Vergil and Latin Poetry

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Vergil and Latin Poetry



The Classic Text. As Cicero is to Latin prose, so Vergil is to Latin poetry: for many readers he epitomizes the greatest and most beautiful artistic achievement of Roman civilization. Indeed, his Aeneid is regarded by many as the classic text par excellence.

Vergil’s Earliest Work. The Eclogues. The earliest, definitely authentic poems of Publius Vergilius Maro, the Eclogues, were published shortly after Sallust’s works in 39 B.C.E. In these ten pastoral poems modeled on the Hellenistic Greek poet Theocritus, Vergil combines an idyllic, rustic world, inspired by Greek poetry and apparently dominated by peace and love, with contemporary Roman events such as land expropriations or civil war. The great yearning for peace after almost one hundred years of intermittent civil strife finds its climax in the fourth Eclogue, in which this hope is connected with the birth of a child, either Marc Antony’s and Octavia’s or Octavian’s (the later emperor Augustus’s) and Scribonia’s.

The Georgics. The Georgics, Vergil’s second work, purports to be a didactic in four books on the topic of agriculture. Hellenistic poets such as Nicander and Aratus had specialized in this genre but Vergil looks back beyond them to Hesiod’s Works and Days. His language as well as the pairing of books (arable farming, arboriculture—husbandry, beekeeping) and the internal proems also recall Lucretius. Vergil’s poem could, however, never serve as a handbook for farmers. Its main aim is the exposition of a natural order in the world: Octavian is in the middle (3.16) and Italy represents the land with ideal geography and inhabitants (2.136). With its praise of the farmer’s life (2.458) Vergil’s poetic version of agriculture is also in accordance with later attempts by Octavian/Augustus to return Rome to its agricultural roots. Some scholars have, of course, seen the poem as a dark reflection on the Augustan regime. While nothing in life is clear cut, this view surely tells more about the current age than it does about Vergil.

The Aeneid: Rome’s National Epic. Opinions similarly differ about Vergil’s Homeric epic, the Aeneid. The poet left it unfinished at his death in 18 B.C.E. after ten years’ work on it. In his will, he asked for it to be burned, but Augustus had it published anyway by two friends of the deceased. The arguments over a “dark” or “optimistic” reading of the work may therefore be completely moot, since this ending may not be what the poet had in mind. After all, his main models, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, both end on notes of reconciliation.

Long Tradition. Vergil was relying on a long tradition of writing narrative poems about heroic deeds in the past. First and foremost is, of course, Homer. Already the structure of the epic as a whole reflects the two Homeric works: books 1-6 form the “Odyssean” half, followed by the “Iliadic” 7-12. This bipartite arrangement is anticipated in the first two words Arma virumque (Arms and the man), with arma foreshadowing the Iliadic wars of the latter half, and virum the wanderings of Aeneas, modeled on Homer’s Odysseus. However, the Latin word arma sounds more like the Greek word Andra (the man—for example Odysseus), which was the first word of the Odyssey. The first sentence in Vergil takes up the first seven lines, as did the first sentence in the Iliad. After stating his two themes as “Arms and the man,” Vergil then goes on to repeat and vary them in the following six and a half lines, beginning with the “man” theme in verses Ib to 4 and finishing with the “war” theme (5-7). In these six and a half lines of summary, the reader moves from Troy (the first word after the initial thematic announcement) to Rome, the last word in the first sentence, thus anticipating the entire development of the epic. The storm scene in which we first meet the protagonist (1.8-296) then forms a third, symbolic anticipation of the entire narrative. This storm is whipped up by Aeolus, god of the winds, at Juno’s behest. When the reader first meets the hero at 1.94-101 he is in deep emotional turmoil which corresponds to the external upheaval caused by the storm. The turning point comes at verse 124, when Neptune raises his head out of the sea and calms the waves. The storm symbolically anticipates both Aeneas’s personal trials in books 1-6 and the wars of 7-12. In the end, however, order and calm will prevail as Jupiter prophesies to Venus in 1.257-96. While the real storm is calmed by the sea god, the symbolic storms will be faced and overcome by Aeneas, who grows into the type of Roman statesman with whom Neptune is compared (1.148-153).

