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A COVID-19 Leadership Lesson from an Ancient Roman

The year is 19 BCE, and the poet, Virgil is traveling with the Emperor Augustus. For the last ten years, Virgil has been working on an epic poem akin to Homer’s two infamous works, Iliad and Odyssey. The only difference being that Virgil is writing one not for Greece, but for the Roman Empire and its current leader, Augustus. While on this trip to Greece with the Emperor, Virgil has a heat stroke and is unwell. Not seeming to recover, he tells his companions to destroy his manuscript because he isn’t pleased with it in the least. Do they heed his words? No. After the statesman passes away, they present the unfinished work to the Emperor, who then orders it to be published throughout the Empire. Such is done, and even to this day, Virgil’s work remains with us. It is studied in the humanities by those in various disciplines. Luckily for us, they didn’t destroy it as the poet wanted, because we’d be bereft of a marvelous tome that gives us tremendous insight into the first centuries BCE and CE.

It hadn’t been much longer before Virgil began working on his poem that Augustus ended the civil war that ravaged the Empire. Augustus’ great-uncle, Julius Caesar, had crossed the Rubicon—an illegal act to bring an army beyond that point into the holy city—and consolidated power. Rome ceased to be a Republic and became an Empire. Caesar would eventually be assassinated in the Senate by many of his peers. This was only a continuation of the civil war that he’d began with Pompey. Now, various factions were vying for control of Rome. Caesar, himself having fathered no sons, had only his great-nephew, Augustus, to name as his heir, which he had done in his will. Augustus rode the popularity of his uncle and eventually quelled the rivals and, in a triumph, marched their corpses through the streets of Rome and was universally recognized as Emperor. Virgil’s work was to honor not only Augustus but the history of the Roman people.

Virgil picked up where Homer left off, but he picked up with the losers of the Trojan War, the Trojans themselves. He chose Aeneas, a high-ranking soldier, to be his hero and that of Rome. Aeneas and those with him who fled Troy did so in the shadow of a once-thought impregnable city burning in ashes. Flames and smoke filled the sky. Cries could be heard. Aeneas was the surviving officer to lead what Trojans he could to safety, and ultimately to fulfill the gods’ will of sailing to Latium (Italy) where they would establish themselves. Aeneas would be the father of the Roman people. Thrust into this position of sole leadership of the Trojans, Aeneas is portrayed as very much human, but a stalwart chap.

Virgil’s very much concerned with portraying him as human but as dutiful to the will of the gods. The word used in the text of him and his mission is pietas. This is a term we would translate as “duty.” If you’ve ever watched Downton Abbey and The Crown, you will understand a bit about duty. Particularly the latter, Queen Elizabeth is both a person and a monarch, and the crown must always win, as her grandmother tells her in the show. What does this entail? It entails subjugating one’s personal feelings, ties, and desires for the sake of their duty. Aeneas does this, and he is particularly shown to do so when he forsakes the Carthaginian Queen, Dido, to fulfill his mission.

So, you might now be asking, what has all this to do with COVID-19 and leadership? Now I will begin to answer this question, but only after you have an understanding of the context in which this occurred. In the first lines of this epic, Aeneid, the hero, is nearly shipwrecked as he and his compatriots flee the burning city of Troy. In that instance, Aeneas cries aloud to the heavens and gods about his miseries. However, not too much later in the first book of this work, Aeneas addresses those with him thus:

Companions mine, we have not failed to feel
calamity till now. O, ye have borne
far heavier sorrow: Jove will make an end
also of this. Ye sailed a course hard by
infuriate Scylla’s howling cliffs and caves.
Ye knew the Cyclops’ crags. Lift up your hearts!
No more complaint and fear! It well may be
some happier hour will find this memory fair.
Through chance and change and hazard without end,
our goal is Latium; where our destinies
beckon to blest abodes, and have ordained
that Troy shall rise new-born! Have patience all!
And bide expectantly that golden day. (Aeneid, 1.198–207)

He begins by acknowledging not only their loss in battle but the tumultuous journey in fleeing Troy and all the travails that have befallen them since. He, then, instructs them to no longer be afraid and, thus, complain. He points to the future and how they may even look back on this occasion with somewhat of a fondness. That sounds improbable, but he’s leading terrified, demoralized people. He invokes the gods’ will of them reaching Latium (Italy) and rising again. In the meantime, he urges them to be patient and to look forward to their bright future, for it is the will of the gods. After this, we read the following.

Such was his word, but vexed with grief and care,
feigned hopes upon his forehead firm he wore,
and locked within his heart a hero’s pain. (Aeneid, 1.208–210)

Virgil, next, informs us that while saying what he had said, the hero himself was terrified.

Leaders often must portray confidence even in the face of fear and uncertainty. No matter where we find ourselves, we’re all leaders in one way or another. As entrepreneurs, we’ve made tough decisions over the past month. People have had to be furloughed or laid off. Maybe even our inventory has had to be discarded or drastically reduced in price to keep afloat. As elected officials, we want to consider so many points that making the right decision seems like a no-win scenario. No matter what we decided, it won’t be popular with everyone, but we will make the decision based on the best available data. As parents, we want our children to be healthy and well, and we don’t want them to fear. We may grapple with our own fears, but we know if we let them know that we’re afraid, it could bring about the anxiety we aren’t equipped to manage. 

In my own position as a minister, I have found that the balancing act of doing what’s in the best interest of the congregation I serve and love as well as expressing my personal views is a tough road to travel. I’ve found it necessary to halt voicing my own opinions only because it garners more animosity than it’s worth. Though I’m no economist or epidemiologist, as a man of letters, I can read, research, decipher, and form what I believe to be an intelligent opinion. However, when people are afraid, no amount of reason is well-received and often subject to misinterpretation. I care for people: their health, their economy, and their rights. I’ve subjected my personal feelings to the backburner on all that is taking place for the sake of a greater good—bringing peace and calm in an unprecedented time. Virgil has been my instructor in this venture as of late. If I had it to do over again, I would have withheld my own views for fear that it may alienate someone from Christ by my role as a minister. The Gospel is exceedingly more important than being right. My opinion isn’t that important if it would create a chasm between myself and a potential convert to Jesus. Virgil taught me this through his own leadership of people, and he can show us all how to best lead during this period.


Vergil. Aeneid. Theodore C. Williams. trans. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Co. 1910.

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