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Lecture Audio & Text, <br>Dr. Andrew C. Dinan: <br>In Defense of the <em>Aeneid</em>

Lecture Audio & Text,
Dr. Andrew C. Dinan:
In Defense of the Aeneid

Posted: September 23, 2020


Dr. Andrew Dinan
Associate Professor of Classics
Ave Maria University
St. Vincent de Paul Lecture and Concert Series
Thomas Aquinas College, New England
September 18, 2020


Thirteen months ago I was privileged to be in your majestic auditorium for the first matriculation ceremony of Thomas Aquinas College, New England. Just prior to that event my moistening eyes witnessed a poignant presentation at the flagpole, just up the hill from here. Many of you were there; you will recall the scene. The colors were raised, your bishop offered a prayer, and Mr. Donald Glascoff, the Vice-Chair of the Board of Northfield Mount Hermon, your predecessors on this capacious campus, presented Dr. McLean with a 400-year-old edition of St. Thomas’s Summa, declaring that he was “giving Thomas Aquinas to Thomas Aquinas.”

So your name, it seems, really does evoke your essence. You really are a school under the patronage of, and imbued with the religious and intellectual commitments of, the Angelic Doctor. Not that I was ever in doubt about this. The many outstanding alumni and alumnae of Thomas Aquinas College whom I have had the pleasure of coming to know over the years—one of whom taught me, and some of whom I myself have taught; or, I should say, I largely observed as they taught themselves—had long since confirmed in my mind the robust Thomistic ethos of your school, and, I should add, the integrity, authenticity, and excellence of the formation imparted here.

Given this Thomistic commitment, I thought I would structure my remarks this evening along the lines of an article from the Summa. I have some trepidation about this. I have tried this only once before, and it was a failure.

I know that you did not come here tonight to hear me tell stories about myself, but I will tell you this one anecdote.

I attended a public high school just south of Washington, DC. In senior year one of my friends was elected Student Body President, and in his largesse he bestowed plum positions. By means of such nepotism I ended up with the exalted title of “Publicity Coordinator.” Now five minutes spent with me will make you realize how poor a choice this was—I do not like to coordinate, and I loathe advertising.

My first assignment was to publicize an upcoming student dance. Ordinarily this would have been done with posters, balloons, chalk, etc. Did I mention that I have no artistic talent? So what was I to do?

Well, at the time I had recently discovered the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, by virtue of two dated, black tomes, the Random House Basic Writings, that for some reason—perhaps remnants from my father’s liberal arts education—sat on the bookshelves in my family’s study, and I had become intrigued by St. Thomas’s style of argumentation. So, rejecting the garish glitter, signs, and streamers, I spent one happy afternoon, in all earnestness, constructing a Thomistic argument for why students at my high school should attend the upcoming dance. It would seem that you should not attend the dance. Moreover . . . moreover . . . But on the contrary . . . I respond that it must be said that . . . To the first objection it must be said that . . . To the second . . . and so on. I was very proud of this mini-treatise, and I eagerly submitted it to my Student Government colleagues for their approval. Needless to say, my efforts were inadequate. From what I recall, they politely thanked me, but I don’t recall my Thomistic exercise gaining much traction, nor, strangely enough, do I recall doing any more publicity work that year. So ended my career in advertising and my attempt to imitate the Summa.

Tonight, I trust, I have a better sense of my audience, and of my subject matter.

So let’s begin. Ad primum sic proceditur

Videtur quod non necesse sit Aeneida legere. . . It seems that the Aeneid need not be read at Thomas Aquinas College. After all, Homer more than suffices. Not only is Homer prior to Virgil, but he is also better. In fact, Virgil’s Aeneid seems entirely dependent upon the Iliad and the Odyssey. Therefore there is no need to read the Aeneid, certainly not on a crowded seminar syllabus. Give another day to Thucydides . . . or Plato’s Republic, or Homer himself, but spare us Virgil’s derivative exercise.

Praeterea . . . Furthermore, the Aeneid is unimportant and irrelevant today. Its pages are saturated with proper nouns, most of which are foreign to twenty-first-century Americans. Time is short. Why should we make the effort to steep ourselves in the nomenclature of obscure tribes, false gods, exotic cities, and inane heroes? To be sure, in the case of Sacred Scripture, we can understand the need to acquaint ourselves with particular persons, places, and things—to know who the Edomites were, the location of Tyre and Sidon, what a phylactery is. Even in Homer, we can perhaps stomach the plethora of proper nouns, because we sense that Homer is really speaking about universals, about human nature itself. But what is the payoff for knowing the name of Dido’s murdered husband, what the penates were, or the foggy geography of the underworld? Virgil’s epic lacks the transcendence of Sacred Scripture and the universality of Homer. Therefore the Aeneid need not be read.  

Praeterea . . . Aeneas is neither as illustrious nor as compelling as the Homeric heroes. In fact, he seems flat, dull, wooden, devoid of personality, almost an automaton. Who can relate to him? We are horrified, or at least awed, by swift-footed Achilles’s frightful wrath, dazzled by crafty Odysseus’s wily subterfuge, and moved by man-slaying Hector’s devoted valor. But pius Aeneas, pious Aeneas . . . as a recent New Yorker article put it, he seems like “a cold fish.”[1] Spare us this uninteresting mediocrity. Eliminate the Aeneid from the reading list!

Praeterea . . . as Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) pronounced, “If you take from Virgil his language and metre, what do you leave him?”[2] Or, as the American literary critic Marc Van Doren (1894–1972) put it: “Homer is a world; Virgil, a style.”[3] To be sure, the Aeneid contains exquisitely quotable and eloquent lines, but education is about more than reveling in rhetorical pyrotechnics or pretentiously parroting a pastiche of poignant phrases. The philosophers of Thomas Aquinas College demand principles and arguments! Give them substance, not style! Take the Aeneid off the reading list!

Do you sympathize with any of these four objections? Do you wish I had given others? St. Thomas offers fourteen objections when he discusses the rationale behind the sacrifices of the Old Law (Ia IIae 102.3). Then again, as you know, in the famous five ways, he only offers two objections to the existence of God (Ia 2.3). Well, I’m going to stick with these four. You can raise your own during the Q&A.

Sed contra est quod dicit Thomas Stearns Eliota: But on the contrary, T.S. Eliot (1888–1965), the twentieth century’s most influential poet/critic, declared: “Our classic, the classic of all Europe, is Virgil.”[4] I would add that the Aeneid is America’s classic too.

Respondeo dicendum quod Aeneis omnino legenda est omnibus discipulis liberaliter instituendis, I answer that it must be said that the Aeneid absolutely must be read by all students who are pursuing a liberal arts curriculum!

First, we need to establish an important fact about the Aeneid. It is a deliberately unified, carefully planned work of art.

When I was growing up, I used to marvel at a saying that my father had clipped and tacked above his desk in the basement; it was a quotation, actually a paraphrase, of Oscar Wilde: “I spent all morning putting a comma in, and all afternoon taking it out.” This could well describe Virgil’s craftsmanship.

The twelve books of the Aeneid contain 9896 verses. It took Virgil ten or eleven years to write these lines.[5] If you do the math, you will see that he averaged about 2.5 lines a day. Let’s say he wrote for five hours each day. That’s a little over 3 words per hour, 20 minutes for each word! Now of course Virgil was not a clock. But it is clear that he wrote slowly, deliberately.

Truth be told, he had picked up his pace. When writing the Georgics, an earlier poem, which, by the way, John Dryden (1631–1700) called “the best Poem of the best Poet,”[6] he averaged less than one line per day. So the Aeneid, it seems likely, did not arise from a Romantic outburst, as Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” supposedly did. Rather, picture a sculptor chipping away, little by little.

Actually, Virgil himself offered a different metaphor: reportedly he likened himself to a she-bear who births cubs and then licks them into shape.[7] When writing the Georgics, he was said to dictate verses in the morning and then spend the afternoon revising, pruning, and whittling them down.[8]

Virgil was not only slow and deliberate; he was also a perfectionist. Evidence of this comes from the Latin text. Remember, the Aeneid is a poem, written in a particular meter—dactylic hexameter. Each line must have six feet. Yet fifty-four lines of the Aeneid fall short; they lack six feet. The Aeneid, therefore, was incomplete. Virgil reportedly wanted to spend three more years revising it, but in 19 B.C., when he sensed that his death was imminent, he ordered that it be burned.[9]

Despite this incomplete state, the poem is highly structured. Over the years readers have identified several patterns.

The most obvious is indicated in the opening words: Arma virumque cano, “I sing of arms and a man.” Virgil not only advertises that half of his poem, like the Iliad, will be about arma, weapons (books VII–XII), and half, like the Odyssey, about a virum, a man (I–VI), but he also suggests that he will rival and even surpass Homer, for he will combine both Homeric epics in his one Roman epic.

Moreover each book in the first half of the poem contains parallels with the corresponding book in the second half. Book I with Book VII, II with VIII, and so on.[10] For example, in Books I and VII the Trojans arrive in a new land, Carthage and Italy, respectively; in each case their reputation precedes them; in each case they are initially well received; in each case Juno stirs up trouble. Again, the destruction of Troy in Book II is paralleled by Evander’s guided tour of the future site of Rome in Book VIII.

Another pattern is that the even books tend to be marked by heightened pathos. II depicts Troy in flames; IV Aeneas and Dido; VI Aeneas in the underworld. The odd books have more of the character of interludes, offering a relaxation of tension. Think of the Aegean wanderings in Book III, or the funeral games in Book V.

Some have also seen a tripartite structure in the Aeneid, books I–IV being the tragedy of Dido, V–VIII the destiny of Rome, and IX–XII the tragedy of Turnus.[11]

You may find these more or less convincing, but they indicate that the Aeneid as we have it is, in the words of an influential American Virgilian scholar, “one of the most consciously planned and carefully constructed poems of world literature.”[12]

Now there are several conclusions we can draw from this careful craftsmanship.

First, the style of the Aeneid is meditative or reflective.[13] Virgil is concerned not only with narrative but with giving an interpretation to his narrative, or at least a perspective on the events he is narrating. This is why, by the way, a summary of the plot of the Aeneid falls flat. Virgil’s genius lies in imparting this perspective, which a summary cannot capture.

One example of this meditative perspective is the piercing question that Virgil occasionally inserts. The prologue to the Aeneid contains an important one. After identifying Aeneas as a man of remarkable pietas, Virgil wonders why he nonetheless suffered so greatly. Tantaene animis caelestibus irae? “Can there be anger so great in the hearts of gods on high” (1.11).[14] This question, never explicitly answered, looms over the entire epic and introduces a central theme, which we might paraphrase: is there merit in pietas? or again: is the universe hostile to human happiness? Another such question is in Book IX, when Nisus tells Euryalus of his daring plan. Nisus wonders:

“Do the gods
Put this fire in our hearts, Euryalus,
Or do our passions become our gods?” (9.184–85).

In other words, are epic heroes pious or are they merely idolaters; or less tendentiously, whence comes human motivation?

A final such question comes in Book X, after Aeneas kills the Latin warrior Lichas, who, Virgil informs us, was born by Caesarean section after his mother had died, and as an infant was consecrated to Apollo. “Why,” Virgil asks Apollo, “did you let him escape steel as a baby, but not now?” (10.316–17).[15]

These sorts of quaestiones disputatae are a sign that we are dealing with a reflective, even a philosophic, poet.

Another sign can be found in the Aeneid’s meditative similes. Consider the following, from Book I (1.148–56), when Neptune calms the Juno-incited storm.

Riots will often break out in a crowded assembly
When the rabble are roused. Torches and stones
Are soon flying—Fury always finds weapons—
But then all eyes light upon a loyal citizen,
A man of respect. The crowd stands still
In hushed expectation. And with grave words
He masters their tempers and calms their hearts.

So too the crashing sea fell silent, as its sire,
Surveying the watery expanse, drove his chariot
Under a clear sky, giving the horses free rein.”

Do you appreciate Virgil’s reversal? Homeric similes invoke the natural world to explain human behavior. But here, in the very first simile of the Aeneid, Virgil invokes human affairs, specifically Roman civic life, to explain a natural phenomenon. He also introduces vocabulary central to the poem’s meaning: furor, which leads to disorder and violence, can be overcome by pietas, which directs and soothes the passions. The simile, it is clear, is not mere embellishment. It is programmatic.

