Is Virgil's Aeneid an Anti-War Poem?
Virgil opens the Aeneid' with the words ARMA virumque cano ( I sing of arms and of men). The central role that war plays in this Roman epic is made apparent from the very first word of the Aeneid' by the emphatic placing of the word arma at the very beginning of the poem. A fair chunk of Virgil's Aeneid' is set on the battle field but its violent and gory descriptions of death and its frequent battles alone cannot make this poem an anti-war poem. Virgil does not merely use the notion of war to further his plot but deals with many types and aspects of war throughout the entirety of his book; mythological wars; recent wars; their effects; their causes; and often one is able to find Virgil's own opinion on such a matter, subtly incorporated into the thick of things. What messages does Virgil try to convey to his readers, in what ways does he do this and can we argue that the Aeneid' is an anti-war poem rather than an epic that simply narrates particularly tragic wars?
The first war in which Virgil goes into detail is the Trojan War which he dedicates an entire book to. Aeneas recounts the fall of Troy whilst in the company of Dido in book two of the Aeneid' and explains how the Greeks managed to sack Troy and how Aeneas and his men managed to escape to safety. Aeneas describes many horrific deaths in this flashback such as that of Priam's son, Polites in which we hear that "he finally appeared before his parents' eyes and fell before their faces and poured out his life with much of his blood" . As opposed to condemning war, this brutal account is more likely to have been described in such a manner as to flaunt Virgil's literary ability and smooth use of language. Aeneas' account is for descriptive and informative purposes. Book two is essential in linking the foundation of Rome back to Troy and is also able to link Rome to what much of the Ancient World believed was the greatest war of all time. Virgil's handling of the Trojan War does create sympathy for his protagonist but is not intended to criticise the act of war in general.
The two opposing attitudes to war in the Aeneid' are personified in the characters of Aeneas and Turnus. Aeneas symbolises the traditional Roman ideal of virtue and piety which Augustus was trying to reinforce when the Aeneid' was being written. By endowing Aeneas with all of the recognised Roman qualities, a Roman audience would have identified Aeneas as a man of wholesome character to be admired. In book eleven, Virgil stresses the protagonist's views on unnecessary violence when Latin envoys are sent to Aeneas to beg for a truce so they may collect their dead to which Aeneas replies "I would wish for those that were killed to have left this battle alive and I would wish not to have come here, if the fates had not given me this place and this home. Nor do I wage war with this race. It was the King who abandoned our friendship and trusted more in the weapons of Turnus" . Here we can see clearly that Aeneas was reluctantly forced into this war, not necessarily by the Latins but rather by the fates. It is possible that Virgil wished to communicate his own opinions on war to his audience in a subtle and stylistic manner by using Aeneas as his mouthpiece. Aeneas is the hero who we have all grown to love by this point in the epic and so expressing ideas via him would be the best approach as they will be more easily accepted when suggested by a well liked character. This technique could also allow Virgil to convey his personal thoughts in such a way that it would still be in keeping with the rest of the story. Virgil further suggests that an intense desire for combat is unhealthy and not particularly admirable by portraying Turnus, the enemy, as the embodiment of such a characteristic. After being manipulated by Allecto, Virgil states that the "love of the sword raged within him and the wicked madness of war" and describes the peace between Aeneas...
Bibliography: Virgil, ‘Aeneid ', trans. with intro. D. West (Penguin Classics: London 2003)
‘Collins Latin Dictionary plus Grammar ' (Harper Collins: Glasgow 1997)
Hardie, P. , ‘Greece and Rome – New Surveys in the Classics No.28 : Virgil ' (Oxford University Press: Oxford 1998)
Mackail, J. W. , ‘Virgil and his Meaning to the World of Today ' (The Plimpton Press: Massachusetts 1922)
All Latin original texts from:
All Latin texts translated by myself
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