Virgil died on Sept. 21, 19 B.C.E., which I took to mean, for one misguided minute, that on Sept. 21st of our own year, 2019 C.E., we were going to mark the 2,000th anniversary of the event. But, because B.C.E. is not the same as C.E., and indeed stands in inverse relation to it, the actual correlation between the moment of Virgil’s death and our own moment turns out to be a little different. It is a matter of positive and negative numbers, which can be stated with stark simplicity as a configuration of the number 1,019. Thus, with X signifying the year 1000 C.E., or the concluding year of the first millennium:
—all of which makes visible at a glance that, in sum, the bimillennial anniversary is exactly what I thought it was, except with additional mathematics, an X, a four-digit prime number, and perhaps other growths, tumors, abscesses, and dust piles, as might be expected after 2,000 years in the tomb. A commemorative moment, then.
I love Virgil. It is true that, in order to realize that I do, I have had to undergo a series of reading adventures, as if floating around the Mediterranean, before landing on Virgil himself. In high school, I made the colossal error not to take Latin, in the belief that Latin was never going to be bear on anything that interested me. And, in the meanwhile, I gave myself a classics education of sorts by buying the Penguin Classics in their paperback editions and ingesting as many Greeks and Romans as possible, the historians especially, in English translation. The military memoirists, Xenophon and Julius Caesar, were my favorites. I devoted afternoons to those studies in the school cafeteria, while serving my after-school “detention” penalty in its 20-minute allotments.
The historians and memoirists did not bring me to Virgil directly, and yet, he seemed to be hovering everywhere I looked, such that, after a while, I felt that I must have read him, even if I had not. Penguin Classics led me, in any case, to Dante’s Inferno, which was suitable for detention and introduced me to Virgil’s supernatural shade, if not to the man himself. In college, I studied Chaucer, who offered his own variation on Virgil’s Aeneid, via Petrarch. And then, at last, my course assignments led me to linger for an evening’s reading over the Aeneid itself, in its opening section and the part about Queen Dido and her amorous misfortunes with Aeneas, which was enough to convince me that someday I ought to return to the book and read the whole thing.
Only, instead of returning, I became enthralled, post-college, with Edmund Wilson, the literary critic, who made clear that Virgil was a main inspiration for his own style of essay writing. This was not because of anything in the Aeneid. It was because Virgil, in his farm manual, the Georgics, began each of the chapters, or Books, on practical themes of beekeeping or other matters of husbandry, and, from there, somehow floated upward into the heavens, until the gods took to darting about, amid thrilling sensations. And Wilson figured out how to adapt the same method to his literary themes in The Shores of Light (the title of which quoted the Georgics, Book II), except in a spirit of secular lucidity, by beginning each new essay on a practical note of leaden fact, and from there, floating upward on a beam of thoughts and energies into the zones of high emotion and sweeping judgment.
The foreign language that did bear on my own concerns was Spanish. I took it up with the intention of reading the Latin American Marxists, only to discover, after a while, that I had drifted into reading the poets. And the poets, instead of contemplating the Cuban idylls of Fidel Castro, appeared to dwell in a Virgilian universe. Rubén Darío, the “divine” Nicaraguan, became a mania of mine for a couple of years, and the more I indulged the mania, the clearer it became to me that Virgil’s ghost was dictating every other page, not in the service of Wilson’s cause of literary lucidity, but in pursuit of a mysticism out of Pythagoras.
Darío drew his ideas about poetry from Paul Verlaine and the French poets, which led me, by pursuing the chain of influences, to a study of Chateaubriand—whose obsession with Virgil turned out to be broader and more capacious than everyone else’s, such that he worked up a theory of the whole of Western culture and history, resting on the Aeneid. Then again, Chateaubriand drew the inspiration for the mini-chapters of his Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb from the Georgics, which, like Wilson’s essays, zoom upward from the mundane to the transcendental. Chateaubriand in his literary studies goes on at length about the 17th-century writer Fénelon, whom nobody reads anymore. But I was game, and willingly I made my way though Fénelon’s Aventures of Telemachus, which turn out to be still another variation on the Aeneid, intended for children.
