No, Virgil, No
Bristol Classical Press, 2nd Edition, 2009
Disillusioned with poetry’s ability to influence politics, W.H. Auden attacked the ancient Roman poet Virgil:
No, Virgil, no
Not even the first of the Romans can learn
His Roman history in the future tense
Not even to serve your political turn
Hindsight as foresight makes no sense.
Virgil’s epic, Aeneid, first published in 19 BCE, is notorious for its “political turn”. Written in Rome during the reign of Augustus, first emperor in all but name, the Aeneid traces the legendary origins of Rome back to Aeneas. Escaping from the cinders of burning Troy with his young son and his father, the Trojan hero travelled to Italy with divine guidance and founded Lavinium, the antecedent of Rome.
For Augustan Rome, old tales provided opportunities to accommodate and flatter the new political situation. Popularised in the first century BCE was a version of the story in which the son of Aeneas, Ascanius, takes the name “Iulus”. This conveniently made him the ancestor of the house of the Julii, to which Augustus (Octavian), as the adopted son of Julius Caesar, belonged. The “Iulus” version therefore legitimised the house of Augustus as the rightful rulers of Rome, with the added bonus of divine descent from Aeneas’s mother, Venus. This is the story told in the Aeneid. In a series of passages, the glorious future of contemporary Rome is predicted as the Trojan hero makes his way to Italy. When Aeneas goes down to the Underworld in Book 6, he sees the spirits of future Romans, “all the descendants of Iulus”, waiting to be born, among them Augustus:
Here is the man whose coming you so often hear prophesied, here he is, Augustus Caesar, son of a god, the man who will bring back the golden years…and extend Rome’s empire beyond the stars. (Aeneid 6.791-6)
Roman history in the future tense, then, and inescapably propaganda.
Virgil’s “political turn” did not raise the hackles of Auden alone. According to Servius, a fourth-century CE grammarian, Virgil wrote the Aeneid precisely in order “to praise Augustus”. This “political turn” became an increasingly vexed issue as the epic assumed a place of immovable prestige in Western culture. As T.S. Eliot put it, Virgil’s epic became “the Classic of all Europe”: until a generation ago, the Aeneid was a standard text in many European schools, inspiring our most influential writers, from Dante and Milton to Seamus Heaney. Yet there is a darker side to this influence, most recently foregrounded by the poem’s strong associations with Italian fascism. In an age when so many books were banned, the power of Augustan Rome was held up as an ideal, and Virgil celebrated as the regime’s poet. Mussolini subsidised publication of the Aeneid by the Roman Academy “Iussu Benedicti Mussolini”, “by order of Benito Mussolini”. And in Britain, the title of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech uneasily evokes a famous line from the epic.
What might seem paradoxical in light of this troubled history is the fact that the Aeneid has also been celebrated for its sensitivity to “the tears of things” (lacrimae rerum), and in particular to the horrors of war. For Alfred Lord Tennyson, Virgil was “majestic in thy sadness/ and the doubtful doom of human kind”. The German writer Theodore Haecker went so far as to declare in 1940 that “Virgil, who was so often able to express the horror of war, would today be speechless in a concentration camp.” This so-called “pessimistic” aspect of the poem was cited by those eager to rescue it from charges of being propaganda. In particular, a group of critics associated with Harvard University saw in the poem a “voice” attuned to the disturbing aspects of its age, one that challenges its otherwise propagandistic message.
In Britain, the so-called “Harvard School” has among its spokesmen Oliver Lyne, the late Oxford scholar and fellow of Balliol. For Lyne, the Aeneid is full of dissenting “further voices” beneath its nationalistic overtones, which ultimately undercut its pro-Augustan message. Lyne’s view is the one most readily accepted in England—talk to most undergraduates at Oxford reading classics about Virgil and you will probably hear something similar. Besides Lyne, R.D. Williams is most responsible for promoting this reading of the poem in Britain. His two-volume commentary on the whole of the Aeneid remains the standard work on undergraduate classics reading lists; and for those who don’t read Latin, Willams has extended his reach with a widely used commentary based on translation.
Bristol Classical Press has republished Williams’s introductory guide to the poem, first published posthumously in 1987. The press aims to reach a broad audience, targeting “students and teachers of literature and knowledgeable non-academic readers”. It includes a new foreword by James Morwood, former head of classics at Harrow and then Grocyn Lecturer at Oxford, which will help to promote Williams’s book in schools (though Morwood’s adjectives of choice, “first-class” and “splendid”, will not do much for its popular appeal). There are two existing guides, however, which it would thereby aim to replace: W.A. Camps’s An Introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid (Oxford, 1969) and Philip Hardie’s Virgil (Greece and Rome, 1998). In combination, these already provide a broader and deeper view of the epic. Camps is clear and insightful on the key aspects of the poem without being patronising, while Hardie is sophisticated and particularly informative on the epic’s critical reception in the 20th century. Williams, by contrast, makes virtually no references to secondary works, not even those that clearly inform his views.
Above all else, this volume shows Williams to be a proponent of the “further voices” reading of the Aeneid. For Williams, Virgil’s epic has both a public voice, “an optimistic vision” of Rome’s greatness, and a more conflicted “private voice of sympathy and sorrow over the fate of the lonely individual…or the warrior who loses his life in a war which is seen in the poem to have been, in the end, senseless.” Williams’s reading, then, promotes an attractively humanist Virgil. But it also has agenda, one which the commentary mostly conceals.
Virgil has always been what his readers want him to be, from Mussolini’s poet of the glory of a nation to the poet of the senselessness of war. As a result, Williams’s book, with its unambiguous espousal of the “Harvard School” reading, is also in danger of oversimplifying the matter. The Aeneid is a political poem, but its “political turn” manifests itself in more ways—and more complexly—than Williams allows us to see. Part of the richness of Virgil’s epic lies in the fact that, despite its undoubtedly “political turn”, it has a cunning ability to dodge any single political reading.
Nora Goldschmidt is reading for a DPhil in Classics at Magdalen College, Oxford.