Between Troy and Rome

Denis Feeney

  • Virgil’s Ascanius: Imagining the Future in the ‘Aeneid’ by Anne Rogerson
    Cambridge, 246 pp, £75.00, January 2017, ISBN 978 1 107 11539 2

Virgil’s Aeneid became the canonical myth of Rome’s origins as soon as it was published, following the poet’s death, in 19 BCE. When Troy fell to the Greeks, the story goes, Aeneas, the son of Venus and Anchises, survived and escaped from the burning city with his father and young son Ascanius (also called Iulus). After years of wandering, the Trojans reached Italy and settled in Latium, where Aeneas married the Latin princess Lavinia and founded a city named Lavinium after her. Following the death of Aeneas, Ascanius established a new city, Alba Longa, and a long line of Alban kings eventually resulted in the birth of the twins Romulus and Remus, who founded the city of Rome, hundreds of years after the Trojans’ arrival in Italy.

This elaborate story – multi-generational and international – was not Virgil’s invention. It had existed in something like this form for two centuries before he started writing, and the germ of the myth – the basic idea that Aeneas escaped from Troy and headed west – is older still. It is impossible to say exactly when the wandering Aeneas first became associated with Rome. In the late fifth century BCE, the mythographer and historian Hellanicus of Lesbos recorded that it was Aeneas who founded Rome and named the city after a Trojan woman called Rhome, but this story is a long way from the canonical version that emerged around 200 BCE: there is no appreciable gap in time between Troy and Rome, no intervening line of Alban kings and no twins. Hellanicus’ story is only one of many incompatible Greek narratives that linked the Trojans with Latium and Rome.

The details of their stories vary greatly, but the Greek authors all wanted to make sense of the Latins and Romans in terms of their own mythic past. As Elias Bickerman showed in a brilliant article 65 years ago, the Greek travellers and colonists who fanned out across the Mediterranean from around 750 BCE used their mythology as a framework for understanding the various peoples they encountered. Instead of recording what they heard from local ‘informants’, they applied a series of formulae for placing people they met on a cultural map. The ‘Trojan’ label positioned the Romans neatly on the sliding scale of civilisation: ‘more civilised than you’d expect even though not actually quite up there with us’. Once that had been established, the story was built up, eventually involving Etruscans, Latins, and Greeks from Sicily and Italy as well as the mainland. At a certain point the idea of a Trojan origin was embraced by the Romans themselves. Quite when that happened is disputed, but it was probably by the beginning of the first war with Carthage (264 BCE). The people of Segesta in north-western Sicily sent an embassy to Rome to appeal for an alliance on the basis of their shared Trojan ancestry: the entreaty must have made some kind of sense to the assembled senators.

For a long time, the link between Troy and Rome was much more immediate than in the version found in Virgil. In the early stories, Rome was founded soon after the fall of Troy, in the same generation or no more than two generations afterwards. Some time in the third century BCE the Greeks realised that the dates for the fall of Troy and the foundation of Rome could not be so close together and were probably separated by hundreds of years. This is where the intermediate city of Alba Longa came in: the kings of Alba Longa were plugged into the gap, and new kings added to the line whenever the dates needed to be revised.

A son of Aeneas now became an essential part of the story, since he was needed to provide a continuous male line from Troy to Alba. This is where things get complicated. Who was this son? What did he represent? What was his legacy? In her illuminating book, Anne Rogerson focuses on Ascanius as a figure whose role in the chain of transmission and inheritance deserves more attention than it has so far received. In Virgil’s day he acquired a new importance, because the man who ruled the empire after the destruction of the republic, Augustus, belonged to a family that claimed to be descended from him. When he was 18, and still called Octavius, Augustus had been adopted by his great-uncle Julius Caesar into the ancient clan of the Iulii, who had supposedly come to Rome from Alba Longa and claimed descent from Iulus, the son of Aeneas, grandson of Venus. Exactly how long the Iulii had been making this claim is uncertain – perhaps they only started doing it as part of their comeback bid in the second half of the second century BCE, when the long obscure clan suddenly began producing prominent politicians again. What is certain is that Julius Caesar was committed to the connection with Iulus, and with Iulus’ grandmother, Venus. In 69 BCE when Virgil was not yet one, the 30-year-old Julius Caesar gave a funeral oration for his aunt Julia in the Roman forum, bragging that she was descended on her mother’s side, the Marcii Reges, from one of the seven kings of Rome, and on her father’s side, the Iulii, from the goddess Venus. He concluded that his family was therefore entitled to the sanctity of kings and the reverence due to gods. This was the claim inherited by his adoptive son, Augustus.

