Virgil did not write The Aeneid with America in mind, to be sure, but it’s hard not to notice connections. The biggest connection is pietas. This might strike one as an odd connection, given much of the decadence and irreverence in America today, but it is an apt one. I will risk a definition of piety that is faithful to older ones (both heathen and Christian) but unique in a way: piety is faithful participation in communal liturgies. Aeneas is seen as pious because he participates in the rites and traditions of his father (and the connections to patrias and fatherland are not accidental). This piety guides him to the Fatherland, Rome, which is his destiny.
The two themes warring in this epic are furor and pietas. Aeneas’s destiny is not simply to found Rome, but to suppress furor by embracing pietas. Understanding furor–rage and passion–(shades of Achilles!) provides a motif for several scenes. Carthage is dedicated to Juno, Aeneas’s enemy, who is “smarting over Paris’ wound.” Carthage’s queen, Dido, ends her life in an enraged suicide. Juno and Carthage are the embodiment of furor.
Peter Leithart (1999: 226) suggests the following outline:
A. Book 1: Juno, Storm, Calm
B. Book 2: Defeat of Trojans
C. Book 3: Wandering of Aeneas
D. Book 4: Tragedy of Dido
E. Book 5: Funeral Games
F. Book 6: Journey to the Underworld
G. Book 7: Peace, Juno, war
F’ Book 8: Aeneas and Evander
E’ Book 9: Night Raid of Nisus and Euryalus
D’ Book 10: Death of Pallas
C’ Book 11: War with Latins
B. Book 12: Victory of Trojans
A’. Juno’s Reconciliation
Aeneas’ descent into the underworld is not only important for the narrative, but is typological for much of later Western literature. It is reading too much into it to see it as a death-resurrection, though the pattern is certainly there. In any case, Aeneas emerges a changed man. He is able to leave Troy behind (and furor) by focusing on his destiny (pietas).
Compared to Homer’s heroes, Aeneas is superior. The rage that characterises Achilles is specifically condemned by Virgil. When Aeneas suppresses furor and embraces piety, positive things happen. Even when Aeneas engages in furor at the end of the book, it is in the service of pietas.
There can be no argument as to the poem’s beauty. Virgil far surpasses Homer. Virgil’s narrative is tighter and there does not seem to be a wasted word. And for all of Homer’s greatness, his heroes aren’t worthy of admiration. Achilles pouts when his slave girl is taken from him. Some sections are simply unmatched when it comes to awe and beauty (Dido and the Underworld). One can say that the poem has a haunting beauty and the phrase is apt. Despite the happy ending, it cannot be a true comedy. Aeneas brings with him the burning of Troy wherever he goes. True, he does bring order and law to Italy, but it is founded on blood and the sword.
In short, Rome is founded on blood. I don’t know if Girard’s thesis is correct–that every society projects its fear/sin/guilt/anxiety onto a sacrificial scapegoat. I think one can see echoes in Rome’s case. I haven’t seen the following corroborated in secondary material, but Aeneas appears to engage in human sacrifice. In Book XI (Dickinson translation) Virgil notes, “There stood the victims too/ hands bound behind their backs whose doom it was/ To appease in Death the spirit of the Dead” (246).
American conservative bemoan the fact that our society is mirroring the decadence of ancient Rome. That is a true enough observation. The founders, however, meant to mirror ancient Rome (if not its decadence, though Benjamin Franklin wouldn’t have minded).