THE LITERARY WORK
Aeneas leads a band of Trojan refugees to the future home in Italy promised to them by the gods.
Publius Vergilius Maro, better known in English as Virgil (or Vergil), was born in the Italian village of Andes near the city of Mantua on October 15, 70 bce. He was educated at home and then in Rome for a public career that he would never pursue. His level of education suggests that his family was fairly wealthy. During the Civil War (49-45 bce), Virgil went to the city of Naples, where he would spend most of his adult life. In the early 40s or late 30s bce, Virgil published his first poetic collection, the Eclogues (also in Classical Literature and Its Times). At this point, Maecenas, a close associate of the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, took an interest in Virgil, becoming his patron for the rest of his career. Virgil probably published his next poem, the Georgics, on farming and humankind’s place in the natural world, in 29 bce. Thereafter, he devoted himself to writing the Aeneid, a pursuit that would continue for the rest of his life. Though Virgil wrote all his poems in the traditional epic meter—dactylic hexameter—the Aeneid gained distinction as both his lengthiest work and a national epic. In 19 bce Virgil left for Greece to finish composing the Aeneid and to continue his study of philosophy, which appears to have been a lifelong passion. In Athens he encountered Augustus, the Roman emperor for whom the poem was being written. Persuaded by Augustus, Virgil prepared to return to Italy with him. On a hot day in Greece, stricken with an illness, the 51-year-old Virgil set out for Italy. He died in Brundisium (modern Brindisi) on September 20, 19 bce. A story circulated that his last request was that the unfinished Aeneid be burned, but the truth of this report cannot be checked; according to tradition, Augustus himself prevented the poem from being burned. In any event, Virgil’s literary executors, his fellow poets and friends Plotius Tucca and Lucius Varius Rufus, seem to have readied the poem for publication and wider release in 17 bce. Already before his death, a great many people—most notably Augustus himself—had heard Virgil give readings of parts of the poem, most likely books 2,4, and 6. Like the rest of Virgil’s Aeneid, these books reflect on fundamental changes in Rome during Virgil’s lifetime, even as they establish in writing Rome’s founding myth.
Layers of time in the Aeneid
Both directly and indirectly, the Aeneid involves different time periods. The action takes place around the fall of Troy, thought by the Romans of Virgil’s day to have occurred in 1184 bce. As often recounted, the Trojan War was touched off by a contest among three goddesses—Juno, Minerva, and Venus, who asked Paris, a Trojan prince, to judge which of them was most beautiful. Paris chose Venus, the goddess of love, who had bribed him (as the others tried to do). Delivering on the bribe, Venus caused the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, to fall in love with Paris. The two lovers stole away from her home in Sparta to Troy. Helen was already married to Menelaus of Sparta at the time. Enraged, Menelaus called on his fellow Greeks to marshal their armies and together they formed a fleet that sailed forth to wage a ten-year war against Troy. The ensuing war claimed the lives of great warriors, including the Trojan prince Hector and the Greek champion Achilles. Ultimately the Greeks won the war, gaining the advantage by trickery. They constructed a wooden horse, loaded it with a band of their warriors, and made a show of boarding their ships and quitting Troy for good. Slyly, the departing Greeks hid behind a nearby island and waited. The Trojans, believing the horse to be an offering to the war goddess Minerva, hauled it into their city and retired. That night, under the cloak of darkness, the band of warriors inside the horse slipped out and brazenly opened the city gates for their fellow Greeks, who returned to do battle. The reunited army slaughtered the Trojans, who were both surprised and exhausted from celebrating what they had mistakenly thought was the war’s end. A few escaped the final slaughter, among them, Aeneas. With a band of fellow Trojans, he sailed through the Mediterranean region until he reached Italy. Legend has it that Aeneas finally settled here, in Italy, going on to become the ancestor of Romulus, whom further legend identifies as the founder of Rome. Romulus is said to have built the city named after him in 753 bce, peopling it with runaway slaves and other outlaws. They warred against a neighboring people (the Sabines) whose women they stole for wives (known as the “Rape of the Sabines”), after which the two peoples settled down together under the rule of Romulus for 40 years. These beginnings hark back, the belief was, to Aeneas’s landing.
