Virgil & the Ancient World

Author: Theodore Haecker


by Theodore Haecker

It was twenty years before Odysseus at last returned to his homeland--returned poor, naked and a beggar, it is true, but a conqueror. He returned and found again there almost everything that home stands for; he found his island, his earth, the place where as a child he had first known the light and beauty of the world; his old father was still there, his wife and his son, his faithful hound--surely the very picture of a happy home-coming! But what of Aeneas--to what did he come? Does he really resemble Odysseus at any point? No--there is no greater difference within the whole compass of ancient literature; and to understand that is to see how absurd are those critics who would dismiss Virgil contemptuously as a mere plagiarist and imitator of Homer. There is no more profound or astonishing originality in all the literature ofantiquity than Virgil's; and that precisely because it operates within the limits imposed by the inherited and traditional forms, which it reverently observes. But to return to Aeneas--does he, like Odysseus, come back to the land of his childhood? We are told incidentally, it is true, that Aeneas's ancestors had once dwelt in Italy, but this is mere political rhetoric, and has nothing to do with the story proper, the personal fate of Aeneas, where in fact it is entirely forgotten.

Aeneas did not return to the home of his childhood; on the contrary, he left it, and he left it as a fugitive (fato profugus)--witness the fact that Turnus, who had always remained at home in Latium, refers to him contemptuously and reproachfully as desertorem Asiae, deserter of Asia, a coward forgetful of his duty, flying from the colors. And this of Aeneas, of the ancestor of Caesar, of the mirror of Augustus! Aeneas was no victorious Greek, but a defeated Trojan like Hector. In that night of horror and desolation in the burning city of Troy, his wife, dulcis conjunx, had perished, and alone he had carried away his aged father and the penates; beside him, hardly able to keep pace with him, ran his little son. His father died on the journey--the father of pius Aeneas whose very life, the inmost spring of whose being was love of his father and his father's love of him--and he buried him. So far as he alone was concerned, so far as concerned only his own selfish will, his personal inclination, his own earth-bound, memory-bound desires, it is true he would rather have turned back to build old Troy again. Yet he dared not; for Fate, the will of the all-powerful, had bidden him seek out a new homeland--Italy. So armed only in the might of virtus, he went forward against the malignity of Fortune; for Aeneas never had fortune with him in the way that Odysseus always had.

"Disce, puer, virtutem ex me verumque laborem; fortunam ex aliis."

(Learn virtue from me, child, and true toil; learn fortune from others.) And with the help of war (though a thing in itself hateful) he made his way against the opposition of men; he made it despite the jealousy of the lesser gods, despite the prompting of his own desire, despite even pity; against his own will, and strong only in the strength of submission and the supreme might of Fate, he went on to find Italy, his new home. Italiam non sponte sequor --Not of my own will I seek Italy.

"Me si fata meis paterentur ducere vitam auspiciis, et sponte mea componere curas; urbem Troianam primum, dulcesque meorum reliquias colerem"

(Did the Fates but suffer me to shape my life after my own pleasure and order my sorrows at my own will, my first care would be the city of Troy and the sweet relics of my kin.)

In all pre-Christian literature there are no more Christian lines than these. Sainte-Beuve hardly penned a truer line -- though a bold one and one open to misunderstanding -- than when he wrote: La venue même du Christ n'a rien qui étonne, quand on a lu Virgile. (The coming of Christ is nothing surprising when one has read Virgil.) Against his will then Aeneas journeyed to that Italy which he knew not, and which was full of perils. But even as he listened to the mysterious, unsearchable higher will, gradually there kindled within him, and burned into the very marrow of his soul, a longing that was prepared for any sacrifice, for this second homeland, for Italy, which as yet was his only in the command ofJupiter, a land of promise from which he was still separated by long, and ever longer, trackless ways, viae inviae. Thus Virgil breathed into his hero that love for Italy, not merely for Rome, which was his own; for Virgil was not merely a Roman, he was an Italian also.


