10 January 2012

Joe Paterno’s Aeneid

Joe Paterno, football coach, liked to talk about the Aeneid. For him Virgil’s epic poem provided in the stolid and long-suffering Aeneas the great object lessons of honor, duty, and courage. Paterno gave speeches about heroism and the Aeneid as early as the 1970s. It’s a central motif of his autobiography, Paterno: By the Book (1989), in which we learn that “Aeneas cannot choose not to found Rome; he’s destined to create it. But he has to wrestle with himself, inch by inch, hour by hour—play by play!—to figure out how to endure the struggle and torment of doing it, and take all the bad breaks along the way.” As recently as 2007, Paterno told GQ that the Aeneid has “probably had as much influence on me as anything in my life.” 

Paterno’s fate brought him many decades of success: he won more bowls than any other coach and two national championships. He also occupied a niche as the self-styled patron saint of collegiate football integrity in an era of essentially legitimized corruption. Whenever the press expressed doubts about Division I college football and basketball, Paterno could be pointed to as an icon of fidelity to the scholar-athlete ideal. And although it’s true that the graduation rate of Paterno’s athletes remains higher than that of almost all their competition, he’s a plaster saint now, smashed beyond all recognition now that the public learned that he chose to put the reputation of his program before the safety of young children. 

While it’s always easy to cry hypocrisy and turn our backs on a ruined idol, it might be more worthwhile to sift the ruins of the Paterno cult of football warriors to see if we can find the tragic flaw in how he understood his model hero, Aeneas.


The commitment to learning is central to Paterno’s self-mythology. According to Paterno he is “an educator who happens to be a big-league football coach,” a visionary who dubbed his insistence that his players take both school and football seriously a “Grand Experiment.” He gives his legend a fitting back story: he is “Angelo Paterno’s first son: tutored by Jesuits in Latin and Homer and Virgil, four Ivy League years burying my nose in English literature.” The wizard figure in the Paterno Bildungsroman is a Jesuit high school teacher named Thomas Bermingham; the future coach is guided by “destiny” to Bermingham’s third-year Latin class.

The young teacher sees something in the scrawny kid and proposes almost immediately that they work through the Aeneid together. (Father Bermingham’s other claim to fame? Technical advisor on The Exorcist. You can’t make this up, but you can confirm it on IMDB.) It’s worth noting that the Jesuit relationship with Virgil goes back to the beginning of the order. Although the emphasis on Virgil in Jesuit education had everything to do with Latin and little to do with religion—Virgil after all was a pagan who celebrated the rule of Rome and its gods—Paterno seems to be under the impression that the Aeneid has been read as an anticipation of Christianity. It hasn’t, really (that’s Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue), although for various reasons Virgil has been a favorite author of Christian writers since at least the fourth century.

Paterno contains many evocations of the great book’s impact on an impressionable youth. It “seeped into far corners” of his mind, where “the size and scope of it last as a memory forever.” Noting both the show of semi-divine strength and the human uncertainties that characterize Aeneas, Paterno writes, “His secret places were like mine.” Yet we also have the first intimations that this play might be a fumble: the Aeneid is 400 pages long and young Paterno wonders how he and Bermingham could possibly finish it. Bermingham responds: 

“What’s important . . . is not how much we cover . . . It’s not how much we do, but the excellence of what we do.”

Excellence. The way he pronounced that word made it shine with a golden light. I’ll never forget the majestic ring of the opening lines . . . It made me hear cymbals and trumpets, and I envisioned a procession of gallant gladiators . . . I still feel the spell of that young robed cleric’s eyes searing into me . . . 

Never mind the echoes of early Dungeons and Dragons prose: our young hero found his inspiration. And while Paterno has never claimed to be a Virgil scholar, he has been declaring his love for the Latin language, and for the Aeneid, for decades. Surely he’s finished it? It’s unclear, but he does want us to know he’s still reading. Here’s Paterno foisting the Aeneid on his GQ interviewer: “This is Bob Fagles’s translation. I have this at home. I try to read ten, twelve pages before I go to bed, but it’s tough. It’s tough.” 


As any Aeneid reader could tell you, its twelve books follow the journey of Aeneas, “an exile driven on by Fate,” from the ruins of Troy to Italy, where he must found the community that will become Rome. Because he obeys divine guidance and because he shepherds his people, famously carrying his father on his back and safeguarding his son, he exemplifies Roman pietas, meaning, roughly, “devotion to duty.” And although he gets a number of “bad breaks”—storm and shipwreck, the deaths of his wife and father, divine prodding to seduce, then abandon a lover—in the end he lands in Italy, makes an alliance and marries, and kills the biggest of the bad guys. 

Paterno’s central fixation is with Aeneas and how he responds to adversity, as they say. In Paterno he writes: “Aeneas has to struggle and suffer—and make his own decisions. How he acts is not determined by fate. . . he must act out of free will.” Paterno is basically right about some important things: the ancient idea of fate allows a fixed divine plan to coexist with individual choice in its constituent events; Virgil consciously Romanized the Homeric hero by giving Aeneas the responsibility of founding a nation; we see Aeneas struggle and become, through bitterly won experience, a better leader. Like many Catholics before him, Paterno sees Aeneas as a pagan guide through the difficult problem of divine providence, free will, and a world full of woe. 

