From Rome to Plymouth

Tommy Nolan |

Parallels between the Aeneid and America's Early Pilgrims

Trojans in ruffed collars: Robert Walter Weir, The Embarkation of the Pilgrims.

Relentless trials and divine destiny are frequent components of history’s most definitive origin stories. The Israelites’ pursuit of the promised land, for instance, is a tale of both brutal hardship and God’s protection. This concept of being fated to achieve a certain end, despite circumstance indicating otherwise, is extremely compelling from a nationalistic standpoint. Thus, it is easy to see how a rigorous yet divinely-willed journey became the ideal medium for a foundational tale.

While the emergence of secularism has diminished the occurrences of such a narrative, Americans can still cling to the story of the Pilgrims, which describes a preordained colony (or so the Pilgrims alleged) obstructed by an entire ocean and then innumerable complications upon landfall. Thus, it possesses the elements of burden and fate typical of an origin story. Whether the construction of the Plymouth colony was actually inevitable remains up for debate. It is certain, however, that the Pilgrims bear many similarities to the subjects of predating foundational narratives.

By exploring the inevitability of Rome’s founding, the Aeneid serves as a classical precursor to the turbulent, yet “predestined” establishment of the Plymouth colony. The first commonality between Aeneas and the Pilgrims lies in the fact that their eventual triumphs are presupposed by unfortunate circumstances. Both are in a state of relative exile — Aeneas, by fate (fatō profugus), and the Pilgrims by religious conditions. More specifically, the Pilgrims sought to bring Puritanism to North America because they were actively persecuted by the Anglican Church. In a comparable fashion, Aeneas endures unabating trials “until he might found a city and bring the gods to Latium” (dum conderet urbem / inferretque deos Latio [I, 9–10]). Note here that the Latin adverb dum is used with an imperfect subjunctive to signify suspense and design. That is to say, the arrival of the Trojan penates in newly-founded Rome is not a matter of if, but of when. Because the Pilgrims shared this conviction of predestined success, they likely felt empowered during their long journey across the Atlantic.

In the Aeneid, a similar sense of empowerment surfaces as Aeneas assures his weary followers that “God will provide an end to their sufferings” (dabit deus his… finem [I, 199]). The invocation of the divine is used to recall the religious imperatives which ground the Trojans’ mission. Moreover, it serves as a reminder that the Trojan fate lies not in present desolation, but in the “peaceful seats” of Latium (tendimus in Latium, sedes ubi fata quietas ostendunt [I, 205–206]).

It is probably fitting to view John Winthrop’s famous “City upon a Hill” speech as a parallel construction. In his oration, Winthrop makes the appeal that through faith, “God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it.” This is certainly an audacious claim to make, especially to a group of persecuted, soon-to-be colonists who have seen few tangible “blessings” in their lives thus far. Yet, following Aeneas’s example, it is what must be said in order to rally the troops. Fate is a veritable fuel for hope — without it, the exhausted Pilgrims, or the defessi Aeneadae (“weary followers of Aeneas,” I, 157), may have recognized the bleakness of their situations and done nothing.

It is important to note that the Pilgrims’ conception of fate is fundamentally different from that of the Romans, insofar as it is conditional. Winthrop’s rhetoric presents faith as a requirement for the idealistic fate he speaks of: while the Pilgrims “may” establish an exemplary “city upon a hill,” the feat can only be achieved if they “walk humbly with… God.” Failure to excel in this regard implies that they “shall surely perish,” which is why Winthrop emphasizes that “choosing life” is equivalent with choosing God.

By contrast, the Aeneid serves as a triumphant proclamation of a more certain prosperity. As Aeneas visits his late father Anchises in the Underworld, he is informed that “these will be your arts; to impose a way of peace, to spare the vanquished, and to crush the proud” ([hae tibi erunt artes], pacisque imponere morem, / parcere subjectis et debellare superbos). The verb erunt is future indicative in syntax, implying a strong sense of conviction that the Romans will indeed be equipped with the “arts” necessary to rule the world. Thus, Aeneas’s own “city upon a hill” — Rome — is a non-conditional form of destiny.

Although fate’s role in the Greco-Roman world is fundamentally different from its presence in the Pilgrims’ doctrine, the fact remains that fate can only be a motivation to endure if one chooses to believe in it — conditional or not. At its core, then, the story of the Pilgrims is a triumph of faith. Look no further than Winthrop’s assertion that his people will “mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission.” It is a claim demonstrative of a recurring truth in the Pilgrims’ proverbial epic: while the colonists were aware of inevitable hardship, they remained faithful that their sufferings were ordered towards a more favorable fate. Thus the sheer audacity of their faith in God’s conditional destiny for them is what makes them so heroic.

Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit, Vergil says (I, 203). “Perhaps one day it will help to have remembered these trials.” In the wake of a cultural reckoning which negatively associates the Pilgrims with colonialism, it is certainly easy to forget the trials which birthed America. Yet if there is one thing which the varios casus (“many trials,” I, 204) of the Aeneid can teach modern society, it is that perseverance in the name of fate is worth remembering.


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