Aeneas, Augustus and Virgil
Any school or college study of Virgil’s Aeneid looks closely at the question of political patronage. The poem is seen by many as Augustus’ political anthem in verse, which the poet wanted to destroy on his deathbed only to be rescued by the princeps. We are rightly cautious.
The usual argument in the poet’s defence (certainly mine) concentrates on the widescale feeling of relief people felt at the end of the dangerous and bloody civil wars and of the land-grabs, both of which affected the poet in his youth. A hymn to the deliverer of peace is not so sinister. Virgil, however, was in Augustus’ pay, under directions to write a national epic. Was he compromised?
Many of our artists and writers today still enjoy patronage. These days it is almost always commercial. You can barely look at a piece of paper or screen without some sort of profile-raising going on. The arts have their share of this with sponsorship, product placement and competition prize money. These commercial backers have replaced older-style individual patrons, who were not always cherished. Samuel Johnson famously remarked in a letter to Lord Chesterfield in 1755: “Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, whenhe has reached ground, encumbers him with help?” That describes commercial sponsorship to a tee. Few enterprises will risk their brand with an outfit that is yet to become a success.
A young film-maker might develop his skills by making a film-clip promoting catfood or dishwashers. That is advertising, which we endure as an inevitable part of economic life. But if he joins Goebbels’ team celebrating an idealised vision of Nazi Germany he is a propagandist. Political or doctrinal organisations which encourage us to share their views through the arts make us wary, and artists are well advised to choose their patrons with care. A performer as celebrated and successful as Frank Sinatra was once hauled over the coals for singing at a few mafia suppers. But it is never easy for a penniless creative anxious to make something of his talent. Even those worthier funding organisations can be implicated in the dreary tyrannies of the modern state. Just pick your way through a list of the criteria which demand adherence to whatever social orthodoxies are currently in fashion. Do the supported artists have their heart and soul in those dull prescriptions?
Despite the slightly sinister sense of a controlling hand, the warm responses of Virgil and Horace and others to their benefactor were much more genuine than a mere box-ticking exercise. Few will have failed to see Augustus in Aeneas: pious to old ways, embarking on something new, struggling against the odds, emboldened by his destiny to rule in Italy.
There are of course parallels to be drawn which are less wholesome: the taking of other people’s lands, the violence both bring to Italy, the moments of black rage and brutal summary justice—not least the killing of Turnus in the final lines of the poem. And what of poor Turnus? The poor man loses his lands, his authority, his intended bride and finally his life to this invader. The gods quietly desert him. And there are parallels with others than Augustus: it is his old foe Antony who comes to mind when Aeneas lingers in the bedroom of an African queen.
The only note of deference in the poem comes with the explicit mentions of Augustus himself, fanfare moments, relatively brief, and he is not the only Roman so written up. Augustus just about edges the others in the limelight, but then he was the ruler of the time, and he did rule for forty-four years (ten times as long as Julius Caesar as dictator). That in itself would have been something for Virgil to commend, had he not died barely a quarter through Augustus’ time in power.
Augustus had his faults; he was devious, self-promoting, ruthless, ambitious, and could be vicious; he achieved a level of power unseen in Rome since the days of the kings, who ruled a much smaller kingdom. Neither Sulla nor Caesar had his staying power. He was not a man to cross. But there comes a point when we just have to give credit where credit is due. With the help of his righthand man, Maecenas, Augustus talent-spotted a poet with a magical talent. Hurrah for that. And then when the dying poet tried to bin the verses, he rescued them. Another good move.
So much for the Augustus question. What does strike me as odd is that we hear much less of the question you’d expect critics to be warmer to. I mean the relationship between the principal character and the author himself. What are the parallels between Aeneas and Virgil? The quiet brooding moments of contemplation? The sense of duty (an undertaking such as an epic poem took some dogged pietas)? The impulsive anger and its fall-out we can only guess at, and the same goes for the challenge of personal loss (in the course of the story Aeneas leaves not one but two lovers dead or dying in distant plumes of smoke). Then there is the brutality of war in Italy, the dispossessions, the harsh decisions to be made, the sense of destiny in the poet’s rise from rural Italy (in those days it was Gaul) to become the pre-eminent poet of his day and friend of the emperor. His rise was every bit as remarkable as Augustus’ own, resting on a god-given genius for song. His epilogue is equally impressive and successful: Augustus brought peace and order to the state; Virgil achieved the status of most cherished poet, not only of his time but for long after.
We have much to thank Augustus for.
© George Sharpley March 2012