see entire post series on topics in the Aeneid here.
Over the summer months I found myself asking what it would be like if the ancients ran the Beijing Olympics. Apart from the addition of the philosophers’ football match, I think there would be a few changes to the actual event. Games are found in both the Iliad and the Aeneid. But lest you think that all ancient games were alike, I am going to give a brief whirlwind tour of the two visions of what “Games” meant. The Greek games, as shown in Homer’s work, were, well, Greek. That means idealism. If you recall the funeral games which Achilles staged after the death of Patroclus, you might recall that there were some unfortunate events which prevented the “best” man from claiming the prize. In the true spirit of Greek idealism, the man who was known to be better got a prize, regardless of the actual practical outcome. His virtue in that area was known and honoured, regardless of how he actually placed in the standings. Sort of like the officials giving a prize to an athlete whom everyone knew was the best; he may simply have had an unfortunate circumstance get in way that particular day.
Not so with the Romans. In book V of the Aeneid, after the tragedy of Dido, we have Aeneas and his crew landing on Acestes’ soil, where they celebrate their new direction with games. Now that Aeneas has returned to following the will of Fate, Virgil once again drives home the point that he is again a “good commander” (V.34). He lost those positive adjectives when Aeneas was moving away from his destiny. It is only when Aeneas is following his destiny that he is called “pious”, or “dutiful” or “good”. They find themselves carried by “the great gods’ will and contrivance” (V.75) back in the land where Aeneas buried his father Anchises. And so we see that in both the Iliad and the Aeneid, the games are connected to the death and afterlife. These games, like the ones staged by Achilles, are also in a way “Funeral Games”. Perhaps there is some relation between the classical games and the notion of “Sabbath” in its Augustinian sense from the Confessions – eternal rest. Be that as it may, how does Virgil run the games? First, we might note that this book provides some relief after the intensity of book IV. But in the overall scheme of things, what do the games say about Roman character, and empire, and what it takes to rule the world?
The difference between Greek idealism and Roman pragmatism can be seen in the events of the Roman footrace. Although we know who the “best” runners are, it is the actual outcome, regardless of circumstance and good or ill fortune, which determines the order of prizes. The footrace is the scene of some rather unwholesome tactics, shall we say. However, Aeneas tells the competitors:
No change by anyone in the winning order.
Let me console a blameless friend’s bad luck. (V.445)
Romans must recognize the practical affairs, and that empire will be won and kept not by rearranging things according to an ideal, but by working with and through all those things which are called “fortuna”. Somehow Fate must find a way to work with fortuna – the ideal must work with the practical. It is interesting to note some of the ideas which come out in the other contests. In the boxing match between Entellus and Dares, Aeneas intervenes to stop the match as Dares is being badly beaten his opponent:
Could rashness take you this way? Don’t you feel
A force now more than mortal is against you
And heaven’s will has changed? We’ll bow to that! (V. 602)
It is to heaven’s will (Fate) that the Romans will bow. And it might be inferred, they will bow to no others. The games end with the boys of the company engaging in a a mock battle formation. The games serve another purpose: reminding Romans that their vocation from heaven also includes the call to war. The empire cannot be established without conquering.