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Screening the Golden Ages of the Classical Tradition$

Meredith Safran

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781474440844

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: September 2019

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474440844.001.0001

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The Golden Age and Imperial Dominance in the Aeneid and Serenity (2005)

The Golden Age and Imperial Dominance in the Aeneid and Serenity (2005)

(p.175) 9 The Golden Age and Imperial Dominance in the Aeneid and Serenity (2005)
Screening the Golden Ages of the Classical Tradition

Jennifer A. Rea

Edinburgh University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In the second of two chapters that treat promises of an imperial golden age in Aeneid Book 6, Rea extends Kirsten Day’s work on the Vergilian golden age and the American Western to Joss Whedon’s Space Western film Serenity. Rea identifies this descendant of the Aeneid as skeptical about the utopian promises of the imperialistic Alliance, a technologically advanced group of central planets that defeat the “Independents” on the outer planets(known as the frontier) and proceed to impose their will upon these recalcitrant pioneers. When the contested frontier moves from exterior space to the recesses of subjects’ minds, imperialistic conquest endangers the very people supposedly benefiting from the imposition of “civilization.” The Alliance’s disastrous application of “Pax,” an experimental nerve agent, to the unwitting population of a frontier planet echoes pessimistic readings of the Aeneid and its undercurrent of anxiety about what sacrifices are required for a new golden age of peace, prosperity, and security to arise. Rea also examines the point at which Serenity’s protagonist Mal Reynolds, a veteran Independent, takes on an Aeneas-like role in single combat with his adversary: not to found a golden age of empire, but to protect universal freedom.

Keywords:   Aeneid, Space Western, Serenity, Pax, golden age, utopia, sacrifice, civilization, frontier, empire

Joss Whedon’s 2005 science-fiction film Serenity, which continues the story told in the Fox television series Firefly (2002), presents a twist on the Western genre. In a future where overpopulation on Earth has spurred the settlement of a distant solar system, humanity has become divided between those who submit to the imperialist rule of an interplanetary government known as the Alliance and those who live on the “frontier,” or outer planets, where the Alliance’s rule is not as firmly established. Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a former “Browncoat” who fought on the losing side of the Independents during the Unification War and now commands a ship named Serenity, is the film’s central character; he and his crew make a living through smuggling while hoping to stay under the Alliance’s radar. In this “Space Western,” Serenity’s audience sees how the main characters adopt the individualism and self-sufficiency characteristic of the Western genre in order to survive and create new lives for themselves in a post-war society in which the characters exist on the frontier lands of the outer planets, where “civilization” has not quite encroached on their way of life.

Kirsten Day has argued that many Western films can be interpreted as deriving inspiration from Vergil’s Aeneid, an epic poem about the arrival of the Trojans in Italy.1 Both the genre of the Western and Vergil’s ancient epic poem focus on empire and nation-building, and both feature characters who are forced to rebuild their lives after war. Indeed, characters in both Western films and the epic poem must fulfill their destinies and also wish to create a better society in which (p.176) to live. But both works feature conflict when the characters challenge what constitutes a better world and question the promise of a superior way of living. The Aeneid depicts prophecies of the Roman Empire, during the reign of the emperor Augustus, which forecast the delivering of security and peace after decades of civil war. In Serenity, the imperialist Alliance claims to offer stability and civilization to the population in exchange for the loss of personal freedoms in the wake of their universe’s civil war. Such promises of a better world and superior way of living draw upon the ancient myth of the golden age.

This chapter considers how both the Aeneid and Serenity utilize the “golden-age” myth. For the plots of both works question whether those promises can come true while also warning their audiences about the high cost of imperial dominance. Christopher Nappa suggests that, following generations of civil war at Rome, Augustus’ regime was “positioning itself as the peaceful alternative to a state of continuous civil conflict,”2 a position incorporated into the Aeneid through prophecies concerning Augustus’ ascension to power. Yet the way that Augustus is prophesied to come to power entails immense violence, upon both Rome’s population and “barbarians” at the edges of the empire. Serenity too considers how members of a postwar society negotiate the transition from crisis to stability via a new government established through violence – and what happens when that government experiments with limiting a population’s violent behavior and controlling their ability to refuse incorporation into the new imperial regime. Both Serenity and the Aeneid, within their depictions of empire-building, question the value of a golden-age or utopian existence in which the conquered populations pay a high price for the promise of peace. The works also highlight the danger of allowing a centralized regime to determine humanity’s future.

