Medieval Christianity claimed Vergil for its own, and Dante had the Roman poet accompany him to the very gates of Heaven on his journey through the other world. But we learn from Moses Hadas that, though the Jews have never thought of claiming Vergil, he was in fact greatly influenced by Hebrew conceptions. Indeed, it may well be that in fathering the Roman ideal—which is commonly contrasted with the Jewish ideal—Vergil was chiefly inspired by Biblical legend. 

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The influence of the Aeneid in shaping European ideas on religion and politics has been incalculably great, and it is the peculiarly Vergilian content of the poem, not the things borrowed from Greek models, that exercised this influence. Because strict adherence to Greek models is for Vergil, as for other Roman poets, the first law of literary composition, his own central convictions are easy to discover; they lie in his deviations from the canons of the Homeric poems.

The Aeneid celebrates an institution, not, as in Homer, a person; an elect and dutiful people, not a self-willed hero. It preaches Roman obedience to a divinely ordained mission, and holds out a hope that the bearers of that mission will, under Providence, bring blessings to all mankind. It is pensive to the point of melancholy, it operates with half-lights, symbols, and evocations. In all these respects, the Aeneid’s differences from Homer and other Greek models can be readily documented, both in countless details and in the edifice as a whole. But two of these deviations, one having to do with structure and the other with motivation, are particularly worth examining. The structural device is the use of the apocalyptic—the drama of revelation in a situation of crisis—and the motivation is involved in a new concept of the hero.

The action of the Aeneid is set in the period of the Trojan War, which was commonly (and probably correctly) dated to the 12th century B.C.E., and prophecies from that vantage point which the reader knows to have been fulfilled create credit for other prophecies which refer to what is still the actual future for both reader and writer. The reader is regularly astonished, for example, at Dido’s clairvoyance in the matter of the wars between Rome and Carthage (though his books tell him that they were fought centuries before Vergil wrote), and thus becomes ready to believe (so the poet hopes) that Vergil’s other prophecies, of universal peace under the beneficent and divinely ordained hegemony of Rome, will be equally true. Now this technique, common in the Aeneid but approximated in classical literature only in Lycophron’s Alexandra, and there only indifferently, is precisely the technique of the Biblical apocalypses. Daniel is a character of the Babylonian Exile, but scholars can date the composition of the Book of Daniel to a specific month during the Maccabean uprising, at the point where “prophecy” left history—and proved wrong.

Enoch, who is the hero of a whole group of apocalypses going back to the 2nd century B.C.E., is a better example than Daniel, for “Enoch walked with God, and he was not; for God took him” (Gen. 5:24). Not having died, he could receive and transmit special revelations. Homer had not reported the death of Aeneas, so he, too, could be considered to have departed this earth without perishing; and like Enoch, he was the protégé of a powerful divinity. Thus, not only did Vergil exploit the technique of the apocalypse as a literary effect; he also used it for essentially religious ends, as did the writers of the Biblical apocalypses.

More obvious to the practiced reader of Greek and Latin literature than this technique is the new conception of the hero. Achilles, Odysseus, and Jason (in Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica) are mainly concerned with, and admirable for, their individual prowess; in any but the Homeric conception, for a great soldier to sulk in his tent when his services are desperately needed would be treasonable. When a Homeric hero is confronted by a dangerous enemy and has spent spear and sword, he lifts a boulder to hurl that two—but only two—men of the present generation are barely able to lift; of the boulder Aeneas hurled Vergil can say that twelve men alive at the time he wrote could lift it—because he is not concerned to depict an ordinary hero. If an ordinary man had deserted Dido he would have been (in Vergil’s eyes if not in Homer’s) a cad. When Aeneas does so he is called pius, because he has suppressed a personal inclination in order to carry out the mission to which he has been divinely called and of which he constantly receives supernatural reminders.

