Nicolas Stebbing considers some religious verse
The short answer is No. Virgil died in 19 BC, long before Christ was born. However, in the Middle Ages he became widely revered as a sort of saint. Dante made Virgil his guide through Hell and most of Purgatory. How did Virgil get this reputation as a quasi-Christian?
One obvious reason was one of his early poems, the Fourth Eclogue, which Christians took to be a prophecy of the Coming of Christ:
“The great cycle of periods is born anew. Now returns the Maid, returns the reign of Saturn. Now from high heaven a new generation comes down. Yet do thou at that boy’s birth……”
No one thinks now it could be such a prophecy, but Augustine thought it was, and so did Dante.
Another reason for Virgil’s almost canonisation was his poem The Aeneid, certainly one of the greatest epic poems ever written. I have just finished reading it from start to finish (it has taken ten years!) and am fascinated by the ambiguities of the poem, of the hero, Aeneas, and of the man who wrote it, Virgil.
The story of the Aeneid, briefly, is this. Aeneas was of the royal house of Troy who fled Troy along with his family and a large group of Trojans. They arrive in Carthage where Aeneas meets the beautiful queen Dido. In Books Two and Three he describes the fall of Troy and their journey to Carthage. In Book Four he and Dido fall in love, aided by his mother Aphrodite, but Aeneas is forced to leave Dido and continue on his journey to Italy to found the nation who will become the Romans. Dido in fury commits suicide. Book Five is largely funeral games and Book Six tells of his journey to Hades where he meets his father. From Book Seven to Book Twelve he is in Italy fighting with the Italians led by Turnus. The poem ends with Aeneas killing Turnus in single combat.
Now why do I think readers of New Directions might be interested in this? Aeneas is a very ambiguous figure and, as Virgil presents him, he has quite a lot to say to us today. Sometimes he is noble and brave. Sometimes he is tongue-tied and indecisive. He tries to do what the Fates have decreed for him which is why he abandons Dido. He himself is a victim, partly as a survivor of the Fall of Troy, partly because the goddess Juno, who hates Troy for utterly selfish reasons, keeps trying to destroy him. In the last six books he does not want a war but is compelled to fight one. Twice the treaties are broken by Turnus, instigated by Juno. Reading these last six books I felt the tragedy of war. Virgil writes fantastic poetry, beautiful, evocative, emotional and multi-layered. Hundreds of beautiful young men kill each other in bloody and horrible ways. I felt as if I was reading an account of the First World War. Virgil seemed another Wilfred Owen writing of, “The pity of war, the pity war distils…” This was not a common Roman sentiment. Horace wrote “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. Fine words from one who fled from the battle of Philippi and spent his life as a kind of lounge lizard.
Virgil was writing under the inspiration of the Emperor Augustus supposedly to glorify his reign. Augustus was heir to Caesar, who claimed he was descended from Aeneas. Virgil has to describe the war on which the myth of Rome was founded yet he seems to be sickened by it. The poem ends with the death of Turnus, his spirit fluttering away into Hades. We know Virgil wanted to do more with the poem but died. As it stands it feels as if he simply couldn’t bear to go on.
What does this have to do with Christianity? Romans gloried in their conquests but conquests and empire come at a terrible price. Virgil saw twenty years of civil war and knew that war was horrible. Christians have glorified war over the centuries. Only recently has the Church really begun to oppose it in all its forms. How many Christians prefer to go along with their government’s view that war is regrettable, but necessary?
Aeneas himself comes across as a sad, often confused person. He has sudden outbursts of anger, in one of which he kills Turnus though Turnus had begged for his life. In Hades, Aeneas’ father had prophesied the glorious future of Rome, ending:
“But thou, 0 Roman, learn with sovereign sway
To rule the nations. Thy great art shall be
To keep the world in lasting peace, to spare
humbled foe, and crush to earth the proud.”
Aeneas had not spared the humbled foe. He had killed him. Far from crushing the proud, Romans made pride their defining character. Rome itself claimed to spread justice and peace throughout the world. In fact, she spread war, killed thousands upon thousands of innocent people, enslaved thousands more and looted all Europe and the middle East of its wealth. Julius Caesar committed genocide on a vast scale in Gaul and returned fabulously wealthy with gold and slaves. Sometimes the conquered people got justice; more often as we know from the Gospels and Church history, they did not.
Turnus is a tragic figure, a fine young warrior misled by the gods and so sacrificed to their stupidity. Aeneas, too, is a tragic figure. He seems to suffer from refugee’s syndrome. He seems often stunned, depressed, seeking a better life but lacking judgement. Refugees are not merely a modern problem. Virgil saw them in their thousands in Italy and Greece. Aeneas suffers from survivor’s syndrome. He would rather have died in Troy.
What do we, as Christians, learn from this? Well, briefly…
- The Roman Empire was terrible. It was brutal, exploitative and caused untold suffering. It is possible it was better than other nations round about, but not much. Yet Christianity was only able to flourish within the empire and made little impact outside it until the modern age. What does this say about modern empires which also fell far short of the grandiose claims made for them by their Imperial masters (I was one!) and yet created a new world in which Christianity has flourished? Good things can come out of bad.
- From the earliest centuries some Christians have protested against war, but the Church has tended to support it, under conditions. Virgil writes thousands of lines describing heroic war but at the same time subverts it, dwelling over and over again on the tragedy of enthusiastic young lives brought to an end because some gods desired it. The tragedy of Turnus, Pallas, Launas and a host of others is one which goes on today in Yemen, Chad and Afghanistan. Pope Paul VI, speaking to the United Nations in 1965 pleaded, “No more war, war never again.” It is a call the West has not heeded. As I write the UK government is increasing its nuclear stockpile. Can we follow the call of recent Popes, notably Francis, and be properly aware of the terrible consequences of war?
- The Roman gods were terrible. Thank God for Christianity. Roman gods and, even more goddesses, were selfish, self-centred, spiteful, vengeful and ruled by emotions. No wonder the people who worshiped them were much the same. The world into which Jesus spoke the Beatitudes was a world whose public values were completely opposed to them. The wonderful modern writer, Tom Holland, returned to Christianity when he realised just how much Christianity has changed the world from the vicious world it was under the Romans and Greeks. Today’s world aspires to good and generous values even if it falls far short of them. Again, what do we do about that?
- Latin poetry is beautiful and fascinating but has little in it that Christians can call their own. There is sexual desire (I can’t call it love), pornography, bitterness, bitchiness, cleverness, humour, philosophy, praise of Roman emperors and much else. Only in Virgil do we find a consistent gentleness, from the pastoral poems sympathising with peasants booted off their land by victorious generals, through the Georgics in praise of farming life, to the Aeneid where, as in Owen’s Strange Meeting, we see young men’s generosity led astray and sacrificed on the altars of pride:
“I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war…”
What are we doing today in our cosy little church groups to answer Pope Paul’s call “No more war, war never again.”? We allow our government to buy nuclear warheads that could kill millions. We watch a terrible war in Yemen fought by Saudi Arabia with British weapons. We are so slow responding to climate change and the loss of the environment even though millions already suffer from it, through famine, poverty and displacement wars?
If Virgil were alive today, he would find much that he recognised from ancient Greece and Rome. Human sin does not change that much. He would also find much that agreed with his gentler principles, his hatred of war and injustice. It’s very likely he would have been a Christian – a poet like R S Thomas, maybe. Dante was right to take him as his guide through Hell.
Father Nicolas Stebbing is a member of the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield.