Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Sacra Roma

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Sacra Roma

Article excerpt

Sacra Roma THE AENEID by VIRGIL translated by Robert Fagles Viking Adult, 496 pages, $40

Reviewed by Robert Royal

WE DO NOT READ VIRGIL much anymore. In part, because we no longer learn Latin and so do not seek out its writers, however famous and central to our culture they were once thought to be.

But there is another, more serious set of obstacles. The Renaissance and Enlightenment myth holds that our civilization began in Greece, and everything Greek is superior to the merely practical Latins. Most high school students are introduced to Homer these days, but I am unsure how much they benefit from it: Homer is beyond question great but seems a puzzle for us, because his world-in both its sacred and profane dimensions-is so different from ours. Virgil, by an almost inexplicable quality all his own among the ancients, is much more immediately accessible to us.

One reason may be that Virgil's powerful poetic intuition led him to see Roman history as bearing universal significance. C.S. Lewis formulates the difference from Homer forcefully: "There is no pretence, indeed no possibility of pretending, that the world, or even Greece, would have been much altered if Odysseus had never got home at all. The poem is an adventure story." Indeed, "the phenomena of growth, the slow process by which some great thing has taken its present shape, does not seem to have interested the Greeks. Their heart's desire was the timeless, the unchangeable, and they saw time as mere flux." The Aeneid, Lewis thought, was the first poem to echo the "abysm of time" and to see a temporal occurrence as an embodiment of a vocation-in every sense of the term. After the Aeneid, ancient poetry, including Homer, looks like boys' verse to which we cannot return: "No man who has once read it with full perception remains an adolescent."

This is considerable praise from a modern Christian-particularly if you also notice, as Lewis does, that the poem shows Aeneas is in search of an "abiding city" (mansuram urbem) here on earth. To be a Christian is to know that we have here no abiding city. This was SL Augustine's complaint about the Virgilian view of Rome: It is dangerous because it sets up an imperfect and arrogant and necessarily impermanent human enterprise as a divine thing. Nor was the problem only that Rome's real virtues, which Augustine conceded, had been put in the service of libido dominandi. As he says in a letter, "God has demonstrated in the most powerful and excellent empire of the Romans how important the civic virtues are even without true religion, so that we may understand that when true religion is added, men become citizens of that other city." The more far-reaching error was that Roman claims of "empire without end," as Virgil makes Jupiter promise in the Aeneid, is the expression of a different revelation, one that might claim to reach what Jews and Christians still had not: an everlasting kingdom.

Still, Virgil understood that telling the tale of Rome's founding not only gave expression to the old Roman ethos but might also offer a kind of inspiration for the future. Some modern critics have dismissed Virgil's celebration of Roman virtue as toadying to the emperor Augustus-a man ruthless in pursuit of power but rather benign once he had it. Other scholars, however, have pointed out the many signs of Virgil's ambiguity about the founding of even so great a human thing as Rome. We can see that pius Aeneas-his piety here including not only religious devotion but also all the responsibilities of father, warrior, leader, founderexpresses a Roman sense of duty that is not unaware of the lacrimae reritm, the deep sorrows of all human affairs.

W. H. Auden, usually a reliable critic of poetry, claims that in Virgil one hears "the weeping of a Muse betrayed" in the political compromises of the Aeneid. Auden argued that "Not even the first of the Romans can learn / His Roman history in the future tense.... / Hindsight as foresight makes no sense. …

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