Religion in the Age of Enlightenment


Religion in the Age of Enlightenment, Shield of Aeneas, Virgil


The shield of Aeneas has always had a sense of mystery about it. His shield, like that of Achilles in the Iliad, is not merely a physical object designed to protect him from crippling wounds or death while in battle; oddly, it is also a work of art. Moreover, it is a work of art that is supernatural in origin, fashioned in this instance by the Roman god Vulcan and presented to the Trojan exile Aeneas by his goddess mother, Venus, in book 8 of Virgil's Aeneid. There have been countless discussions of what we are to make of this moment in Virgil's epic poem, but there have been no serious discussions of what meaning this curious ekphrastic moment might have had for John Dryden as he translated this passage for his publication of The Works of Virgil in 1697. The Roman poet may be imitating the Greek poet Homer's description of the engravings on the shield of Achilles, but he is most definitely not copying it. Both are celebrated instances of ekphrasis in ancient literature, but the poetic meanings of the two are almost completely different, something I would argue that Dryden was quick to sense. The shield of Aeneas embodies the grand theme of Virgil's perhaps more than any other moment, and it is this grand theme, as I will argue, that made translating Virgil at once so painful but also so steadying for Dryden during the soul-searing aftermath of what the Whigs would dub the Glorious Revolution of 1688.