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Picking Sides:Virgil's Secret Interest in the Greek

Updated on July 2, 2013

The epic tale of The Aeneid is story that describes a constant warring battle between several different cultures. The two most significant in the epic poem are the Greeks and the Trojans. Focusing on the conflict of these two warring factions becomes important because of how it highlights historical thinking and can provide insight into how each society was perceived and treated. Looking critically at Virgil, who is author of The Aeneid, is crucial in trying to understand the dynamics in how Roman and Greek civilization co-existed. By thoroughly analyzing The Aeneid, this article will be used to examine and determine that Virgil, who is Roman, ultimately used his text, The Aeneid, to undermine Roman ideals and customs to secretly establish Greek ideological dominance.

Virgil’s epic poem begins by starting in the middle of the true story. Already the audience finds out that Aeneas, who is the leader of the Trojans, is on a mission to establish the city of Rome. The underlying problem in Virgil’s epic poem however, lies in the fact that the Trojans, who have historically been known to be an almighty and powerful race, are seen here with little power. This can be attributed to the Greeks who are able to outsmart and out power the Trojans. As a result the Trojans lose their own city to the Greeks and are forced to retreat to find a new home. Aeneas sums the story up best when he says,

“Ground down by the war and driven back by Fate, the Greek captains had watched the years slip by until, helped by Minerva’s superhuman skill, they built that mammoth horse, immense as a mountain lining its ribs with ship timbers hewn from pine. An offering to secure safe passage home, or so they pretend, and the story spreads through Troy. But they pick by the lot the best, most able-bodied men and stealthily lock them into the horse’s dark flanks till the vast hold of the monster’s womb is packed with soldiers bristling weapons” (Aeneid, 75)

This passage from Aeneas tells the men that Virgil secretly despises the Trojans from the very beginning. Already Virgil establishes in this passage that the Greeks are incredibly smart and well educated. He does this by telling the audience that the Greeks have used there intelligence in the past to come a way to hide soldiers in a gift given to the Trojans. Simultaneously Virgil critiques the Trojans for being so trusting for not checking the gift/wooden horse for possible traps. While Virgil may have used the Trojans stupidity as a plot device to continue his own epic poem it does pose an interesting question: Why not just describe the Greeks as an overpowering force too large for the Trojans to handle? If Virgil had simply written that the Greeks were able to outnumber the Trojans then later on, when the Trojans would lose their city then the loss would have appeared more honorable. Instead the Trojans lose their city to their own stupidity and as a result, the reader perceives the Trojans to be pathetic and stupid instead of the mighty race that they are popularly known to be. Further dissecting of the passage also provides insight into how the Trojans view the Greeks. In the passage Virgil describes the Greek captains as “driven back by fate”, which can suggest that Virgil believes the Greeks are the true blessed or destined people instead of the Trojans. Virgil carries out this theme of favorites when he also writes Aeneas saying, “Trojans, never trust that horse. Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks, especially bearing gifts”(Aeneid, 76). Even right before the invasion of Troy, Aeneas describes his discomfort of the gift that was offered and even admits to being afraid of the Greeks. Having this sentence in the text then draws conclusions that the Greeks are the dominant cultural force that cannot be stopped. Between the intellectual genius and the fear that Virgil establishes in his Trojan soldiers it becomes clear that Virgil has set up an epic poem that establishes hidden rapport with Greek culture.

In The Aeneid, Virgil has to establish Rome by having the Trojans leave their current city Troy. As previously stated above Virgil does this by signaling the destruction of Troy in order to make way for the construction of the new city. What is interesting about The Aeneid however is that Virgil chooses Greeks as the cause for the Trojans to build Rome. This is truly interesting and points to the possibility that Virgil secretly admires the Greeks because he uses them as piece of the puzzle to establish Rome. By allowing the Greeks to then have purpose in playing a part in the formation of a new and superior race, Virgil effectively tells audience members that through Greek teachings a new race can evolve and emerge from the Trojans. Now some may argue that Virgil simply chose the Greeks as an enemy because it was simple. However much of what Virgil writes stems off of older epic poems like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. A textual example of this is when Virgil puts a Cyclops named Polyphemus into his poem that also appeared in the Odyssey. “…when there, up on a ridge we saw him, Polyphemus…The monster, immense, gargantuan, hideous-blind, his lone eye gone…”(Aeneid 125). This brief, but powerful reference to Odysseus and his men reveals an interesting insight into Virgil’s mind. Even though it is short and does not add much to the story itself, Virgil’s inclusion of a reference to the Odyssey is significant as it represents how much influence Greek education has had on his development.

Gods and Goddesses also play a major part in The Aeneid and Aeneas is a character that constantly has to battle against the unforeseen forces thrown at him. Virgil then uses the power of these deities to suppress the Trojans and ultimately power the Greeks. A clear example of this is when Aeneas explains the wrath of the deity Juno in the first book. “This was Juno’s fear and the goddess never forgot the old campaign that she had waged at Troy for her beloved Argos. No, not even now would the causes of her rage, her bitter sorrows drop from the goddess’ mind. They festered deep within her galled her still…”(Aeneid, 48). Already this passage tells the reader that some of the gods are already against Troy and its people. Having Virgil create a problem between Aeneas and the gods is then one more example of how Virgil could be seen as favoring the Greeks over the Romans. This is proven further when Juno goes to the god of wind in order to try and destroy the Trojan fleet at sea.

“Now Juno made this plea to the Lord of the Winds: “Aeolous, the Father of Gods and King of Men gave you the power to calm the waves or rouse them with your gales. A race I loathe is crossing the Tuscan sea, transporting Troy to Italy, bearing their conquered household gods…”(Aeneid, 49).

Even here it becomes easy to understand that Virgil uses Juno not only as an important character, but also as a tool to explain Greek culture. When she says, “bearing their conquered household gods” this sentence can be taken to mean that Greeks are still the race with correct ideals and values. Also, taking it one step further, the passage could indicate that Romans don’t truly understand or correctly worship the gods. An important detail to consider since all of the Gods and Goddesses used in The Aeneid stem from Greek mythology and their religious beliefs. This can be seen as problematic for the Romans, since they follow the Greek system of religion instead of establishing their own set religion. An interesting passage that is in the Aeneid is when Aeneas is describing Troy before the invasion and says, “Oh my country! Troy, home of the gods! You great walls of the Dardans long renowned in war!” (Aeneid, 83). As this passage suggests, Trojans believe that their city is the true home to the Greek gods, but as previously mentioned, this is problematic because the origins of the gods they worship come from Greek myth. This begs the questions, "if Aeneas was right about Troy then why would the gods destroy their own home?". The only logical answer is that the gods never really destroyed their own home because Troy was never the true home of the gods to begin with. By having Virgil state this within the text, he effectively accomplishes concealing his Greek ideals, while also appearing to be promoting the Trojans.

While The Aeneid is an epic poem that highlights how Rome was founded, its hidden purpose can be looked at as a way for Virgil to truly express his interest in Greek life. Although his work was never really finished (since he died before its completion around 19th century BC) the evidence in his text, while subtle, stands to possibly suggest his love of Greek ideals and customs. Although this might prove problematic to some readers of The Aeneid it can also provide a unique interpretation and reading of the text. Taking on this interesting viewpoint then allows the reader to view Virgil as someone who enjoyed some cultural aspects of Roman life, but ultimately hiding his true desire to experience the ancient Greek culture. This ultimately results in an epic poem that is Roman in origin, but is truly Greek in nature.

Do you think it is possible that Virgil was secretly interested in Greek culture more than Roman?

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