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The Aeneid & the Acts of the Apostles
by Patrick Henry Reardon
In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke has left the Christian Church what deserves to be called an epic—a lengthy account, based on the motif of a journey—of the early movement of the gospel from Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jews, to Rome, the capital city of the greatest empire of antiquity. That movement from Jerusalem to Rome, embodied especially in the travels of St. Paul, symbolized for Luke that internationalizing of the gospel inherent in his version of the Great Mandate that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).
In speaking of the Acts of the Apostles as an epic, I mean to suggest that its structure and composition convey the great narrative élan, the heroic, stately, and high historical tone associated with other accounts commonly called epics; the works of Homer come to mind, for instance (to say nothing of the Pentateuch!). More especially, however, I am disposed to liken the Acts of the Apostles to the Aeneid of Vergil, a likening, I submit, curiously justified by particular resemblances between the two works.
Indeed, these resemblances are rather striking. For example, both Acts and the Aeneid begin in cities doomed to destruction by fire. In the case of Troy, of course, the burning of the city has already taken place, though Vergil narrates the event only through a subsequent recounting in Book 2. In the case of Jerusalem, the city’s overthrow still lies in the future, but it has already been foretold by Jesus himself (Luke 21:20–24). Jerusalem’s doom is already sealed. In addition, both Acts and the Aeneid end in the same place, Rome. Furthermore, in neither book is Rome simply the place where the story ends. It is, rather, each story’s intended destination, the true rerum finis, toward which all the narrative is directed. In both accounts, moreover, that destination is reached by a very circuitous sea voyage involving endless delays and even a shipwreck. These several similarities between Acts and the Aeneid would amply justify, I submit, an effort to study the two works together as an exercise in comparative literature.
My endeavor in the present study, nonetheless, is more modest. I propose, rather, simply to analyze the Acts of the Apostles under the aspect of the story’s intended destination—namely, Rome, with all that Rome stood for as a symbol of universal human concern in the world of Luke’s day. The bringing of the gospel to Rome meant, for Luke, the placing of the gospel at the politically defining center of universal human concern. By way of necessary setting, my analysis of Acts will be preceded by brief comments on the Aeneid itself and on the general role of geographical symbolism in Lukan theology.
The Aeneid & Rome
In the ancient stories of the Trojan War, Aeneas the Dardanian was a relatively minor character. From Homer, Hesiod, and Hyginus, we know something of his origins (fathered by the mortal Anchises and born of the goddess Aphrodite) and a bit of his part in the nine-year conflict that culminated in the fall of Troy. After that, however, the Greeks had no clear focus on the career of Aeneas. The older accounts varied with respect to his end, some saying he died at Pellene in Thrace, others at Orchomenus in Arcadia. In any case, the post-Troy days of Aeneas, unlike those of Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Ajax, and other characters in that famous adventure, inspired no abiding theme for Greek theater or poetry. He had fought, after all, on the losing side.
This Greek uncertainty about the latter days of Aeneas invited the later speculation of the Latins, whose most famous account thereof comes to us in Vergil’s Aeneid. According to this story, Aeneas and his companions escaped during the burning of Troy and, after a lengthy voyage around the Mediterranean, finally landed on the western coast of the Italian peninsula, founding the city of Lavinium. They were the forebears, that is to say, of Rome.
When Vergil died at Brindisi in Calabria on September 22, 19 B.C., his Aeneid was not yet ready for publication, and he had left instructions with his literary executors to burn the manuscript in the event of his death. At the intervention of the Emperor Augustus, however, this did not happen. Convinced that Vergil’s great epic version of the Trojan origin of the Roman people would inspire them to a heroic sense of their destiny, Augustus ordered the work to be published.
There is every reason to believe that the Aeneid, which became a standard text in the teaching of Latin grammar and literature, served the intention of Augustus very well, prompting the Romans to assume the burden of political greatness that history had placed into their hands. Because of the literary and political importance of the Aeneid during the century following its publication, no carefully educated, internationally cultured man in the Roman Empire would have been unfamiliar with the Roman story of that ancient Trojan. Even those unable to read Latin would know Vergil’s account second-hand, as part of the officially endorsed mythology of the Empire.
Vergil’s story was certainly familiar, therefore, to the physician Luke, a truly cosmopolitan man of letters, whose style of historiography has often been compared to that of Herodotus and Thucydides. It is my belief that in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke wrote a Christian version, as it were, of Vergil’s Aeneid.
