Aeneas: Roman Portrait of a Father

08.aeneasTo a Roman man, the exemplum of fatherhood was Aeneas.  One image in particular summed up the expectation and burden Roman men felt.  The image of Aeneas fleeing the burning city of Troy on his was to Italy gets repeated throughout the ancient world in sculpture, painting and coins.  Every instance contains the same 3 elements.

  1. Aeneas is carrying Anchises, his aged and crippled father, on his shoulders.
  2. Aeneas is carrying the household gods.
  3. Aeneas is leading his son Ascanius by the hand.

(Note:  In order to make sure Aeneas has enough hands, sometimes Anchises is shown either holding the household gods himself or clinging to Aeneas’ back piggy-back style.)

Though the story of Aeneas contains things easy to find fault with (ie. where is Aeneas’ wife…answer: he lost her on the way out of Troy…Sorry, not enough hands for her to hold).  This image does offer a window into how manhood and fatherhood were conceived of in Ancient Rome….and perhaps a little wisdom for a world losing its way.

Aeneas carries the responsibility of his ancestry with all its expectations, history, and tradition like a weight or a burden on his back.  He leads and guides the future generation by the hand.  From an American perspective, such an image can be suffocating and claustrophobic.  America means freedom.  We fail sometimes, though,  to realize that extreme freedom has a negative side.  We want to be free from the weight and burden of the past. And We end up feeling disconnected and drifting, wandering around lost in the cosmos.  We also increasingly desire freedom from the future.  We don’t want to be slowed down by the slower pace of shorter legs.  So we marry later, have fewer children (if at all), and live for our careers and for the consumption of our expendable income.

We have need to learn from Aeneas.  To rediscover the value in both burdens.  To realize the positive side of legacy.  To love and care for those who have gone before us, and to invest in the next generation.  Or we might find that there is no one to carry us when we are old and lame.

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