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The Secondariness of Virgilian Epic and Its Unprecedented Originality

Virgil’s epic obsessively laments its inferiority with respect to its Homeric model, and yet the creation of reflexive, self-lacerating interiority is itself a radical new departure. It turns into an original invention of prophetic revelation through reflection on history projected as a future destiny to be embraced and realized on the strength of an inner conviction and conversion issuing in self-sacrificial action. Obliterated as a man by his mission, Aeneas is no Odysseus, but the emptying of all meaning from his present existence opens a register of historical meaning generated by the interacting absences of past and future. History is thereby made into typology, yet its very hollowness as a supposedly triumphal procession exposes a deeper dimension of committed realization of visionary truth. Prophecy emerges not as magical forecasting of the future but as impassioned interpretation of the shape of events as a whole anticipated through enactment of history’s imagined goals.


Proceeding from Homer to Virgil means moving westward from Greece to Rome and advancing seven hundred years to just about three decades before the birth of Christ. After having worked for three years on the pastoral poetry of the Eclogues and for seven years on the philosophical poetry of the Georgics, Virgil (born 70 BCE) composed his epic the Aeneid during the last decade of his life, from 29 to 19 BCE. These were times of transition from republican to imperial Rome, times still troubled by the civil war that broke out between Julius Caesar and his rivals, chiefly Pompey, with Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon in 49 BCE. Caesar defeated Pompey at Pharsalus in 48 BCE but was assassinated by Brutus, Cassius, and other senators in 44 BCE. The war continued between his assassins and his avengers, with Brutus and his senatorial allies being defeated by Caesar’s first lieutenant, Marc Antony, and Octavian, Caesar’s nineteen-year-old great-nephew and heir apparent, at Philippi in 42 BCE. Further internecine strife erupted subsequently between Octavian (later to be called Augustus) and Marc Antony, leading to the latter’s rout together with his Egyptian consort, Cleopatra, at Actium in 31 BCE. In such tumult and travail, the imperial age was born.

This historical background proves crucial for understanding the prophetic import of Virgil’s work. Although Virgil is writing about the same mythic-heroic age as Homer—specifically the aftermath of the Trojan War—the weight and role of history have become decisive in his epic, and the turbulences of his own contemporary period take on a new kind of significance for all his representations of the historical and legendary past. The tormented interpretation of his lived [End Page 11] present can be seen to infiltrate all his re-creations of the purportedly heroic past and his prophetic projection of a destined future.1

The transition from Homer to Virgil also means moving from what can be called ‘primary’ to ‘secondary’ epic.2 For the first time, we are now confronted with a highly self-conscious composition by an individual writer. The formulaic, oral style of primary epic is largely conventional and relentlessly repetitious. Recited extemporaneously at solemn occasions, it is designed to be taken in as a rapid succession of verses, with no one verse standing out from the rest. Secondary epic, in contrast, is more intricate and eloquent. As exemplified by Virgil and later in English tradition by Milton, secondary epic prefers a grand, elevated style. This reflects its fundamentally different mode of composition as written rather than orally recited discourse—and as produced, furthermore, by an individual author rather than by a collectivity of bards.

Primary epic, moreover, is unreflectively and uncritically heroic in content, as exemplified by Beowulf or the Chanson de Roland, as well as by Homer. Secondary epic generally reinterprets raw heroic content from the point of view of a more sophisticated culture and civilization. This allows also for bringing heroic action into different kinds of historical and literary contexts, making for more self-reflectiveness and complexity. And it creates novel possibilities for parody and irony.

The reflection on itself as secondary strongly characterizes secondary epic’s own self-presentation in the case of Virgil. The trope of secondariness resounds in searingly regretful, plangent tones throughout the Aeneid. At many turns, Virgil’s epic shows itself to be acutely conscious of being a reduction and diminution with respect to its Homeric prototype. This systematic inferiority is betokened most grossly by the fact that the Aeneid consists of only twelve books—as against the twenty-four of each of the Homeric epics.3 The sense of being dwarfed by its unsurpassable predecessor becomes audible in frequent notes of futility and despair that make for a conspicuous contrast with the exuberantly unselfconscious tone of Homeric epic. As if in compensation for the loss of Homer’s splendidly uncomplicated self-confidence, the greater narrative and emotional reflectiveness of Virgilian epic creates a distinctive kind of pathos that is interiorized and self-lacerating.

My argument in this essay focuses on the first half of Virgil’s epic, that is, on the portion of the work that culminates at the end of Book VI with the prophetic revelations of imperial Rome accorded Aeneas by his father Anchises in the underworld. This vision results momentously in Aeneas’s conversion from the Trojan past to the Roman future.4 The subject of prophecy needs a somewhat different treatment in relation to the epic’s second half, which concerns the war of conquest in Latium. Virgil’s model shifts from the Odyssey to the Iliad, and history becomes ‘revelation’ in a different, darker, more negative key. Prophecy’s inherent ambiguity becomes more starkly and unbearably enigmatic and perplexing. The ideal meaning of words is contradicted by the materiality clinging to their etymological senses, while rational intention is upset and [End Page 12] undermined by vengeful passion in ways that eventually override the triumphal wholeness of vision that is our focus here in treating the first half of the epic and its Odyssean foil.5

When Homer tells the story of Odysseus’s scar, the scene with the maternal grandfather, Autolycus, in Parnassus moves into center stage and all else is forgotten.6 Virgil’s narrative, in contrast, is layered, being structured by complex framings that impinge upon the narrative present. This layering infuses the narrative with meanings deriving from the past and future, tingeing it with subjective tonalities. His scenes are almost invariably laden with emotion flowing from nostalgic reflection upon non-present realities, rather than concentrating only on what is being immediately represented. The different tenses in this way bleed into and color one another.

