The Last Trojan Hero: A Cultural History of Virgil's Aeneid
I. B. Tauris, 2014
256 pp., $35.00
Gerald J. Russello
The Last Trojan Hero
Hardie's book is also an act of extraordinary cultural retrieval. He identifies scores of neglected works—some many volumes in length—written in imitation of Virgil over the centuries. From the 2nd-century church father Lactantius, to the North African Fulgentius in the 6th century, to the Renaissance humanists, everyone needed to interpret, comment on, and engage with the "incomparable" poet in order to be a part of the culture. These works were the common deposit of literary tradition of the West; individually and collectively, they exerted a profound influence in how Europeans understood themselves and the symbolic and rhetorical language they used to express that understanding.
Even Virgil's name becomes absorbed into this wider flow of tradition surrounding him. Surely deliberately, Hardie uses the medieval spelling of Virgil's name, though the poet was born Publius Vergilius Maro. The alternate spelling arose by amalgamation with the virga, a Latin word referring to something like a magic wand, hence a tribute to the magical powers the poet was said to command. The poem itself seemed to absorb the poet's magical powers; thus, over the centuries Europeans employed techniques like the sortes Virgilianae, which was the practice of opening the Aeneid at random to tell a fortune from reading the lines, or the cento, which literally pieces together lines from Virgil to create an entirely new literary document. As early as the 4th century, there are Virgilian centos that recombine fragments of the Aeneid to tell the story of both the Old and New Testaments.
Hardie focuses on the vast literary reception of Virgil's work. But we should not lose sight of the fact that Virgil's influence extended beyond literature into politics and what may be termed "popular" culture, given that for most of the period Hardie discusses most people could not read. The Last Trojan Hero helpfully includes some black-and-white and full-color plates from Titian, Rubens, Tiepolo, and others, to show the visual reach of the epic. Moreover, in his chapter "Parody and Burlesque," Hardie traces a popular tradition of doggerel, satire, and other "lower" literary forms based on Virgil's epic poetry. Although extremely bawdy at times, nevertheless a scatological poem written in iambic pentameter alluding to Latin epic somehow still seems richer than our contemporary analogues, which, among other faults, are trapped in their own self-referential universe.
And then there is Christianity. Hardie devotes a chapter to the love-hate relationship the Church had with Virgil, and how post-Reformation Christendom continued to use him. The most famous connection with Virgil is not in the Aeneid but in the Eclogues. There, in Book IV, Virgil was said to anticipate the coming of the Christ-child, thus making Virgil Christianus naturaliter, endowed with the gift of prophecy. This legend contributed to Virgil's reputation as a sorcerer and wonderworker as well as poet. The motifs of a worldwide, divinely inspired empire had obvious uses for Christian kings and the papacy, and as Hardie shows, the supernatural elements of Virgil, which had gods and demons pushing Aeneas and his adversaries along their allotted paths, found literary echoes in Christian works.
Although Hardie is confident of Virgil's continued presence, the examples he uses of that presence grow unfortunately thinner as we approach the present; Derek Walcott is the outstanding exception to the general literary neglect of Virgil. There are many reasons for the fading of classical imagery and language from contemporary culture, of course, but this book helps explain why a revival of half-remembered Latin in inscriptions (there is one in the World Trade Center Museum, for example) is not enough. The European world, including its colonies, was saturated with Virgil, and through him to an entire civilization. But yet, like so much of classical learning, the old Roman poet is in danger of becoming one of the shades in Book VI of his great work, haunting the underworld and waiting just at the back and edges of our cultural dreams.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman (www.kirkcenter.org).
Copyright © 2014 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.