1. Education

Vergil History of Roman Literature


A History of Roman Literature by Charles Thomas Cruttwell

VIRGIL (70-19 B.C.).
Part III

Continued from Part II

This then being the lofty origin, the immemorial antiquity of the national faith, the moral is easily drawn, that Rome must never cease to observe it. The rites to import which into the favoured land cost heaven itself so fierce a struggle, which have raised that land to be the head of all the earth, must not be neglected now that their promise has been fulfilled. Each ceremony embodies some glorious reminiscence; each minute technicality enshrines some special national blessing.

Here, as in the _Georgics_, Cato and Varro live in Virgil, but with far less of narrow literalness, with far more of rich enthusiasm. We can well believe that the _Aeneid_ was a poem after Augustus's heart, that he welcomed with pride as well as gladness the instalments which, before its publication, he was permitted to see, [67] and encouraged by unreserved approbation so thorough an exponent of his cherished views. To him the _Aeneid_ breathed the spirit of the old cult. Its very style, like that of Milton from the Bible, was borrowed in countless instances from the Sacred Manuals. When Aeneas offers to the gods four prime oxen (_eximios tauros_) the pious Roman recognised the words of the ritual. [68] When the nymph Cymodoce rouses Aeneas to be on his guard against danger with the words "_Vigilas ne deum gens? Aenea, vigila!_" [69] she recalls the imposing ceremony by which, immediately before a war was begun, the general struck with his lance the sacred shields, calling on the god "_Mars, vigila!_" These and a thousand other allusions caused many of the later commentators to regard Aeneas as an impersonation of the pontificate. This is an error analogous to, but worse than, that which makes him represent Augustus; he is a poetical creation, imperfect no doubt, but still not to be tied to any single definition.

Passing from the religious to the moral aspect of the _Aeneid_, we find a gentleness beaming through it, strangely contradicted by some of the bloody episodes, which out of deference to Homeric precedent Virgil interweaves. Such are the human sacrifices, the ferocious taunts at fallen enemies, and other instances of boasting or cruelty which will occur to every reader, greatly marring the artistic as well as the moral effect of the hero. Tame as he generally is, a resigned instrument in the divine hands, there are moments when Aeneas is truly attractive. As Conington says, his kindly interest in the young shown in Book V. is a beautiful trait that is all Virgil's own. His happy interview with Evander, where, throwing off the monarch, he chats like a Roman burgess in his country house; his pity for young Lausus whom he slays, and the mournful tribute of affection he pays to Pallas, are touching scenes, which without presenting Aeneas as a hero (which he never is), harmonise far better with the ideal Virgil meant to leave us. But after all said, that ideal is a poor one for purposes of poetry. Aeneas is uninteresting, and this is the great fault of the poem. Turnus enlists our sympathy far more, he is chivalrous and valiant; the wrong he suffers does not harden him, but he lacks strength of character. The only personage who is "proudly conceived" [70] is Mezentius, the despiser of the gods. The absence of restraint seems to have given the poet a more masculine touch; the address of the old king to his horse, his only friend, is full of pathos. Among female characters Camilla is perhaps original; she is graceful without being pleasing. Amata and Juturna belong to the class _virago_, a term applied to the latter by Virgil himself. [71] Lavinia is the modest maiden, a sketch, not a portrait. Dido is a character for all time, the _chef d'oeuvre_ of the _Aeneid_. Among the stately ladies of the imperial house --a Livia, a Scribonia, an Octavia, perhaps a Julia--Virgil must have found the elements which he has fused with such mighty power, [72] the rich beauty, the fierce passion, the fixed resolve. Dido is his greatest effort: and yet she is not an individual living woman like Helen or Ophelia. Like Racine, Virgil has developed passions, not created persons. The divine gift of tender, almost Christian, feeling that is his, cannot see into those depths where the inner personality lies hidden. Among the traditional characters few call for remark.

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