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Six reasons for Catholics to read Virgil’s Aeneid

The great Roman poet was described by the eminent critic and writer Theodor Haecker as an anima naturaliter Christiana—a naturally Christian soul.

"Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia" (1790-93) by Jean-Baptiste Wicar (Wikipedia)

Virgil, one of the greatest poets the world has known, was cancelled out of universities decades ago. Unredeemable for the sins of imperialism and patriarchy, and possessing the wrong identity of white, European, and male, Virgil (70-19 BC) clings to the modern academy chiefly through high school and college Latin programs, where students plod through tiny snippets of his renowned epic The Aeneid, the mythical tale of Rome’s founding from the ashes of Troy.

The Aeneid is a captivating story—victory and defeat, love and loss, war and peace, destiny and human agency are all intertwined to delight, teach, and churn the heart of the reader. The life and aspirations of Aeneas, the Trojan exile turned founder of the Latin people, speak to the soul, making this epic one not just for the ancient Romans, but for all times and all peoples. And though it is a pagan tale, the epic has particular import for Catholics. Virgil was honored last century by the eminent critic and writer Theodor Haecker as an anima naturaliter Christiana—a naturally Christian soul—because the poet’s insights into the human condition and into fate provided a lens for pagans to see how the God of Israel would reveal Himself through Jesus Christ.

This point alone is enough to entice Catholics to read The Aeneid in translation. Yet this classic work has even more to give, and it carries contemporary relevance as well. Here are six reasons, in no particular order, for Catholics to crack open Virgil’s epic.

First, the gods call Aeneas on an adventure. As Theodor Haecker points out in his wonderful book Virgil, Father of the West, Virgil comes closer than any pagan writer to putting “fate,” the inscrutable force that determines the lot of every soul, in the control of Jupiter, king of the gods. From here, it is a short leap to the creator God who governs the world not through fate, but through His loving providence. As fascinating adventures go, Aeneas’s fictional mission of engineering the world’s most consequential civilizational founding ranks at the top of the list.

Second, Aeneas, the flawed hero. Catholics love our saints, but we harbor special awe of those who, like Saints Paul, Augustine, and Francis, rejected a wayward life for one completely devoted to God. Aeneas is not a saint, but he is a sympathetic figure who resembles Saint Peter in many ways: the Trojan exile is at times cowardly, courageous, impetuous, sensible, choleric, loyal, aggressive, and loving. Virgil dubs Aeneas as pius, a man devoted to his gods, his people, and his family. If the secular world needs any virtue today, it is the Roman pietas that Aeneas exemplified.

Third, the importance of religion in society. Virgil’s patron was no less than the Emperor Augustus, who asked Virgil to use his narrative to spur a religious revival among Roman pagans. We hear repeatedly that Aeneas’ mission was not just to found a city but to bring the Troy’s gods with him and enshrine them within the new walls. A millennium later, Peter and Paul would bring the God who is Jesus Christ to this same city and reestablish Rome as seat of a new spiritual empire without limits. From both foundings, our secular world recalls a lesson echoed throughout history: a civilization that carries on without religion will become hollow and moribund.

Fourth, family and tradition. Aeneas is a transitional figure: he carries the past legacy of Troy with him as he goes to fulfill his destiny of founding the Latin race. In a dramatic scene that has been represented countless time in art and sculpture, Aeneas drives this point home as he flees the incinerated Troy carrying his father Anchises on his back and holding his young son Ascanius’ hand. Virgil’s message is clear: the Rome of the present stands upon the Troy of the past and cannot be separated from it. Likewise, for Catholics, the Church of the present stands upon the deposit of faith, the heroic saints of the past, the practices of the faithful handed on through sacred Tradition.

Fifth, love and loss. Love is the deepest expression of the human will, and the loss of love is the greatest tragedy a person can experience. The Aeneid is filled with both. Most famous, of course, is the gut-wrenching romance and break-up of Dido and Aeneas, expressed in countless operas and other works of art over the centuries. Lesser known, but equally as poignant, is the loss of Aeneas’ first wife Creusa, the passing of Aeneas’ father, and the later competition for the hand of Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus, in marriage. Romance always sells, but the loves of The Aeneid are not superficial—they cut to the core of what it means to be human.

Sixth, anything you want in a good story. Treaties, conflicts, fidelity, betrayal, adventures in unknown lands, pitched battles between rival camps—the most compelling elements of narrative are all wrapped up in one epic poem. And the poem format allows the plot to unfold slowly, with vivid detail and intricately described scenes. The Aeneid is not a “page turner” in the way a contemporary novel is, but the gripping events and the enchanting characters that Virgil has brought to life propel us forward, from the poem’s introduction to its final, mesmerizing scene.

One additional point: What translation of The Aeneid should we read? I have long preferred Robert Fagles’s version, as he balances the poetical and narrative aspects of the epic in a manner tailored for the contemporary reader. There is, however, a vividly narrated prose translation by David West that will appeal to readers who are hesitant to engage with the poetic form.

“Catholic” means universal, and The Aeneid, though composed by a pagan, speaks profoundly to the Catholic, for, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson saluted Virgil in his celebratory poem, “Thou that seëst Universal Nature moved by Universal Mind.” As we enjoy a most riveting story, we are led into the deepest mysteries of the human condition, which inevitably invites us to consider the Creator of it all.


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About David G. Bonagura, Jr. 7 Articles
David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism. and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.

5 Comments

  1. I read the Aeneid for the first time a few years back, and it remains one of my favorites. Vergil’s poem is vivid and rich in Latin or in English, and is well worth reading today – it’s a shame that many students no longer crack open a copy in schools because he’s not politically popular, they are missing out on one of the most influential authors of antiquity.

  2. Excellent article! As a retired Latin teacher and one who taught the Aeneid at AP level for twenty+ years, I agree that the choice of a translation makes a difference. On the other hand, I think the Aeneid is the least translatable of all great poems. It’s like reading the score of a Brandenburg Concerto as opposed to hearing it played. Vergil understood how to exploit the majestic cadences of which Latin is capable. In translation the music is missing. Homer may be translated, Vergil not.

  3. Also because otherwise when reading Gaudy Night you will not fall over laughing when Lord Peter Wimsey says, “Vera incessu patuit dean.”

  4. Thank you for this beautiful exposition. This brings back long-ago memories. Now I want to get reacquainted with this wonderful story – also buying one of the suggested versions will be a great gift for my granddaughter. I appreciate you for including the titles.

  5. Nice. You forgot to mention it is integral to understanding that great Catholic classic, the Divine Comedy of Dante. One quibble. I prefer the Robert Fitzgerald translation. I think it captures the Latin better.

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