A final, related, example of Virgil’s reflective poetry is his sustained and developed use of imagery. As with the similes, at times we may be tempted to dismiss poetic imagery as mere embellishment. But in the case of the careful, deliberate, reflective Virgil, this would be a grave mistake.

Let me show you, by summarizing a famous article written by the war hero and man of letters, Bernard M.W. Knox (1914–2010).[16] By the way, I know that you use Fagles’s translation in your seminar here, but if you ever have a chance, try to get your hands on Robert Fitzgerald’s translation and read the introduction, written by Knox. He describes his own rediscovery of Virgil, which occurred, in all places, in a bombed-out Italian villa during the Second World War, as Knox took a break from firing his machine gun at German troops.[17]

Knox’s insight concerns Book II, which, as you know, recounts the fall of Troy. It is only here—and not in Homer—that we learn the full saga of the Trojan horse, of mendacious Sinon, of ruthless Pyrrhus, Achilles’s son, of the now-iconic image of Aeneas fleeing burning Troy; his father Anchises draped over his shoulders; one of his warrior’s hands grasping that of Iulus, his son; his soon-to-be-lost wife Creusa trailing behind. As Knox demonstrated, beneath the pathos of Book II lies a recurring image—that of the serpent. In the beginning of the book Laocoon and his two sons are entwined by serpents, who, ominously, come from Tenedos, the very place the Greeks are hiding offshore. In the middle of the book, when Aeneas and his men, in an un-Roman act of duplicity, don Greek armor and surprise the Greek warrior Androgeos, it is the Trojans who are likened to a snake, concealed in the grass. At the end of the book Pyrrhus, Achilles’s son, is said to slough off his skin like a snake. Knox argues that each of these passages draws upon a different connotation of snakes—concealment, violence, and renewal—and that these connotations not only add color and interest but they “interpret” the plot by providing a sort of running commentary. Specifically, this imagery connotes the deceit of the Greeks, the violent carnage of battle, as well as the promise of Troy’s rebirth. Some of you may wonder—did Virgil intend this? Knox deflects this question, dubbing it “barren and irrelevant,” although he seems to think that Virgil was aware of what he was doing. But in the end he concludes: “To probe Virgil’s mind at work is beyond any powers of analysis, though analysis may occasionally reveal fresh treasures in the poetry which his mind produced. There is no fear, in Virgil’s case, that the process may dissipate the poetry; its riches are inexhaustible.”[18]

So one consequence of Virgil’s reflective style is that he must be read differently from Homer. I am not suggesting that Homer is unreflective. But I am suggesting that Virgil’s poetry is denser than Homer’s. In part this reflects the manner of composition. Homer is the culmination of a tradition of oral-composition, i.e., bards who compiled, without the use of writing, lengthy poems about legendary heroes. These poems were largely in the memory, and in each retelling a bard embellished or tailored his story to particular audiences. Please do not misunderstand me—I am not suggesting that Homer was merely a good story-teller. But I am saying that Homer’s poetry was composed for the ear, for an audience. It moves swiftly, with much repetition, frequent digression, and formulaic language. Virgil’s poetry of course should be heard too, but Virgil was also composing for readers. In fact, Virgil’s poetry reflects the prodigious learning of the city of Alexandria, with its famous library, scientists, and scholars, a place where, as one of my professors in graduate school said, for the first time scholars were writing books by means of books. So in addition to being filled with piercing questions, thought-provoking similes, and elaborate imagery, the Aeneid is replete with learned allusions to earlier Roman and Greek poets, chiefly Homer himself. One need not grasp these allusions to enjoy the poem. But they are there, for those who choose to probe them.

In sum, when you read Virgil, you have to adopt a corollary of that Oscar Wilde quotation with which I began. You have to spend the morning reading a few lines, and the afternoon rereading and pondering them.         

I fear that you may be scratching your heads a bit, waiting for the real meat of this talk. You may be thinking—yes, Virgil may have been a skilled and careful craftsman, and I take your word that his poetry is rich with images and densely allusive, but where is the substance? Does the Aeneid present themes for us to consider?

The answer is a resounding yes. What are some of these themes?

The first theme is the city, and the state. Here we see a big difference between the Homeric epics and the Aeneid. The Greek army at Troy was a loose confederation of contingents from various city-states. Recall the infamous close of Book II of the Iliad, the Catalogue of Ships—the section where, as one of my college professors put it, students nod off while historians perk up. Following the war, these contingents would return to their separate communities and have little to do with one another. The city, and political organization in general, are in the background of the Iliad and of the Odyssey. Not so in the Aeneid. The theme of the Aeneid is the foundation of a city: dum conderet urbem (1.5). Aeneas is not alone in this regard. Others, too, are building cities. Dido, in Carthage, is well underway, much to Aeneas’s envy: O fortunati, quorum iam moenia surgunt! (1.437). Aeneas, in fact, begins to help her build her city. Helenus has attempted to replicate Troy in northwestern Greece (3.294–355). Acestes, a Trojan, has built a city in Sicily, where some of Aeneas’s weary companions choose to reside, rather than to proceed to Italy (5.746–78). Diomedes is building a city in Italy (11.225f). But the Roman city is to be different from these. It has a universal mission, not only to hold sway with a vast imperium but also to encompass within itself different ethnic groups. Much of the Aeneid probes the meaning and composition of this city.

Tangential to the theme of the city is the theme of power. The conflict in the Iliad concerns an age-old tension: military prowess vs. political authority. Achilles vs. Agamemnon. But following the war each, if he survives, will go his separate way. The conflict is personal and local. By contrast, in the Aeneid Virgil directly takes up the question of political power per se and of empire. The Latin word imperium appears some forty times in the poem, first in connection with Aeolus, whose imperium keeps the winds in check (1.54). Later in Book I, Jupiter reassures an anxious Venus that, whatever sufferings Aeneas will undergo, his descendants will enjoy imperium sine fine (1.279). When Aeneas visits Achises in the underworld, we learn that the vocation of Aeneas’s people is to erect walls, establish peace, and rule over the nations: tu regere imperio populos (6.851). This famous line contains an unexpected word. The tu refers of course to Aeneas, but Anchises does not call his son by name; he rather uses the vocative Romane: “Your mission, Roman, is to rule the world” (Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento). From the perspective of the narrative, of course, the Romans did not yet exist; they were only in potentiality. Virgil’s epic, then, is not so much about Aeneas as it is about Rome, and Rome’s power.

