Boatloads of refugees put ashore in Italy after a wearying journey at sea; the city they adored, Troy, now a smoking ruin after 10 years of a desperate war; many loved ones dead from the conflict, with others lost along the way, victims of violence, storms or age.
Put this way, the story of the “Aeneid,” Virgil’s epic masterpiece, has an inescapably contemporary ring. Today, in the wake of Middle Eastern wars, millions have fled the region, desperate for a new place to call home. Meanwhile, anti-immigrant politicians – Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Donald Trump, to name a few – have jumped on the confusion and chaos, only to see their own fortunes rise.
In some ways, it’s not possible to read the same great poem twice. Time and circumstance will always reconfigure its meaning. As the United States bars its gates to newcomers, the “Aeneid” – usually thought of as a tale of epic heroism – reads now as a parable of exile, immigration and the self-defeating disaster of irrational prejudice.
‘All we ask is a modest resting place’
Virgil’s epic poem, written between 29 and 19 B.C., is the story of a band of men, women and children who survived the Greek siege of Troy (in modern-day Turkey) – when “Fate compelled the worlds of Europe and Asia to clash in war.” Aeneas, a man “made a refugee by fate,” leads them on their journey to Italy, where they’ve been promised a home.
The first half of the poem describes the group’s wanderings across the Mediterranean, the losses they suffered along the way and the weariness that, at times, leads some of them – Aeneas included – to think of abandoning the journey.
“How many reefs, how many sea-miles more must we cross! Heart-weary as we are,” cry the Trojan women in a moment of despair. But Aeneas and the Trojans do eventually reach Italy: They land at the mouth of the Tiber River, immigrants looking to join the people of this foreign land.
Latinus, the king of this country, has been given a sign by the gods to welcome the newcomers:
Strangers will come, and come to be your sons and their lifeblood will lift our name to the stars.
In other words, the gods proclaim that the arrival of new blood will be a good thing for society – a view held by many today.
After the Trojans arrive, they appeal to Latinus, describing their harrowing journey:
Escaping that flood and sailing here over many barren seas, now all we ask is a modest resting place for our fathers’ gods, safe haven on your shores, water and fresh air that’s free for all to breathe
Latinus recognizes that these are the newcomers foretold by the god and welcomes Aeneas “as ours.”
But Latinus’ open-door immigration policy soon meets resistance – a resistance that Virgil portrays as madness. Latinus pays a political price when his people, the Latins, turn against the immigrants, a development seen in many nations today, perhaps most notably in Angela Merkel’s Germany.
The thrall of racial hatred
How does an ancient poet depict the onset of madness?
In the “Aeneid,” the agent is Juno, queen of the Olympian gods. She has always hated the Trojans as much as she cherishes the Latins. Juno means to stir up war between them, so she sends one of the Furies, the goddesses of vengeance, to fill the mind of Latinus’ wife with thoughts of ethnic purity and sexual propriety.
These thoughts have consequences, because Latinus is now planning to marry their daughter to Aeneas – “a lying pirate,” as the queen starts to call him. Furthermore, she was supposed to marry a local prince named Turnus – his “blood kin,” as the queen reminds Latinus.
Turnus, too, succumbs to racial hatred. At first he’s entirely nonchalant about the arrival of Aeneas and the Trojans. But driven mad by Juno’s accomplice, he turns to violence to drive them out and keep the king’s daughter out of the hands of “that Phrygian eunuch” (a castrated man).
A pointless war ensues between the Trojan refugees and the Latins who had initially welcomed them into their land.
In one scene, Aeneas’ son accidentally kills a pet deer, and the locals, assuming malicious intent, form a vigilante group to exact revenge. What motivates this assumption is the more deeply rooted fear of the Latin population: Acceptance of these immigrants will result in the loss of their native Latin identity.
The tensions at play – sexual fears, fear of violence, hateful rhetoric – are unfortunately being repeated today, whether it’s fear of immigrants’ rapes in Sweden or the growth of anti-Muslim organizations in the United States.
In Virgil’s telling, this fear can only be resolved by the act of a god. In the end, it is Jupiter, the king of the gods, who gives his divine guarantee that the Trojans will be assimilated:
Mingling in stock alone, the Trojans will subside. And I will add the rites and the forms of worship, And make them Latins all, who speak one Latin tongue.
But it’s easier for a god to imagine resolution than it is for mortals, and for Aeneas, resolution comes at a price. He kills Turnus at the end of the poem. But he loses something of his humanity in the process.