Again according to legend, the queen god, Juno, was opposed to Aeneas’s arrival in Italy for several reasons, one being her affection for the recently founded North African city of Carthage. Juno worried about Carthage because she knew that Aeneas’s descendants, the Romans, would destroy it. Historically the Romans finally did destroy Carthage in 146 bce, after the third Punic War (named after the Carthaginians, who are called “Poeni” in Latin). Carthage had put up a mighty fight in the three Punic Wars (264-241 bce, 218-201 bce, 149-146 bce). Most famously, in the second of the three wars, its general Hannibal led an army across the mountainous Alps to invade Italy. In Aeneid 4, Virgil draws on myth to explain the origins of the enmity between Rome and Carthage, referring to the curse of Dido, a lover from Carthage whom Aeneas has forsaken. While the poem itself takes place much earlier than the Punic Wars, they provide key background for the story of Aeneas and Dido contained in Virgil’s poem.
Through prophecies and the like, Virgil’s poem invokes a third time period: his present day. He refers to numerous events in Roman history after Aeneas’s arrival in Italy. Virgil lived through an especially turbulent time in Roman history; he was born not long after the Italian or Social Wars (socii is the Latin term for “allies”) during which the Romans fought against their Italian neighbors and allies who revolted against Roman attempts to control them. The second half of the Aeneid, which centers on the war between the survivors of Troy and the Italians, two groups that finally reconcile and fuse into a single culture, recalls the civil conflict of these Social Wars.
As an adult, Virgil had experienced the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey, which ended with Caesar’s becoming the undisputed ruler of Rome. Soon after, however, Caesar was assassinated, and Rome once again entered a period of turmoil. Finally in 31 bce, Caesar Augustus, grandnephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, became the sole power in Rome. Its first emperor after Rome’s existence as a Republic for almost 500 years, his reign ushered in a new era of peace. By his death in 19 bce, Virgil had experienced about a decade of peace under Augustus, the longest calm Rome had known in almost a century. Dubbed “father of the fatherland” in 2 bce, Augustus was regarded as Rome’s second founder, after Romulus, the city’s original founder.
The Aentid comprises 12 large sections, referred to as “books.” In book 1, we meet the Trojan leader Aeneas, son of Prince Anchises and the goddess Venus. Having escaped the final slaughter in Troy, Aeneas and his seafaring band encounter a storm stirred up by the queen of the gods, Juno, to prevent them from reaching Italy. Worried about Aeneas, Venus confronts Jupiter, king of the gods, who reassures her by revealing the future glory of Aeneas’s descendants, the Romans. Venus nonetheless comes to Aeneas’s aid. He and his Trojan companions land near the newfound city of Carthage on the northern coast of Africa. In disguise, Venus advises Aeneas to seek help from Carthage’s queen, Dido. With the help of Venus’s son, Cupid, who also appears in disguise, Dido falls in love with Aeneas. The book ends on a loverstruck Dido asking Aeneas to speak of his travels.
In books 2 and 3, Aeneas flashes back to his recent past, describing the fall of Troy and the travels that brought him to Carthage. Particularly notable in book 2 are the narratives of the Trojan horse and Aeneas’s loss of his wife, Creusa, during his escape from Troy. The last he sees of her, she has returned as a spirit to tell him to go on without her, to pursue his destiny (and another wife). Although Aeneas rescues his father, Anchises, from Troy, the old man dies early in the subsequent voyage.
In book 4, the action returns to Dido and Aeneas in the present. The two goddesses Juno and Venus, the first of whom tries to interfere with Aeneas, the second of whom favors him, come to terms. They agree to establish a bond between Dido and Aeneas while they are on a hunting expedition. The goddesses send a storm that forces Dido and Aeneas into a cave, where they consummate their union. Time passes as Aeneas helps build Carthage. When Jupiter sends Mercury, the
LISTENING TO POETRY IN ROME
In ancient Rome, works of literature were not published or read as in the modern era. Rather, all literature was recited aloud, even if one was reading atone. The Aeneid was a poem the audiences heard recited either by Virgil (who is said to have been a good reader) or a reader he chose before his death in 19 bce. We know that the emperor Augustus asked Virgil to show some of what he had written, and there is a well-known story that Virgil recited parts of the poem to Augustus and his sister Octavia at some point after 23 bce, When Virgil read the part in the Aeneid (book 6) about the death of her son Marcellus, who had been a youth of great promise, Octavia supposedly fainted.
