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
In the heat of the Second World War, T. S. Eliot gave a speech (to the newly formed Virgil Society) stating that the Aeneid was "the classic of all Europe," because Virgil "is at the center of European civilization" in a way shared by no other poet. More than Dante, more than Cervantes, more than the Anglo-Saxon epics forgotten for centuries, more than Malory's Morte D'Arthur or the Grail cycle, more even than the Odyssey or Paradise Lost, the tale of Aeneas and his wandering Trojans has defined the West; as Philip Hardie writes in this magnificent volume, the work of Virgil has been "a central monument in the literary and cultural landscape of Europe and, in more recent centuries, of those territories around the world colonized by Europe." Only Christianity has been a comparable influence on Western culture, and even there the record is muddled, because Christianity came at the back of Latin learning across Europe, a learning itself based on knowledge of Virgil. And at times it seemed the epic would win out even over Christianity.
Hardie, an eminent classicist, senior research fellow at Trinity College Cambridge, and author of several previous books on Virgil, traces the influence of the Aeneid and Virgil's other works through Western culture from their composition during the reign of Augustus through almost the present day. The Last Trojan is an exceptionally accessible example of "reception studies," an academic discipline that looks at how classic works are accepted into cultural memory and become part of a culture's language over time. (In the old days, this approach might simply have been called literature or history, or even "tradition.")
The Aeneid is the supreme exemplar for such studies, since it was received into the cultural and literary canons almost from publication. The epic and Virgil's other poetry, the farming poems called the Georgics and the pastoral Eclogues, were continually reworked and reimagined in the ensuing centuries across almost every European nation as times and cultural shifts allowed or required. "To write a comprehensive literary and cultural history of the reception of Virgil would be little less than to write a literary and cultural history of Western Europe and its former overseas possessions," as Hardie puts it. To provide some order to his material, Hardie divides his book along rough subject lines, such as "Empire and Nation," "Underworlds," "Art and Landscape," and a fascinating chapter on the many versions of Dido, the tragic queen, "La donna è mobile."
The epic, as is well known, covers the travails of Aeneas, his father Anchises and son Ascanius, and his band of Trojans as they flee the city after its destruction by the Greeks. After many adventures, including an idyll in Carthage with its ruler Dido and a visit to the underworld, the Trojans end up in Italy, where Aeneas defeats the natives and ultimately founds the empire destined to rule the world.
The poem fired the European imagination in part because of a happenstance in time. Written in the ten years following the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC, during the period when the Roman Republic was becoming the Roman Empire. A memorable passage in Book VI, spoken by Anchises to Aeneas in the underworld, lays out the prophecy of Rome's dominance: "Romane, memento (hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem, parcere subiectis et debellare superbos," loosely translated as "Remember, Rome, such are your skills: to impose your way with peace, to spare the downtrodden and defeat the proud." One could see why those around Octavian would warm to such language. The Aeneid therefore became initially a poem of empire, and indeed the genealogy of the main characters is written always with the present in mind. Aeneas, after all, is the ancestor of Octavian (who became Augustus in 27 BC), and Ascanius founds Alba Longa, which becomes Rome under Romulus. This was never a monolithic view, as Hardie notes; Aeneas's abandonment of Dido for his destiny and his, perhaps unjust, slaying of the Italian Turnus at the very end of the narrative give the poem a dramatic tension that has contributed to its influence.
The force of the family connection with Aeneas is so strong that through the medieval and early modern period most royal families had their own "genealogies" trace back to Aeneas or, if they couldn't do that, even by wishful thinking, at least to the image of founding, as Aeneas had founded Rome. Thus, in AD 799—eight centuries, remember, after the Aeneid's composition—a poem commemorating the meeting of Charlemagne and Pope Leo III in Aachen is imbued with Virgilian resonance, with the city being a new Rome. Some years ago, Marie Tanner wrote an excellent book on the Virgilian iconography of the Hapsburgs, titled The Last Descendant of Aeneas. In it, she details how the Hapsburgs, through literature, painting, and royal symbolism, made repeated and explicit connections between the family and the epic hero well into the 19th century. Hardie notes the Aeneid manqué written in 1576 in honor of Rudolf II, and on a more public scale, the entrance of Eleanor of Toledo's entry into Florence in 1539, complete with a triumphal arch reminding the populace of the connection between the Habsburgs and the Augustan reign of peace, "Augustus Caesar Divum Gens Aurea Condit Saecula."