Ancient Political Thought


In The Aeneid, by Virgil, a founding story of Rome is foretold through myth-history in a way that constantly propounds phallocentric Roman conceptions of hierarchy, power, and authority, by way of repetitious imagery. These concepts, implicit and made explicit, are put forth by Virgil using seemingly every literary and oratorical device made available to him in unison. Although it exists as yet to be fully realized in the story; the ideology we receive as readers is that of the Roman Empire itself. Through the intertwining of prophecy and gods with history and leaders, the actual Rome becomes the same as the Rome foretold in The Aeneid, and so too,their morals. The effect, hammered home by the many occasions of foreseen and then fulfilled fate, is the legitimization of Roman imperialism as a long awaited, god sent solution. What then is the problem being solved?

In this paper, I will treat The Aeneid as a highly successful, world-historical, propaganda piece that rests at the foundations of Western thought. A story of the promised land. “There lies my love, there lies my homeland now” (Virgil 4.435). Aeneas says of Italy, a place never seen before by his own eyes, but it remains his destiny nonetheless. He need only to follow the path set before him by the gods in order to make the promised land manifest. And along the way incredible things occur:

“[Juno] hurled Jove's all-consuming bolt from the clouds,

she shattered a fleet and whipped the swells with gales.

And then as he gasped his last in flames from his riven chest

she swept him up in a cyclone, impaled the man on a crag” (Virgil 1.50).

I offer no context for this quote in terms of plot, so that we might be able to focus on the mechanisms of Virgil's story telling more minutely. See the quick paced changes in setting: from out of the sky, and into the ocean, then driven by the wind, towards rocky crags. The tension between man and nature animates so much of Virgil's rhetoric. All the time, imagery cycles through different elements: wind, fire, water, earth. With each scene change, the reader is also cycled through changing perspectives: from far away, to up close, from up high, to down low. For example, in this quote, the scene of a goddess in the sky looking down at a fleet of ships transitions into one man on one ship in that same fleet. The effect of the “quick shift” is that both perspectives overlap, like the Kuleshov Effect in film, gods become like humans and humans seem massive like gods. Just how massive is up to the reader's imagination. Scale reference is rarely offered, relative position is more important to reinforce the top-down hierarchy of power, but Virgil's glorification of Aeneas surely helps the reader “think big.” Together, all these elements create the epic style.

What pulls and drives the story forward, both the whipped and the whip, is the certainty of the Trojan's fate. All of the epic imagery and myth is important only insofar as they prefigure the rise of the Rome Empire. Aeneas is constantly being told to push forward, the wandering journey must be made, do not shirk from it, the entire poem has a momentum and always towards Rome. “And one day we shall lift your children to the stars and exalt your city's power. For destiny so great, great walls you must erect and never shrink from the long labor of exile, no, you must leave this home” (Virgil 3.190). Remember the question asked at the start of this investigation: what problem is solved by the creation of Rome? The solution is partially contained in this quote, so too then the problem which it solves. Walls are both the problem of and the solution to founding a city that can exert its authority far and wide, both in space and time.  “Strangers will come, and come to be your sons and their lifeblood will see, wherever the wheeling Sun looks down on the Ocean, rising or setting, East or West, the whole earth turn beneath their feet, their rule!” (Virgil 7.110). This is imperialism succinct.

As redemption for the fall of Troy, the rise of Rome redeems and succeeds it. In the final hours of Troy, Prince Hector appears to Aeneas in a dream, bloodied from the many wounds he suffered fighting round his city's walls, Hector calls out to him: “The enemy holds our walls. Troy is toppling from her heights...Seek a city for them, once you have roved the seas, erect great walls at last to house the gods of Troy!” (Virgil 2.365).  And later, Venus comes to Aeneas telling him to flee, “the ruthless gods who are tearing down the wealth of troy, her toppling crown of towers...It's Neptune himself, prising loose with his giant trident the foundation-stones of Troy, he's making the walls quake, ripping up the entire city by her roots” (Virgil 2.748). In these lines a Roman vision of what constitutes a city, what parts it must have, but also its weaknesses, we can elucidate as a sort of narrative.

The three essential things for a long lasting and defensible city are: foundations, walls, and towers; laid, raised, and protected by men. The image of a tree is helpful, and used by Virgil, like roots the foundation lies below, like branches towers rise above, and like tree trunks walls negotiate and defend the space between top and bottom. In other imagery too, authority is simultaneously above, in the stars, and below, in the underworld. See here, “Apollo rules, thrones on high, and set apart [in] a vast cave.” (Virgil 6.10) Apollo's stronghold is presented as both above and below. The living seem to have authority on high rooted in the authority of the dead below. Foundations are ancestral. Is it any surprise then that only after hearing about the future of Rome in the Kingdom of the Dead from his father Anchises, and Aeneas sees the leaders of Rome and cities prior with his own eyes, especially Augustus, “Here is the man, he's here!” (Virgil 6.915). Does Aeneas finally make walls in Italy, “Aeneas himself lines up his walls with a shallow trench, he starts to work the site and rings his first settlement on the coast with mounds.” (Virgil 7.180) But what sets Rome apart in its nature from Troy or Carthage or any other city with walls and towers?

After reading of the destruction of Troy, we witness the founding of Carthage. “Aeneas marvels at its mass--once a cluster of huts—he marvels at gates and bustling hum and cobbled streets. The Tyrians press on with the work, some aligning walls, struggling to raise the citadel” (Virgil, 1.507). Dido's city, though, is missing the male authority figure central to Roman ideology. Dido's sister sees in a marriage with Aeneas the potential meant for Rome in Carthage, “think what a city you see, my sister, what a kingdom rising high if you marry such a man! What a Trojan army marching at our side, think how the glory of Carthage will tower to the clouds” (Virgil 4.60). But Carthage is not worthy of that fate. Aeneas stands on a mountain side, like a god, when he sees the city for the first time. He looks down over the walls, through their defenses, and finds them struggling. Though he does become caught up in erotic love and forgets his fate, he begins founding Rome in Carthage, once he is reminded/commanded by Mercury to leave, dido watches helpless from her tower. “The queen from her high tower, catching sight of the morning's white glare, the armada heading to sea” (Virgil 4.730). She sits in the position of authority and power, but can do nothing as a woman.

I want to look closer now at what Dido's sister says about how if married the city, “will tower to the clouds” (Virgil 4.60) Here is what separates Rome from Troy or Carthage or any other. The height of their walls. Rome has walls like Troy, but also a different type of wall: ideological ones. How else can we understand walls through the clouds, into the sky, and in the stars, than as an abstraction. Ideological walls cannot be held by the enemy and can be brought anywhere. That is what allows Troy to be uprooted and travel for years before being re-founded. The people have moved from one place to another, but because they have not gone outside of the ideological walls the city remains the same. Otherwise, Aeneas would be like Dido, founding a new city separate from the one before. That we must travel far and wide, wherever we build our high walls is ours, and it is so because fate promised us these fruits is the logic of imperialism that ensures what Jupiter says can be true, “On them I set no limits, space or time: I have granted them power, empire without end” (Virgil 1.335).

Reading The Aenied, for me, has come at an extraordinary time. Last night, I read a new and revolutionary periodical, Tidal. In it, how could I ignore the notions found in Virgil also in Tidal's vision of possibility today, not identical, but related. Like seeing the beginning in the end. We find ourselves situated in the heart of the American Empire charting the limits of Manifest Destiny, with its roots in Roman ideas like the ones expounded in The Aenied, celebrating the possibilities that exist beyond those boundaries. The certainty of fate brings characters in Virgil's poem courage that burns deep in their hearts, like the fires deep in the underworld. Today, “the ghosts that come to us offer no vocabulary to describe the emptiness they helped create within us” (Tidal 1: 3). The time for a break has come and we find courage in uncertainty. “The forgetful sense, the ability to act in spite of uncertainty of consequence, the courage to put aside reasons why something won’t work: these all become necessary for authentic, radical action” (Tidal 1: 20).

In the article, “A Universal Chorus for Emancipation,” the encampment form of the occupy movement is seen as a, "fusion of means and ends" (Tidal 1: 20). If we replace “encampment” with “city” is this not also true of the Romans? The founding of the city was both the means and the ends for Aeneas. Compare the description offered of the making of an encampment in Tidal with that of the making of a city in Virgil: "The activity of taking over public space, holding general assemblies, setting up camp and building infrastructure for the needs of the camp is becoming the new and prevalent form of organized opposition" (Tidal 1: 20), “The Tyrians press on with the work, some aligning walls, struggling to raise the citadel, trundling stones up slopes; some picking the building sites and plowing out their boundaries, others drafting laws, electing judges, a senate held in awe” (Virgil, 1.507).

In both: land is taken or found, camp is set up, infrastructure is built, politicking begins–but of course they are similar in that way, “It's society stupid!” What I find interesting is that while in Virgil the narrative is: "We must travel far and wide, where ever we build our high walls is ours, and it is so because fate promised us these fruits. It is our manifest destiny," the vision put forth within Tidal (Issue 1) sounds like, “We aren't going anywhere, we've come to take down your walls, and it is so because these fruits are already ours, only of that are we certain.” Here, two ideologies meet as opposites. The antithesis of imperial ideology begins and comes out of its death.

In Virgil, the Trojans have an epic journey before the re-founding of their city can proceed. But Aeneas always knows the destination: Italy. It is certain, no matter how far off, because the scrolls of Fate have told him where to go. Today, right now, we don't have to travel anywhere. They say "go," we say, "no." We have in some sense arrived, together, right where we stand in discovering ourselves both walled in and out. But no matter, we meet each other there at the wall and that is all we need to proceed–immediately–in re-founding: everything! Not by making high walls, but by taking them down, not by calling the land of others our own, but by restoring land long stolen, not by waiting for orders, but by making writing our own “fate.” And it's only possible because everything outside of the wall is uncertain.

It is this line in particular which inspired me to include Tidal in this paper: “We have come to Wall Street as refugees from this native dreamland, seeking asylum in the actual. That is what we seek to occupy. We seek to rediscover and reclaim the world” (Tidal 1: 20). The act of re-founding where one already is, is a strange notion indeed to imperialists, yet it is happening the world over. And Tidal helps us understand this moment. Tidal is a fitting name, you see, in The Aenied, the Greeks storm the walls of Troy like, “no river so wild, so frothing in spate, bursting its banks to overpower the dikes, anything in its way, its cresting tides stampeding in fury” (Virgil 2.620). We see through the ideological walls around us like glass and pass through them like they were made of smoke. We subvert the ideological walls of empire from within and go beyond. At the limits of Manifest Destiny we wait for nothing.


“What do we want from Wall Street? Nothing, because it has nothing to offer us. We wouldn’t be here if Wall Street fed off itself; we are here because it is feeding off everyone. It is sustaining the phantoms and ghosts we have always known and whose significance we now understand. We have come here to vanish those ghosts; to assert our real selves and lives; to build genuine relationships with each other and the world; and to remind ourselves that another path is possible. If the phantoms of Wall Street are confused by our presence in their dream, so much the better. It is time that the unreal be exposed for what it is” (Tidal 1: 20).



“Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy.” Tidal Issue 1 (2011): 1-24. December 2011 .

Virgil. The Aeneid. Translation: Rober Fagles. New York: Penguin, 2006.