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Is Virgil's 'aenied' an Anti-War Poem?

Essay by review  •  November 24, 2010  •  Research Paper  •  2,398 Words (10 Pages)  •  1,346 Views

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Is Virgil's Aeneid an Anti-War Poem?

Virgil opens the Ð''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 Ð''Aeneid' by the emphatic placing of the word arma at the very beginning of the poem. A fair chunk of Virgil's Ð''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 Ð''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 Ð''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 Ð''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 Ð''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 and Latinus as having been polluted (polluta pace) after Allecto's interference. Turnus indeed cannot be entirely blamed for rousing this unnecessary war as Juno's intervention is the key in this sudden turnaround. Nevertheless, this does not affect the overall message: war should be avoided if possible. The audience is provided with a clear right and wrong with the right being the reluctance for battle which Aeneas displays and the wrong being the thirst for blood which Turnus displays.

During Virgil's lifetime there was a long-lasting period of various conflicts and political volatility culminating in Augustus' victory over Antony and Cleopatra at Actium. The motto of the new government under Augustus was Ð''The Empire is peace' and after these ongoing struggles, the proclamation of world peace (pax Augusta) would have appealed to Virgil and the rest of Rome. Virgil was a client of Augustus and wrote the Ð''Aeneid' in praise of his patron and so one can only expect the writer to have been influenced by the values and morals of the person he is paying tribute to. Mackail neatly states that the epic needed to "exalt the new regime, and give shape and colour to its ideals of peace and justice, development and reconstruction, ordered liberty, beneficent rule;" . One of the ways in which Virgil does this is by providing us with various links between Augustus and Aeneas. For example in book one of the Ð''Aeneid', Jupiter foretells of the day when "the Gates of War, with their tight fastenings, will be closed with unholy Furor sitting behind them" . This would immediately suggest to a Roman audience the opening and closing of the gates of the temple of Janus which marked the beginning and end of a war; a practice reintroduced by Augustus . This Augustan reference comes at the end of a passage prophesising Rome's future starting with Aeneas' war against the Latins and leading up to this reference and so it is implied that Augustus is merely continuing what our protagonist first embarked upon centuries earlier. When reading this epic, we hope that Aeneas eventually finds peace in Latium and his war-related sufferings come to an end. Therefore to a Roman reader this comparison may have encouraged them to express this same desire for harmony in their own world. Augustus wanted Romans to believe that he symbolised peace and a better way of life and so by including a reference to ultimate peace among many prophecies that had already come to pass, Virgil makes Augustus' goal seem all the more possible.

A clearer example of Virgil's use of myth to

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