Better Living? Golden Age and Utopia in the Aeneid and Serenity

The golden age has been formulated in a number of ways in classical literature. Christine Perkell notes that Vergil imagines more than one version of the golden age across his poetry.3 In the Aeneid, Vergil envisions two golden ages that offer peace, law, and order – but as the result of conquest. In Book 6, Aeneas’ father Anchises speaks of the golden age of peace and prosperity coming to the future community of Augustan Rome. In Book 8, King Evander of Pallanteum recounts the first golden age, when Saturn was driven out of heaven by his son and settled, like Aeneas, as an exile in Latium. In both cases, past (p.177) ways of life must be set aside in order to achieve a civilized society. Thus Vergil highlights the dilemmas inherent in questions such as who determines the right and wrong applications of power, who decides what constitutes civilized living, and whether loss of personal freedom is worth exchanging for promises of safety and security.

Aeneas learns about Saturn’s golden age from Evander after he arrives on the shores of Italy. While they tour Evander’s settlement, the site that is destined to become the city of Rome, Evander tells Aeneas the story of how Saturn founded the golden-age community in Latium after his exile from Olympus:

  • The native fauns and Nymphs once occupied these groves,
  • and a race of men formed from tree trunks and hard oak,
  • for whom there was neither law nor culture, and they did not know how
  • to yoke bulls or to amass wealth, or to be thrifty with what they acquired
  • but branches and the hunt sustained them.
  • Saturn first came down from ethereal Olympus,
  • Fleeing the arms of Jove, an exile from his lost kingdom.
  • He created order among a race untrained and scattered in
  • the high mountains, and gave laws to them …
  • Under this king’s rule was the Golden Age men talk about,
  • in calm peace he was ruling the peoples.

(Aeneid 8.314–25)4

Vergil depicts Saturn as an exile who sought refuge from his son’s violence: the arma Iovis, or the “arms of Jove.” Thus, violence plays a role in the start of this story, and the inclusion of laws in Saturn’s realm suggests that criminal behavior exists from the start as a possibility for Latium’s inhabitants.5

Saturn is then described as collecting a genus indocile, or “untrained people,” from the mountains for whom he established laws so as to maintain the peace. This peaceful state accords with Saturn’s other main identity, which would have been known to the community of Augustan Rome, as an agricultural god: a vocation associated with peace. Saturn’s ability to rule over the people with a gentle peace creates the Saturnian golden age (Aen. 8.319–27). But this peaceful state of existence proved to be unsustainable, and Evander’s account describes an eventual decline into an inferior age, as the proto-Romans enter into a period where war and conflict become part of their existence. This narrative would have resonated with Vergil’s audience, since the community had just experienced a succession of civil wars that ended the Republic.

The forecast of the return of a golden age in Book 6 offers stability and peace that will allow the Romans to dwell within a stable empire and conquer barbarians. Aeneas gets a glimpse of Rome’s future (p.178) when he visits the Underworld and his father Anchises shows him Rome’s future descendants in this excerpt from the Parade of Heroes passage:

  • This man, this is the one, Caesar Augustus,
  • whom often you hear promised to you, the son of a god,
  • who will found a golden age again in Latium,
  • through lands once ruled over by Saturn,
  • and will extend his empire over the Garamantes and the Indians,
  • their land lies beyond the zodiac, beyond the sun’s annual course,
  • where sky-bearing Atlas rotates on his shoulder
  • the heavens equipped with burning stars.
  • Even now at his approach, the Caspian kingdoms and the Maeotian land
  • shudder at the oracles of the gods, and the fearful mouths
  • of the seven-fold Nile are stirred up.
  • Nor truly did Hercules ever pass over so much land,
  • although he pierced the bronze-footed deer,
  • granted peace to the groves of Erymanthus,
  • and made Lerna tremble with his bow:
  • nor Bacchus, who, as the victor, guides his chariot,
  • with his reins covered in vine-shoots,
  • drives tigers from the tall peak of Nysa.

