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Reading from his Aeneid, Virgil is seated between Clio, muse of history, and Melpomene, muse of tragedy. (Sousse, 3rd Century A.D.) A 1st-century cameo of Virgil's friend and patron, the Emperor Augustus who appears in the Aeneid as the successor to a long line of Roman heroes.

Offering the Olive Branch in Virgil's Aeneid

Written at the end of the first century B.C., Virgil's Aeneid was the national epic of the Roman people. Its twelve books tell the story of Aeneas, the leader of the Trojans, and his journey after the fall Troy that led to the founding of Rome. The following passage translated by John Dryden (1697) is near the beginning of Book VIII.

Aeneas and his men are in their ship approaching Evander's city, whose residents are engaged in a ceremony honoring Hercules. Evander's son Pallas grabs his weapons because he thinks Aeneas is an invader – until Aeneas extends an olive branch. Evander then warmly welcomes the Trojans, invites them to join the celebration, and pledges his support.

The fiery sun had finished half his race,
Looked back, and doubted in the middle space,
When they from far beheld the rising towers,
The tops of sheds, and shepherds' lowly bowers,
Thin as they stood, which, then of homely clay,
Now rise in marble, from the Roman sway.
These cots (Evander's kingdom, mean and poor)
The Trojan saw, and turned his ships to shore.
It was on a solemn day: the Arcadian states,
The king and prince, without the city gates,
Then paid their offerings in a sacred grove
To Hercules, the warrior son of Jove.
Thick clouds of rolling smoke involve the skies,
And fat of entrails on his altar fries.

But, when they saw the ships that stemmed the flood,
And glittered through the covert of the wood,
They rose with fear, and left the unfinished feast,
Till dauntless Pallas reassured the rest
To pay the rites. Himself without delay
A javelin seized, and singly took his way;
Then gained a rising ground, and called from far:
"Resolve me, strangers, whence, and what you are;
Your business here; and bring you peace or war?"
High on the stern Aeneas his stand,
And held a branch of olive in his hand
While thus he spoke: "The Phrygians' arms you see,
Expelled from Troy, provoked in Italy
By Latian foes, with war unjustly made;
At first affianced, and at last betrayed.
This message bear: The Trojans and their chief
Bring holy peace, and beg the king's relief
Struck with so great a name, and all on fire,
The youth replies: "Whatever you require,
Your fame exacts. Upon our shores descend,
A welcome guest, and, what you wish, a friend."
He said, and, downward hasting to the strand,
Embraced the stranger prince, and joined his hand.

Virgil was one of Charles Thomson's favorite poets. (He read Virgil in the original Latin.) Thomson is the one who put an olive branch in the talon of an American Bald Eagle, the centerpiece of the Great Seal of the United States. He said it symbolizes "the power of peace."

Detail of Eagle Rising by Cy Hundley, a new realization of the original Great Seal of 1782.

Thomson also coined the two mottoes on the reverse side of the Great Seal. Both were inspired by Virgil: his Eclogue IV and The Georgics.

Another mythological origin of the olive as a symbol of peace goes back to a contest between Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and Poseidon, god of the sea. Whomever could produce the gift most useful to mortals would win.

Poseidon offered the horse, useful in warfare. Athena's gift was the olive tree, which the gods judged to be the more useful. Athena was awarded the city of Athens.

Olives are naturally associated with peace because, practically speaking, one cannot cultivate an olive grove in a war zone. Olive trees need many years of growth to produce their first fruit (and can live for 500 years).

Farming itself is a peaceful occupation. Also, olives provide oil for lamps, so they bring light. And the cleansing power of olive oil brings purification.

See the olive branch carried by the dove
and in political drawings during the American Revolution.