This essay appears in the Winter 2021 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe, click here.


For T. S. Eliot, The Aeneid is the “classic of all Europe.” It is the inescapable poem of the West, casting long shadows over nearly every subsequent poet of note in the European tradition. In the English-speaking world, it has been studied by poets at least since the time of Chaucer. Shakespeare knew it. It informs nearly every page of Paradise Lost. Dryden’s translation remains a classic in its own right. Wordsworth translated it, too, as did Keats as a schoolboy. Tennyson was Virgil’s disciple. Eliot was not alone among the moderns to admire him. We find Virgil scattered throughout Seamus Heaney’s verse, who published his own translation of Aeneid 6. This very partial list suggests the pervasive genius of Virgil and his great poem of the Roman Empire. But does Virgil continue to speak to us today in the twenty-first century? Apparently so, given that we have recently seen six major new English translations. The past two decades gave us versions by Stanley Lombardo (Hackett, 2005), Robert Fagles (Penguin, 2006), Frederick Ahl (Oxford, 2007), and Sarah Ruden (Yale, 2008). Most recently we have the work of Barry Powell (Oxford, 2015) and David Ferry (Chicago, 2017). Six translations in twelve years, all by scholars and poets from the United States. Why the compulsion (and apparently the market) for new, American Aeneids? Might it have something to do with parallels between the Roman Empire and pax Romana and the United States’ preeminent power and tenuous peace today?

The reception history of The Aeneid, ever since by imperial command Augustus had it snatched from the fire to which Virgil had condemned it on his deathbed, has generally found it to be a celebration of Roman greatness. The work’s melancholy tone certainly was noted, but it was thought a document fit to please Caesar. Dante calls The Aeneid a tragedy, and while he remains acutely aware of Virgil’s limitations as a pagan, he nevertheless selects him as his guide not only through Hell but also up Mount Purgatory into the Garden of Eden, not least because Dante himself longed for a revived universal empire and the peace he expected it to bring. More recently, however, scholars—particularly American scholars—have questioned Virgil’s commitment to the ideals and politics of empire. They find countercurrents in the poem that indicate Virgil’s wariness of empire’s expansionist policies and concentration of power. W. R. Johnson’s Darkness Visible, published forty-five years ago in the immediate aftermath of the conflict in Vietnam, remains a pioneering landmark for such readings, even as Johnson acknowledges that pessimistic readings of The Aeneid began a generation earlier. Scholars continue to debate the extent to which Virgil is pro- or anti-empire. In a fine recent book, David Quint explores the ways that Virgil is simultaneously both. Allow me to quote the opening paragraph from Quint’s preface to Virgil’s Double Cross: Design and Meaning in The Aeneid,” as it lays out the situation nicely:

The Aeneid second-guesses itself. Through the actions of Aeneas, it celebrates the history—a history of warfare—that brought Rome to imperial dominance in the Mediterranean and beyond, and that raised Augustus Caesar to one-man rule over Rome. And yet, through its portrayal of those same actions, the poem takes back the celebration and the praise. The opposing readings that the Aeneid supports have divided its critics into two camps over the last sixty years. Both camps have found plenty of evidence to back up their views, even if defenders of a patriotic and imperial Aeneid play down the self-contradictions of the poem, while proponents of against-the-grain readings pay minimum lip service to its propaganda before launching into their “yes, but . . .” arguments. Virgil deliberately designed the Aeneid in order to produce the double effect that divides critics: it is not an either/or but a both/and. The poem performs its own immanent critique.

Quint goes on to situate this debate in the historical context of post–World War II America. I am sympathetic to Quint’s approach and his illuminating readings of The Aeneid, but I want to suggest that the wrong question is being asked. At issue is not whether Virgil favors the imperial project. For him, empire was the reality. To paraphrase Milton’s Beelzebub, “What sit we here projecting empire or no? / Empire hath determined us.” The pertinent questions become: To what use or end do we put empire? How do we employ our power? For Virgil, the sole justification of empire resides in maintaining peace through the spread of law. Nothing less than peace could justify such a consolidation of power and intrusion into the lands of others and the freedoms even of the Romans themselves. Virgil had seen continuous civil war during his lifetime. The gates of the temple to Janus, opened when Rome warred and closed in peace, had remained open nearly without interruption for six hundred years. In his great prophecy to Venus, Jupiter promises they will be shut under the reign of “Our Trojan Caesar”:

     The wars will come to an end and savage ways
     Be pacified and civilized under the law. . . .
     The iron gates of Janus will close at last,
     And in a cage impious Fury will sit
     On a pile of broken useless weapons. (Ferry 1.389–90, 393–95)

