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Peter Jones, distinguished classicist and “Ancient and Modern” columnist for The Spectator has published (just in time for Christmas in the UK, at least) an entertaining new book on ancient Rome: Veni, Vidi, Vici: Everything you ever wanted to know about the Romans but were afraid to ask It is that rare kind of book: light but learned, an ideal bedside read.

Jones’ discussion of all things Augustus sent me back to Virgil’s Aeneid, a book as full of memorable lines and perennial wisdom as any Shakespeare play. It did not disappoint: Behold, in Book IV I was reminded that it was not modern advocates of no-fault divorce who fundamentally changed the definition of marriage but rather Dido, the ill-fated Queen of Carthage.

Caught in a thunderstorm while on a hunt, Dido and Aeneas find refuge together in a cave where, in the heat of the moment, they consummate their relationship.  It is quite a scene: the coupling takes place as various goddesses look on and a crowd of nymphs shriek from the mountain tops. Most frenzied and Dionysian, one might say. But then Virgil adds this:

neque enim specie famave movetur,/nec iam furtivum Dido meditatur amorem:/coniugium vocat, hoc praetexit nomine culpam.

“For Dido is moved by neither appearance nor reputation, nor does she now consider her love to be secret. She calls it ‘marriage’; by this name she hides her guilt.”

It is years since I read any Virgilian scholarship but I imagine the debate still rages as to whether he used his poetry to reinforce the conservative moral policies of Augustus’ reign, or whether he was subtly and ironically subverting them. Whatever the case may be, these few lines are still striking, regardless of the ambiguity in the tricky matter of authorial intention. The use of the language of marriage to refer to a relationship that is self-oriented, sexually driven, and impermanent? Sounds very much like the kind of more recent phenomenon noted by Robert P. George and others. And Virgil seems to hint at something rather profound: The motive is the hiding of guilt through the conventional language of domesticity. Dido wants to transgress the boundaries of sexual morality—she wants her man and she wants him now; but she also wants to be socially respectable.

That would seem to be a rather compelling insight into human nature. We like to transgress but we also like our guilt to be respectable and not to feel like guilt at all. Take, for example, the history of recent sexual politics. The Dionysian impulses of the sexual revolution of the sixties have given way to the remarkably domestic demands for gay marriage today. Many conservatives see this as a deliberate, cynical, and subversive attempt to destroy traditional values; but perhaps it is also an attempt to hide guilt, Dido-style, by those whose hearts are divided against themselves and are restless above all things.

Of course, language is only one aspect of this: Other cultural phenomena help as well. And it is interesting to note that the blander such things are, the better they are received and the more influence they exert. Thus, when it comes to shaping popular attitudes to sexual morality, the films of Pasolini have ultimately proved far less influential than the ubiquitous visions of the transgression of traditional sexual norms in countless insipid soap operas and comfy middle class sitcoms. By these cultural artifacts we hide our guilt. And because we like the comfort and reassurance such things give, the cultural tide flows very strongly in that direction.

Incidentally, this also proves once again what my Classics master told me when I was age twelve: “Learn the Classics, my boy, and you will learn all you need to know about life.”

More on: Virgil, reading

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