Home

This essay was written for a preceptorial on Virgil in my third semester at the St. John’s College Graduate Institute and selected by the SJC Prize Committee as the best graduate essay of the year. It isn’t my favorite of the work I’ve done at St. John’s, but given that a group of smart people whom I respect decided that they liked it I am open to the possibility that there’s something worthwhile in it that Iin the position of authoram incapable of seeing. This in mind, I decided to share it here and open it to more general criticism.


At the beginning of Virgil’s Aeneid, we find the surviving remnants of Troy floating across the Mediterranean in a mere handful of galleys after suffering defeat at the hands of the allied Achaean army. Waves toss the Trojan ships like a petulant child having a temper tantrum. The goddess Juno, angry about a prophecy foretelling the destruction of her beloved city of Carthage at the hands of the Trojans, petitions Aeolus to loose violent winds upon the already-tattered fleet. He complies. Violent gusts batter the Trojan galleys, breaking several against rocks jutting up from the sea floor. The sea-god Neptune notices what is happening in his domain and rages at the other gods encroaching upon his sovereignty: he dispatches the winds back to their mountain home, rebuking Juno and Aeolus for their impetuousness. The winds calm, the seas still, and the Trojan exiles drift ashore near Carthage. They sprawl out in exhaustion on the beachhead, run an inventory of their remaining equipment and rations, and start fires for their first meal on land since being forced from their home. Aeneas goes on the hunt, killing seven huge bucks: one for each vessel destroyed in Aeolus’ storm. The Trojans—“a remnant left by Greeks, harassed by all disasters known on land and sea, in need of everything”[1]—sorrow at their condition.

However, there is hope. Aeneas, sensing the dejection gnawing at his men, makes a rousing speech: “You have neared the rage of Scylla,” he reminds them, “and her caves’ resounding rocks; and you have known the Cyclops’ crags; call back your courage, send away your grieving fear.”[2] Then he reveals a second prophecy concerning the future of the Trojan people: “Through many crises and calamities we make for Latium, where fates have promised a peaceful settlement. It is decreed that there the realm of Troy will rise again.”[3] Though driven from their homeland, the Trojans are fated for a new home.

A new home is a strange idea. For us modern, 21st-century Americans, “home” is often merely a euphemism for “where you happen to live”: it is not uncommon to see billboards along highways advertising “New Luxury Estate Homes,” “1 & 2 Bedroom Apartment Homes,” “New Homes For Sale.” But for most of human history, home has been something familiar, old, and beloved—it precedes us, produces us, and remains a permanent part of the background of our lives even if we leave it for somewhere new. “You can take a boy out of the country,” they say—you know the rest of the story. Like Ithaca for Odysseus, home awaits your return, because one belongs to one’s home as much as one’s home belongs to oneself. Which is to say, home is as much a place—a fixed, bounded geographical zone with specific, identifiable qualities and details—as the stories, feelings, things, and—perhaps most importantly—people associated with it. Home is the place where you exist as a midpoint between a succession of generations into the past and a procession of generations into the future. “There’s no place like home” may be a cliché, but the saying is common for good reason: home is a place and no two places are identical. No two homes are alike—maybe not even for the people who share them.

What happens, then, when one’s home disappears? Not mentally, mind you: not as if the place that was once considered “home” is no longer thought of in those terms. What happens when home is destroyed? Where do you go when homecoming is impossible? Unlike many peoples whose names have been wiped off of the map and out of the register of human memory for all time, the Trojans are not simply homeless: they have a great destiny, foretold in prophecy. The destruction of their city provides them an opportunity. They are bound for a new home—not for an already-established, foreign city into which they will assimilate, but for a new place entirely. They will make a new home: Rome, a city fated to blossom into an empire. Aeneas will “establish a way of life and walls for his own people,” Jupiter reveals to Venus. And as for the following generations of Romans, the father of the gods will “give them empire without end.”[4]

This essay will explore home: what it is, how one comes into being, and what happens when home and world become identical.

Troy and Beyond

Troy was one of the richest and most beautiful cities in the world. The beautiful face of Helen was not the only thing that brought the Greeks to Trojan shores: the possibilities of plunder to be won from Priam’s city and well-wrought armor to be stripped from the bodies of dead Trojan soldiers were not overlooked. Even before Helen’s name is mentioned in the Iliad, Apollo’s priest Chryses relays to Agamemnon and Menelaus that “the gods grant who have their homes on Olympos / Priam’s city to be plundered and a fair homecoming thereafter”[5]—treasure was always part of the deal. Aeneas and the Trojans, even, did their best to rescue as much wealth from their city as they can: after landing in Carthage they draw from this collection to thank Dido for her hospitality. All the more horrible, then, to see it burned and pillaged.

