Months later, when I was back home teaching Greek and Roman classics again, it occurred to me that the difficulties we have with Aeneas and his epic cease to be difficulties once you think of him not as a hero but as a type we’re all too familiar with: a survivor, a person so fractured by the horrors of the past that he can hold himself together only by an unnatural effort of will, someone who has so little of his history left that the only thing that gets him through the present is a numbed sense of duty to a barely discernible future that can justify every kind of deprivation. It would be hard to think of a more modern figure.
Or, indeed, a more modern story. What is the Aeneid about? It is about a tiny band of outcasts, the survivors of a terrible persecution. It is about how these survivors—clinging to a divine assurance that an unknown and faraway land will become their new home—arduously cross the seas, determined to refashion themselves as a new people, a nation of victors rather than victims. It is about how, when they finally get there, they find their new homeland inhabited by locals who have no intention of making way for them. It is about how this geopolitical tragedy generates new wars, wars that will, in turn, trigger further conflicts: bella horrida bella. It is about how such conflicts leave those involved in them morally unrecognizable, even to themselves. This is a story that both the Old and the New Worlds know too well; and Virgil was the first to tell it. Whatever it meant in the past, and however it discomfits the present, the Aeneid has, alas, always anticipated the future.
David Mendelsohn, “Is the Aeneid a Celebration of Empire—or a Critique?”: