Virgil and the Christian World by T.S. Eliot (1951)

T.S. Eliot: a potted biography

The great Anglo-American poet, playwright and critic T.S. Eliot (1888 to 1965) came from America to England just before the First World War, published a small number of sensuous, ‘modernist’ poems displaying a sensibility in debt to French Symbolism. Soon after the Great War ended he published the seminal modernist poem, The Waste Land (1922), but also established a reputation as a deeply insightful and intelligent critic of much earlier English literature, particularly the Jacobean playwrights and metaphysical poets of the early 1600s.

His reputation was enhanced and his influence steadily spread, especially among the younger generation of writers and critics, due to his editorship of a literary and philosophical magazine, The Criterion, which he edited from 1922 to 1939. Readers of The Criterion came to realise that, far from being a youthful revolutionary who was set on overturning literary values, and despite the radical format of The Waste Land (collage, fragments, quotes from multiple foreign languages), Eliot was, in fact, a profoundly conservative thinker.

This was made explicit when in 1928, in the foreword to a book of essays titled ‘For Lancelot Andrewes’ (the Jacobean bishop and writer) Eliot ‘came out’, declaring himself ‘a classicist in literature, royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion,’ committing himself to hierarchy and order in all three fields.

He had already taken British citizenship. In the later 1930s he attempted to revive the verse drama of the Elizabethans which he had spent so much time analysing, on the modern stage, writing a series of plays in verse, starting with Murder in the Cathedral (1935).

During the Second World War Eliot worked as a reader for the publishers Faber & Faber during the day and a fire warden at night. The masterpiece of his maturity was the set of four longer poems collectively titled the Four Quartets (Burnt Norton, 1936, then East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding, published in 1940, 1941 and 1942, respectively).

After the war, Eliot settled into the position of Grand Old Man of Poetry, with a leading role at the leading publisher of poetry, Faber. He continued to write essays and make broadcasts on the radio. With his public conversion to Anglicanism he had achieved an ideological and psychological stability.

Having lived through two ruinous world wars, a lot of Eliot’s effort was now devoted towards helping to define and preserve the best of European civilisation. His early essays had been offshoots of a poet working through his own problems and interests; the later essays are a conscious effort to establish a canon of classic literature, trying to formulate universal categories to define and preserve it.

It is in this spirit that in 1951 he delivered a lecture on BBC radio titled ‘Virgil and the Christian World’, which was then printed in The Listener magazine and collected in the volume On Poetry and Poets.

Virgil and the Christian World

As befits radio this is not an address to a specialist audience of literary scholars but a more broad brush approach for a general audience. Eliot explains that he is not setting out to assert Virgil’s special value as a poet or moralist, but to pay attention to ‘those characteristics of Virgil which render him peculiarly sympathetic to the Christian mind’.

Straight away he addresses the notorious issue of the Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue. This, the fourth and final of Virgil’s set of lengthy poems about the countryside or ‘eclogues’, contains extravagant praise of the forthcoming birth of a special child, who, the poet claims, will bring a new golden age, the return of Saturn and the Virgin, the gift of divine life etc.

As early Christianity established itself, early Christian apologists ransacked all available texts, from old Jewish scriptures to the entire literature of the ancient world, looking for proofs and prophecies, any text anywhere which could be made to prefigure and predict the arrival of their messiah.

Thus the Fourth Eclogue was quickly adopted by these apologists and Virgil was made an honorary Christian before the fact because Christians claimed he had been gifted with spiritual prophecy to foresee the coming of the Christ. Throughout the entire Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance scholars and theologians genuinely believed that Virgil had predicted the coming of the Christ child.

Eliot makes clear right at the start that he in now way thinks that Virgil foresaw the birth of Christ (some 19 years after he himself died). Rather, Eliot thinks the Fourth Eclogue was written to a friend of his, Pollio, whose wife was expecting a baby.

[In fact, the notes to the OUP edition of the Eclogues which I recently read, suggest that this passage of the Fourth Eclogue was describing the hoped-for son of the recent marriage of Antony and Octavius’s sister, Octavia (in 40 BC), because contemporaries devoutly hoped that their union would usher in a final end to Rome’s endless civil wars.]

Eliot then ponders the meaning of the words prophet, prophecy and predict. He himself has no doubt that Virgil had no inkling of the coming of Christ. On the other hand, he suggests that if the word ‘inspiration’ means writing something the poet himself does not completely understand, and which he or she may themselves misinterpret once the ‘inspiration’ has passed, the maybe Virgil was ‘inspired’.

This is by way of preparing the way for some autobiography, for Eliot then paints an obvious portrait of himself and how his most famous poem, The Waste Land, which arose out of his purely private concerns, amazed him by going on to become the rallying cry for an entire generation of writers.

A poet may believe that he is expressing only his private experience; his lines may be for him only a means of talking about himself without giving himself away; yet for his readers what he has written may come to be the expression both of their own secret feelings and of the exultation or despair of a generation.

A poet need not know what his poetry will come to mean for others just as a prophet need not understand the meaning of their prophetic utterance. Thus there may be any number of secular, historical explanations for the Fourth Eclogue; but he repeats his definition of ‘inspiration’ as tapping into a force which defies all historical research.

Anyway the point is that the existence of the Fourth Eclogue which so many Christians mistakenly thought was divinely inspired, gave Virgil and his writing a kind of free pass into the new Christian order, opening ‘the way for his influence in the Christian world’, something mostly denied to other explicitly ‘pagan’ authors. On the face of it this is a lucky accident but Eliot doesn’t believe it was an ‘accident’.

Eliot anticipates Jackson Knight’s view, expressed in his Penguin translation of the Aeneid from a few years later (1956), that Virgil was the poet of the gateway, looking both back to the pagan world and forwards to the Christian dispensation.

