political context in which he’s writing. In that if you think about the previous several decades that he’s lived through there’s been so much strife, there’s been civil warfare, Roman’s killing Roman’s. Instead of conquering the rest of the world Roman’s have been shedding one another’s blood. There have been lot’s of changes, very unhappy changes in Italy itself with soldiers, veteran soldiers, being given land and people being driven from their ancestral homestead. That’s actually a theme he treats in the Eclogues. So, along comes Octavian and he brings peace. So peace after years and years of war and uncertainty, you can see why somebody, a poet might want to celebrate that. And he’s writing the Aeneid in about a ten year period from 29 BCE until his death in 19 BCE. He felt he had another three years work to do on it. It’s unfinished according to Virgil. He actually asked Augustus to have it burned. On his death bed. That was his final request. It is Augustus we have to thank that in fact the poem survives.

So Virgil is celebrating a new era. I would say this is the era he is hoping for back in the fourth Eclogue written ten years earlier. He couldn’t really have known what form that would take. For his subject he goes back into ancient times. He goes back to an ancient myth. The myth of Aeneas who is a Trojan … and this story ..


25 RH @ 21:10/  Can I just trouble a little bit?


26 SB/  Sure.


27 RH/  You know, myth? Schleemann, everyone thought that Homer’s all a myth, the guy took Homer under his arm, went there followed all the indices of the text and he discovered Troy!  So, yes, …no, Aeneas could be a myth but you never know with these ancient texts how much of a substrate of actual literal truth there might have been.


28 SB @21:35/  Sure, I’m sure we don’t and you’re right to call me on that.  And in fact I don’t really want to make a strong distinction between myth and history in those ancient periods.

The main thing is that there were Romans who believed that their race came from a band of refugees who traveled west after the defeat of Troy, the sack of Troy by the Greeks, … imortally, I think, (laughs) first memorialized now by Brad Pitt as Achilles and Julie Christie as his mother, Thetis. Who can forget that?

So, we have a bunch of refugees, and by the way if you watch  very carefully in the movie, Troy, um, Aeneas does just get a few seconds there.  Aeneas survives …


29 RH @ 22:27/  Yeah, I haven’t seen the movie myself. There are just certain books you love so much you don’t want to see the movie because you have your own image, but  …


30 SB/  Ya, yeah, well there were moments for a classicist there are moments of pain when you watch a movie like that. But on the whole I’m very much approving of classics on film.


31 RH/  Oh good. Well I’ll see it then.


32 SB/ (Laughs) Good.


33 RH/ So Aeneas is a Trojan and it’s after the defeat of Troy and they are all those refugees from that vanquished city ….


34 SB/  Yes, that’s right and they travel. He believes he has this mission to found a new city in the west and he doesn’t know where it is going to be. So he sets off and he takes with him his father, Anchises, and his son Aaescheneus who is so called Julus. From that name the Julian clan, that Julius Ceasar belonged to take their name. So, just to come forward in time for a monent, Julius Ceasars family claimed they were descended from Julus the son of Aeneas who was the son of Venus, Venus the goddess coupled with Anchises to produce Aeneas.

So he sets of with his father and his son  and a band of refugees and, very importantly with the household gods from Troy.  He sets off and travels all around the Mediterranean and settles here there and everywhere. He tries to build a new Troy and keeps on running into setbacks and having to be moved on. Until he reached the promised land which his Hesperia, the western land, that’s Italy. He’s told that’s where he should found a city. What’s curious is that Aeneas, although the poem is about the foundation of Rome, Aeneas himself never founds Rome and his son doesn’t found Rome. That has to wait for a bit later in history, the story of Romulus and Remus.


35 RH @ 24:24/  Yeah, many gernerations …


36 SB/  Many generations, yes that’s right.  But Virgil in his poem manages to look forward to the Roman future and to incorporate things that would be recent Roman history for his readers his contemporary readers which are in the midst of time of the future for Aeneas.


