This page is designed to enhance a student's reading of Virgil's Roman epic, The Aeneid.
Some scholars see the legendary founding of Rome taking place in 753 B.C.E. around the time Homer supposedly wrote The Iliad. In this case, Romans would have celebrated their one-thousand anniversary in 248 A. D. Regardless of the discussion of the timeline of Rome's power, it is evident that Rome's dominion was vast and influential; Rome is the longest historical exemplar of continuous military power and economic prosperity.
Rome's longevity: the virtue know in Latin as gravitas, or gravity, a deep-rooted seriousness defines roman character . Because of this trait, the Greeks perhaps considered the Romans a dull lot, even unimaginative. Even today such notions persist. George Lucas satirizes Roman soldiers in his depiction of mindless storm troopers in service to the Emperor in Star Wars.
As propaganda, gravitas underscores obedience to authority which was disseminated in literary texts. In Virgil's underworld, Aeneas' father tells him that Rome's art is not her greatness, but her power to enforce Roman Law throughout the world.
Roman, remember by your strength to rule
Earth's peoples--for your arts are to be these:
To pacify, to impose the rule of law,
to spare the conquered, battle down the proud (VI. 753-756)
In conjunction with the sense of political duty--pietas--I ask you to further consider the mindset of the Roman character. Gravitas has larger implications for understanding human experience. In times of war, perhaps men in particular feel gravitas when they face battle, allegorically another journey into the underworld. Deep-rooted seriousness is not so much about tragic flaw as about the depths of the earth that call up to men, the warriors and soldiers, and wives and children that and insists that men descend into the earth in death.
"We are sad," Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) says, "because we know the earth." In his Nobel lecture in Chile in 1971, Neruda tells his audience: " I come from a dark region, from a land separated from all others by the steep contours of its geography." Irish poet William Butler Yeats has felt this gravitas:
Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down
where all the ladders start,
In the fowl rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
According to Robert Bly, the Mediterranean world believed (at the time of Christ) that there was such a thing as lacrimae rerum, tears inside nature itself. The story of Icarus and the story of Phaethon, tell of humans flying on an ascending arc, away from earth, heading towards brilliant heaven, inner-power, authority, leadership in the community, and the arc is beautiful. But ancient stories also decree that there will also come a time of intense grief, a time of falling into the sea. Bly writes: "We all will find ourselves holding the ashy hand of The Lord of Death. We will realize how much we have already lost in the way we choose to live, and how much we may lose tomorrow. We will find ourselves seeing the sorrow inside life." This is the exact geographical place Neruda identifies as the dark region. It is the geographical place Gilgamesh encounters on his second journey. Mysterious tasks here, on this planet, for the growth of civilization? Consequently in the mythology of direction (if there is such a thing and I believe there is) Roman civilization is the power that gradually expands downward into the earth itself. It is a power that keeps impulsiveness in check. It is the power that cultivates Stoicism.
In Roman culture, humanitas means literally culture, a state of civilization. Rome was the "state of law" of an urban society. Yet Rome discovered its role as world "peacekeeper," and here enters the Roman Soldier--at first glance the soldier is not picturesque, strikingly absent of character, evident in Virgil's duty bound Aeneas. Yet personal sacrifice equals privilege. Sweat becomes a metonym for success. Dominion was assured by use of arms, camp discipline, and the skill of the military and unrelenting duty as pietas. The warrior had no equal for efficiency and valor.
The Roman soldier was also cruel--Christians to the lions, etc., the feelings imagined in the film Spartacus. Roman history is imbued with the mixture of the violent urge to dominate and a policy of openness (Virgil represents this possibility of inclusion in the narrative by King Priam's offer to the fraudulent Sinon). A hero like Aeneas is sometimes perplexing to readers because his adherence to destiny gives him a banal personality. Indeed, Aeneas disappears into the story itself; he is a ghost compared to Homer's Odysseus. In the Aeneid, the significant hero that emerges is not Aeneas but Rome itself and its absolute authority. The "She-Wolf of Rome" tells us (like a dog upon a roof) the character of Rome.
Consider the meaning of the sculpture.