While the Odyssey remains focused predominantly on the sensuous present, the Aeneid opens a reflective space of often melancholic reminiscence. If the Odyssey is concerned chiefly with pain and its meaning, the Aeneid’s central concern is with meaning and its pain.7 Virgil has, accordingly, been considered the early inventor of a symbolic poetic trained upon expression of a private dimension of feeling (see Pöschl 1964). This faculty can be seen at its most powerful, for example, in the scene describing the fatal moment of rolling the wooden horse into the city of Troy. It depicts above all a mood. How the narrator, Aeneas (and indirectly Virgil), feels about this event takes the foreground over and against the event itself:

Rolling on, it cast a shadow
Over the city’s heart. O Fatherland,
O Ilium, home of gods! . . .
Yet on we strove unmindful, deaf and blind.8

(II. 321–28)

This interior space of the city’s “heart” opens up through an interiorization of the surrounding landscape, which is suffused with an atmosphere that is above all psychological and impregnated with subjective feeling:

Night from the Ocean stream
Came on, profound in gloom on earth and sky.

(II. 336–37)

Homer uses symbolism, of course, but as inherent in his world of objective realities rather than as the expression of any distinct personal point of view or consciously inner, subjective sensibility. Whereas Homer is the paragon of the impersonal poet, Virgil imprints his own sentiments on his poem. This is the crucial difference which formed the axis for Schiller’s theory of a fundamental polarity between “naive” and “sentimental” poetry (Schiller 1989). Already in the fifth century, Macrobius had emphasized the “pathos” characteristic of Virgil’s style (“pathos quo tenore orationis exprimitur”) (Macrobius 1994, 128). This distinction, too, can function to separate both ancient and modern epic into primary and secondary phases.

In Homer, the medium through which symbolism is conveyed is non-appearing: “Homer” is just a name for the mouthpiece through which the world, [End Page 13] “nature itself,” speaks, in Goethe’s formulation of this commonplace.9 But in Virgil the individual sensibility of the poet is felt everywhere and entirely imbues the world represented. Even prior to Macrobius, Virgil’s fourth-century commentator Servius called attention to the poet’s expression of his own emotion (“ex afectione sua posuit poeta”) through personal interjections (“interiectionem ex sua persona interposuit”).10 Little wonder, then, that the protagonist, too, should have a private viewpoint and express emotions irreconcilable with the march of events in the objective world that the poem represents. This margin of divergence for a personal point of view or “vision,” a subjective synthesis and original outlook which gives everything a new and previously unsuspected meaning, opens the dimension in which the original poetic of the Aeneid unfolds.

The epic typically tells a story of collective origins and the founding of a civilization.11 In the case of the Aeneid, this tale did not arise spontaneously from folk tradition, nor was it developed and passed down orally for generations. Instead, Caesar Augustus commissioned Virgil to write a poem exalting the Roman state and Virgil obliged, with all the grandiloquence that he alone could command. His own personal point of view is poignantly expressed, moreover, especially in the highly subjective style of the poem, which is often at variance sharply, even painfully, with the public program: a private voice of regret and doubt penetrates irrepressibly through the official public rhetoric of the work.12 Thus Virgil is the poet of quavering melancholic emotion and elegiac wistfulness, as well as of triumphal marches and state propaganda. The question of its real, human, and even acutely personal meaning keeps coming back to haunt the author of the official epic scenario. The magnificence of this great empire is weighed in the balance against the personal sacrifices which it exacts. With all the pathos of nagging doubt that these sacrifices engender, the tormenting question—is it worth it?—refuses to be laid to rest.13

From the outset, Aeneas is presented as a man burdened with a destiny and overshadowed by his task. As the conclusion of the proem has it, “so hard and huge / A task it was to found the Roman people” (I. 48–49). Aeneas and his Trojan companions are not only mercilessly buffeted on the sea by higher powers (“For years / They wandered as their destiny drove them on / From one sea to the next,” I. 46–47), they are also confronted with war after reaching their destination:

And cruel losses were his lot in war,
Till he could found a city and bring home
His gods to Latium, land of the Latin race,
The Alban lords, and the high walls of Rome.

(I. 9–12)

Indeed the raising of the “high walls of Rome” (“altae moenia Romae”), for all their glory and majesty, at the same time entails the sacrifice of Aeneas’s individual will and personal happiness. This tale of troubles by land and sea is reminiscent of the Odyssey, but whereas the Odyssey was about the assertion of personal identity, the Aeneid is about its effacement. Unlike Odysseus, Aeneas must abnegate his own will in order to fulfill his historical mission. Destiny, fatum, by which he came to Italy, as stated in the opening sentence, is for Aeneas a crushing burden [End Page 14] of responsibility: it altogether eclipses his own personality. The whole destiny of the world is placed upon his shoulders, and the weight of the mission overwhelms the man. Every individual act is voided as Aeneas’s own, to be subsumed within a higher historical purpose of far-reaching symbolic significance.

All this is what makes it difficult to refrain from understanding pius Aeneas (“duty-bound,” but more literally “pious” Aeneas), as the “prototype of a Christian hero.”14 His characteristic virtue of “pietas” in crucial ways seems a quintessentially Christian virtue of self-abnegation. Indeed, already in antiquity Tertullian had christened Virgil an anima naturaliter christiana (“soul by nature Christian”), and throughout the Middle Ages Virgil was seen as something of a pagan prophet of the coming of Christ.15

This claim was most obviously tied to the Fourth Eclogue’s announcement of a prodigious birth, a new progeny (“progenies nova”), under the sign of a Virgin (“virgo”), that would lead to a renewal of the golden age of peace on earth (“iam redit et uirgo, redeunt Saturnia regna”). These lines (6–10) lent themselves to being interpreted as a prophecy of the birth of Christ. This has seemed far-fetched from the perspective of modern philology. Yet Virgil’s invention in the Aeneid of a new form of envisioning Roman history as prophetic of a just and even utopian world order, a sort of kingdom come, is nevertheless an astonishing anticipation from within classical tradition of the sort of historical-prophetic hermeneutic that was shortly to develop in Christian interpretation of the Messianic expectations of what then became the “Old Testament.”16

Prophecy in this sense is connected with the poetics of reflective self-consciousness, which turns back upon itself and dwells on its own history and searches there for meaning. It constitutes another yet deeper difference between Virgil and his predecessors, one that defines even more momentously the astonishing originality of the Aeneid. The heroic and mythic-epic narrative of Homer is transformed into an allegorical history structured as prophetic revelation of Virgil’s own time and its future prospects.17

Within this new Virgilian framework of history as prophecy, Aeneas finds himself used as but a token in dramas reaching far beyond any personal concerns of his own. When he is first seen in the throes of a storm at sea and threatened with shipwreck, wishing that he had died at Troy like the other heroes thrice and four times blessed (“O terque quaterque beati,” I. 94), he is, of course, echoing Odysseus’s despairing lament in book five of the Odyssey in the face of the threat of being swallowed up by the sea (V. 306ff). More typically, his speech holds back all genuine expression of himself. He encourages his men with the promise that even these hardships will be remembered one day with pleasure. But in articulating this perfunctory encouragement, he is secretly choking back all his own real sentiments:

So ran the speech. Burdened and sick at heart,
He feigned hope in his look, and inwardly
Contained his anguish.

