When rioters topple statues of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Christopher Columbus, they are saying as much about the present as they are about the past. We are in the midst of a violent struggle over what story we will tell about our origins, which will determine what view we take of ourselves. A national identity crisis of this kind can only be remedied—or exacerbated—by a national reckoning about our founding. Who were our forebears, and who are we?

Though perennial, these questions become particularly pressing in moments of civic uncertainty. In antiquity, one such moment—an important one for us to remember—came just after the fall of the Roman republic. It was then that a dazed citizenry struggled to reconcile the homespun virtue of its rural past with the sprawling majesty of its newborn empire and the bloody labor that had produced it. The Romans, like us, were nursing civic resentments of the kind that can unmake a people. As they labored to understand themselves, they reached into the myths of their distant past. The enduring product of that soul-searching was Virgil’s Aeneid, a monumental epic which has received not one but two new English translations over the past six months.

It was the gods who saved Aeneas, prince of Troy, from dying when his city fell. That is the oldest story we have about him, from Homer’s Iliad.

Subscribe for access This article is reserved for subscribers.