Magazine article The World and I

Empire without End? the Fate of Rome and the Future of America

Magazine article The World and I

Empire without End? the Fate of Rome and the Future of America

Article excerpt

David Gress is professor of classics at Aarhus University, Denmark, and fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. He is the author of works on European history and contemporary international relations, among them A History of West Germany 1945--1991 (with Dennis Bark, 1993) and From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents (1998). His most recent book is The Flickering Lamp: History, Education, and American Culture in the New Century.

"The Romans.

On them I impose no limits of time or place.

I have given them an empire that will know no end."

The Roman poet Virgil (70--19 b.c.) placed these resounding words in the mouth of the king of the gods, Jupiter. He is declaring his purpose for the exiles of Troy, the city captured by the Greeks. Led by the Trojan prince Aeneas, the exiles are on their way to Italy, where they are fated, after much sorrow and war, to found the city of Rome. Jupiter is speaking to Venus, the goddess of love, who is also the mother of Aeneas. She fears that Jupiter's consort, Juno, who has always favored the Greeks and opposed the Trojans, will continue to persecute the exiles. The king of the gods reassures Venus that her son and his followers will accomplish their purpose and that this purpose will be greater than even they imagine--"an empire that will know no end."

Jupiter's promise is how Virgil links his epic of the Trojan exiles, the Aeneid, to the history of Rome through the centuries to Virgil's own time. Aeneas' son, Jupiter says, will be called Iulus when the exiles settle in Italy; Iulus will be the forefather of Romulus, the founder of Rome and also the ancestor of Julius Caesar (100--44 b.c.) and Augustus (63 b.c.--a.d.14), the rulers of Rome when Virgil wrote. The tradition that the Julian family was descended from Venus was an old one; in the Aeneid it received poetic confirmation.


Unlike Homer's epics about the Trojan War, the Aeneid is not a retelling of ancient legends located in a mythical past but a carefully designed work of art that related those legends to what Virgil conceived as the real-life epic of Rome, its rise to power and greatness and its cultural mission. Since Homer's epics were virtually the Bible of ancient civilization, its basic text and cultural code, Virgil's purpose in composing the Aeneid was to place the formerly rude and primitive Romans at the head of that civilization. Rome was not merely power; it was dignity and justice, and its destiny was to use power to do justice. This is made clear in the second of three crucial passages of the Aeneid, where the story of the exiles is linked to Virgil's present and to his vision of Rome. In book 6, Aeneas is sent to the underworld to obtain a vision of the future that awaits his descendants. The shade of his father shows him in a vision a pageant of Roman history and points to the great men who will build the empire. "Behold this race, behold your Romans," he says. He concludes by prophesying that others, that is, Greeks, will excel in art, rhetoric, and science but "you, Roman, shall rule people by the skill of command- -this will be your artistry--and impose the order of peace, spare the humble, and cast down the proud."

Americans of an earlier and less guilt-ridden era would not have hesitated to apply Virgil's words to themselves. Woodrow Wilson, for example, who as president led the United States into World War I in 1917 to help "make the world safe for democracy," conceived of America's purpose very much in terms of "sparing the humble and casting down the proud." A similar self-image animated Franklin Roosevelt and the other American leaders and policymakers during World War II. The proud were, in each case, Germany and its allies; the humble were the victims of German aggression, who would be restored to liberty and self-determination by American power.

Unfortunately, reality did not match the image, either in the twentieth century a. …

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