But along with some of the city’s riches, the surviving Trojans also escape with the city’s “household gods.” The night after leading the infamous wooden horse inside the city walls, Aeneas is approached in a dream by Hector: the dead warrior reveals the treachery of the Greeks to our sleeping hero, urging him to wake and flee the flames of his burning home and entrusting to him Troy’s “holy things and household gods.” “Take them away as comrades of your fortunes,” he urges, “seek out for them the great walls that at last, once you have crossed the sea, you will establish.”[6] Aeneas wakes, arms himself for battle, and charges into the streets to make vengeance. There he meets Panthus, son of Apollo’s priest, desperately leading his grandson to safety while “in his hand he carries the holy vessels and defeated gods.”[7] But the existence of these peculiar deities is also mentioned in the first stanza of the poem: once he founds Rome, Aeneas will have “carried in his gods to Latium.”[8] And after landing at Carthage, as if to clarify just what “carry” means in this context, Aeneas announces to his disguised mother Venus:

I am pious Aeneas, and I carry in my ships my household gods together with me, rescued from Argive enemies; my fame is known beyond the sky.[9]

 Unfortunately, the poem does not provide any direct description of what these “household gods” are. We learn about them only by way of what happens to them—in their being held, carried, transported across the ocean in the galleys of ships. We learn that Juno is horrified by their fated arrival in Italy. While leaving Troy, Aeneas—hands soiled with Grecian blood—begs his father to carry them. And much later, after landing on Italian shores, we see Aeneas make a tribute to the household gods of his friend and ally Evander.

Every home has its gods, it seems: homes are not just where you and your family live, but also where your gods reside. And unlike the gods of Olympus, the gods of one’s home are fragile, transportable, and require a great deal of care. It is unclear what kind of role they play in the lives of mortals: we do not see any children of household gods, they never take human form, they do not intervene in human affairs. Rather, they are quiet elements of city life that seem to grant a sense of the sacred to affairs both domestic (Panthus and Evander seem to have their own household gods) and political (Aeneas carries the gods of Troy).

When home is the home of your family and your gods, it could never just be a house—which is why none of the places the Trojans stop on their way to Italy could have been their new home. Many of the places are self-evidently unfit for consideration as the location of a new Troy: Thrace is a poisoned place, the site of an ancient crime; Buthrotum is a sad and hollow replica of the once-great Troy, now shot through with sorrow and anguish. Others, however, are less clear. When the Trojans found the city of Pergamum on the island of Crete, it seems a fitting enough locale for long-term habitation—that is, until a plague befalls the island. Aeneas, sleeping in bed one evening, has a vision of his household gods[10] standing over him: they speak to him, reminding him of the promise of Italy, Rome, and the eventual empire over which his descendants will rule. Clearly, the gods are not happy in Crete. Aeneas orders the ships loaded and the sails raised, though a small group of Trojans stay behind. By the time they arrive in the comparatively hospitable Actium, it seems they have internalized the lesson taught at Crete: the Trojans spend a year there without founding a city, experience no hardship beyond the coldness of winter, and raise their sails for Buthrotum.

What ruled out Carthage, however, is initially much more opaque. Though initially met with resistance and suspicion, the Trojans are welcomed with open arms by Dido and the Tyrians. Their fame has been preserved in a series of murals—whether painted or etched is unclear—at a shrine to Juno in the heart of the city, depicting both the heroic deeds and the suffering of Trojan warriors in their battle against the Greek invaders. Carthage has build a monument to Trojan courage. And with the heroes themselves suddenly landed upon the shores of their domain, the Tyrians are happy to offer them a home. “[S]hould you want to settle in this kingdom on equal terms with me,” Dido promises them, “then all the city I am building now is yours. Draw up your ships. I shall allow no difference between the Tyrian and the Trojan.”[11] So why did this offer not last? The simplest answer is that the gods would not allow it. Indeed, when Hermes approaches Aeneas to remind him of the prophecy, “he sees Aeneas founding fortresses and fashioning new houses.”[12] Assimilation seems to be underway. It is only once the god reminds Aeneas of the promise made to his son that the Trojan leader’s mind changes. To remain in Carthage would mean to rob Ascanius of the glory for which he is fated. Carthage would provide a happy home for Aeneas and his people—but it could never allow for the glorification of Aeneas’ true heir.

People in a place with their gods and their families: this is the basic recipe for a home. But if a people cannot simply assimilate with another to have a home, how do they make a new one?

A New Troy

When Jupiter reveals the fate of Aeneas to his mother Venus, the first item in his list of events is that he “shall wage tremendous war in Italy and crush ferocious nations”—only after which he will “establish a way of life and walls for his own people.”[13] Rome will happen, but not without conflict. Prophecy does not imply simplicity or ease. But what is the function of war in the founding of a new home? Is it the whim of the gods? Or might conflict be a necessary part of founding a new home?