Prior to attempting a demonstration of that belief, however, it will be useful to examine more generally a literary structure peculiar to both the Lukan Gospel and the Book of Acts. In each of these works the reader discerns that the narrative is arranged according to a determined geographical pattern, based on the motif of a journey toward a specific destination.
Thus, the narrative in Luke’s Gospel is constantly pulled by the image of the temple at Jerusalem. It is in the temple that Luke both begins (1:5–10) and brings to an end (24:52–53) his “orderly account” (1:3) of “all that Jesus began to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1).
The dramatic tension in Luke’s Gospel drives it relentlessly toward Jerusalem. Thus, in the Lukan version of the Lord’s Transfiguration on the mountain, Moses and Elijah are portrayed as discussing with Jesus “his exsodos which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9:31), a detail not found in Matthew or Mark. Just twenty verses later Luke tells us that Jesus “steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51), a sentence proper to Luke and immediately repeated (9:53). Luke alone tells us that Jesus “went through the cities and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem” (13:22), and only in Luke does Jesus say that “it cannot be that a prophet perish outside of Jerusalem” (13:34). Luke never lets us forget that Jerusalem was the goal of Jesus’ journey (17:11). It was always a question of what Luke, in an expression peculiar to himself, called the “redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38).
Moreover, within individual parts of Luke’s story, Jerusalem, and more specifically the temple, likewise serves as the goal of directed activity. Thus, Luke’s infancy narrative, in contrast to that of Matthew, culminates in the temple at Jerusalem (Luke 2:22,27). In addition, Luke twice takes the “parents” of Jesus to the Jerusalem temple in the story of his boyhood (2:41–42,45). It is in the temple that they find him (2:46). Similarly, Luke’s account of the Lord’s temptations places the third and climactic encounter between Jesus and the devil on the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem (4:9), an arrangement strikingly at odds with Matthew’s version of the story (Matthew 4:5–8).
Finally, unlike Matthew, who portrays Jesus as giving the Great Mandate on a mountain in Galilee (28:16), Luke’s version of the Mandate describes the Christian mission as “beginning at Jerusalem” (24:47). The apostles are not to leave Jerusalem until the pouring forth of the Holy Spirit (24:49; Acts 1:4), because their witness must begin in that city (1:8).
While Luke’s Gospel begins and ends in Jerusalem, the Acts of the Apostles begins at Jerusalem and climaxes in Rome. Indeed, Luke, who accompanied Paul to Rome (Acts 28:13–16; 2 Timothy 4:11), seems to have a Roman preoccupation from the very beginning of the story. After noting the presence of Romans at Jerusalem on Pentecost (Acts 2:10), Luke follows the movement of the gospel relentlessly westward to the empire’s capital.
Cyprus & Troy
In examining the Acts of the Apostles, I propose to begin with St. Paul’s first missionary journey. An initial reference to Rome appears already in that trip—specifically, on Paul’s visit to Cyprus, an important island incidentally mentioned early in the Aeneid (1.622). Cyprus became a Roman possession in 57 B.C. and two years later was politically annexed to the province of Cilicia. It was Augustus himself who proclaimed it an imperial province in 27 B.C., but four years later it became a senatorial province, governed by a proconsul. One of those proconsuls, a man named Sergius Paulus, became the first official of the Roman government converted by St. Paul, “being astonished at the teaching of the Lord” (Acts 13:12). Commentators on the Acts of the Apostles have long noted that Saul of Tarsus is first called “Paul,” or “Paulos,” during this ministry to Cyprus (13:9,13) and never again called anything else. Sergius Paulus seems to represent, then, a kind of firstfruits of Paul’s ministry to the Romans.
In his second missionary journey, Paul visited Troy itself, or Troas, as that site is called in the New Testament. He arrived at Troas because prophetic utterances had kept him from going further south to Asia Minor (16:6) or further north to Bithynia (16:7). This divinely guided direction led to one of the major steps in the gospel’s westward progression. It was at Troas, the site of the ancient Troy, that Paul received the revelation that would bring him to Europe (16:8–12). After his third missionary journey, he will again visit Troas (20:5–6), following a roundabout itinerary that would at last bring him to Rome. (And as Paul was finishing his days at Rome, he would again remember Troas; cf. 2 Timothy 4:13.)