Aeneas dominates his poem to a far greater degree than the Greek heroes do theirs, not, however, as a traditional epic hero, but as a disciplined and institutionalized instrument of destiny. As such he acquires the aspect of a symbol, which tends to separate him from ordinary humanity. Through Silvius he is the ancestor of the Alban kings and of Romulus; through Iulus, of the Julian gens and the house of Augustus. Not only as the founder of these two great lines, but as the parent of the Roman people (who are significantly called “children of Aeneas”), Aeneas must have within him all the virtues which his descendants inherit.

In a word, the Aeneid possesses the character of a sacred book which its rivals in epic do not. The story demands attention not only as literature but as patriotism raised to a religion. Nowhere in previous classical literature is secular history so clearly regarded as the working out of a divine plan; for a true parallel to Aeneas as a canonized national hero we must go beyond the bounds of that literature.

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It is in the East, and among the descendants of proud peoples whom Alexander’s conquests had reduced to helotry, that such a concept of the national hero as we are here concerned with arose. As a result of these conquests culture reached an unparalleled degree of external uniformity all over the Hellenistic world, but pride in disparate national traditions persisted, and among peoples whose political independence had been suppressed there was felt a need, bound up with motives of religion, to assert the antiquity and dignity of individual national traditions against competing traditions, chief of which was the Greek. The need was met by fictionalized treatment of such remote figures as the Assyrian Semiramis, the Egyptian Sesostris, the Phrygian Manes, the Babylonian Ninus. Though these works have almost wholly perished, their character as nationalist propaganda is clear, and they have demonstrably influenced Greek romances whose texts are extant. In the earlier works individual heroes, apparently one for each people, out of a remote past (the figures named were all ancient to Herodotus) were glorified in fanciful tales with numerous accretions of the miraculous, and these tales became a focus for cultural survival and lent their readers a pride in their past which helped them bear the rebuffs of the present.

Of all the literary efforts calculated to insure the cultural survival of depressed national minorities in the Hellenistic world, we have the most extensive remains and are best informed concerning those produced by the Jews, and especially by the Jewish community of Alexandria. From the time of Ptolemy Philadelphus onward this group devoted itself to producing a body of apologetic literature (of which the Septuagint itself may fairly be regarded as a specimen) calculated to demonstrate the antiquity and high merits of Jewish tradition. Most of this writing was in the category of “history,” with a preponderant interest, significantly, in the career of Moses. In certain frankly belletristic works also, such as the epic of the Elder Philo and the tragedy on the Exodus of Ezekielos, the figure of Moses seems to have loomed very large.

Of the series of legendary heroes celebrated by the descendants of the non-Hellenic peoples of the Near East it is Moses who is most likely to have become known to Vergil, and certainly Moses who provides the clearest pattern for Aeneas. Under divine instruction each leads a chosen people from bondage or defeat, and disciplines them by an arduous journey in the course of which their peoples’ destiny and the kind of conduct necessary to achieve that destiny are repeatedly communicated to the leaders by supernatural agency. Their mission would not only restore the dignity of their own peoples but bring blessings to all mankind. The promised land which was to be the basis for this mission would have to be recovered from the tribes which occupied it, but in each case, in addition to divine direction, the elect had a prior claim: Dardanus had originally founded Troy from Italy, and Abraham had purchased the cave of the Machpelah from the children of Heth for four hundred pieces of silver. Greek and Roman tradition can show no such divinely guided national leader and lawgiver. Its closest approach to Moses is Lycurgus, who was said to have established the polity of Sparta according to instructions he received at Delphi; but in the opening sentences of his Life of Lycurgus the usually devout Plutarch is careful to cast doubt on the very existence of his hero. Alexander the Great was endowed with something of the stature of a divine leader—by the peoples he conquered, however, not by Greeks; Plutarch and other Greek writers purposely show him as all too human.