(Aeneid 6.791–805)

The passage emphasizes that the Romans will civilize the world beyond Italy through conquest, which will then lead to a “golden age,” or aurea saecula, under Augustus’ reign (Aen. 6.791–5). Thus, Anchises explains how the emperor Augustus will return the people to a golden-age existence following their civil wars, just as Saturn had established his golden age by creating laws for Latium’s inhabitants. But now Rome is an imperial city, and Augustus’ reign includes extending command far to the East (6.788–95): to Garamantas et Indos, or “the Garamantes and the Indians” on the untamed frontier.

The references to widening imperial borders through Augustus’ broadening of his command, however, set up the contrast between the expectations for a kind of golden-age stability where the society exists in a peaceful sort of stasis and the reality of maintaining peace only by continually expanding the borders through conquest. War must be waged abroad in order to maintain peace at home.6 Throughout the Aeneid, there are references to the wars that lie in Rome’s future. For example, Anchises, Aeneas’ father, predicts the civil war between Caesar and Pompey (Aen. 6.828–31). The depiction of the Battle of Actium and Augustus’ triumph occupies a central position on Aeneas’ shield (8.675–723). At the end of the Parade of Heroes, however, Anchises reminds Aeneas that the Roman way is to impose habitual peace on conquered peoples (6.852). As Lee (p.179) Fratantuono notes, “The Roman is to rule the world, and to establish customs (law, tradition, all the richness of mos) in time of peace.”7

Yet the future that Aeneas sees in Anchises’ prophecy is not necessarily accurate, but rather “deceptively optimistic.” James O’Hara points out that this prophecy, like many in the Aeneid, may not be as hopeful as it seems: “in this prophecy as in others, Vergil presents the hope that things will be better under Augustus and his deep fear and worry that this is only an illusion.”8 When Aeneas exits the Underworld, he will pass through the Gate of Ivory, or the “Gate of False Dreams.” The idealized version of the past presented in Aeneid Book 6 has been replaced by a period of civil wars, and then the potential for a return to a golden age: Augustus promises better living conditions for the community through a secure and stable imperial government. The Romans and their deeds, as featured in this parade, appear to lead up to the glory of the Augustan Age. But that does not mean a permanent return to a golden age here, because an uncertain and vague future lies beyond the peace that marks the start of the Roman Empire.9

The “golden age” references in the Aeneid can be compared to a modern concept of utopian living, which seeks similar goals of better living through a society engineered to be safe, secure, and free from the problems that less civilized societies may have.10 The opening sequence of Serenity shows how the Alliance too presents itself this way, thus justifying the civil war that the Alliance waged against the Browncoats who fought for independence.

Serenity begins with a scene of schoolchildren learning from their teacher (Tamara Taylor) about the benefits that the Alliance provides to all humankind. She assures the students that the Alliance is the best possible form of government for their society:

Earth-that-was could no longer sustain our numbers, we were so many. We found a new solar system, dozens of planets and hundreds of moons, each one terraformed, a process taking decades, to support human life, to be new Earths. The Central Planets formed the Alliance. Ruled by an interplanetary parliament, the Alliance was a beacon of civilization. The savage outer planets were not so enlightened and refused Alliance control. The war was devastating, but the Alliance’s victory over the Independents ensured a safer universe. And now everyone can enjoy the comfort and enlightenment of true civilization.

With all her talk of the “comfort and enlightenment” provided by the utopian civilization created by the Alliance, the teacher wins the approval of the majority of the students. Her characterization of the “savage outer planets,” along with mention of the Alliance’s success (p.180) in putting the “Independents” under their domain, also evokes the imperium sine fine (“empire without end”) that Jupiter promises to future Rome in the Aeneid (1.279). Like the extension of the Roman Empire’s boundaries described at Aen. 6.791–5, a war expanded the Alliance’s control of the planets in the solar system and thus offered civilization and peace to all.

