The Aeneid on Leadership

I alluded briefly to The Aeneid in my last post, and I said that I’d be posting more on this work.  The Aeneid was written expressly for Augustus when Rome was on the verge of empire. As a work on statesmanship and leadership, it deserves more attention than it gets.  Virgil’s work depicts the Trojan nobleman Aeneas in flight from his city as it is falling to the Greeks. It is his destiny to found the city that will become Rome. I taught a course combining The Aeneid and another favorite, the 1950 edition of The Armed Forces Officer, to a class of Kings Point plebes a couple of years ago.  I had taught the AFO before but never Virgil’s work, and I was glad to see the midshipmen take to it well, some saying that it should be required reading at the Academy.  I was sorry that I never had the chance to teach it again.

For hundreds of years, the humanities were considered essential in the education of a future leader in the legal, military, or political arenas, or for a career combining all three, which was somewhat characteristic of lives in antiquity. Boys and young men in classical times and into the modern period were instructed in the classics in order to equip them for public service. The texts they read and memorized were intended to imbue them with the values of service and to serve as examples of vigorous and compelling language.  The Aeneid was perhaps the most highly-regarded work for this purpose. It provides no simple formulas, but rather shows that all glory is fleeting and all success temporary, that appearances often deceive, and that the unceasing pursuit of character and wisdom is vital in an often hostile and unpredictable world. It is a warning to empires, an appeal to humanity even in hazardous times.  In the poem, Virgil in effect humanizes the Roman virtues of strength and dutifulness which Aeneas displays so abundantly.  Aeneas setting out to found a city after a crushing defeat and Augustus the first Roman emperor after decades of civil war are both instructed (and through them, us) that more than skill and stoicism are needed for leadership.  Also required are the “pity for the world’s distress, and a sympathy for short-lived humanity,” that Aeneas sees in the painted depiction of the Trojan War that he encounters in Carthage, waiting for Queen Dido, who will tragically fall in love with him under the influence of Aeneas’ mother, the well-intentioned goddess of love Venus.  Venus gets it right sometimes too, of course, as when she tells Aeneas to spare Helen at the end of the war, telling him that she is not to blame for the war or the defeat.

The translator of the Penguin Aeneid, W.F. Jackson Knight, writes that Virgil is telling us that, “moral goodness is necessary for the spiritual discernment which is in turn necessary for wise and progressive statesmanship.” We likely need this reminder now as much as in any time since the birth of Rome.

Next Post: Mentoring


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