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A New Order for the Ages

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Detail of Aeneas and His Family Fleeing Troy by Agostino Carracci, 1595 (Metropolitan Museum/Open Access) America’s founding generation absorbed Virgil’s Aeneid and the lessons of Rome.

This essay series explores Italy’s unique contribution to the rich inheritance of Western civilization, offering a defense of the West’s political and cultural achievements. Find previous installments here, here, and here.

Naples, Italy — At a crisis moment in his life, the epic hero of Virgil’s mythic account of the founding of Rome turns to a woman for counsel. Aeneas, the prince of Troy, had fled the ruins of his city when it fell to the Greeks and arrived in Cumae, west of Naples, anxious and uncertain about his fate. He asks the Sibyl of Cumae, one of the most revered prophets of the ancient world, to guide him in his journey to the underworld. She agrees, but not before delivering a message filled with foreboding:

You have braved the terrors of the sea, though worse remain on land — you Trojans will reach Lavinium’s realm — lift that care from your hearts — but you will rue your arrival. Wars, horrendous wars, and the Tiber foaming with tides of blood, I see it all!

The Aeneid has been described by one scholar as “the single most influential literary work of European civilization for the better part of two millennia.” It is a story about origins, written by Rome’s greatest poet when his nation was in the throes of an identity crisis. The Roman people had discarded their republican form of government in favor of an empire run by autocrats. Virgil, probably prompted by the Emperor Augustus, sought to give Rome a revived sense of its civilizing mission in the world — to somehow reconcile the ideals of the republic with the fearsome realities of the empire.

The encounter at Cumae marks a turning point for Aeneas. “Come, press on with your journey,” says the Sibyl. “See it through, this duty you’ve undertaken.” Aeneas, obedient to the calling on his life, forges ahead.

America’s founding generation absorbed Virgil (70–19 b.c.)

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