37 RH/ And he manages to do that because in the very center of the poem, in fact in book six  from which comes annuit coeptis he descends into the underworld into Hades to visit his dead father whose died in the meantime and he sees all his ancestors on the one hand, but then Anchises his father  shows him the whole future lineage that’s going to come out of him and we get this whole procession of you know the future ah Kings of Rome and then up to Augustus himself, no?


38 SB/  That’s right. Augustus is one of the descendants on whom Virgil spends longest.

Yeah, the Aeneid is a poem in 12 books it’s an epic poem. It’s written in the same meter as Homer’s poems in Greek. This is a poem in Latin. It’s very long. It’s elaborate. The 12 books have what I would like to call an architectonic structure, very carefully structured disposition. So that we have four important passages of prophecy in the poem which are placed very very carefully by Virgil in the first book: Jupiter gives the prophecy to Venus of what her descendants are going to do and be. And then as you’ve just said Robert in the sixth book when Aeneas goes down into the underworld, he has to be very brave to do that, he has to pluck the golden bough from the tree to go down. He’s shown this parade of the future by his dead father Anchises. And then in book eight just as he’s fighting his wars in Italy, it’s not easy. Once he even gets to Italy he still has to take on a lot of military activity to overcome the native Italians. At the end of book eight his mother, Venus, gives him new armor including a shield. On the shield we have scenes of future Roman history. Future for Aeneas and past for Virgil’s readers. Then the final passage of prophecy is at the very end of book twelve just before the final denouement when Aeneas kills Turnus, when Jupiter says to his wife Juno who has opposed Aeneas all along, she is the cause of delay, she’s the blocking character, the obstacle to the foundation of Rome. She finally becomes reconciled to the idea that Rome has to happen. Jupiter promises her that the Italians, whom she is supporting, will merge with the Trojans and that the Trojans identity will actually disappear, they will become Latins from the area of Italy they’re living in called Latium: lati-um. They will become Latins and there language will be Latin.

So we have these four important passages of prophecy scattered throughout the poem, not scattered that’s not the right word to use, but placed very carefully at very important points.

And yes, at the end of book six when Aeneas sees the parade of his future descendants of his line he is going to establish, that’s really important. It’s a highly political passage because it celebrates both Julius Ceasar and then Augustus who is Julius Ceasar’s adopted son. That’s one of the real highpoints of the poem.


39 RH @28:01/ Yeah and we should remind our listeners that a lot of Virgil’s Aeneid is based on Homer’s two epics: The Iliad and The Odyssey. the kind of conventional wisdom is that the first six books of the Aeneid are lilke The Odyssey in so far as they represent all the kinds of wanderings of the hero of the refugee. Whereas the second half of the Aeneid which deals with the wars with the native Latins is like the Iliad. Of course, there’s a way in which Virgil who is known for his piety at least Aeneas is called the pius Aeneas for various reasons, one of them being that he has complete respect and obedience for his father and for his forefather’s. He carries Anchises on his shoulders fleeing the burning city of Troy.  But also that scene, … let me ask you this about the book six of the Aeneid, I know that you have the architectonic and so on, but for my own curiosity if you compare  Odysseus’s visit to the dead in book eleven of the Odyssey with what Virgil does with that scene there are remarkable differences. I think you were pointing out it’s very political in Virgil and it’s also very male dominated. These are the forefathers and the sons to come. In Homer the dead are mostly women. And it’s a very domestic sort of personal private experience, whereas for Virgil it’s a highly politicized ….


40 SB @29:45/  Yes, right, that’s a really good point. The Odyssey is really a poem about a man, Odysseus, and he sets off to get home from Troy with his followers, his crew but by the time he gets back he’s, … he’s mislaid all of them.  So he’s really an individual and this is an important difference between Homer and Virgil. Virgil is making his wandering hero the leader of a band of refugees and he always has to think about the well being of the band. He’s responsible for bringing these people safely to Italy.


41 RH @ 30:21/  He’s an adult. In a certain sense Odysseus is, he’s still there he like a young man gonna take his time, hang out with Circe and Calypso and so forth. But your right there’s a sense of responsibility that weighs heavy on him.