Trojan glamour was a powerful asset in the competitive world of the Roman nobility, and many families played the inheritance game – so many that two scholars, Varro and Hyginus, wrote books On the Trojan Families. There were other lineages of note, too: many Roman families claimed to have non-Trojan heroes and demigods in their ancestry. It was a spectacular fluke that the family which came out on top was the one that could trace its line back to the origins of the Roman people and the son of a charismatic Homeric hero. The family myth of the Iulii suddenly came to seem eerily prophetic.

Rogerson shows that the apparently clear lines of this succession are more muddied than they at first seem. In the early stories there are two sons of Aeneas, not just one. Aeneas brought a son with him from Troy, the child of his Trojan wife, and this son had various names: Ilus (Ilian/Trojan), which became Iulus, the name claimed by his descendants the Iulii, but he was also called Ascanius. Aeneas acquired a new son when he married Lavinia, the Latin princess, and in some traditions this son is called Ascanius too. In others he’s called Silvius. Virgil combines different versions of the Ascanius story in his epic. In a prophecy in the first book of the Aeneid, Jupiter tells Venus that the Trojan boy Ilus/Iulus/Ascanius will found the city of Alba Longa, and that from the ‘race of Hector’ will come a priestess called Ilia (‘Trojan woman’) who will bear twins, sons of Mars. Against this heavily Trojan tradition, Virgil sets the alternative, more Italian one, expounded to Aeneas by his father Anchises in the underworld in the sixth book: in this prophecy, Aeneas’ Italian wife will give birth to Silvius, ‘king and parent of kings, from which origin our family will lord it over Alba Longa’.

It was a high priority for Virgil that the Iulii should keep their claim to the glamour and prestige of the Trojan connection, and he achieves this by stressing that there was a Trojan son of Aeneas called Iulus even before the Trojans arrived in Italy. The trade-off is that the half-Italian son of Aeneas becomes the ancestor of the royal line of Alba. Virgil is not just trying to save both stories. As Rogerson shows, a great deal hangs on their bifurcation. She argues that the future claims that are made for Ascanius keep getting occluded or interfered with through the competition of his half-brother: every time the Trojan boy is promised future glory, his father’s Italian son seems to claim it for himself. As a result, the future that at first looks so secure is made to feel less and less sure as the poem goes on.

The two sons of Aeneas also attracted the attention of Livy, who was writing his history of early Rome at the same time as Virgil was writing his epic. Similar issues were at stake for both authors, though Livy was more invested in the historian’s role as a debunker of fable: he touches on the feebleness of the Julian clan’s mythic pretensions by affecting not to know – and not to care one way or the other – whether the founder of Alba Longa was the all-Trojan prince or the half-Italian one. For both Livy and Virgil, different versions of the future of the Roman people could be glimpsed in these alternative first stirrings. Were the ur-Romans already hybridising in the first generation, in the way that became distinctive of the Roman people, or was the Trojan strain predominant? Considering the role of Lavinia, who raises her son alone after Aeneas’ premature death, we are prompted to wonder (even more by Livy than by Virgil) whether women are just vessels, or whether they can transmit culture.

Such a startling lack of precision at the origin of the Roman people has destabilising implications if we take the Just-So dimension of Virgil’s epic seriously. The Trojan/Latin heir is called Silvius because he was born in the woods (silvae). This is about as natural as you can get, a reversion to the first Latin named in Greek literature, the Agrios (‘Mr Wild Man’) who ruled the Etruscans with his brother Latinos, according to a passage in the Hesiodic corpus, from the second half of the sixth century BCE. The Trojans, on the other hand, as Edith Hall showed almost thirty years ago in Inventing the Barbarian, had stood as a model of oriental hyper-civilisation since the fifth century BCE, when the tragedians of Athens co-opted Homer’s Trojans into the roles of their contemporary Persian enemies. The split tradition of the sons of Aeneas helps to bring into focus a major preoccupation of the epic, which, in order to question the nature of Roman identity in the world of Augustus, engineers a tension between the homegrown naturalness of the Latins and the dangerously effete civilisation imported by the Trojans. Since Augustus had expended a lot of energy painting his rival, Mark Antony, as a decadent debauchee in thrall to an oriental queen, the Trojan inheritance was difficult to embrace wholeheartedly, and the figure of Ascanius, ‘poised between Troy and Rome’, is ‘an important reminder of the ongoing, if troubling, importance of Troy to Augustan Rome’.


