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“Of arms and the man I sing.”
The Greeks cast quite a shadow. As great as their empire became, Roman culture could never quite escape it. So the Romans did what came naturally to them: they assimilated. Virgil’s Aeneid is the supreme example. To celebrate the origins of his own people, Virgil went back to Homer, back to the Trojan War, and picked up the story of the vanquished. In his epic, Aeneas flees the sack of Troy, treks through the Mediterranean into the arms of the tragic heroine Dido. Eventually he abandons her to pursue his fate: launching Rome.
Of course there was no truth to it. The Roman Empire was hardly a phoenix rising from the flames of Troy. But to appropriate the Greek myth and turn its losers into history’s winners was a bold stroke worthy of an imperial power that had already re-branded the Greek gods. It leant a veneer of majesty to a state that had in fact risen from the ashes of a republic.
Virgil’s epic is one of the earliest and best examples both of literary influence and the central role that artists play in defining and celebrating a culture.
For an interdisciplinary adventure, while reading the Aeneid, treat yourself to Henry Purcell’s marvelous seventeenth century opera Dido and Aeneas for a taste of how that tragedy played out in later works. The quiet sorrow of “Dido’s Lament” is unrivaled after four centuries. I recommend the recording by the Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Christopher Hogwood.
by J. Mark Bertrand