Hapless Dido. Vergil, however, also drew on Hellenistic epics such as the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, especially in the love story between Dido and Aeneas in books 1 and 4, which bears a resemblance to the Jason and Medea narrative in Apollonius. In Vergil, the episode is set up as a tragedy within the epic. When Aeneas lands in North Africa, he puts to shore in a bay remarkably shaped like a Roman theater, complete with stage (scaena 1.164) and seats (sedilia 1.167). After addressing his comrades and a divine interlude, he meets Venus, his mother, who delivers a quasi-Euripidean tragic prologue (1.338-368). As Aristotle had outlined in the Poetics, this tragedy contains a reversal of fortune for Dido (peripeteia) and a final catastrophe, including Iris coming down as deus exmachina to set Dido’s soul free (4.694), leading to a quiet ending. The question, however, remains where Dido went wrong: what is her culpa or hamartia? This Aristotelian concept refers to a “missing of the mark,” a mistake that a character makes which entails his/her downfall, not a tragic flaw of character. Dido’s unique characteristic is her devotion to her dead husband Sychaeus, her univiritas. This, however, is exactly what she loses when she gives up the female virtue of pudor (shame: 1.55 solvitque pudorem) and when she celebrates a quasi marriage with Aeneas after the hunt (4.166-172). The poet states that she is hiding her culpa (guilt) under the name of marriage (1.172). On another reading, however, Dido ignores the many prophecies related to her by Aeneas in his long narrative in books 2 and 3, which predict that he will have to move to a land called Hesperia. She acts as if these prophecies did not exist, and therefore pretends that she is married to him, while he does not interpret their relationship in this way.


Vergil, perhaps the greatest poet in all Roman history, wrote what became the national epic of the Roman people during the rule of Augustus Caesar. In it he tells of the end of the Trojan War and the escape of the Trojan Aeneas to found a new nation in Italy after many trials and tribulations. At the beginning of the poem, Vergil invokes the Muse’s help as he attempts to undertake the massive task of narrating this heroic story:

I sing of warfare and a man at war.

From the sea-coast of Troy in early days

He came to Italy by destiny,

To our Lavinian western shore,

A fugitive, this captain, buffeted

Cruelly on land as on the sea

By blows from powers of the air—behind them

Baleful Juno in her sleepless rage.

And cruel losses were his lot in war,

Till he could found a city and bring home

His gods to Latium, land of the Latin race,

The Alban lords, and the high walls of Rome.

Tell me the causes now, O Muse, how galled

In her divine pride, and how sore at heart

From her old wound, the queen of the gods compelled him—

A man apart, devoted to his mission—

To undergo so many perilous days

And enter on so many trials. Can anger

Black as this prey on the minds of heaven?

…Saturnian Juno, burning for it all,

Buffeted on the waste of sea those Trojans

Left by the Greeks and pitiless Achilles,

Keeping them far from Latium. For years

They wandered as their destiny drove them on

From one sea to the next: so hard and huge

A task it was to found the Roman people.

Source: Virgil: the Aeneid, translated by Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Random House, 1981).

Realistic Characters. One should, on the other hand, also consider that Dido and Aeneas communicate with each other remarkably like modern people. Women prefer to talk in private in order to establish closeness; men talk a great deal in public with a view to establishing their status. Furthermore, modern sociolinguists have shown that women often “switch off” when men give long, instructive accounts on matters about which they did not ask them. Aeneas gives exactly such a “lecture” (3.717 docebat) in books 2 and 3. The queen asked him about the fall of Troy and the vicissitudes of his survivors

(1.753-6). Aeneas dutifully tells her about these, but also includes a great number of prophecies in book 3 in which Dido had not expressed any interest. Maybe she simply let her mind wander for some time while allowing the male to try and impress her with his account. Seen from this point of view, Aeneas’s taciturnity in book 4 is neither cold nor hostile, just male, since most of the book takes place in the privacy of Dido’;s palace. Dido’s incessant talk in the same stretch is not “hysterical,” but simply her female attempt at establishing closeness with those around her. Her hamartia could then consist of something as little as not paying attention to those parts of Aeneas’s narrative that did not interest her. On top of this love story, one can also detect Hellenistic techniques such as the personal narrator, who slips into one of the characters and presents a particular point of view. This technique has been shown to be the case in the footrace in book 5, where the epic narrator presents the events from the perspective of Nisus, one of the contestants.

