Posts filed under ‘History’
I’ve been reading Josephus’ Jewish Wars and Antiquities of the Jews in recent months, and I came across this delightful story set around 500 BC in Persia – giving an interesting twist to the decree to rebuild Jerusalem as told in the Bible.
Now, in the first year of the king’s reign, Darius feasted those that were about him, and those born in his house, with the rulers of the Medes, and princes of the Persians, and the toparchs of India and Ethiopia, and the generals of the armies of his hundred and twenty-seven provinces. But when they had eaten and drunk to satiety, and abundantly, they every one departed to go to bed at their own houses, and Darius the king went to bed; but after he had rested a little part of the night, he awaked, and not being able to sleep any more, he fell into conversation with the three guards of his body, and promised, that to him who should make an oration about points that he should inquire of, such as should be most agreeable to truth, and to the dictates of wisdom, he would grant it as a reward of his victory, to put on a purple garment, and to drink in cups of gold, and to sleep upon gold, and to have a chariot with bridles of gold, and a head tire of fine linen, and a chain of gold about his neck, and to sit next to himself, on account of his wisdom; "and," says he, "he shall be called my cousin." Now when he had promised to give them these gifts, he asked the first of them, "Whether wine was not the strongest?"—the second, "Whether kings were not such?"—and the third, "Whether women were not such? or whether truth was not the strongest of all?" When he had proposed that they should make their inquiries about these problems, he went to rest; but in the morning he sent for his great men, his princes, and toparchs of Persia and Media, and set himself down in the place where he used to give audience, and bid each of the guards of his body to declare what they thought proper concerning the proposed questions, in the hearing of them all.
Accordingly, the first of them began to speak of the strength of wine, and demonstrated it thus: "When," said he, "I am to give my opinion of wine, O you men, I find that it exceeds every thing, by the following indications: It deceives the mind of those that drink it, and reduces that of the king to the same state with that of the orphan, and he who stands in need of a tutor; and erects that of the slave to the boldness of him that is free; and that of the needy becomes like that of the rich man, for it changes and renews the souls of men when it gets into them; and it quenches the sorrow of those that are under calamities, and makes men forget the debts they owe to others, and makes them think themselves to be of all men the richest; it makes them talk of no small things, but of talents, and such other names as become wealthy men only; nay more, it makes them insensible of their commanders, and of their kings, and takes away the remembrance of their friends and companions, for it arms men even against those that are dearest to them, and makes them appear the greatest strangers to them; and when they are become sober, and they have slept out their wine in the night, they arise without knowing any thing they have done in their cups. I take these for signs of power, and by them discover that wine is the strongest and most insuperable of all things."
As soon as the first had given the forementioned demonstrations of the strength of wine, he left off; and the next to him began to speak about the strength of a king, and demonstrated that it was the strongest of all, and more powerful than any thing else that appears to have any force or wisdom. He began his demonstration after the following manner; and said, "They are men who govern all things; they force the earth and the sea to become profitable to them in what they desire, and over these men do kings rule, and over them they have authority. Now those who rule over that animal which is of all the strongest and most powerful, must needs deserve to be esteemed insuperable in power and force. For example, when these kings command their subjects to make wars, and undergo dangers, they are hearkened to; and when they send them against their enemies, their power is so great that they are obeyed. They command men to level mountains, and to pull down walls and towers; nay, when they are commanded to be killed and to kill, they submit to it, that they may not appear to transgress the king’s commands; and when they have conquered, they bring what they have gained in the war to the king. Those also who are not soldiers, but cultivate the ground, and plough it, and when, after they have endured the labor and all the inconveniences of such works of husbandry, they have reaped and gathered in their fruits, they bring tributes to the king; and whatsoever it is which the king says or commands, it is done of necessity, and that without any delay, while he in the mean time is satiated with all sorts of food and pleasures, and sleeps in quiet. He is guarded by such as watch, and such as are, as it were, fixed down to the place through fear; for no one dares leave him, even when he is asleep, nor does any one go away and take care of his own affairs; but he esteems this one thing the only work of necessity, to guard the king, and accordingly to this he wholly addicts himself. How then can it be otherwise, but that it must appear that the king exceeds all in strength, while so great a multitude obeys his injunctions?"
