Ego Sum Homo Indomitus: Nationalism and Heroism in Vergil's Aeneid and Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995)

Monica S. Cyrino

University of New Mexico

            Classicists have long discussed whether Vergil's Aeneid reveals the poet's attitude toward the new regime of Augustus, and whether the epic celebrates or criticizes the new ruler of Rome. Some recent investigations show the epic may also reflect Vergil's ideas about the formation of the Roman national character, those qualities and beliefs that add up to the concept of being "Roman."  Kate Toll observes that Vergil "designed the Aeneid strategically to help the Romans meditate on the duties, problems, dangers and possibilities of a new national identity" (in "Making Roman-ness and the Aeneid" Classical Antiquity (1997) 16.1: 34-56.) Vergil chooses to set his poem in the deep past, but he bypasses the traditional foundation story of Romulus, and focuses instead on the compelling heroic figure of Aeneas as the ancestor of the Roman people. In his creation of a new myth of nationhood, Vergil reaches back to the Homeric epics, a legendary warrior society of charismatic heroes who espouse a strict code of battlefield honor within a context of glamorized violence. The figure of Aeneas is used to bridge the gap from the mythic past to the historical Roman present of Vergil's time: with his famous courage and piety, Aeneas identifies his destiny with the idea of Rome itself. 

Similarly, in the 1995 film Braveheart, director Mel Gibson and screenwriter Randall Wallace revive the character of William Wallace, a quasi-mythic freedom fighter and guerilla warrior in late 13th century Scotland, to propose a new paradigm of Scottish national identity. This paper will examine how Braveheart uses many of the same tropes and themes as the Aeneid to create a new concept of a Free Scotland, one that is relevant to contemporary audiences faced with the question of Scottish independence, and, more generally, the right of all nations to be free. Both the epic and the film seek to establish national identity against the backdrop of the mythic past, in gritty but highly romanticized warrior settings; both focus on the trials and victories of charismatic leaders, who suffer great personal losses, sacrifice themselves for a larger ideal and constantly negotiate the opposite poles between destiny and desire; both show their heroes experiencing secret and problematic "marriages" that reinforce their fateful paths; both highlight the human costs of nationhood in extended, gory battle sequences, while exploring the concept of what constitutes a "good war"; both exhibit unexpected endings that lack a real sense of reconciliation; and both interweave myth and history to produce complex pieces of art that articulate concerns and issues of the author's present time. This paper will also suggest ways an instructor might use the film Braveheart to teach themes and ideas from the Aeneid.

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