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Considered separately, the Aeneid’s parallels with Moses and the apocalypses might be thought accidental, and products of Vergil’s originality. Taken together, however, they would seem to argue very strongly that Vergil was deeply influenced by Jewish tradition. The strength of the argument is further increased by a consideration of the Fourth or so-called “Messianic” Eclogue, written in 40 B.C.E., which can be seen in effect as a first draft of the Aeneid. In it the poet prophesies the imminent birth of a boy whose rule will usher in a golden age of peace:

All lingering traces of our guilt shall be erased and the earth released from its continual dread. He shall have the gift of divine life. . . . The earth untitled shall pour forth her gifts. . . . Uncalled the goats shall bring home their udders swollen with milk, and the herds shall not fear huge lions; unasked thy cradle shall pour forth flowers for thy delight. The serpent too shall perish. . . .

This poem has been more widely discussed than any other piece of similar length in classical literature. From Constantine and Augustine until the age of modern criticism, Christian writers have interpreted the Eclogue as a prophecy of the birth of Jesus. Modern scholars have shown that the reference must be to a Roman child, and for the source of the notion of a redeemer, which the passage plainly implies, they have ransacked all the obscure cults of pagan antiquity. Yet the obvious original is the Book of Isaiah, and there is no reason to exclude the possibility that Vergil may have known of it or at least of the Messianic speculations that derived from it. The coast of Campania, where he sojourned, had a decidedly Palestinian atmosphere and many Jews were known to live there in Vergil’s time. Petronius could presume that his readers would recognize the locutions of the Syrians and Hebrews in that region, and Vergil’s friend Horace (who is himself thought by some scholars to have had Jewish blood) assumes a smattering knowledge of Jewish beliefs on the part of his readers. Certainly enough of the complex of Jewish ideas, especially in their more striking forms, was in the air to make it probable that a man alert to such notions, as Vergil clearly was, could learn from them.

It is these ideas that give the Aeneid its seriousness, its strength, and its seminal influence. In certain important areas of thought where religion merges with politics, Vergil has been a more direct and effective and less distorting intermediary between Judaea and Europe than Christianity itself.

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Belief in the supernatural sanction of a specific national group and in the supernatural authority of its founder, and concomitant convictions of national election as the special instrument of providence and of responsibility to a divinely ordained mission, form a complex of ideas so familiar that we are apt to forget that they are not a natural development of native European institutions. They are altogether alien to classical Greek theory and practice, and when they appear in the Greek world it is as the deliberate inventions of philosophers and statesmen. In the 3rd century B.C.E., the Stoic Zeno, who was of Semitic origin, dreamt of a world which should no longer be composed of separate states, but be one great city under one divine law, where all were citizens and members one of another, bound together by their own consent. Like the Cynics before them, the Stoics insisted on human equality, but where the Cynics tended to withdraw from active participation in the state, the Stoics realized that their ideal of brotherhood could be attained only through the national state and not by its denial.

It was in response to a specific political situation—the principate of Augustus—that the Stoic ideal was adapted to Roman uses. For the first time—and after a period of intense crisis and bloody conflict, internal and external—the Mediterranean world was united, by the bonds of the Augustan Peace. It seemed that a perfect basis was provided for the realization of the Stoic ideal, and that ideal, in turn, seemed to provide a basis for the constitution of a world government. The men who devised the rationale for the new Roman state and for Augustus’ position in it worked from the premises of Stoic theory. Like others who have exploited an attractive doctrine of universal dimensions for nationalist interests, the Romans distorted it to serve the special ambitions of Rome and Augustus. That may be why the ideal was eventually fragmented and a dozen lesser nationalities claimed to succeed to Rome’s hegemony. But for contemporaries who despaired at the chaos and cruelty of the Civil Wars of the 1st century B.C.E., the new dispensation seemed to herald a golden age.

