For no phase of life, whether public or private, whether in business or in the home, whether one is working on what concerns oneself alone or dealing with another, can be without its moral duty; on the discharge of such duties depends all that is morally right, and on their neglect all that is morally wrong in life. —Cicero, De Officiis

While on his death bed, Virgil asked those by his side to burn an unfinished manuscript that had been commissioned by Emperor Augustus. Augustus, however, forbade it. The Emperor appointed two of Virgil’s associates to amend his manuscript for publication, though the work itself was incomplete. The finished product published in 19 BC became Rome’s national epic. The Aeneid drew from the Trojan War. The hero of the epic, Aeneas, founded the Roman people and Romulus later founded the city of Rome in 753 BC. The link to Troy argued the Roman story of the Trojan War’s outcome to offset the prevailing Grecian narrative previously delivered by Homer’s tomes. Virgil masterfully contended with the defeat of the Trojans and depicted the Greeks in an unattractive light, thus countering the prevailing Homeric perspective. Aeneas is only a minor character in Homer’s Iliad, but the poet’s Hymn to Aphrodite (Venus) explained that the hero was the son of the goddess and Anchises. In Iliad, Aeneas is twice saved by the gods, and Virgil used this divine favor as a springboard for the telling of the Roman epic and how, saved by the gods, Aeneas was destined for a purpose.

As a defeated Trojan, Aeneas fled the city of Troy with several compatriots and was to establish the Roman people in Italia. The gods decreed it, and the fates agreed. Aeneas was duty-bound to carry out the task for the sake of the will of the gods and the remaining Trojans. They would become a greater empire than the Greeks had ever known, but depending on the outcome was Aeneas’ pietas. The proem of Aeneid established several key themes, one of which was Aeneas’ pietas: “insignem pietate virum, tot adire labores [this righteous hero through so many upsets]” (Aen. 1.10).[1] Aeneas’ righteousness, or piety, here is not to be mistaken with any sense of piety as one might think today regarding religion alone. Rather, it had more to do with what Elizabeth Vandiver described in her lecture on Virgil and Aeneid as the quality of performing a duty to everyone to whom one owes a duty. In this case, the duty that Aeneid owed was first to the gods, and second to the commonwealth that would later constitute the Roman people. The two were intertwined. Roman religion and politics, unlike the categorical church and state of the twenty-first century, were one in the same. To divorce them would have been unknown to the ancient Roman, for the twain were one.

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As Aeneas made the journey from Troy, he and the others happened upon a brief sojourn in Carthage. However, this sojourn almost became habitation because Aeneas became romantically involved with the Carthaginian queen, Dido. They shared a bed of ecstasy until Mercury appeared in an apparition to admonish Aeneas that he must keep on toward Italia, for he was chosen to be king of the Roman people. Mercury had terrified the hero. He faced a choice between his duty to the gods and his people and love.

Aeneas conspired to depart as if it were a training exercise. When Dido discovered the trick, she vehemently scolded him. She cited, twice, the pledge he had made to her and that they were married. She felt betrayed. Dido had incurred the hatred of other rulers and clans all for her love of the hero. She had risked her kingdom for Aeneas, and now he was departing.

While she still spoke, Aeneas averted his eyes. When he finally replied, he reminded her that he’d never made a pact of marriage with her. She had devised that on her own to conceal her shame (Aen. 4.171–72). The hero’s discourse after that consisted of him stating, “Italy is against my will” (Aen. 4.361). Aeneas chose duty over love. He chose duty over desire. The gods and fates determined his next steps, and he was only to subject himself to their will and deny himself for such a purpose. This sense of duty in the epic reflected the Roman people’s duty to the gods and the State. Those interests were greater than any other, and the Roman hero personified how all Romans ought to have conducted themselves in the national interests.

The Roman sense of duty did not die with the fall of Rome. It lived on, in a sense, throughout succeeding generations despite the notion seeming lost among many today. Highlighting a rather modern take on such a sense of duty, Netflix recently released the series The Crown. This program chronicles the death of King George VI and the ascension and early reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Interspersed in the first season of this program is an emphasis on duty. Juxtaposed to duty is the desire felt by Elizabeth’s uncle, Edward VIII who abdicated the throne for the love of the American divorcee, Wallace Simpson. As well as Edward’s choice of desire over duty was HRH Princess Margaret’s love interest, Group Captain Peter Townsend. Margaret nearly succumbed to desire over duty as her uncle had, but Edward’s dereliction of duty was but one point of the discussion thrown into Margaret’s mind by her sister, the Queen. Margaret and Captain Townsend broke off their affair after the painstaking pursuit of their possible love. Painfully presented in the program, Margaret left him after the Queen advised her sister not out of desire, but out of duty.

