The prophetic vigor of this book springs from Vergil’s Aeneid, the Latin epic published soon after the poet’s death in 19 b.c.e. and destined to become a literary focus of the Western world. During much of its existence, this epic has been interpreted as an enthusiastic affirmation of Roman piety and dedication to duty. Aeneas, the Trojan hero of the epic, has been admired for his devotion to his father, Anchises, and for his determination to found a new city in Italy—one from which would eventually spring Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. In pursuit of these goals, Aeneas suppressed self-interest and personal emotions, such as his affection for Dido, the queen of Carthage, whom he reluctantly left in order to reach Italy. At the same time, the epic has traditionally been read as a form of political propaganda. Commissioned by the emperor Augustus and celebrating the genealogical ties between the emperor and Aeneas, Vergil’s poem is an assertion of Rome’s greatness, especially under the rule of Augustus, who brought peace and stability to an empire torn apart by political turmoil and civil war for most of the first century b.c.e.
In the twentieth century, however, an interpretation emphasizing the fury and brutality of Aeneas toward his antagonist, Turnus, at the end of the epic has tarnished the Aeneid’s glorious luster and heroic idealism. This is the point of view of the so-called Harvard school, a group of scholars (represented by Adam Parry in “The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid,” Anon 11.4 1963) for whom Vergil’s epic conveys less moral certainty and a more ambiguous portrayal of the hero and of traditional Roman values. In the process, late twentieth century readings have transformed the propagandistic overtones of Vergil’s Aeneid into a more cynical questioning of Vergil’s attitude toward the glories of Augustan Rome.
Henry’s study shows a way to assimilate the traditional view of the pious hero with the ruthless hero seen by the Harvard school. It is thus an important step in the process of restoring the Roman national epic to its place of honor in Western literature. By examining episodes in which past events are recalled or in which future ones are anticipated, Henry is able to illustrate in the Aeneid a significant sequence of recollection, moral lesson, divine message, and decisive action which explains the actions and motivations of the epic hero as well as his spiritual growth. At first, Aeneas possesses little sense of mission or direction. At the end of the Trojan War, he contemplates only death at the hands of the Greeks in futile defense of his city and his family. Gradually, however, he is confronted with a series of prophetic signs and reminders that develop in him a growing awareness of his mission. As a result of these experiences, Aeneas displays a stronger sense of purpose and more inner resolve in the second half of the epic as he prepares to found his new city in Italy.
Henry shows how Aeneas’ new city is the focal point where the different time levels of the epic meet. As both a second Troy and an anticipation of imperial Rome, this city unites both past and future in the epic present. Aeneas’ new city thus directs attention simultaneously to the old city of Troy, abandoned by the gods, and to Vergil’s Rome, favored by the gods as mistress of the Mediterranean. All three cities affirm the inevitability of fate and of divine will.
The triple identity of this city is a key to the understanding of Aeneas’ own actions in Italy and especially his dealings with Turnus. As a Trojan, Aeneas suffered from his native city’s loss of divine favor, but as the ancestor of the Roman people, Aeneas is also the chosen agent of the gods. He is destined to found a city, this time with divine sanction. Like the gods who show neither compassion nor mercy to the Trojans, Vergil’s pious hero is neither compassionate nor merciful toward his Italian enemies. Thus, Aeneas displays a furious conviction of righteousness, a sense of the cosmic order of the Roman empire which justifies fury as an appropriate response by a pious man to whatever stands in the way of fate.
Henry explains Vergil’s hero in terms of the ancient philosophical school of Stoicism. Aeneas is a Stoic disciple growing toward greater maturity and acceptance of divine providence and moving toward fulfillment of this divine will and fate through appropriate actions. In the epic, Aeneas becomes a willing agent who displays both providentia (that is, a vision of future purpose) and prudentia (a sense of calculated action). While Stoicism in its purest form discouraged spontaneity and encouraged deliberate, rational actions, Henry shows how the fury, anger, and ruthlessness displayed by Aeneas in the last half of the epic suggest a modified form of Stoicism that did not condemn all forms of emotion but, instead, advocated the channeling of irrational feelings toward proper ends.
Reconciliation and acceptance form an important part...
(The entire section is 2061 words.)