The World Below. The descent to the underworld in book 6 provides the pivot of the Aeneid. In it Trojan Aeneas “dies” and Roman Aeneas is “born.” In order to go down, he has to bury his friend Misenus and find the Golden Bough, a symbol of death and rebirth which he ends up depositing on the threshold of Hades, god of the underworld. Before being shown Rome’s future by his father Anchises, the Sibyl guides him to meet his helmsman Palinurus (6.337), Dido (6.450) and Deiphobus, Hector’s brother (6.495). These episodes are modeled on Odysseus’s encounter with Elpenor (Odyssey 11.51), Aias (Odyssey 11.541), and Agamemnon (Odyssey 11.385). In the case of Palinurus, Vergil has added an action, amythical explanation of a contemporary name, custom, or geographical feature, thus connecting myth with his contemporary world. Deiphobus, on the other hand, was the heir to Priam’s throne after Hector’s death. He tells the story of his own death on the night on which Troy was taken, and then he sends Aeneas on with the phrase “Go, glory of us all! Use your better fate!” (6.547). In this way he makes Aeneas, who comes from a sideline of the Trojan royal family, his legitimate successor. In between these events he meets the ghost of Dido who, like Aias in the Iliad, remains silent and gives Aeneas the cold shoulder. This episode inverts the situation in book 4, where Aeneas had been silent. Now he weeps, just as Dido had wept at their parting. Now she is hard as a rock, as he had been earlier. After one last meeting with these figures from his past, he leaves the Golden Bough and moves on to the future in the show of heroes. Based on the Platonic theory of reincarnation, his father Anchises points out the future Romans for whom Aeneas is doing all this. The list is basically chronological, beginning with the kings of Rome’s predecessor settlement, Alba Longa. After Romulus, the first founder of Rome, the chronological order is broken to highlight Augustus, its “second founder.” He is likened to the god Bacchus and the legendary hero Hercules, two comparisons frequently found in encomia of Alexander the Great. The show proceeds with republican noteworthies and culminates in three famous lines summarizing Rome’s understanding of itself (851-853) as the ruler of peoples and bringer of peace. Rome’s mission is “to spare the conquered, battle down the proud.” This stirring assertion of Roman imperialism is, however, immediately tempered by one last figure, an appendix to the show. This figure is Marcellus, a young nobleman who had won great renown and was singled out by Augustus as a potential successor, but died young. This situation is the downside of empire: individuals pay a high price for it. Patriotism is inextricably linked with sadness because young people die on behalf of Rome and its empire.

Sunt lacrimae rerum: Life Is Sad. This sadness is a constant current in the epic. Almost every book ends with a death, most notably the last one, thus leaving the reader with a sad final impression. Turnus has finally fought Aeneas and been beaten. At this point he admits that he has deserved his lot and claims he will not try to avoid it by begging (931), but he does so anyway (932-938). Aeneas is about “to spare the conquered” (940-941) when he sees the sword belt of his young protégé Pallas on Turnus’s shoulder. This makes him fly into a rage and kill Turnus. Many modern scholars feel that Aeneas falls short of the ideal of sparing the conquered in this episode. While any death is profoundly sad, this interpretation is not without its difficulties. When he is faced with the “reminders of his severe grief (945-946), that of Turnus killing young Pallas, he is outraged that Turnus can have the temerity to ask for clemency when he granted none to a younger and inferior opponent. This is arrogance, and Aeneas consequently “battles down the proud.” Turnus had made war when king Latinus wanted peace; he attacked the Roman camp in Aeneas’s absence, killed the young and vulnerable Pallas, and needed to be rescued by Juno. He is not the kind of man with whom one can work to found a city. Furthermore, there is evidence that he constitutes the human sacrifice often performed in connection with city foundations. His plucking of the Golden Bough in book 6 also associates him with the Rex nemorensis, the priest of Diana at Aricia, who is challenged by his successor to fight to the death after plucking a branch off a certain tree. Turnus must die in order for one unified people to grow out of this struggle.

General Themes of the Aeneid. Turnus is part of a whole set of dichotomies that run through the work: he is pitted against Aeneas, his lack of piety against Aeneas’s piety and Juno against Jupiter, to name but a few. Turnus also provides a mythical counterpart to Marc Antony in the Roman civil war, since Aeneas represents Augustus. Unlike Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the mythical past in the Aeneid is always a means of talking about the present. Prophecies within the epic always predict events that have already occurred by Vergil’s own time. Since Aeneas’s ancestor Dardanus originally came from Italy (3.167), the war with the Latins reflects the civil war, Dido’s curse (4.625-9) generates the Punic Wars, and even individual Trojans anticipate their historical descendants, such as Sergestus in the ship race, who is as mad as his putative descendant, L. Sergius Catilina. What is missing, of course, is the future. All prophecies, including the pictures on Aeneas’s shield in book 8, necessarily end with Augustus.


Michael von Albrecht, “Die Kunst der Spiegelung in Vergils Aeneis,” Hermes 93 (1965): 54-64.

C. M. C. Green, “The Slayer and the King: Rex Nemorensis and the Sanctuary of Diana,” Arion 7 (2000): 24-63.

E. L. Harrison, “The Tragedy of Dido,” Echos du Monde Classique, n.s. 8 (1989): 1-22.

Martin Helzle, Der Stil ist der Mensch. Redner und Reden im römischen Epos (Stuttgart-Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1996).

Brooks Otis, Virgil: A Study in Civilized Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964).

Viktor Pöschl, The Art of Vergil: Image and Symbol in the Aeneid (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962).

T. P. Wiseman, Remus: A Roman Myth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).