Here I should at least acknowledge what has, since 1963, been a dominant issue in Virgilian criticism: is the Aeneid a celebration of the emperor Augustus and the Roman achievement or does it rather offer a subtle critique.[19] Subtle, because Augustus was alive and very much in power when Virgil was writing, and Virgil owed much to Augustus’s right-hand man, Maecenas; Virgil was connected, we might say. Beginning in the 1960s some critics began to highlight those passages in which Virgil seems to cast a cloud over the Roman achievement. Think of his poignant elegies over fallen warriors, especially the young. And of course think of the enigmatic ending. The Aeneid’s last words describe not Aeneas, but rather Turnus’s life departing, indignantly, with a groan, into the shades, after Aeneas has mercilessly killed him: vitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras (12.952). It is not my intention here to settle this dispute between what have been dubbed the “optimists” and the “pessimists.” My intention here is simpler—to point out that one would never ask such a question about the Homeric epics. But Virgil’s poem will not let you avoid it. The Aeneid is reflective and substantial poetry.

This leads to the third theme I want to identify from the Aeneid: the role of history. Here again, we see how starkly Virgil differs from Homer. Homer’s poems, although they have been mined by historians, because they offer valuable clues to Mycenean civilization, do not concern history. In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis observed: “There is no pretense, indeed no possibility of pretending, that the world, or even Greece, would have been much altered if Odysseus had never got home at all.”[20] So too the Iliad. Despite its background—a great clash between Europe and Asia, one which, as archaeologists have discovered, really did take place—the Iliad is not really about history. It is about the wrath of one man and its consequences. The Iliad does not even narrate the fall of Troy. It stops short, with Hector’s funeral, and a fragile truce.

But the Aeneid is unintelligible without an historical perspective. It deals not with the generic, the foundation of a city per se, or the exercise of imperium in the abstract, but with the rise of one particular city, Rome! Think of how many episodes from the Aeneid depict this specific history. Think about Dido’s dying curse in Book IV in light of the three Punic Wars that, for Virgil’s readers, had already taken place. Think especially of Book VI, Anchises in Elysium, viewing the Hall of Fame of Roman statesmen and generals—yet to be born from the perspective of the narrative, but very real and often recent from the perspective of Virgil’s reader. Think too of Book VIII, considered the most Roman book of the Aeneid, when Evander guides Aeneas through the future site of Rome, places that Virgil’s readers knew quite well, under a much developed guise. Perhaps best of all, think of Aeneas’s shield, and contrast it with that of Achilles. The latter depicts life itself, with generic scenes of agriculture, civic life, a wedding, etc. Aeneas’s shield, by contrast, depicts res Italas Romanorumque triumphos (8.626), Italian things and Roman triumphs, with the Battle of Actium in the center. It was Virgil’s genius to elide the mythical and the historic: Aeneas, Romulus, Augustus, and all Romans.

The last theme I want to highlight about the Aeneid, which again sets it apart from Homer—is teleology. The world of the Aeneid moves towards a fulfillment, a resolution, an end.

One way to appreciate this is to consider the role of the gods. In Homer, the gods are capricious, foils for human beings, largely untouched by the world of human affairs, often comical, and subject to the mysterious concept that Homer dubs “fate.”[21] But in the Aeneid the gods take sides, even Jupiter himself does so, and although Virgil continues to speak of fate, it seems that it is not quite possible to distinguish fate from Jupiter’s will. And what is Jupiter’s will? That Aeneas make it to Italy, that his descendants found Rome, that Rome rule the nations, and that the Roman empire perdure. All of the movement in the Aeneid—the terrific storm in Book I, the Aegean wanderings of Book III, the tragic affair in Book IV, the northerly sailing in Book V, the journey to the underworld in Book VI, the mission to Evander in Books VII and VIII, the carnage in Books IX–XII—all of this leads somewhere.          

There is really nothing similar in the Homeric epics. The backdrop to Homeric poetry is the human quest to find meaning in the face of looming death. One finds this meaning either in martial prowess or in domestic felicity.

Aeneas, by contrast, has a mission, a destiny, with universal import. His mission is not simply a homecoming. It is in fact to something genuinely new, which cannot yet be seen, but which is gradually believed, and which will affect the entire world; towards this, then, Aeneas and his companions are being led.

At times, I fear, we are displeased with the destiny-theme of the Aeneid, as if it somehow impinged on the characters’ freedom, and made them less interesting. To which I would only say—how could we, as Catholics, ever think that a vocation renders life less free or less interesting?

Thus far I have tried to show that the Aeneid warrants the attention of students because of its aesthetics and because of its themes. But suppose you are not convinced.

One word, I believe, will put to rest any lingering doubts. Dante.

How can you engage the Divine Comedy unless you have read and closely studied the Aeneid? I would go so far as to say that it is more important for readers of Dante to have read the Aeneid than it is for readers of the Aeneid to have read Homer.

Now I am often suspicious when I hear a claim like the one I have just made. It smacks of the pretentiousness, even arrogance, of modern scholarship, compromised by the never-ending quest to identify the sources or influences upon a great work. But in the case of Dante, it is absolutely true, for Virgil was not just an influence upon Dante, but Virgil is a character, a leading character, in the Divine Comedy, and characters in the Aeneid regularly appear in the Inferno, whose structure reflects so much of Aeneid VI. Although Dante considered Homer the greatest poet—“lord of the song pre-eminent/ Who o’er the others like an eagle soars” (Inferno 4, Longfellow trans.), he chose Virgil as his guide and master. This selection was not only because of Virgil’s talent, but it was also because of the centrality of Roman culture to Christianity. According to T.S. Eliot, “the link between Virgil and Dante” is “central to European civilization;” because Roman culture, according to Dante and others, is a figura, an anticipation of Christianity.[22] More on this a bit later.

