John Adams was said to be a devotee of Greek and Latin poetry. Abraham Lincoln sought consolation for his own troubled times in Shakespeare’s history plays. Calvin Coolidge went so far as to complete a translation of Dante’s “Inferno” from the original Italian.
America has a proud tradition of having leaders who draw inspiration from the classics, sometimes successfully, sometimes not (for example, Woodrow Wilson’s reading of “Thucydides on the way to the Paris Peace Conference” does not seem to have made the Treaty of Versailles any less of a disaster).
In that vein, I thought it would be interesting to look at a piece of classic world literature and see what lessons might be drawn for the modern policy maker.
I selected Virgil’s “Aeneid,” the epic poem that tells the story of a band of Trojan refugees wandering the Mediterranean looking for a new homeland that would eventually be known as Rome, as a way of revealing what lessons the ancients knew that Washington might have forgotten.
In an era where every tough decision in Congress is put off until after the next election, one is struck when reading Book Four of the poem.
In it, Aeneas, the leader of the Trojans, has seemingly found rest for his weary band of travelers in Carthage. The fact that the lovely Queen Dido is madly in love with him is a bonus.
However, he knows that his destiny is not to enjoy himself in Carthage, but to found the city of Rome. Romans yet unborn are counting on him and he must leave safety and comfort to face war and hardship in Italy.
When Mercury comes to remind Aeneas of his duty, he does not whine or seek to put the responsibility for the tough decision elsewhere, he simply does what needs to be done.
How many modern senators would nobly sacrifice a campaign contribution, let alone their safety and comfort, for the betterment of future generations? If the average congressman were in charge of the Trojan refugees, he probably would have authorized a commission to study the proposal and then accuse Mercury of being out of touch with the average Trojan because of his immortality and ignore him entirely.
But let’s move ahead a bit to Book Ten. Consider the following lines: “Poor soldiers, helpless to break out, they stood/On towers aloft, and thinly manned the ramparts/There were Asius, Imbrasus’ son, Thymoetes, Hicetaon’s son…”
One of most startling things about “The Aeneid” is that most of the casualties are named, often with a short back story. Never in the poem are we told anything else about Asius or Thymoetes, but we know their names. That in itself is significant.
Think to yourself for a moment. Can you name a single American soldier killed in Iraq? I will shamefully admit I cannot and I suspect most readers cannot either.
Bloody and brutal as “The Aeneid” is, there is little faceless “collateral damage,” only real human beings, with lives, families and homes, who are killed. The Romans may have been quicker to resort to violence than was totally necessary, but at least they appreciated the cost it came at. I think that is a powerful lesson that still holds relevance today.
I don’t claim to be a great literary theorist or classicist, but nevertheless, I feel reasonably confident in saying the wanderings of Aeneas are more than just a long poem about people with an astoundingly poor sense of direction. We can still learn something from them today.