Why Vergil’s Aeneid?
Vergil’s Aeneid is usually the first unabridged Latin poetry students read, and this has been the case more-or-less since its composition in the 20s BCE, during the reign of the first Roman emperor Augustus. For this reason as much as any other, Vergil’s Aeneid has an almost self-perpetuating reputation as one of great touchstones of world literature.
How can we account for this lofty status? One part of our answer must surely acknowledge the historical circumstances of its composition under Augustus’ still-emerging political settlement at Rome. Prior to Augustus’ reign, Rome had suffered a protracted period of civil violence lasting almost two decades with only short periods of reprieve. The wars began with Caesar’s return from Gaul in 49 BCE, which precipitated a civil war when Caesar’s rivals refused to concede a second consulship to the returning imperator; although Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, the Roman Empire continued to be engulfed in violence. This at last came to an end with the decisive victory of Augustus (known, at the time, as Octavian) over Mark Antony, a rival and one-time ally, and Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE.
It is difficult to overstate how devastating this violence must have been, tearing apart Romans’ livelihood at every level of society; to such Romans, Augustus’ victory and ascendancy must have felt like both an end to years of trauma and the fulfillment of hopes for a fresh start. As the first emperor, Augustus’ political settlement was a departure from previous norms. Throughout the previous century, the Republican principle of limited-term, collegial, electoral constitutional offices had been thoroughly degraded; in its place, Augustus established himself as princeps (“leader, first man”), an ambiguous appointment that retained many of the vestiges of the Republic and its institutions but increasingly identified Rome as an imperial monarchy. Under Augustus’ command, Rome and its dominions emerged from the horrors of decades of civil violence and bitter factionalism, establishing a period sometimes known as pax Augusta (“the peace of Augustus”).
This peace didn’t simply extend to the termination of civil hostilities. It also reflected an extensive program of administrative, infrastructural, social, and even religious reforms intended to resolve the shortcomings of the Roman Republic and its empire, as well as the corrosive effects of the civil wars. Throughout the empire, and especially in Rome and Italy, the lives of citizens materially improved. After years of unpredictability and chaos, it appeared that the forces of order and prosperity were converging under Augustus’ guidance.
Vergil’s Aeneid is a remarkable witness to this sense of historical convergence. Telling the story of Rome’s foundation through the figure of its most distant ancestor, the Trojan refugee Aeneas, Vergil connects Augustus’ achievement and Rome’s imperial status to a mythical, cosmic vision of history. Aeneas, the son of Venus, and a distant ancestor of Augustus and Julius Caesar, encapsulates Rome’s triumphant story of struggle and victory, foregrounding in particular Aeneas’ pietas (“piety” or “dutifulness”), the very Roman virtue of subordinating personal ambition in favor of service to the gods, the state, and the family. Drawing on Greek models — and, some would argue, surpassing them — Vergil’s heroic epic not only bears witness to a new apex of Roman civilization and prosperity; the poem is its most articulate product.
Vergil, Augustus, and the Golden Age
in medio mihi Caesar erit templumque tenebit.
illi victor ego et Tyrio conspectus in ostro
centum quadriiugos agitabo ad flumina currus. (Vergil, Georgics 3.16-18)
In the middle I will have [Augustus] Caesar, and he will hold the shrine. In his honor, victorious I shall drive a hundred four-horse chariots resplendent in Tyrian purple along the rivers.
At first glance, a reader might be forgiven for thinking that the Aeneid was composed simply to glorify Augustus: its hero, Aeneas, was Augustus’ direct ancestor; multiple events in the Aeneid look directly towards Augustus’ accomplishments as the fulfillment of Aeneas’ divine mission; and, in Vergil’s previous poetry collection, the Georgics, Vergil himself anticipates the Aeneid as a victory monument to Augustus. On this reading, the Aeneid fits neatly into an array of monuments and artifacts from the Augustan period heralding his reign as a new “Golden Age” (saeculum aureum) of internal order, imperial peace, and renewed prosperity. As we will see, Vergil even himself helped shape this idyllic vision in his fourth Eclogue, a poem written in the early 30s BCE that imagined a Golden Age should the civil wars ever come to an end.
As we read the Aeneid, however, the limitations of a simple reading like this become clear. Aeneas, far from exemplifying noble, steadfast virtue, is frequently diffident and unreliable, lacking confidence in his mission despite repeated reassurances from the gods themselves. His charisma also pales in comparison to more vivid and thrilling characters like Dido, the Queen of Carthage. To be sure, pietas in the figure of Aeneas can be understood as the laudable quality of deferring one’s own desires for a greater good, but Aeneas frequently reveals its less admirable aspects, like a cold, uncritical devotion to a misunderstood future he will never know.
For a poem that anticipates the stunning achievements of imperial Rome, the Aeneid also dwells on the pitiful experiences of those vanquished by Aeneas and his descendants. The first half of the poem is largely spent in Carthage, where Aeneas briefly sojourns as a guest and lover of Dido. When Aeneas abruptly leaves, abandoning Dido, she calls down a curse on Aeneas’ descendants, reminding audiences of the bitter and devastating wars between Rome and Carthage of the 3rd-2nd centuries BCE. The second half of the poem, meanwhile, relates Aeneas’ arrival in Italy, where he and his Trojan followers become invaders and put to death countless Italians in their quest to settle their new home. The relationship between the Romans and their Italian subjects had always been tense, and open hostilities had broken out between Romans and Italian separatists as recently as the 80s BCE. The Aeneid does not shy from reliving these baleful memories.
Of course, with Rome only recently emerging from years of civil war, it would be disingenuous for Vergil not to acknowledge the role of violence, conquest, and sacrifice in Rome’s past. Nonetheless, such an emphasis still raised uncomfortable truths about the nature of pax Augusta, as well as its prospects. To many, Augustus’ ascent to benevolent monarch was a far cry from his past as a ruthless warlord: during his rise to power, the young Octavian was notorious for his support of “proscriptions” (political executions), as well as the cynical confiscation of land to maintain the loyalty of his soldiers. The way that the Aeneid vacillates between the prophecy of Rome’s glory fulfilled and the horrors felt in reaching that point means that the trauma underlying the end of civil strife under Augustus is never far from view. Vergil even sows doubts that there can ever be a meaningful end to conflict and disorder; famously, in the poem’s final moments, Aeneas’ pietas fails him in a brutal and uncompromising fashion.
These observations do not detract from the poem’s magnificence; indeed, they only add further testimony to its nuance and artfulness. We may even be inclined to see this complexity expand outwards to other parts of Augustus’ political, cultural, and religious projects. Karl Galinsky, a contemporary expert on Vergil and Augustan culture at the University of Texas at Austin, regards the Augustan Golden Age not in monolithic or static terms, but steeped in sophisticated self-reference that points to the need for continuing toil and renewal. Likewise, Vergil’s Aeneid never yields a single meaning, but unfolds over and over again, constantly revealing new dimensions and interpretations. It is this work that we begin in the second half of this course.