(I. 284–296) [End Page 15]

With this sequestering of personal feeling from outward expression, an exclusively inner realm of experience opens up. It is of a kind that we were rarely, if ever, allowed to glimpse in the Odyssey. An inner space that can set itself up over against the public sphere of action by means of private refusal and regret begins to take shape. This new self-reflexive dimension of the poem and its hero in the Aeneid becomes, from a certain point of view, primary. Aeneas, in his first speech to his companions, says, “Some day, perhaps, remembering even this / Will be a pleasure” (“Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit,” I. 277–78). When Odysseus says something similar in book twelve of the Odyssey (XII. 201–2), he is urging comfort simply in the thought that it will all soon be over. Aeneas, by contrast, suggests that pain may in the future be dwelt on for the pleasure it procures. This is to value life for the sake of the art that can be made of it, and not vice versa.

The Odyssey exposes the dangers in making life into a song to be enjoyed, as the Phaeacians do, with the result that they lose touch with reality and are consigned to everlasting oblivion. Odysseus emerges heroically in preferring life itself, even with all its pains, to any form of representation that is not instrumental in establishing his actual presence in reality. Odysseus’s tale is an overtly personal story: it merges with the manifestation of his personal identity through his achievements as an individual.18 Aeneas’s personal story, in contrast, is submerged beneath the history and destiny of Rome, and there is a jarring dissonance between the hero’s own personal disinterest and reluctance on the one hand, and the irrecusable summons to devote himself to his mission on the other. The quest for personal fulfillment can no longer be pursued through the objective events of the narrative, but appears as an indirectly expressed disappointment and often suppressed counterpoint to the public story.

This difference is bound up with a different mode of revelation of the divine in the human. It is no longer a matter of the overwhelming prowess of individual human beings in particular situations of crisis acting beyond the ordinary limits of the human, as in the Odyssey (where Athena renders Odysseus and Telemachus capable of superhuman feats); rather, it is the whole structure of history, within which individuals take on strictly delimited roles, that reveals a higher dimension of existence, a divine power. The Aeneid proposes, in unprecedented ways, history as revelation. Not momentary, extraordinary, seemingly superhuman feats or phenomena and ad hoc interventions, but the overall shape and design of events is revelatory of the divine hand at work in human affairs.

This overarching architecture of history, of course, cannot be given objectively within history itself. It arises rather from the vision of a subject who retains the past and projects the future in accordance with a significance that is inwardly felt and cannot be delivered as such through outward events. The contemporaneousness of the past with the present and indeed with the future is felt in this mode of reflection on history, and it is from this that its meaning emerges in a prophetic light. The reflections of secondary epic on the primary materials of history and tradition can reveal their meaning in a wholly new and transfiguring light. But there is in this an irreducibly personal—decisional and ultimately [End Page 16] “confessional”—aspect of prophetic vision, which is constantly pointed up by the glaring disparity between the public exaltation and the personal lamentation that together go into the composition of Virgil’s Roman poem.

This new form of divine prophecy is deeply implicated in human and historical interpretation via an epic mode that is also intensely personal and indeed visionary. However, this is no longer immediate or first-degree personal expression as embodied exemplarily by Odysseus in primary epic; in Virgil’s secondary epic, personal expression is displaced to the overall order of history and the world. This level of vision can be at odds and even enter into conflict with immediate human impulses and personal motives. Whereas Odysseus refuses immortality for the sake of his own personal life as a mortal man, Aeneas’s personal life is suppressed in the interest of the immortal glory of Rome. We see him learn to live not as a man satisfying his own vital human passions and impulses, but as a functionary of fate and the state. The program to which he must submit is laid out by the prophecy of the Roman Empire and its eternal greatness—“imperium sine fine” (I. 279)—that is pronounced by Jupiter to Venus as reparation for the misfortunes induced by Juno’s jealousy. This prophecy is, in effect, an anticipated recapitulation of Roman history, and as such it begins to set up a structure of history as prophecy that is the Aeneid’s most original contribution to Western culture.


The theme of Aeneas’s success in fulfilling his mission, for which he must first overcome the temptation posed by Dido, is paralleled by the theme of Rome’s glory in achieving greatness and empire, principally through its struggle against Carthage, but also against Cleopatra, for whom Dido serves as a prefiguration. At a yet higher level, cosmic order is vindicated, justifying the ways of God to men, by the victory of order over chaos and the demonic forces impersonated particularly by Juno.19 Of course, the victory is far from being free of ambiguities, and in certain ways that have remained troubling ever since, Fury will be given the last word. Nevertheless, from the first book of the epic, a piggybacking structure can clearly be discerned whereby the causes of order must struggle to prevail by subduing the disorder arising from passion in the individual soul, rebellion in the political world of the state, and storm in nature, not to mention, above all, dissension in heaven. There is, moreover, a clear gendering of this universal struggle, since it is always insubordinate females who threaten to obstruct males in their mission of establishing order: Juno, at the cosmic level; Cleopatra, in Roman history; Dido, in Aeneas’s personal life and mind. This construction of parallel spheres and plots creates a complex, layered structure that enables different levels of the narrative to reflect and comment on each other, often ironically.