But one child, River Tam (Hunter Ansley Wryn), challenges the idea that the Alliance has a right to impose its “beacon of civilization” on the “savage outer planets”: “People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think. Don’t run. Don’t walk. We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome.” River’s sentiments on the Alliance’s “meddling” encapsulate a key question also facing the Roman audience of the Aeneid: following a civil war, how much authority should the reigning government possess over individuals’ lives? Central to the film’s main plot is disagreement over the necessity of sacrificing freedom to the Alliance and the validity of its claim to provide “civilization” to the war’s survivors.

In responding to River’s objection, however, the teacher confirms River’s criticism. After chastising River with “We’re not telling people what to think. We’re just trying to show them how,” she jams a stylus into the child’s forehead. A quick cut to an adult River (Summer Glau) in a government laboratory reveals that the schoolroom had been an induced hallucination; the Alliance has been experimenting on River’s mind (see Figure 9.1). This abrupt reveal validates as reality River’s warning about a society where citizens are being altered to suit the purposes of the government, and invalidates the teacher’s representation of the Alliance as a benevolent ruling system. After River is rescued by Mal and the crew of Serenity, the Alliance will

The Golden Age and Imperial Dominance in the Aeneid and Serenity (2005)

Figure 9.1 Alliance scientists attempt to impose their imperial-utopian worldview on River Tam (Summer Glau) in Serenity (2005).

Universal Pictures.

(p.181) engage in a relentless and brutal pursuit of their experimental subject, whose psychic abilities had allowed her to unwittingly gather sensitive information about another utopian Alliance project that will provide even more terrifying support to River’s position that “we’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right.”

Guided by what little information River can glean from the mind-control experiment that the Alliance performed on her, the crew ends up traveling to a planet, Miranda, where they find the exact opposite of the “comfort and enlightenment” that the teacher promised in the opening scene. When Mal and his crew arrive on the planet, they find a settlement fit for human habitation but curiously bereft of life – because it is full of corpses who died non-violent deaths. They discover a video recording made by a scientist, Dr. Caron (Sarah Paulson), who reveals what happened to the human population:

It wasn’t what we thought. There’s been no war here and no terraforming event. The environment is stable. It’s the Pax. The G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate that we added to the air processors. It was supposed to calm the population, weed out aggression. Well, it works. The people here stopped fighting. And then they stopped everything else. They stopped going to work, they stopped breeding, talking, eating. There’s 30 million people here, and they all just let themselves die.

Thus, the crew learns that Miranda was part of a government experiment: to impose peace via chemicals. The experiment resulted in a failed attempt to create a peaceful society, in that too much Pax took away most inhabitants’ will to live. The survivors had the opposite reaction, and became a violent, cannibalistic race known as the Reavers, who attack every settlement they encounter and wear the skins of those they rape and kill. The Alliance’s attempt to bring peace through conquest has in fact created the most terrifying threat faced by all humanity, and the dystopian nature of the imperial Alliance has been fully revealed.

Who Will Bring about this Better World – or Save us from It?

In the Aeneid, the weight of salvation falls on the shoulder of Aeneas. As the lone member of the Trojan royal family who escaped death or enslavement when the Greek army conquered his city, Aeneas must save the remnants of the Trojan people following the fall of Troy: as a duty to his fellow refugees, and to fulfill his fated establishment of the dynasty in Italy that will found and rule Rome. At first, he struggles to come to terms with his destiny to found a settlement in (p.182) Italy. He keeps trying to establish settlements at various stops along his journey, but each time he is driven away. By the time he reaches Italy, his crew has been sailing for seven years and his trust in the gods has been sorely tested. Once he sees the Parade of Heroes, however, and the glory of future Rome, his sense of pietas, or duty to the gods and community before individual needs, guides him to make the choices that will lead to the founding of the Roman Empire. As Gary Miles notes, “the Aeneid views Rome in terms of an idea or ideal, one that defines heroism in terms of service to the community, rather than single-minded pursuit of one’s own reputation for martial prowess.”11 Aeneas recognizes that he needs to sacrifice his identity as a Trojan and his homeland in order to save his people and fulfill his destiny by defeating Turnus in Italy. As Paula James points out, Aeneas’ new life is “foisted on him by higher powers.”12