So after these preliminaries, Eliot gets to the meat of his essay: In what way did Virgil anticipate the Christian West? Eliot tells us that, to answer his question, he is going to rely on a book by a German scholar, Theodor Haecker, titled Virgil: The Father of the West.

Before he gets started though, Eliot rather surprisingly devotes a page to autobiography, telling us that as a boy learning the Classics he much preferred Greek to Latin (and still does). However he found himself immediately more drawn to Virgil than Homer. The main reason was that the gods in Homer are so capricious, selfish and immoral and all the so-called ‘heroes’ are in fact coarse ruffians. The only decent character in the entire book is Hector.

Nowadays, if forced to explain his preference, he’d say he prefers the world of Virgil to the world of Homer: it was ‘a more civilised world of dignity, reason and order’. Eliot goes on to compare the Greek and Roman worlds, saying the culture of Athens was much superior in the arts, philosophy and pure science. Virgil made of Roman culture something better than it was. Then he quietly makes a very big leap in the argument, claiming that Virgil’s ‘sensibility was more nearly Christian than any other Roman or Greek poet’. How so?

He says he is going to follow Haeckel’s procedure of examining key words in the poem and highlights laborpietas and fatum. However, he immediately drops this plan and veers off into a consideration of the Georgics. What Virgil really intended the Georgics for remains a bit of a mystery: they’re not particularly useful as a handbook to farming, and they contain many digressions completely extraneous to their ostensible subject matter. After pondering Virgil’s motivation, Eliot concludes that Virgil intended to affirm the dignity of agricultural labour and the importance of the cultivation of the soil for the wellbeing of the state, both materially and spiritually.

The Greeks may have perfected the notion that the highest type of life is the contemplative life (Plato et al) but they tended to look down on manual labour. For Eliot the Georgics affirm the importance of manual labour on the land. Then he makes a leap to talk about the monastic movement which grew up within medieval Christendom and how the monastic orders combined both aspects, combining a life of contemplation with quite arduous labour, as both being essential for the life of the complete man.

It may be that the monks who read and copied Virgil’s manuscripts recognised their spirit in the Georgics.

Now onto the Aeneid. Eliot says this epic poem is:

concerned with the imperium romanum, with the extension and justification of imperial rule.

(quite unlike W.A. Camps with his silly claim that the Aeneid is not a work of propaganda.) But Eliot claims that Virgil’s ‘ideal of empire’ was founded on a devotion to the land, to the region, village, and family within the village. This brief explanation is his discussion of labor because Eliot now turns to the more important concept of pietas.

In English someone is called ‘pious’ if they make a great show of their religious faith. Eliot says that pietas for Virgil had much wider associations: it implies a respectful attitude to the individual, the family, the region, and towards ‘the imperial destiny of Rome’. Aeneas is also ‘pious’ in his respect towards the gods and punctilious observance of rites and offerings.

Eliot delves further into the meanings of the word. Piety to a father can, for example, mean not only affection for an individual but acceptance of a bond which one has not chosen. Piety towards the father is also an acceptance of the correct order of things, and so, obliquely, respect of the gods. After some shilly-shallying Eliot gets to the point he wants to make: all these forms of piety involve some form of humility and humility is a professedly Christian virtue. Aeneas is, in this respect, the polar opposite of Achilles or Odysseus, who have not a shred of humility about them.

[Interestingly, given the date of the essay, written soon after the end of the Second World War, Eliot describes Aeneas as the original Displaced Person, a fugitive from a ruined city and an obliterated society.]

Odysseus endures ten years of exile but eventually returns to his home hearth, to a loyal wife, a dutiful son, his slaves and faithful dog. Whereas Aeneas can’t go home: he is a man on a mission and accomplishing that mission, the poem makes repeatedly clear, is only the very beginning of the long history of Roman origins and rise. Odysseus’s story ends when he gets home (and kills the suitors); Aeneas’s entire journey is itself only an episode in the much larger history of Rome.

Therefore, Eliot asserts (with a bit of a stretch, in my view) Aeneas is ‘the prototype of a Chistian hero’. He accepts the duty laid on him by the gods regardless of the price to himself. He subjugates his own will and desires to his god-given task.

This brings Eliot to fatum (so, OK, we are proceeding via the key word process). There is an excess of words to cover this concept. Eliot says maybe the best translation is ‘destiny’ but then makes the polemical point that you cannot have ‘destiny’ in a purely mechanical universe.

Eliot then tries to give a Christian interpretation to Aeneas’s ‘destiny’. It is a burden and a responsibility rather than a reason for self glorification. It happens to some men and not others because some have the gifts and the responsibility but they did not make these; something external made these and the humble man accepts the gifts and the responsibility. Who made them? Not the anthropomorphised pagan gods who behave so selfishly and vulgarly in the poem. Some power much deeper.

He zeroes in on the entire Dido episode (book 4) in particular Aeneas’s shame at abandoning Dido, shame which is revived when he meets her shade in the underworld in book 6 and she refuses to look at him or speak. This, for Eliot, more than personal shame, symbolises how much Aeneas suffered to carry out his god-given destiny. Making his point completely explicit, he says: ‘it is a very heavy cross to bear.’

Eliot can think of no other pagan poet who could have created this situation with its emotional, psychological and philosophical subtlety.

What does this ‘destiny’ mean? For Virgil’s conscious mind, and his contemporary readers, not least the all-powerful Augustus, there’s no doubt it means the imperium romanum. But Eliot then makes some dubious and sweeping generalisations. He claims that Virgil proposed for his contemporaries a noble ideal of empire – personally, I don’t see that in the poem. There are Anchises’ lines reminding Romans they must rule well and there’s praise of Augustus for bringing peace and order, but that’s about it. Eliot stretches it by claiming that Virgil’s work proposed ‘the highest ideal’ for any secular empire. Personally, I just don’t see that. In my view what the Aeneid praises is military conquest, might and power. There might be a strong thread of regret and sadness running through it, but that is the poem’s overt message.