How full of paradox, how dialectical is the inner life of Aeneas! Does he in this resemble any of Homer's heroes? Though remote in time, of another race, and of another country, yet in spirit, which knows no distinctions of time or race or country, is he not akin rather to Abraham, the father of the faith? Did not Abraham also have to leave the homeland of his heart, and, for the sake of the faith and in obedience to an inscrutable will, a fatum, take upon himself the sorrow and bitter smart of memory, which for star-bound man is the meaning of a change of homeland. So it was with Aeneas.

The Homeric heroes can state plainly their truths and their falsehoods, and both are in the nature of self-revelations. But Aeneas cannot do this. Like all reticent men, he can speak only the truth that is in him, and that only occasionally and darkly. And again, like all reticent men, be they so from necessity or of their own free will, he makes no such brave figure as Achilles or Odysseus; it is easy to misunderstand him, as it is not the cunning Odysseus, or the transparent Achilles. Perhaps Virgil is here throwing some light upon the difficult character of Augustus--was he too, and of necessity, reticent? (which is, of course, not the same thing as 'sullen'). Aeneas is a grave man, gravis, a man burdened with one idea--for having many thoughts makes a man light, but having few and anxious thoughts makes him grave; and the burden of one thought only will make him grave indeed. It was this that made him a leader; this that made him the founder of Rome. At all events Virgil is not here drawing simply upon his imagination; this is no mere poetic invention. He here makes explicit in truth and in beauty what had for so long lain implicit in the character of Rome itself. And with one accord, without a moment of hesitation, Rome accepted and sanctioned this explanation of herself at the hands of her greatest poet. This is an historical fact, and a highly significant one; for what a people endorses and appropriates for ever to itself from the writings of its greatest poet is always something that is at once both a self-confession and a self-revelation....


Rome had no original speculative philosophers, but she did possess great practical, realistic thinkers, and her greatest was a poet, Virgil. All the great and simplethings of our reality have been meditated by him. That ideal of the man of mind, the spiritual man, union of contemplative sage and creative artist, was realized only twice in the classical world--first in Greece by Plato who was thinker and poet, after the Greek fashion; and then in Rome by Virgil who was poet and thinker, after the Roman fashion. (Among the Jews of pre-Christian times, that is of the Old Testament, this union was practically never broken; none was there a poet without being also a sage, and none a sage without being also a poet.) Virgil has demonstrated that Rome was fully conscious of her own character, both as to the things she lacked and as to the things she possessed to overflowing. She acknowledged without envy the superior gifts of the Greeks in the fine arts and in philosophy, though hardly in literature; and with unshakable steadfastness and confidence she devoted herself to her mission--itself also an art--to the mission of governing. But her mission--and here is a fact often ignored and easily forgotten--her mission was not primarily based upon force. Where that alone exists as a foundation, Virgil's condemnation is unequivocal. Not only is Catiline--that true political criminal, contemptor divum, despiser of the gods--hateful to him, but for him Sulla and Antony--brutal generals without any of the magnanimitas of true statesmen--also share the fate of the political criminals of Dante. He blames even the great Caesar, because he did not rule more patrum, after the manner of the fathers. Rome's mission was essentially not founded upon force; it was power rather, and based upon certain great and simple virtues, chief of which was pietas, love fulfilling duty, whose political expression is justice.

Hence the paradox of a Rome founded not by a conqueror but by a defeated man. Let King Pyrrhus or any other petty tyrant preen himself because Achilles, the unconquered, was his ancestor; Rome was for Hector. And Aeneas, the fugitive, who after one defeat built a new city, was the ancestor of Caesar and Augustus. No State that would stand, still less an empire that would endure, was made of the Greeks, for all their qualities; neither would Achilles serve, for all his impetuous storming to victory and, equally impetuously, to a profitless death; nor yet Odysseus--he knew too much, he was too fickle and he had too large a sense of humor, a thing which may easily prove an insuperable obstacle to successful statecraft. The ancestors of Rome were required to be builders and rebuilders, not destroyers, of cities. The Greeks built cities too, of course; they gave us the very name and science of politics; they taught us to understand wherein the essence of it lies....