Dante is not alone. When you read, or reread St. Augustine’s Confessions, pay attention to the role of Virgil. I am not speaking about the obvious—Augustine’s lament for being too affected as a student by Dido’s tragedy (1.13), or again the glimpse he provides into the ancient classroom, when he and his peers had to dramatize Juno’s wrath from Aeneid I (1.17)—but I am thinking about something else. When Augustine describes his surreptitious departure from Africa for Rome, you might think of Aeneas (5.8). Both Augustine and Aeneas, after all, unexpectedly quit Carthage for Italy, having deceived the women who loved them, who in turn were inconsolable when they realized they had been abandoned, and who then had choice words for their respective men. The parallel stops there, of course, for St. Monica recovered and followed her son to Italy and all the way to Milan and his baptism, while Dido cursed the Romans and killed herself. But I trust you see my point: St. Augustine had so assimilated Virgil that he thought with Virgil. He was, in fact, a life-long reader of Virgil. Even while on retreat preparing for his baptism, Augustine was accustomed to have a half-book of Virgil read aloud every day before dinner.[23]

Throughout the ages sensitive readers have similarly been moved by the Aeneid. In more recent times the learned English priest Ronald Knox titled his book about his conversion to Catholicism A Spiritual Aeneid; he too, like Augustine, was reading the Aeneid right up to the time of his reception into the Church—“I finished the Aeneid the night before I was received”— and in a letter Knox wrote on the eve of his reception he cited a line from Aeneid VI: Jam tandem Italiae fugientis prendimus oras.[24]

You do not have to be so moved by the Aeneid, but it is good at least for you to know the text that has so moved others. For students being liberally educated, a responsible reading of the Aeneid is indispensable.

Ad primum ergo dicendum quod . . . To the first objection it must be said that regardless of whether one prefers Virgil or Homer—and it is not my intention tonight to convince you that Vergil is superior—one must stoutly reject the charge that Virgil was merely Homer’s imitator, as if he lacked originality, or even worse, were a plagiarist.

The charge of plagiarism, by the way, was made already in Virgil’s lifetime. According to Suetonius, Virgil used to offer the following rejoinder: “Why don’t my critics also attempt the same thefts? If they do, they will realize that it is easier to filch his club from Hercules than a line from Homer.”[25]

Lists detailing the correspondences between Homer and Virgil are easy to come by. But what do such lists mean?

You won’t know, until you sit down and examine the passages, side by side, at length. If you do so, you will discover that Virgil’s borrowing is always an artistic adaptation, a true appropriation, in which the original is reworked, for new purposes. I hope I have demonstrated that Virgil’s themes were not Homer’s.

But rather than giving you specific examples of this, I want to comment on a larger theme, viz., the role of the Romans in Western Civilization.

So often we hear that the fonts of Western Civilization are the Greeks and the Jews, Athens and Jerusalem. Yet what of the Romans? Their role, I fear, is neglected or even disparaged.

Sometimes, detecting similarities between Roman and Greek achievements, we may be tempted to regard Roman civilization in general as somehow derivative, and therefore not worthy of attention. This can take several forms:

  • a conviction that the only real philosophers were the Greeks;
  • a belief that the Latin language is not as supple, sophisticated, or richly redolent as Greek and can therefore be disregarded;
  • a judgment that the Roman contribution to Western Civilization is limited to the necessary but relatively unexciting stuff of law and warfare;
  • an assessment that Roman art (e.g., sculpture) lacks depth and is purely imitative of Greek art;
  • a belief that the Latin Church Fathers, with the exception of St. Augustine, lacked originality and were simply transmitting the profundity of the Greek Fathers;
  • a suspicion that the Vulgate somehow clouds the meaning of Sacred Scripture and must be circumvented.

At times, perhaps influenced by such notions, we may be tempted to do an end-run around the Romans, to get to some supposedly pure font of Greek wisdom, which the clumsy and practically-minded Romans muddied or somehow compromised.

I have no argument against the profundity of the Greeks. I want rather to rehabilitate the Romans, especially if you harbor any of the above notions. (I know that I have. As a sophomore, in my oral exam for Great Books seminar II, I disparaged Cicero as inferior to the Greeks, and my professor was a leading Cicero scholar!)

Not long ago the French Catholic man of letters Rémi Brague offered an intriguing rehabilitation of the Romans. The Romans, to be sure, at times were mere conduits for the riches of Greek culture. Yet being a conduit, or an aqueduct, is not to be disparaged.[26] It involves a recognition that there is something higher that must be worked up to, and then brought down, so to speak. This was the great Roman achievement—“to have spread the riches of Hellenism and to have transmitted it down to us.”[27] It certainly could have been otherwise. The Romans could have protested the riches of Greek culture, kept it at a distance, and refused to be influenced by it. There are instances in history when cultures have rejected salutary influences from the outside. But to their credit, and to our benefit, the Romans did not. This attitude of openness to the riches of Greek culture, a willingness to embrace it and to expend the effort in transmitting it, is what Brague sees as distinctively Roman. In this regard, think of the Aeneid, which depicts the future site of Rome as a Greek settlement, Evander’s Pallanteum, a clear indication that Rome was fundamentally indebted to the Greeks. A remarkable cultural humility. In fact, is it not the case that Virgil’s indebtedness to Homer was a sign of remarkable humility?

And this attitude is not limited to the classical Romans. In fact, Brague argues, all of us to some extent find ourselves in the position of the Romans, of being recipients and potential heirs of a tradition that is not ours. We are in a secondary position with respect to the culture that we aspire to embrace. In his formulation: “To be ‘Roman’ is to have above one a classicism to imitate and below one a barbarity to subdue,” yet, it is important to qualify, lest this be understood as some sort of cultural chauvinism, this struggle takes place within oneself—Brague speaks of an “inner barbarity.”[28] According to Brague, “to be Roman is to experience the ancient as new and as something renewed by its transplantation in new soil.”[29] For this reason, Brague argues that the true identity of Europe is Roman, not Greek or Hebrew, inasmuch as Europe’s history has been one of receiving and handing down what was not originally its own. Even more is this true about America.[30] And, I was thinking, you pioneers at Thomas Aquinas Northfield may be said to be among the most Roman of all, in that you too have the experience of renewing what is ancient by transplanting it to new soil.

