Virgil was recruited from the pastures of North Italy to hymn the praisesof Augustus Caesar after the defeat of Mark Antony. He wrote the epic poem, the Aeneid, to glorify Rome. He traced her origin back to surviv-ors of Troy. Virgil portrayed Augustus as divine savior of Imperial Rome. Jesus was born during Augustus’ reign and challenged his claim to divinity.
Who was Virgil? (70 B.C.-19 B.C.) Virgil was born to an obscure peasant farm family in Northern Italy. He rose to a position of intimacy with the mighty Augustus, first Emperor of Rome. At Augustus’ request, he wrote the Aeneid, the most influential book produced in Rome.
Historical context. Rome had only recently emerged from nearly a century of Civil War, with the old Republic giving way to the Empire. The Senate voted all power to Caesar, but remained to further the illusion of a republic. Virgil composed the Aeneid to bolster Caesar’s position as the god-man and promote devotion to Rome. According to Virgil, Rome was descended from ancient Troy. As described by Homer, Troy in Asia Minor provided the setting for the Iliad.
Summary of Virgil’s teaching. In the Fourth Eclogue Virgil predicted the birth of a boy-child who would be the Savior of the world. “Now from high heaven a new generation comes down. Yet do thou at that boy’s birth, in whom the iron race shall begin to cease, and the golden to arise over all the world…under thy rule what traces of our guilt yet remain, vanishing shall free earth for ever from alarm.” Augustus saw himself as the political Messiah who fulfilled this prophecy. In the Aeneid, Virgil expanded on this theme. Aenius with his son and aged father escaped the defeat of Troy. This epic poem describes their 7-year journey throughout the Mediterranean world, finally to arrive at the mouth of the Tiber. There they founded the City of Rome. This work “…was a deliberate attempt by Virgil, at the request of Augustus, to glorify Rome by celebrating the supposed Trojan origin of its people and, particularly, the achievements and ideals of Rome under its new ruler” (7).
Implications for subsequent history. Thus, at the birth of Christ, two deities vied for the loyalty of men: Imperial Rome and Christ. Christians were not dragged into the arena for worshipping Christ. Rather they died for failing to confess Caesar over Christ. It was primarily a political rather than a spiritual offense.
Dante adopted Virgil as his guide through Hell in The Divine Comedy, to support his belief in a unitary, one-world state. The most serious sins of the denizens of Hell were political sins against the unity of the state. For example, Brutus, who killed Julius Caesar, incurred the worst wrath next to Judas Iscariot.
The state was relatively restrained during the medieval period by virtue of its collegial relationship with the church. However, the danger of abuse arose again with the emergence of the nation-state after the investiture struggle of the late 11th Century. Virgil’s Savior-state was reborn in the 20th Century with a vengeance. Many Christians embraced an eschatology of historical pessimism in the 19th Century and withdrew from the arena of cultural battle. The state moved in to fill the void. Promising great blessings and social salvation the state proved to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Shielded by only a thin veneer of “freedom”, citizens of the West are now under far more control than was ever exercised by Rome. Because the modern church taught things must get worse before the Second Coming, it encouraged Christians to retreat from the culture. In the popular idiom, “Why polish brass on a sinking ship?” On their way out, Christians left the door wide open for the state to expand far beyond its Bible function.
Biblical analysis. When the state forsakes its limited biblical role of upholding justice the Bible portrays it as a beast. The conflict between Christ and Caesar was seen in Rome’s direct contradiction of Acts 4:12. Caesar asserted, “Salvation is to be found in none other save Augustus, and there is no other name given to men in which they can be saved” (5a). Rebellious men picture civil government as a great and glorious image (Dan. 2:39, 40). From God’s viewpoint these same empires are seen as ravening beasts (Dan. 7:3). It was to shatter these pretensions that Jesus was born of Mary: “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree” (Luke 1:52).
Corrective or prescriptive actions. The modern state has usurped a position of great power by mimicking the servant posture of Christ. The state has learned better than the church that men follow those who serve them best. The power of the state can only be broken as men refuse her proffered “benefits.” We must turn again to Christianity for physical and spiritual relief.
Virgil was one of the first “court historians”, illustrating how the victors usually write the history books. They put their unique spin on the story and present themselves in the best possible light. In Isaiah 10:2, the Bible condemns those who conspire to “decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness which they have prescribed.” It takes careful study to gain an accurate picture of such events. Great care must be taken to avoid being caught up in the tide of popular opinion.