42 SB/  Yes, right, it certainly does and this is why people often haven’t really warmed to Aeneas the hero. He seems rather cold and unemotional. Which is actually very unfair on him because if you read the poem carefully he weeps …


43 RH/ I agree.

44 SB/   quite often actually. He’s kind of more, he’s more proper. I think Virgil’s really using him as a way of exploring what it might be to be a Roman and how to come into the Roman idea of … I’m going to use the English word ‘virtue’ but I don’t, …it’s not a good translation for the latin word virtus. Virtus in Latin is the quality of being a Vir a man. So, a much better translation would be manliness or masculinity or heroism. That’s one of the things I think Virgil is trying top layout in the poem. He’s trying to explore how Aeneas turns from a warrior from the Homeric poems into this foretaste of the great leader of the Romans he hopes Augustus will be. He is exploring a lot of virtues, what we would call virtues. This word is too overladen with Christian resonances to be really useful but I don’t think we have another word. So virtues like courage and justice and piety and mercy that you mentioned a little while ago.


45 RH @32:08/  So he has a distinctly Roman signature to his personality.  He’s not just a free wanderer, free wheeling kind of  … and so he emerges from hell and we arrive in italy and we have the wars and as you said he ends up defeating, or there is a merging of the native populations with Aeneas.

Let’s step outside of the poem a minute. You said that Julius Ceasar  traced his lineage back to Julus and so forth, but the fact of the matter is that Aeneas is a adopted ancestor of the Romans. He was not an autochtanous legend or myth. It’s really in the late republican period if I remember correctly that kind of actively and deliberately embraced him and made him, by adoption, the founding father of the Romans.  This is extraordinary. Not only that we’re talking about the greatest city and empire  certainly of the ancient world probably ever in terms of power and the way it’s administration, conquering the Mediterranean and so forth. Why would the Romans who were really, not at the height of their power perhaps but they were still a very powerful civilization at that time, why would they choose an ancestor that comes from a  … why would they trace their genealogy back to a vanquished city? It doesn’t sound very triumphalistic.


46 SB @33:46/  No it doesn’t in a way, but it’s very very old. That would be one answer. And by the way the Julian family is not the only Roman family to look back to Trojan forefathers. But in a way you just have to take the extra step Robert. It’s a way of tracing your ancestry back to a god or goddess.

47 RH/  Right.


48 SB @34:09/  In this case Venus. We find other Roman families trace their families back to other gods or demi-gods. Like Hercules for example. He figures in other family trees. So if you go back far enough your not going to be held to the same criteria of evidence. So you can go back to these ancient stories, myths, history, whatever we want to call them and claim gods and goddesses in your ancestry.


49 RH @34:40/  Yeah, but I think there’s more to it, in that …ah, the whole first half of the Aeneid, especially, is about the sufferings ….


50 SB/ Yes.


51 RH/ …of the refugees. It’s about getting into what it means to be a defeated people. What’s so remarkable about Aeneas is that he’s not just a Roman he’s first and foremost a human being who knows what it means to be on the losing side. If there were not this dimension in the Aeneid I don’t think it would have survived these two millennia. I understand the Romans might want to claim Venus, you know, as their goddess but there is this insistence in the poem about the experience of defeat …


52 SB/  Yes.


53 RH/  … and exile and continued suffering and always these false starts, you know,  and Aeneas thinks he’s gotten there but he hasn’t  gotten there. Then he gets to Carthage, he’s there with Dido, he thinks that that might be the right place. No. He has to keep going and he has to sacrifice a lot. So, I think, and also, correct me if I’m wrong, the Roman Empire by this point, the great sort of virtue  , one of the virtues, where they presume to …well … is … the doctrine of sparing the vanquished …


53 SB/  Yes.


54 RH @36:12/  … sparing the defeated …


55 SB/  That’s right.


56 RH/   …so do you think this was a distinctly Roman, or was it just rhetoric?  Well, we’ll talk about that when we talk about the end of the poem perhaps, maybe we don’t want to get into it now, but do you think …


57 SB @36:24/  I think it is distinctly Roman. The famous line from Book Six that you’re referring to is in Latin: pacreate suprisi et debilare superbos. Which means to spare the people that you’ve conquered but to wage war until you’ve completely defeated the proud, the arrogant. So the Roman mission is summed up in those two phrases. What kind of gloss you want to put on the Aeneid and on Roman civilization will always depend on whether you put the balance on the sparing or conquering. Because that’s what the Romans do.

