Since the end of the first century A.D., people have been playing a game with a certain book. In this game, you open the book to a random spot and place your finger on the text; the passage you select will, it is thought, predict your future. If this sounds silly, the results suggest otherwise. The first person known to have played the game was a highborn Roman who was fretting about whether he’d be chosen to follow his cousin, the emperor Trajan, on the throne; after opening the book to this passage—
I recognize that he is that king of Rome,
Gray headed, gray bearded, who will formulate
The laws for the early city . . .
—he was confident that he’d succeed. His name was Hadrian.
Through the centuries, others sought to discover their fates in this book, from the French novelist Rabelais, in the early sixteenth century (some of whose characters play the game, too), to the British king Charles I, who, during the Civil War—which culminated in the loss of his kingdom and his head—visited an Oxford library and was alarmed to find that he’d placed his finger on a passage that concluded, “But let him die before his time, and lie / Somewhere unburied on a lonely beach.” Two and a half centuries later, as the Germans marched toward Paris at the beginning of the First World War, a classicist named David Ansell Slater, who had once viewed the very volume that Charles had consulted, found himself scouring the same text, hoping for a portent of good news.
What was the book, and why was it taken so seriously? The answer lies in the name of the game: sortes vergilianae. The Latin noun sortes means lots—as in “drawing lots,” a reference to the game’s element of chance. The adjective vergilianae, which means “having to do with Vergilius,” identifies the book: the works of the Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro, whom we know as Virgil.
For a long stretch of Western history, few people would have found it odd to ascribe prophetic power to this collection of Latin verse. Its author, after all, was the greatest and the most influential of all Roman poets. A friend and confidant of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, Virgil was already considered a classic in his own lifetime: revered, quoted, imitated, and occasionally parodied by other writers, taught in schools, and devoured by the general public. Later generations of Romans considered his works a font of human knowledge, from rhetoric to ethics to agriculture; by the Middle Ages, the poet had come to be regarded as a wizard whose powers included the ability to control Vesuvius’s eruptions and to cure blindness in sheep.
However fantastical the proportions to which this reverence grew, it was grounded in a very real achievement represented by one poem in particular: the Aeneid, a heroic epic in twelve chapters (or “books”) about the mythic founding of Rome, which some ancient sources say Augustus commissioned and which was, arguably, the single most influential literary work of European civilization for the better part of two millennia.
Virgil had published other, shorter works before the Aeneid, but it’s no accident that the epic was a magnet for the fingers of the great and powerful who played the sortes vergilianae. Its central themes are leadership, empire, history, and war. In it, an upstanding Trojan prince named Aeneas, son of Venus, the goddess of love, flees Troy after its destruction by the Greeks, and, along with his father, his son, and a band of fellow-survivors, sets out to establish a new realm across the sea, in Italy, the homeland that’s been promised to him by divine prophecy. Into that traditional story Virgil cannily inserted a number of showstopping glimpses into Rome’s future military and political triumphs, complete with cameo appearances by Augustus himself—the implication being that the real-life empire arose from a god-kissed mythic past. The Emperor and his people alike were hooked: within a century of its author’s death, in 19 B.C., citizens of Pompeii were scrawling lines from the epic on the walls of shops and houses.
People haven’t stopped quoting it since. From the moment it appeared, the Aeneid was the paradigmatic classic in Western art and education; as one scholar has put it, Virgil “occupied the central place in the literary canon for the whole of Europe for longer than any other writer.” (After the Western Roman Empire fell, in the late fifth century A.D., knowledge of Greek—and, hence, intimacy with Homer’s epics—virtually disappeared from Western Europe for a thousand years.) Virgil’s poetry has been indispensable to everyone from his irreverent younger contemporary Ovid, whose parodies of the older poet’s gravitas can’t disguise a genuine admiration, to St. Augustine, who, in his “Confessions,” recalls weeping over the Aeneid, his favorite book before he discovered the Bible; from Dante, who chooses Virgil, l’altissimo poeta, “the highest poet,” as his guide through Hell and Purgatory in the Divine Comedy, to T. S. Eliot, who returned repeatedly to Virgil in his critical essays and pronounced the Aeneid “the classic of all Europe.”