The Trojans do not simply invade Italy. When they land at Latium they are initially extended a warm welcome by King Latinus, who just recently received a prophecy that his daughter will be married off to foreigners. “For strangers come as sons-in-law,” the voice of his dead father tells him—and as if to assuage any doubt about who these strangers might be, he recites the fate of the Trojans: “their blood will raise our name above the stars; and their sons’ sons will see all things obedient at their feet, wherever the circling sun looks on both sides of Ocean.”[14] Rome, then, will begin with a wedding—but the wedding is the first source of conflict. Princess Lavinia has been all but promised to Turnus, the handsome and young king of the Rutulians, but Latinus’ prophecy inspires him to break off the engagement. Juno, furious at the prospect of a Trojan marrying into the Latin royal family, sics the Fury Allecto on the Latins: Lavinia’s mother Amata and Turnus are roiled into bloodlust. The Rutulian king begins to muster an army against the Trojans.

Allecto also helps sow the second seed of conflict, by leading Ascanius’ hunting dogs to the beloved stag of Tyrrhus and Sylvia. Ignorant of the stag’s privileged place among the Latins, Ascanius sends an arrow into his gut, killing him. It is a grievous betrayal of custom, but a custom that the Trojans could never have assumed—and which the Latins, being “a race of Saturn, needing no laws and no restraint for righteousness,”[15] would never have told them. Sylvia and Tyrrhus rouse the Latin farmers to battle: wielding whatever sharp implements they can find—“anger makes a weapon”[16]—they march against the Trojan encampments. First blood is drawn: Almo, son of Tyrrhus, is struck by an arrow from an unknown bow. Latinus rebukes Turnus and the Latin mobs and refuses to open the city’s Gates of War—but Juno does it for him, making the war official. War, however, requires alliances—and while the Trojan encampments are under siege, Aeneas sails down the Italian coast making pacts with friendly kings. The most notable of these is Evander, king of the Arcadians, who entrusts his son Pallas to Aeneas’ tutelage. By the time Aeneas returns to assist the Trojan ramparts, he has assembled thirty ships with ten generals from different regions of Italy. It is a motley crew, including gods and mermen, all willing to put their lives on the line for a Trojan victory.

Marriage, the breaking of custom, and alliances: these are the preconditions for the Trojan-Latin war. The marriage of Aeneas and Lavinia, if carried out, would result in the union of two peoples—but beneath the kingship of one: the Trojans. Aeneas and his people would inherit a city, a place to live while raising the walls of Rome, and the Latins will become collaborators in Rome’s greatness. And as Rome is destined to be an empire of law—one that is destined to “teach the ways of peace to those [they] conquer, to spare defeated peoples, [and] tame the proud”[17]—the flimsy, ambiguous rule of custom must be overcome. A civilized people must be able to articulate the rules, especially to guests—a tradition of inexpressible cultural habits is no way to teach the ways of peace to others. Furthermore, the alliances crafted in battle set the terms of who will possibly be victor and who the conquered: not only do the Trojans win if Aeneas leads his army to victory, but so too would (for example) the humble and rustic Arcadians. The winning party will determine the character of the peace that takes shape afterward. The conquered will be subject to the laws and customs of the conquerors.

Or so it seems, but the arrangement arrived at by Jupiter and Juno complicates this outcome. “For the Ausonians [Italians] will keep their homeland’s words and ways,” Jupiter promises his wife:

…their name will stay; the body of the Teucrians will merge with the Latins, and their name will fall away. But I will add their rituals and customs to the Ausonians’, and make them all—and with one language—Latins. You will see a race arise from this that, mingled with the blood of the Ausonians, will be past men, even past gods, in piety; no other nation will pay you such honor.[18]

Jupiter turns this expectation on its head: the conquerors will take the name and language of the conquered. In a set of circumstances unique to the Trojans and Latins—and brought about only through divine authorship—Trojan and Latin customs will exist peaceably alongside one another. Neither will dominate. But again, customs are not laws, and the Latins are a lawless people: one may assume that the laws established by Aeneas will be binding for this whole new race. Which is, of course, a curious and new term. From the union of these two peoples we will get one: no longer understood as members of family groups (Teucrians descended from Teucer, Dardaans descended from Dardanus, and so forth), the people will comprise a unity of plurality—a many that makes one. And this transformation of peoples into a race is a reflection of another transformation that Rome will effect: that of home into world.

