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How can art and warfare be reconciled? It would appear that art would have no place on the battlefield, where men are too concerned with survival and personal glory to indulge in aesthetic appreciation. The combination of art and Aeneas’ shield in the Aeneid however literally represents the divine aegis that not only Aeneas enjoys, but that Rome will as well. Aeneas’ shield moves the concept of the future from the abstract and unperceivable realm of the divine into the physical world, illustrating how art is the embodiment of the divine on earth. The combination of the divine and mortal in the artwork in the Aeneid suggests an element of creation that parallels Virgil’s own creation of the epic.
The shield which Aeneas receives is one of divine origin, forged by Vulcan. Interestingly however, Virgil emphasizes the link between the divine and mortal world through his placement of Vulcan’s workshop “near the coast of Sicily..all of rock and smoking”(8.569). Whereas Gods are typically removed from the mortal realm, Vulcan is placed in a conspicuously earthy setting. Further reflecting the melding of divine and mortal are the materials which are used in his craftsmanship. Aeneas’ armor consists not only of the raw, primeval ingredients of “molten brass and gold and iron” (8.599) but also of natural forces and other supernatural elements, such as his sword “hard edged with fate” (8.841). The conception of art as something that has a supernatural element to it is also evident in the art decorating the shield itself, in which “fallen from heaven shields” (8.899) are depicted. Virgil leaves no doubt as to the superiority of the armor which Vulcan creates. The poet does this to illustrate the clear divide between mortal and immortal skill, but in the end, the armor is still worn by a man. In this sense, in spite of the god’s superiority, they must still rely upon humanity for change in the mortal realm- they cannot simply found Rome on their own.
The melding of the divine and mortal aspects of the shield mirrors the cooperation of man and god necessary to create on earth, a theme which runs throughout the epic. Aeneas on his own is not capable of founding Rome, he requires the assistance of the gods. The creation of the shield is a symbolic representation of this assisted creation insofar as it allows Aeneas to found Rome through its physical protection. The necessity of the Gods to Aeneas’ struggle to found Rome is evident when Turnus’ “treacherous blade on impact broke” upon Aeneas’ divinely crafted armor, a protection that saves Aeneas’ life and allows him to continue his quest. The creation of the shield itself also serves as a kind of metonymy for the divine force of fate which insists upon the creation of Rome, as Aeneas is literally protected by the future, as depicted upon his shield. The artwork which is present upon Aeneas’ shield displays the same characteristics of divine and human cooperation for the purposes of creation. The assistance of the divine is also an integral part of Virgil’s poetic art, as illustrated by the invocation of the muse. The elements of divinity and mortality evident in both artistic endeavors illustrate the necessity of fusion for human creation.
The creation aspects associated with the shield are critical to Virgil’s depiction of art in the Aeneid. Virgil creates a parallel between Vulcan’s design of the future for Rome on the shield for Aeneas and his own poetic creation of the history of Rome for Augustus. This Parallel illustrates the role that Art has in providing a sense of identity. In the Aeneid, Virgil remarks about the sense of purpose and identity which art creates when he writes that the shield art was a wonder to Aeneas, and “he felt joy in their pictures, taking up upon his shoulder all the destined acts and fame of his descendants” (8.989). Before the creation of the shield, Aeneas had been exposed to the fate of Rome in the underworld, and was forced to forget his descendants upon leaving. By introducing the physical shield however, Virgil is able to give Aeneas a definite sense of the future, and a comfort in his actions, much like Virgil’s Aeneid would inject a sense of stability and divine purpose into his era. Virgil reinforces the power of art to influence reality through the underworld scene, in which Aeneas leaves through the “ivory agleam..through which false dreams are sent,” suggesting that his father’s vision, and the corresponding artwork on the shield, regarding Roman glory is not accurate. In this scene, it appears that Virgil is wryly commenting upon his own art’s usage by Augustus as a source of Roman propaganda.
The sense of divine influence that Virgil creates through the co-creation between mortals and gods in the Aeneid is further emphasized by the directness of the divine involvement in the artwork of the shield. The shield’s artwork emphasizes the Roman people are favored by the “winds and gods,”( 8.922) and that the Romans success is due to their “immortal offerings to the gods of Italy” (8.967). In the artwork upon the shield, Virgil depicts the specter of hell looming far off in the distance as a reminder to the “virtuous souls” of the Romans to remain pious. The linkage between the gods and the Romans simultaneously illustrates the divine protection and good favor that the Romans enjoy, and also illustrates the role of art as a partner in the creation of reality for Virgil’s audience. In the epic, the divine connection displayed through the shields gift to Aeneas and on the shield itself represents the fulfillment of the Roman conception of an “empire without end,” and provides Aeneas with a goal to struggle towards. When “gods of every race held their weapons up against our [the Romans] Neptune, Venus and Minerva…” (8.947) they were soundly defeated. This sense of Roman inevitability is built into the epic. In turn, Virgil’s epic itself similarly provides the Roman people with a sense faith in their government’s permanence. The connection to the divine illustrated by the shield, however illusory, becomes real in the consciousness of the people in Virgil’s audience- art has brought it into being.
The creation of the artwork of Aeneas’ shield not only brings the Roman empire into artistic existence within the framework of the epic, but also within the framework of a literary tradition. Whereas Achilles shield depicts the constant oscillation between war and peace, Aeneas’ shield is characterized by the exultation of the Roman people as an unbeatable force, a people whom “conquered races passed in long procession” (8.975). Virgil’s description of the Aeneas’ shield clearly marks the ascent towards glory that Rome makes, whereas Homer depicts his two cities as generic and grim, tainted by violence in both the city of peace and of war. Virgil’s incorporation of a shield scene into his epic therefore not only acknowledges Greek tradition, but consciously seeks to surpass it by creating a glorified Roman identity.
In Virgil’s epic the Aeneid, the shield of Aeneas is prominently displayed as both an object of war and an object of peace. The combination of these two disciplines is essential to Aeneas’ conception of art and its influence in the Roman Empire. Virgil’s depiction of the shield usefully creates a history in the context of the Aeneid, but it also creates the history and identity which Romans will identify with from his epic. In this sense, Virgil inserts the shield description scene into his epic conscious of the parallel between his own work and the function of the shield as forces of creation. This kind of mimicry in structure and form between the message within the work of the shield, and the work as a whole, causes the reader to identify with Aeneas, as his awareness of Rome’s glory is achieved, so is the readers. It is this identification resulting from the shared experience between Aeneas and the reader that makes Virgils creation myth so compelling.
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