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Angela Tilby: Virgil speaks to brutality of Putin’s rule

01 September 2023


A memorial in Moscow to Yevgeny Prigozhin, who died in a plane crash near the Kremlin

A memorial in Moscow to Yevgeny Prigozhin, who died in a plane crash near the Kremlin

ON THE day that the plane came down that killed Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group mercenaries, I was descending into the traditional site of the Sibyl’s cave at Cumae, near Naples.

The Latin poet Virgil describes how the Cumaean Sibyl led the Trojan prince Aeneas from Cumae down into the underworld from Lake Avernus near by. Here, the future founder of Rome encountered both the shades of the past and the challenges ahead. Aeneas would pave the way for Latin civilisation and the divine mission of Rome “to spare the conquered and subdue the proud”. As he returns from the underworld, he has to choose between two gates. One leads the way to truth and reality, the other to deceitful dreams. To the bafflement of commentators and scholars of the Aeneid, Aeneas returns to the upper world through the gate of deceit.

It is just possible that Virgil was trying to warn his contemporaries about the dangers of imperial power. Virgil was part of the circle of Augustus as he rose to power, ruling as emperor after dismantling the Roman Republic. Before writing the Aeneid, Virgil produced the Eclogues, the fourth of which looked forward to the birth of a child who would usher in an age of peace, plenty, and prosperity.

And that was very much how Augustus’s reign would be later proclaimed throughout the Empire. It was good news, euangelion, the word that the Gospel-writers adopted to proclaim the advent of a very different prince of peace. I cannot help wondering whether Virgil had Aeneas opting for the gate of deceit because he recognised that only the most ruthless pragmatism could secure the kind of power that the Roman emperors would exercise, a brute fact that Machiavelli would recognise in The Prince centuries later. The early Christians saw in the fourth Eclogue a parallel with Isaiah 9, interpreting Virgil’s words as a evidence of a pagan prophecy of Christ’s birth. The Sibyl was also adopted into Christian poetry and hymnody, especially in connection with the Last Judgement.

Having been bitten ruthlessly by avenging mosquitoes, I made my way back from Cumae by bus, train, and ferry to my holiday hotel in Sorrento, to read the first reports of the Wagner chief’s death. I thought of the brutalities of Vladmir Putin’s rule and of the emperors, tsars, absolute monarchs, and caesars who preceded him.

We have 2000 years of evidence that “strong men” can perpetuate their rule only by lies and brutality. But the alternative to deceitful dreams is a costly one. To go through the gate of reality is to accept imperfection. Government by consent requires responsibility from those who give consent, and politicians who govern by consent have to accept that there is no lasting glory: their careers will inevitably end in death or failure — just not (usually) by assassination.

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