It is truths of this order that lie hidden in the Aeneid;truths which, though through long periods they may fail to be appreciated, will again suddenly flash out brilliantly in the light of their own truth, touched anew into life by some catastrophe of the time. Virgil is the only pagan who takes rank with the Jewish and Christian prophets; the Aeneid is the only book, apart from Holy Scriptures, to contain sayings that are valid beyond the particular hour and circumstance of their day, prophecies that re-echo from the doors of eternity, whence they first draw their breath:

His ego nec metas rerum, nec tempora pona: imperium sine fine dedi.

(To these I have set bounds neither in space nor in time; dominion have I given thee without end.)

--so runs the fatum Jovis. For, whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, we are all still members of that Imperium Romanum, which finally and after terrible errors accepted Christianity sua sponte, of its own free-will-- a Christianity which it could not abandon now without abandoning itself and humanism too....


The content of the Aeneid is a hazy, inchoate theology expectant of the inseminating spirit--the best of which paganism was capable before the fullness of time was come. Paganism as it existed before Christ is no more to be revived than is the Jewish world before Christ. The decisive difference between the submissive adventist humanity of a Virgil and the pale, decadent humanism of the so-called humanists of the Renaissance lies in the fact that, whereas the one was a material soil awaiting the springing seed, the other was a sort of horticulture occupied with growing cuttings from lovely pot-plants; the one, a womb of longing which cried aloud for fulfillment; the other a mere precautionary measure which, if the worst come to the worst, should serve to hide from men's eyes for a few centuries approaching disaster. The Classicists pretend to see in Virgil their own image; yet, whereas he has denied nothing of his, not an iota of the tragedy and shame, they have often in the ultimate things denied the past of their ancestors....A humanism devoid of theology cannot stand. Today men are searching desperately for `Man,' but they seek what does not exist, namely autonomous Man. If they would find the whole man, they must not mistake the part for the whole, but, what is more important and more essential, must see that man realizes his wholeness only in the fact that he is wholly creature and cries out unceasingly for his Creator when He is not near, even as a child cries for its mother.

from Virgil, Father of the West (1934), Ch. 6.


Throughout the Middle Ages, Virgil was regarded as having prophesied the birth of Christ, because of the following lines in his Fourth Eclogue, which has been called the Messianic Eclogue:

"The last age, foretold in the Sibyl's verse, is come, and the great order of the ages begins anew. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn recurs; now from the heights of heaven a new generation descends. Only do thou, pure Lucina [goddess of childbirth], show thy favor to the child that is to be born, the child under whom the race of iron shall at last cease and a race of gold shall arise all over the world....He shall receive divine life; he shall see heroes mingling with gods and himself be seen of them; and he shall rule a world that has been given peace by the virtues of his father....

"Now do thou (for the time is at hand) enter upon thy great honors, dear offspring of the gods, Jove's own great progeny."

Why in fact is the Fourth Eclogue called a Messianic eclogue? Because it bears a resemblance to certain passages in the Old Testament predicting the Messiah. For example, Isaiah 9:6 and Isaiah ll:6.

Isaiah 9:6: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace."

And the second reads as follows:

Isaiah ll:6: "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and alittle child shall lead them."

Because of the reference to the Virgin in the Eclogue and its speaking of "A new begetting that now descends from heaven's height," we should also keep in mind Isaiah 7:14: "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shalt call his name, Immanuel."

For the Christian world, this had found fulfillment by the coming of the Angel Gabriel to Mary in Nazareth to announce to her that, in the words of St. Luke's gospel: "And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shall call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son the the Highest; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David. And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end..." Lk. 1:31-33.

When Mary asked how this could be, since she knew not man, the Angel replied: "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God." Lk. 1:35.

This is why Haecker calls Virgil the poet of adventist paganism. JJM

Taken from the Winter 1993 issue of "The Dawson Newsletter." For subscriptions send $8.00 to "The Dawson Newsletter", P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702. John J. Mulloy, Editor