Empire existed according to the facts on the ground; no use debating its desirability. Imperial power directed toward the elimination of war would be an undeniable blessing. Sometimes Virgil’s characters will echo Homer’s in glorifying war, but for Virgil himself it is a grave evil. In Carthage, Aeneas encounters a painting depicting the Trojan War. Virgil’s ekphrasis underscores the horrors of war for combatants and noncombatants alike. For David Ross, as he writes in Virgil’s Aeneid: A Reader’s Guide, it depicts “the reality of war, as it is for the weakest and most vulnerable. . . . Virgil has clearly excluded any suggestion of heroic glory from these pictures, but instead shows us the exemplary hero Achilles as a figure of sheer brutality.” The mural elicits from Aeneas the famous cry: “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.” “There are the tears of things, and mortal destiny touches the heart” (Powell, 1.502–3). (As is his wont, Ferry’s translation waxes more poetic: “These are the tears of things for what they were, / And what has become of them; the story of / The mortality of men strikes to the heart” [1.626–28].) These words are often taken as Virgil’s description of the human condition, but it should be noted that it describes the human lot specifically during a time of war. War is “horrida bella,” “tristi bello,” “bello superbo,” “belli rabies”—horrific, sorrowful, insolent, rabid.

When Aeneas meets his father in the underworld, Anchises warns him and all future generations against the greatest of evils: “My children, / do not become accustomed in spirit to such great wars, and do not turn / the powerful strength of your country against itself” (Powell, 6.737–39). Instead, Anchises instructs him in the peculiar Roman arts, the justification for empire: “And Romans, never forget that this will be / Your appointed task: to use your arts to be / The governor of the world, to bring to it peace, / Serenely maintained with order and with justice, / To spare the defeated and to bring an end / To war by vanquishing the proud” (Ferry, 6.1155–60). The imperial project is nothing short of bringing universal, perpetual peace through just governance. Aeneas descends into the underworld so that his ancient Trojan self may pass away and he can be reborn as the new Roman hero. Pietas, dutiful dedication to Rome, will replace the Homeric time (honor), kudos (glory), and kleos (fame) as the prime heroic characteristic and motivation. Conquest brought Rome to its present greatness, but now it must be buried in Tartarus. Aeneas does not desire war or long for conquest in Italy. The Latin Queen Amata commits suicide when she fears defeat largely because she assumes her people will be dealt with punitively, as a conquered nation with no rights or status, the women taken as slaves and concubines. This was how the victors always treated the vanquished: witness the Greek devastation of Troy. But, mirabile dictu, should he gain victory, Aeneas promises an unprecedented peace:

I will not command that the Italians submit to the Trojans, nor do I seek a kingdom for myself. Under equal laws, may both peoples, unconquered, commit to an eternal treaty. I will permit your rites and your gods. May Latinus, my father-in-law, keep his weapons. May my father-in-law keep his traditional command. (Powell, 12.173–77)

Aeneas will neither depose Latinus nor disarm the Latins, but he does insist upon a common law. Aeneas wields power to the noble end of an honorable peace. Such is the only legitimate use of consolidated force. Violence may be employed only to suppress violence, to restore order. The world is not to be divided into the rulers and the subjugated.

The great temptation, Virgil knew well, is to use power and expansionist policies to exploit ever more foreign peoples for the aggrandizement of Rome. Avarice is a powerful force behind human behavior, but colonization for profit must not be tolerated. “The madness of war, and the love of possessions” (Powell, 8.315–16) intertwine. The hunger for power and thirst for gain feed one another. Virgil warns time and again against exploitative policies that would delegitimize empire. Near the beginning of the epic, Venus tells how Queen Dido’s brother Pygmalion killed her husband Sychaeus: Pygmalion “was beyond all others / In brutal savage criminality. / Then there was frenzy (furor) and the treacherous (impius) king, / Blinded by love of gold, killed the unwary / Sychaeus before the altars” (Ferry, 1.467–71). This most criminal of men acts from a “love of gold.” Nothing could be more impious, the worst thing a person can be in The Aeneid. It arouses in him a frenzy (or furor). Pygmalion stands as the first exemplar in the poem of what Rome must not become. One of the problems with Carthage, beyond its historical associations with a life-and-death struggle for Rome, is its luxuriousness. In the poem, the city is associated repeatedly with wealth and idleness. Distracted by lust, the queen and new king neglect the city because they cannot tear themselves from the boudoir: “And now they / are passing the winter in the lap of luxury, no matter how long / it lasts, thoughtless of their royal station, captured by the lust / for fornication” (Powell, 4.172–74). To the native Africans, this Asian Trojan in his opulent garb is a fop. The disgruntled local chieftain Iarbas, having been previously spurned by Dido, refers to Aeneas and his men as “This Paris with his perfumed hair and his Phrygian / Bonnet tied with a ribbon under his chin, / And his sissy band of eunuchs” (Ferry, 4.814–16). The true, austere Rome must not be so indulgent. When Jupiter summons Mercury to speed Aeneas back to his destiny in Italy, it is for one purpose, namely, to “bring the whole world under the rule of law” (Powell, 4.208, Ferry, 4.336–37, identical translations). The proper Roman model is the simple Arcadian king Evander, who instructs Aeneas to “dare to despise wealth, make yourself worthy / to be a god, and do not come contemptuous of my poor affairs!” (Powell, 8.349–51).

