The tactic of alluding to an idealised point in the past, embodying all of a country’s best values while glossing over times of hardship, is nothing new.
A political leader who seeks to make his nation “great again” and a time when ‘post-truth’ rhetoric appears to support political ambitions. Not Donald Trump’s America, but Rome 2,000 years ago.
The elusive, glorious past has been a dominant theme of recent political slogans and soundbites. President Trump’s rallying call to “make America great again” was met with outpourings of support on his campaign trail and, in the wake of the EU referendum, British politicians have referred to our history as a great global nation, saying that Brexit offers the opportunity to retake our place as a great world power.
The tactic of alluding to an idealised point in the past, embodying all of a country’s best values, while glossing over times of hardship, is nothing new. In fact it’s as old as the hills, and at least as old as the seven hills of Ancient Rome.
The first imperial regime of Rome started in 27 BC after a long period of civil unrest and brutal bloodshed. After Octavian defeated his rivals for power, Antony and Cleopatra, he cleverly rebranded himself as Augustus and began what would become a monarchic regime. He disguised this new order as the continuation and restoration of the Roman Republic and recast the historical and cultural memory of Rome to suit his own needs of self-preservation and self-promotion.
Elena Giusti, in the faculty of classics, is working on a book examining the part that the Aeneid, written by Roman poet Virgil, played in shaping the narrative of Emperor Augustus’ regime. Her book will contribute to a long-standing academic debate over the extent to which the poem is propagandistic.
“My interest in Augustan poetry and its tendency to reshape traditions and place facts in a position of secondary, subsidiary importance was inspired by my experiences as a millennial growing up in Berlusconi’s Italy,” says Giusti. “My research focuses on what, after the events of 2016, we might dub ‘post-truth poetics’ – and a reading of Virgil’s Aeneid as a form of poetics and politics that aimed to shape public opinion by appealing to feelings rather than facts.”
Virgil’s epic poem tells the story of Aeneas the Trojan hero and his struggle to found the Roman race. In Giusti’s view, Virgil was in all likelihood commissioned by Augustus to write the Aeneid, and there is certainly plenty to suggest that he wrote his epic work in compliance with the new regime.
Giusti’s research explores Virgil’s exploitation of one historical period in particular, the age of the Punic Wars from 264 BC to 146 BC. This long-running conflict was fought between the Roman Republic and Carthage, an ancient city located on the coast of modern Tunisia.
In alluding to the wars, from which Rome emerged victorious, Virgil transports the reader back to a “mytho-historic” time of strength and glory in Rome’s past. The real threat from Carthage ended after the defeat of Hannibal in 201 BC, but Virgil uses Carthage to evoke metus hostilis or ‘fear of the enemy’. The poem aims to unite the Romans, shaken by the trauma of recent civil conflict, by reminding them of a time when the greatest threat was from a foreign power.
“Civil conflict had brought Rome to its knees, and the use of Carthage in the poem appears to suit the ideological needs of foregrounding foreign conflict while whitewashing the reality of the strife against fellow citizens on which the principate itself was built,” explains Giusti.
In the Aeneid, Virgil presents Carthage through a thick layer of mythical and historical allusion, blending historical events and points in time to suit his political purpose. The blurred spatial and temporal narrative allows Virgil to mingle not only Ancient Greek mythology and the Punic Wars, but also the more recent historical events of the civil war, by making clear allusions to the history of Antony and Cleopatra in the relationship between Aeneas and Dido, Queen of Carthage.
Virgil conjured a series of associations between the Punic Wars and recent Roman civil disorder. The effect was to ascribe to the latter the qualities of foreign conflict and interference by an external enemy. This fictional history, where it was the destruction of Carthage that brought about the crisis of the Republic, served to legitimise Augustus’ involvement in the civil war and vindicate him of any wrong-doing.
On the face of it, then, Virgil’s ‘post-truth poetics’ appear to overwhelmingly support the ambitions of Emperor Augustus to ‘make Rome great again’. However, Giusti also thinks that Virgil’s epic ultimately exposes the illusory nature of Augustan Rome and the suggestion that the new imperial order was founded in the wake of foreign rather than civil wars, which any learned reader in Rome at the time would have known to be ‘post-truth’.
Just as a modern-day political speechwriter charged with harking back to the past with romanticised stories of empire might be required to suppress their better judgement and awareness of historical fact, Virgil appears to have negotiated a vision of the Punic Wars that he himself realised was little more than a nostalgic mirage.
Giusti argues that when Virgil starts to make Carthage look like Rome, and the Carthaginians like Romans, rather than the foreign enemy, memories of the recent civil wars are brought to the surface. Paradoxically, Virgil’s Carthage unveils the delusory nature of Augustus’ restoration of the Roman Republic and its mythical history. The artificiality of the image that Virgil conjures stimulates us to interrogate the legitimacy of the stories and messages encoded in the narrative.
Perhaps this indicates the author’s frustration at writing in support of the Augustan regime. “We know that Virgil, like most Romans, suffered personally during the civil wars and that his family’s property was confiscated, although subsequently restored. To me it is clear from the poem that his primary historical concern was actually the traumatic memory of the civil wars and the subsequent subversion of Rome’s Republican institutions,” adds Giusti.
Perhaps this image of an author conflicted in his work serves to explain why, according to legend, Virgil tried to have the Aeneid destroyed before he died. He was prevented from doing so by Augustus and his vision of “empire without end.”
This article was originally published by the University of Cambridge.