Archetypal Images of Orientalism: A Moral Mirror of Aeneas’ New Identity


  • Špela Tomažinčič



Latin literature, Roman literature, Romans, ethical identity


Contrary to the general perception, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity by Benjamin Isaac recognizes the ancient society as racist and tries to detect the early forms of racist attitudes and behaviour in the Greek and Roman antiquity. Thus Isaac introduces a new concept in understanding the ancient attitudes toward the Others, at the same time offering a new explanation model for collective group characteristics, which are, by his definition of racism, based on environmental determinism and the impossibility of change at an individual or collective level. Isaac’s model, however, raises certain reservations and counter-arguments. Firstly, there are crucial divergences from racism in the modern sense of the term, which recognizes the collective group characteristics not as environmentally but as biologically determined; this is also perceived by Isaac, who therefore defines the ancient attitudes toward Others as protoracism rather than racism. Secondly, contrary to Isaac’s view, the Greek and Roman explanations of collective differences between peoples were not dominated by the environmental-determinist approach but rather by historical, political, cultural, social, and – in particular – linguistic differences. The use of the term ‘racism’ in ancient contexts therefore seems anachronistic, misleading and somewhat narrow. By contrast, the term The Other and the concept of the derogatory and stereotypicalUniversal Other, invented during the Persian Wars, prove much more stimulating and useful in attempts to define the attitude to other individuals and groups.
Introduced by a storm caused by Juno, which breaks the linear journey from Troy to Rome and brings Aeneas to the Libyan shores, the Carthage passage in Books 1–4 of the Aeneid draws the image of a historical and literary Other. To this end, Vergil attempts to ascribe the negative stereotype of the Phoenicians and Orientals in general to the Carthaginians. Moreover, the ‘otherness’ is established through the historical distinctions between the uncivilized barbarians, represented by the Carthaginians, and civilization, the Romans-to-be. The Carthaginians of the Aeneid share with the mythical other, the Trojans, such qualities as an association with Oriental luxury goods, evoked by Homeric images of the Phoenicians and by allusions to Troy. The pairing of the mythical Trojans and the historical Carthaginians resolves into a new symbolic and imaginary aspect of Carthage, associated with ancient Troy: Carthage becomes a new Troy – Ilion novum.
The recognition of Carthage as a new Troy is most obvious in the first Vergilian ecphrasis, a description of the images in Juno’s new Carthaginian temple. The ecphrasis is more than a mere retrospective of past historical events, as it is perceived by Aeneas; for Vergilian readers, the temple painting would have drawn a powerful visual analogy between the mythic Trojans and their historical successors, the Carthaginians. As such, the images also function as an ominous hint about the future events.

The Vergilian images of Oriental ‘otherness’ can be perceived as a speculum morum reflecting the problematic ethnic identity of Aeneas, who is de facto still a Trojan and as such a direct threat to his mission and to the future Roman race. His inability to recognize his problematic ethnic identity is evident from his personal appearance, his Oriental garb and arms, and the fact that he is reconstructing the wrong city, Carthage.


Download data is not yet available.