The Shield of Aeneas

My favorite image in all literature – every book I’ve ever read – might very well be in Book 8 of The Aeneid. Like most plot points, characters and images found in Virgil’s epic poem, Aeneas’ shield is, on one level, just a Latin rip off from a Greek source: it strongly resembles Achilles’ shield in Book 18 of The Iliad. Both are gifts from the hero’s goddess-mother, forged by the god of fire, to be used in an upcoming battle. (Virgil didn’t do a very good job of disguising his source.) But there are also key differences between the two. Virgil’s epic poem is as political as it is mythological, and so while Achilles’ shield is decorated with ahistorical scenes drawn from the full range of life – scenes of war and peace, prosperity and suffering, heavens and oceans – Aeneas’ shield is decorated with specific events taken from Roman history, including the recent victory of Augustus at Actium against Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Achilles’ shield is the stuff of myth, but Aeneas’ shield is the stuff of propaganda.

The propagandistic value of Aeneas’ shield is not the reason I’m so into it as an image. I don’t care much about Roman history. I don’t pick Augustus over Mark Antony, and I don’t have any need to legitimize his god-like rule. I find it kind of interesting to see how Virgil used Greek images for Roman political ends, but that’s it, really. It’s nothing more than interesting.

The events portrayed on Aeneas’ shield are historical, but they are taken from his future, not his past. They are the scenes of glory that will arise from his Fate. Aeneas is destined to defeat his Latin enemies and found a new city. His direct descendants, on this very spot of land, will eventually found Rome. Aeneas is told his Fate on several occasions throughout the poem, so it’s not new information, but when he receives his shield all the implications of it, the ultimate meaning of his life, are made most clear. It’s all laid out in burnished bronze before him.

A shield like that is the ultimate protection a person could have. We should all be so lucky to go into our battles with such armor. Aeneas will be guarded – quite literally – by the future that Fate has promised him, a glorious future. His shield is the promise from the gods that not only will he win his present battles in Italy, but that those battles will eventually have great meaning for the world. His shield functions as a clear message and command: everything you do is worthwhile; everything is meaningful. All arrows, spears and blows directed at you will bounce right off your perfect shield – you know that for a fact. Your future, after battle, is already promised. So act with that knowledge. Be brave, be reckless, fight ruthlessly. Nothing will ever touch you. You are entirely protected.

Back here, in the real world, this world with a shaky economy, a precarious climate, rampant drug use, massive inequality, and plenty of nativism and racism, Aeneas’ shield looks like complete bullshit. It’s an enticing and beautiful image, the kind of assurance and meaning we all desire, but it’s also an illusion. There is no shield that promises we will all mean something in the glorious future. There is no promise that we fill found a new Rome. (But then, concurrently, there is no promise of apocalypse either.) And so, just as The Aeneid can be read as propaganda justifying an empire, Aeneas’ shield can be read as our personal or communal propaganda – those stories we tell ourselves to justify our countries, our politics or economics, our fantasies of triumph or destruction, our personal choices and desires. You could argue that we are paralyzed without those imagined shields – they display our dreams of the future, our fantasies of worth; they are imbued with the public or private, conscious or unconscious, faith we have in that future. Where are we without such faith, without illusions? How can we have the strength to act if we are not protected by our dreams?

It’s easy to read The Aeneid with a Jungian focus – the hero’s journey mimics our personal passages through mid-life. Back in Troy, as a young man, Aeneas had a pretty good idea of what his future would look like. He had reasonable expectations – illusions of a blissful life in Troy with his wife Creusa and his son. But then Troy falls disastrously, his wife dies, and Aeneas is exiled into uncertainty, suffering, and despair. His expected future proves to be an illusion. This – Jung might say – is what happens to all of us in mid-life. Those expectations we had as young people don’t feel so real anymore,  even to those people whose lives have played out in the best possible way. And when the terms of life are not what we expected, we feel unmoored, cast out to sea. We must endure private, epic, heroic journeys. We must gain the physical and moral strength to face uncertainty without despair; we must act to improve ourselves and our world even when it seems completely hopeless or useless. It takes mammoth strength to live in such uncertainty. And, moreover, we need to be extremely lucky, which few of us are. The epic Jungian journey is a powerful story for individuals, but also for communities and nations. And because that story appeals to me, and that Jungian reading of The Aeneid appeals to me, whenever Aeneas is told his Fate, and especially when he receives his perfect shield, Virgil’s poem feels condescending, indulging in a brazen act of denial. No, no – says the shield – you don’t have to worry about your uncertain future. You don’t have to rebuild yourself from scratch, rebuild your whole world in the face of an empty helplessness. I know you lost your old illusions of Troy, but guess what? Here’s a new illusory story for you, a better lie to protect you. You’ll love it. Take it. It’s yours!

I love the image of Aeneas’ shield even though I don’t believe in it. We all tell ourselves those illusory stories. And, furthermore, just as Virgil’s shield is a rip off from an earlier source, our false stories are rip offs from established tropes. Our fantasies of fame, money, love, sex, whatever – they are ultimately just versions of what we’ve already seen played out by others, of the perfection we think is out there, waiting for us in the future. We’re all pretty much Romans stealing fancy shields from the Greeks.

I lose interest in The Aeneid after Aeneas gets his stupid shield. There’s a lot of vicious fighting in the poem afterwards, but no real suspense. Worse still, the wonderful suffering human being we’ve read about and invested in the earlier sections calcifies into a stock caricature, a paint-by-numbers hero. Aeneas can’t teach me anything when he is standing behind his shield. He can’t live authentically, with any kind of vulnerability. He can’t move me to tears, as he did when forced to leave Dido, forced to abandon another beautiful but illusory life in Carthage. He wanted so badly to cling to that life, but he’s an exile – there’s no known future here, no guarantees. Aeneas standing behind his shield is the default we see all the time around us; it is US and Canadian politics at its ugliest; it’s false hope and false despair; it’s believing in our own fantasies and mistaking them for truth. I see it on a day to day level in the people I know who retreat into acts of personal denial instead of enduring, openly, the precariousness of life. Aeneas standing behind his shield is probably my favorite image in all of literature because in it I see myself at my worst.