Eliot proceeds to claim that ‘we are all, so far as we inherit the civilisation of Europe, still citizens of the Roman Empire’. Is that true? I can see strong points on either side of the argument.

But he then goes on to claim that the Roman Empire Virgil imagined was ‘greater’ than the actual one of generals and proconsuls and businessmen. Eliot claims that Virgil invented this ideal and ‘passed [it] on to Christianity to develop and to cherish.’ I disagree on a number of levels.

First, I find the actual process of creating empire, as described in the Aeneid, to be hyper-violent and destructive, flagrantly contrary all Christian morality.

Second, part of the ideal which Eliot is describing must include the idealisation of the first Roman emperor Augustus. I can see why Virgil a) pinned his hopes for peace on b) sucked up to, the most powerful man in Rome, but in the end the entire poem amounts to the propagandistic adulation of a mass murderer, a man who achieved supreme power by liquidating all his enemies and then ensuring nobody could threaten his unique rule for the next 40 years. The Aeneid defends a military dictator.

So I just don’t agree when Eliot claims that it passed onto its Christian heirs any kind of noble model for how to run a spiritual empire. The exact opposite.

Eliot reiterates his claim that we are all still citizens the Roman Empire. Well, there are arguments both ways but ultimately I think he is incorrect. The state we inhabit in England in 2022 owes more to the non-Roman traditions of the pagan Danes and Anglo-Saxons and feudal Normans who each conquered this country, than to the Roman civilisation which they eclipsed. Our democracy owes nothing to Rome; it developed out of medieval feudalism, itself an import from Normandy, itself a colony of Vikings.

I think Eliot’s vision of a total European civilisation is erroneous and that his claim that this civilisation was in part inspired by Virgil is wrong.

Moreover, there is a blindingly obvious problem here, which is that Eliot is defending empire as an ideal form of government. Obviously this was considerably easier to do in 1951 than it would be nowadays. Millions of inhabitants of the former British Empire have immigrated to Britain and their children, in politics, in culture and in academia, have enthusiastically set about damning the British Empire, rubbishing any claim that it ever had anything positive about it. So just the sound of Eliot defending empire as a ‘noble ideal’ sounds badly in our time.

As to whether Virgil’s ideal of a suprahuman noble empire actually did inspire church authorities in the Middle Ages, I think you’d need a book examining the impact of the Virgilian ‘ideal’ on theologians, political thinkers, churchmen and statesmen throughout the Middle Ages and that would be a vast undertaking. I bet one exists, though. I’d love to read it.

This was, after all, only a half-hour radio lecture. Eliot’s sensitivity and insight and intellect bring out all kinds of aspects of Virgil’s achievement. And his thesis – that Virgil’s achievement of creating the notion of an ideal empire was to haunt the European imagination – is one of those ideas which is itself so big and vague that you can’t really prove or disprove it. But it’s an interesting perspective to add to the hundreds of other perspectives with which we can view Virgil’s epic poem.

Eliot concludes his essay with a page about a word which is missing from Virgil which is ‘love’. Amor does crop up, especially in the story of Dido and Aeneas. But it has nowhere near the force and central importance that it has for a Christian poet like Dante. It never has:

the same significance as a principle of order in the human soul, in society and in the universe that pietas is given.

Thus Eliot agrees (no surprise) with Dante’s positioning of Virgil in the Divine Comedy as an inspired teacher and guide right up to the barrier of belief, which he is not allowed to cross. In Eliot’s view Virgil mapped out a universe which in many ways anticipated the Christian universe, and handed many of its values onto later generations of Christian thinkers (and poets). But there is a line and Virgil doesn’t cross over into being a Christian. He can’t.

Instead, Virgil was limited by his position in history: the highest value he can conceive of, the value which underpins so much of the character and action of the Aeneid, was pietas, respect for father, family and fatherland.

But the highest value for the Christian poet Dante was love, the love which has created the entire universe and moves the sun and the stars and which we can all aspire to. Next to the gorgeous rose of Dante’s universe of love, Virgil’s pietas is a hard, iron sword, the colour of Roman imperialism.

Other Eliot reviews

Roman reviews

An introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid by W.A. Camps (1969)

sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
(‘There are tears of things and mortal things touch the mind’)
(Aeneid Book 1, line 462)

The Aeneid’s structure

The first six books describe wandering, the second six books describe war.

The first six books are set on or near the sea, the second six books are set on land.

The first six books copy a lot from Homer’s Odyssey, the second six books copy a lot from Homer’s Iliad.

The first half focuses on Carthage, leading to the death of Dido, the second half focuses on Latium, leading to the death of Turnus. (In fact, it’s not quite as neat as that because Dido dies at the end of book 4, leaving book 5 to describe the funeral games for Anchises and book 6 the journey to the underworld, so the deaths of Dido and Turnus don’t perfectly bookend each half.)

Historical background

Virgil lived through stormy and decisive political times. He was born in 70 BC only 15 or so years after the end of the Social War, a 4-year-long bitter and needless fight between Rome and various tribes and peoples of Italy who demanded full Roman citizenship. In the end Rome acquiesced and gave it them. The precise relationship between Rome and the other local tribes is implicit in the whole idea of Aeneas coming as an immigrant and stirring up a huge ruinous war between its existing inhabitants, and then is specifically addressed right at the end of the Aeneid when Juno demands equal rights for the Latins vis-à-vis the newcomers from her husband Jupiter, as a condition of giving up her vicious vendetta against the Trojans.

