Boatloads of refugees put ashore in Italy after a wearying journey at sea; the city they adored, Troy, now a smoking ruin after 10 years of a desperate war; many loved ones dead from the conflict, with others lost along the way, victims of violence, storms or age.
Put this way, the story of the “Aeneid,” Virgil’s epic masterpiece, has an inescapably contemporary ring. Today, in the wake of Middle Eastern wars, millions have fled the region, desperate for a new place to call home. Meanwhile, anti-immigrant politicians – Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Donald Trump, to name a few – have jumped on the confusion and chaos, only to see their own fortunes rise.
In some ways, it’s not possible to read the same great poem twice. Time and circumstance will always reconfigure its meaning. As the United States bars its gates to newcomers, the “Aeneid” – usually thought of as a tale of epic heroism – reads now as a parable of exile, immigration and the self-defeating disaster of irrational prejudice.
‘All we ask is a modest resting place’
Virgil’s epic poem, written between 29 and 19 B.C., is the story of a band of men, women and children who survived the Greek siege of Troy (in modern-day Turkey) – when “Fate compelled the worlds of Europe and Asia to clash in war.” Aeneas, a man “made a refugee by fate,” leads them on their journey to Italy, where they’ve been promised a home.
The first half of the poem describes the group’s wanderings across the Mediterranean, the losses they suffered along the way and the weariness that, at times, leads some of them – Aeneas included – to think of abandoning the journey.
“How many reefs, how many sea-miles more must we cross! Heart-weary as we are,” cry the Trojan women in a moment of despair. But Aeneas and the Trojans do eventually reach Italy: They land at the mouth of the Tiber River, immigrants looking to join the people of this foreign land.
Latinus, the king of this country, has been given a sign by the gods to welcome the newcomers:
Strangers will come, and come to be your sons and their lifeblood will lift our name to the stars.