When Paul left Troas, continuing westward on his second missionary journey, he paused briefly at Samothrace (Acts 16:11), an island with close and ancient ties to Troy (cf. Aeneid 7:206–211). Then, going on, Paul’s first place of evangelism on the European continent was a political and cultural outpost of Rome, Philippi, a Roman “colony” (Acts 16:12). At Philippi there is a figurative sense in which Paul had arrived at Rome already, because Philippi was a sort of legal extension of the capital. Founded by Philip II in 358 B.C., it was in Paul’s time settled largely by the families of the imperial soldiers who had been bequeathed real estate in the place as a reward for their part in the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C. (cf. Strabo, 7, fragment 41; Dio Cassius, Roman History 51.4.6). These were Romans, whom the Roman penal code prohibited from becoming Jews (cf. Cicero, On the Laws 2.18,19; Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.14.2). In the Book of Acts, Paul is accused (falsely) of trying to win them as proselytes to Judaism, teaching customs that “we Romans,” those Macedonians insisted, could not lawfully accept (16:21).
The time of Paul’s arrival in Philippi is also significant in this respect. It was in A.D. 49, the very year in which Paul began this second journey, that the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome (18:2; cf. Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars “Claudius” 25). There is a special nuance, then, in Luke’s observation that the Jews at Philippi worshipped outside of the city limits (Acts 16:13). It is likely that they dared not worship inside the city, nor should it surprise us that the decree of Claudius would be taken so seriously at Philippi.
The river at Philippi, to which Luke refers as the place where the Jews met for prayer (16:13), was the Gangites, the very stream at which the imperial forces of Octavius and Mark Antony had defeated the republican army of Brutus and Cassius in the battle of 42 B.C. It was that battle that determined the imperial destiny of Rome and the Augustan era. Significantly, it is at that same place that Paul made his first convert in Europe, Lydia.
It was likewise in the Roman colony of Philippi that Paul first raised the matter of his own Roman citizenship (16:37–38). In the story’s immediate context, Paul’s mention of this political privilege, the Lex Porcia, did not seem to serve any practical purpose. We note, for instance, that he spoke about his Roman citizenship only after his beating, not before, when mentioning it would surely have spared him the beating. In the general structure of Acts, however, this introduction of Paul’s Roman citizenship at Philippi serves an important literary function, by preparing the reader for his later appeal to that citizenship at Jerusalem and Caesarea. In the latter setting, it will be the immediate context for his journey to Rome. Paul’s reference to his Roman citizenship at Philippi, then, chiefly serves to link the present story to his later trial at Caesarea before another Roman procurator.
Jerusalem & Caesarea
Paul seems to have conceived the idea of a trip to Rome during his three years at Ephesus, roughly 52–55. When he first spoke of the project, he expressed it in terms of a necessity: “I must also see Rome” (19:21). The Greek word for “must” here is the impersonal dei, an extremely important term in Lukan theology to which we will return presently.
Paul was still thinking about Rome a couple of years later, toward the end of the third missionary journey, during the three months (apparently January through March of A.D. 57) that he spent in Greece, most likely at Corinth (20:2–3). It was during this time that he wrote the Epistle to the Romans, while staying in the home of Gaius (Romans 16:23; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:14). In the Epistle to the Romans he again mentioned his hope of visiting Rome and beyond (cf. Romans 1:15; 15:22–25). He would make that trip after returning to Jerusalem to bring aid “for the poor among the saints” in that city (15:26). Accordingly, in the spring of that year, Paul retraced his voyage back to Troas (Acts 20:5–6) and started the southward trip to Jerusalem. One of the ports along the way was Samos (20:15), an island mentioned in the opening lines of the Aeneid (1.16).
When, shortly after his arrival in Jerusalem, he was attacked by a mob in the temple (Acts 21:26–30), a local official took Paul into custody to prevent his being killed (21:31–35). Given permission to speak to the crowd that was endeavoring to lynch him, Paul succeeded only in further augmenting its wrath (21:37–22:22). Since he had been speaking to the crowd in Aramaic, Paul’s message was not understood by the commander of the fortress, so the latter was bewildered and troubled by the mob’s violent reaction (22:23). His own reaction was understandable, because in due course this official would be obliged to render an account of this recent disturbance to the Roman procurator of the region at Caesarea. Up to this point, however, he had no idea just what transpired. Since he could make no intelligible sense of the yelling and actions of the crowd (22:23), he ordered Paul to be tortured by beatings, in hopes of obtaining some solid information on the matter (22:24).