As Serenity’s captain, Mal too must determine how best to protect his crew – and whether the same sense of duty to the people of the universe that Aeneas feels toward the people of his wider community will impel Mal to make war on an oppressive ruling power, as Aeneas does in Italy. As an unreconstructed Independent, ever since the Unification War Mal has tried to stay on the periphery of the universe and under the radar of the Alliance, as much as his smuggling business will allow. He refuses to validate the legitimacy of the Alliance, but resists being thrust into the role of hero or savior of anyone but himself and (sometimes) his crew members. Mal’s decision to rescue River has brought down the god-like fury of the Alliance upon him and his crew. Consequently, they sail around the universe looking for safe harbor but are driven away from any possible refuge as the Alliance’s agent, a man known only as The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), destroys any safe harbor they could hope to find. Mal only begins thinking about how he can make a better future for humanity at large once he learns about the Alliance’s experiment with “Pax” on Miranda and realizes that he has a responsibility to expose the Alliance’s attempts to control people’s minds.

As the reluctant hero who finally embraces his duty to make war against a formidable tyrannical power in order to ensure a safe future for his fellow people, Mal embodies important qualities of Aeneas. However, his commitment to self-determination and rejection of higher authority – both human and divine – leaves out an important part of Aeneas’ profile in the second half of the Aeneid. Such unquestioning embrace of a higher purpose is the primary characteristic of the film’s antagonist, known only as The Operative, a ruthless (p.183) assassin who admires the Alliance’s plans to engineer humankind in order to make a better society and unquestioningly undertakes any and all missions to ensure its agenda. His sense of piety dictates that he must place the needs of the Alliance before all else. His own desire to rid the universe of “sin” makes him fond of commenting on his targets’ flawed characters, just before killing them.

The Operative’s obsession with creating “a world without sin” resonates with the return to a golden age in the Aeneid. Although the ancient Romans did not believe in the concept of sin in the Christian sense, there was a sense of scelus, or “an offense that incurs the wrath of the gods,” such as unjustified war.13 Thus, as depicted in the Aeneid, Augustus was the leader who could bring about a return to peace and the golden age, who would enable the community of Augustan Rome to begin to heal from their past trauma of scelus in the form of their civil wars, even as he conducts “justified” wars of conquest beyond Rome’s borders to ensure stability and reaffirm the Roman Empire’s supremacy.14 Yet stability now depends on Augustus’ ability to establish conquests and subsequently on the expansion and maintenance of the Empire’s borders. So too, the Operative’s resolve to kill anyone who stands in the way of the “comfort and enlightenment” that the Alliance offers evokes the dangers of believing blindly in a form of imperial control that requires constant policing of its borders and even invades people’s minds. The Operative’s character can function as a reminder that there is a darker side to Aeneas’ mission: namely, the type of government that his descendant Augustus will institute, and the conflicts required to achieve the kind of peace that it promises.

After a particularly devastating attack on a settlement where Mal and his crew had hoped to find sanctuary from the furious pursuit of The Operative, the two engage in an illuminating ship-to-ship video conversation that establishes the values and stakes of these two combatants. The Operative explains his scorched-earth tactics and the ethics behind them: “I’m sorry. If your quarry goes to ground, leave no ground to go to. You should have taken my offer. Or did you think none of this was your fault?” Mal responds, “I don’t murder children.” The Operative’s chilling response – “I do, if I have to” – proves that he has been so conditioned to believe in the Alliance’s view of a better world that he follows orders without question, which Mal cannot understand:


  • Why? Do you even know why they sent you?
  • The Operative:

  • It’s not my place to ask. I believe in something greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin.
  • (p.184) Mal:

  • So me and mine gotta lay down and die, so you can live in your better world?
  • The Operative:

  • I’m not going to live there. There’s no place for me there, any more than there is for you. Malcolm, I’m a monster. What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.
  • Just as Aeneas will not live to see the foundation of Rome and its prophesied “better world,” not even The Operative sees himself living in the utopia promised by the Alliance. In particular, both heroes deal with the enemy in a way that reminds their audiences that the post-war future is not perfect, and that there should be anxiety and a desire to question the authorities in charge about what the future holds for those who served in the opposing faction of the war. There are some differences in the anxiety, however, that must be acknowledged: Aeneas’ adventures which lead up to the founding of Rome make the community of Augustan Rome ask “Was the strife worth it?” whereas Mal’s adventures, which may or may not lead to the take-down of the Alliance, make the audience ask, “Will the strife be worth it?”

    The Operative’s true belief in the promise of “a world without sin,” where the Alliance commands total authority over the people, leads him to warn Mal: “You are fooling yourself, Captain. Nothing here is what it seems. You are not the plucky hero, the Alliance is not an evil empire, and this is not the grand arena.” He then asks Mal, “Are you willing to die for your beliefs?” This challenge requires Mal to face and move past his fear of commitment to a higher cause than his own personal interest, much like Aeneas. Mal soon proves that he is willing to die for a cause greater than himself. The realization that dawns in Mal’s character, which allows him to define himself as part of something greater, is in part due to the fact that he and his crew serve on the ship together not entirely by choice, and that Serenity functions not only as a sanctuary, but as a space where their characters evolve to the point where they come together to fight the unjust Alliance. As Lewis and Cho note, “interpersonal conflicts abound,” yet the characters become “united under the project of collective political struggle.”15 Mal remarks to the crew that they are all “just folk” and that the war is long over; nevertheless, he and the crew become willing to entertain the idea of sacrificing themselves in battle.

    Once Mal realizes what has happened on Miranda, he is determined to expose the conspiracy to cover up the government’s wrong-doing by proving that the Alliance has destroyed an entire planet’s population and lied to its citizens:

    (p.185) This record here’s about twelve years old. Parliament buried it and it stayed buried until River here dug it up. This is what they were afraid she knew. And they were right to fear. There’s a universe of folk who’re gonna know it, too. Someone has to speak for these people.

    Here Mal makes the decision that he can no longer remain under the Alliance’s radar. He convinces the crew to make public the knowledge of the Alliance’s unethical experiments on Miranda and to put an end to the Alliance’s dream of engineering a designer society: “Y’all got on this boat for different reasons, but y’all come to the same place. So now I’m asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all.” Mal predicts that the Alliance will strike again if their crime against humanity is not exposed. “Sure as I know anything, I know this: they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people [pause] better.” He then demonstrates his resolve to do something about the situation: “And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.”

    Mal’s questioning of the Alliance’s motives and his rejection of the idea that the Alliance’s centralized control of all the planets offers a better form of leadership than the previous system of governance resonate with a reading of the Aeneid that suggests uncertainty about Rome’s future under Augustus’ rule and thereafter. There is some dispute over whether, at the start of the Empire, Vergil and the community of Augustan Rome would have been reassured by the presence of the new regime, or if they would have been more hesitant to assign their trust to the change from Republic to Empire. Fratantuono argues for a lack of security: “For Virgil and the Romans of his day, there was, of course, no certainty that Augustus’ reign would prove to be so calm and serene.” Smith takes the opposite view:

    During the early to middle Augustan Age, when Vergil was writing the Aeneid, Rome was in the midst of a generally positive period. Civil wars had ended, and the empire’s extensive building program was well underway. Romans were seeing the tangible symbols of a new order, and the sights they beheld underscored the constructive aspects of the pax Augusta.16

    The opposing scholarly views demonstrate the complexity of the times. Whether or not the majority went along with the new Augustan regime, the imposed peace impacted the community of Augustan Rome in both positive and negative ways. Serenity presents the majority of the solar system as accepting the Alliance. Yet Mal and his crew fervently reject the idea that the Alliance can offer “comfort and enlightenment” to the survivors of the Unification War.