World

Before meeting with the Latins after landing on the Italian peninsula, Aeneas visited the Sibyl. A deranged priestess of Apollo, the Sibyl was granted the ability to presage the future by writing the fates on a collection of leaves—which are then frequently scattered by the wind. But Aeneas is not here to hear the future from the Sibyl: rather, he requires her assistance in descending to Hades to visit the soul of his dead father, who will tell him the whole story of Rome. The Sibyl agrees, but Aeneas must first complete a few tasks: so Aeneas picks the golden bough, performs the required sacrifice for Persephone, and the two climb into the bowels of hell.

When they reach Anchises in the Fields of Gladness, he is positively glowing: he stands in the middle of a grassy meadow, telling the story of his bloodline to the souls of his descendants. Aeneas tries to embrace him, but his arms pass through his body like a beam of light through a window. They share tears. Anchises then takes Aeneas on a tour of the blessed part of the underworld, the place where great souls live out their afterlives in joy and gaiety while waiting for the moment of their resurrection—when, a thousand years after death, they will drink from the river of forgetting and return to a bodily form on earth. Then he reveals to him the destiny of Rome: the events that will shape its legacy, the greatness it will win, and the men who will lead it there. “Rome will make her boundaries as broad as earth itself,” Anchises says, “will make her spirit the equal of Olympus, and enclose her seven hills within a single wall, rejoicing in her race of men.”[19] Rome, it seems, will be founded as a great city by great men—but then will become something different. Rome will eventually become the whole world.

If what was said earlier about home has any validity—that home is a place—then this poses a strange problem. Just as home is a place, world is a space. Rather than being defined by boundaries, specificity, and uniqueness, the world is that space which transcends all places and inside of which all place loses its place-ness. A place is defined explicitly in opposition to the world: in full knowledge of the vastness of everything and the infinite array of possibilities, I settle myself in a small corner of existence whose contours become as familiar as the backs of my hands. I always live in a place, though I may have knowledge of the world: I can study astronomy, oceanography, and the histories of distant empires without ever leaving my home. Somehow, however, Rome will collapse these category distinctions: it will be an empire that spans the whole world, while remaining the home of a people in the form of a race. How does a transformation of this kind take place?

It seems to involve two factors: people and history. World-as-home-for-race carries with it a different set of categories than place-as-home-for-people: as seen before, the category “race” transcends of particular family groupings to constitute a higher-order unification of people. The Trojans and Latins will retain their separate customs and rituals, but will become one inasmuch as they are members of the same race—only this arrangement of people is capable of inhabiting a world-sized home. No longer will separate peoples inhabit far-flung cities ruled by hereditary kings: the boundaries of Rome and those of the world will become identical, uniting all people under one banner. The whole world will have an order, then—and he who rules Rome rules it all.

It is no accident that Anchises’ prophecy takes place over the course of many generations. The founding of Rome will not be like the creation of the heavens and earth (or even, perhaps, like the transformation of the Trojan and Latin peoples into a single race): it will not go from being a city to encompassing the entire earth in a single instant. Rather, though its destiny is already written, the transformation must play out in time. Successive generations will make their contributions to this transformation: specific human beings—people like Tullus, Numa, Romulus, Mummius, and Caesar—will be the agents of the change. Fate does not preclude active human participation in its execution. Gods may author what will happen, but humans must effect the execution. And inasmuch as human beings are beings in time, their actions are events in time—and the memory, or story, of these events constitutes history.

At the end of the Aeneid, however, we do not see the founding of Rome. The bleeding body of Turnus does not provide us with a vision of Roman greatness that we expect after reading numerous instances of prophecy: it is hard to see how the merciless, vengeful slaughter of the Rutulian king is a beginning-point for the eventual Roman mission of teaching peace to the conquered, sparing the defeated, and taming the proud. Perhaps the execution of prophecy often plays out like the opening of the poem, where a band of confused refugees float around the Mediterranean, unsure of where they may land. But though we all long for a home, perhaps only a few are called to inhabit their own—and even fewer to see theirs to greatness.

 

[1] Book I, lines 841-843. All citations refer to Allen Mandelbaum’s translation, published 1961 by Bantam Classics.

[2] I.279-282.

[3] I.284-286.

[4] I.369, 390.

[5] Homer, Iliad, trans. Richmond Lattimore, I.18-19.

[6] II.400-404.

[7] II.437-438.

[8] I.10.

[9] I.534-537.

[10] This is the only occasion in the Aeneid in which the household gods are personified and take on an active role.

[11] I.805-809. Emphasis mine.

[12] IV.347-348.

[13] I.363-369.

[14] VII.123-127. The ghost of Creüsa, Aeneas’ wife who died at Troy, had told him of this fate before he and the survivors had escaped the burning city: in Hesperia, “days of gladness lie in wait for you: a kingdom and a royal bride” (II.1056-1057).

[15] VII.268-269.

[16] VII.670.

[17] VI.1136-1137.

[18] XII.1107-1117.

[19] VI.1034-1038.

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