And not only Europe. Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin liked to quote Virgil in their speeches and letters. The poet’s idealized vision of honest farmers and shepherds working in rural simplicity was influential, some scholars believe, in shaping the Founders’ vision of the new republic as one in which an agricultural majority should hold power. Throughout the nineteenth century, Virgil was a central fixture of American grammar-school education; the ability to translate passages on sight was a standard entrance requirement at many colleges and universities. John Adams boasted that his son John Quincy had translated the entire Aeneid. Ellen Emerson wrote her father, Ralph Waldo, to say that she was covering a hundred and twenty lines a day; Helen Keller read it in Braille. Today, traces of the epic’s cultural authority linger on: a quotation from it greets visitors to the Memorial Hall of the 9/11 Museum, in New York City. Since the turn of the current century, there have been at least five major translations into English alone, most recently by the American poet David Ferry (Chicago), in the final installment of his translation of Virgil’s complete works.
Still, the Aeneid—notoriously—can be hard to love. In part, this has to do with its aesthetics. In place of the raw archaic potency of Homer’s epics, which seems to dissolve the millennia between his heroes and us, Virgil’s densely allusive poem offers an elaborately self-conscious “literary” suavity. (The critic and Columbia professor Mark Van Doren remarked that “Homer is a world; Virgil, a style.”) Then, there’s Aeneas himself—“in some ways,” as even the Great Courses Web site felt compelled to acknowledge, “the dullest character in epic literature.” In the Aeneid’s opening lines, Virgil announces that the hero is famed above all for his pietas, his “sense of duty”: hardly the sexiest attribute for a protagonist. If Aeneas was meant to be a model proto-Roman, he has long struck many readers as a cold fish; he and his comrades, the philosopher György Lukács once observed, live “the cool and limited existence of shadows.” Particularly in comparison with his Homeric predecessors, Aeneas comes up short, lacking the cruel glamour of Achilles, or Odysseus’s beguiling smarts.
But the biggest problem by far for modern audiences is the poem’s subject matter. Today, the themes that made the epic required reading for generations of emperors and generals, and for the clerics and teachers who groomed them—the inevitability of imperial dominance, the responsibilities of authoritarian rule, the importance of duty and self-abnegation in the service of the state—are proving to be an embarrassment. If readers of an earlier era saw the Aeneid as an inspiring advertisement for the onward march of Rome’s many descendants, from the Holy Roman Empire to the British one, scholars now see in it a tale of nationalistic arrogance whose plot is an all too familiar handbook for repressive violence: once Aeneas and his fellow-Trojans arrive on the coast of Italy, they find that they must fight a series of wars with an indigenous population that, eventually, they brutally subjugate.
The result is that readers today can have a very strange relationship to this classic: it’s a work we feel we should embrace but often keep at arm’s length. Take that quote in the 9/11 Museum: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” Whoever came up with the idea of using it was clearly ignorant of the context: these high-minded words are addressed to a pair of nighttime marauders whose bloody ambush of a group of unsuspecting targets suggests that they have far more in common with the 9/11 terrorists than with their victims. A century ago, many a college undergrad could have caught the gaffe; today, it was enough to have an impressive-sounding quote from an acknowledged classic.
Another way of saying all this is that, while our forebears looked confidently to the text of the Aeneid for answers, today it raises troubling questions. Who exactly is Aeneas, and why should we admire him? What is the epic’s political stance? Can we ignore the parts we dislike and cherish the rest? Should great poetry serve an authoritarian regime—and just whose side was Virgil on? Two thousand years after its appearance, we still can’t decide if his masterpiece is a regressive celebration of power as a means of political domination or a craftily coded critique of imperial ideology—a work that still has something useful to tell us.