But one reason for thinking that the Roman Empire lasts as long as it does is that they have a capacity to do both. And to assimilate the people that they conquer. That seems to be very important in Roman history. I think it’s one reason the Roman Empire lasts so long.


58 RH @37:20/  Well, yeah.  Again I keep looking at the clock and I say how are we ever going to cover these things that we want to talk about and in the 20 minutes that remain. And so lets take that part about sparing the conquered and hearing the appeals for mercy from the humbled. Let’s move to the end of the Aeneid. Which is a battle. It’s hand to hand combat almost like a gladiatorial contest between Aeneas the leader of the Trojans and Turnus who is the the leader of a certain clan …


59 SB/  That’s right he’s the native Italian prince…


60 RH/ … and Aeneas with the help from the gods, obviously, defeats Turnus or at least he’s gotten the better of him in the battle …


61 SB/  He has.


62 RH/  and then what happens?  and we’re talking about the very end of the poem. I actually want to read from it later.


63 SB @38:19/  Sure we can do that. Turnus also has had some divine assistance, but after Jupiter has this chat with his wife Juno and says you can’t resist the force of fate, the Roman Empire, the Roman race is going to be, is going to be founded. She pulls out her assistance to Turnus and he’s on his own.  And there he is, Aeneas has beaten him. So Turnus, in front of all the Italian people watching, and all the Trojans, says to Aeneas, you have conquered me. You can have Lavinia, because initially they’re fighting over a woman of course but it’s really more than that, you’ve won, he says. All I ask of you is that you return me or my body to my father. And at that point Aeneas hesitates for the longest time. He doesn’t know whether to kill Turnus or not. And at that crucial moment his eyes fall upon a trophy that Turnus is wearing. This is the baldric that he has stripped, the belt, that he has stripped from as young man called Pallas who’d fought for Aeneas and been killed by him.

So this is Virgil remodeling Achilles and Patroclus here in the relationship between Aeneas and Pallas. And Aeneas feels absolutely awful when he’s reminded of the death of Pallas …


64 RH @39:51/  He falls into a rage.


65 SB/  He falls into a rage. He falls into ‘furor‘ is the Latin word, fury. And at that moment he’s kind of overcome and he kills Turnus.  And he says, it’s Pallas who’s really killing you. This is an act of retribution.


66 RH/  and sacrifice even.


67 SB/   Yes, that’s right.  And the closing line of the Aeneid is nothing to do with Aeneas at all. It’s to do with Tur nus’s  ghost flitting away to the underworld.

Now of course we don’t know if that was the final line Virgil planned for the poem but it’s …


68 RH/  It’s a beautiful line.


69 SB/   …it’s a fabulous final line because…


70 RH/  and he say’s in dismay or something he goes, his shade …


71 SB/  actually, in indignation. Indignata, resenting  the fact that he’s been killed. You see it’s quite complicated. Aeneas is certainly within his rights to kill him for all sorts of reasons. He promised to Pallas’s father that he would bring Pallas back safe and sound and he hasn’t done that. He also maybe thinking strategically; this fiery hot-headed prince of the Italians, the Retulians, would be a real pain in his side if he does spare him. On the other hand he really is tempted to spare him and that’s a precursor of the role of mercy as you mentioned in Roman ideology. I have to say that it was a particular policy that was associated with Julius Caesar in civil conflict. He chose to spare a lot of Romans on the opposite side instead of kill them and to set vendetta’s in train. So even that idea if mercy is highly politicized.


72 RH @41:41/  I have, I guess, a more tragic reading than you do of that, or ironic. Because as you said the central doctrine laid out in Book Six about sparing the ones who appeal, that this is what he should do, it would be consistent with his character …


73 SB/  It would.


74 RH/ …and he is persuaded.  Now, two things. First, …well, is Aeneas in a rage not because Turnus killed Pallas but because he’s in a rage really against himself because he made a promise to Pallas’ father and through his own neglect actually allowed Pallas to die in his first experience on the battle field – maybe …and he takes it out.