Then Virgil was 21 when civil war broke out in 49 BC between Caesar and Pompey. He saw what it was like for the Roman ruling class to be split right down the middle and many men die pointlessly, as, arguably, all the terrible deaths in the second half of the Aeneid are, ultimately, pointless and unnecessary.

Then Virgil was 26 when Caesar was assassinated and Rome plunged into a further 15 years of instability and recurring civil wars, before Octavian finally brought peace by defeating Antony in 31 BC, as Virgil turned 40.

The price of peace

Virgil composed the Aeneid over the 10 or so years from 29 BC to his premature death in 19 BC. After a life lived against a backdrop of unending civil strife you can see why Virgil would desperately have wanted peace and order to be restored and pinned his hopes for that outcome on the new rule of Augustus. But you can also see why one of the Aeneid‘s main themes is the price that has to be paid for the final arrival of peace and order, and it is a very, very high price in tragedy and bloodshed. Hecatombs of the dead. So many brave young lives cut short. Aeneas wins his place in the promised land of Hesperia, but my God what a trail of death and destruction he leaves behind him.

Aspects of patriotism

All elements in the poem are multi-levelled and dense with allusiveness. Thus the poem’s patriotism is plain for everyone to see, and yet is effective because it works at so many levels. Central is the plot itself, Aeneas’s journey to Italy to found a new city and new people. The gods repeatedly reassure him of the future greatness of the Roman people. He sees a procession of eminent Romans in the underworld at the end of book 6. The figure of Augustus appears here, and as the central figure on the shield his mother gives him at the end of book 8, as well as being invoked several other times, crystallising the hopes of the world.

But it also works in a host of other ways. Most poignantly and hauntingly when we discover that King Evander’s little township is built on the site of the future Rome and that he and Aeneas are walking through the landmarks of the greatness that is to come. But also in the mention throughout the poem of beliefs and customs which first came with the Trojans or, conversely, are already practiced by the Arcadians or the Latins:

  • they Latins are referred to as ‘the people of the Roman gown’
  • the Roman custom of covering the head at sacrifice is enjoined on Aeneas by the seer Helenus before his arrival in Italy (3.403)
  • the exhibition of horse drill known to the Romans as lusus Troiae is demonstrated by Ascanius and the young horsemen during the funeral games for Anchises (5.596)
  • Aeneas promises to inaugurate the tradition of the Sibylline Books (6.71)
  • the practice of opening or closing the doors of the temple of Janus in times of war already exists in Latium (7.601)
  • the worship of Hercules at the great altar in the cattle market which existed in Virgil’s time is said to already exist when Aeneas arrives in Latium (8.268)

So the poem’s patriotism is shouted from the rooftops in the shape of the plot and in the multiple predictions but also threaded subtly into a fabric of hints and allusions.

A political poem?

Camps surprises me by claiming the Aeneid is not a political poem. He deploys the kind of sentimental humanism found throughout post-war Anglophone literary criticism, deflecting analysis off into fancy fondling about morality or spirituality:

The Aeneid is in no sense political propaganda, for it is not in its nature a political poem. The Rome that is its inspiration is not conceived in terms of a political system; and the background against which the humans in the story act and suffer is provided not by contrasting political ideas but by the working of the historical process and the conflict of spiritual powers. (p.2)

This is plain wrong, isn’t it? It’s as if someone who wrote a long poem in praise of Nazi rule over occupied Europe claimed that it wasn’t a political poem because the Nazi rule it praises ‘is not conceived in terms of a political system’. Well, it doesn’t need to be. If politics in the broadest sense is defined as how a society chooses to run itself, then this poem explicitly says that Rome will reach its height when it is ruled by the enlightened dictator Augustus, and that the Roman people are destined to rule the entire known world – and are justified in doing so because of their unique skill at ruling justly.

Roman, remember by your strength to rule
Earth’s peoples — for your arts are to be these:
To pacify, to impose the rule of law,
To spare the conquered, battle down the proud.
(6.1,151 to 1,154)

This prophecy of Anchises is only the most famous of several passages which justify Roman conquest and rule over the entire world. The Aeneid is a hymn to Roman hegemony. Nothing could be more political. Claiming it is ‘not in its nature a political poem’ because it doesn’t go into the nitty-gritty of the constitution or describe any particular ‘political system’ or discuss political parties is being disingenuous or naive. Try telling any of the peoples Rome had conquered, whose towns they had destroyed and populations they’d sold into slavery (read Caesar’s Gallic Wars) that writing an elaborate poem justifying Rome’s eternal rule over the entire known world was not a political statement and watch them laugh in your face.

Clearly your answer to the question, ‘Is the Aeneid a political poem?’ depends on how you define ‘politics’, but there’s also another level or type of definition of politics in play here: this is the issue of taking sides during a civil war. This, also, is a glaring ‘political issue’: whether one is on the side of, say, the nationalists or the republicans during the Spanish Civil War could hardly be a more political and politicised decision.

Well, in the civil war with Antony, Virgil hugely comes down on the side of Augustus and writes it into his poem. In the epic scene where Vulcan forges a mighty shield for Aeneas he depicts on it the Battle of Actium where Augustus defeated Antony and Cleopatra, and the narrator throws in criticisms of the doomed lovers. And the shield then goes on to celebrate Augustus’s unprecedented three triumphs over his political and military opponents.

It beggars belief that Camps thinks that this hugely committed work of propaganda is ‘in no sense political propaganda’ solely because it ‘is not conceived in terms of a political system.’ As I’ve been writing this I’ve realised I myself am missing another way to argue against him, which is to point out that he is wrong even on his own terms: that the entire poem is ‘conceived in terms of a political system’, namely – the imperial rule of Augustus. Rule by an emperor emphatically is a political system and this poem consistently and repeatedly predicts and celebrates this political system.