“Savage Implacable Rage”

Cupidity may be the great temptation, but the terrible passion Virgil calls “furor” underlies all disorder in the cosmos and the soul. Furor is more than fury or rage, though it includes these. It is a frenzied madness: furor causes people to lose their heads. In The Aeneid, Juno, queen of the gods, embodies furor. She is as frightening of a literary creation as you will find, and so fully pervades the epic as to provide a dark undersong. For Johnson, “the anger of Juno . . . is close to being the central theme of The Aeneid.” For Harold Bloom, “there is a dark sense in which Juno is Virgil’s pragmatic muse, the drive of his poem.” For me, so central is Juno to Virgil’s purposes that we can reasonably speak of a counter poem, The Juneid, cutting through and across Aeneas’s narrative. Most of the induction to the poem addresses “Juno’s/ Savage implacable rage” (Ferry, 1. 4–5), much more than is addressed to the hero. The Aeneid is as much about furor as it is about anything. From the fourth line of the poem, Juno is “saevae,” savage and cruel. So cruel, in fact, that she becomes a prime model for Milton’s Satan. Milton transfers Juno’s “spretae iniuria formae” at the insult of Paris—his judgment that Venus and not she is the fairest goddess—to Satan’s “sense of injured merit.” According to K. W. Gransden, writing in Virgil’s Iliad: An Essay on Epic Narrative, Juno is the pattern for Milton’s Satan in “his determination to hinder, though he cannot ultimately alter, God’s plan for the salvation of mankind.” Juno’s predecessor in The Odyssey is Poseidon, but the sea god pales before Virgil’s villain, who forms the dark heart of his poem. Whatever Juno’s ostensible reasons for hating Aeneas and the Trojans, in truth she is simply baleful by nature, a principle of irrational evil and cosmic malignancy, encapsulating everything Rome must subdue.

The narrative begins when Juno unleashes a storm to shipwreck Aeneas and his followers in an attempt to divert them from their destiny in Italy. Virgil’s world is entropic, tending toward disorder at every level: the natural, the human, and the divine. Juno bribes Aeolus, who controls the winds, to create the squall. Aeolus is literally given “imperium” (meaning command / authority /rule and hence by extension “empire”) over the winds. He imprisons them in chains, for if “he did not, / in their speed they would surely bear away with them / the seas and the land and the deep sky” (Powell, 1.67–69). In Virgil’s description, absent the imperium of Aeolus over the winds, they would sweep to destruction all of creation. This force is what Juno represents and releases. Neptune, sensing a disturbance on his waves, comes to calm the seas and send the winds scurrying back to their cave prison, saving Aeneas and most of his people. Addressing the winds, Neptune asserts that he, not Aeolus, has imperium over the seas. Because the Olympian god is more powerful, the winds obey and order is restored.

Neptune provides the example for the proper use of power and authority. In the poem’s first great epic simile, Virgil compares Neptune calming the sea to a pious politician who calms with a speech a gathering mob who in their furor have armed themselves with stones and firebrands. The simile alerts us to the political nature of the scene and the poem more generally. Within the first 157 lines of The Aeneid, Virgil has ranged imperium against furor at the natural, political, and divine realms.

