Virgil was long acclaimed as a pagan prophet of the coming of Christianity. A scholar recalled, a century ago, speculations about this tradition (Ella Bourne, “The Messianic Prophecy in Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue,’ The Classical Journal, vol. 11, p. 390 [April 1916]):
There has been so much discussion as to the identity of the mysterious child, the puer, of Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue that it may be interesting to trace the history of the most striking of the many identifications that have been suggested during the ages. Even in Virgil’s day there seems to have been some uncertainty as to what child was meant, and since that time various guesses have been offered, ranging from the vaguest allegory to a definite reference to some particular human child. Servius reports that Asinius Gallus, a son of Pollio, claimed that he himself was Virgil’s puer. Some people have insisted that the puer could have been no other than the expected child of [the Emperor] Augustus and Scribonia. A well-known German scholar has recently suggested that Virgil, with some Greek source in mind, was referring to the god Mithras. But, notwithstanding these and many other identifications, there has long been a persistent belief that the child was Christ, and that Virgil in this little poem was prophesying something greater than the birth of a son to his friend Pollio, or to the imperial house of Rome, something greater than the coming of the oriental god Mithras.
It is then recalled by her,
The first person to be impressed with the prophetic character of the poem, so far as we know, was Constantine the Great. . . . The exact date cannot be determined; but it was probably not far from 312 or 313, the time of the official recognition of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire.
Did the “persistent belief that the child was Christ” help keep Virgil prominent in the Roman Empire after it had been Christianized? So prominent was he that Dante could recruit him as a guide in his Inferno and Purgatorio. And Virgil himself can be said to have been “prophesized” in that Homer provided him a pattern to develop, a relationship recognized in the opening lines of Jacob Klein’s “The Myth of Virgil’s Aeneid” (Interpretation, volume 2, issue 1 [Summer 1971], p. 10):
It is impossible to read the Aeneid without being constantly reminded of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Nor can one read the Aeneid without becoming aware that the poem intends to glorify Rome and Rome’s imperial and pacifying power under Caesar Octavian Augustus.
All this can remind us of the considerable respect for prophecy among the Ancients. No matter how awful some of the things prophesied seemed to be, did not the very existence of prophecies imply an overall orderliness to the things of the world? Is there not exhibited thus the spiritual equivalent of a universal law of gravitation?
Three parts, or stages, of a comprehensive prophecy may be noticed in the Aeneid. Much, if not even all, that is recalled to have happened before the action begins in Book I had been prophesized. Thus, what had happened to the Trojans, including to Aeneas, at the hands of the Greeks, had been forecast one way or another.
The finishing touches to the long-anticipated fall of Troy are recorded in the opening pages of the Aeneid, continuing thereby the Homeric account. There had been some flexibility as to precisely when, but not as to whether, Troy would be taken, drawing on developments recorded in the Iliad that reflected deadly contests among interested divinities. Thus, Homer is regarded, in effect, as a prophet for Virgil and his Aeneas, if not even for Rome.
Character traits and related patterns of conduct are somewhat like prophecies. Such traits are exhibited even by the divinities inherited by Virgil from Homer. Particularly striking is the continuing animosity of Juno (Homer’s Hera) toward Troy and Trojans, something that is said to go back at least a decade to the Judgment of Paris. Such matters can become even more complicated when divinities (such as Venus, the mother of Aeneas) have mortal children.
The second stage of the prophecies to be worked with by Virgil has to do primarily with the career of Aeneas once Troy is taken. Aeneas has to be directed to get on with the grand mission assigned to him. The last days of Troy find him providing for the removal of his father (Anchises) and his son, even as he loses his wife in the debacle (a wife who is able, after her death, to urge him on, with their child, to his destiny).
