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 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 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 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 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 influence Roman readers’ views on situations relevant to their time, is the use of “the second half of the Aeneid’ as a pre-enactment of the Social War” in Italy. The Social War would still have remained fresh in many Romans’ minds and so even without any outside influence, many would have probably already been hoping for peace and calm. The echo of the Social War in the battles at Latium would have only refreshed many readers’ already existent desire for a life without conflict. Aeneas is eventually successful in ending his war and bringing about a temporary peace. In book six, he is shown the spirits of future Roman greats among whom he sees “Caesar and all of the (other) descendants of Iulus” and this link connecting Augustus to Aeneas by blood would have given Augustus a great deal of credibility among Romans. The relation and parallels drawn between the men serve to hint that the two are both capable of similar accomplishments and thus Augustus has the ability as a leader to recreate the same peace which Virgil’s audience knows Aeneas will finally bring about.
I have shown how Virgil’s poem clearly encourages one to seek peace but it does not ignore the fact that often war is necessary before this can be achieved. In book eleven (line 110 ff.) Aeneas sees the battles at Latium as unnecessary and suggests that they could have been avoided. On the other hand, we hear at the beginning of the poem that Aeneas “also suffered many hardships until he could found his city” . The verb conderet is in the subjunctive mood which represents “ideas, possibilities or necessities” . Virgil suggests that these wars could not be avoided and therefore we cannot hope to live without wars but only hope to minimise their abundance. This is further supported by Virgil’s numerous references to fate’s role in the conflict dominating the last six books of the Aeneid’. Take for example Jupiter’s conversation with Venus in book one where Jupiter assures Venus that “the fates of your Trojans remains unchanged..Aeneas will wage a great war” . Fate, both to a modern and Roman reader, is generally accepted as a power that can dictate the future and cannot be affected by mortals and so Virgil acknowledges that ultimate peace cannot be acquired unless destiny permits it.
Although most of Virgil focuses on the benefits of peace as opposed to condemning war, he does describe some of the destructive effects of warfare. The epic poem expresses particular concern with the deterioration of conventional Roman morals. Book eight tells the story of Saturn’s rule of Latium during a time “which they called the Golden Age under this King and he ruled his people in gentle peace” but goes on to criticise a later age which “resulted in the madness of war and a love of having possessions” . Virgil clearly stresses the direct correlation between war and barbaric demoralisation. This notion was all too familiar to the Romans as after the second Punic War, Rome displayed a deterioration in its values and was “never wholly repaired of her older and nobler traditions, of simplicity, patriotism, a high standard of honour, all that was meant by Roman virtue” . Many Romans were already extremely concerned with the luxurious habits that some of their natives were adopting and so the reference to the degeneration of Latium’s morals in the Aeneid’ is one of the detrimental effects of war that many Roman readers would have experienced or witnessed first hand.
One of the most memorable epic passages in ancient literature is Virgil’s Homeric-influenced description of Aeneas’ shield. The shield symbolises Rome’s achievements and history with a depiction of war filling the centre of this magnificent piece of armour. “In the middle there was the bronze fleet at the Battle of Actium to look at” . Rome’s army was responsible for the formation of her vast empire. Without its power and victories in battle she would never have gained her supremacy. As well as praising Augustus’ accomplishments by placing the Battle of Actium scene in the centre of the shield, Virgil also recognised the benefits that war could bring. Although he seems to seek peace for the future, he does not tend to criticise past Roman wars but often portrays them as a stepping stone in the search of future peace. As well as this, Virgil never suggests that if one’s city entered into battle, one should abandon their loyalty to their native land and ignore their duty in war. In book six, Virgil describes the ghosts of those who died in battle as “distinguished men who were set apart (from others) in war” . However Virgil’s Underworld scene is based around Homer’s in book eleven of the Odyssey’ and so one can argue that the heroic image that these warriors seem to have acquired upon entering the Underworld can be attributed to Homeric influence and Virgil was not making a purposeful statement about the benefits of dying in combat. Many of the war-related deaths in Virgil’s Aeneid’ do however force us to consider the personal losses that are suffered from battle. After Pallas’ slaughter at the hands of Turnus, we hear a moving passage in which Aeneas is reminded of “Everything; Pallas, Evander were before his very eyes; the tables which the stranger then approached for the first time and the pledges of friendship given” . This is especially touching for the reader as we are able to reminisce with Aeneas because we were there in book eight (line 121ff.) where this first encounter was described and so we as the audience have been present from the beginning of this friendship. This makes Aeneas’ reaction all the more understandable to the reader and we share some of Aeneas’ emotion and the poem creates a resentment of war within the reader.
Overall I feel that the Aeneid’ looks towards and encourages a future of peace without trying to denounce the wars of the past. Virgil glorifies both mythological and historical battles and justifies them with the idea that these were sacrifices made for an ultimate goal. By looking at the bigger picture’, Virgil is able to link earlier conflict to later peace but leaves Romans with the message to know when enough is enough regarding war and their empire. Most of the anti-war propaganda in the Aeneid’ is aimed directly at the Roman public and so to its contemporary audience, this epic would have seemed far more critical of war than it might to a foreign audience. The frequent losses of life and bloody descriptions in the poem carry strong connotations of death and disaster throughout most of the story. However such a topic and style of narration was borrowed from Homer and not used solely to deter people from war. But the two words that frame the poem, arma and umbras, adequately outline Virgil’s main point: any story that begins with arma will end in the umbras (the shades).
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