By Sonnet Carter
A large part of our discussion about the Aeneid was questioning Vergil’s purpose in authoring the epic. Typically the Aeneid is interpreted as an imitation of Homer and a story about the foundation of Rome and thus a praise -- or critique -- of Augustus’ regime. In Book VI, Aeneas’ main comrade in the underworld is the Sibyl of Cumae.
We saw this same Sibyl carved in the ground of the Duomo di Siena-- she serves as an important figure in Christianity because of her prophecy of a golden age (and a supposed child savior) in Vergil’s Eclogue IV. Looking at how the artist depicted her aged face while translating the inscription “Sibylla Cumana cuius meminit Virgilius eclog: IV” was cool in itself. (We also read the Fourth Eclogue.)
But more interestingly, at root, it made me realize Augustus’ appropriation of Homer’s Odyssey and the Church’s appropriation of the Sibyl’s character are one and the same. It is interesting to see how Classics can be exploited as propaganda for those in power. Though superficially complicit in Augustus’ exploitation, once you read the Aeneid deeply, you can see Vergil’s critique of this propaganda within the text itself. We’ve spoken about this use of Classics in different contexts during dinners, but seeing the Sibyl in her material form really connected all the dots for me.