The father, too, will be lost to death, which permits him in turn to prophesy to Aeneas. By then Aeneas has had to be rebuked for a dalliance with Dido at Carthage which kept him from his mission to prepare the ground for the emergence of Rome. The angry despair (even in Hades) of Dido, upon losing her lover, can be understood by Virgil (or, at least, by many of his readers) to account for the generations-long animosity of Carthage toward Rome.
Among the many echoes of Homer in Virgil (echoes which are somewhat like the playing-out of prophecies) is the provision of a Vulcan-fashioned shield for Aeneas by his mother, recalling the Hephaestus-fashioned shield delivered to Achilles by his mother. But Aeneas’ shield, unlike Achilles’, features prophecies of what is to come for his people (that is, in Italy). Again and again we are reminded that Virgil’s people are even more dependent upon prophecies than Homer’s people had seemed to be.
The third stage of Virgilian prophecies has to do with what is to happen after Aeneas has established himself in Italy. The way is prepared thus for the career, years later, of Romulus. And then, of course, the advent of the Caesars must be anticipated
Must not care be taken by Virgil in accounting for the collapse of the Republic and the ascent of the Caesars? Consider how Jacob Klein puts this transition (“The Myth of Virgil’s Aeneid,” p. 20):
The poem has to describe the beginnings of the golden age. This beginning is marred by the inherited features of the preceding one, the iron one. Violence and fury will display themselves. . . . [T]he Latins and their allies [led by Turnus] will oppose the Trojans [led by Aeneas], aided by the Arcadians and Etruscans. A new Trojan war will rage in a reversed order. This time it will end with the victory of Aeneas, the new Hector, over Turnus, the new Achilles. After this victory there will be reconciliation between the Trojans and the Latins according to the terms agreed on by Jove and Juno. . . . From then on Rome will begin its tumultuous ascent, until she reaches the height of Augustean peace.
It is not surprising that Augustus made sure that the Aeneid did not perish with Virgil, however unfinished it seemed to be.
We can wonder, of course, what Virgil really thought of the collapse of the Republic, a regime that may have seemed much more in line with the Greek culture that the poet knew so well. “And, prophet that he was,” Jacob Klein argues (p. 20), Virgil “foresaw the future pax romana, the future Roman peace, more often than not immersed in a sea of corruption, of monstrous crimes and dismal anarchy.” We can also wonder whether Augustus sensed whatever reservations that Virgil may have had about what had happened to the legacy of Aeneas and his more illustrious successors.
We can see, in Book VII of the twelve-book Aeneid, a benign fulfillment of an ominous prophecy that had hung over Aeneas’ company since Book III. It was then that it had been foretold (by the Harpy, Celaeno) that they would become so desperate for food that they would eat their tables (mensas). Aeneas was quite relieved when his son could laughingly remark, upon their eating the platters of toast on which their food was being served, that they were eating their tables.
There is, we are thus reminded, more than one way that ominous prophecies may be fulfilled. We can even recall how Sophocles’ Oedipus could interpret the death of King Polybus (his supposed father in Corinth) as having been caused by Oedipus’ decades-long absence. Such a “killing” by him of a father was for Oedipus far less troubling than what he had feared after learning, years before, what he had at Delphi.
That there could be more than one way to have a dreadful-sounding prophecy fulfilled is noticed in Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas. The sacrifice of a chestnut-haired maiden is said to be required for the common good, much to the dismay of those thus informed. The troubled Greeks are relieved when a chestnut-haired mare colt wanders upon the scene.
The Aeneid ends with Aeneas’ duel with Turnus. This echoes (is forecast by?) the duel in the Iliad between Achilles and Hector. In this duel, Turnus is particularly vulnerable because he had killed Pallas, just as Hector had been particularly vulnerable because he had killed Patroclus.
Thus, “history” repeats itself (but with a Trojan acting as Achilles had). Are there natural patterns in the way relations among human beings develop? Are such patterns critical to the development of the prophecies that human beings take seriously?