On this occasion, however, Paul would have none of it. When he had been beaten earlier at Philippi by the governmental officials in Acts 16, he had not mentioned his Roman citizenship until after his beating, but in the present instance Paul spoke up ahead of time, indicating the high status that precluded his being tortured. Indeed, the local commander had already gone too far by having the apostle handcuffed without legal warrant (22:29). Thus, the matter of Paul’s Roman citizenship is introduced into the narrative for the second time. In due course it would be that special legal status that permitted Paul’s recourse to a court in the capital city. Paul’s Roman citizenship, then, is an important component in the dynamism of the whole account in this book.
It was two nights later that Paul received a message directly from the Lord that he would still be making that trip to Rome: “As you have testified for me at Jerusalem, so you must (dei) bear witness at Rome” (23:11). Here the sense of destiny is conveyed by the word “must,” the very word Paul used with respect to visiting Rome several years earlier in Ephesus (19:21). Arriving in Rome was a matter of destiny.
Then two years elapsed, during which Paul was imprisoned at Caesarea (24:27). The legal complications arising from his arrest, inasmuch as he was never actually charged with a crime, finally led to his appealing for a trial in Rome itself (25:10–12; 26:32). In expressing this appeal, Paul once again used the word dei (25:10). Although modern translations of this verse convey a mere propriety in the word dei (“. . . Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought . . .” in KJV, RSV, etc.), a sensitivity to Lukan usage should prompt us to see in it a deeper sense of necessity, best conveyed as “must.” Later, indeed, at the time of Paul’s shipwreck at Malta, an angel of the Lord would strengthen the apostle once with this word denoting his destiny, “Do not be afraid, Paul, you must (dei) be brought before Caesar” (27:24). In order for this to happen, however, their ship “must (dei) run aground on a certain island” (27:26). The entire voyage, in short, was guided by the providential hand of God. The apostle’s going to Rome was a matter of destined fulfillment.
Paul’s journey to and arrival at Rome, which fill the two final chapters of the book, form the climax to which the literary tension of the Acts of the Apostles has been building. It is in this journey that Acts most strikingly reminds the reader of the Aeneid of Vergil. Likewise, Luke’s inclusion of so many nautical details obliges us to slow down and savor the significance of the story. He does not deprive us of a single dram of the drama.
Paul and his companions boarded a ship whose home port was Adramyttium (Acts 27:2). Since this prominent port city (cf. Plutarch, Cicero 4; Herodotus, 7.42; Strabo, 13.613–614), the modern Edremit, lay just south of Troy, Luke’s inclusion of the detail may be significant. Leaving Phoenicia, the ship cruised along the east and north sides of Cyprus, against strong head winds (27:4), and then turned north to Asia Minor. The vessel was obviously returning to its home port. At the city of Myra, on the south coast of Asia Minor, Paul’s company changed to an Alexandrian ship bound for Italy; it was perhaps a grain ship, so many of which brought wheat from Egypt to Rome. Still fighting contrary winds, they made their way to Salmone on the northeastern tip of Crete, a port well known to ancient navigators (cf. Strabo, Geography 10.3.20; Pliny, Natural History 4.58.71).
The “Fair Havens” they then reached on the south coast of Crete (Acts 27:8) is still known by that name in Greek, Kali Limenes. In the next verse Luke informs us that the Feast of the Atonement, or Yom Kippur, had already passed. If, as we are justified in suspecting, this was the year 59, then the Day of Atonement was October 5. That is to say, they were approaching the winter season when sailing on the Mediterranean was considered unsafe.
Phoenix, where they hoped to winter, lay some forty miles further west on the south side of Crete (27:12). When a light wind began to blow westward, the ship’s crew decided it was just what was needed to take the ship to Phoenix. Weighing anchor, they determined to risk it, endeavoring to hug the south coast of Crete. Not long after commencing this maneuver, however, the ship was hit by a “typhoon wind” (anemos typhonikos), a nor’easter blowing down from over Crete and sending the ship out to sea in a southwesterly direction. There was nothing to do but let her ride the storm. With no way to see either stars or moon, navigation became impossible, and soon they had no idea where they were or even in which direction they were headed. With no sunlight, the most basic sense of direction was lost (27:20). That is to say, the journey was no longer under human control. God would take the ship where he wanted it to go.