Ad secundum dicendum quod . . . Specificity, abundant proper nouns, are by no means unique to Virgil; they are part of the epic genre. As C.S. Lewis has shown, this epic specificity is highly stylized and infuses a poem with grandeur and solemnity, and it is especially found in what he calls “secondary epic,” viz., in Virgil and in Milton.[31]

But I want to go further than this. For all Westerners, and especially for Catholics, the specificity of Rome is of vital importance.

At the North American College in Rome, a new tower bears a plaque with an inscription from the early Christian poet St. Paulinus of Nola: resonare Christum corde Romano, “to echo Christ with a Roman heart.”[32] This exhortation applies not only to seminarians, but to all liberally-educated Catholics today. What does it mean to have a “Roman heart?” In my opinion it absolutely entails engaging the pagan Romans and the unique history of the city of Rome.

Our roots as Westerners and as Catholics lie in Rome. In an address delivered during the Second World War, when the future of Europe was very much in jeopardy, T.S. Eliot said:

“as Aeneas is to Rome, so is ancient Rome to Europe. Thus Virgil acquires the centrality of the unique classic; he is at the centre of European civilisation, in a position which no other poet can share or usurp. The Roman Empire and the Latin language were not any empire and any language, but an empire and a language with a unique destiny in relation to ourselves; and the poet in whom that Empire and that language came to consciousness and expression is a poet of unique destiny.”[33]

Eliot, it should be noted, was not Roman Catholic. How much more should we as Roman Catholics hold this.

Our faith is an historical faith, founded on historical events that took place in Israel—the virgin birth, the crucifixion of Our Lord, and his resurrection. The one Church founded by Our Lord has an historical foundation, and a specific history, first in Jerusalem and Antioch, and eventually in Rome. For Catholics, the city of Rome is unique—it had a dual apostolic foundation (Sts. Peter and Paul), and the Bishop of Rome, of course, is the Holy Father, the Pope. But this apostolic foundation was made upon an existing city. When Sts. Peter and Paul died there, Rome already enjoyed a lengthy history and a vibrant culture. The Church in Rome gradually inserted itself into, and later incorporated, many of these features of Roman culture, some of which remain up to the present day. To give just one example—the prayers of the Roman Liturgy,  it was shown a few decades ago, owe much to the style of early Roman religion.[34]

My point is that educated Catholics ought to have a unique attachment to the city of Rome, an attachment that includes an interest in the history of Rome and the institutions of the Romans, even those that predate the apostolic foundation.

Consequently, any poem that purports to be about the foundation of this city and its institutions is of interest to Catholics.

One the one hand this is a practical matter. Since many names from the Aeneid reappear in later authors, Dante in particular, you have a choice: you can repeatedly consult Wikipedia or you can study the Aeneid. But it is more than that. The specificity of Rome is sanctioned by divine providence. As Dante said to Virgil in the second canto of the Inferno, Aeneas

“was chosen in the Heaven of heavens
father of sacred Rome and her command,
And these, if we would speak the truth, were set
firmly in place to be the holy throne
where the successor to great Peter sits” (Esolen trans.).[35]

Ad tertium dicendum quod . . .

Aeneas is a richer character than the Homeric heroes. Only Odysseus might rival him. Certainly neither Achilles nor Agamamnon nor Menelaus nor Diomedes rivals him. This is true in two senses.

First, Aeneas is shown in more dimensions than any of the Homeric heroes. We see Aeneas in war and in peace, as warrior and traveler, as priest and victim, as master of ceremonies and as suppliant. We see him in all sorts of relationships: as loyal and deferential son; as proud father (although curiously he only speaks to Ascanius once in the poem [12.435–440]); as friend or companion; as bereaved husband; as infatuated lover and as scorned lover. What perhaps bothers readers is Aeneas’s passivity or his tendency to react rather than initiate. But the multiple relationships just enunciated help to explain this. Aeneas is rarely alone. He is not solipsistic; he does not brood. He has manifold responsibilities—this, after all, is the meaning of pietas. It is true, there are no extended emotive outbursts from Aeneas. Recall his first speech to his shipwrecked men in Book I: At the end of the speech Virgil comments:

“Aeneas said this, and though he was sick
With worry, he put on a good face
And pushed his anguish deep into his heart” (1.208–9).

If we find this fact boring, perhaps we need to question whether we are not too beholden to a narrow notion of heroism.

A second reason Aeneas is a richer character than any Homeric hero is that he changes, and it is not always for the better. The latter books of the Aeneid, the Iliadic part, show how warfare changes him. Already in Book II, as his city was going up in flames, Aeneas changed. He began to act like a Greek, deceitfully donning Greek armor—not fighting fair, that is. Despite initial success, this strategy backfires. In Book X, following the death of Pallas, Aeneas becomes savage. He “mow[s] down everything before him” (10.513), he is “flush with slaughter” (10.515). He taunts and mocks his opponents (10.557–60, 10.592–94). He brutally slaughters an Italian priest (10.541); in fact the Latin word there is immolat, as though Aeneas is sacrificing this priest. He rejects the pleas of suppliants (10.599–600). Worst of all, in a most un-Roman act of violence, he seizes eight victims to serve as sacrificial offerings to Pallas’s shade (10.517–20; cf. 11.81–82).[36] Aeneas, that is, acts with furor and with ira, the very qualities that mark Juno. As others have noted, it is only when Aeneas encounters Lausus’s filial pietas that he checks himself, experiences pity, and utters a poignant lament.[37]

As for the charge that he is an automaton—consider Book II. What does Aeneas do when Hector appears to him and commands him to flee (2.289–97)? He disobeys and plunges into battle. Later, when Venus appears and urges him to give up fighting and to flee the lost city (2.619–20), what does Aeneas do? He disobeys, straps on his sword, and prepares again to plunge into battle (2.655, 668–72). Were Aeneas an automaton, he would promptly obey. Rather, Aeneas has a mind and will of his own.