Copying the Greeks

Virgil wrote three great works. In each of them he copied Greek originals. The Eclogues copy the Idylls of Theocritus, the Georgics copy the Work and Days of Hesiod, the Aeneid very closely copies the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. Camps claims Virgil is not stealing – he is reconciling the two cultures.

Camps lists some of the major plot devices he is indebted to Homer for:

  • an extended sea journey packed with adventures – the Odyssey
  • enmity of a god who hates the hero drawing out the journey to extended length – the Odyssey
  • councils of the gods in heaven – both Odyssey and Iliad
  • descent to the underworld – the Odyssey
  • funeral games – the Iliad
  • massive, sustained war featuring a siege and many detailed battle scenes – the Iliad
  • the aristeia in which a warrior reaches the peak of their excellence before being cut down – the Iliad
  • the blacksmith god creating a suit of armour and a shield decorated with emblematic events for the hero – the Iliad
  • strong female warrior (Camilla) – the Iliad
  • a foray into the enemy camp by night – the Iliad
  • retirement of the protagonist in whose absence the other army comes right up to the allies’ base and threatens to storm it and win the war – the Iliad
  • hero’s beautiful young friend killed by the main antagonist, a loss which drives the hero to psychopathic vengeance – the Iliad
  • climactic single combat between two epic heroes – the Iliad

(Camps gives a much longer list of direct copying on page 81.) Camps says that Virgil used Homer to supply ‘a deficiency in the possibilities of his own imagination’ (p.9) but it’s bigger than that: the Aeneid doesn’t borrow elements from Homer’s epics, it couldn’t have existed without them. They provide the entire historical background, the entire worldview of gods interfering in the lives of mortals, the entire concept of a long poem focusing on an epic hero, and almost all the significant events. ‘Borrowing’ or ‘copying’ aren’t adequate enough words for the wholesale reincarnation of Homer’s epics in Virgil’s work, and in a later chapter Camps seems to acknowledge this:

To a very large extent the story told in the Aeneid is made by remoulding Homeric materials, as well as owing to Homer the broad motifs which govern its design. (p.82)

The process of composition

Camps devotes an appendix to describing some of the short biographies of Virgil which were written after his death. Suetonius wrote one, now, unfortunately, lost. The best early one which survives is by Aelius Donatus and Camps presents a translation of the full text (6 pages long).

Donatus and fragments from other biographies tell us that Virgil’s method in composing poetry was to make a complete prose summary of the entire story before he began writing any verse. Donatus says that every morning Virgil dictated some verses to a secretary for as long as inspiration lasted, then, after lunch, spent the afternoon working over what he had dictated, sometimes whittling a mass of verses down to just a handful of lines, sometimes just one. Apparently, Virgil compared the process to the ancient folklore notion that a mother bear gave birth to formless lumps of life and then literally licked them into shape (p.117).

(In fact, Donatus describes this as Virgil’s method in writing the Georgics but everyone has silently agreed that this is probably how he composed the Aeneid as well.)

Crucially, Donatus says that Virgil did not compose the poem by starting at the beginning and working through. Instead, he was inspired to versify particular ad hoc scenes as the inspiration took him, sometimes composing later scenes years before earlier ones. This explains all sorts of discrepancies which a close reading of the poem brings to light, notably the lack of linking and smoothing passages, for example the abrupt ending of the famous book 6, and the even more abrupt ending of the entire poem.

Moreover, Donatus tells us that the poem contains many lines of poor quality, as well as lines which are metrically incomplete which Virgil deliberately left in because he needed the padding and structure to get onto the more finished sections, but would have returned to improve had he lived.

The violence

I think my view of the poem has been very strongly skewed by the hyper violence of the second part of the poem. The orgies of testosterone-fuelled slaughter which it describes with such relish strongly affect my impression of the first half, so that I remember mainly the violence – for example, the extended description of the fighting at the sack of Troy. Camps wants us to feel soft and sentimental about the book-long love affair with Dido but what I mainly remember from book 4 is:

  • the murder of Dido’s husband and the unhappiness of his ghost
  • the self slaughter of Dido, who does it in the Roman way, falling on her sword
  • Dido’s extended curse on the Romans and getting her people to swear eternal enmity, an enmity which will lead to three ruinous wars and then the eventual sack of Carthage, the killing of tens of thousands of soldiers and the selling of her entire people into slavery

Similarly, I take the point that the journey to the underworld is genuinely weird and spooky, and Aeneas encounters many strange sights, that his pity for suffering humanity especially aroused by the sight of the pitiful shades waiting to be ferried across the river Styx and then his doleful reunion with the shade of his father.

But for me this all tends to be eclipsed by the shiny vision of the procession of his Roman descendants and, when you look at this list of Great Romans, what are they famous for? What all Romans are famous for, their military victories. David West in his 1991 Penguin edition has a handy little appendix which lists the figures Aeneas sees in the procession of Great Romans:

  • Silvius the warrior king
  • Brutus, famous for expelling the last kings and executing his two sons when they tried to restore them
  • the Decii, father and son, famous for giving their lives to win victory in two wars
  • Torquatus, led an army against the Gauls and executed his own son for disobeying orders
  • Lucius Mummius who not only sacked Corinth in 146 but utterly destroyed it as an example of Roman power
  • Aemilius Paullus credited with the conquest of Greece for defeating Pyrrhus king of Epirus
  • Cornelius Cossus defeated a foreign king in single combat
  • Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus, the reforming tribunes, both of whom were murdered in the streets of Rome along, in the latter case, with thousands of their supporters
  • Scipio Africanus Maior defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama
  • Scipio Africanus Minor leading the army which sacked, utterly destroyed Carthage and sold its 50,000 inhabitants into slavery
  • Fabricius who led an army against Pyrrhus
  • Fabius Maximus Cunctator, the general who delayed and delayed confronting Hannibal in Italy
  • M. Claudius Marcellus killed a Gaulish chieftain in single combat

This is (not quite all) the people who feature in Aeneas’s vision of his glorious descendants, and what do they all have in common? Violence and killing. Slaughter. Rome was hyper-violent state, engaged in almost non-stop war (the Gallic Wars) and when they weren’t destroying other peoples’ cities (Corinth, Carthage, Gaul) they fought with terrible ferocity among themselves (Pharsalis, Philippi, Actium).