Neptune succeeds on the divine level because he possesses the indisputable power to back up his threats. But what about at the political level? How likely is it that a single man, however well respected, is able to mollify an enraged rabble merely through a speech? Not likely, as it turns out. In book 7, as he begins the second half of the poem, Virgil repeats much of book 1. Now Juno will unleash Allecto, one of the Furies, as she earlier had the storm, only there will be no Neptune to calm this tempest, and Allecto will prove herself a more catastrophic force even than the winds. Aeneas himself must stop the agents of furor, and it will take him until book 12 to do so. Allecto maddens the Laurentine queen Amata; overcomes the initial resistance of Rutulian prince Turnus, Aeneas’s main mortal antagonist in the Iliad-like portion of the epic, stirring his wrath and lust for war; and then incites the Italian countryside to violence. In each case, Allecto represents something latent in those she overwhelms. She simply is the frenzy within any human person or group of people ready to burst out and shunt reason aside. Amata is a passionate woman, wary of Aeneas, fiercely loyal to Turnus, eagerly inflamed under these circumstances; Turnus’s pride and honor demand that he forcefully encounter a threat to his perceived prerogatives; the Italian populace is nervous at the arrival of a large group of foreigners, many of them battle-hardened, with their Asiatic dress and odd speech. So, when Aeneas’s son Ascanius, while hunting in the woods, unwittingly shoots a deer who happened to be a local pet, one thing quickly leads to another and soon armed Trojans face armed Latins. Virgil composes a simile comparing the assembled mob to a storm at sea, exactly reversing the simile of book 1 where Neptune calmed the sea like a pious man calming an agitated throng. Only now, when a respected man intervenes to prevent bloodshed, he is struck with an arrow: “Among the many / Fallen bodies was old Galaesus’s body, / Slain while trying his best to keep the peace, / Galaesus, who was the most just of them all” (Ferry, 7.706–09).

With the death of Galaesus, according to Eve Adler in Vergil’s Empire: Political Thought in “The Aeneid,” “Vergil thus symbolizes the meaning of Rome as the solution to the problem of governing Furor: Rome is to be that community that is no longer subject to the unforeseen irruptions of Furor into the world, in whose foundation there is better provision for rule over the arms of Furor than the chance that armed multitudes will notice a pious man and be ruled by his threatening or conciliatory words.” Given the strength and danger of furor, only the consolidation of power into the hands of an emperor can provide protection against its destructiveness. Only imperium can conquer furor, hence furor legitimizes imperium.

Empire Without End?

But what if the power of empire is not put to such noble use? In the great prophecy of book 1, where Jupiter says that Rome will bring wars and savagery to an end, he promises a Roman imperium sine fine—rule unbounded by space or time. This seems like an absolute promise but perhaps is a revocable gift. In an odd scene in book 9, the narrator recalls a time when Aeneas was building his fleet and Jove’s mother asked him to spare the Trojan ships because they were built from a forest beloved by her. In response, the king of the gods, “he who turns the starry globe,” says:

O Mother, where do you summon the Fates? What do you seek from them? Should these ships made by mortal hand have eternal rights? Should Aeneas traverse in certainty uncertain dangers? To what god is such great power allowed? No, but when they have served their purpose, and carried their Trojan leader to the Laurentian fields, and one day reach Italian ports, I will take away their mortal shape from those that escape the waves. I will command themselves to become goddesses of the great sea. (Powell, 9.82–90)

Now that the ships have fulfilled their destiny of carrying Aeneas to Italy, Jupiter saves them from Turnus’s flames and they turn into immortal sea creatures. So, does Jupiter, or any god, have the power to make something “made by mortal hand” eternal? Can even Jupiter grant to a mortal empire an infinite duration? Can empire be divinized? These are questions Virgil raises and purposefully leaves unanswered. The ships are turned into sea goddesses; Aeneas and Julius Caesar will be apotheosized. But, at the very least, empire, like Aeneas, will remain subject to insecurity and danger. There will be need for continual vigilance. Perhaps this is also why the golden bough that Aeneas must pluck before entering the underworld as a sign of divine favor regrows each time it is picked. Unlike Christ’s ransoming of mankind, Aeneas’s heroic labor is not a once-and-for-all action. Each successive emperor must be worthy of possessing the golden bough and all it represents. Nothing will be guaranteed to a Rome that does not adhere to its founding principles as outlined in The Aeneid, namely the spread of peace through law and the suppression of furor. Directed toward any other goal, empire undermines itself.