Beneath all the propaganda and pageantry of the story told in a public voice celebrating Rome’s glorious establishment, this poem is more deeply and intimately about an inner realm of nothingness filled chiefly by tormented memory [End Page 17] and remorse. The present of the poem is this interior space of lament. We hear this not only as a tale of sorrow, but as a sorrowing tale, to re-echo Chaucer’s echo of the Aeneid in Troilus and Criseyde: “This woful vers, that wepen as I write” (I. 8). Placed before such a woeful task of narratively imitating his past woes, Aeneas himself shrinks back in horror:

However I may shudder at the memory
And shrink again in grief, let me begin.

(II. 16–17)

(quamquam animus meminisse horret luctuque refugit / incipiam, II. 12).

The sorrow is really suffered again just in the re-telling. Borne through life with Aeneas and enshrined in his personal history, his pain is perhaps more humanly significant than the however great but abstract goal of Rome.

Aeneas recreates an image of himself as great but hollow, because overshadowed by his mission. He tells of his being wrenched from every impulse of his own in order to become entirely subservient to destiny. Officially he is a success, but not humanly. We hear this as a tale of sorrow, and the sorrow, suffered again in the telling, is more humanly compelling than the putatively redeeming purpose of it all. We hear, thanks especially to Adam Parry (1963), the personal melancholy voice of regret whining through the official narrative of how Roman greatness was achieved.

There is in Aeneas’s voice a note also of protest against the violence of the gods, or of revolt against destiny and its price. The protest is audible, for example, in the description of the destruction of Laocöon, carried off by the twin snakes with his sons, “Sending to heaven his appalling cries” (II. 300); or again with respect to Cassandra, whose warning goes unheeded “by a god’s command” (331); and in Sinon’s lying tales being favored “by what the gods unjustly had decreed” (345). Aeneas obsessively questions the justice of the gods, as can be detected in lines 361, 697, and 792. This is the private voice of regret decrying the unjust destruction of Troy that can never be made up for by Rome and all its promises. Nevertheless, in the public sphere, Aeneas submits wholly to the gods’ plan, renouncing his own self and will.

A Leitmotif of Aeneas’s account—or rather its argument—is that Troy was conquered not by superior valor but by the sneaking guile of Greeks like Ulysses and Sinon: “Knowing their strength broken in warfare,” “on the sly” they devised their treacherous deception (II. 18). Aeneas’s story of Troy’s fall implies that the Greeks triumphed unheroically by fraud, signally by Sinon’s “tall tale and fake tears.”20 Genuinely heroic Trojan (and thus proleptically Roman) virtue is portrayed as being more straightforward, as suggested also by Aeneas’s complaint against his mother’s disguises in Book I. But then, we must ask, how does Aeneas himself measure up to the standards of heroism to which he appeals? Together with his band of six dressed up like Greeks, Aeneas too resorts to disguise and deception, “lying arms” (“mentitaque tela,” II.422), just like Sinon. An inescapable question that hangs obscurely over the whole account is that of how to justify the fact that Aeneas stole away from Troy in its hour of crisis. His historical mission, [End Page 18] of course, is the official reason, but it seems to be carried out at the cost of his heroism and very self-respect. His tale is, after all, a tale of yielding to the unheroic logic of “the end justifies the means.” Even fleeing is justified in this manner. Idealism becomes a calculation rather than an instinct such as characteristically beguiles Odysseus’s better judgment, notoriously in the conflicts with Polyphemos and Scylla (see, for example, Odyssey IX. 228–29, 470–525, XII. 223–33).

This suggests why Aeneas is on the defensive about having left Troy. He seems to feel that it was a betrayal of his own heroic ideals. Striking out for a new land is naturally justified by the imperial program, but he is perhaps never so proud again as he was in Troy. He becomes “pious” instead. The somewhat too strenuous justifications of his departure give an index of the discomfort of his conscience. Aeneas’s defensiveness is felt in his impassioned swearing to Troy’s ashes that he did not spare himself but leapt into the flames to fight (II. 451):

    Ashes of Ilium!
Flames that consumed my people! Here I swear
That in your downfall I did not avoid
One weapon, one exchange with the Danaans,
And if it had been fated, my own hand
Had earned my death.

(II. 567–72)

Aeneas’s best impulses were all to stay and die fighting, as he himself underscores: “To arm was my first impulse—not / That anyone had a fighting chance in arms” (II. 421–22). Even after the apparition of Hector’s ghost to him in a dream, urging, “Give up and go, child of the goddess, / Save yourself, out of these flames” (II. 387–88), he still feels compelled to die in combat like a hero: “So fury drove me, and it came to me / That meeting death was beautiful in arms” (II. 425–26). That such a heroic death was not, in fact, the outcome haunts him still.

Aeneas observes helplessly from a roof the violations wrought by Greeks within Priam’s palace, in particular Politës being slain before his father’s eyes (II. 526–32). The organic continuity of a noble line of descent is thus broken, just as a majestic ash is felled (VI. 179–81). And for this sacrilege no political propaganda about empire can possibly compensate. Aeneas’s personal indignation and rage flare up against traitorous Helen. However, his impulse to kill her is checked as Venus reveals the gods at work destroying the city, and he submits to their will. In this manner, individual feeling cedes to the demands of destiny. The gods no longer solicit and stimulate exceptional human intensities of thought and action, as in Homer, but rather enjoin passivity. No longer an expression of inexplicable heights of human achievement, the gods now are external to human action and restrain it from the outside, rather than motivating and heightening it from within. In this more abstract conception of the gods, the logic of action is either/or: either human or divine.

The secularization of divinity that could be seen nascent in the Odyssey has now become a freezing of the gods into fates, which stand over against human wills and check and rein them in rather than enhancing and fulfilling them. Thomas Greene is succinctly to the point: “Virgil’s gods, tending as they do to embody [End Page 19] abstract principles or forces, court the risk of transparency, and Homeric mystery starts to fade into Virgilian machinery” (1963, 88).21 The progressive objectification and solidification of divinities, their being represented as objective facts and no longer translucently as poetic figures for humans exceeding their own limits, has resulted in their severance from the human impulses and actions in and through which they were revealed in the Odyssey (Lesky 1961).22 And where humans are no longer godlike, the gods become inhuman. Hence the question of theodicy that subtends the epic from beginning to end: How can “anger / black as this prey on the minds of heaven?” (I. 19) (“Tantaene animis caelestibus irae?” I. 11). This tendency will be further unveiled in later epic, where the gods function more as abstract principles reified into personifications.23

Numerous portents from the gods foreshadow the imperial mission and, consequently, urge Aeneas to escape. Hector’s specter reaffirms the world-historical program that has already been prophetically divulged to readers in Book I through Jupiter’s promises to Venus. And the portent of Iulus’s hair aflame, followed by a thunderclap and comet, convinces even Anchises of the necessity to follow fate and escape into exile. The wrench from personal attachments that this entails for Aeneas is most acutely embodied in the loss of his wife Creusa, climaxing in the scene of the threefold failed embrace of her wraith modeled on Odysseus’s meeting with his mother in the underworld. Aeneas suffers personal anguish at the loss of Creusa. Her ghost, “larger than life,” prophesies the Roman future, including his destined Italian marriage, but that is no compensation for the human companion he desperately misses, and he remains inconsolable in his sorrowful lament. This regret is expressed in poetry, where Aeneas’s human reality finds a voice—necessarily a voice of bereavement, emptiness, remorse, but at least it is something humanly tangible, charged with the painfulness of real loss.

Book II concludes, “So I resigned myself, picked up my father, / And turned my face toward the mountain range” (1045–46). Still wracked by his attachment to Troy, Aeneas takes up his father on his back to bear him away, symbolically carrying his past into his future on what is for him a most anguished journey. Book II, in effect, represents how Aeneas resigns himself to losing his identity, situated as it is in the particular social fabric and historical context of Troy. He learns not to assert himself after the manner of Odysseus, but rather to renounce personal identity in submission to forces greater than himself. “Obstipui” (“I was dumbfounded”) becomes a constant confession (II. 560, 774; III. 48, 298). All his attempts to assert himself and act like a hero fail. Only in assuming a voice of sorrow does Aeneas manage to express a genuinely personal self, with the authenticity not of action but of reflection and lament.

Book III is Aeneas’s book of Odyssean adventures, but none is really for the sake of adventure, as were Odysseus’s. All of Aeneas’s “adventures” serve to reveal the future or to elegize the past: they are important as symbolic figures rather than as action and event.24 In place of Odysseus’s sensual present of pain, they feature rather sorrow in an emptiness of nostalgic memory and longing: “Weeping, I drew away from our old country” (14). In fact, unlike Odysseus, Aeneas [End Page 20] regularly avoids danger and adventure. He takes the long way around Sicily rather than risking an encounter with Scylla or Charybdis. He manifests no such spirit of daring as Odysseus evinces by contriving to actually hear the Sirens, and so transgress with impunity the limits of ordinary mortal experience. His cutting a poor figure in comparison with Odysseus fits with a pervasive sense of inferiority of everything in this epic as measured against its incomparable Homeric precedent.

It seems doubtful whether history is building up to the greatness of Rome or rather winding down from the once-great days of the Homeric heroes. This comes through especially in Virgil’s sense of belatedness and secondariness with respect to all that comes after the Homeric age.25 The secondariness of this epic finds its emblem in the references to “little Troy” (“parvam Troiam,” 350), a simulation (“simulata”):

I saw before me Troy in miniature,
A slender copy of our massive tower,
A dry brooklet named Xanthus.

(III. 477–479)

Helenus and Andromachë have reiterated Troy in Epirus, but as scaled down to a meager replica, more word than reality, considering the way Hector’s name is invoked over an empty tomb:

And, as it happened, at that hour she,
Andromachë, in a grove outside the city
Beside a brook, thin replica of Simoïs,
Was making from a ceremonial meal
Her offerings and libation to the dust,
Calling the great shade at a tomb called Hector’s
Made by her—an empty mound of turf
Where she had blessed twin altars for her tears.

(III. 407–413)

Andromachë, bereaved widow, embodies a condition of living death, of surviving her own world and reality, the state of mourning and melancholy that characterizes Aeneas himself and the poem’s own mood. She is shocked and terrorized when she actually finds herself in the presence of Aeneas and the Trojans. In the habit of taking ghosts to be her daily companions, here she takes this flesh and blood reality rather for a ghost: “gazing at this ghostliness in terror, / She stood there pale and rigid” (416–417). She can only stutter:

Your face,
Can it be real? And you real, messenger,
Coming before me? Goddess-born? Alive?

(III. 420–23)

Aeneas, too, is overcome in the presence of this evocation of the past and by the obsession with its ghosts that he shares very deeply with Andromachë:

    I had difficulty
Forcing a few words out amid her passion,
So overcome I felt . . . .

(III. 426–428) [End Page 21]

He affirms that he is “Alive, oh yes. . . . Be sure that what you see is real” (419–21); but these formal assurances ring somewhat forced and hollow, especially when his condition is brought into close contact with that of the living death of Andromachë.

Andromachë’s husband, the prophet Helenus, prophesies “far distant lands” as the goal for Aeneas:

That Italy you think so near, with ports
You think to enter, ignorant as you are,
Lies far, past far lands, by untraveled ways.

(III. 520–22)

This seems to hint that Rome might be a dream that will never be realized. Aeneas is inconsolable as he leaves Helenus, directed towards the Ausonian coasts that seem to be receding always further into the distance (“semper cedentia retro,” 658). Aeneas dwells nostalgically on this episode; he would have preferred this replica of Troy that is already built, even though it be a lifeless “effigy” (“Efgiem Xanthi Troiamque,” 497), to the seemingly impossible task of building the new city and civilization that is demanded of him:

Here is your quiet rest: no sea to plow,
No quest for dim lands of Ausonia
Receding ever. Here before your eyes
Are replicas of Xanthus and of Troy.

(III. 657–660)

The motif of secondariness, of being a mere replica, teasingly belittles the narrative of Rome’s greatness. This narrative is betrayed by a voice of regret that may be heard as an indication of Virgil’s own participation in Aeneas’s experience of nostalgia and grief. Rome may be just such a pipe dream for Virgil, too. His epic is, in any case, likewise turned, despite its prophetic program, back toward the past. It subtly bewails its own being inevitably imitative in nature as a repetition and diminution of its Homeric model: more than a sanguine new incarnation, it is an elegiac memorial of lost Homeric vitality. Even its high seriousness may be understood as a compensation for this loss—and so as covertly expressing regret over a no-longer-attainable Homeric spontaneity and visionary liveliness. Aeneas’s tale ends in a way summing up its overall meaning of grief over the loss of his roots and origin: “here, alas, I lost my father” (938). This is Aeneas’s “final sorrow,” ironically and bitterly designated as “the goal / Of all my seafaring” (945–47).

