There be dragons!

Friday, January 6, 2006

Arma virumque cano

Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem.

Unlike the poet of The Iliad Virgil is not proposing to be a medium by which the goddess sings. Indeed he invokes the muse further along in the passage, but the very opening of the epic, different from The Iliad, does not suggest to be a work of the god through Virgil. Here man is the actor and creator. Man himself is the one who labors to establish something (molitor in Latin). Thus Virgil is the Aeneas of his epic, founding a way of looking at the world which is radically different from the vision of the Greek epic.
The Iliad proposes that man is at the mercy of the gods and that the gods work their will through man often regardless of man’s individual will or desire. Aeneas, though fated by the gods to found the new Troy of Rome, experiences a fate for the future rather than a fate from the past. He does not suffer due to the poor judgment of his ancestors, nor does he suffer because of the whimsy of the gods. Rather, he has the weight of vision, conscience, the expectations of his own gens propelling him to do something great for the future. It is for this reason that the poet is singing about warfare but also about a man of war.
Indeed, a song of warfare is important; life is warfare, chaos, sorrow, constant defeat. Coupled with the experience of warfare is the experience of realizing one’s own smallness, weakness, failings, knowing the damage and ruin that one individual can cause and simultaneously knowing how insignificant one is in the midst of that ruin. This is the theme of The Iliad and Virgil parallels the thematic power of The Iliad in singing about such arma. Warfare makes a man come to know himself. For the Greeks such self-knowledge and the acceptance of fate was key to becoming fully human. But for the Greeks, man’s whole purpose was to die. Not so for Virgil who, in attempting to craft the imagination of a Romanam gentem, seeks a new paradigm for human existence.
The purpose of human existence, in the Roman mind, was to stand up to the enemy in battle and create something wonderful in the midst of that chaos. War is a monumental reality, so much so that the ancient world thought of life not as “peace with occasional war” as we moderns do, but as “war with occasional peace.” Thus, Virgil begins the work with arma, but the individual is a factor even in this world of uncertainty and violence. The Greeks conceived that the individual was insignificant, a single point in a maze of patterns, and that each action which the individual did was merely playing out the pattern already laid down for him by Clotho, Atropos, and Lachesis. In the great work of Virgil the individual can make a difference; one man can change the course of history. Thus the purpose for man’s existence is not just to die, but to give the time that he has in this world to the establishment of something of value, a tantae molis.
Ultimately, Virgil is converting an entire people to see the world in a new light; a light that will be known by later generations as Western Civilization. This great effort, this founding of a novus ordo saeclorum called the Roman people, will overcome the opposition of Juno, the natural opposition which hearth and home has to warfare, and accomplish the Herculean task of establishing a safe and long lasting protectorate for the hearth and home. Being the heirs of this great vision, it becomes incumbent upon each of us to remain eternally vigilant in its preservation lest by our lackadaisical negligence we allow in the Trojan horses of our own destruction.


  1. In "The Iliad" isn't it also suggested that even the gods are at the mercy of... maybe not fate... but that humans may have some control over them as well. Such as the injury of Aphrodite?

  2. Absolutely, Fred. Even the gods (as projections of human desires, or supernatural forces, or whatever) are bound by a fatedness. Their will over man is little more than power over subordinates, leaving man with little to emulate or aspire to. This heightens the beauty of Virgil proposes. His gods are, in some ways, subordinate to men b/c they prompt men to do things that are great FOR MEN (i.e. the construction of civilization). But the fatedness of the Aeneid is a fate constructed by seeing the good; once one sees what is truly good you can no longer go back with impunity to the old life of dissolution, debauchery, animalian behavior and violence. You can be dissolute, debauched, animalian, and violent but no longer with the care free frivolity of youth. The elves have to leave the soul (to use Tolkien's metaphor) and adult men (and women) must rule. I think that a key element of being an adult is assuming this fate that is laid upon us; not a fate of hopelessness but a fate of responsibility towards the good that goads one to do or live in hope or to do and live in misery. Thus the doctrine of heaven and hell (a doctrine developed post-Virgil). We are given the choice (as Ecclesiastes says) between life or death, and it is encumbent upon us to choose life so that we and our progeny may live.