The Aeneid, by Vergil, translation by Shadi Bartsch (Random House, 2021, 400 pages)
“My song is of war and a man.”
Considering the multitude of spectacular histories, rich biographies, and tomes on grand strategy published in the modern era, why should military leaders reach for a 2,000-year-old Latin poem? While the form of war has changed significantly in the two millennia since The Aeneid’s publication, Vergil’s epic presents profound and enduring moral questions that are as relevant today as they were in Vergil’s day, at the height of the Roman Empire.
Vergil encodes these questions into his mythological account of Aeneas of Troy. Set in the wake of Troy’s catastrophic defeat by its Greek enemies, Aeneas is chosen by the god Jupiter to lead the vanquished survivors of the ten-year Trojan War across the Mediterranean to found the city of Rome and a future empire. Even with divine assistance, this is no easy task for Aeneas and the Trojans. Completing Jupiter’s mission requires crossing dangerous waters, traveling to the underworld, and encountering new cultures, old gods, and vicious monsters. Along the way, Vergil explores the consequences of men leaving their societies’ laws, norms, and customs for the unconstrained conditions of war.
The Aeneid opens in the middle of Aeneas’ journey, as he and his men face a deadly storm, the latest tribulation after years of hardship since fleeing Troy. After washing ashore and reconstituting his remaining ships, Aeneas tries to lift the spirits of his exhausted and battered soldiers with a rousing speech. However, Aeneas is “sick with crushing cares, he feigns hope on his face, and clamps down his deep pain.” Aeneas’ admission that he would rather have died at Troy than surmount another obstacle, and is putting on a brave face for his men, gives one pause to wonder what kind of commander he is.
Aeneas continuously departs from the hero stereotype, displaying his shortcomings in multiple scenes. His poor judgment is apparent in the story of the infamous Trojan Horse, which the Trojans naïvely bring into their city. Aeneas’ strategic mistake—trusting an enemy bearing gifts—leads to Troy’s demise. “We breached our own walls—our own!—and laid the city open,” Aeneas says. Next, Aeneas displays his moral flexibility when he and a few Trojan soldiers surprise and kill a band of Greeks and then consider if they should disguise themselves in their slain enemy’s armor. “Is it deceit or bravery? Who cares in war?” one Trojan soldier asks. Aeneas responds by donning Greek armor.
Aeneas’ story concludes with a violent crescendo, and another ambiguity. Though his duty is completed, his future glory secured, and the war ended, he grants no quarter when presented with a plea for mercy from his vanquished rival. Departing from the Roman code “to rule the world with law, impose your ways on peace, grant the conquered clemency, and crush the proud in war,” Aeneas plants his sword into the supplicant’s chest, thereby planting the imperial seed of future violence into Italian soil, and ominous silence follows.
Aeneas, The Semi-Tragic Hero
Though victorious, Aeneas seems diminished at the end. His struggles in war reveal him as a semi-tragic hero who, instead of gaining wisdom or virtue through his divine quest, loses something of himself.
So why does Jupiter choose such a flawed man for such an impressive endeavor? Although he is no strategic genius nor particularly virtuous, Aeneas is faithful to his family, his people, and the gods. This piety is the characteristic Jupiter cites for choosing Aeneas to found Rome. Unquestioning devotion to duty leads Aeneas into a war of conquest where his imperfections come into contact with the pathos of violence.
The Reader’s Challenge
Vergil leaves the reader swirling in a farrago of conflicting ideas and incomplete thoughts about his hero. When war collides with the façade concealing and restraining his darker emotions, Aeneas commits barbarous acts, killing outside military or political necessity. How much, if at all, do Aeneas’ circumstances mitigate his responsibility for the carnage and bloodshed? Did Jupiter exploit Aeneas’ piety, setting him up to commit atrocities by thrusting the imperfect hero into the savageries of war?
The Aeneid requires more attention to read than an intriguing spy novel or a gritty war memoir. Vergil’s intended audience would have understood his frequent allusions to people, places, and events in Roman history without assistance. Thankfully, scholar and translator Shadi Bartsch deftly guides the readers through Vergil’s world and confusing references with endnotes, a map, a glossary of characters and places, and an introductory essay. Of particular note, Bartsch succeeds in rendering The Aeneid into contemporary English while retaining the poem’s loftiness and grandeur.
Like the Trojan Horse, Vergil breaches his audience’s mental walls from within, concealing challenging ideas and moral questions in his song of war. Readers will find no answers here, as Vergil leaves these issues for his audience to resolve or not.
His questions also provide an opening for today’s service members to reflect and consider where the responsibility for the devastation caused in service to their nation and gods lies. And, Vergil invites today’s military leaders to reflect on their own journeys in war. This is Vergil’s genius and why, after two millennia, The Aeneid still shows up on professional reading lists.
Review contributed by Tobias Bernard Switzer, an active-duty colonel in the United States Air Force and a non-resident fellow at the Irregular Warfare Institute. He is a special operations helicopter pilot and aviation advisor with deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Central America.