Timeless Bob Dylan: Inspired by the Classics
“I’m gonna spare the defeated, boys, I’m going to speak to the crowd,
I am goin’ to teach peace to the conquered
I’m gonna tame the proud…”
So goes Bob Dylan’s song “Lonesome Day Blues.” As many have noted, these lines of Dylan’s bear a striking resemblance to those of another poet, one who lived roughly two thousand years ago in ancient Rome: Vergil.
Publius Vergilius Maro, or Vergil, as he is better known, is famous for many works including the Eclogues and the Georgics, but is known best for his epic poem the Aeneid, which he modeled after Homer’s renowned Iliad and Odyssey. It was Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, who commissioned Vergil to write the Aeneid, which tells the story of the hero Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome.
Dylan seems to be drawing from Allen Mandelbaum’s 1971 translation of Vergil’s magnum opus, which renders the Latin as follows:
“But yours will be the rulership of nations,
Remember Roman, these will be your arts:
To teach the ways of peace to those you conquer,
To spare defeated peoples, tame the proud…”
This particular scene takes place in Book VI in the underworld, where Aeneas finds the ghost of his father, Anchises, who tells him (in the lines above) what his purpose and role will be. And, as Harvard Professor Richard F. Thomas puts it, “What does it mean that Dylan incorporated these lines from a 2,000-year old poem into his 2001 song [“Lonesome Day Blues”]?” Thomas suggests that if we take a look at what was happening in the early 70s when this translation was published, we may find our answer.
The Vietnam War had been raging for fifteen years. Opposition to the war was at an all-time high. As Muhammad Ali famously said, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” Americans were horrified by events such as the My Lai Massacre in 1968, where some 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians were murdered and mutilated by U.S. soldiers. The time was ripe with questioning the cost of American power and domination in the world.
Watch a video of Dylan playing “Lonesome Day Blues” in New York City in 2001 here.
Vergil also knew a thing or two about questioning power and domination in the world. Many scholars believe that the Aeneid exemplifies Vergil’s own interrogation of the cost of empire. When he began writing the Aeneid, Rome had just emerged from over fifty years of nearly continuous civil wars. Just two years earlier, in 31 BCE, Octavian (soon to be named Augustus) had defeated fellow Roman and rival Mark Antony to become sole ruler of Rome. The idea of Rome had been so lofty and virtuous, as the ghost of Anchises reminds us: “To teach the ways of peace to those you conquer, / To spare defeated peoples, tame the proud…” And yet, as Professor Thomas reminds us, Aeneas does not succeed in this in the end. Instead of showing clemency to the army and people he has defeated, Aeneas massacres them. I, for one, am convinced that Dylan found the same dissonance between the ideals and realities of empire in the Aeneid that he found in the United States during the Vietnam War leading up to 9/11 (incidentally, the release date of his Love and Theft album).
Dylan’s ability to understand, digest, and draw inspiration from classical authors such as Vergil and also Homer, Catullus and Ovid, among others, helped place him among the ranks of the Nobel Prize winners in Literature.
Bibliography & Further Reading:
Allen Mandelbaum, The Aeneid of Virgil. A Verse Translation by Allen Mandelbaum, Berkeley: University of California Press (1971).
Jennifer Schuessler and Dina Kraft, “Bob Dylan 101: A Harvard Professor Has the Coolest Class on Campus,” The New York Times, Oct. 14, 2016.
Richard F. Thomas, “The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan”, Oral Tradition, 22/1 (2007): 30–56.
Thomas E. Strunk, “Achilles in the Alleyway: Bob Dylan and Classical Poetry and Myth,” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, Third Series, Vol. 17, №1 (2009): 119–136.
 Richard F. Thomas, “The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan”, Oral Tradition, 22/1 (2007): 30–31.
 Richard F. Thomas, “The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan”, Oral Tradition, 22/1 (2007): 31–32.
 Allen Mandelbaum, The Aeneid of Virgil. A Verse Translation by Allen Mandelbaum, Berkeley: University of California Press (1971).
 Richard F. Thomas, “The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan”, Oral Tradition, 22/1 (2007): 32.