Now when this man had held his peace, the third of them, who was Zorobabel, began to instruct them about women, and about truth, who said thus: "Wine is strong, as is the king also, whom all men obey, but women are superior to them in power; for it was a woman that brought the king into the world; and for those that plant the vines and make the wine, they are women who bear them, and bring them up: nor indeed is there any thing which we do not receive from them; for these women weave garments for us, and our household affairs are by their means taken care of, and preserved in safety; nor can we live separate from women. And when we have gotten a great deal of gold and silver, and any other thing that is of great value, and deserving regard, and see a beautiful woman, we leave all these things, and with open mouth fix our eyes upon her countenance, and are willing to forsake what we have, that we may enjoy her beauty, and procure it to ourselves. We also leave father, and mother, and the earth that nourishes us, and frequently forget our dearest friends, for the sake of women; nay, we are so hardy as to lay down our lives for them. But what will chiefly make you take notice of the strength of women is this that follows: Do not we take pains, and endure a great deal of trouble, and that both by land and sea, and when we have procured somewhat as the fruit of our labors, do not we bring them to the women, as to our mistresses, and bestow them upon them? Nay, I once saw the king, who is lord of so many people, smitten on the face by Apame, the daughter of Rabsases Themasius, his concubine, and his diadem taken away from him, and put upon her own head, while he bore it patiently; and when she smiled he smiled, and when she was angry he was sad; and according to the change of her passions, he flattered his wife, and drew her to reconciliation by the great humiliation of himself to her, if at my time he saw her displeased at him."
And when the princes and rulers looked one upon another, he began to speak about truth; and he said, "I have already demonstrated how powerful women are; but both these women themselves, and the king himself, are weaker than truth; for although the earth be large, and the heaven high, and the course of the sun swift, yet are all these moved according to the will of God, who is true and righteous, for which cause we also ought to esteem truth to be the strongest of all things, and that what is unrighteous is of no force against it. Moreover, all things else that have any strength are mortal and short-lived, but truth is a thing that is immortal and eternal. It affords us not indeed such a beauty as will wither away by time, nor such riches as may be taken away by fortune, but righteous rules and laws. It distinguishes them from injustice, and puts what is unrighteous to rebuke."
So when Zorobabel had left off his discourse about truth, and the multitude had cried out aloud that he had spoken the most wisely, and that it was truth alone that had immutable strength, and such as never would wax old, the king commanded that he should ask for somewhat over and above what he had promised, for that he would give it him because of his wisdom, and that prudence wherein he exceeded the rest; "and thou shalt sit with me," said the king, "and shalt be called my cousin." When he had said this, Zorobabel put him in mind of the vow he had made in case he should ever have the kingdom. Now this vow was, "to rebuild Jerusalem, and to build therein the temple of God; as also to restore the vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had pillaged, and carried to Babylon. And this," said he, "is that request which thou now permittest me to make, on account that I have been judged to be wise and understanding.’”
I currently live on the North-Western coast of Ireland. One of the most well-known writers who grew up here is the poet W.B. Yeats, and one of his most well-known pieces is “The Second Coming,” composed in the aftermath of World War I and reflecting the feeling of that time. It also provided Chinua Achebe with the title for his novel Things Fall Apart.
Here is the poem, and below are some photos, one of a statue of Yeats in Sligo and a few more of his burial site between Sligo and Donegal.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.
This week, I listened to a course on the Italian Renaissance, and the professor read Machiavelli’s famous letter to Francesco Vettori, in which he describes a typical day during a particular stage in his life. I’ve read it before, but it merits re-reading, particularly the last of the three paragraphs I’ll quote below. It’s a prime example of the Renaissance mentality to reading Graeco-Roman texts. This is Machiavelli:
I get up in the morning with the sun and go into a grove I am having cut down, where I remain two hours to look over the work of the past day and kill some time with the cutters, who have always some bad-luck story ready, about either themselves or their neighbors. And as to this grove I could tell you a thousand fine things that have happened to me, in dealing with Frosino da Panzano and others who wanted some of this firewood. And Frosino especially sent for a number of cords without saying a thing to me, and on payment he wanted to keep back from me ten lire, which he says he should have had from me four years ago, when he beat me at cricca at Antonio Guicciardini’s. I raised the devil, and was going to prosecute as a thief the waggoner who came for the wood, but Giovanni Machiavelli came between us and got us to agree. Batista Guicciardini, Filippo Ginori, Tommaso del Bene and some other citizens, when that north wind was blowing, each ordered a cord from me. I made promises to all and sent one to Tommaso, which at Florence changed to half a cord, because it was piled up again by himself, his wife, his servant, his children, so that he looked like Gabburra when on Thursday with all his servants he cudgels an ox. Hence, having seen for whom there was profit, I told the others I had no more wood, and all of them were angry about it, and especially Batista, who counts this along with his misfortunes at Prato.