But more than that, I don’t know. Can I just have that text? I want to point to one line which I think jumped out at me re-reading this where: “Aeneas stood there lethal in his bronze. His eyes searched the distance.”  That’s the line: His eyes searched the distance. Here we have two warriors very much like a gladitorial contest and they are being looked at and here is the one who is standing over the one he is … has defeated and he raises his eyes and he looks around, it’s almost as if he’s looking to his Roman audience, the poet is looking to his Roman audience and trying to get a signal from them what they want him to do. It’s almost as if he sees them put their thumbs down and say kill him, kill him because of some kind of tragic blood lust or … I don’t know, I read it as almost as, Aeneas doesn’t have any choice because it’s the will of the Roman people for this kind of death and reciprocal violence and this idea well will we ever break the cycle of reciprocal violence? Will there ever be an end to this kind of thing?  I find it full of pathos and tragedy.


75 SB @43:42/  And so have many readers. You’re reading …I’m sure you’re aware, that you’re reading some ideas there into the text which are not actually in the text. I would argue this is really one reason why this is a classic poem, why we call this a classic poem, why it has an abiding interest for us, and why so many people have interpreted the poem in so many different ways through different ages.  Virgil does not explain why Aeneas is angry. Is he angry at himself as you suggest Robert? It’s a plausible hypothesis. Is he angry because some kind of wave of emotion furor comes over him which he can’t resist, he’s kind of reverting to being a Homeric warrior even though he’s struggled through this whole epic poem to become Roman or proto-Roman. He’s struggled to attain virtu but at this last moment it all slips through his fingers. It could be an example of human fragility and human inconsistency. The fact is that Virgil does not spell it out.

And that is why I think this poem is a classic because the end, you can read it as you prefer. You read it,  you come to the text, if your looking for tragedy in the text you might find it. If you’re looking as some have looked for Aeneas acting very justly, there are times, Aristotle said, where it’s right for the good man to get angry. So maybe this is one of those occasions when it’s right for the goodman to get angry. Maybe that’s what he’s doing. Virgil is not explicit.


76 RH @45:22/  I know he’s not, but that’s why it’s great literature …


77 SB/  Absolutely.


78 RH/  … but, His eyes searched the distance.  That for me is very telling.

So, Susanna, would you mind reading from the Latin so that we can not just interpret but actually hear what this poem sounds like? This was actually read out loud in the court of Augustus, no?


79 SB/  Yes it certainly was, and we should remember that Latin poetry was  oral. It went in through the ear. This is very important.

So, I’ll read just the last paragraph the last few lines in English. Then I’ll read a few lines in Latin:

Aeneas stood their lethal in his bronze. His eyes searched the distance.

   And his hand paused on the hilt of his sword. 

   Turnus’s words were winning him over but then his gaze shifted to the 

   Fateful baldric on his enemies shoulder. 

   The belt glittered with it’s familiar metal work. The belt of young Pallas    

  whom Turnus had killed and whose insignia he now wore as a trophy.

  Aeneas’s eyes drank in this memorial of his own savage grief and then 

  burning with fury and terrible in his wrath he said: “Do you think you can 

 get away from me while wearing the spoils of one of my men? Pallas, 

 sacrifices you with this stroke. Pallas, and makes you pay with your guilty 


 Saying this and seething with rage Aeneas buried his sword in Turnus’s 

 chest. The man’s limbs went limp and cold and with a moan his soul fled 

 resentfully down to the shades.


And that’s in the brand new translation by Stanley Lombardo which I hadn’t seen till half an hour ago.

Okay the last eight lines of the Aeneid:





It’s very significant I think that the last word of the Aeneid is umbras, shades. The shades in the underworld. Ghosts. The dead.


