|agnosco veteris vestigia flammae.|
I remember the exact moment I fell in love with Virgil.
I had three lecturers in university who in particular I loved. One, my research supervisor, taught me critical thinking, and made me love fiction and how you made it, and what you could find in it, and remained a friend long after I emigrated from Academia. One, who had the most soothing voice of any man I ever met, infected me with a lifelong love of ancient spiritualities, desert fathers and martyrs, neoplatonists and divines. And the third, well, she was a full-on Older Woman Crush, although it was years after I graduated before I confessed to that, and never to her. She had a quiet, reserved dignity, and a sadness to her, and she taught Augustan poetry, mostly, Horace, Virgil and Ovid (I stil have a copy of the edition she edited of Ovid's Amores II), and had a real passion for it. She loved the poets, and saw things in them that I hadn't before. I never really cared much for poetry before she taught me Virgil, but she made me understand why poetry mattered, even in Latin. She made me see the beauty of it.
I went to a school where they taught Latin; I started having to read Virgil when I was fourteen; it was on the syllabus for GCSE and A-Level, And in University Part One and Honours. Seven solid years, and for much of that I hated it. I thought Aeneas was rubbish, even by the standards of mythological heroes, I thought the star-crossed romance of Dido and Aeneas was stupid and overwrought, I thought the second half of the Aeneid was just dull, I thought the whole thing was basically a rip-off of Homer.
And then, halfway through my second year of University, I was sitting in a seminar in room 303 of the North Arts building, maybe five of us there, and this one lecturer told us exactly why she loved Virgil, and what it meant to her, and what she saw in it, and that one experience, topping off those seven years of being taught and reading and translating just set off a light in my head. Something changed. A moment of enlightenment. An alchemical transformation. It changed the way I thought. It had a profound and long lasting effect on me.
The Aeneid. You know about the Aeneid. Aeneas the Trojan, son of Anchises and the goddess Venus, witnesses the appearance of the Wooden Horse and the death of the man who doubts it, devoured by serpents; he escapes the consequent sack of the city with his son Ascanius by his side and his father Anchises on his back. His wife falls behind; she dies. He travels on the heels of Odysseus, witnesses the blind Cyclops Polyphemus raging on the shores of the giants' island.
He sails to Sicily, where Anchises dies, and then chooses not to go to Italy. The gods send a storm. Shipwrecked in Carthage he meets the widowed Queen Dido, and they begin a passionate affair. But the gods tell Aeneas he must go; this is not his destiny. He abandons her, callously; she commits suicide, unknown to him.
He travels on. Shaken by a massacre at his father's memorial games, Aeneas travels to see the Sibyl of Cumae, a prophetess, and with her descends to the country of the dead, the Underworld, where he meets the fallen heroes of Troy, Dido's ghost, who will not acknowledge him, and finally his father.
Anchises' ghost prophesies the future history of Rome, and ends his speech with this:
I well believe that other men will sculpt in bronze
More gently, give it breath; living faces they will draw from marble.
They will argue better cases, document the doings of the skies
And the rising of the stars. But remember, Roman, these are your arts:
To have dominion over the peoples. To impose law on peace.
To have mercy on the defeated and to cast down the arrogant.
Virgil, Aeneid VI
And then Aeneas leaves the Underworld.
There are two Gates of Dreams, and one is made of
Horn, through which the shadows that are true will travel,
The other shining with the whiteness of ivory, and
The spirits of the dead send false dreams through it.
Anchises takes his son and the Sibyl here
And sends them both out through the gate of ivory.
Virgil, Aeneid VI
Aeneas, now knowing his destiny, travels to Italy. He allies with the local Latins and is betrothed to a woman named Lavinia; she had been before engaged to Turnus the Rutulian, a semi-divine hero like Aeneas. Turnus declares war on the Latins and Trojans and the fight becomes bitter, brutal and personal. The gods supply Aeneas with a shield that has painted upon it the whole future of Italy.
Turnus takes the life of Pallas, a companion of Aeneas, and Aeneas flies into a terrible fury. He kills prisoners. And at the end of the war, with Turnus defeated, the Rutulian surrenders.
He lowered his eyes in surrender, and stretching out his hand
He said, "I deserve this fate. I ask no mercy.
If any concern for a father's grief can move you, have pity
For my father's old age and send me back,
Or if you prefer, to give my body to my people.
Lavinia is your wife. Do not let your hate last further."
Aeneas, fierce in his battledress, stood. His eye flickered.
He held back his right hand, and now, now, he paused, the speech
Began to move him, when worn on Turnus's shoulder he noticed
Young Pallas' sword belt, glinting with its ornaments;
Turnus had thrown him to the earth and stripped his enemy's insignia.
