book cover imageThe Last Trojan Hero: A Cultural History of Virgil’s Aeneid,
by Philip Hardie.
I.B. Tauris, 2014,
256 pp., $35.

Virgil’s Aeneid, the Roman national epic that recounts the mythic origins of the Eternal City, is among the most influential and widely read books in history. For worlds as diverse as first-century Rome, fourteenth-century France, nineteenth-century England, and twentieth-century America, the Aeneid has served numerous roles and even contradictory functions: model of grammar, teacher of morals, captivator of imaginations, inspiration of artists, justifier of conquest, symbol of oppression, measure of greatness, and representation of bigotry. Exactly which of these descriptions was claimed at a given time points to the multifaceted nature and great depth of the epic itself; but each also sheds light upon the epoch and the peoples who read and internalized it. To this latter end Philip Hardie’s masterful narration of how the Aeneid has been received over the centuries is as engaging as any account of the epic itself.

Virgil has been so influential that to “write a comprehensive literary and cultural history of the reception of Virgil would be little less than to write a literary and cultural history of Western Europe and its former overseas possessions.” Hardie attributes the diachronic success of the Aeneid to its “very high quality” and its fortunate timing—it told the thrilling foundation of the Roman people just as Rome was transitioning to a new foundation of monarchial rule. By deliberately tying Rome’s legendary past “through allusion and prophecy … to the person and rule of Augustus,” the Aeneid became “the central text for the five centuries of that empire’s life, and then for later states and rulers which saw themselves as in some way successors of the Roman Empire.”

Virgil’s poems have been used as school texts since their publication “both to inculcate correct linguistic knowledge and to give moral lessons.” He surpassed Homer in esteem, and his “status as the incomparably great poet remained virtually unchallenged down to the seventeenth century.” The birth of liberalism in the early modern period began a reappraisal of Virgil and his seemingly imperialistic and monarchial Aeneid that considered the epic’s other features: eighteenth-century readers were moved by “the ‘sublime,’ the ‘pathetic,’ and the ‘picturesque,’” while nineteenth-century readers responded to the epic’s “pathos.” Twentieth-century readers proposed the “two voices” reading of the Aeneid, “which sees the poem as a split between a ‘public voice’ of triumph … and a ‘private voice’ of regret for what was lost along the way.” Hardie labels this most recent reading as an attempt “on the part of the tender liberal consciences of modern scholars to make Virgil ‘one of us’” by saving the Aeneid from the “taint of supporting an autocratic regime.”

After this brief chronological introduction, Hardie’s narrative proceeds thematically, examining, one chapter at a time, how the Aeneid’s major characters and features—Aeneas, Dido, imperialism, burlesque, art, and landscape—have been received and, in turn, have influenced, different ages and countries. The thematic approach also allows the Aeneid itself, rather than its recipients, to direct the course of the narrative. Due to the complexity of tragic Dido, for example, the reception of the Carthaginian queen’s story “has also been very varied, in epic, tragedy, elegy, lyric, the novel, and not least opera.” Dido’s multifarious reception has included a long association with Cleopatra that was utilized from antiquity to Shakespeare and Dryden; a portrayal as a “two-faced” seductress in the model of Medea, Circe, and Calypso; a dignified literary model for Queen Elizabeth I; and a subject of over one hundred operas from 1641–1863. The emotional intensity with which the tragedy of Dido unfolds has also given rise to considerations of the nature of marriage, the “conflicts of desires and duties,” and the social standing of women in all types of art forms over the centuries.

But whereas “Dido is the Virgilian character who has achieved something like archetypical status,” Aeneas has been far less prominent over the centuries due to the “colourless quality” of his character: he is “more of a heros patiens than a heros agens.” Yet Aeneas has still drawn enough interest and, with this, divergent interpretations of his character, over the centuries. He has been seen as the model of filial piety and tradition, as seen most notably in Bernini’s sculpture of Aeneas with his father and son; but from the fourth century through the present some critics have argued that Aeneas’ slaughter of the suppliant enemy Turnus in the epic’s final lines undermines any piety that he supposedly possessed. In fact, criticism today “has largely turned away from laudatory or philosophical readings of the character of Aeneas, and emphasized his backslidings, his moments of weakness and doubt”; this fashion, Hardie assets, “has been politically motivated.”

Hardie also devotes chapters to surveying how the Aeneid has influenced two of the greatest forces the world has known: the nation-state and the Christian religion. Regarding the former, the Aeneid “plays a major part inthe invention of the European myth of empire.” In addition to inspiring “the ideology and panegyric” of the Holy Roman Empire and other kingdoms after Rome fell in A.D. 476, “the Aeneid is also an epic of nation-building, and it provided one of the templates for the construction of the legendary origins of later European nations.” Virgil’s epic offered two “linear” patterns that were “endlessly suggestive for political allegories”—the imposition by the government authority of order upon chaos and the apotheosis of the ruler. Writers and artists from Lucan to Rubens developed these themes for the benefit of rulers including Nero, Theodosius, Charlemagne, Charles V, Elizabeth I, James I, and the Stuart kings. But Hardie also points out that the broader plot of the Aeneid “yields a more nuanced nationalism and imperialism”—between its triumphal goals “the Aeneid is an epic of displacement, exile, mobility, of intermittent hope rather than final and lasting achievement.” There are sufficient “dubieties and uncertainties” in the epic that “form a counterbalance to its optimistic prophecies,” a fact that has enabled such multifaceted readings over the centuries.

Christianity also harnessed the power of the Aeneid so that the “providential coincidence of Augustan world-empire with the birth of Christ became a part of Christian ideology.” Augustus secured the political stability needed for the Messiah’s birth and Virgil, in another poem that promised the birth of a wondrous child and a golden age of peace, was viewed as his pagan prophet as early as the fourth century. Also at this time began the practice of the “Christian cento,” the pasting together of scattered lines of Virgil to tell a Christian story. Such a practice reflects both the high status of Virgil among Christians and the detail with which his works were studied. A pagan epic that advocates pagan virtues would seemingly be at odds with those of Christianity, yet later Christians writing in epic form alluded whenever possible to Virgil, whom one writer deemed an “anima naturaliter Christiana/a soul naturally Christian.”

“I do not foresee a time when the Aeneid could again be labelled the central classic for contemporary culture.” Aside from this passing comment, and a note that Virgil has continued to make his presence felt in this third millennium, most notably in the National September 11 Memorial Museum, Hardie does not dwell on the future of Virgil or of the classics. Perhaps, Hardie considers, that “meaning is only realized at the point of reception,” which would indicate that the Aeneid will remain in a period of eclipse for the foreseeable future. Yet he also notes that the impressive diversity of interpretation over the centuries, expertly detailed throughout the book, “might be taken as an index of the inexhaustible complexity of the Aeneid itself.” The truth of this latter statement should lead us to believe that future generations will have more to hearfrom—and say about—Virgil. 

David G. Bonagura, Jr., teaches classical languages at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York.