    (p.186) At What Cost?

    In the Aeneid, Vergil’s prophetic characters consider the peace that allows Augustus to focus on the barbaric enemies menacing the edges of Rome’s dominion and standing in the way of imperium sine fine to be worth the losses incurred through civil war. They imply that this peace is worth the costs of putting an end to that cycle of violence, even the loss of liberty associated with the Empire. But the epic’s end previews the costs of this imperial project both for Romans and for Italians. Serenity too encourages its audience to calculate the price that a post-war society pays for the utopian promises of an imperialistic, centralized government that experiments on the population, then fails to take responsibility for its actions when disaster ensues. The price is being paid not only by the murdered colonists of Miranda, but also by the Reavers, who became monsters as a result of the Alliance’s secret experiment, and by The Operative, whose indoctrination by the Alliance weaponized his sense of duty and faith in the Alliance’s utopian promises.

    Like the Aeneid, Serenity culminates in a final battle between two rivals who fight for control of the future. Both Mal and The Operative are driven by a sense of the righteousness of their cause; as in Vergil’s epic with the fight between Turnus and Aeneas, only one set of values can be validated by victory in single combat. To reveal the truth about the population of Miranda and the creation of the Reavers, Mal and his crew must travel to a pirate broadcast station where they can stream Dr. Caron’s video diary across the universe. As the rest of Serenity’s crew fights off the pursuing fleet of Reavers, The Operative makes one last attempt to protect his cause by confronting Mal in the station’s control room.

    In this conflict between two visions of the world – one that values liberty, another that values empire – both worldviews field a champion characterized by pietas, who puts his mission on behalf of a larger cause before his own interests, willing to sacrifice himself for a cause in which he believes. Aeneas will kill a rival, Turnus, in a final battle in order for the proto-Roman foundations to occur. Because Turnus fights to resist the new governance that the Trojans will impose on Latium, in some ways he can be considered similar to Mal, who resists the Alliance’s rule. But Mal bears a stronger resemblance to Aeneas, because of his growing awareness that he can no longer just “look out for me and mine.”

    Also like Aeneas, Mal runs the risk of giving in to furor and killing an opponent who is already defeated. The Operative asks Mal (p.187)

    The Golden Age and Imperial Dominance in the Aeneid and Serenity (2005)

    Figure 9.2 Mal (Nathan Fillion) kneels over his defeated foe The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) after their climactic single combat in Serenity (2005).

    Universal Pictures.

    in their final fight scene, “Do you know what your sin is, Mal?” to which Mal replies, “Ah Hell, I’m a fan of all seven. But right now, I’m gonna have to go with wrath.” When Mal finally subdues The Operative at the end of the fight, he does not kill him, despite the fact The Operative has brought so much death and destruction to Mal’s friends and allies (see Figure 9.2). Instead, he displays the mercy that Aeneas did not – at least, physically: “Expect you’d want to say your famous last words right now. Just one trouble. I ain’t gonna kill you. Hell, I’m gonna grant your greatest wish. I’m gonna show you a world without sin.” Then Mal shows The Operative Dr. Caron’s video, killing his faith in the Alliance and its promises of a “better world.” Just as the Aeneid demonstrates that there is no approaching golden age that does not require further war, likewise, Mal is determined to show The Operative that his world without sin does not exist.

    As Paula James has noted, Whedon feels free to have his heroes redefine heroism, as does Vergil.17 Aeneas finishes the fight with Turnus on his own terms, by ignoring Anchises’ advice that the submissive should be spared (6.851–3).18 Mal also finishes the fight on his own terms: The Operative is never submissive, but in the end he is spared. Although Mal chooses not to kill The Operative, there is a sense that they both will live in exile in the Alliance’s new world. In the final scene of the film, Mal warns The Operative that he had better not see him ever again: “They take you down, I don’t expect to grieve overmuch. Like to kill you myself, I see you again.” The Operative reassures him: “You won’t. There is nothing left to see.”

