Like many other students of Latin over the past two thousand years, I struggled as a young man to understand Virgil’s great epic poem the Aeneid. I have vivid memories of my wonderful Latin teacher, Fr. John Cerf, eighty at the time he taught me, eloquently holding forth on the splendid rhythms and cadences of the poem and trying, with only mild success, to get me to translate it into passable English.
One of the four or five greatest masterpieces in the western literary tradition, the Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas, a heroic Trojan warrior and son of the goddess Venus, who managed to escape with his family from the burning ruins of his native city. After many adventures, Aeneas arrived in Latium, the area around what would develop as the city of Rome, and established there the beginnings of a new civilization, grounded in the best of the Trojan virtues. Virgil, the author of this complex and deeply moving poem, was friend to the emperor Augustus, and the Aeneid is generally regarded as a sublime piece of political propaganda: what had begun under Aeneas’s aegis was coming to full flourishing under Augustus’s benign rule. We recall that Augustus was, like Aeneas, the son of a divinity, for Augustus’s adoptive father, Julius Caesar, had been declared a god after his death.
Now what precisely were the virtues that the pious (Virgil’s favorite adjective for him) Aeneas and Augustus both embodied? Intelligence, canniness, patriotism, loyalty, to be sure, but perhaps most of all military prowess. The celebrated opening line of the poem gives away the game: Arma virumque cano (“I sing of weapons and of the man”). Aeneas’s story, like Augustus’s, is above all a tale of how military might brought order to a disordered world. Indeed, Augustus managed to seize power and pacify the Roman Empire only after fighting terrible battles against Brutus and Cassius, the murderers of Caesar, and then against Marc Antony and his consort Cleopatra of Egypt. Roman rule, the Emperor’s rule, was by the sword.
The Aeneid was composed between 29 and 19 BC and became, within a very short time, a standard work, a classic of Roman literature. As such, it was appropriated by the literary elite of the Roman world, but also by school children across the empire. Saul of Tarsus, coming of age during the first decades of the first century would certainly have known it, as would a younger contemporary of Saul’s, a certain Luke. When Luke sat down to write his Gospel, sometime around the year 80, he was cognizant of the fact that he was proposing a different vision and defending the prerogatives of a different King. This is made clear in a number of places in Luke’s Gospel, but it is nowhere on plainer display than in the evangelist’s telling of the story of Christmas.
The narrative, which is read at Midnight Masses all over the Catholic world, commences by invoking Virgil’s friend and hero: “In those days Caesar Augustus published a decree ordering a census of the whole world.” In calling for a census, of course, the emperor is doing a paradigmatically powerful thing. If you can count your people more accurately, you can tax them more efficiently and you can draft them into the military more expeditiously. Don’t think for a moment, too, that Roman census takers weren’t backed up by Roman legions. So far, so Virgilian: Luke seems to be singing of weapons and of the man.
But then he turns Virgil on his head, for Luke’s story isn’t really about Augustus Caesar at all, but rather about a couple of no notoriety whatsoever making their way to a dusty hamlet on the fringes of the Roman Empire. In a crude shelter on the outskirts of the nothing town of Bethlehem, Mary gives birth to a child, who is wrapped up in swaddling clothes and placed in the manger where the animals eat. The baby is visited, not by courtiers, but by shepherds, who had, at that time, something of the status that street people have today. Then an angel appears and announces that this destitute infant, to whom Caesar Augustus in Rome would pay absolutely no heed, is in fact the true Emperor: “I come to proclaim good news to you—tidings of great joy to be shared by the whole people. This day in David’s city a savior has been born to you, the Messiah and Lord.” To say “Messiah” and “Lord” was to imply that a new David had arrived, a new King of the Jews. But as any careful reader of the Psalms and Prophets would know, to say King of the Jews was to imply King of the world—which is precisely why the angel said his message was for “the whole people.” This true king—simple, humble, vulnerable, and non-violent—would establish an order, a kingdom of God, which stands athwart the order of Rome.
Lest we have any doubt as to which of these kings is more powerful, Luke tells us “Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in high heaven, peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests.’” We should not be sentimental in regard to angels, for the typical reaction to one in the Bible is fear. And we are dealing here with a stratia of these fearsome creatures. That Greek word, translated usually as “host” or “multitude,” literally means army. The only reason that Augustus Caesar was able to dominate the world is that he had the biggest army, but Luke is saying that the baby king actually possesses a bigger army, though it is one that fights, not with the weapons (arma) of the world, but with those of heaven.
It is of these arms and of this man that Luke sings. The Christmas challenge remains as powerful today as then: which narrative do you accept? Which hero do you follow?