A Very Roman Hero
As summer’s end appears on the horizon the knowledge that I will soon be back in Europe becomes more tantalizing with each day that passes. The prospect of a trip back home has had me thinking about family and about an old Roman hero by the name of Aeneas.
If you haven’t picked up the Aeneid before I highly recommend it. Written by Virgil, (70-19 BC) perhaps the most famous of all the Roman poets, it tells the story of Aeneas. A Trojan prince, Aeneas is forced into exile with his father, son and fellow survivors after the sack of his city and death of his wife. The poem describes his quest to found a new land for his people on foreign shores.
Aeneas’ story has resonated deeply with me since I first encountered it in a long ago school room in Manchester, in the north of England. Aeneas is a very human and by the zeitgeist’s standards a deeply unfashionable hero. He is a man divinely entrusted with a nearly impossible task. It is one with which he struggles deeply and comes close, on more than one occasion, to failing to fulfill. However his devotion to his duty; to the responsibility he carries for his family, his ancestral gods and his people wins through. I’ve always thought that the world is a much better place when there are men and women who understand the importance of duty.
I fell in love with Virgil’s sensitivity to the human condition immediately. Whether we are watching the sack of Troy through Aeneas’ eyes in Book I and hearing the words,
sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt (Book I, 462)
there are tears of things and mortal matters touch the mind
or watching the bitter fury of Queen Dido as she curses Aeneas, her departing lover in this scene, with all the heartbroken vitriol of a woman betrayed,
…..sequar atris ignibus absens
et, cum frigida mors anima seduxerit artus
omnibus umbra locis adero (Book IV, 384-6)
......and worlds away I’ll hound you then
with pitch-black flames, and when icy death has severed
my body from its breath then my ghost will stalk you
through the world
or feeling the viscerally unnatural horror of disordered death spilling out of Virgil’s lines,
…..pueri innuptaeque puellae
impositique rogis iuuenes ante ora parentum (Book VI 307-8)
.....and boys and unwed girls
and sons laid on the pyre before their parents’ eyes
we are given the opportunity to experience the tremendous seriousness and gentle compassionate beauty of this remarkable poet’s vision.
I’m no longer in that particular Manchester school room. I’ve since stood on the other side of the teacher’s desk and taught Virgil’s immortal words to several classes of young ladies. Finding myself now in an exile of sorts from my homeland in a place that can, on occasion, seem as alien as another planet, both the poet and his hero, forever in exile, loom large in my imagination.