Above and beyond this story of irremediable loss, which it continues, Book III, like Book II, is a maze of oracles and portents. It focuses entirely on a future that as yet has no substantial existence. This is the counterpart of its nostalgia for the past. Aeneas’s present is emptied out in these two directions, toward past and future, and consequently he cannot be fully present to anything. Indeed what is most remarkable about the prophecies and portents is, first of all, their ambiguousness. They open up vast geographical and interpretive regions of error. Prophecy remains generally at sea: rather than a secure anchor for Aeneas and for narrative, it is an invitation to inconclusive, open-ended interpretation. For [End Page 22] example, when Aeneas sees four white horses (not exactly the snow-white sow promised in III. 529) and declares them “our first portent” (III. 711), Anchises’s interpretation of the portent points to its essential ambiguity:

It is for war that horses are caparisoned.
These herds mean war for us. Yet the same beasts
Are sometimes trained to take the chariot pole
In harmony, to bear the yoke and bit.
There is, then, hope of peace.

(III. 715–19)

Confirming this sort of confusion, Helenus’s words about Sibyl are a devastating statement concerning prophecy presumably at its most reliable and revered:

You’ll see a spellbound prophetess, who sings
In her deep cave of destinies, confiding
Symbols and words to leaves. Whatever verse
She writes, the virgin puts each leaf in order
Back in the cave; unshuffled they remain;
But when a faint breeze through a door ajar
Comes in to stir and scatter the light leaves,
She never cares to catch them as they flutter
Or to restore them, or to join the verses;
Visitors, unenlightened, turn away
And hate the Sibyl’s shrine.

(III. 593–603)

The first ambiguous prophecy followed by the Trojans misdirects them to Thrace. In Thrace, Aeneas encounters Polydorus and learns that he cannot stay there, for “fate opposed it.” The oracle at Delos then tells him to go back to his origin, which Anchises indicates as being Crete, where their ancestor Teucrus had settled. On Crete, however, the Trojans are stricken with plague. Returning to Delos for a reinterpretation, Aeneas has a vision of the sacred images of the Phrygian gods he has brought with him from Troy: glowing on the hearth they speak of other forefathers, Dardanus and Iasius, who hailed from Hesperia (in the West, for the Greeks), or Ausonia, now called Italy. Anchises now recognizes the ambiguity of the double Trojan ancestry. On the Strophadës, whereto the Trojans are next blown off course, the harpies too prophesy, ominously predicting famine in Italy as revenge for their slaughter.

Through event as well as through prophecy, historical destiny shows itself to be very dire. Nevertheless, the human need to belong in some manner to history, to be remembered among men for one’s fate, however harsh, is demonstrated by the case of Achaeminides, Odysseus’s onetime companion. Left behind by his shipmates and desperate not simply to be abandoned to nature, he implores, “If I must die, / Death at the hands of men will be a favor!” (803–4). This attitude reaffirms that the personal is entirely conditioned by the public. For our personal experience for good or ill takes on meaning only in the context of human history and its goals and movements. Reality is for Virgil a historical reality, no longer an immediate personal reality, as for Odysseus. [End Page 23]

As these examples indicate, the significant structures of this book are all stretched between past precedents serving as paradigms and future possibilities projected as ideals. The entire epic is conceived in this historical dimension. For example, the “legend” (inscription) on the shield nailed to the temple columns at Actium by Aeneas (“Aeneas from victorious Greeks these arms,” III. 387) alludes proleptically to Augustus’s victory over Marc Antony and the Greek armies. A few years before the writing of the Aeneid, Augustus had defeated Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, and instituted games such as those in which Aeneas’s Trojans engage. The episode is thus set up by Virgil as prefiguring the triumph of Augustus. Virgil turns his narrative with its examples, in effect, into ‘types’ that will be fulfilled by actual Roman history as he knows it to have unfolded long after Aeneas’s time. This involves a highly original understanding of prophecy that seems unprecedented in Greco-Roman tradition. It finds plausible parallels rather in biblical tradition, with its typological references and correspondences. Aeneas’s res gestae illuminate Augustus’s similarly to the way the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai sheds its light on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount: it shows up as a type looking to be fulfilled by this later event, which in turn acquires deeper significance as fulfillment and completion of the earlier covenant (Matthew 5–7).

Prophecy, to the extent that it is conceived merely as foretelling the future, is deceptive.26 Much more than in predicting the future, prophecy consists in interpreting history in a way that reveals its true and final meaning. This, of course, also gives the key to telling the shape of things to come. It means transcending the temporal dimension of an isolated present cut off from past and future and rather seeing time in its wholeness, or what in Christian scripture is termed “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4). Books II and III show us how limiting and misleading the conventional kind of prophesying, as telling the future, is. The epic itself in its next book laments: “Alas, what darkened minds have soothsayers!” (IV. 91). This repudiation of popular soothsaying sets the epic’s historical-prophetic infrastructure into relief. Against such widespread and dubious arts, prophecy in another sense emerges as the very foundation of Virgil’s artistic originality. Virgil’s epic proffers a new form of secularized revelation through the prophetic interpretation of history, which supplants the mythic revelation of gods as present and acting within human deeds in the furthest reaches of human endeavor—the miracle that was apprehended by Homer.


This new form of prophecy is carried out most fully and explicitly at the end of Book VI of the Aeneid, in the vision guided by the shade of Anchises. This prophetic vision is then complemented in Book VIII by the ekphrastic image of Roman history in preview chased by Vulcan on the shield that his mother gives to Aeneas.27 In Book VI, Aeneas is turned around to the future as something he makes, something, therefore, with respect to which he is, to this degree, free, [End Page 24] not by getting out from under fate and defying it, which would be an Odyssean gesture, but rather by fully identifying himself with it. He no longer reluctantly submits under the burden of the past: projected into the future, his fate becomes his destiny and he embraces it as his very own purpose, the source of his own eager activity. The consequences of this conversion to the future are played out subsequently in Books VII–XII. However, as these books show, obedience to freedom, just like submission to fate, still has its price. It means renunciation: to be free is to be disinterested. Can Rome be willed even at the cost of the personal sacrifice that it is shown to exact?