If any contemporary Roman set out a pageant of their glorious history, what would it consist of? Except a litany of wars and battles. It was a phenomenally militaristic state. Even the humanist’s favourite, Cicero, not only went to serve as governor on Cilicia but led his army in a siege and battles. Even the sternly principled Cato sided with Pompey in the civil war and was made governor of north Africa where he managed the military campaigns. Holding a senior magistracy at any time in Roman history almost inevitably entailed leading a Roman army.

Camps’s attempts at a moral interpretation undermined by the violence

Maybe I’m getting this way wrong, but I read Camps’s introduction from end to end and I think it gives a deeply misleading impression of the Aeneid. He devotes a chapter to Aeneas, then one to Dido and Turnus, and these overflow with sensitive empathy for their sufferings and the deeply ‘moral’ choices which they face.

But the poem I read venerates power, might, military strength, masculinity, supreme ability in battle and its centre stand two awesome killing machines, terminator-figures, Aeneas and Turnus who rampage across the battlefield beheading, belimbing, skewering and butchering anyone who stands in their way.

This is one of the reasons I dislike the moralising tone of humanist literary criticism, because it distorts the facts, it deceives and lies. You can read Camps’s book from end to end and get no sense of the piles of bodies, bloody gore and funeral pyres which clot the poem, and end up thinking it’s a Henry James novel making sensitive discriminations about moral scruples. It really isn’t.

At the end of Camps’s chapter about Aeneas, he does, eventually, concede, that there is a bit of fighting, and, OK, Aeneas is a bit brutal. He lists some examples. On the battlefield at the height of his rage Aeneas taunts a victim with the thought that his body will lie unburied; he consigns some of the prisoners they’ve taken to be executed in cold blood to adorn Pallas’s funeral.

There’s more like this but Camps deliberately omits it. Instead he goes out of his way to exonerate his vision of a caring, sharing, sensitive hero, these brutalities:

are altogether at variance with the hero’s usual humanity, and indeed with the standards of the poet’s civilised contemporaries.

Rubbish. A quick checklist of Augustus’ behaviour refutes this, not to mention a scan of Caesar’s record in Gaul, Roman behaviour in Carthage or Corinth or in the Wild East of Asia Minor. Camps limply goes on to concede that ‘the Roman world was not a gentle one’ [sic], and then devotes a paragraph to trying to justify Aeneas’s brutal, bloody execution of an unarmed prisoner on his knees at the end of the poem. He claims that this execution ‘would seem to Virgil’s readers poetically just’. Right at the end of his introduction, he returns to the fact that the entire poem builds up to this ominous and disturbing conclusion, the enraged murder of Turnus, and finds it:

strangely discordant with the normally disciplined humanity of Aeneas (p.142)

But reading Camps’s efforts to explain away this glaring, brutal event I thought: ‘But what if…what if the brutal killing, maiming and taunting, the sending for execution and murderous mayhem Aeneas enacts at the end of the Aeneid is NOT the temporary aberration Camps tries to explain away? What if it is the real Aeneas coming through and showing his “civilised contemporaries” what the real Rome is really like and it is – a killing machine?’

To be really crude, Camps is an apologist for a poem glorifying a mass killer and a violent empire.

The animal sacrifices

You don’t have to be a vegetarian to be disgusted by the vast number of animals who are ritually slaughtered on almost every page of the Aeneid, led to the place of sacrifice and having their throats cut so their hot blood splashes over the altar by the gallon. Thousands and thousands of animals are butchered in the name of religion, in fact, in practical terms, animal butchery is their religion, both Trojans and Latins.

You know the line they’ve been putting on movie credits for decades, ‘No animals were harmed in the making of this movie’? Well, thousands of animals were slaughtered, had their throats slashed while they were alive and fully conscious, in the making of this poem.

Two points. 1. Again, this is the kind of really obvious in-your-face aspect of the text which a ‘moralising’ critic like Camps completely ignores. It’s just not there for him, because his ideology that literature must be about humanistic morality and sensibility simply prevents him from registering what is in front of him. As soon as I see a critic (of literature or art or film or whatever) mention the words ‘moral’, ‘morality’, ‘moral choices’ etc I know they are going to give a distorted and inaccurate account of the work under consideration, because their obsession with ‘moral values’ restricts them to just one narrow aspect of the characters and the text and blinds them, like the blinkers on a carthorse, to everything else which is going on around them, to the totality of the work.

Anyway, Camps doesn’t have the ‘moral’ awareness to even register that the cruel slaughter of thousands of sentient animals might be wrong.

But 2. The relentless animal slaughter plays a really important role in the fabric of the poem by making the human slaughter seem natural. It desensitises you. If you’ve already waded through lakes of animal blood, spurting from slashed throats, it makes the butchery of human beings just that bit more assimilable. The entire poem becomes a welter of blood and gore.

As I said, I’m aware that this is also a biased and partial view and that there are plenty of passages of delightful description, Aeneas’s sensitivity and sea nymphs frolicking in the waves etc. I am just pointing out what Camps’s supposedly thorough introduction to the poem completely omits from its account.