When his eyes had taken in the trophy, monument of vicious grief,
Aeneas, set on fire with fury, terrible in rage, said "Would you be stolen
From me wearing the spoils of someone who was mine?
Pallas wounds you, Pallas destroys you, Pallas takes retribution
From your evil blood!" Crying this, his heart on fire with anger,
He ran his sword through Turnus' breast, and
Turnus' limbs were slackened with the cold,
And life and spirit fled, screaming into the darkness.
Virgil, Aeneid XII
And that's how it ends. Those are the final lines. It is the way of long-form poetry in Latin (for example, in Ovid's Metamorphoses) to end with the writer supplying an epilogue, or a statement that the tale is over, but the Aeneid ends with a man killed in revenge, his soul fleeing to the country of the dead.
And the Roman, whose art is to cast down the arrogant and show mercy to the defeated, shows no mercy. Over and over again, the Great Dream of Empire is embodied in Aeneas the hero. You are the future of Rome. And yet, from the very first lines of the Aeneid, Aeneas rails against Fate. Destiny is his enemy, his nemesis, a destiny he never asked for. And yet, he fails to show the very virtues he is supposed to symbolise. And when he leaves the Underworld, he becomes a dream, and a false one.
Aeneas is a lie.
This isn't an especially unusual reading. The humanity of Virgil, the way in which he – himself having lived through an apocalyptic, seemingly interminable series of civil wars – speaks to the pain and grief brought by the cycle of violence. And he brings this down to the smaller, human level, understands the twisting heart-grip of bereavement and betrayal. Aeneas is a lie, merciless when he should be merciful, physically courageous yet emotionally a coward, unable to reconcile himself with who he is – but for all that, he's human. His behaviour, not necessarily defensible, is wholly explicable, utterly reasonable. He has the blood of gods, but he behaves like a man.
William Blake's Prelude to Milton, that great rebel-song, is sung by the institutions of state with no irony as "Jerusalem". Did those feet in ancient times walk upon England's mountains green? No. Of course they didn't. This was always the point. But what will you do with that? What fight will you take up?
In the same way, the Aeneid was always embraced by Empire, Roman, British, whoever. It is the Roman epic. It is the founding myth.
It's a lie.
This dissonance between the official reading of the Aeneid as the great celebratory adventure of the Augustan era and a humane, despairing indictment of the false dream of Empire gives it a near-supernatural power.
From quite early on, certainly by the third century, people used the Aeneid as a divinatory text. People would open one of the books at random, and, eyes closed, point their fingers at passages in the text, and the line given them by the random act would give them an oracle. After the dawn of Protestantism, people began to use the Bible that way instead, and in the early 18th century the Puritan commentator Matthew Henry, sceptical of the practice, would tell the story of the man who tried it and randomly got Matthew 27:5, "Judas went and hanged himself" in quick succession with Luke 10:37, “Go and do thou likewise.” Whatever book you use, this practice is called the Sortes Vergilianae, the Virgilian Divination.
Virgil is Dante's guide through Purgatory and Hell, but not Heaven, in the Divine Comedy. He is the one you trust to show you the world of the dead. He is a faithful guide.
The Latin of Virgil, in dactylic hexameter, is hypnotic, sonorous. Unlike other poets his tone never goes off, he doesn't indulge in grotesqueries or broad comedy. Not that he doesn't have a sense of humour, but it's never out of place. The simple fact is that when you compare it to, for example, Prudentius, with his wild variations of tone and weird pacing choices, Virgil is just better.
The Aeneid is a magical text. It is a text suitable as a tool for magic, and what I think of as magic, well, I need to think about what I'm going to say about that, because it's not as straightforward as a lot of people think. I'll be writing more about it, whatever happens.
But: if magic is defined, as I think it might be, as the accessing of an enlightenment into the mystery of things greater than ourselves, the Aeneid offers a specific form of enlightenment.
The Aeneid is magical because it has secrets inside it, secrets of the human heart.
It is magical because its words have the quality of music.
It is magical in that it shows us a human journey, and one different from the programmatic scheme of Joseph Campbell's flawed monomyth, a journey allowing for multiple paths through the story, multiple destinations.
It is magical because it shows something of the divine, something of the connexion between our selves, inner and outer, in which those of us who believe in such things truly find God.
It is magical because it draws beauty from pain, and recognises the awkward power of an ideal.
It is magical because it shows cruelty and the consequences of cruelty, and trusts us to judge it fairly.
It is magical because it made me care for poetry.