    (p.188) Conclusion: The False Promise of a “Better World,” Post-Civil War

    Joss Whedon’s oeuvre has become an established part of the academic dialogue for scholars who explore the interconnections between Classics and popular culture.19 Both Whedon and Vergil present their audiences with a bigger and better vision of the future, as evidenced by Aeneas in his visit to the Underworld, when he sees the Parade of Heroes, and by the opening scene in Serenity, where the audience is shown how much the Alliance has done for humankind. Yet, also like the Aeneid, Serenity reveals that the golden age, or a utopian way of living, is not a lasting state of existence. The golden-age-gone-wrong scenario encourages its audience to think about the consequences of trying to create a perfect society by repressing or artificially eliminating aggression or labor. At the heart of both works is the question of the price a society will pay in chasing the promise of a golden age. Serenity encourages comparisons to the Aeneid through the characterizations of violence, the “evil empire” versus “free republic” dichotomy, and the golden-age-gone-wrong scenario.

    Serenity can offer, if not closure for the epic’s ending, an updated version of the story that focuses on post-war redemption as a means to a better world. Vergil and Whedon create a vision of the future that warns against societies founded through violence and bloodshed. But in both stories, the audience is led to the realization that things are not as they seem. Introducing modern perspectives on violence, vengeance, and post-war cultural resolution into consideration of Vergil’s ancient epic allows the audience to connect a modern narrative, which calls into question how to establish political order from post-war turmoil, to what Vergil says about the future for the community of Augustan Rome.20 In the Aeneid, the audience is left wondering what price the Romans will continue to pay for their new socio-political order and what additional sacrifices will be required in order to achieve peace. Serenity reveals the consequences for society of attempting a return to a golden age, and the violent means by which this “utopian” living is achieved.

    Like the hero in Western films, Whedon’s heroes face dilemmas that highlight the need to prioritize a sense of duty to the community at large, as opposed to the fulfilling of individual desires. Such choices do not appear remote from Aeneas’ struggles to accept his fate and put the future of Rome before all else. In particular, Gross argues that the devastating losses Aeneas had experienced lead to “growing isolation, diminishing humanity and altered identity.”21 (p.189) Moreover, Putnam contends that the “humane concerns” of Aeneas have been completely displaced at the end of the work.22 Aeneas will kill Turnus at the end of the Aeneid, and this does raise the question of how those who are not on board with the new regime will be dealt with and what this says about the regime. Whedon’s heroes traverse the same emotional landscape as Aeneas whenever destiny shapes the course of their actions and whenever they must come to terms with the possibility of dying in battle, or with the fact that their choices will shape the future of their world. In films such as Serenity and television shows such as Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon has created heroic characters who, like Aeneas, possess the ability to inspire audience dialogue about how much of his or her own humanity a hero has to sacrifice in order to achieve a more secure and stable future.

    I would like to thank Meredith E. Safran for her insightful comments on my argument and the opportunity to publish in this volume. Avery D. Cahill and Velvet L. Yates also offered much constructive criticism on drafts.


    (4) All Latin text is from Vergil (1990). All translations are my own.

    (7) Fratantuono (2007: 194). See also Day (2016: 158), who argues that the “patriotic” display in the Parade of Heroes validates Augustus’ rule.

    (9) Glei (1998: 125–6). See also Smith (2005: 87) for the association of Augustus and the golden age.

    (10) Evans (2008: 1). In using the terms “utopian” and “golden age,” I am following Evans, who argues that both terms can suggest a society that exists in peace, without violence.

    (11) See Miles (1999: 234). See also Quint (1993: 56–9), for the need for the Trojans, and Aeneas in particular, to let go of the past.

    (19) Similarities between the heroine’s quest in the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) and Aeneas’ struggle to face his adversaries have been documented: see, for example, Marshall (2003: 2) and James (2009: 239–55), who has argued that Aeneas serves as a “cultural companion” to Buffy.

    (21) Gross (2003–4: 135–56) makes a case for a complete loss of Aeneas’ identity and humanity at the end.