Surrounding the entire series, however, were a couple of scenes from differing episodes. Queen Elizabeth’s grandmother, Queen Mary, is depicted as the muse of the monarchy. Upon the death of Queen Mary’s son, King George, the Queen wrote to her granddaughter who was with her husband on a Commonwealth tour in Africa. Mary wrote to Elizabeth that her entire identity had changed. No longer was she Elizabeth Mountbatten. She had become, through the death of the King, Elizabeth Regina. The letter, voiced over by the character playing Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins), spoke about the new Queen’s duty as Sovereign and all that it entailed. In another episode, Queen Mary lie upon her sick bed when Queen Elizabeth called on her. The elder grandmother advised her granddaughter how the monarchy was a sacred duty to God and the people, and as such, she was to shew forth God’s grace upon the earth by living an exemplary life for the English people as someone whom they might aspire to emulate. This manifestation of duty was the young queen’s responsibility to God and country.

For the whole of the first season, Edward was hated by his family for the abdication. He had neglected his duty to God and his people. Though the populace admired his love for a commoner, it was not the life that strove to duty. Rather, it was marked by passion and pleasure. While the populace can be understood to have preferred such, as Sovereign, Edward was not to live as a commoner, but according to the high calling of being a monarch that emphasized duty. Rather than the populace emulating their monarch, the monarch (Edward VIII) subjected himself to the fads of the populace. In his abdication, however, Edward’s younger brother who became King George epitomized a life driven by duty. His daughter, Queen Elizabeth, followed her father’s example by emphasizing duty.

So sacred was the duty of the monarch that Queen Elizabeth would not allow the cameras to film her anointing by the Archbishop of Canterbury as Sovereign. The anointing, she believed, was sacred, the mystery of which was to be preserved as such and not paraded as common. The series depicted Edward watching her coronation from Paris among friends, and when one asked why they could not view this portion of the ceremony, his answer was, “Because we are mortals.” The high calling of duty is sacred to God, and it was the monarch’s role to portray it to her subjects; hence the monarchical anointing serving as a reminder of that of kings, prophets, and priests before her.

Elizabeth’s personal emphasis on duty often brought her into conflict with her husband, Prince Philip. At times, Philip had to swallow his pride and know his place, for his wife’s duty, the duty of his own Sovereign, took precedence in her life and role to the degree that it often eclipsed their marriage. She refused to keep his surname as Queen and retook the name of Windsor. Even their offspring were to have been styled by the House of Windsor rather than that of Mountbatten. They even left Clarence House to dwell in Buckingham Palace, something Prince Philip did not want. When the Queen presented these to her husband, she owned the decisions as those of a Sovereign duty bound to the national interests, but whose very existence and power came from God.

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The struggle between Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth appears as one of the greatest contentions with her duty and personal life. Regardless, she chose duty, and very few decisions appear made by her as Sovereign that seemed to be personal—one of which was naming Prince Philip, the chairman of her coronation committee. Though, one might argue that she kept her duty to her marriage in this one. Nevertheless, if not to the State or her marriage, Queen Elizabeth seems one devoted to her duty, and in one scene, she contended that the happiness of her home was in the national interest.

In the Bible, Paul wrote, “Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:7; NKJV). Jesus, likewise, said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22: 21). In an age when the United States’ cry is often self, we are reminded by Virgil and Queen Elizabeth that we have a duty to uphold. We owe God our primary duty because He is our Creator and Supreme Sovereign. We also owe our country a duty within the parameters that God, our Lord, has prescribed. The two greatest commandments cited by our Lord Jesus Christ were, to paraphrase, “Love God with all you are, and your neighbor as yourself.” Tucked into the second is the presupposition that we love ourselves healthily so that we are enabled to love our neighbors in the same way.

What God does not command is that we look out for our self-interests. Much to the contrary when one reads the New Testament. However, desire often trumps duty. The rights of the individual appear as sovereign and even interpreted as each sees fit. The Founding Fathers might disagree with this modern interpretation of individual rights. For them, individual rights entailed duty, the definition of which was often a denial of self-interest and an exaltation of sacred and social interests.

Republics demanded far more morally from their citizens than monarchies did of their subjects. In monarchies each man’s desire to do what was right in his own eyes could be restrained by fear or force, by patronage or honor, and by professional standing armies. By contrast, republics had to hold themselves together from the bottom up, ultimately from their citizens’ willingness to take up arms to defend their country and to sacrifice their private desires for the sake of the public good—from their “disinterestedness,” which was a popular synonym for virtue. This reliance on the moral virtue of their citizens, on their capacity for self-sacrifice and impartiality of judgment, was what made republican governments historically so fragile.[2]

 

[1] Vergil, The Aeneid, trans. Sarah Ruden (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 1.

[2] Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 7–8.

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Aeneas, The Crown, and Duty