Surely a sensitive spirit like Vergil, depressed by a century of incessant war and by the knowledge that Rome was ruining peoples more cultured than herself, would grasp at the new promise like a drowning man at a straw. Past bloodshed and cruelty were justified if they resulted in a universal peace in which life would be orderly and the cultural attainments of the past could be preserved and spread abroad to the dark corners of the earth. The climactic scene in the Aeneid is that in the underworld, where Anchises solemnly sets forth the program of Rome:

Others, I doubt not, shall beat out the breathing bronze with softer lines; shall from marble draw forth the features of life; shall plead their causes better; with the rod shall trace the paths of heaven and tell the rising of the stars: remember thou, O Roman, to rule the nations with thy sway—these shall be thine arts—to crown Peace with Law, to spare the humbled, and to tame in war the proud.

The all too practical implication of the Augustan program was the work of politicians, but, as far as we can see, it was Vergil who emphasized the religious aspects of the Roman mission as the working out of a divine plan, and the supernatural associations of Aeneas (who is the prototype of Augustus) as the agent of that plan. And it was from Rome that Europe inherited the idea of supernatural sponsorship of national destiny.

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Whether or not Vergil was the first Roman to mention this new dispensation, he was certainly its most revered and most effective spokesman, both in his own and in succeeding centuries. No poet in history has enjoyed such prestige and authority; his domination over later poets and his reputation were as great as Shakespeare’s, his influence on Weltanschauung greater. As long as Latin was widely read, Vergil was simply “the Poet,” and all literate people had him by heart. Later writers courted immortality by open adaptations of Vergil, and respectable poets like Ausonius were content to compose centi of Vergilian lines. In the Renaissance the highly influential Poetics of Jerome Vida is even more adulatory than the ancient critics.

But for the Middle Ages Vergil was more than merely the Poet: he was raised virtually to sainthood, his tomb was an object of pilgrimage, and “Vergilian lots” (found by opening the pages of his poetry at random) were consulted as authoritative guides to conduct. Medieval Christianity was discriminating in the pagan authors it chose to propagate. It is no accident that a voluptuary like Catullus or a partisan of the old order like Tacitus have survived in but single manuscripts, whereas Vergil was read continuously in many manuscripts, and had no need to be rediscovered in the Renaissance.

No other pagan could more appropriately have guided Dante through the Inferno and have set his feet on the path of apocalyptic revelation, for Vergil, too, projects an apocalypse, he too is drenched in lacrimae rerum, he too holds out a hope for something like salvation. But Dante learned something more than gentleness and hope from Vergil.

In the “Judecca,” the iciest part of Inferno, the only companions of the arch-traitor Judas Iscariot are Brutus and Cassius, who opposed Caesarism and assassinated Caesar. Their treason is equated with Judas’ because Dante accepted Vergil’s view of the Caesars as the divinely ordained rulers of mankind. Dante’s influential treatise On Monarchy is in effect Vergil’s political ideal made explicit. The views other than religious which Dante promulgates, therefore—or more accurately, the endowing of political views with religious sanctions that he practices—are in effect propagation of the doctrine which Vergil learned from his Jewish sources.

Obviously the principal intermediary between Judaism and European culture has been Christianity. It incorporated a large part of Judaism; and by recognizing and giving currency to the Old Testament it enabled it to serve independently as a continuing source of Jewish influence. But it was chiefly the specifically religious values of Judaism which Christianity absorbed and propagated. When Europeans concerned to justify the divine right of kings turned, as they sometimes did, directly to stories of the house of David and of the Maccabees in the Bible and Apocrypha, their citations are in the nature of learned footnotes. The texture of ordinary political thought was the legacy of the Roman ideal as formulated in the early Empire. In Vergil’s hands that ideal had taken on an outward form suggested by Jewish sources, and he himself was a principal agent for communicating it to posterity. Without prejudice to Vergil’s fidelity to his sources or to the good or evil implicit in his doctrine or its possible applications, it may be said in a real sense that he has been an apostle of Judaism to the nations of Europe, and introduced the immortal values of Moses and the prophets into the political life of the Western world.

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