Perhaps the reason many see woodenness in him is due to his conduct with Dido—how promptly Aeneas ends their affair in response to Mercury’s directive, how Aeneas stands like a stone crag, apparently emotionless, as Dido tears into him. Yet it would be a mistake to regard him as unfeeling. The problem, as others have shown, is that there were no words with which Aeneas could simultaneously express his genuine feeling for Dido as well as his sense that pietas required him to leave. Would it really have been better for Virgil to put into Aeneas’s mouth an emotive rejoinder to Dido? This was not Aeneas’s way, nor was it Virgil’s. As one perceptive scholar has remarked: “Virtually all the major emotional speeches of persuasion or coercion contain falsehood and misrepresentation, generate and are generated by passion, and lead to calamity.”[38]

Of course, you do not have to like Aeneas. You may still prefer any number of Homeric heroes. But the charge that he is flat and uninteresting does not hold weight.

C.S. Lewis again will have the last words here. “I have read,” Lewis relates, “that [Virgil’s] Aeneas, so guided by dreams and omens, is hardly the shadow of a man beside Homer’s Achilles. But a man, an adult, is precisely what he is: Achilles had been little more than a passionate boy.”[39]    

Ad quartum dicendum quod . . . I think I have already demonstrated that the Aeneid is a poem of substance, that it treats serious themes.

So here I am liberated, in a very un-Thomistic fashion (for St. Thomas is always economical and disciplined) to dilate upon Virgil’s style, which in fact is integral to his substance. This is a pleasure to do, for in the words of Stanley Lombardo, “Virgil’s word music is more than mortal.”[40] Or as Ronald Knox put it, Virgil had a gift of “summing up in a phrase used at random the aspiration and the tragedy of minds he could never have understood.”[41]

Virgil has long been recognized as the master of the Latin hexameter. In some ways his feat is more impressive than Homer’s, because the Latin language has a greater proportion of long syllables than does Greek, and therefore it is more challenging to write Latin in a quantitative meter, i.e., a pattern not of stressed and unstressed syllables but of long and short syllables. As with Vergil’s imagery and similes, his metrical talent is not mere embellishment. It corroborates the events being narrated.

Here are a few examples.

  • When Virgil describes the two snakes that beset Laocoon and his sons (2.203–4) he makes use of astonishing hyperbaton—the ability in Latin to separate an adjective from its noun. Here is how it sounds in English: But look, twin from Tenedos through the tranquil sea, I shudder to recall, with massive coils, snakes.[42] Nine Latin words intervene between twin and snakes. Why? Virgil wants the architecture of the line to reinforce the subject matter!
  • Listen to this line, also from Book II (2.313): exoritur clamorque virum clangorque tubarum. It is onomatopoeia; we hear the sounding trumpet. If I could trill my rs, it would be richer still.
  • Or how about this line: quadripedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum (8.596). Virgil is describing the galloping of horses. You cannot miss it.
  • Or listen to this line, from Aeneas’s encounter with Dido in the underworld. The roles are reversed: Aeneas wants to talk, while Dido is silent. Aeneas is now the one asking: quem fugis? He continues: extremum fato quod te adloquor hoc est (6.466). The line exhibits a sort of “broken rhythm” with elision—t(e) adloquor and with the odd ending in two monosyllables—hoc est.[43] It is as if Aeneas were struggling for words, choked up, we might say. The style conveys or at least corroborates the substance.

Nearly every line, nearly every single line of Vergil contains something similar.

But Virgil’s style is evident not only in individual lines. Let me give a more comprehensive example.

When I was in college, I was asked in a final exam for a Seminar whether I thought Homer was an anti-war poet. Well, what would you say if you were asked something similar about Virgil?

Virgil, it seems clear to most readers, simultaneously elicits sympathy for the victims of war and for the warriors; some, though not all, would argue that Virgil also manages to suggest that the violence of war is somehow necessary to secure civilization.

Think, in particular, about the deaths of Lausus and Mezentius in Book X. Recall the scene. Aeneas has just struck Mezentius, when Lausus injects himself between them, groaning and weeping for his injured father. Virgil pauses in his narrative to exclaim:

“(Neither your death,
Nor your heroic deeds—if antiquity
Can confer belief in prowess so great—
Nor you yourself, noble young man,
So worthy of memory, will I leave in silence)” (10.791–93).

Clearly, Mezentius had to be deposed. Not only was he a tyrant in his native Etruria, but he was an obstacle to Aeneas’s destiny. Moreover, Mezentius seems not to have been a good man. Virgil twice introduces him with the epithet: “scorner of the gods,” contemptor divum; contemptor deum (7.648, 8.7). One commentator says of Mezentius that “he is the most barbaric character in the Aeneid,” yet, as this same commentator notes “even for him, at the moment of death, Virgil evokes sympathy.”[44]

It is this quality that intrigues and enchants readers of Virgil. The Aeneid, it has been said, exhibits neither “triumphalism nor defeatism,” but rather “a pervasive tension between exaltation and lament.”[45]

Longinus, the 1st-century A.D. literary critic, likened the Iliad to the blazing noon-day sun and the Odyssey to the “magical glow of the setting sun;” the Aeneid, according to a recent translator, is a chiaroscuro, “a play of light amid the shadows of evening, a darkness visible.”[46]

Aquinas’s articles in the Summa usually end without a round Ciceronian finish. It is enough for the Angelic Doctor to have made the necessary distinctions, to have imparted inimitable clarity, and to have answered objections. Having done all of this, in workmanlike fashion he procedes to the next article.        

Well, I am no St. Thomas, so I feel it necessary to conclude with a brief exhortation and a tribute. Looking back on my own Great Books education, for which I am grateful, one glaring deficiency was the lack of integration of a classical language into the curriculum. Two semesters were required, but only once do I recall a professor in a seminar invoking Latin. This is a shame. Here at Thomas Aquinas, from what I can gather, the experience is different. Latin, like Euclid, is foundational, and it is taught as a liberal art. Without this integration, Latin will wither and die. So persevere with Latin, and consider persevering with it even when your required courses come to an end. For centuries reading the Aeneid in Latin was a culmination of, an incentive for, and a justification of, the study of Latin grammar. This could be true for you too.

Regardless of whether you have any interest in reading the Aeneid in Latin, I want to commend you students, for applying yourselves so diligently to the fine curriculum offered at Thomas Aquinas College, a place where happily the Aeneid is taught; where, if not universally loved, it is at least respected and well-considered. Bravo to your tutors and the founders and governors of your college, who have defended, and will continue to defend, this curriculum in the face of the numerous challenges that lie ahead.