Virgil’s multi-levelled and holey theology

Christian theology has spent 2,000 years trying to reconcile the paradox that, while on the one hand God is all-knowing and so knows the future as well as the past, on the other hand, the theology of reward and punishment only makes sense if humans have free will. If everything is foreordained, then I have no free will, and therefore cannot be guilty or innocent of my actions. Therefore cannot be sent to hell or heaven. Whereas Christian theologians and hierarchies and organisations, very much do want to emphasise our free will precisely in order to threaten us with punishment in the afterlife and keep us in line.

Now the same problem is raised by the Aeneid only in a much more intense form because at every step of the way, at almost every decisive moment, it is the gods’ intervention which makes things happen. Venus makes Dido fall in love with Aeneas, going to some lengths to do so, luring Aeneas’s son into a copse where she puts him asleep and replacing him at Dido’s reception feast for Aeneas with her other son, Eros god of love, assuming the form of Eros entirely to soften her spinsterhood and make her fall for the Trojan. And then it is Venus who, at the end of their affair, comes to Aeneas in a dream and tells him he must get up and rouse his companions and load his ships and leave Carthage right now.

Similarly, the entire action of the second half of the book, the entire war between the Trojans and the Latins, with the enormous destruction and loss of life on both sides, only takes place solely because Juno makes it happen, commissioning the Fury Allecto to fire up the Latins against the peace treaty with the Trojans.

And yet, throughout the poem, the narrator also assigns praise and blame to individual actors, and they themselves debate their guilt and responsibility. For example, Aeneas tells Dido it is not his fault that he is running off and abandoning her: sed me iusa deum – the nasty god made me do it.

It would be interesting to read a clever analysis which explained what we know of Roman theology and sets Virgil’s depiction of the issue within that framework of belief. Camps sketches out the issues in his chapter 5 but doesn’t tell us anything which wasn’t already obvious from the poem.

For me the key to thinking about this problem is suggested by something Camps explains at the start of his book, which is to do with Virgil’s method of composition. Namely, it was episodic. (Camps uses the Latin word particulatim which means ‘piecemeal’, p.125). According to Donatus’s Life of Virgil, the poet first wrote out a prose version of his story but then chose not to work through it in order, but to work up particular ad hoc scenes from different parts of the narrative into verse.

And in doing so, he focused on producing as intense and vivid a scene as possible for the scene’s sake and we know that this sometimes led to discrepancies between episodes; characters behave inconsistently or say one thing in one scene, another in another; characters are introduced who we have already met and so on.

(Camps mentions the two apparently different deaths of Palinurus, who, at the end of book 5, plunges down into the sea, drowning, but in book 6 is said to have swim to shore, p.125. Or there are the two completely different versions of how Helen reacts to the sacking of Troy a) hiding in terror 2.567, or b) out confidently leading the Greeks around the city in book 6. He gives more examples of this kind of contradiction in appendix 4.)

Well, Virgil’s theology can be thought about in the same way as his method of composition, namely that he is not expounding a consistent and thought-through theology in the manner of Tertullian or Augustine; rather he is writing a dramatic poem and all that matters is the intensity of particular episodes. The momentary impact is the thing. Therefore it creates a great dramatic effect to show Juno or Venus interfering almost all the way through the narrative. But at other moments, on the human plane, mortals may discuss their decisions and implications in human terms of agency and responsibility. And because Virgil is concerned with creating whatever is most effective at any particular point, he isn’t concerned with trying to reconcile the theological contradictions thrown up by these different approaches.

In fact there are at least three levels at work in the poem, because above the continual interfering of the gods, which is continually described, sits another force – this is the power of fate or the Fates. This isn’t described but referred to at various points, mainly by the gods themselves. Nothing at all, not even Jupiter, can change what is destined and fated. He and the other gods can only interfere with what, in the end, are details, but the overall Fate and Destiny of everyone is fixed and unalterable.

Thus Juno herself is made to admit that she cannot change Aeneas’s ultimate destiny to settle in Italy and found the Roman race; she can only delay it. Which she does, at the cost of thousands of needless deaths including, ironically, that of her own favourite, Turnus.

On this view, you can pray to the gods, and the gods are depicted answering some (though not all) prayers (mortals can never be sure which ones will be answered and which ones won’t). But no prayers can alter the fixed outlines of Fate.

Fate has built the matrix with bands of steel. Nothing can change or alter them. But within the matrix, individual gods are free to mess about with details, to delay, to alter, to bend – but never to change the fundamental ends.

It’s in this context that Camps makes the shrewd point that the gods themselves pursue their own ends. The gods are as selfish as mortals, maybe more so. Only Jupiter rises above their endless squabbles and tries to adjudicate fairly but, as many readers have observed, he is only an intermittent presence in the poem: Juno and Venus are much more prominent, Juno most of all. The Aeneid could accurately be called the Book of Juno, or The Book of Juno’s Anger.

To anyone who takes this mirage, ‘morality’, seriously, the gods in Virgil are quite demonstrably monsters of immorality, cruel, thoughtless, heartless, irresponsible – like children. Any real consideration of the pagan gods of antiquity eventually suggests why they had to be superseded by the Christian god. They were just not worthy of serious intellectual consideration. And they are fundamentally indifferent to human life, breath-takingly callous. Serious consideration of the pagan gods led philosophers to sets of beliefs like Epicureanism or Stoicism, very different ideologies but alike in their aim of trying to eliminate the role of the gods in human life. Paganism tends towards a brutal indifference to human existence.

Compare and contrast that with the intense feeling of personal salvation which Christianity offered its believers. As Camps puts it, ‘the promise of the new kind of religion is evidence of the terrors of the old’ (p.49).

