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This week, the Professor continues his summer series on religion and
epic poetry. “Now, I am warning you,” I tell the undergraduates on the
first day of class, “This is a very politically incorrect class. We”re
going to be talking about sexism, imperialism, human slavery, violence
and images of naked idols. If these topics bother you, then you need to
take class about nice people. Of course, I do not condone any of these
terrible things. But when you teach the history of ancient Rome,
certain issues come up. And this is one of your textbooks.” At this
moment in the discussion I hold up “The Aeneid” of P. Vergilius Maro,
commonly known as Virgil, who lived from 70 to 19 B.C. Along with the
Bible and Shakespeare, it is one of the most influential books in the
history of literature.

Unlike Homeric literature or “Gilgamesh,” which were produced
orally over a long period of time, “The Aeneid” was a composition by
one man. At the end of the Roman civil war, shortly before the time of
Christ, the emperor Octavian Caesar Augustus hired Virgil to write a
poem to rival the great epic sagas of Greece to glorify the Roman
state, and in the process glorify Caesar as well. Virgil's task
was all the more difficult, because Augustus Caesar had ended five
centuries of republican democracy and replaced it with a military
monarchy, which is a hard feat to legitimize. Virgil accepted the
commission for a million gold coins and spent the rest of his life
writing poetry. He was almost done when he took ill and died, but
before his death he ordered the manuscripts burned. Caesar intervened
and the imperialist manuscript was saved for posterity. For the next
four centuries of the Roman Empire it was the required study of all
educated people, and it remained popular in the Middle Ages right down
to the modern day.

To glorify the emperor, Virgil avoided tacky subjects such as
Caesar's mass executions and proscriptions or Roman war fleets sending
their fellow Romans down to the bottom of the sea. Instead, he wrote a
poem of the founding of the Roman people in remote antiquity by the
alleged ancestor of Augustus, Aeneas, the last surviving prince of
Troy. To justify the emperor, Virgil praised the emperor's ancestor who
had lived 12 centuries before.

The saga opens with a storm, wrought by the blind fury of the goddess
Juno, the vengeful queen of heaven. Juno was still angry at the Trojans
because their prince, Paris, had favored Venus in the famous beauty
contest of the goddesses. Juno also knew that her favorite people, the
Carthaginians, would one day be destroyed by the heirs of the Trojans,
the Romans. And so the furious goddess summoned her brother Neptune to
call forth a great ocean storm, which pulverized the fleet and washed
the survivors onto the shores of Africa, far from Rome and far from
home. Virgil's gods and goddesses are quite simple: angry women,
idiotic bimbos and wise men. Its not a subtle stereotype to use.

Once
he survived the storm, pious Aeneas rallies his fellow survivors of the
shipwreck and discovers the city of Carthage and its widow queen, Dido.
Matronly Dido assists the shipwrecked Trojans and welcomes them at a
banquet, which turns out to be her undoing. Dido asks Aeneas to tell
the story of his adventures and he replies with the story of the Trojan
Horse and the sack of his city by the cunning Greeks. Romans who heard
this story would have doubtless smiled, for it justified their own
recent conquest of Greece as appropriate payback. In the tale, Aeneas
would have preferred to go down with his kinsmen fighting to the end,
as all Romans should, but the gods commanded him to flee the doomed
city and to found a new city in the west. As the hero tells the tale,
Cupid, that most dangerous sniper of the gods, fires one of his arrows
of love into the queen's heart and she falls in love with the Trojan
Aeneas. After a short courtship, they end up in a “committed
relationship,” as we would say these days.

