Virgil and the Libyan crisis

The Aeneid, Virgil’s epic Latin poem, offers as profound an insight into the current Libyan crisis as any 24-hour news channel, argues Robert Zaretsky.

Byrsa Hill on the site of the remains of ancient CarthageAs Libya collapsed into chaos, its cities aflame, its leader filled with bloodlust and its people massing along the Mediterranean in quest of shelter, we perhaps told ourselves we had seen all of this before. Not on the BBC or Al Jazeera, but instead in a half-forgotten Latin class. More than two millennia ago, the Roman poet Virgil sang of arms and the man in his epic poem, the Aeneid. Like Virgil’s hero Aeneas, we are seeking answers to a deadly mayhem that, unwittingly, we in the West have helped create in Libya.

Aeneas barely escapes the conflagration of his native Troy – located on the Mediterranean coast of present-day Turkey – with his father and son, leaving behind a city whose streets had been turned by the marauding Greeks into a pool of blood and guts. Leading a group of ragged refugees, he attempts to find a new home; a hopeless task since the gods have given him neither a map nor instructions. His ships eventually land on the coast of ancient Libya, near the city of Carthage (close to present-day Tunis), ruled by Dido. The queen, who welcomes Aeneas and his homeless stragglers, falls in love with her handsome guest. Yet when Aeneas, by order of the gods, sets sail from Carthage, his spurned lover swears eternal enmity between East and West.

No love between our peoples, ever ...
Shore clash with shore, sea against sea and sword against sword –
this is my curse – war between all
our peoples, all their people, endless war!

Dido, who then commits suicide, was as good as her word. From the third to first centuries BC Rome and Carthage collided in three monumental Punic wars, climaxing with the utter destruction of Dido’s city. But in Virgil’s brilliant back to the future move Aeneas learns about these wars yet to happen when he is packed off to the underworld. It is there that he meets the shade of his father, Anchises. As they view an otherworldly parade of fellow shades, Anchises teaches Rome’s destiny to Aeneas. All of these heroes, from the Gracchi to Cato, Scipio to Caesar, are fated to shoulder the greatest of gifts and burdens. Their arts will put their ‘stamp on the works and ways of peace/to spare the defeated, break the proud.’ The message is clear: Rome’s fate is to rule over ‘empire without end’.

Far less clear is whether Aeneas understands his father’s lesson. While his father exhorts and warns, his son simply stares ‘raptly’ at the sights of Rome’s future glory. Similarly, as the poem approaches its appalling climax, when he kills an opponent who pleads for mercy, Aeneas is little more than a captive of images. When the gods give him a shield embossed with ambiguous representations of Rome’s future glory Aeneas is filled with uncomprehending wonder at the weapon he will carry into battle. These scenes suggest not only that images are far more powerful than words, but also that cries of passion will inevitably drown out calls for reason.

In 19 BC, while he lay dying in Brundisium, Virgil, who believed the poem needed another three years of work, asked that it be burned. But Augustus overruled the poet’s request, a fitting decision for the man who, in a crucial sense, was responsible for the poem’s birth. He had commissioned the poem and, no less importantly, by imposing peace upon a nation bloodied by more than a century of civil war, Augustus had created the political stability that allowed Virgil to write it. But Virgil was also compelled to explore, if only poetically, the consequences of the brutal means by which Augustus had won the peace from which he and the rest of the world now benefited.

And so it goes to the present day. Since Virgil’s death his epic has bled into the West’s image of itself and the rest of the world. From the global ambitions of Old World powers like Catholic Rome and Victorian England to New World usurpers like the United States, Virgil has always been called on to serve as apologist or critic. During the westward expansion to the Pacific, advocates of Manifest Destiny seized upon the Aeneid as justification; during US intervention in Vietnam, critics of the war cited the Aeneid as a warning. (A glance at a US dollar bill reminds us that Virgil was, in fact, called upon to witness the nation’s founding: the greenback’s three celebrated phrases were all coined by the Roman poet.)

The Aeneid lends itself to conflicting interpretations because Virgil was himself conflicted over Rome’s seemingly ineluctable march across the world and through time. Grateful for the order and stability ushered in by Augustus’ imperial rule, Virgil was also unsettled by its enormous cost to both Roman citizens and conquered peoples. As Rome’s victory set a pattern of imperial conquest by the West for the next 2,000 years, Virgil’s ambivalence has become our own. When Aeneas meets the shade of Dido in Hades and learns what he has wrought in Carthage he is deeply shaken. Torn between what he must have known, yet doing his best not to know, he blurts out: ‘Was I, was I the cause?’

This same question hovers over so many facets of our complex relationship with contemporary Libya: the weapons we in the West furnished Gaddafi to win his indulgence; the billions we in the West spilled into his coffers to satisfy our oil addiction; the legitimacy we in the West gave his regime to buttress the logic of political realism. We can in goodwill debate these questions among ourselves. But what about the Libyans fighting and dying to unmake what we helped maintain these many years? Will they have as little patience with us as Dido does with Aeneas as she wordlessly turned her back on him and ‘fled into the shadowy grove’? As we watch in astonishment the bloody unfolding of events in modern-day Libya, should we whisper to ourselves Aeneas’ plaintive, but less than thoroughly candid words to Dido?

No doubt political realists will cringe to have a poet brought into the debate over the West’s proper response to these events. Where in the Aeneid, they will reply, does Virgil tell us whether we should supply the rebels with arms of their own? Or whether we should go beyond air cover and put European boots on North African ground? Such questions are easily multiplied, but search as deeply as we may, answers are not easily forthcoming: the poem, after all, is not a work of military strategy.

But it is a work that reminds us that there are moral imperatives which remain clear even in the abstractions of foreign policy and the fog of war. Many years ago, the classicist W.R. Johnson wrote that Virgil’s poetry lets us ‘ponder for ourselves what society and justice mean because it has closed with and faced what their absence is and means.’ Perhaps it takes a Virgil to remind us who are the proud and who are the defeated in this part of the world, as well as the role we have played in their tragic past and the responsibilities we must assume in the present.


Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of Houston Honors College and the Department of History.