The Emperor's New Clothes

The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

The Emperor's New Clothes


THE SOURCE: "Tape Delay" by Madeline Miller, in Lapham'sQuarterly. Spring 2012.

For centuries, ambitious rulers have cloaked themselves in the mantle of patriotism they found in Virgil's epic poem the Aeneid. Elizabeth I minted coins with words from Virgil (70-19 BC), and America's Founders quoted him on the nation's great seal. Benito Mussolini had Virgil's books reissued and his likeness printed on stamps, and even staged a bimillennial extravaganza in 1930.

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On its surface, the Aeneid is an imperialist screed, telling of the half-god Aeneas's travels from his Trojan homeland to subdue the backward Latin peoples and found Rome. But scrubbing away the patriotic varnish, beginning in the 1960s, researchers discovered in Virgil "a far more pessimistic view, one that seriously questioned the idea of human mam progress and imperial power," writes classics scholar Madeline Miller. That reading has since become accepted among many classicists. Why did it take so long to come to the fore?

Some of Virgil's dim view of conquest is hiding in plain sight. Aeneas travels to the underworld to meet past and future Roman greats. "You can almost hear the drums and trumpets," Miller says, but tellingly, on his way out, Aeneas bypasses a door for "true shades" and instead departs through a second one, for "false dreams." His father's ghost entreats Aeneas to "spare the defeated," and in the final lines, a native Latin begs for his life. Aeneas stabs him through the heart.

Virgil had cause to hide pathos in hoorah. Taken under the protection of the young Octavian, adopted son of Julius Caesar, Virgil saw his homeland splintered by civil wars that destroyed the Roman Republic and enthroned his sponsor as emperor in 27 BC.

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