But this love affair irritates Jupiter, the king of the heavens. The
high god has ordained that from the Trojan bloodline a people will be
raised up to dominate the world forever, and bring order and law to
savage peoples from Arabia to Britain, from Germany to Africa. For the
Romans, love was a kind of madness, a weakness, which prevented men
from clear thinking. Were they right in this, I ask my students” To
remind the hero of his duty, Jupiter sends Mercury, the messenger god,
to order Aeneas back to active duty and to abandon his love. Aeneas
attempts to do this secretly, but his lover discovers his plans to
abandon her in the night. She pleads with him and reminds him of their
love. Aeneas replies that he never really regarded the relationship as
permanent and decides to go. Apparently, men have not changed
significantly since this tale was written. But when Aeneas turns to go,
Dido curses him and his descendants and prophesies the Punic wars as
vengeance, which will bring vast suffering to Rome in the third century
B.C.

After many trials, Aeneas and his men land in Italy. But Aeneas knows,
as all Romans believed, that dad is always right. But the hero was
unable to consult his father because the old man had died. But in order
to obey the will of the gods, he still had to speak with the old man.
The solution he found, after consulting a prophetess, was to find the
path to the land of the dead and visit his father in the underworld.
Crossing the river Styx, he meets the dead, including many of the
fallen heroes of the Trojan war, and sadly also meets the soul of Dido,
who has taken her own life. When he attempts to comfort her, she scorns
him and flees into the gloom. At this point in the poem, my female
students generally agree that he deserved the snub.

But entering the sunny, grassy fields of Elysium, where heroes are to
be found, he meets his father, who shows him a long line of great souls
waiting to be born. Aeneas” father points out all the great heroes of
Roman history yet to come, except the ones Augustus disliked. Aeneas
then sees Caesar Augustus himself, the divinely favored crown of all
Roman history. Setting such political propaganda on one side, it's
worth noting that the actual Caesar Augustus is the same chap who gets
a cameo mention in the New Testament's Christmas story, when “in those
days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should
be enrolled.” This decree, the Scripture tells us, caused Joseph and
Mary to go to Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, and there Christ was born.
(Luke 2:1) There is an irony here that Virgil's prophecy of an abiding
religious empire to be founded in the days of Caesar did indeed come
true, but not in the way Virgil or Augustus could have possibly
imagined.

After all of this grand prophesy, the hero's father reminds his son of
Rome's unique destiny, which was greater than all other nations. He
writes, “Others will cast more tenderly in bronze
Their breathing figures, I can well believe,
And bring more lifelike portraits out of marble
Argue more eloquently, use the pointer
To trace the paths of heaven accurately
And accurately foretell the rising stars.

Roman, remember your strength to rule
Earth's peoples ” for your arts are to be these
to pacify, to impose the rule of law,
to spare the conquered, battle down the proud.”
(“The Aeneid” VI: ll.1145-1154, Fitzgerald translation)
Six more chapters of war and conquest will follow this prophecy, but
one note remains to be considered while Aeneas is in the underworld.
When the time comes to leave the dead and return to the earth, Aeneas
is confronted with two doors, one of ivory and one of horn. Through
these doors dreams are sent out to the minds of sleeping men, prophetic
and true dreams through the door of horn and false dreams through the
door of ivory. Virgil tells us that Aeneas took the ivory door, the
door of falsehood.

It is odd that Virgil makes the noble ancestor of great Augustus pass
through the door of lies before returning to earth to found the Roman
line. But it is just a stray verse and one hardly notices it. Indeed,
the verse is just small enough to get past the emperor's censors.
Perhaps Virgil was sending a quiet message to his more perceptive
readers that the whole of his message extolling Augustus and his
“divine mission” was actually a lie and a fantasy. Political
propaganda, however magnificent and beautiful, and even from the pen of
the greatest of authors, remains only that ” propaganda. There is a
lesson here for modern readers to heed.

Next week: The last of the epic poem series, as Virgil returns 13 centuries later to give us a guided tour of hell.

-
Gregory Elder, a Redlands resident, is a professor of history and
humanities at Riverside Community College. You can write to him at
Professing Faith, P.O. Box 8102, Redlands, CA 92375, or send e-mail to Gnyssa@verizon.net