To freely act in history requires assuming responsibility for tragedies such as war waged in the making of empire. Regret toward the past and its tragedy, which Aeneas must overcome in order to become the model of an empire builder, the civilizer of the world, is not simply cast off like an old garment. Tragedy overshadows, even at its very climax, the revelation of the Roman glory that is to come. An acute tragic sense is intrinsic to, and fundamentally conditions, the meaning of the whole history in which it is to be transfigured. Last in the long line of triumphant descendants who will sacrifice themselves for Rome is one who looks dejected, one whose temples are surrounded by black night. Aeneas craves to know who this mysteriously compelling figure is. This “immense sorrow” (“ingentum luctum“) of his people, as Anchises tells him, is Marcellus, whose funeral rites are invoked, lilies being heaped upon his grave, in futile gestures of inconsolable grief:

    For you
Will be Marcellus. Let me scatter lilies,
All I can hold, and scarlet flowers as well,
To heap these for my grandson’s shade at least,
Frail gifts and ritual of no avail.

(VI. 1098–1202)

The hopelessness and vanity of it all is captured in the sense of this vain ritual commemorating the too-terrible sacrifice demanded. It might be meaningful, after all, if only a truly just and peaceful Rome could be pointed to as making good this sacrifice. Then perhaps even the fated death of Marcellus might be willed as the price of peace. However, that is not the sentiment that prevails at this climactic juncture.

This prophetic vision, designed to fire Aeneas with love of future glory and thereby motivate his enthusiastic embrace of destiny, has been undermined even from its inception. It was framed by Aeneas’s disbelief that souls could wish to be reborn, that they could crave to return again to “bodies’ dead weight” (VI. 968). Anchises’s answer to this incomprehension is that the souls’ memories have been erased by Lethe: the souls come to Lethe stream, “That there unmemoried they may see again / The heavens and wish re-entry into bodies” (VI. 1007–8). Whereas the vision of history afforded Aeneas via prophecy is supposed to assure and confirm him in his courage to endure all trials, this amnesia implies that one can have heart to participate in life thanks only to ignorance and blindness towards what history holds in store. Even in devising the narrative mechanism of [End Page 25] reviewing history proleptically in order to engender the motivation for history-making action, Virgil manages at the same time to hint that precisely the vision of the whole from the end point—the vision enjoyed by purged souls with clear perceptions—can also be supremely demotivating. After all, this is his own perspective as creator of the poem and its tragedy (“l’alta mia tragedia,” as Dante has him say in Inferno XX. 113), which we sense him dolorously mourning throughout. At any rate, both perspectives—and their contradictoriness—are woven together into the pathos of the poem.

Ambiguities aside, at the end of Book VI, the center of the epic, the Roman destiny that has structured Aeneas’s quest from Book I forward is fully revealed as not just an ideological but also a moral and religious goal. What is revealed is not just the glory of the Roman state but the meaning of life itself as futural. Aeneas is called upon to become a theios-aner, a divine man, and to enter upon a kind of transcendent life beyond mere singular selfhood. This vision is fragile and perhaps will never again be so vividly glimpsed, given that the progress of hostilities stretches almost without relief across the following six books. But here, momentously, the meaning of human life is revealed as historical—not as the one-dimensional, sensuous present of pain that was the reality so tenaciously and heroically lived out by Odysseus.

In the new historical perspective of the Aeneid, meaning in human experience accrues over an expanse of time. It concerns not the moment alone, but the whole structure of a sequence of events, events that are themselves built up each one out of component moments that are moving towards a goal. There is a faint anticipation of such a historical sense in Odysseus’s being allowed by Tiresias’s prophecy to foresee his death in sleek old age, but this is not the constitutive center of the Odyssey as a whole, not overtly anyway. In the Aeneid, history is grounded in a purpose that transcends the present and gives it its significant structure. History thereby becomes providential. For the Greeks, when one dies as horrendously as Agamemnon did, one cannot be considered to have been happy.28 Only the present moment fully exists, and if the last moment of a person’s life is calamitous, so also is the final significance of their life. There is no redemption for archaic Greeks in the meaning of a life as a whole, neither in the final goal and order of history.

My use of the Christian-theological language of “redemption” here points not only to Aeneas’s death to self through renunciation in order to acquire new life at a higher spiritual level, but also to Virgil’s discovery of a narrative structure uncannily close to that of prophetic history (or ‘typology’) in revealed religion. Roman destiny, as Virgil interprets it, is providential, a divine dispensation that calls human beings to their historical task, granting them grace, particularly in the form of prophetic revelation. This conjunction, in turn, indicates why Virgil was enthusiastically embraced and assimilated by Christian writers, preparing the way for Dante.29 It gives a measure of Virgil’s truly astonishing and unprecedented originality in the history of Western epic poetry, and specifically in its employment of prophecy for effects of religious revelation. [End Page 26]

William Franke  

William Franke is Professor of Comparative Literature at Vanderbilt University, USA, and Professor of Philosophy and Religions at University of Macao, China. He is research fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung and has been Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Intercultural Theology at the University of Salzburg.


1.  The way in which Virgil does this will be highlighted here in its remarkable originality, yet some type of incidence of mythic past and mythic future upon present politics in the construction and cohesion of culture may be intrinsic to society itself, as suggested in a widely comparative perspective by Bruce Lincoln (1989).

2.  A distinction between primary and secondary epic is drawn by C. S. Lewis (1961, 12–31), and is adopted, for example, by Cecil M. Bowra (1963, 1–32). Something similar can be found already in Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1878, 83–90). Account should be taken also of the influence of intermediary epics on Virgil, as argued by Damien P. Nelis, “Vergil’s Library,” in Farrell and Putnam (2010, 13–25). Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the novel form as inherent already in the epic has been plied to challenge any simple opposition between Homeric epic and later forms. See R. Bracht Branham (2002).