He’s also fundamentally wrong about the text. Paterno claims that, “Aeneas is not a grandstanding superstar . . . His first commitment is not to himself, but to others . . . Aeneas is the ultimate team man.” While it’s true that Pius Aeneas is at first glance an exemplary “no-I-in-Rome” sort of leader, any serious contemplation of his actions in battle—and battle is, of course, the crux of the football analogy—reveals a much more troubled and troubling Aeneas. Open to almost any part of book ten: there is no teamwork, no description of formations or battle strategy. Aeneas doesn’t run plays or call audibles because he is an epic hero, not a quarterback. Paterno claims that “a hero of Aeneas’s kind doesn’t wear his name on the back of his uniform . . . He doesn’t wear Nittany Lions on his helmet to claim star credit for touchdowns and tackles that were enabled by everybody doing his job.” In fact Aeneas wears armor—commissioned by his mother, Venus, and forged by Vulcan—that includes a “terrible crested helmet plumed and shooting fire” and a shield decorated with a pictorial future-history of “Rome in all her triumphs.” 

More like a lone predator than a quarterback, Aeneas goes out alone looking for people to kill. He cuts short the pleas of a helpless enemy, kneeling and praying for mercy, by yanking back his head and driving his sword through his throat. He runs down a robed priest, and “rearing over him as he stumbles, slaughters him.” Unnecessary roughness! He pins another victim’s shield to his chest, then decapitates him as he too begs for his life. And he grandstands like a real epic hero, too:

and rolling the man’s warm trunk along and looming

over him vaunts with all the hatred in his heart:

“Now lie there, you great horrific sight!

No loving mother will bury you in the ground

Or weight your body down with your fathers’ tomb.

You’ll be abandoned now to carrion birds or plunged

in the deep sea and swept away by the waves and

Ravening fish will dart and lick your wounds! 

Later, he knocks another outmatched opponent from his chariot and then leans over, talking trash, to finish him off: “Lucagus, no panicked pair has let your chariot down / . . . it’s you, tumbling off your chariot, you desert your team!” This goes on and on, and after all of the beautiful talk of fate and pietas and a divine plan we are eye-deep in gore, wondering, as the literary scholar Denis Feeney put it in a 1999 essay, “What kind of readers is this poem trying to turn us into?” 


Paterno is not alone in emphasizing the Odyssey–like first half of the Aeneid, which includes the sack of Troy, the Dido interlude, and Aeneas’s visit to the underworld. Nothing nearly as famous happens in the Iliad–like rest of the poem, but in literature, as in football, important things happen in the second half. Paterno has completely missed a major theme: in the second half of the poem, the Trojans become like Greeks, Aeneas like Achilles. The coach—who is so enamored of classical heroism as a moral compass that he changed the general football jargon term for a specific type of roving safety from “monster” to “hero”—seems not to realize that Virgil spent an entire book turning his hero into a monster.

The poem’s original monster is Mezentius, a torture-loving tyrant and one of the Trojans’ principle enemies. Late in book ten, Mezentius is wounded, and his son, Lausus, rushes out to cover his father’s withdrawal. Aeneas taunts him for his folly, then “drives his tempered sword through the youth, / plunging it home hilt-deep. The point impaled his shield,  / . . . and the shirt his mother wove him of soft gold mesh, / and his lap filled up with blood” 

As he looks upon the dying face of his victim, Aeneas’s rage breaks. “He groaned from his depths in pity, reached out his hand / as this picture of love for a father pierced his heart.” Aeneas has done a terrible thing, and he knows it. In a sense, he’s killed the part of himself that once carried his own father away from Troy, that saved his son from the triumphantly slaughtering Achaeans. One way to harmonize the two registers of the poem is to see that Aeneas understands both the role of rage on the battlefield and the pain and suffering it causes. His fate isn’t just to endure all the tough breaks: it’s also to do the things you do when you are winning a war, like watch the boys you’ve killed die and think of their mothers. 

This is the point in the epic where Virgil begins to turn our fascination with violence against us. When Mezentius returns, in a futile effort to avenge his son, he shows dignity, humanity, and philosophical calm, and asks only for a decent burial. Aeneas kills him and mutilates his body, then later sets up his punctured armor as a trophy. Paterno, who describes Achilles as “rotting at the end into a kind of monster,” has misread both the Iliad—which ends after Achilles, weeping and taking the hand of the father of the hero he killed, makes what amends he can—and his own master text. Pietas, which includes the duty of defending or avenging relatives and allies, motivates winners and losers, aggressors and victims. It turns out, Virgil teaches us, that pietas can legitimize savagery. 

If Paterno just made the kind of clichéd war/football metaphors we’ve come to expect, pumping up his players with a classier brand of exhortation, well, fine.  But Paterno claims that Aeneas is a moral exemplar, that he always does the right thing. This is true only if you accept Aeneas’s total subordination to fate: Jupiter calls the plays, and Aeneas executes. Aeneas’s savagery is actually legitimated, then, by his divine coach. What Paterno doesn’t realize is that he’s taken himself to be Jupiter and confused fate with his own honor. Worse, his boyish take on the nature of war in epic—the cymbals, the allure of “success with honor”—has never matured. He has either never understood—or understands all too well—what Aeneas knows at the beginning of the poem (the famous sunt lacrimae rerum, rendered by Fagles as “the world is a world of tears,” is in book one): that some kinds of success preclude honor, that choosing to put the success of the program first means you might have to do—or countenance—something truly monstrous.

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