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Acti Fati … Romanam Condere Gentem: The Politics of Exile in Vergil’s Aeneid

Kenneth Sammond

Focusing on the trope of exile in Vergil’s Aeneid, this paper will explore the significant distinction accorded between voluntary and involuntary exiles in the Aeneid. It will reveal how Vergil created a rhetoric of exile that privileges those exiles in the latter group, who are driven by a sense of mission necessary for the founding of Rome—a mission that reinforces the political exigencies of the nascent empire for which Vergil wrote this epic.

The topos of exile has been discussed broadly in relation to classical Western texts, most recently in Gaertner (2007); at the same time, the role of the exile in the Aeneid alone has been touched upon in several works, including Pöschl (1962) and Otis (1967), as well as more recently by Papaioannou (2003), Lowrie (2005), Harrison (2007), and Putnam (2010). However, there has not been a comprehensive study that addresses the complexity and breadth of exilic associations made by Vergil in this epic. The phrase “exilic associations” is a fancy way of stating that we recognize so many of the diverse characters in the Aeneid as exiles, ranging from Saturn and Daedalus, Mezentius and Camilla, as well as Helenus, Andromache and Dido; and of course, Evander and Aeneas. While they are all exiles, the causes of each character’s exile are notably different and can be separated into two categories: those who voluntarily chose exile and those who had it involuntarily thrust upon them. And the cause of their exile influences directly the trajectory of what is fated for them.

Even Bowie (2007) has stated how as far back as Homer, depictions of “voluntary and involuntary exile are close if not overlapping”; however, Vergil shifts this paradigm to suit the politics and culture of the nascent Roman Empire, creating a distinct and sophisticated rhetoric of exile that works to resolve the empire’s ktistic dilemma: he privileges the involuntary exile, most notably Aeneas, which not only reinforces the poem’s cosmological justification for empire; it also broadens the socio-political imaginary of what the empire was in the process of becoming—a unified state negotiated by mission-driven victors and involuntary exiles following decades of war.

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Roman Exile: Poetry, Prose, and Politics

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