3.  The view of Virgil as imitative and inferior has dominated German classical philology, with its characteristic exaltation of Hellenic culture, ever since Lessing’s Laokoon (1766), chapter 18. It is reproduced by Herder, Goethe, A. W. Schlegel, etc.

4.  Aeneas’s transformation at this point is described memorably in these terms by Brooks Otis (1963).

5.  I develop this interpretation in “Virgil’s Secularization of Prophecy: War and Tragedy and the Fate of the Spoken in the Second Half of the Aeneid” (forthcoming).

6. Erich Auerbach (1946, 5–27 and 1953, 3–23). Homer’s Odyssey is consulted in the edition of Stanford with the English translation of Cook, which has the advantage of corresponding in its line numbers with the Greek.

7.  These terms are suggested by Harold Bloom’s introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid: Modern Critical Interpretations. In this regard, the germ of the first half of the Aeneid might be found in the scene in the Odyssey where Odysseus is moved to tears by the tale of the tragedy of Troy sung by the bard Demodocus among the Phaeacians. Odysseus breaks into torrential weeping “as a woman wails embracing her husband who has fallen before his own city and people, defending the city and its children from the day of doom.” (Odyssey VIII. 521–31).

8. Virgil, The Aeneid, translated by Robert Fitzgerald (1983). Latin texts are cited from P. Virgili Maronis, Opera, edited by R. A. B. Mynors.

9.  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Briefwechsel zwischen Schiller and Goethe, No. 424 (16 February 1798), vol. II, 48–49.

10. Servii Grammaticii qui Feruntur In Virgilii Carmina Commentarii, eds. Georgius Thilo and Hermannus Hagen, vol. 1. The import of these phrases is discussed by Gianpiero Rosati, “Punto di vista narrativo ed antichi esegeti di Virgilio,” Annali della Scuola Nor-male Superiore di Pisa. See, further, Gian Biagio Conte (2002) on Virgil’s dramatic pathos and sublime style.

11.  Cf. Gary B. Miles (1999). For epic as a genre, see Frye (1957, 315–26).

12.  Seminal to this line of interpretation, which influences my reading at several points, is Adam M. Parry, “The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid.” The approach is elaborated especially by the so-called Harvard school of “pessimistic” interpretation of the epic, comprising, among others, Wendell Clausen (2002) and Michael Putnam (1988).

13.  The split between “rival traditions” distinguished by David Quint (1993) and associated respectively with Virgil and Lucan, who writes the epic of the defeated in protest against Virgil’s epic of victors, is discerned here as a fissure within Virgil’s epic itself (as Quint himself also argues in his second chapter). [End Page 27]

14. Eliot 1986, 144. The “Proto-Christian” Virgil of other modern authors attributing him a providential mission is reviewed by Theodor Ziolkowski (1993, 48ff). One should add also G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, part I, chapter 4. Among contemporaries, Louis Markos (2007) provocatively reads Virgil’s “sacred history of Rome” in a Christian apologetic and typological key.

15. Domenico Comparetti (1955) reviews this tradition. For the earliest Christian appropriations of Virgil, see Pierre Courcelle (1984).

16.  Patristic allegorical exegesis of Scripture is compared with classical allegoresis by Jean Pépin in Mythe et allégorie: Les origines grecques et les contestations judéo-chrétiennes. Pépin pursues Christian figural interpretation of Scripture further in La tradition de l’allégorie: De Philon d’Alexandrie à Dante.

17.  Illustrious Latinists like Robert Fitzgerald have pointed to the unprecedented originality of Virgil’s poetic representation of history as prophecy (“Postscript” to Virgil 1983, 405–406). For the intricate inter-relationship of poetry and prophecy across a wide spectrum of cultures, see Kugel (1990).

18.  Andrew Ford (1990, chapter 3) treats the preservation of heroic glory (kleos) in poetic song.

19.  Most comprehensive on this theme is P. R. Hardie (1986).

20. Gregory Nagy (1999) develops the difference in Archaic Greek between bie (brute strength or force) and metis (cunning) in a way that illuminates this judgment on the sack of Troy.

21.  Greene continues, drawing the contrast between Virgil’s gods and Homer’s: “Of all the celestial descents in the classical epic, none symbolizes so strong a pressure on the human will as Mercury’s descent to Aeneas at Carthage. In the Iliad the celestial messengers commonly intervene to prompt or suggest, and seldom represent a categorical imperative. . . . Hermes as a guide is gentleness itself. His descent in the Odyssey simply removes an obstacle from the path of the free human will” (1963, 99).

22.  The peculiar reality or truth attributed by the Greeks to their divinities is clarified by Paul Veyne (1983).

23. C. S. Lewis (1973, 49–56) traces this process forward into later Roman epic, signally Statius.

24.  This shift inward from event to meaning is emphasized effectively by Pöschl (1964, 44).

25.  Philologically sophisticated analyses of Virgil’s multi-valenced allusions to Homer are offered by Alessandro Barchiesi (1984) and Stephen Hinds (1998). In Hinds, see especially pages 91–98 on “‘Secondary’ epic” and pages 107–119 on “Epic repetition: remakes, sequels, doubles.”

26.  The deceptiveness of prophecy in the Aeneid is a major emphasis of James J. O’Hara (1990, summarized on 176–184). O’Hara documents the ways in which “the surface optimism of the poem or prophecy is undercut by darker material partially suppressed” (3). He maintains that “Vergil uses these deceptively optimistic prophecies to depict a world where man cannot know or face the truth, where perception is clouded by misinformation, and where hopeful expectation is repeatedly frustrated by grimmer reality” (4).

27.  I explore this material in “Virgil, History, and Prophecy.”

28.  See Herodotus, Historiae I, 32, 5f and the choral conclusion to Oedipus Rex.

29.  For the history of reception of Virgil by early Christian authors, see Courcelle, Lecteurs païens et lecteurs chrétiens de l’Énéide. On Virgil as foundation stone for Christian culture, see (in addition to references cited in note 14 ) the classic Theodor Haecker, Vergil, Vater des Abendlands. [End Page 28]

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