About to abandon Dido in Carthage, Aeneas famously justifies his departure by claiming Italy to be the fatherland he seeks: hic amor, haec patria est (Aen. 4.347). This passage, as well as Vergil’s description of Actium in Aeneid 8, paint a picture of Italy as a unified political entity in the poem, a literary equivalent of the happily pledged tota Italia of Augustus’ Res Gestae. Yet recent scholarship has shown that full political unity was still incomplete even in Vergil’s time (Mouritsen 1998; Bispham 2007; Roselaar 2012; Cooley 2016), with some even suggesting that Vergil played an active role in the formation of a unified Italy (Giardina 1997; Barchiesi 2008).
These ideas are supported by a peculari yet understudied feature of Vergil’s poetry: his tendency to use patria, “fatherland,” to refer not to larger political entities that are the sum of heterogeneous peoples, but instead to the specific region any given individual originates from. Thus Meliboeus’ patria is the local Italian landscape, not Rome (Ecl. 1), and Vergil’s patria is specifically Mantua (G. 3.10-12), whereas patria and patrius are used most often in the Aeneid to refer to the specific cities or regions which are the origines of different characters: Laurentum (5x), Ardea (3x), Etruria (3x), Pallanteum (2x), Mantua (10.198), Liguria (11.717), the Volscian hills (11.594). Patria is also used to refer to individual Greek cities as the places of origin of different Greek heroes, as well as to Tyre in the case of Dido (Carthage is never called her patria), and frequently to Troy in the case of Aeneas and his companion. Vergil’s tendency to align patria with place of origin is reminiscent of Cicero’s definition of the germana patria – the “native” fatherland of origin, birth, and family – a concept which Cicero opposes to the patria communis – that is, Rome as shared fatherland of law and citizenship; together these made up the “two fatherlands” of Roman municipal citizens (De Leg. 2.5).
Considering Vergil’s tendency to align patria with place of origin, those passages where the poet uses patria to refer to Italy as a collective or adoptive fatherland become important textual moments. Italy is summoned as adopted patria by Aeneas often (e.g. 1.380, 11.26), even amidst frequent references to Troy by the same term; revealed in this tension is the Trojan struggle to fashion a new identity while moving on from a previous one (cf. Reed 2007, Fletcher 2014). More interestingly, patria-as-concept emerges as a tool of pan-Italian solidarity and unification at several points near the end of the Aeneid: in the Latin Drances’ call for Ardean Turnus to yield “for king and fatherland” (regi patriaeque, 11.359); in the women of Laurentum’s attack upon the Trojans at Volscian Camilla’s death, inspired by amor verus patriae (11.892); and when Juturna’s mourning for the patria amissa inspires Rutulians, Laurentians, and Latins alike to fight (12.236-40).
Each call upon of the collective patria occurs at a moment of deep loss for the local tribes at the hands of the Trojans. Italian unity thus seems to be primarily motivated by Trojan violence, whereas the region’s more natural state is a diversity of local patriae. Thus, when Jupiter assures Juno that the Italians will keep their “ancestral speech and customs” (12.834), yet be “all Latin of one tongue” (12.837), there is a sense that this unity will be accompanied by a loss or diminishment of local identity; this loss of patria can be felt equally in the melancholy of Meliboeus (Ecl. 1.3-4), Juturna (Aen. 12.236), and Aeneas (Aen. 2.241, for Troy). At the same time, there is an optimism regarding Juno and Jupiter’s ethnic grafting, one that is mirrored in the Georgics’ laudes Italiae, where Volscians coexist with Scipiones (G. 2.167-170), and in Eclogue 4 with its return of Saturnia regna (4.6) ruled over by patriis virtutibus (E. 4.17). Ultimately, Vergil’s position is one that proclaims the benefits of a unified Roman Italy while at the same time mourning the losses that must accompany the changes to local landscape and identity brought on by Roman encroachment.
What's in a Name?: Race Ethnicity and Cultural Identity in the Poetry of Vergil