Part of a Roman’s education was learning how to recite with the proper inflections and tones, and in the proper meter. Almost immediately after its publication, Virgil’s Aeneid became the primary school text for Roman children, who no doubt focused on reading Virgil’s epic aloud. First the teacher would read them the text so they could memorize it. Then they would recite it back, and finally they would write it in Latin. Ancient graffiti has been found that quotes lines from the Aeneid. No doubt this graffiti is the handiwork of educated students, but their social status is open to question, since even the slaves of Rome were schooled in this epic (along with other Latin texts).
messenger god, to remind Aeneas of his destiny to establish a new home in Italy, he leaves Carthage. A distraught Dido curses Aeneas, then commits suicide. With her dying breath, she swears enmity between his descendants (the Romans) and hers (the Carthaginians).
In book 5, Aeneas returns to Sicily, where his father had perished a year earlier. He commemorates the old man’s death with funeral games, including a ship race, foot race, archery contest, and boxing match. During the games, at the bidding of Juno, another messenger god, Iris, appears disguised as a Trojan woman and convinces the other women in Aeneas’s band to set its ships ablaze so they will have to stop their endless wandering. Some ships are burned before rain douses out the flames. Aeneas and his group sail off, leaving behind those who want to stay.
In book 6, Aeneas finally reaches Italy, but obstacles lie ahead. He encounters the prophetess Sibyl of Cumae, who warns that the worst is yet to come: Aeneas will face another war like the one at Troy. Can he visit the underworld to see his father, Anchises? Aeneas asks. Granting him a rare privilege, the Sibyl leads him through the underworld, where he encounters many figures, including Dido, who refuses to speak with him. Aeneas spies his father, who explains that the soul is immortal, then bids him to gaze at a collection of souls lined up to become Romans of future distinction. The son returns to earth’s surface.
In book 7, Aeneas encounters Latinus, king of a group of inhabitants known as the Latins, and agrees to marry his daughter. Latinus received a prophecy telling him to make the pact, but his daughter, Lavinia, was already engaged to Turnus, leader of the Rutulian tribe. Ignoring the engagement and heeding the prophecy, Latinus makes the pact. Turnus promptly declares war on Aeneas, gathering many Italians to fight on his side. Still trying to undo Aeneas, Juno calls upon the fury Allecto, a punishing spirit to help stir up the war. The text presents a catalog of Italian forces arrayed against Aeneas and the Trojans.
Book 8 begins with the river-god Tiber appearing to Aeneas, telling him to seek help from some Greek colonists of Arcadia who have settled in Italy. Aeneas acts accordingly, meeting Evander, king of the Arcadians, who lives with his people on the future site of Rome. Evander introduces his son, Pallas, and gives Aeneas a tour of the land that will become Rome. Mean-while, Venus obtains some divine armor for Aeneas made by Vulcan (god of the forge and metalwork). Virgil describes the armor in detail, especially the shield with images from Rome’s future (from Aeneas’s viewpoint, or Rome’s past from Virgil’s).
With Aeneas away at the future site of Rome, the Trojans are besieged by Turnus. They fare poorly against him in book 9. In a bold nighttime attempt, two Trojan friends, Nisus and Euryalus, slip out to get help but are distracted by the prospect of killing sleeping members of the enemy Italian tribes. The two meet with some success until they are discovered and then killed.
Book 10 opens on the gods, who convene for the first time in the poem. Jupiter tells them to cease their meddling. Back among the mortals, Aeneas at last returns to his men and a battle ensues. Both sides score victories, killing each other’s allies. Turnus fells Pallas (Aeneas’s ally); Aeneas kills Mezentius and his son Lausus (Turnus’s allies). Now Aeneas becomes a dominant fighting force.
In the assembly that begins book 11, the Italian tribes falter in their resolve; only Turnus still wishes to fight. Aeneas holds a funeral for Pallas, offering many gifts to the dead warrior, including human sacrifices. The warrior woman Camilla aids the Italian enemy by leading a cavalry action, but she is soon cut down in battle.
