Almost everyone knows at least portions of the myth of the Trojan War in which the Greeks attacked Troy to reclaim Queen Helen the wife of Menelaus the King of Sparta. The war waged for ten long years before the Greeks finally triumphed. The Trojan men were killed; the women and children taken as slaves.
One Trojan prince named Aeneas, who was married to one of the king’s daughters, escapes with his father, son, and a group of other Trojan families. A refugee, he wanders for ten years until he reaches the place in Italy which will become his new homeland. He is forced to wage war with the indigenous tribes. Finally he establishes a new city, Lavinium named after his new wife Lavinia, a city that 300 years later will become Rome.
This myth is best told in the late first century BCE by the Roman poet Vergil in his epic The Aeneid. While Vergil models his epic on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the most striking difference is that while Odysseus (Ulysses), the hero of the Odyssey, is a victorious Greek who wanders ten years before he returns home; Aeneas, a refugee from the losing side, wanders ten years trying to find a new homeland. This is one of the reasons why The Aeneid tells a story that rings true today in our world in which over 51 million people are homeless– displaced from their countries or within their countries.
Although retelling a myth, Vergil invests his epic in the basic themes of human nature– the loss of and search for personal identity and meaning in life; the cause, effect, and meaning of suffering; human life as determined by fate and directed by free will; the truth of and purpose in a God given mission; the value of family, faith, and country; the potential of human beings for great violence and great love; the conflict between personal happiness and public responsibility; the resiliency to forge ahead against the odds; the pain of personal sacrifice; and the bitter psychological effects of warfare and loss of homeland.
In the second line, Vergil identifies his protagonist as fato profugus, a refugee by fate. It is thus as a refugee that Aeneas enters the narrative; it is his role as refugee which informs all his other roles. All his thoughts and actions filter through this persona. As early as line 9, Vergil asks the most human of all questions: Why? “Why is this good man forced to suffer as a refugee? A man known for his pietas.” Pietas is one of the most important words in the epic– it means loyalty and unwavering devotion to gods, country, countrymen,and family. The best image of this virtue in the epic is Aeneas escaping the burning city of Troy with his lame father on his back, holding his son with one hand and embracing the statues of the household gods with his other arm. In 1618 the sculptor Bernini would create this image in marble. But a hundred years earlier Michelangelo created two Christian images of pietas. The pieta that now sets in St. Peter’s Basilica in which the lifeless Jesus lies in Mary’s lap, and the one in the Duomo in Florence in which the lifeless Christ is being held up by Nicodemus, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene.
As Aeneas struggles to find his promised land, it is imperative for him to maintain his values. When Vergil was composing this epic, Augustus had emerged as the first emperor. The days of the more democratic Republic were over. Augustus wanted to impose morality on a populace of affluent men and women who were enjoying a rather hedonistic lifestyle. The Senate dedicated a Shield of Virtue to the new emperor in 27BCE on which four values were inscribed: pietas, iustitia, clementia, and virtus (loyalty, justice, mercy, and courage). Vergil explores all of these throughout his epic. All in the life of a refugee who so many times teeters on the ledge of hopelessness. It truly is an epic for our own times. And Fagles has recently given us a very good English translation.