Leaving the grove, I go to a spring, and thence to my aviary. I have a book in my pocket, either Dante or Petrarch, or one of the lesser poets, such as Tibullus, Ovid, and the like. I read of their tender passions and their loves, remember mine, enjoy myself a while in that sort of dreaming. Then I move along the road to the inn; I speak with those who pass, ask news of their villages, learn various things, and note the various tastes and different fancies of men. In the course of these things comes the hour for dinner, where with my family I eat such food as this poor farm of mine and my tiny property allow. Having eaten, I go back to the inn; there is the host, usually a butcher, a miller, two furnace tenders. With these I sink into vulgarity for the whole day, playing at cricca and at trich-trach, and then these games bring on a thousand disputes and countless insults with offensive words, and usually we are fighting over a penny, and nevertheless we are heard shouting as far as San Casciano. So, involved in these trifles, I keep my brain from growing mouldy, and satisfy the malice of this fate of mine, being glad to have her drive me along this road, to see if she will be ashamed of it.
On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.
This dolmen has been standing there for about 5500 years, withstanding the Irish rain and the Atlantic wind, unchanging while whole civilizations have risen and fallen. It has even withstood my children crawling around in it.
I’m currently reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Czech author Milan Kundera. Though it is a novel, the beginning reads more like a non-fiction philosophy book and delivers some of the best paragraphs I’ve ever read on the idea of the eternal return, made famous by Nietzsche. (Not that I’ve read so many treatments on the eternal return, but you get the point.)
This is Kundera:
The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?
Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing. We need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.
Will the war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century itself be altered if it recurs again and again, in eternal return? It will: it will become a solid mass, permanently protuberant, its inanity irreparable.
If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the Revolution have turned into mere words, theories, and discussions, have become lighter than feathers, frightening no one. There is an infinite difference between a Robespierre who occurs only once in history and a Robespierre who eternally returns, chopping off French heads.
Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.
Not long ago, I caught myself experiencing a most incredible sensation. Leafing through a book on Hitler, I was touched by some of his portraits: they reminded me of my childhood. I grew up during the war; several members of my family perished in Hitler’s concentration camps; but what were their deaths compared with the memories of a lost period in my life, a period that would never return?
This reconciliation with Hitler reveals the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been discussing Virgil’s epic poem about the legendary events that eventually led to the founding of Rome, drawing some parallels to the founding of the United States. I had asked why it is that we as humans seem to have the need to create mythological and semi-mythological pasts for the group to which we belong.
Now I would like to ask a second question: Why is it that we feel that the founders of our group should continue to determine the present, even after several centuries have gone by and times might have changed radically?
Again, if anyone doubts that we do this, just look at some of the debates within American society. Whether it is the right to bear arms or the question of the place of religion in society, most sides of these debates seem to agree that what the Founding Fathers thought and intended should continue to—at least to an extent—determine our actions today.
Many Christians are at pains to point out how religious the Founding Fathers were, and many others are at pains to point out how secular the Founding Fathers were, but there is a common assumption that underlies both of these positions, namely that what the Founding Fathers thought should in some sense still define American society today. If the Founding Fathers were mostly Christians, then this is meant to show that the United States is at its heart a “Christian nation,” and, in order to stay true to itself, it needs to retain that Christian identity. If, on the other hand, the Founding Fathers were highly critical of Christianity, then a secular spirit ought to pervade American society.
Both sides want to call Americans back to what they truly are, suggesting that the United States cannot remain to be the United States if it does not stay true to what the Founding Fathers thought. Never mind that Deism, which influenced many of the Founding Fathers, was a fashion of the time and has since gone mostly out of fashion. No, the religion or lack thereof of the Founding Fathers is still felt to be relevant today and is hotly debated. Why?
This idea of appealing to the Founding Fathers in support of one’s own view is not new. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had very different views on slavery, but they both agreed that the Founding Fathers should have a say in the matter. The only problem was that they had not said anything official about it, and so Lincoln tried to prove that the Founding Fathers were really, in their heart of hearts, against slavery, and his opponents attempted to prove the opposite.
