THE WORLD’S TROUBLES DIFFER LITTLE FROM 29 B.C. TO 2009 A.D.
“Gods of our fathers, of our country, and thou Romulus, and Vesta, mother who keepest Tuscan Tiber and the Roman Palatine, forbid not at least that this our prince may succour a ruined world! Long enough already has our life-blood recompensed Laomedon’s perjury at Troy; long already the heavenly palace, O Caesar, grudges thee to us, and murmurs that thou shouldst care for human triumphs, where right and wrong are confounded, where all these wars cover the world, where wickedness is so manifold and the plough’s meed of honour is gone; the fields thicken with weeds, for the tillers are marched away, and bent sickles are forged into the stiff swordblade: here the Euphrates, there in Germany heaves the war; neighbouring cities rush into arms one against another over broken laws; the merciless War-God rages through all the world; even as when chariots bursting from their barriers swerve out on the course, and vainly tugging at the curb, the driver is swept on by his horses, and the car hearkens not to the rein.”
The quote is from the first of the Georgics by Publius Vergilius Maro, better known as Virgil (70-19 B.C.). Virgil worked on the Georgics for seven years; and when Augustus, successor to Julius Caesar, and Emperor of Rome, returned from the East in 29 B.C., the finished work was read to him. Augustus would have understood and appreciated the references to gods, events and places better than a current reader. But the quote taken as a whole is a prayer given in 29A.D. that has all the elements of a prayer given now or will be given in 2009 and perhaps will be so long as the humans exist.
Virgil’s gods were not the gods of today. He died before Jesus was born. Thus, he escaped the religious strife that arose between the Pagans and Christians. But somewhere in the Roman Empire roamed that rebellious tribe whose god was Jehovah, a divine entity that still lives in the spirits of the Israelis and is the God of Christian fundamentalists.
Virgil’s prayer is to the gods of Romans’ fathers and country and to Romulus, who with his twin brother Remus, was set adrift on the Tiber, was suckled by a she-wolf until discovered and rescued and became the founder of Rome.
He prays to Vesta, …“mother who keepst Tuscan Tiber and the Roman Palatine.” Vesta was goddess of hearth and home. She was highly honored in every household from remote times until the coming of Christianity. Her temple in Rome, the oldest in the city, housed a perpetual fire tended by vestal virgins. The Palatine is the center hill of the Seven Hills of Rome and the Tiber is the river on which the city was built and still thrives. Virgil exhorts Vesta to “forbid not at least that this our prince may succour a ruined world!”
“Long enough,” protests Virgil, “already has our life-blood recompensed Laomedon’s perjury at Troy.” Laomedon, in Greek mythology, was king of Troy. He offended Poseidon, who arranged to have his daughter, Hesione, sacrificed. Hercules agreed to save the daughter in exchange for Laomedon’s famous horses, but Laomedon broke his word and Hercules killed all Laomedon’s children except Priam, whose destiny it was to succeed to the kingship of Troy only to lose his kingdom and Troy and his life when the Greeks came to avenge Priam’s son Paris’ elopement with Helen, the beauty who launched a thousand ships.
Aeneas, hero of Virgil’s epic The Aeneid, was a Trojan and son of Anchises and Venus. According to legend, after the fall of Troy, he escaped, bearing his aged father on his back. He tarried at Carthage with Queen Dido, and then went to Italy, where his descendents founded Rome.
Virgil reminds Caesar that Heaven grumbles and murmurs to him to care for human triumphs, where right and wrong are confused, where wars cover the world, where wickedness is everywhere, where the farmers’ award of honour is gone, the fields are weeded, the tillers are marched away, sickles are forged into swords and the Euphrates and Germany heave with war; cities rush into arms over broken laws; the merciless War-God rages throughout the world, “even as when chariots bursting from their barriers swerve out on the course, and, vainly, tugging at the curb, the driver is swept on by his horses, and the car hearkens not to the rein.”
I have lived from 1921 to 2009 A.D. I lived through the Depression. I served in WWII. I watched and hoped through the Korean War. I cursed through the Viet-Nam War. I yelled and pounded through the first Iraqi venture and I have stormed and groaned through the second Iraqi War, both of which caused the Euphrates and its sister, the Tigris, to run red. I have seen and heard about wickedness. I have long been aware of the shabby treatment of tillers of the soil.
I have endured the present administration [George W. Bush]. And I find Virgil’s metaphor of the chariot bursting from the barriers and the driver vainly tugging at the reins as the car careens to destruction—as a fitting one for it. Virgil’s world and my world would know one another were they to meet—and they have on history’s stage.