[Epistemic status: Crackpot]
This post is a about some observations I’ve been developing for quite a while. I was inspired to post about it by a recent chapter of the new web serial Unsong, which touches upon similar themes. Some details have only been worked out now when I’m writing this up.
The founding legend of Rome, as recounted by Virgil’s Aeneid, was that the Romans were descendants of Trojans. Troy itself a great empire, when it was sacked by the Greeks the Trojan Aeneas was ordered by the gods to found a new Troy in the province of Italy. So he wandered the sea for many years until he finally reaches Rome. Now, there’s a gap of a few hundred years between the accepted dates of the fall of Troy and the founding of Rome; Aeneas did not found Rome right away. Rather, he founded the city of Alba Longa, which his descendants ruled until Romulus and Remus, who founded Rome.
It is certainly not a new idea to compare the United States with Rome. Both are powerful empires that center their self-identity with their democratic institutions. However, I believe the connection between the two is much deeper than that…
People commonly place the fall of the Roman Empire during the fifth century CE. This is not quite right. See, the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, but the Eastern Empire, now known as the Byzantine Empire, persisted a long time after that. In fact, the Eastern Roman Empire only fell in the year 1453.
In 1492, merely 39 years later, Christopher Columbus discovered the continent of America. Most historians believe that he was from the Republic of Genoa, which like Rome is a republic in Italy. However, an even stronger connection can potentially be made. Some people believe that Christopher Columbus was of a Byzantine origin, and may even have been related to Byzantine nobility. This is especially significant if it is possible to trace a lineage from Aeneas himself.
Before Christopher Columbus, Leif Erikson independently discovered and explored North America, and the Norse eventually named the region Vinland, due to the grapevines that grew there. The name Oenotria appears in some ancient sources, including three times in the Aeneid, to refer to southern Italy. The name comes from Greek οἶνος “wine”, since the area was rich in vineyards.
The parallel between Christopher Columbus’s journey and the journeys of Aeneas and Odysseus is obvious. Notice, too, that like how Aeneas does not immediately found Rome, but rather founds Alba Longa which centuries later produces Rome, so too Christopher Columbus is only responsible for exploring the continent wherein centuries later George Washington founds the republican empire.
From the strength of these analogies I can only conclude one thing: That the same events have occured twice, and Columbus was divinely inspired to explore America and found a new Rome like Aeneas was commanded to found a new Troy.
Although originally I only thought to make Graeco-Roman connections, inspired by Unsong it’s worth looking a bit into the Judaeo-Christian relationships. The obvious analogy is Moses, who wandered the desert fourty years seeking to found the new nation of Israel. One interesting contrast is that although both Odysseus and Aeneas reach their intended destination at the end, Christopher Columbus sought to reach India but never arrived there, like how Moses never set foot in the land of Israel. A different interpretation for the fact that Christopher Columbus failed to reach India is that although India was where he desired to reach, the divinely-fated target for his journey was America, like how Aeneas wanted to stay in Carthage with Dido but was fated to found a nation in Italy.