The Aeneid 



Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia, by Jean-Joseph Taillasson




Written by the already famous Roman poet Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro) and commissioned by Caesar Augustus, the Aeneid is the first national epic poem. As a propaganda tool it was meant to inspire patriotism and legitimate the Julio-Claudians (Augustus' clan) as the rightful rulers of Rome by tracing their ancestry back to the gods and heroes of Troy and Rome. The Julio-Claudians claimed to have descended from the goddess Venus (through her son Aeneas) and the god Mars (through his son Romulus). Pious and virtuous, Aeneas was presented as the spiritual father of Rome who brought with him from Troy a religion with both the Greek pantheon of gods and the Trojan practice of ancestor worship. In an ambitious epic which carries us back and forth through Roman and pre-Roman history, Virgil glorifies the Roman values of religious and filial piety and masculine virtues, at the same time that he manages to celebrate both Rome’s victory over Carthage in the Punic Wars (146 BCE) and Augustus' victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium (31 BCE); it should be noted that the latter event made Augustus the de facto emperor of Rome. Virgil frequently reminds us that his epic is as much about Augustan Rome as it is about Aeneas, the eponymous hero.



Following the Iliad and the Odyssey with a new epic about a previously unsung hero is no easy thing. Vergil paid homage to Homer’s great epics by styling his Aeneid after both of them. Books 1-6, often called the mini-Odyssey, are the tale of Aeneas’ wanderings. Like Odysseus, Aeneas had to contend with angry gods for 10 long years as he attempted to reach his destination. Aeneas even retreads some of the ground Odysseus had already covered. For instance, Aeneas comes upon the cyclops Polyphemus after Odysseus had already blinded him, thus benefiting from the Greek hero’s deeds. Further, Aeneas is able to correct a mistake made by Odysseus in that he rescues a man Odysseus had left behind. Cleverly, Vergil both acknowledges the greatness of Homer and his own hero while at the same time claiming credit for extending the story and making it his own.

Books 7-12 (not covered in this class) pay similar homage to the Iliad. In the latter half of the Aeneid, Aeneas must fight for the right to settle the Trojans in Italy. In a reflection of the Trojan War, Aeneas’ war with Turnus (an analog for both Hector and Paris from the Iliad) is ostensibly all about a woman (Lavinia is the Latin version Helen) and serves as a proxy fight for the gods. Like Achilles, Aeneas is driven by rage to kill his rival.


Roman pre-history is steeped in legends and myths. The arrival of Aeneas in Italy is only the beginning of the legendary history of Rome. Aeneas would not see Rome founded. In fact, it would not be until about 400 years after the Trojan settlement that Romulus would begin building one of the most significant cities in all of world history. Following are two of the colorful legends of Rome’s founding in 753 BCE.


Romulus and Remus were twin boys born to a Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia, who had been raped by the god of war, Mars. (The Julio-Claudians traced part of their ancestry back to Mars through Romulus.) A she-wolf raised the twins. One of the most iconic images of ancient Rome is of the she-wolf nursing the infant boys. Once grown, Romulus and his twin fought, and his own brother killed Remus. Romulus promptly founded the city of Rome, literally and figuratively on the bloody remains of his brother.


Romulus made Rome an asylum city, meaning exiles (mostly violent criminals) were welcome. The city populated quickly with felonious men, but there were no women. Romulus realized that the city would eventually die without women, but Rome’s neighbors were understandably reluctant to marry their daughters to this hodge-podge of thieves and cutthroats. Therefore, Romulus came up with a diabolical plan: he would invite his neighbors, the Sabines, to a friendly competitive game and then steal their women. Amazingly, the plan worked, and after a brief war with the Sabines during which the Roman men got busy impregnating as many of their new “wives” as possible, the Romans were allowed to keep the women.


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