In a sense, Homer is prophetic with respect to Virgil, just as he was to be (almost two millennia later) with respect to James Joyce. That is, artists can be moved to adapt seminal stories to their circumstances. Can such later adaptations, at the hands of gifted artists, even help us see better than we might otherwise be able to see what the original poet had done?
When Aeneas hears his son jest that they were eating their tables he recalls that his father had once told him that they would eventually eat their tables. This prophesy from Anchises is not recalled by Aeneas as having been as ominous as the way it had been put (in Book III), where a hostile Harpy had said something to that effect. Scholars have noticed this discrepancy as to sources, which has led to the speculation that this would have been among the matters to be corrected by Virgil if he had lived to do the revisions he is said to have intended.
Thus, it can be considered a matter of chance that there is this apparent discrepancy left in the text of the Aeneid. But perhaps Virgil wanted both sources to be available: if things turn out to have been ominous, it is the Harpy’s prophecy which counts; if they turn out to have been benevolent, it is Anchises’? Did not Virgil know, when he gave this speech to the Harpy, that the seemingly dreadful event thus prophesied would not turn out to be awful?
What is suggested, by this anomaly—by the ambivalence that may be concealed in a prophecy? May all this suggest that human beings can have more control over their destinies than they may seem to have? Prudence in these matters may be even more critical than piety.
Prudence may be seen in the agreement reached between Juno and Jupiter with respect to the Trojans. She is finally reconciled to the success they are destined to have in establishing a new Troy in Italy. Jupiter is willing, in these circumstances, to satisfy her desire that the language there should remain what it had been.
That is, this seems to be Virgil’s explanation as to why the language of Rome is not that of the Trojans. It can seem in the Iliad that that language had been a variation of Greek. Does Virgil, by using this language arrangement between Juno and Jupiter, suggest the improbability of any account which has the fugitive Trojans among the Founders of Rome?
It would be as if the European conquerors of the Western Hemisphere had taken on the language (and hence the “values”?) of the native tribes they overcame. Do we not consider it “natural” that the dominant languages in this hemisphere should, instead, be English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish? May Virgil even be indicating here (and perhaps elsewhere) a regret that the Greek language had not come to tame Roman passions, awful passions seen in such monstrosities as the crucifixion of rebellious slaves by the thousands along the Appian Way and by the ever-fiercer gladiatorial “games.”
Even so, did the passions of the Romans somehow make them, among the Gentiles around the Mediterranean, the people most likely to be receptive to an emerging Christianity? This is curious considering that the Bible of the Christians was in Greek. But the Romans’ temperament may have made them naturally more receptive to (perhaps because most in need of?) the Christian message.
The “tables” prophecy, we have seen, had not sounded grim when it came for Aeneas from Anchises (instead of from the Harpy). We are challenged to wonder whether the conveyors of oracles really know how things are and are to be. How much does all this depend on the understanding and the temperament of the conveyor (something that we can be reminded of when we compare the Tiresias of Sophocles’ Antigone with the Tiresias of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos [to say nothing of the Tiresias of Euripides’ Bacchae])?
What does Virgil himself know and aim at as a prophet? Indeed, what “message” was sent by his dying request that his Aeneid manuscript be destroyed? May not such a request (if indeed made) have even served to reassure Augustus that Virgil had not fashioned anything in the poem which could permit him to strike out safely against the Caesars from the grave?
These remarks were prepared for a Staff Briefing, on December 10, 2011, for the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, The University of Chicago. This text should be adapted for publication as an essay in Reflections on War, Peace and the Constitution (the sixth volume in George Anastaplo’s projected ten-volume series of “constitutional sonnets”). The first three volumes in this series have already been published by the University Press of Kentucky; the fourth and fifth volumes are scheduled to be published soon by Lexington Books.
Discussions by George Anastaplo of various of the matters touched on in this December 2011 Staff Briefing (such as the career of Oedipus) have already been posted on this anastaplo.wordpress website.