I preferred Chateaubriand’s disciple, Victor Hugo—whose Les Misérables, in its sewer section, proves to be yet another variation. Hugo led me to Baudelaire, whose seas of Cythère float on a tide of Virgil, and to Paul Valéry, whose every line bobs on those same currents. Baudelaire led me back to America, through his enthusiasm for translating Longfellow into French, which might puzzle us Americans, given the decline in Longfellow’s reputation. But Baudelaire knew what he was doing, and Longfellow, too, turns out to have been a poet in Virgil’s mode. Into the American wilderness he plunged, wielding his dactylic hexameter: “This is the forest primeval ….” From Longfellow I learn that obsession with Virgil was, above all, a medieval phenomenon. The French and Spanish poets of the Middle Ages took Virgil to be their own contemporary, just as Dante did in Italy, and they attributed to him the adventures of a knight errant, courting the ladies and languishing in a tyrant’s prison.
Deeply I regret my error in high school. Some years ago, I purchased Wheelock’s Latin, in the hope of undoing the error. Now and then I slog through a page. Only, my patience for this sort of thing drained away before I had begun, and I fitted myself out, instead, with the little red volumes of the Loeb Classical Library, in the belief that it might be good to read Virgil in English on the right-hand pages, and run my eye over the Latin on the left-hand pages, binocularly. The Loeb translations are by H.R. Fairclough, and they are in a stuffy prose that seems to come from some corner of England that, as of a century ago, had not yet completed the transition from Roman times to Anglo-Saxon times.
My edition was updated in 1999 by G.P. Goold, who explains that he removed the antique thees and thous, in the hope of achieving a modern tone. But he shouldn’t have bothered. The stuffiness remains, and it is marvelous. To read Virgil in the Loeb edition is like tramping through a blackberry patch, getting stuck on prickly leaves and roots and discovering succulent purple outbursts of God knows what—the Olympic winds, the supernatural tides, eagles tearing at snakes, lions panting for blood, seas of rage and grief, godly intimations of destiny. I turn the page and say, oh, there’s a good one!—and pluck it for consumption.
The Christians in the later Roman Empire convinced themselves that Virgil was a sort of honorary Christian and a divinely inspired prophet, which seemed to them plausible because, on one hand, his paganism could not be held too rigidly against him, given that his death was B.C.E. And, on the other hand, there was his Eclogue IV, which, in their estimation, appeared to predict the coming of Christ. Virgil was, in fact, popeyed with millenarian expectations of some kind or another—expectations of Rome conquering the world, or of an impending supernatural event to be brought about by a newborn babe. “See how the world bows with its massive dome—earth and expanse of sea and heaven’s depth! See how all things rejoice in the age that is at hand!”
The putative hints of Christianity were good enough for Chateaubriand, too, who considered Virgil a Christian avant la lettre, and, on that basis, felt that, in offering his Virgilian interpretation of the whole of the Western literary tradition, he had remained piously faithful to the Catholic Church. Then again, Chateaubriand’s argument about Western literature descending from Virgil could also be taken in the opposite way—could be taken as a demonstration of the superiority of Roman paganism over Christianity. Nearly 2,000 years of Christian poetry, and Jove remains in power—which might suggest that, from a poetry-reading standpoint, Christianity’s deep and unacknowledged and worthy purpose was to preserve the Roman past.
There are scholars who say that Virgil may have drawn on Jewish writings of various sorts—on the non-standard apocalyptic Book of Enoch, for instance, not too well known in recent millennia, which, in principle, could have induced the messianic passages of Eclogue IV and a scattering of other lines. Could that be true? The argument appears not to have persuaded the classicists’ guild. In making my way through the Aeneid, I am struck, in any case, not by what Virgil might have taken from the Jews, but by what he seems to offer. This has nothing to do with tales of mythic origins. Borges observes somewhere that populations all over the world—the ancient Scandinavians, possibly even the author of Beowulf—have gazed back at the Aeneid in search of a mythic account of their own origins, which almost always turn out to be Trojan. Jews, however, have never stood in need of someone else’s origin story. What the Aeneid offers is something more contemporary, bearing on the last 150 years or so.
