You are here

Happy Vergil Goes North: Aeneid in Russian Letters

Zara M. Torlone

            This paper seeks to explore the use of Vergil’s Aeneid in the formation and development of Russian national identity and literary consciousness. Vergil’s epic of national rebirth offered Russian men of letters an opportunity to think about and act upon national self-determination in political, religious, and cultural terms. As a result of that the reception of the Aeneid in Russia was decidedly and pointedly optimistic from its very onset in the 18th century and up to the literary expressions of the 20th.

             The paper aims to explain why for a long time in Russian literature the Aeneid was not perceived as a poem of two voices but mostly as a celebration of achievement. From the first optimistic readings of Vergil’s epic by Mikhail Lomonosov and Vasilii Petrov’s first translation of the Aeneid in the 18th century to Viacheslav Ivanov’s poems and essays influenced by the Aeneid and even to the “Vergilian” texts by Joseph Brodsky, Russian reception of the Aeneid eschewed the narrative of defeat and loss and overlooked the contradictory nature of Rome’s national epic.

            Lomonosov’s attempt at Russian national epic, Peter the Great, reverberates with echoes of Vergil in its celebration of the monarch and unconditional hopes for the future of Russia. In the same vein Petrov’s translation of the Aeneid, designed as a tribute to Catherine the Great exemplified Vergil’s remark dux femina facti without any dark connotations but as a vehicle for praising Catherine and her enlightenment.  

            In the 19th and 20th century Russian writers followed this established path of uplifting readings of the Aeneid as they tried to acculturate the poem within their own cultural landscape and poetic agenda. Alexander Pushkin in his Bronze Horseman alludes to the Aeneid as a supporter of strong statehood. Like Vergil on Augustus, Pushkin bestows on Peter the Great the role of a “universal tamer.”  Both Vergil and Pushkin are preoccupied with “historiodicy” (“justification of history”), in the course of which the wasteful destruction of young and even heroic lives is unavoidable. Such interpretation reinforces yet again the “optimistic” reading of the Roman epic on the Russian soil continued then in the 20th century “messianic” reception of Vergil best exemplified by the writings of religious philosophers Vladimir Soloviev and Georgii Fedotov and a poet Viacheslav Ivanov who had to re-evaluate Vergil’s legacy in an uncertain political environment of Russian revolution.

            Joseph Brodsky was undoubtedly influenced by the Vergilian reception of his predecessors and his poetry exhibits its main trends adding to them, however, the anxiety of exile, displacement, and eventually loss as the first signs of less optimistic reception of the Aeneid in Russia.

Session/Panel Title

Happy Golden Anniversary, Harvard School!

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy