There’s a moment in Aeneid 11 when the politics of Virgil’s own time feel unusually close to the surface.
A council of the Latins has been called by King Latinus, and there’s a hostile exchange of speeches between Turnus, Aeneas’ great rival, and the troublemaker Drances. Despite the principle of my enemy’s enemy, Drances is not drawn by Virgil as an appealing character.
Two hundred lines are devoted to this council in the Latin city. But when Turnus ends his impassioned refutal of Drances, the focus turns to what Aeneas has been up to all this time (445-6):
Illi haec inter se dubiis de rebus agebant
certantes: castra Aeneas aciemque movebat.
Thus the Latins debated among themselves on matters they could not decide,
in competition: meanwhile Aeneas was advancing his camp and his battle line.
Aeneas’ action, so sharply contrasted with Latin debate, is expressed in less than a line, and yet what is described in those four words is a decisive step toward his conquest of the Latins. Virgil’s implication is clear, communicated by form as much as sense: Aeneas is the no-nonsense man of action; Turnus and the Latins just a bunch of ineffectual wafflers.
The resonances with Virgil’s own day here are strong. The indecisive exchange of speeches among the Latins suggests (a jaundiced view of) the political culture of the Republic, which could be dismissed as a time of unfettered expression and polarised political dispute, giving rise in turn to the conflict between citizens that had blighted Rome until Augustus put a stop to it. In Drances, particularly the way he is introduced at 336-42 (cf. Plut. Cic. 1.1), there seems to be a more specific allusion to the most celebrated practitioner of this old politics, the orator Cicero, and thus in his rhetorical conflict with Turnus a hint of Cicero’s famous (and fatal) series of attacks on Mark Antony, the Philippics. Aeneas’ military pragmatism, in contrast, is a model of the new, Augustan way of doing politics in Rome: decisive action by an individual, wasting no words and respecting no judgement but his own–autocracy, in a word.
Virgil may have expected his Roman readers to endorse this preference for deeds over words. But when the Latin council breaks up in panic as Aeneas’ advance is announced, what I see is civil society collapsing before military force, and it’s a moment I’ve been thinking about a lot during the parliamentary debates about Brexit. Many people are despairing of the “chaos” in the House of Commons, the MPs addicted to debate, incapable of reaching a consensus.
There’s plenty I’m unhappy about right now in UK politics, don’t get me wrong, but the sight of parliamentarians wrestling with their consciences in the most difficult political circumstances of recent times isn’t one of them. It would be stretching it to call the Roman Republic a democracy, but democracy is most definitely what we’re looking at in these indecisive parliamentary debates.
Yes, illi haec inter se dubiis de rebus agebant/ certantes, and all’s (still, essentially) right with the world.