[1] Daniel Mendelsohn “Is the Aeneid a Celebration of Empire—or a Critique?” The New Yorker, October 15, 2018.

[2] Carl Woodring, ed., The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol. 14: Table Talk, Part I (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 58–59 (May 8, 1824). Cited in James J. O’Hara, “Virgil’s Style,” in Charles Martindale, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Virgil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 241.

[3] Quoted in the introduction to Allen Mandelbaum, trans., The Aeneid of Virgil (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971, 1981), ix.

[4] T.S. Eliot, What is a Classic? an address delivered before the Virgil Society on the 16th of October 1944 (London: Faber & Faber, 1944), 31.

[5] See Paul F. Distler, Vergil and Vergiliana (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1966), 127–28.

[6] John Dryden, “Dedication to the Right Honourable Philip, Earl of Chesterfield, etc.,” in The Works of Virgil: containing his Pastorals, Georgics, and Aeneis, vol. 1, 4th ed. (London: Jacob Tonson, 1716), 63.

[7] Suetonius, Life of Virgil, 23; Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae 17.10.2–3. These are cited in Distler (see note 5 above).

[8] Suetonius, Life of Virgil, 22–23.

[9] The ancient sources for this event are collected in Jan M. Ziolkowski and Michael C.J. Putnam, eds., The Virgilian Tradition: The First Fifteen Hundred Years (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 420–25.

[10] George E. Duckworth, “The Architecture of the Aeneid,” American Journal of Philology 75 (1954): 1–15.

[11] George E. Duckworth, “The Aeneid as a Trilogy,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 88 (1957): 1–10.

[12] George E. Duckworth, “Mathematical Symmetry in Virgil’s Aeneid,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 91 (1960): 185.

[13] The translator Stanley Lombardo, in the “Translator’s Preface” to Virgil: Aeneid (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2005), xii, calls Virgil’s style “contemplative.”

[14] Translations of the Aeneid are those of Lombardo (see note 13). Line numbers refer to the Latin text (rather than to the numbering in Lombardo’s translation).

[15] Yet some editors adopt a different MS reading and do not construe this line as a question.

[16] “The Serpent and the Flame: The Imagery of the Second Book of the Aeneid,” American Journal of Philology 71 (1950): 379–400.

[17] Virgil, The Aeneid, trans. Robert Fagles, intro. by Bernard Knox (New York: Penguin, 2006), 39–41.

[18] Knox, “The Serpent and the Flame,” 399, 400.

[19] Adam Parry, “The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid,” Arion 2 (1963): 66–80.

[20] C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (London: Oxford University Press, 1942), 26. See Bernard M.W. Knox, introduction to Fitzgerald, The Aeneid, 24–27, who cites this line from Lewis and discusses the role of history in the Aeneid.

[21] See Johnson, introduction to Lombardo, Aeneid (see note 13 above), xx–xxviii.

[22] This is Eliot’s view as construed by Charles Martindale, “Introduction: ‘The classic of all Europe,’” in The Cambridge Companion to Virgil, 3–4.

[23] De ordine 1.26 (PL 32.989).

[24] R.A. Knox, A Spiritual Aeneid (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1919), 245.

[25] Suetonius, Life of Virgil 46 (trans. by J.C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library).

[26] Rémi Brague, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization, trans. Samuel Lester (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2002). He discusses the image of the aqueduct on pp. 38–40.

[27] Brague, Eccentric Culture, 32.

[28] Brague, Eccentric Culture, 39.

[29] Brague, Eccentric Culture, 34.

[30] Brague, Eccentric Culture, 35.

[31] Lewis, Preface to Paradise Lost, 39.

[32] 17.262–63 (PL 61:488D–489A).

[33] Eliot, What is a Classic, 29.

[34] See especially the word of Christine Mohrmann, e.g., Liturgical Latin: its Origins and Character (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1957).

[35] Dante: Inferno, trans. Anthony Esolen (New York: Random House, 2002). 

[36] See further Scott McGill, Virgil: Aeneid Book XI (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 7. Here may be an appropriate place to acknowledge, among my many debts, my use of other excellent commentaries in the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series: Book IX (Hardie), Book XII (Tarrant). I have also benefited greatly from the commentaries in the Focus/Hackett series: Book I (Ganiban), Book II (Ganiban), Book III (Perkell), Book IV (OHara), Book VIII (O’Hara), as well as the essays in Christine Perkell, ed., Reading Vergil’s Aeneid: An Interpretive Guide (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999).

[37] See the discussion in David O. Ross, Virgil’s Aeneid: A Reader’s Guide (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007), 26–27, 42–43.

[38] Denis Feeny, “The Taciturnity of Aeneas,” Classical Quarterly 33 (1983): 204–19 (p. 216).

[39] Lewis, Preface to Paradise Lost, 36.

[40] Lombardo, Virgil: Aeneid, xiii.

[41] Let Dons Delight: Being Variations on a Theme in an Oxford Common-Room (London: Sheed & Ward, 1958), 197–98; cited in Martindale (see note 22 above), 6.

[42] Ecce autem gemini a Tenedo tranquilla per alta/ (horresco referens) immensis orbibus angues . . .

[43] R.D. Williams, The Aeneid of Virgil, Books 1–6 (London: Macmillan 1972), on 6.466.

[44] R.D. Williams, The Aeneid of Virgil, Books 7–12 (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1973) on 7.648.

[45] Johnson, introduction to Lombardo, Virgil: Aeneid, xv.

[46] Lombardo, Virgil: Aeneid, xii. Lombardo is alluding to the title of a famous work by W.R. Johnson, Darkness Visible: A Study of Virgil’s Aeneid (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976).


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Thomas Esser (’18)

“It’s wonderful how, in the integrated curriculum, everything matches up. You’ll be reading one thing in language class, and then it will come up again in philosophy, and goes on to affect everything you read from then on. You get a deeper understanding of each discipline by seeing how they connect with the others.”

– Thomas Esser (’18)

Chino Hills, California

“The students that have had an opportunity to be part of the life of the College have been enriched by their experience in an environment conducive to achievement. Now in all walks of life, graduates of Thomas Aquinas College are contributing, by following a wide variety of pursuits, to the betterment of society.”

– Renato Raffaele Cardinal Martino

President, Pontifical Council

for Justice and Peace