The Glory of Rome

Covered in HIS 111 last week: the Augustan Age of Literature, when Latin came into its own as a literary language, conveniently during the reign of the first emperor, who gloried in it. Chief among these authors was Virgil, author of the Aeneid. The paragraphs below are from a talk I gave last year at the opening of Reinhardt’s production of Handel’s Dido and Aeneas. 

The story of Dido and Aeneas is one of the most famous examples of heartbreak in Western literature. Aeneas and his crew, refugees from the Trojan War, were blown ashore near Carthage in North Africa. The recently widowed queen of Carthage, Dido, was smitten by this dashing stranger and fell hopelessly in love with him. But Aeneas had a destiny to found a new city, not to live as a pampered prince, and so stole away with his men early one morning. He looked back to see Dido committing suicide on her own funeral pyre. Aeneas sailed to Italy, where he founded the city of Alba Longa. One of the inhabitants of Alba Longa, Romulus, went on to found the more illustrious city of Rome, and the Romans, famously, went to war with Carthage in the third century BC. The Carthaginian general Hannibal gave Rome a run for its money, but eventually the Romans defeated Carthage and won mastery of the Mediterranean Sea. This conflict, allegedly, had been foretold by Dido on her pyre, as revenge for her broken heart.

This story comes down to us chiefly from the Aeneid, an epic poem by Virgil, which was published in 19 BC. This work sought to do more than posit a romantic origin of the war with Carthage. The Aeneid was modeled on Homer’s Odyssey, but was written in Latin and dealt with Roman history; at last, Rome had a mythic back-story to rival that of the Greeks, whose culture had long been an object of Roman envy. Coincidentally, the Aeneid appeared while Augustus was transforming Rome from a republic to an empire, and helped to make this transformation palatable. (At one point in the story, Aeneas visits the underworld and has a vision of the future. Unsurprisingly, he sees how glorious Rome will become under Augustus.)

For the Romans, Virgil’s Aeneid was pretty much the only treatment of the encounter between Dido and Aeneas (although that was certainly enough to ensure its popularity and survival). There is no evidence that the story was ever portrayed dramatically. Rome did have a flourishing stage, and permanent theaters may be seen (and sometimes still used) throughout the former Roman Empire. The situation comedies of Plautus and Terence, featuring stock characters and broad humor, were most popular, although tragedies by Livius Andronicus or Seneca were also performed. As with epic poetry, Roman drama was inspired by the Greeks, but modified to suit Roman needs. One of changes the Romans made foreshadows the performance you will see today: Roman dramatists abolished the Greek chorus, which offered sung commentary on the play between different scenes, and instead wrote musical accompaniment for much of the dialogue. About two thirds of the dialogue in Terence’s plays, for instance, was sung by the actors on stage.

A sung libretto, of course, is the definition of opera, a genre invented in Renaissance Italy and which rapidly spread throughout Europe. The Renaissance was also concerned, even obsessed, with the revival of classical themes and motifs, and so it was only natural that many operas featured these things. Henry Purcell and Nahum Tate’s Dido and Aeneas is a prime example of this. But it was not a purely antiquarian exercise. Like most art, Dido and Aeneas cannot be completely divorced from the time it was composed. From 1685 until 1688 England, now decidedly Protestant, was ruled by King James II, a Roman Catholic monarch who did not have the good sense to keep his religion to himself. He succeeded in uniting the political class against him and provoking the so-called Glorious Revolution, when Parliament deposed James and invited his Protestant daughter Mary and her Protestant husband William of Orange, king of the Netherlands, to become co-monarchs of England. (Thus the College of William & Mary in Virginia, founded in 1693.) Tate himself was an Irish Protestant and a refugee from religious wars there and would definitely have opposed King James; he later became England’s Poet Laureate under William and Mary. We might therefore read his Dido and Aeneas, first performed in 1688, as a commentary on the political situation in England. Tate introduces a set of witches who are bent on destroying Carthage. It is they who convince Aeneas to leave the city and to hurt Queen Dido; these witches may represent Roman Catholicism, bent on separating Dido (also known as Elissa in this opera and representing the English people) from Aeneas (representing King James). Even when Aeneas changes his mind and elects to stay with Dido, she expels him from Carthage for even considering leaving her in the first place (although she still dies afterwards). Fortunately, this sort of sectarian strife is not much of an issue anymore, and we can be free to enjoy the opera for its imaginative treatment of a famous classical myth, and for its wonderful music.