War, Violence, the Hebrew Bible & the Aeneid Essay
War, Violence, the Hebrew Bible & the Aeneid War and warfare can serve different purposes. Both the Roman Empire during the Golden Age, under the auspices of Rome’s first emperor, Caesar Augustus and the Israel’s who followed the Hebrew Bible engaged warfare. However, the wars had a different focuses and different goals. The wars of the Old Testament were wars of extermination, while the Romans had limited wars. Wars of extermination occurred during Israel’s theocracy, and are often cited by non-believers as a reason to reject following a religion. However, the wars of extermination were specific to the period when Israel was a theocracy.
Israel, we learn from the Hebrew Bible, followed a unique form of government in which God himself is recognized as the supreme civil ruler, and His laws are taken as the statute book of the kingdom. Israel’s theocracy existed from the period of Moses, Joshua, and the twelve judges, as the appointees and agents of Jehovah. The books of the Hebrew Bible serve not only for religious teachings, but also for historical accounts. Similarly the epic poem writer Virgil had a purpose to write a myth of Rome’s origins that would emphasize the grandeur and legitimize the success of an empire that had conquered most of the known world.
Virgil works backward, connecting the political and social situation of his own day with the inherited tradition of the Greek gods and heroes, to show the former as historically derived from the latter. Order and good government triumph emphatically over the Italian peoples, whose world prior to the Trojans’ arrival is characterized as a primitive existence of war, chaos, and emotional irrationality. By contrast, the empire under Augustus was generally a world of peace, order, and emotional stability. Virgil himself would appear to advocate for a more stoic Roman state in terms of conquest and violence in general.
Specifically, that Rome was an Empire not driven by blood lust but rather by invasions waged on the principles that Rome can bring about justice, law, and stability. The warfare they used was to “pacify” and “battle down” the conquered. The wars of extermination were specific to the enemies Israel faced. Typically, such a war required that Israel’s soldiers put to the sword not only all the able-bodied men under arms, but also all the civilian men, both young and old, including the elders. Sometimes the women and children, and ven at times all the farm and domesticated animals, the crops and material possessions, and even the city itself of the enemy were exterminated. A perfect example of this is when God commanded the annihilation of the Canaanites (Deut 7:1-2). Another famous war of this type is the one recounted in the destruction of Jericho. “… And they utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword. And they burned the city with fire, and all that was in it.
Only the silver and gold and articles of bronze and iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the Lord. Then Joshua made them take an oath at that time, saying cursed before the Lord is the man who rises up and builds this city Jericho; with the loss of his first-born he shall lay its foundation, and with the loss of his youngest son he shall set up its gates. So the Lord was with Joshua, and his fame was in all the land” (Joshua 6:20-27). However, the Hebrew Bible speaks the message to never to retaliate, nor repay evil with evil, for vengeance belongs to God (Deuteronomy 32:35).
In our understanding of how warfare and violence are dealt with in the Aeneid, its best to understand the values and principles of Rome at the time it was written. From this it is important to notice how Aeneas’ furor is demonstrated throughout the epic and how his quest becomes one of character reformation. He shifts from a Homeric individualist ruled by his passion, to a self sacrificing hero, who upholds the duty or Pietas to his family, country and gods above all other things. In the flashback to Troy, Aeneas is motivated by nothing more than his desire to seek a glorious death in battle.
He relates how “frenzy and anger drove me on and suddenly it seemed a noble thing to die in arms” (II, 321). However, it is clear that Virgil is not out to romanticize war in the same way as Homer and is therefore devoted to illustrate the selfishness and futility of Aeneas wish to die gloriously. Restrained by the divine intervention of his mother, he comes to understand that the preservation of his family and country are much greater priorities. This also evokes several other interesting concepts regarding the way Virgil is portraying the use violence and the reality of war.
Rather than war becoming an opportunity for personal glorification, we see Aeneas heroic efforts in battle suddenly redirected from the futile and selfish wish to die gloriously, to the preservation of his Gods and family. This is illustrated by Creusa’s plea “if you have reason to put hope in arms, your first duty is to guard this house” (II, 432). Seeking war and strife for no good reason is certainly not the action of a Roman hero, as Romans liked to believe that their acts of conquest were justifiable measures of self defense.
War is depicted by Virgil as a last resort, and learning to apply force when necessary is another important ideal Aeneas must strive to understand. “Roman, remember by your strength to rule Earth’s peoples for your arts are to be these: to pacify, to impose the rule of law, to spare the conquered, battle down the proud” (VI, 1151–1154). This passage is part of the speech Anchises delivers to Aeneas in the underworld, in Book VI, as he unfolds for his son the destiny of Rome. Virgil places his own political ideals in the mouth of the wise father, warning that the Roman nation should be more merciful than violent, even in its conquests.
Virgil here propounds the values for which he wants Rome to stand, and which he believes he has, in his own time, let guide him. However, while it has been proposed that the Aeneid may be nothing more than propaganda for the Augustan regime, to that point we can understand that when the values of a regime are expressed by a poet who shares those same values, the line between art and propaganda becomes blurry and therefore no one can sincerely know for fact what is the truth, and what the poet just wanted people to believe.
Nevertheless, Anchises’ rhetoric here about the Roman Empire’s justification for conquering of other peoples expresses the same justification that Aeneas and the Trojans make for settling in Rome. They defend their invasion by arguing that they bring justice, law, and the warfare with which they “pacify” and “battle down” to the conquered. The reference to the opening of the Gates of War provides insight to how warfare was dealt with in the Roman Empire. They indicate a declaration of war in a tradition that was still recognized even in Virgil’s own day.