Aeneas and Turnus by Luca Giordano, 17th century. Aeneas and Turnus by Luca Giordano, 17th century. Photo: Public Domain

The greatest poem in Latin includes subtle criticisms of the ancient world’s most ruthless empire, writes Sean Ledwith

The works of Publius Vergilius Maro are not as popular among general readers as they used to be. In the nineteenth century, Virgil as he is better known, was the go-to poet of British imperialism, which no doubt partly explains the decline of his popularity. The demise of Latin as the lingua franca of the ruling class has also clearly contributed to his lower profile. 

Generations of privately educated British schoolboys in days gone by would be encouraged to learn by rote chunks of his most important poem, The Aeneid, which contains the origins story of the Roman Empire. TS Eliot described the work as ‘the classic of all Europe’. The poem contains an iconic exhortation to the Romans to fulfill their supposed destiny to conquer the world; one which British imperialists centuries later took as their own justification for global plunder:

‘Romans, never forget that this will be
Your appointed task: to use your arts to be
The governor of the world, to bring to it peace,
Serenely maintained with order and with justice,
To spare the defeated and to bring an end
To war by vanquishing the proud.

Prophet of doom

Today, Homer’s explorations of the mythology of the ancient world are far better known, but they virtually disappeared from circulation in Europe following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century CE. Virgil’s pre-eminence for a millennium was highlighted when the Italian poet Dante chose him as his fictional guide to the underworld in his early Renaissance masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. The influence of Virgil was also visible in a long-held superstition among ruling classes that random lines from The Aeneid could function as a guide to the future. Known as ‘sortes vergilianae,’ this kind of divinatory magic was practised, among others, by Charles I who perceived his fate in an Oxford library during the civil war of the 1640s when he picked out the lines:

‘But let him die before his time and lie
Somewhere unburied on a lonely beach.’

Virgil’s apparent role as propagandist-in-chief for ancient imperialism has sullied his elevated status today. W.H. Auden expressed this jaundiced view of Rome’s greatest poet as essentially a talented spin doctor in verse:

‘No, Virgil, no:
Not even the first of the Romans can learn
His Roman history in the future tense.
Not even to serve your political turn;
Hindsight as foresight makes no sense.
Behind your verse so masterfully made
We hear the weeping of a Muse betrayed.

Like the Roman

Perhaps the most notorious reference to Virgil in modern times was Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 which sought to use the poet to back up a hardening of Tory opposition to immigration: ‘I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’ Powell’s poisonous racism was not just terrible politics but also based on a complete misconception of The Aeneid which, in fact, is a clarion call for the value of different peoples coming together. However, Virgil remains a fixture of the Western literary tradition, most recently visible in the choice of his words to mark the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York: ‘No day shall erase you from the memory of time.’ The use of this quotation in that location, however, encapsulates the contradictions and complications of using Virgil as a straightforward apologist for empire.

In the context of The Aeneid, those words are actually addressed not to innocent victims but to the perpetrators of heinous crimes and imply their acts will be forever remembered with bitterness. The wider point is that Virgil is actually far from an uncritical supporter of the Pax Romana that dominated the Mediterranean in his lifetime of the first century BCE. Episodes in the poem actually indicate that he had serious reservations about Rome’s brutal treatment of other states in the region and also about the figure who came to personify ancient imperialism, Augustus, the first emperor.

Predator of the Mediterranean

The lifetime of Virgil (70-19 BCE) represented a crucial transition in Rome’s history as the city consolidated its status as the dominant hegemon in the Western world. Julius Caesar added Gaul and Hispania to the territories of the empire and later, under his grand-nephew Augustus, Egypt and the Balkans were absorbed. By this point totally encircling the Mediterranean and large swathes of Europe, Rome intensified its predatory role as the epicentre of the slave mode of production with hundreds of thousands of captured human beings condemned to a life of horrific servility and arbitrary cruelty in the cities and estates of the empire. 

The great Marxist historian of antiquity, G.E.M. Ste Croix, highlighted ‘the universal and unquestioning acceptance of slavery as part of the natural order of things, which during the Principate still pervaded the whole of Greek and Roman society … Slavery continued to play a central role in the psychology of the propertied class … every humble free man must always have been haunted by fear of the coercion, amounting to slavery in all but name, to which he might be subjected if he ever defaulted on a debt to a rich man—including the payment of rent, of course.

Class war

The age of Virgil also witnessed decisive changes in the political superstructure that was constructed to preside over this rapacious economic system. Rome’s transition from republic to empire in the first century before Christ has been re-imagined for modern audiences in the cinematic Star Wars saga, in which a benign political order based on popular participation is insidiously usurped by a quasi-military dictatorship which suppresses freedoms. Of course, this might be dramatically effective, but it is a simplification of the historical process that took place in the lifetime of Virgil. 

Founded in 509 BCE, according to tradition, the Roman Republic was punctuated throughout its history by spasms of ferocious class warfare between the super-rich patrician class, which monopolised agrarian production in the countryside of Italy, and the urban poor known as plebeians, who often found themselves trapped in debt bondage to the elite. The latter utilised the rhetoric of freedom and rights in their battles with the elite, but both classes were essentially tied together in a position of superiority over the bulk of the population which groaned under the weight of slavery.


