When teaching Vergil’s Aeneid in translation to undergraduate lecture courses, I challenge students to define how the ancients’ hopes and fears for the future might be similar or different from the ones society faces today. My goal is to create for students a sense of personal engagement with the questions the Aeneid poses, and I often use modern works of science fiction that have addressed key issues regarding heroic behavior and vengeance. In particular, I have found Joss Whedon’s science-fiction film Serenity (2005) to be an effective tool for engaging students in meaningful conversations about the Aeneid’s relevancy. Through a comparison of the Aeneid’s Golden Age prophecy with Serenity’s utopian sub-plot, this paper offers new insight into how the threat of imperial dominance in the Aeneid continues to speak to modern audiences. The Aeneid’s theme of a Golden Age restored contrasts with the poem’s ambiguous ending, where the audience is left wondering what price the Romans will pay for their new empire and, if the death of Turnus, Aeneas’s arch-rival, was required to achieve peace. Joss Whedon’s Serenity also plays with the tension between utopian living and the violent means to achieve it. The film’s plot involves the government known as the Alliance subjecting its citizens to a pacifying chemical in order to create a non-violent, utopian society. Like the Aeneid, Serenity reveals what can go wrong when humans try to recreate a Golden Age existence. James (2009) has argued that Aeneas serves as a “cultural companion” to Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer because both characters must confront violent and destructive enemies; I extend her argument to suggest Aeneas is a cultural companion to Mal, Serenity’s main character, because both are leaders of refugee groups that threaten the stability of the societies they encounter.
Through a comparison of key scenes from Serenity with a close reading of select passages in Aeneid VI and XII, this paper will explore how Vergil and Whedon create a vision of the future that is both a warning and a challenge regarding societies founded through violence and bloodshed. This paper builds on a growing body of scholarship that examines whether or not Aeneas’s actions suggest he sacrificed his ideals for the promise of future security (Frantantuono, 2007; Thomas, 2001). When Whedon re-examines the concept of utopian living, Serenity provides a fresh look at how Vergil’s epic informs students’ understanding of modern attitudes towards progress and civilized living. Mal’s actions, like Aeneas’ exploits, can either be understood as avenging wrongful deaths in a state of blind fury or as evidence of heroic evolution. Whedon’s exploration of his characters’ moral and ethical choice to expose a government conspiracy and Vergil’s treatment of Aeneas’s decision to eliminate any potential threats to Rome’s future highlight ancient and modern approaches to the questions: What are humanity’s greatest fears for the future? Are the sacrifices and losses which occur as a result of war worth the outcome?