Presently, some twenty-seven miles due south of Phoenix, the very port the crew had hoped to reach before the storm came, Paul’s ship ran under the lee of the island of Cauda (cf. Pliny, Natural History 4.12), the modern Gozzo. A brief relief from the storm, as the ship sat below Cauda (Acts 27:16), enabled the sailors to undergird the hull with cables, to make the vessel’s planking tighter against the waves. To impede the ship’s wild movement in the storm, a kedge anchor was dropped (the correct meaning, I believe, of chalasantes to skevos), because the craft had been drifting south so fast that the crew feared running onto the reef shoals of the Libyan coast at Syrtis.
The shoals of Syrtis, west of Cyrene, to which Luke refers in Acts 27:17, consisted of two shallow bays, now known as the Gulf of Sidra and the Gulf of Cabes. “Syrtis,” a name meaning “sandbank” and related to the Greek verb syro, “to drag,” was a place frightful to mariners, who tried their best to avoid those shallows with their hidden rocks and their sands ever shifting in the tides and waves (Pliny, Natural History 5.4.27; Dio Chrysostom, Discourses 5.8–11). This was that “Syrtis, terrifying to whoever hears of it” (Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War 2.381).
More significant to the interest of our study, this place was the same “unfriendly Syrtis” (inhospita Syrtis) that “confined” (cingunt) Carthage (Aeneid 4.41). It was at Syrtis that Aeneas’s ships ran aground (1.111,146; cf. 10.678), and, when he finally left Carthage, he carefully avoided sailing that way (5.51; 6.60; 7.302). (It did not bother Vergil’s purposes, obviously, that Syrtis lay much too far east to provide a landing for Carthage, nor should it, I suggest, bother us.)
Paul’s ship did not drift down to Syrtis, evidently because the wind shifted and drove it into what Luke identifies as the Adriatic Sea (Acts 27:27). This navigator’s calculation was surely made afterwards, however, because at the time no one on board had more than a guess where they might be. The ancients thought of the Adriatic as extending southward to include the waters between Crete and Sicily (Ptolemy, Geography 3.4.1; 17.1; Strabo, 2.123). Fierce storms were common there (Horace, Odes 1.33.15; 2.14.14; 3.3.5; 3.9.23). Indeed, two years or so after St. Paul’s harrowing experience on the Adriatic, Flavius Josephus traveled to Rome on another ship that foundered in those very waters. His description is worth quoting at length:
I arrived at Rome, after much peril at sea. When our ship sank (baptisthentos) in the middle of the Adriatic, some of us, around six hundred in number, swam through the whole night, and about daybreak, by God’s providence, there appeared a ship of Cyrene. Myself and some others, about eighty all together, outstripped the others and were taken aboard (Vita 15).
Josephus went on to describe this ship’s landing at Puteoli, which the Italians, he noted, called Dicaearchia (Vita 16). This was the same port, on the Gulf of Naples, at which Paul had disembarked the previous year or so (Acts 28:13).
One is also struck, however, by a big difference between the descriptions that Josephus and Luke give us of their shipwrecks in the Adriatic. That of Josephus is very short and sparse in particulars, while Luke’s description is lengthy, dramatic, and very detailed. For Josephus, the shipwreck was an event; it happened and it was over. Luke’s shipwreck, however, was part of a larger epic, a historical saga of great significance. Therefore he takes particular care in his description of this experience that he shared with Paul. As for Paul himself, he was no stranger to shipwreck. Indeed, prior to the incident so minutely described by Luke, Paul had already been shipwrecked on three different occasions, during one of which he had spent a night and a day clinging to some spar or other piece of ship’s rigging to stay afloat (2 Corinthians 11:25). Luke recorded none of those earlier disasters, though we suspect he knew of them. If he takes such care in his description of Paul’s shipwreck at Malta, then, he must see in it a special significance.
Luke tells us that their ship drifted for 14 days before crashing onto the rocks (27:41). This chronological detail renders improbable, I think, the KJV’s translation of diapheromenon as “driven up and down” (27:27). Luke’s expression is better translated as “tossed around,” because several changes of wind and current, of the sort suggested by the KJV translation, would make it unlikely for the ship to have reached Malta in just two weeks. It is more reasonable, surely, to think of a more or less steady drift westwards averaging maybe a knot or two each hour, or roughly 36 miles a day. This estimate would better account for the 480 or so miles between Cauda and Malta. Indeed, it works out to almost exactly thirteen and a half days, a calculation that brings us to the night before the shipwreck, when they “dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for day to come” (27:29).