In the final book, the two sides call a truce so that Aeneas and Turnus can resolve matters in single combat against each other. Spurred on by Juno, Juturna (Turnus’s sister and a minor deity in her own right) breaks up the truce and more fighting follows. Aeneas and Turnus confront each other in battle, one on one. But just then, the gods reach an agreement. Juno gives in to Jupiter, appeased by his promise that the Italians and Trojans will merge, becoming a people who speak Latin and honor her as no others do. Finally, with Aeneas gaining the upper hand in battle, Turnus begs for mercy. Aeneas is ready to spare him, until he spies the baldric (sword belt worn across the chest) Turnus stole off Pallas’s dead body. The poem ends with Aeneas killing Turnus:
He sank his blade in fury in Turnus’ chest.
Then all the body slackened in death’s chill,
And with a groan for that indignity
His spirit fled into the gloom below.
(Virgil, Aeneid, book 12, lines 950-952)
Virgil and Augustus
The first Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus (63 bce-14 CE), looms large in the Aeneid, as does the propaganda of his new settlement—an arrangement (introduced in 27 bce and later modified) by which he agreed to command the standing armies in the three mightiest Roman provinces (Spain, Gaul, and Syria). To do so, he removed the top Senate officials (proconsuls) in charge of these provinces and put in their place his own subordinates. Augustus is present in the Aeneid both implicitly as a descendant of the Trojan leader Aeneas, son of the goddess Venus, and explicitly in several prophecies, all of which highlight key themes of Augustan propaganda.
Virgil’s choice to include Augustus in a poem focusing on much earlier history draws attention to developments in Roman government when he was writing. Augustus’s name, given him in 27 bce, means “reverend” or “deserving to be revered.” After a long series of civil wars, Augustus—who was called “Octavian” before receiving the new name—brought peace to Rome. It was probably clear to many that the old republican government was gone forever, but Augustus tried anyways to maintain the appearance of old forms. For the rest of his life, he would claim to have restored the Republic, all the while amassing new powers for himself. That he took the title princess, or “first among equals” rather than emperor indicates the way he wished to be seen in the new Roman government. In truth, he was the first Roman emperor, though it would be centuries before they were designated as such. Augustus’s power was unprecedented, consisting of the formal powers of almost all the traditional public offices in the Republic, never before granted to one man at the same time.
The issue of Augustus’s appearance in the Aeneid is further complicated by Virgil’s personal relationship with the emperor, about which we know far less than we would like. We do know that Virgil enjoyed the patronage of Gaius Maecenas, a wealthy and well-connected patron to whom many famous works were dedicated, including Virgil’s Georgics. Maecenas was a key advisor to Augustus, and Maecenas’s support of several poets (Virgil, Horace, Propertius) reflects some link between them and the emperor. Judging from numerous refusals in the works of various poets of the day, it seems as though Maecenas was looking for someone to compose an epic for Augustus; to Virgil fell this task.
While Augustus and the new era of Roman history he ushered in lurk just below the surface throughout the entire epic, they rise to the fore on three occasions. Through prophecies, Virgil is able to refer directly to contemporary events, and it is in these passages that the importance of Virgil’s historical context is most clear. This focus on the present is part of what makes Virgil’s version of Roman history unique: “In all three prophecies [Virgil] links the rule of Augustus with the end of external war and internal discord; he describes the arrival of universal peace under Roman rule, and he heralds the outset of a new golden age” (Zetzel in Martindale, p. 200). All three themes in the major prophecies of the Aeneid reflect central themes of Augustus’s own propaganda.
War, peace, and Caesar
The first major prophecy comes near the beginning of the poem, and is part of our introduction to key divine figures in the story. Venus, worried about the Trojan refugees, who have just suffered a sea storm sent by Juno, goes to Jupiter to question if he has changed the promises he once made her about the future of the Trojans. Jupiter’s response centers on the spread of Roman power and refers to “Caesar,” which likely refers to both Julius Caesar and his adopted son Augustus:
For these [Romans] I set no limits, world or time,
But make the gift of empire without end.
Juno, indeed, whose bitterness now fills
With fear and torment sea and earth and sky,
Will mend her ways, and favor them as I do,
… From that comely line
The Trojan Caesar comes, to circumscribe
Empire with Ocean, fame with heaven’s stars.