As the first century BCE unfolded, the clash between patricians and plebeians expressed itself at the political level as a battle for supremacy between two factions within the ruling class. The Optimates sought to conserve power within the closely-knit landowning families, which had dominated Roman politics for generations. Ranged against them were the Populares who perceived the necessity for wider incorporation of plebeians into the elite with policies such as free grain, state funding of entertainment and empowering the tribunes, often viewed as the voice of the poor. The assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE represented the climax of this ideological contest as the Optimates took down the man they regarded as an existential threat to their historic privileges. The crisis triggered another bout of civil war within the Republic with Caesar’s grandnephew, Octavian, emerging triumphant in 31 BCE. The challenge for him was to establish a political settlement that reconciled the warring factions that had disrupted the empire.

Rise of the emperors

Part of Octavian’s brilliantly cunning agenda was to rebrand himself with the title ‘Augustus’ from 27 BCE, thus elevating him above the hustle and bustle of everyday politics and putting him on a pedestal just below the gods. Augustus proved himself to be arguably the most ruthlessly effective politician in Roman history, as he incrementally constructed a political system that paid lip service to the values of liberty and rights derived from the old order but which, in reality, replaced that order with a military dictatorship. Modern historians label the Augustan era as Rome’s transition from ‘Republic’ to ‘Empire’, with the quasi-democratic structure of consuls, senators and tribunes supplanted by the authoritarian reign of the emperors. The system would retain the outward show of republican values for centuries to come, but its democratic features were essentially gutted by Augustus and his successors.


Not the least significant aspect of Augustus’ crafty brilliance was to hire poets such as Virgil to embellish the regime with a coat of cultural gloss to underpin its legitimacy. One of the emperor’s key advisors, Maecenas, shrewdly perceived the potential for proven writers such as Virgil to provide what we would now call spin. The poet had established his literary credentials with two collections of verse published in the turbulent years before Augustus’ consolidation of power- The Eclogues and Georgics, on largely pastoral and non-political themes. Virgil was explicitly tasked by Maecenas – acting as de facto minister of propaganda – with creating a work that would connect the new regime with the glorious past of the Republic.

The masterpiece that Virgil worked on for the rest of his life was The Aeneid, the story of how Rome was founded in the mists of time by refugees, led by Aeneas, who had survived the legendary siege of Troy. The poet spectacularly fulfilled the wishes of the emperor and his coterie, creating a foundation myth for the empire that instantly established itself as the essential text in Latin for generations to come. Large sections of the poem directly connect Aeneas with Augustus as the two key figures in Rome’s ascent to global domination:

‘From this resplendent line shall be born 
Trojan Caesar, who will extend his Empire 
To the Ocean and his glory to the stars,
A Julian in the lineage of Great Ilus.
Here is the man promised to you, 
Augustus Caesar, born of the gods, 
Who will establish again a Golden Age
In the fields of Latium.’

Hard power

Octavian’s decisive naval victory in 31 BCE over Mark Antony, his main rival for political leadership, also finds its way into the poem. The main story of Aeneas is set hundreds of years earlier, so the inclusion of this battle is obviously naked propaganda for the new order. The passage also serves to remind potential challenges to the imperial regime that it rests on a core of impregnable hard power. Octavian had risen to the summit of politics by attracting the cream of Rome’s best generals. The last thing he wanted was an ambitious politician following in his footsteps:

‘Leading Italy into battle, 
With the Senate, the People, the city’s Penates, 
And all the great gods, stood Caesar Augustus
On his ship’s high stern, a double flame
Licking his temples, and above his head
Shone his father’s star.’


The greatness of The Aeneid, however, is that it is so much more than Augustan propaganda. Virgil subtly includes elements to the story that actually serve to undermine the legitimacy of the imperial order, and even to question the character of the emperor himself. The best known section of the poem features a love affair between Aeneas and Dido, queen of Carthage. Although they have an intense relationship, the Trojan prince eventually throws her aside and resumes his mission to found Rome. Most readers find themselves siding with Dido as she expresses, with suicidal fury, her heartbreak at the betrayal of a man she had rescued from probable death: 

‘What shall I say? What is there for me to say? . . .
There is nowhere where faith is kept; not anywhere.
He was stranded on the beach, a castaway,
With nothing. I made him welcome.’

The end of the story also does not present Aeneas in a particularly impressive light. He finally makes his way to Italy and defeats the local tribes who stand in the way of the new arrivals from Troy. One of their leaders, Turnus, pleads for mercy as Aeneas holds a sword to his throat:

‘I will not ask anything for myself, 
But if a parent’s grief can still touch you,
Remember your own father, Anchises, 
And take pity on Daunus’ old age, I beg you.’
Aeneas’ response is shocking in its brutality:
‘Saying this and seething with rage, Aeneas
Buried his sword in Turnus’ chest. The man’s limbs 
Went limp and cold, and with a moan
His soul fled resentfully down to the shades.’


These are the last lines of the poem and leave the reader with an impression of its chief protagonist – and antecedent for Augustus – as a callous psychopath. It is this carefully crafted ambivalence about the new order that marks out The Aeneid as a masterpiece for the ages. Some commentators interpret the problematic tone of the poem as reflecting an initial enthusiasm for the Augustan project on the part of Virgil; but then the setting in of disillusionment as the loss of freedoms steadily became apparent. The poet’s last wish from his deathbed is perhaps another indicator of this nostalgia for the lost republic – he ordered The Aeneid to be burnt. Thankfully for generations of readers, Augustus ensured that this command was not carried out, but perhaps that was because he did not read it carefully enough.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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