Rome as Goal
After the shipwreck at Malta, Luke’s narrative returns to its customary calm, describing the rest of Paul’s trip to Rome: “And so we went into (eis) Rome” (28:14,16).
Because the events at Caesarea the previous autumn, culminating in Paul’s appeal to a higher court at Rome, had transpired so late in the year, precariously close to the winter, when sea travel and communication were no longer undertaken, no one in Rome had learned of those distant events. The Jews in Rome gained their first information on the matter three days after Paul’s arrival in the city (28:21).
He invited their local Jewish leaders to meet at his lodging, where he was under house arrest (28:16–17). It is significant to Luke’s literary and theological purpose to record Paul’s last rejection by the Jews—the last of so many that he has recounted—in that very city which is the capital of the Gentile world, the city towards which the dynamism of this narrative has been directed. Paul was at last in the capital of the Roman Empire, the city so closely tied to his and Peter’s destinies. It is precisely in Rome that Paul declares to the unbelieving Jews that “this salvation has been sent to the Gentiles” (28:28).
Here the story ends, not because Luke had run out of things to tell, but because he has now reached the geographical and thematic goal toward which his entire account has been moving. The movement from Jerusalem to Rome served for Luke as a symbol of the internationalizing of the gospel, bringing God’s message of salvation to the political center of universal human concern.
In this survey of Acts, I have concentrated on the ministry of St. Paul, because that is where Luke, with respect to Rome, directs his own concentration. A distinct Rome-ward impulse, nonetheless, is easily discerned in Luke from the beginning. Thus, when he commences his narrative of the ministry of John the Baptist, which Luke takes as the terminus a quo for the authoritative period of apostolic witness (cf. Acts 1:22), he is careful to fix the date of John’s ministry, first of all, in reference to the Roman imperial government: “Now, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea . . .” (Luke 3:1). Similarly, that latter representative of the Roman Empire, when Jesus is later brought to trial before him, pronounces an initial verdict of innocence. “I find no fault in this Man,” Pilate says, in a verse that has no direct parallel in Matthew or Mark (though it does in John; cf. Luke 23:4; John 18:38).
It is likewise instructive to compare the Synoptic accounts of the last Roman official to see Jesus alive, the centurion at the foot of the Cross. Whereas both Matthew (27:54) and Mark (15:39) describe that centurion as proclaiming Jesus’ divinity in the words of the Christian faith (“Truly, this Man was the Son of God”), Luke’s treatment is entirely forensic. Luke’s centurion, the final spokesman for the Roman Empire, simply issues a verdict of innocence: “Certainly this was a just man” (23:47). Thus Luke, in closing his gospel account by contrasting the Jewish verdict of Jesus’ guilt (22:71) with the Roman acknowledgment of his innocence, prepares for the Romeward development of the Acts of the Apostles.
That latter development, too, though concentrated in St. Paul’s final journey, is not limited to that journey. Indeed, the affinity we have considered between the Aeneid and the Acts of the Apostles is not found only in the travels of St. Paul. Luke already sounded the Roman motif in the ministry of St. Peter, whose baptism of the centurion Cornelius, the first official representative of Rome to become a Christian (Acts 10), was a crucial event in the whole mission of the Church and its movement to Rome. Just prior to that event, furthermore, Luke suggested its immense significance by describing Peter’s healing of . . . Aeneas! Of the many persons healed through the ministry of Peter (3:7; 5:15–16), it noteworthy that only Aeneas and Dorcas are named (9:32–41). In the case of Aeneas, the name already suggests a subtle connection to the Rome-ward motif of the Acts of the Apostles.
Thus, Vergil’s older account of the Trojan survivor is now completed by the gospel. As the international destiny of Rome arose from the ashes of Troy, so the international ministry of the Church would rise from the ashes of Jerusalem. The message of salvation went to Rome, where Peter too (as Luke and his readers well knew) would finish his course (1 Peter 5:13). We are surely right, then, in reading Peter’s declaration to Aeneas as Luke’s proclamation to the whole Roman world: “Aeneas, Jesus the Christ heals you” (9:34).
A shorter version of this article appeared in the journal One in Christ.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.