Julius his name, from lulus [the son of Aeneas] handed down:
All tranquil shall you take him heavenward
In time, laden with plunder of the East,
And he with you shall be invoked in prayer.
(Aeneid, 1.278-282, 286-294)
Here Virgil lays out the genealogical connections between Aeneas, the main character of the poem and the Julian clan, which traced its lineage back to lulus, the son of Aeneas and forward to Emperor Augustus, one of its latest members.
The ambiguous nature of “Trojan Caesar” points to the connection between the named Julius and his adopted son, Augustus. Much of Augustus’s early success came from his ability to capitalize on his connection with Julius Caesar, whom the Senate deified in 42 bce. In this first prophecy from the Aeneid, Virgil connects dominion on earth with a place among the gods, suggesting that Augustus will eventually be deified, too (as he would be after his death in 14 CE).
This prophecy also fits with Augustus’s propaganda. As Augustus says in his Res Gestae, record of things accomplished (c. 2 bce):
It was the will of our ancestors that the gateway of Janus Quirinus [the temple of the god of gates and doorways] should be shut when victories had secured peace by land and sea throughout the whole empire of the Roman people; from the foundation of the city down to my birth, tradition records that it was shut only twice, but while I was the leading citizen the senate resolved that it should be shut on three occasions.
(Augustus, Res Gestae, 13)
The doors of this temple, which stood in the Roman Forum, were closed only in peacetimes, hence rarely. While the date of the third of these closings is unknown, Virgil would have known of those in 29 bce (after the Civil War) and 25 bce (after a war against the Cantabrians in Spain). Under Augustus, the closing of these doors signified the military dominion of the Romans abroad and suggested an empire without end. The consequence was peace at home.
Like many other archaic religious practices, the closing of the religious doors had fallen into disuse, but Augustus revived the custom to serve his own ends. He essentially developed a new language of symbolism by resurrecting older Roman practices, brought to the fore in Virgil’s poem. His Aeneas is devoted to the gods, and his descendant Augustus cultivated a similar reputation. Additionally, Augustus surrounded himself with imagery and symbols of an earlier Rome, making his new settlement seem to be a return to better days, rather than a total revolution (as it was).
A new Golden Age
When Aeneas visits the underworld, he gains insight from his father, Anchises. In what serves as a centerpiece of the poem, Anchises explains the immortality of the soul and the doctrine of metempsychosis, a type of reincarnation. As he points out the souls waiting to return to the world of the living, he provides a catalog of future Roman figures, famous and notorious. The climax of this list is the soul who will become Augustus:
Turn your two eyes
This way and see this people, your own Romans.
Here is Caesar, and all the line of lulus,
All who shall one day pass under the dome
Of the great sky: this is the man, this one,
Of whom so often you have heard the promise,
Caesar Augustus, son of the deified,
Who shall bring once again an Age of Gold
To Latium, to the land where Saturn reigned
In early times. He will extend his power
Beyond the Garamants and Indians,
Over far territories north and south
The truth is, even Alcides [another name for Hercules]
Never traversed so much of earth….
Virgil again combines two key bits of Augustan propaganda, peace at home in Italy and military power abroad, with the notion that everything Aeneas does will lead to the rule of Augustus. To stress these ideals, Virgil compares Augustus to Hercules, thought to have been mortal (or at least only semidivine) and to have become a god through his cultural contribution and military achievements. By linking Hercules to Augustus, Virgil suggests that Augustus, too, deserves to become a god.
The issue of lineage is also central, for Augustus faced many difficulties in obtaining an heir. Shortly after the above passage, Anchises explains with great distress that Marcellus will die too young. This Marcellus was Augustus’s nephew and likely heir until 23 bce, when he died while still a young man. Almost 30 years later, following the unexpected deaths of his two young grandsons, Augustus reluctantly adopted his stepson Tiberius as his heir. Tiberius succeeded Augustus in 14 CE.