80 RH/  Well, just hearing that is reason enough to go and learn Latin, no?


81 SB/  I hope so. I hope so.


82 RH @ 48:09/  Okay, … I made some opening remarks about the relationship between America and Rome. The kind of tragic reading of the book that I’ve been representing a little bit, …it doesn’t have a long tradition but there is so called, we talked about this before coming on air, the Harvard pessimists, that in the sixties, I think also as a direct result of the Vietnam War …


83 SB/  I agree.


84 RH/  … there was a  re-reading of Virgil that looking at the undercurrent of critique of empire, of the huge almost, well the inordinate possible costs of Empire, the suffering of the innocent, and the early deaths, and all the personal sacrifices that Aeneas himself has to make in order to fullfill his destiny, which led these readers of the poem to say that the Aeneid, far from being a championing of the greatness of the empire, was actually implicitly  trying to say that maybe the cot is too high to pay. Do you uh,  …where do you stand with regard to that tradition, that kind of reading?


85 SB @ 49:34/   I don’t really agree with it.  Though to say so is to swim against the tides somewhat. I think it is too situated a reading. I think it is a reading seeing the emphasis on loss as being overwhelming. The sense of celebration of peace and civilization that Rome is associated with in the poem. I think this feeling the loss is overwhelme the good things. I think it’s an over reading. I think it’s too situated in the second half of the 20th century. This is really the main era when that reading has been prominent.

Earlier eras have read the poem as a celebration of Empire in a positive way. It’s almost impossible to say that phrase these days. While classics, the study of Latin literature in particular, was so important in educational curricula in Europe and then for the founding fathers who has you said earlier on were all highly educated in Latin and Greek, what those pepople were looking to in this poem for was role models. And they were looking to the Roman Republic more generally but also specifically to this poem but they would always be emphasizing the positive aspects of Aeneas’s personality. Especially his pietas his sense of religious duty and obligation. A very difficult word to translate again, it means the sense of obligation to the gods and to your family and to your nation, your future nation, patriotism, it’s all those ideas in a bundle. So, at earlier periods  Aeneas was regarded as a role model, an instantiation of virtue like some of the other big names some of the big names from the Roman Republican era, like Cato and Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar who were regarded as having acted to restore liberty, republican liberty because they thought that Caesar was becoming a tyrant. Particularly Cicero, the great orator and statesman of the late republic. He was perhaps the single most important figure for the founding fathers who were modeling themselves on   him in all kinds of ways.

So, think there is a lot going for that kind of reading. On the other hand I don’t want to say that there is no sense of loss or regret in the poem. Of course there is. It’s a balance. It really is a balance.  One reason I love to read Virgil, he is my favorite Latin author by the way, is it’s not just for the beauty of the Latin which is very clear and just wonderful Latin. I think Virgil does show an amazing amount of sympathy for all of his characters. As we move through the poem he re-focalizes  what’s going on through a number of different eyes. I think the Harvard school of pessimists have kind of over emphasized the theme of loss at the expense of the celebration of empire that’s definitely there for Virgil. He is enjoying, he’s living in an era of peace and he’s wanting to celebrate that under the new regime that Augustus inaugurates.


86 RH @53:14/  Yeah.  Yeah.  Well I’m … the Harvard pessimists are you know, that’s one tradition but I suppose my Virgil came to me through Dante. Because I began as a Dante scholar, wrote a dissertation on Dante and the more you are immersed in the Divine Comedy and the role that Virgil, … the way that Dante reads Virgil, the way he recasts him is very much as a figure of loss.  As someone who would have been … he was like the perfect Christian twenty years before the possibility of salvation came around and that he was condemned to live in a world that …of um, a different concept of Roman virtue in which he was actually not really at home. So there, there are precedents for the reading of Virgil as a poet of loss.


87 SB @54:10/  That’s a very good point. I would counter I suppose, I think, Dante is himself a poet who is kind of very focused on loss and absence. So, it’s not surprising to me that he would bring that vision to Virgil. Of course he is definitely responding to something in the poem.


