The Necessary Ungreatness of Rome: Aeneid 6 and the Reincarnation of Souls

Gillian McIntosh

Calvin College

Vergil's presentation (Aen 6.725-751) of Elysium and the experience of souls is complex. Conington has described these lines as "among the hardest in Virgil." About 6.743-751 in particular, he claims that the degree of difficulty only increases. The language is not too murky, but the meaning certainly is. The text raises more questions that it does answers. One question that merits especial attention is, do all souls return to the mortal world, or do some remain forever in Elysium? The consequences of this answer are substantial, as I shall argue.

Commentators' opinions fall on both sides: Williams, Comstock, Knapp, Austin etal claim that the pure souls remain in Elysium forever (or are turned into pure aether after their stay in Elysium), while the impure are cleansed before passing through Lethe to another life on earth. Others, such as Page, argue that Elysium is only a temporary resting place, and that all souls are reincarnated.

Yet, of those who assert that the select few are never reincarnated, none has contemplated this weighty consequence: if the pure are not reincarnated, then only those who were imperfect return to earth. Humans, then, are always already tainted; the mortal's soul has an imperfect history. Given this, what is the reader to make of the future kings, heroes, and Emperors of Rome? If these men are, by the logic of Vergil's presentation of reincarnation, necessarily tarnished, then Rome's great future is not, after all, very great.

Consideration of the impurity of Rome's future great men is viable, from Anchises' account of the souls. It is especially viable because Anchises presents Aeneas with a vision of these great men immediately after he has finished describing the afterlife (6.752ff.). This juxtaposition is not empty. Rather, it suggests a connection between the souls that are reincarnated and the future of Rome: Rome's future lies in the hands of impure people.

This sense of an imperfect future gains momentum when the last figure envisioned, Marcellus, brings gloom and tears. Through Marcellus, the list of Rome's great men comes to an end, as do Anchises' reunion with his son, Aeneas' experience of the Underworld, and Book 6. There can be no perfect end, since there was no perfect beginning.

Given these possibilities of inevitable imperfection, we can wonder whether Vergil's oft-assumed 'praise' of Rome and the Empire might not be as sunny as some have supposed.  

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