The general tone is, despite the loss of an heir, optimistic, invoking a central image of the Augustan regime: the return of the Golden Age. Early Italian myth held that the current heavenly ruler, Jupiter (the Greek Zeus), had ousted a deity called Saturn (the equivalent of the Greek god Cronus). Saturn fled to Italy, where he reigned over a Golden Age of peace and abundance, which would some day return. Augustus tapped into this complex of ideas, and officially declared that the Golden Age had in fact returned at the celebration of the “secular games” of 17 bce (a saeculum was traditionally a cycle of 110 years). Long before this, however, he and his supporters had used images of peace and prosperity to announce the advent of a new Golden Age, as Virgil does in this passage from the Aeneid.
Actium and a unified Italy
The third major prophecy is not a divine utterance like the other two, but a work of art. In book 8, Venus brings her son the armor that Vulcan has wrought for him, and Virgil provides an elaborate description of the shield’s decorations:
Vivid in the center were the bronze-beaked Ships and the fight at sea off Actium.
Here you could see …
Augustus Caesar leading into battle Italians, with both senators and people, Household gods and great gods: there he stood
High on the stern, and from his blessed brow Twin flames gushed upward, while his crest revealed
His father’s star …
Then came Antonius [Mark Antony] with barbaric wealth
And a diversity of arms, victorious
From races of the Dawnlands and Red Sea, Leading the power of the East, of Egypt
And in his wake the Egyptian consort [Cleopatra] came So shamefully …
…The queen Amidst the battle called her flotilla on… Mars [god of war], engraved in steel, raged in the fight…
Overlooking it all, Actian Apollo [god of prophecy and healing]
Began to pull his bow…
(Aeneid, 8.675-681, 685-688, 696-700, 704-705)
Central here is the naval victory of Augustus over the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra near Actium in northwestern Greece in 31 bce. The battle itself was transformed into a symbol, the foundation of the new regime. Virgil celebrates it accordingly, making the battle mythological by focusing on the actions of the gods, especially Apollo, god of prophecy, whom he took as his special patron god and Augustus regarded as a patron of the new regime.
Virgil portrays the battle as one between Italy and a foreign power instead of a civil war between Romans, as it was. The poem depicts Antony, as a non-Roman, a barbarian from the East, who associates with the foreign Cleopatra. As it appears on Aeneas’s shield, Actium is a victory of all Rome over barbarians. The propaganda here is clear. Virgil’s poem is thus in keeping with the Augustan presentation of events.
Augustus emphasized not only the unity of Italy, but also the collaboration of all classes. Thus, on the shield are senators and people of Rome. In his record of deeds, Augustus himself boasts of the unified support of Italy in his war against Antony and Cleopatra, the enemies the poem clearly has in mind, though they are conspicuously unnamed.
The whole of Italy of its own free will swore allegiance to me and demanded me as the leader in the war in which I was victorious at Actium. . . . More than seven hundred senators served under my standards at that time …
(Augustus, Res Gestae, 25.2-3)
While Virgil never saw the complete record above, he was certainly in touch with the language that Augustus and his circle used in constructing an identity for the regime.
As the description of the shield comes to a close, Virgil makes the significance of the whole Aeneid clear: the deeds of Aeneas are directly connected to those of Augustus. At the close of book 8, the speaker declares:
All these images on Vulcan’s shield,
His mother’s gift, were wonders to Aeneas.
Knowing nothing of the events themselves,
He felt joy in their pictures, taking up
Upon his shoulder all the destined acts
And fame of his descendants.
These descendants include all the Romans especially Augustus, whose deeds comprise the center of the shield.
Sources and literary context
The most obvious models for the Aeneid are the two epics of Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey (eighth century bce; both also in Classical Literature and Its Times). From the very first line, Homer’s influence pervades the Aeneid: its famous beginning, “I sing of warfare and a man at war” (literally, “I sing of arms and a man”) announces a combination of the two Homeric epics, with the “arms” suggesting the Iliad and the “man” suggesting the Odyssey. Other examples of Homeric influence would be Aeneas’s trip to the underworld in Aeneid 6, which recalls that of Odysseus in Odyssey 11, and the description of Aeneas’s shield in Aeneid 8, which resembles that of Achilles’s shield in Iliad 18.
A third Greek model is the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes (mid-third century bce), especially its portrayal of the relationship between Jason and Medea, which underlies Virgil’s account of the Dido episode. Apollonius’s psychological portrayal of Medea greatly influenced Virgil’s depiction of Dido’s thoughts during her affair with Aeneas, and the characterization of the hero Jason lies behind some of Virgil’s treatment of Aeneas.