88 RH/  So I have to ask, with the five minutes remaining, America, I began with this kind of parallels or suggestions that there might be some kind of weird uncanny correspondences between the destiny of Rome and America. Is that going to far? Is there a way in which America begins as a republic basing itself very consciously as you said, the founding fathers on some notion of the Roman Republic’s Cicero and uh, yeah there’s Greek Democracy that is there in the background too but I think the precedent of Rome was more important for them than it was, then the Greeks were.

Are we living in an era right now where many of the contradictions in America have to do with this transitioning process from being a republic to becoming an empire?


89 SB @55:29/  Yes, I think that must be right.  I think that is right. America represents, when it thinks about Roman history it thinks about the Republic being all full of good things and modern images of the Roman Empire from Augustus onwards are images of decadence and bloodletting. This is when the gladiatorial games really get going. One thinks of the movie Gladiator. This is obviously set in the Empire about two hundred years later. So, it would be very very easy to say yes America is in decline right now and sooner or later there’s going to be the barbarian invasions or the implosion that given in his great history The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire talks about as a cause of the end of the Roman Empire. It’s always too easy just to see things in terms of decline …


90 RH/  Yeah, no, I didn’t mean it in that sense.


91 SB @56:28/  It might be right all the same.  But for this moment of  balancing world wide control, military control, economic control, what cots does that come to the human individual? That’s one message you could get out of Virgil and apply to modern day America.


92 RH @ 56:51/  Well, one thing I wanted to say about Rome, is among the ancient civilizations I think it’s quite exceptional among them in this respect that if you look at the Greeks they had their notion of being Greeks and then there were the barbarians. If you look at the Hebrews there was the Gentiles and the Hebrews: us and them. China, great Empire, you know ancient Empire they built this huge wall around itself in order to say here’s the inside and there is the world on the outside. Rome is the only one known to me among the great Empires which said: “we don’t have a distinction. Rome is a universal concept.” The notion of citizenship applies equally to all peoples races ethnic backgrounds and so forth.  Equitas, there’s a sense that the whole world can now become Rome, as it were.  For awhile that idea did have some reality to back it up. I’m wondering wehter Rome really did gives us our concept of universality.  The one that America herself has perhaps inherited?


93 SB @58:09/  Yeahp, I think so and just to go back to where you began with the dollar bill: Epluribus Unum; Out of many, one. Maybe that’s the idea we should take away from studying Roman antiquity. That you can spread your net over the whole world but then you can synthesize and assimilate so that everybody becomes, as you say, a Roman citizen. So maybe that’s an aim. I’m too cynical perhaps to really believe in that because I think there’s lot’s of things wrong with Globalization. I think the destruction of the particular the local is really terrible …


94 RH/  I do too.


95 SB @58:50/ … but maybe that’s where the analogy will break down.


96 RH/  Oh, for sure. No, I think that’s a very noble idea. In practice however I agree with you that one has to look at all the local cultural differences that were wiped out really annihilated. You go around the Mediterranean world or even in Gaul or France, England you look at all these Roman, the ruins of these Roman cities and they’re all on the same model. You know they had the same sort of structure with their axes like the  this and like that …


97 SB/  Monolithic buildings.


98 RH/  …and what we don’t see are the extraordinary differences of local cultures that were basically eliminated by this imposition by a rigid Roman model. Of course there’s a price to be paid for all these things.

Anyway.   Susanna, we’ve gotten to the end of the hour. It’s been fascinating. I think we need another one on Virgil and Rome so I hope that we’re gonna do that sometime soon.


99 SB/  It’s been a great pleasure to be here Robert, thank you for inviting me.


100 RH/  Thank you very much. I’d like to remind our listeners that coming up: Decca, at the Cafe Bohemian, followed by the Bard and after that Sports Night Cap. But let’s let Morrison….


101 JM/   Yeeeaaaah


102 RH/ … let out this scream.  Also please visit our webpage. Just log on to the web page of the Stanford French and Italian Department. There you can click on Entitled Opinions. You can leave your comments, you can also listen to previous shows archived there online. We’ll see you then our guest is going to be Joshua Landy, we’ll be talking about Marcel Proust. Next week.

Bye bye.


103 JM/  When the music’s over. When the music’s over yeauh.











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