Augustus could not let go of that Trojan son, who was a key figure, as Rogerson shows, in the public art of his reign. In Augustus’ Forum, dedicated in 2 BCE, 17 years after Virgil’s death, the statue group of Aeneas’ family fleeing Troy showed Aeneas as a Roman soldier, while his son ‘wears the clothing of an oriental prince, including the mitra or headdress seen as characteristic of the East’. Similarly, on the Altar of Augustan Peace, dedicated in 9 BCE, Aeneas is shown making a sacrifice in the quintessentially Roman toga, while the figure behind him – almost certainly his son – is wearing an eastern garment with long, frilly sleeves. Whoever designed these monuments had been reading the Aeneid carefully: the forward drive from Troy to Rome is slowed down by the Trojan boy, who hasn’t grown into his Roman role.

Rogerson shows how the epic’s teleological momentum is undercut and countered at many points, often by Ascanius. His importance as the transitional link between Troy and Rome, past and future, makes him the focus of apprehension and anxiety. At the end of the poem, with Turnus, son of Daunus, and Pallas, son of Evander, both dead, Ascanius is the only heir left standing, yet he is profoundly vulnerable, a precious creature who has to be sheltered. Here Virgil touches on contemporary events. Upper-class Roman children perished at the same high rates as other children, in an age when wealth did not protect anyone from disease or post-traumatic infection. Augustus’ nephew Marcellus died at the age of 19 in the summer of 23 BCE, while Virgil was writing the Aeneid, and the close of the sixth book conveys the profound shock to the regime of losing the heir presumptive (Augustus had no sons). Two decades after Virgil’s death, Augustus lost two more of his heirs: Gaius (at the age of 22) and Lucius (at the age of 18), the sons of his daughter Julia, whom he had adopted in 17 BCE. The fragility of family succession is one of the themes of Roman life that the Aeneid powerfully conveys.

Ascanius had to be protected, even if it meant forgoing the military glory that the traditional versions of his story had bestowed on him. In many of those he acquires the name ‘Iulus’ thanks to his first deed of manhood: killing the mighty Etruscan king Mezentius just as his beard was beginning to show its first ‘bloom’ (ioulos). Virgil preferred the version in which the name was genuinely Trojan in origin: Ilus was the grandfather of Priam. But etymology is not the only reason why Ascanius does not perform any impressive heroic feats in Virgil’s poem. All he is allowed to do is to shoot an Italian warrior from a distance with his bow, after which he is exempted from further military service by Apollo. Rogerson brings out the importance of this arrested development to the epic’s structure, which remains recursive and unfulfilled even as it launches the Roman project into the future.

As the heir to the prototypical Roman father, Ascanius shows how hard it was to be a Roman son. A Roman son was legally not even an adult so long as his father was alive, for he remained in patria potestate, ‘in the father’s power’, until the day his father died. Ascanius’ fumbled attempts at growing up are smothered by the shadow cast by his formidable father. There are no conversations between Aeneas and Ascanius, as there are in the Odyssey between Odysseus and Telemachus. The one time Ascanius says anything in his father’s presence he is immediately silenced by Aeneas, and the one time Aeneas addresses Ascanius he does so through the iron helmet he has just put on, only five hundred lines from the end of the poem.

Like all aristocracies, the Roman one loved to identify talent – the continuation of their talent – in their children, and the Ascaniuses of that world were caught in the double bind of labouring under their fathers’ domination while trying to live up to the pressure of family expectations. In the patriarchal nobility, precocity was both encouraged and frowned on. Julius Caesar’s adopted heir, the future Augustus, had to negotiate this terrain when he arrived in Rome after the Ides of March to claim his inheritance at the age of 18. He was taken seriously by very few, and the new Caesar found himself labelled puer. The word can mean ‘boy’ or ‘lad’, but his enemies meant something like ‘kid’; according to one ancient source, being called puer all the time got under his skin so much that he managed to have a decree passed by the Senate forbidding it. It would have been easy for Virgil to write a founding story in which the ancestor of the Iulii proved everyone wrong and outstripped being just a kid; but at the close of the Aeneid the future of this puer is up in the air, along with so much else.