Similarly, in Virgil’s Aeneid there is a notion that Aeneas should encapsulate Roman values and virtues, that he is a prototypical Roman, and that this “spirit” of Rome ought to transcend the ages. Something similar might be going on with Americans in relation to their Founding Fathers. There is a sense of an American identity, of American values, of a “spirit” that transcends generations and needs to be retained in order for America to remain America.
All right, my kids are calling me to play with them. As always, feel free to disagree.
In the last few days, my mind has turned (as it sometimes does) to some of the great passages and speeches in Shakespeare, and one that came to mind was the “Band of Brothers” speech delivered by Henry V to his troops in the play of the same name.
I must say that I have mixed feelings about such battle-cry speeches. On the one hand, the bravery and emotion expressed in them can be quite moving. On the other hand, I find it chilling how easily men (mostly men) are moved to slaughter others and let themselves be slaughtered.
The possible reasons for this human propensity to war and violence have been treated by many authors from many different angles. A recent one is Chris Hedges’ War Is a Force that Gives us Meaning, which I just started reading today.
But whatever your own feelings on war, the “Band of Brothers” speech is still a great piece of literature. Here it is:
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
My recent thoughts on Virgil and the Founding Fathers of the United States raise an important question, namely: Why is it that we seem to have the need to create mythological and semi-mythological pasts for the group (such as a nation) to which we belong?
If anyone doubts that we still do create semi-mythological pasts for ourselves, the United States does serve as a pretty good example. Even though we have, in comparison to the founding of Rome, an abundance of hard historical facts about Columbus, about the first settlers in North America, about the war for independence and the founding of the American republic, this has not kept Americans from mythologizing these events.
(Just to clarify: I am using the word myth in a broad sense here, not in the specific sense of being stories about the gods, although, since the notion of divine destiny is so strong in American myths, they might qualify as myths even on that account.)
In these myths, Columbus becomes a great heroic figure who, standing alone, bravely challenges the whole worldview of his time. George Washington becomes larger than life, a symbol rather than a real man of flesh and blood, around which many legends can be spun.
To repeat the question, why is it that we have this propensity to mythologize? Is it again this sense of purpose that I talked about in my last posts? Can an empire or an ethnic group or a modern nation state not exist without some common identity that is built on a mythical past?
It can be argued that Homer greatly contributed to giving the loose connection of independent Greek city states a common identity. Without Homer, would the Greeks maybe have never felt any connection to each other at all? How much did Virgil contribute to the success of the Roman Empire? Would it have held together that long without him? Would the English ever have become that strong without looking back at the golden age of King Arthur? What would the Jewish people be without the Hebrew Bible? Would they have survived all these years as a distinct group if they did not have Abraham, Moses and David to draw on?
Or am I overstating the importance of creating a common identity rooted in a certain view of the past?
This need to look back at a larger-than-life past seems especially strong in cases where the identity of a group is not based on ethnicity, such as in the case of the Roman Empire or the United States.
Although even in the case where there is a degree of common ethnicity, there seems to be a need to call up a legendary past, especially when there is disunity among that ethnic group. The Brothers Grimm, after all, did not collect their German fairy tales just for entertainment, but as a nationalistic project to help unify the many German-speaking kingdoms of the early 19th century.
Perhaps a contributing factor to the rise of national myths is that a truly unifying identity needs to be dug up from the bottom, so to speak, from the common people, not imposed from the top. And the common folk just do have a tendency to mythologize the past and thus provide the stuff out of which a national identity can be woven. The Brothers Grimm, at least, seem to have done this quite consciously, trying to get in touch with the common people and digging up a unifying national identity from them. Virgil, too, did not simply make up a bunch of legends, but drew on previous literature, myths and folk tales.
Is such mythologizing necessarily a bad thing or can it also be a good thing that inspires us in positive ways?
A few days ago, I mentioned Virgil’s Aeneid and drew a parallel to the Founding Fathers of the United States. To prevent misunderstanding, perhaps I should stress again that there are, of course, numerous differences between the founding of Rome and the founding of the United States, not the least of which is that we have a lot of reliable historical information on the latter, while the former is shrouded in myth. But my point was more a psychological observation, namely that one of the reasons I (and presumably others) am so fascinated by the Founding Fathers is a very similar (psychological) reason that the Romans were fascinated by the Aeneid or that the post-Solomonic Israelites/Jews were fascinated by the story of Abraham on Mt. Moriah.
