A d F o n t e s

(Latin: "to the sources")

Paper: Augustine of Hippo on Vergil’s Aeneid: Part I


I thought I would start a series of posts on one of my paper topics for this semester:  St. Augustine’s take on Vergil’s Aeneid in his de Civitate Dei, City of God, for a course on ancient political theory taught by James Zetzel. 

Why this topic.  It basically was the convalescence of a handful of different ideas that I wanted to explore.  First was “constitutional” aspect of the Aeneid in Roman thought in general, it’s role in Late Antiquity, particularly after Constantine’s conversion and revolution.  Put (over-)simply, for many Romans the Aeneid was the people’s national story, a national poem.  It occupied a special place in the Roman collective identity, quite similar to how the Torah worked for many Jews and the works of Homer for Greeks.  It was so important that, even as Augustine notes, it was one of the major school books that kids were forced to read, study, and memorize–that along with the likes of Cicero and Seneca.  But did this change after Constantine converted, and if so how? 

Second, one would expect that if Augustine were to argue for the superiority of the “City of God” over “the City of the Earth” (=Rome), he would in some way need to respond or counteract to the Aeneid–or at least, the affect of the Aeneid on society.  It’s fairly clear from the resurgence of paganism among Roman elites and intellectuals and and the writings of Macrobius that this was an issue.  But we also know from his Confessions that he happened to really love Vergil.  For Augustine, he was still the greatest of Roman poets.  How then does Augustine negotiate this seeming internal conflict?  Can he critique Vergil while remaining loyal to him?  And if so, how does he do it? 

Third, there’s the sack of Rome in 408-410 by the Goths.  The rise of Christianity was blamed by many:  it caused Romans to avert their eyes from Juno and Juppiter; the sack was their retaliation.  How did that affect the religious landscape? 


Already this paper is turning into a big one–though eminently rewarding thus far.  The City of God is a huge and complex book and the Aeneid isn’t exactly short either.  And it doesn’t help that the amount of scholarship is exponentially mountainous–and for Augustine, is mostly in French and Italian.  I’m afraid I’m going to have to content myself a mediocre understanding of both texts this term.  Stay tuned. 

Oh, and FYI that picture above is of Vergil reading the Aeneid to Augustine (and Octavia, and Livia). 

November 10, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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