Anyway, the existence of these three levels of action allows Virgil to switch between them as it suits his narrative ends. Jupiter apologises to Juno, saying his hands are tied by Fate. Aeneas apologises to Dido, saying his hands are tied by the gods, and so on.

How are humans meant to know what the devil is going on? Via the welter of omens, signs and prophecies which the text is full of. These are the channel of communication between the three levels.

Sometimes a god personally explains something to Aeneas, but far more often it is the shade of a dead mortal (Hector or Anchises) who can explain things up to a point but not the full picture. This up-to-a-pointness is really striking: ghosts and spirits are continually telling Aeneas just so much of his future and, when he wants to know more, fading into smoke.

At other times it is the mute symbolism of some sign or portent like a comet in the skies or a swarm of bees or the eagle carrying off a swan who is beaten off by all the other birds – in other words, portents which mortals are forced to interpret and guess at.

My position is that none of this amounts to a worked-out theology on the analogy of Christian theologies. The opposite. Although these elements fill the text to bursting, they don’t indicate a coherent worldview, but one that is cheerfully incoherent: one which is ragged and flexible enough for the characters and narrator to switch between at least 3 levels of belief: belief in a Fixed and Unchangeable Fate, belief in the continual intervention of the gods, and belief in man’s free will which is sufficient to allow him to carry out free actions which can, accordingly, be judged within a ‘moral’ framework.

The overlap and interplay of the different systems is one of the things which keeps the poem dynamic and varied, keeps the reader in a continual sense of flux and uncertainty.


Alongside the multiple levels of destiny, goes a kind of dualistic theory of human nature. Dido and Turnus have two modes of being: their ‘normal’ selves and themselves possessed. In their states of possession they are associated with a range of frenetic adjectives, to wit: amens, turbidus, fervidus, ardens, furens, trepidans, in a state of inania, furor and violentia.

Furor in particular is applied to Dido a dozen times and Turnus half a dozen times. And Aeneas, after the death of Pallas, becomes a man ‘possessed’ on the battlefield. If you felt so inclined you could read the entire poem through the vector of frenzied possession just as much as by Camps’s limp metric of ‘morality’.

The poetry

It’s difficult to follow Camps’s chapter about the verse itself (chapter 7) unless you can not only read Latin but have a good feel for it as a medium of expression. I did Latin GCSE but have nowhere near the ability to judge it as poetry. Some key points which come over from Camps’s account are:

Vocabulary Virgil used a consciously ‘poetic’ diction, on the model of Milton in Paradise Lost or Tennyson in Idylls of the King, with a sprinkling of words from earlier poetry and archaic forms to give it sonority and authority.

Syntax Flexible, sometimes an adjective whose meaning attaches to one noun is grammatically attached to another; two nouns related by a verb have their normal relationship inverted; a phrase is compressed by omitting a term of meaning, letting the reader supply it; sometimes grammar as well as meaning is understated or omitted and the reader needs to supply it, too. These and other tactics create:

  • flexibility in writing lines and passages
  • compactness

But Camps says that, more distinctive than either of these is Virgil’s coining of highly expressive original phrases out of very basic words. Alongside their power goes a certain ambiguity. This has meant that many phrases of Virgil’s can be extracted from their original context and acquire new, more powerful meanings. Take lacrimae rerum.

Aeneas has been washed up on the coast of Africa and welcomed into the new city of Carthage and now he is looking at a mural in a Carthaginian temple dedicated to Juno that depicts battles of the Trojan War and the deaths of his friends and countrymen. He is moved to tears and says ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’.

Apparently, even in the original Latin, this phrase is grammatically ambiguous and can equally mean, ‘There are tears for things and mortal things touch the mind’ or, ‘There are tears of things and mortal things touch the mind.’

Either way, the phrase went on to have a tremendous afterlife, being widely quoted in later writers as pithily summing up the sadness of human existence. Then, in the early twentieth century, it began to be used on Great War memorials, thus entering wider consciousness. It’s one example of the way Virgil’s just-so selection of very ordinary words was done in such a way as to pack an eerily powerful – and enduring – punch.


The single most striking thing in Camps’s book is not by him but is in Aelius Donatus’s short Life of Virgil which Camps includes in its entirety in an appendix. In the early section about his appearance and nature, Donatus writes:

He was somewhat inclined to pederasty, [his particular favourites being Cebes and Alexander, whom he calls Alexis in the second Eclogue. Alexander was given to him by Asinius Pollio. Both of them were well-educated and Cebes wrote poetry himself.] (p.115)

Donatus then goes on to report the rumour that Virgil had a relationship with an apparently notable woman named Plotia Hieria, but that she denied it in later life. Apart from that ‘his conduct and demeanour were so respectable’ that at Naples he acquired the nickname Parthenias, an adjective applied to Athena and meaning chaste and virginal.

Three points. 1. This entirely chimes with several of the Eclogues which describe passionate love between  some of the poems’ idealised young shepherds and are plainly homoerotic. 2. The fact that ‘Alexander’ was a gift shows that the young men in question were slaves. Virgil had gay relationships with his male slaves. Slavery.

3. It’s interesting how Donatus’s description moves easily from describing his fondness for male slaves to his rumoured affair with a Roman matron. I.e. the homosexuality had the same kind of value or scandal value as a rumoured ‘straight’ affair i.e. merited a sentence or two, but not worth making any fuss over.

It’s a demonstration of the point made in M.I. Finley’s essay about women and marriage in ancient Rome, that what mattered more than anything else was the legal integrity of the official family, and in particular the legal status of sons and daughters to ensure the efficient heritance of property, titles and lineage. As long as these legal forms were observed, then there was considerable leeway in how citizens (mostly men) (mis)behaved.


An Introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid by W.A. Camps was published by Oxford University Press in 1969. All references are to the 1984 paperback edition.

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