Now, this kind of teleological perspective (=looking at the beginning of something primarily in view of its outcome) can have negative consequences, such as overly romanticising the past, or, one could also add, overly criticising the past. As we all know, hindsight is twenty-twenty, and it is easy to see in retrospect why, say, President Wilson should have granted the Japanese their request for the Racial Equality Clause during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and should not have granted the Japanese the Chinese province of Shantung, since, through these two decisions, he alienated both Japan and China in one swoop. This likely led to the rise of Communism in China and the animosity of the Japanese against America, culminating in Pearl Harbor.
Or it is easy to see in retrospect why President Hindenburg should not have appointed Hitler as his chancellor. Since the Nazis were already in decline at that point, the Third Reich might have actually been averted through this one simple decision. But, of course, Wilson and Hindenburg were children of their time and could not foresee the future. Also, unfortunately, history is not a scientific laboratory and we never know for sure what exactly would have happened if people had acted differently.
So, while there are definitely dangers of putting on our teleological lenses when studying the past, my post was not meant as a criticism. I don’t think it’s at all wrong to be fascinated by an event or person in the past because they led to far-reaching developments. In my daydreams, I frequently indulge in history-nerd fantasies about being able to time-travel to past events that turned out to be highly significant in the long run, and to witness them with the full knowledge of what would come of them.
Just imagine being able to attend the trial of Socrates with the full knowledge of the history of philosophy that would grow out of this event. Just imagine being able to accompany Columbus with the full knowledge of what the meeting of the Old with the New World would entail, even as Columbus himself remained completely unaware that he had discovered something other than India. Just imagine being there when the Declaration of Independence was drafted.
I find these fantasies thrilling, and, one could argue, Virgil’s Aeneid is also such a fantasy, albeit a more fictitious one than the examples I gave here.
The other day, I revisited Virgil’s Aeneid, that great epic poem that tells of the legendary Aeneas, who flees from Troy when the city is burned by the Greeks and ends up in Italy, where he becomes the ancestor of the Romans.
Although I do not wish to draw unwarranted parallels between the founding of Rome and the founding of the United States, I think there is an important point to be made about the Aeneid in relation to the Founding Fathers of the United States.
In spite of not being an American, I find the Founding Fathers utterly fascinating, and I have sometimes asked myself why. Why is it that I feel like I know Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin better than, say, Otto von Bismarck? Why am I more drawn to these figures than I am to many figures of my own European background? I don’t think the reason is primarily that I am married to an American, but that I live in the American age. In the course of the 20th century, the US arguably became the most influential nation in the world, and I think what fascinates me so about the Founding Fathers is their retrospective significance.
If the United States had never reached such a height of influence, if it were ranked as—to use a random number—the 58th most influential country in the world, I doubt that I would be drawn to the Founding Fathers as much as I am. It is precisely the significance of the United States now that lends such significance to the ideas and actions of the Founding Fathers back in the late 18th century. We can look back and read their words, we can look back and study their lives, with the sense that they had purpose, that there was a gravitas on everything they did, that great things were to come out of their small beginnings.
I think this is a similar feeling that Virgil wanted to evoke in the reader. All of Aeneas’ deeds feel significant because the reader knows what would come of them. Aeneas’ time in Carthage is so significant only because the reader knows of the later Punic wars between Carthage and Rome, and that the defeat of Carthage would mark the rise of Roman dominance in the Mediterranean. The Roman reader of the Aeneid would have surely asked, "What would have happened if Aeneas had given in to Dido’s pleading and made Carthage his home? Wouldn’t Carthage then still be the dominant power in the Mediterranean and Rome be insignificant or, worse, would have never been founded?"
So, what might appear as simply a tragic love story between Dido and Aeneas becomes much more than that through the retrospective eyes of Virgil and his readers. There was much more at stake than Dido’s and Aeneas’ personal happiness; there was a fate of nations to be decided. I think we get the same sense when reading about the various decisions of the Founding Fathers.
This writing technique of evoking a sense of purpose through seeing significance retrospectively is also sometimes used in the Bible. For instance, when Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, and then God intervened and said He would provide a sacrifice later on, the significance of the story is not only (or perhaps not even primarily) Abraham’s obedience, but that, according to 2. Chronicles 3:1, Mount Moriah was the exact place where Solomon’s temple would be built several hundred years later and where daily sacrifices would be made to the LORD.
Since Genesis as we now have it was likely written after the building of the first temple, it seems to me that the author of this passage wants to evoke the same kind of feeling in his Israelite/Jewish readers that Virgil wanted to evoke in his Roman readers. It is a sense of purpose, a deep fascination that comes from seeing significance retrospectively.