On the Roman side, there are numerous sources and models, the influence of Lucretius’s On the Nature of The Universe (c. 55 bce; also in Classical Literature and Its Times) being especially pervasive. According to some ancient sources, Virgil was a lifelong student of philosophy, and Lucretius’s poem was one of the boldest attempts to write philosophy in Latin, certainly in Latin verse; Virgil often echoes the language of Lucretius and the philosophical thought of Epicurus, whom Lucretius favored, too. Another key Roman model is Catullus, especially poem 64, which again influenced Virgil’s treatment of the relationship between Dido and Aeneas. In general, Catullus and his contemporaries greatly influenced Virgil in terms of stylistic developments in Latin, moving away from earlier, less elegant forms (see Catullus’s Carmina, also in Classical Literature and Its Times).
Like most poets of his day, Virgil was steeped in both Greek and Latin literature, and the Aeneid abounds in echoes of and allusions to authors of all types and genres. Besides drawing on the works of Homer himself, for instance, Virgil makes use of the wide scholarship on the Homeric poems that existed by that point. Like some predecessors of the Greek poetry in Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century bce, Virgil was very much a scholar-poet.
The Aeneid is one of the few works to become an “instant classic,” gaining prominence as the key school text for Roman children shortly after Virgil’s death. Even during his life-time, Virgil was lauded for his accomplishments, as shown by this poem by Propertius (another poet in Maecenas’s circle):
[Virgil] now calls up the arms of Trojan Aeneas And the walls he built on the Lavinian shore.
Make way, you Roman writers, and you Greek, make way! A greater than the Iliad is born
According to Propertius, Virgil’s new poem was easily worthy of comparison with Homer’s time-honored epics.
As his poem was connected with Augustus, so was Virgil’s fame. According to Tacitus (c. 55-117 CE), “the people, when they heard [Virgil’s] verses in the theater, all rose and cheered the poet, who happened to be present, as if he were Augustus himself (Tacitus in Zanker p. 194). The popularity of the poem is reflected as well in its effect on Augustan sculpture: “[Virgil’s] depiction of Aeneas as heroic founder-figure almost certainly contributed to the prominence of Aeneas in major Augustan monuments such as the Ara Pacis (planned between 13 and 9 bce) and the Forum of Augustus (dedicated in 2 bce). In both settings Aeneas… is… presented as a … national icon” (Tarrant in Martindale, p. 57).
In Roman poetry of the next several generations, Virgil was an inescapable influence. The Aeneid looms large in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 CE), toward the end, when Ovid playfully fills in some gaps left by Virgil (also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Moreover, the influence extends beyond the learned poetry of Virgil’s successors. Graffiti citing or parodying the poems of Virgil abound. In the ruins of Pompeii are 63 Virgilian graffiti, 46 from the Aeneid; of these, 17 are from the first line of the poem (”I sing of war-fare and a man at war” [Aeneid, 1.1]) and 15 from the first line of the second book (”The room fell silent, and all eyes were on him” [Aeneid, 2.1]). Such graffiti appear even in places as unlikely as a gladiatorial barracks and a brothel. Clearly students were not the only ones scribbling lines from Virgil on walls throughout the city.
Virgil remained a key author throughout antiquity and the middle ages. From The Confessions (1.13) of St. Augustine (also in Classical Literature and Its Times), we know that he wept in response to the death of Dido in Aeneid 4. A remarkable testament to Virgil’s enduring influence (and the difficulties some readers have had with the way the Aeneid ends) is the composition of a thirteenth book of the Aeneid by the Italian poet Maffeo Vegio (c. 1407-1458; known also by his Latin name, Mapheus Vegius).
Perhaps most famously, Virgil influenced Dante’s Divine Comedy (1306-21). His appearance as guide for much of this epic suggests that Dante, too, read the Aeneid in school and practiced his Latin by modeling Virgil. At their first meeting in the epic, Dante acknowledges his debt:
Art thou then that Virgil, and that fountain which pours abroad so rich a stream of speech?
Thou art my master and my author; thou alone art he from whom I took the good style that hath done me honour
(Dante, Inferno, 1.82-87, p. 13)
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