It is a matter of the plot and its modern-day resonances. The Trojans, in Virgil’s account, are a homeless people because they are an afflicted people. Their remote origin was in Crete, but King Teucrus led them out of Crete because of sufferings there, and brought them to Ilium, where they built their city, Troy. In Troy they come under attack from the Achæans, who deceive them with the wooden horse and subject them to catastrophic defeat, which leads to another mass flight into the sea in ships, led by their surviving hero, Aeneas. Jove has promised them a country in far-away Italy, and onward they sail until, at last, they land on Italian shores. Italy has its complications, though. The population consists of multiple nations, sometimes with multiple names—Latins, Rutulians, Laurentines, Etruscans, Agyllines, Tuscans, Arcadians, Volscians, and so forth. Each of those nations and their kings (or, in the case of the Volscians, their warrior-maiden Camilla) respond differently to the arrival of the Trojans, sometimes in a welcoming spirit, sometimes more cautiously, sometimes with a willingness to strike up alliances, and, in the case of the Rutulians, with furious hostility.
War becomes inevitable. Allies line up on both sides, and likewise the gods and supernatural beings, unto the nameless and shapeless black forces, Terror and Anger and Ambush. Aeneas proposes a truce, or more than a truce. The Trojans are known as the Teucrians, after King Teucrus of Crete, and the Rutulians are Italians, and Aeneas proposes that Teucrians and Italians live side by side in peace. “I will not bid the Italians be subject to Teucrians, nor do I seek the realm for mine; under equal terms let both nations, unconquered, enter upon an everlasting compact.” It is a two-state solution.
But the gods fail to be helpful. Jove favors the Trojans, and Jove’s wife and sister, Juno, does not. “Ah! hated race,” Juno says about the Trojans. She sends the nymph Juventus to stir up war anew, disguised as a warrior charioteer, and a terrible war it is. The catalogue of who slays whom spreads across whole sections of the poem, until the Aeneid, wonderful until that moment, degenerates into a slug-out between the dreary and the appalling—quite unlike the many pages in the Eclogues on the more agreeable theme of who pines for whom. Virgil himself, despairing, says, “What god can now unfold for me so many horrors …?”—as if, having run out of inspiration, he hopes that a godly being will whisper stimulating thoughts into his ear. Spear-throwing warrior-maidens march across the field. Aeneas slaughters the Rutulian chieftain. It is butchery to the end. But the Trojans do establish themselves on Italian soil.
And, in reading all this, I find it impossible not to reflect on the Jews and modern history, post-1880—on the mass flight from Europe, and the catastrophes and wanderings, and the mass flight from the Muslim world, and the heroes who have fought for the prophesized land, and the interventions by Terror, Anger, and Ambush, and the proposed peace agreements, and the further wars and horrors. To read the Aeneid in our own day is to notice repeatedly how modern is the ancient epic, or perhaps how ancient is the modern Jewish story. I do not mean to suggest a simple and ridiculous correspondence between past and present—only an impression of realism in Virgil’s book.
Myth-making was his goal. But there are, in reality, homeless nations, and they do wander the earth, chased by catastrophe, and they cross the seas and the continents, and they fight against multiple enemies, and they do so with desperate zeal and sometimes even with excessive zeal, in the hope of bringing their homelessness to an end. If Virgil’s poem is, as Chateaubriand believed, the fundamental text of the Western imagination, the text turns out to be a living thing. It groans, it sighs. It leads me to wonder: If the surging angers and sorrows and grandeurs of Virgil’s poem have shaped in certain respects the 2,000 years that came after him, how many centuries will be shaped by the surging emotions and grandeurs of the gigantic and Virgilian epic that has been unfolding in our own era?
Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.