What do we know about Virgil’s reputation in his own time and soon thereafter? We know that Augustus Caesar brought the poet into his circle and understood the Aeneid to articulate his own vision for his regime. We know that the same educational system that celebrated the reign of Augustus as the perfection of the ideal of Romanitas also celebrated Virgil as the king of Roman poets, even in his own lifetime. Nicholas Horsfall shows how, soon after Virgil’s death, students throughout the Roman world worked doggedly through the Aeneid line by line, which helps to explain why there are Virgilian graffiti at Pompeii but almost all of them from Books I and II. We know that Quintilian established study of Virgil as the foundational practice of literary study and that that establishment remained in place as long as Rome did, thus, centuries later, shaping the education of little African boys like Augustine of Hippo.
But, as my friend Edward Mendelson has pointed out to me in an email, when people talk about what “the average Roman reader” would have thought about Virgil, they have absolutely no evidence to support their claims. It may well be, as these critics usually say, that such a reader approved of the Empire and therefore approved of anything in the Aeneid that was conducive to the establishment of Empire ... but no one knows that. It’s just guesswork.
R. J. Tarrant has shown just how hard it is to pin down the details of Virgil’s social/political reputation. But it’s worth noting that, while the gods in the Aeneid insist that Dido must die for Rome to be founded, Augustine tells us in the Confessions that his primary emotional reaction when reading the poem was grief for the death of Dido. And Quintilian doesn't place Virgil at the center of his literary curriculum because he is the great advocate of Romanitas, but because he is the only Roman poet worthy to be compared with Homer. The poem exceeds whatever political place we might give it, and the readers of no culture are unanimous in their interests and priorities.
In a work that I’ve seen in draft form, so about which I won't say too much, Mendelson offers several reasons why we might think that Virgil is more critical of the imperial project, and perhaps even of Rome’s more general self-mythology, than Augustus thought, and than critics such as Cochrane think.
First, there is the point that Adam Roberts drew attention to in the comments on my previous post: the fact that Anchises tells Aeneas in Book VI that the vocation of Rome is not just to conquer the world but to “spare the defeated” (parcere subiectis) — yet this is precisely what Aeneas does not do when the defeated Turnus pleads for his life. I tried to say, in my own response to Adam, why I don't think that necessarily undoes the idea that Virgil snd his poem are fundamentally supportive not just of Rome generally but of the necessity of Turnus’s death. But the contrast between Anchises’ claim about the Roman vocation and what Aeneas actually does is certainly troubling.
More troubling still is another passage Mendelson points to, perhaps the most notorious crux in all of classical literature and therefore something I should already have mentioned: the end of Book VI. After Anchises shows to Aeneas the great pageant of Rome’s future glories, Virgil writes (in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation):
There are two gates of Sleep: the one is said
to be of horn, through it an easy exit
is given to true Shades; the other is made
of polished ivory, perfect, glittering,
but through that way the Spirits send false dreams
into the world above. And here Anchises,
when he is done with words, accompanies
the Sibyl and his son together; and
he sends them through the gate of ivory.
(Emphasis mine.) The gate of ivory? Was that whole vision for the future then untrue? But it couldn't be: Anchises reveals people who really were to exist and events that really were to occur. Was the untruth then not the people and events themselves but the lovely imperial gloss, the shiny coating that Anchises paints on events that are in fact far uglier? Very possibly. But the passage is profoundly confusing.
I continue to believe that Virgil is fundamentally supportive of the imperial enterprise, for reasons I won't spell out in further detail here. (If I had time I would write at length about Aeneas’s shield.) But he was too great a poet and too wise a man not to know, and reveal, the costliness of that enterprise, and not just in the lives of people like Dido and Turnus. Perhaps he was even more concerned with the price the Roman character paid for Roman greatness: the gross damage Romanitas did to the consciences of its advocates and enforcers.
Another way to put this is to say that Virgil was a very shrewd reader of Homer, who was likewise clear-sighted about matters that most of us would prefer not to see clearly. One must also here think of Shakespeare. Take, for instance, Twelfth Night: the viewers’ delight in the unfolding of the comedy is subtly undermined by the treatment of Malvolio by some of the “good guys.” It seems that the joy that is in laughter can all too easily turn to cruelty. Yes, Malvolio is a pompous inflated prig, but still....
The best account I have ever read of the way great literature accepts and represents these “minority moods” — moods that account for elements of human reality that any given genre tends to downplay — was written by Northrop Frye, in his small masterpiece A Natural Perspective. That's his book about comedy, and the Aeneid is, structurally anyway, a kind of comedy, a story of human fellowship emerging from great suffering. Frye's excursus on genre and mood is one of the most eloquent (and important) passages in his whole ouevre, and I’ll end by quoting from it:
If comedy concentrates on a uniformly cheerful mood, it tends to become farcical, depending on automatic stimulus and reflex of laughter. Structure, then, commands participation but not assent: it unites its audience as an audience, but allows for variety in response. If no variety of response is permitted, as in extreme forms of melodrama and farce, something is wrong: something is inhibiting the proper function of drama.... Hence both criticism and performance may spend a good deal of time on emphasizing the importance of minority moods. The notion that there is one right response which apprehends the whole play rightly is an illusion: correct response is always stock response, and is possible only when some kind of mental or physical reflex is appealed to.
The sense of festivity, which corresponds to pity in tragedy, is always present at the end of a romantic comedy. This takes the part of a party, usually a wedding, in which we feel, to some degree, participants. We are invited to the festivity and we put the best face we can on whatever feelings we may still have about the recent behavior of some of the characters, often including the bridegroom. In Shakespeare the new society is remarkably catholic in its tolerance; but there is always a part of us that remains a spectator, detached and observant, aware of other nuances and values. This sense of alienation, which in tragedy is terror, is almost bound to be represented by somebody or something in the play, and even if, like Shylock, he disappears in the fourth act, we never quite forget him. We seldom consciously feel identified with him, for he himself wants no such identification: we may even hate or despise him, but he is there, the eternal questioning Satan who is still not quite silenced by the vindication of Job.... Participation and detachment, sympathy and ridicule, sociability and isolation, are inseparable in the complex we call comedy, a complex that is begotten by the paradox of life itself, in which merely to exist is both to be part of something else and yet never to be a part of it, and in which all freedom and joy are inseparably a belonging and an escape.