As the Trojan and native forces prepare to engage in full-scale battle, Venus and Juno both appeal to Jupiter to plead for their respective favorites. Jove, however, refuses to take sides:

I will draw no distinction between Trojan and Rutulian, whatever is the fortune of each on this day, or whatever hopes each may pursue—whether the camp is under siege because of Italy’s fate, or because of an evil mistake on the part of the Trojans, who relied on bad advice. But I do not absolve the Rutulians. What each has instigated will bring its own pain and its own Fortune. Jupiter is king of all, indifferently. Fate will find a way. (Powell, 10.105–12)

Jupiter refuses to support Aeneas absolutely. Character, it turns out, determines fate. Aeneas will defeat Turnus because of the sort of man Aeneas is and the decisions he makes. Turnus, in fact, has two opportunities to defeat the Trojans but in each case gives in to furor and misses his opportunity. Turnus loses because he makes poor decisions when angry. Jupiter presents himself as an impartial god of justice, ruling over all people, not just Rome. Accordingly, he will not favor empire no matter what, irrespective of its behavior.Rather, he gives empire to Romans specifically to spread peace through law, not to exploit other peoples. Should Rome cease or fail to do this, it will lose his favor and hence its power. The gift of empire is conditional upon proper behavior.

Whether viewing Virgil as propounding imperial policy or, in more recent interpretations, as subverting it, readers have always noticed that the poet never turns a blind eye to the suffering involved in acquiring an empire. The Augustan peace was won through hard centuries of battle as depicted on Aeneas’s shield. Most movingly, Virgil shows how the cost of empire is the sacrifice of young lives: Nisus and Euryalus, Pallas and Lausus, Camilla: all figures of pathos. The loss is undeniable. Whatever else war might be good for, it is excellent at creating bereaved mothers, widows, and orphans. But if all this suffering, which cannot be undone, has led to a perpetual peace, then perhaps it was worth it. Still, Virgil knows that there is a price for maintaining peace as well as establishing it. The price of peace is the loss not only of life but also of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There are many reasons why Aeneas cannot stay with Dido, Virgil’s Cleopatra / seductress figure. She is queen of Carthage, Rome’s great enemy. If avarice is the great temptation, another is licentiousness. But also, Aeneas, as leader, cannot put his private happiness above public duty. Pietas trumps felicitas. Virgil’s Romans are not free to do with their lives as they want; their lives belong to the empire. Libertas is mentioned only three times in nearly 10,000 lines. Pax trumps libertas. “Loss of freedom,” writes Quint, “is a price of the enormous enrichment of the expanded city, the riches flowing into Augustus’s triumph, of its new Golden Age.” John Alvis, in Divine Purpose and Heroic Response in Homer and Virgil: The Political Plan of Zeus, contends “that Virgil seeks to influence the shape of a new order by salvaging as much of republican liberty as he can without sacrificing the goal of world pacification.” As I read The Aeneid, precious little liberty is saved. Virgil is the great poet of peace, but he immolates everything at its altar. Whether you consider this a fair trade depends upon your relative valuation of genuine goods like peace, order, self-fulfillment, and liberty. For Virgil, having seen his homeland ravaged by civil wars throughout his lifetime, perhaps it was. For Edmund Burke, writing centuries later, “Peace is the great End in all Governments. Liberty is an End only in the Best.”

Questions as to what extent Virgil supported empire perhaps miss the salient point. Augustan Rome held dominion over much of the world and was not about to let go. The Aeneid is a poem about power: its proper employment and its abuses. What good would it do to counsel Caesar to cede power? But to advise him on its proper uses might help ensure that the pax Romana would be lasting and just. The world is ruled by violence. Whoever can muster and is willing to use the greatest force can set the agenda. Such force belonged to Rome; Virgil would see it used with restraint, to suppress irruptions of furor that lead to destructive violence, to spread peace through law. Wielded to such ends, empire might have extended indefinitely into the future and might have established a just order unprecedented in history. Abused for self-aggrandizement, the severe gods of necessity would surely dictate that imperial power would sow the seeds of its own destruction.

If The Aeneid continues to fascinate American readers, as witnessed by the abundance of recent translations, perhaps that is in part because the United States now possesses immense power and can use the Mantuan poet’s sage counsel. What would Virgil think of America’s globalist expansion into foreign labor pools to produce the cheapest possible products for our insatiable marketplace? Or of the avarice displayed in our consumerist culture with its vulgar materialism? Or the licentiousness of the vast majority of our popular culture? The United States has always been torn between the conflicting ideals of liberty and equality, which cut in opposite directions. Perhaps Virgil teaches us that freedom and peace hang in an uneasy balance as well. Attempts at policing the world increasingly impinge upon freedoms at home and abroad. Our pursuit of happiness is ever more restricted, not least by the taxation required to support the mighty behemoth state. Even when used with the best motives to the noblest ends, empire can be no true friend to genuine liberty.

Kevin Michael Saylor is affiliate assistant professor of English at the University of Dallas.