What was Virgil trying to accomplish in writing his Aeneid, perhaps the greatest poem in history?
That’s the question I want to try to answer in this post.
(Since the Aeneid merits several posts, I’ll get into what its hero, Aeneas, meant for the development of Western ideas about heroism in a subsequent post.)
I propose that to answer the question, we need to understand something about
- Virgil’s own time, and
- All of history (ie, ≈1,250 years between the Trojan War and Emperor Augustus), as viewed by Romans in Virgil’s time.
1) Virgil’s own time
Publius Vergilius Maro was born in 70 BCE in the northern part of what we now call Italy, which was then still considered part of Gaul. He probably became a Roman citizen only at the age of 21, when Julius Caesar extended civic rights to the region.
Virgil was thus born in the middle of the century-long Roman Revolution, a time when the old Republic disintegrated — first gradually, then suddenly — as strongmen seized power and fought one another, murdering and terrorizing much of the population in the process. Virgil lived through several rounds of civil war. He was a scholar and spent some of these years in the relative peace of Naples. But the constant and often arbitrary slaughter terrified everybody at the time, including him.
Out of that chaos, like a Lotus flower out of pond muck, rose Octavian, later known as Emperor Augustus. Virgil was in Octavian’s social circle and began writing the Aeneid as Octavian consolidated his power, following his naval victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BCE.
Shrewd and subtle, Octavian was careful to avoid the mistakes of his great-uncle and adoptive father, Julius Caesar, who had begun to resemble a king — a dirty word to the Romans — and was murdered. So Octavian never called himself a king, but a princeps — “first head,” as in leading citizen (whence our word prince).
Over time, Octavian allowed the Senate and people of Rome — his genius manifested itself in this psychological coup — to bestow upon him ever greater powers and titles, increasingly mocking the non-use of the word king. In 27 BCE, the Senate began calling him Augustus, the august or blessed.
But to Virgil and most Romans of the time, all this was a huge improvement over the apparent alternative: more civil war. Augustus imposed peace, on Rome and on its empire. What we call the Pax Romana was really the Pax Augusta.
Augustus thus appeared to be the reluctant hero, the hero who wages war only to end war, who finally lets Rome reach its full, world-ruling and world-changing potential and mission. He seemed to be the end of Roman history, its telos.
What was needed was a story that would tell all of the past, starting before Rome even existed, as though everything inexorably led up to this man, this peace, by divine will.
And this is the answer to the question. Virgil wanted to write that story. We today might be tempted to call it propaganda, and it was. But it was sublime propaganda, in the most moving and intimate words, with allusions to all poems that preceded it. It was epic.
2) From Troy to Rome
There was, of course, an earlier epic poet to whom all of Mediterranean antiquity looked for explanation of the mysteries of life. That was Homer.
In about 750 BCE, Homer wrote the Iliad, about events in about 1,250 BCE just before the as yet un-named “Greeks” sacked Troy. And he wrote the Odyssey, one of the many nostos (“homecoming”) stories, in which the nominally victorious Greek heroes struggle and sometimes fail to re-enter society at home. (Whence our word nostalgia: nostos = return home; algos = pain.)
By Virgil’s time, the Romans had, of course, conquered the Greeks and in turn been culturally conquered by them. In fact, as Virgil has Aeneas’ father Anchises predict, in a vision just after the Trojan War for the not-yet-existing Rome:
Others [ie, the Greeks] will cast cast more tenderly in bronze their breathing figures, I can well believe, and bring more lifelike portraits out of marble; argue more eloquently, use the pointer to trace the paths of heaven accurately and accurately foretell the rising stars. Roman, remember by your strength to rule earth’s peoples — for your arts are to be these: to pacify, to impose the rule of law, to spare the conquered, battle down the proud. (VI, 1145-1154)
So this contrast, this proto-Ricardian division of labor, existed: Greek culture, Roman law. The Romans saw themselves as more trustworthy and purer than the Greeks, but simultaneously as the younger descendants of that older culture, a bit as Americans used to feel toward Brits.
So a creation myth had become fashionable in Rome that linked Rome to the same Homeric tradition and yet distinguished it from the Greeks.
This introduces a fascinating psychological symmetry and twist: The Romans had to have been there, to be fighting in the Trojan War, but not as Greeks. Ergo: They were the Trojans! As they had lost then, they prevailed now.
How? Homer himself had seeded the new storyline, in Book XX of the Iliad. Aeneas, a Trojan hero and the third cousin of Hector, Troy’s greatest warrior, fought the monstrous Greek killing machine Achilles and survived. Neptune (ie, Poseidon, to the Greeks) convinced the gods to take Aeneas out of danger, because
his fate is to escape to ensure that the great line … may not unseeded perish from the world…. Therefore Aeneas and his sons, and theirs, will be lords over Trojans born hereafter.
So there it is. Aeneas will survive the sack of Troy, a genocide he describes in the Aeneid in harrowing detail. With his father and his son and a band of other Trojan survivors, they will sail through the Mediterranean, trying to found a new Troy.
They try, and fail; again and again. One frustrating delay or disaster follows the next. As a result, Aeneas goes on his own “Odyssey”, criss-crossing the same ocean at the same time as Odysseus does. Virgil emphasizes this. Aeneas sails past Ithaca, Odyssues’ home, and meets one of Odysseus’ men who survived their encounter with the Cyclops. Aeneas’ itinerary, (click to enlarge), looks remarkably similar to Odysseus’:
Aeneas knows all along that he has a duty to found a new city, but he only discovers the details along the way, as they are revealed to him.
This is crucial, because through these revelations we (ie, Virgil’s Roman audience) are foretold the destiny of Rome — Rome’s future in the story which is already Virgil’s past. Indeed, Aeneas and his band of Trojans gradually become Romans — Virgil has them staging games and rituals that the Romans recognized as their own.
When Aeneas descends to the underworld to talk to his dead father, he, Anchises, spells out the next thousand years. He gives Aeneas glimpses of the Gallic wars and Pompey and Caesar and Augustus.
When Vulcan (Hephaestus, to the Greeks) forges him special armor, the shield depicts all of Roman history on its front — including, of course, Octavian’s victory at Actium. Message: This is what Aeneas is fighting to make come about!
The most traumatic part of the next thousand years of Roman history (ie, the millenium between Aeneas and Octavian) occurred during the third century BCE, when Rome fought Carthage and Hannibal came close to exterminating the race of Aeneas. How Virgil deals with that is fascinating. This being The Hannibal Blog, I’ll have more to say about it, as you might imagine. But I will do that in a separate post.
So this is the context of the first six books of the Aeneid: an “Odyssey” from burning Troy to “Hesperia”, the land of the West (ie, Italy).
The context of the remaining six books is a war that must be fought once Aeneas arrives in Italy, at the mouth of the Tiber: another “Iliad”, but this time a war for the founding of a city rather than the destruction of one.
Yes, it is his destiny to found a new Troy on this land, a new race that will rule the world. But the land is already taken. Aeneas and his Trojans will have to make alliances and to defeat the Latins. As Achilles once overpowered Aeneas’ cousin Hector, Aeneas now must become a Trojan Achilles to overpower the Latin hero Turnus.
The Aeneid ends abruptly as Aeneas finishes the job, after a grueling battle. The last lines are these:
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.
But through the revelations up to that point, and of course through the history that the Roman audience knew, it was clear that Aeneas is now done with killing. The time for generating has begun. Aeneas marries the Latin princess Lavinia, and Trojans and Latins merge to become a new race, the future Romans.
The city of Rome itself, mind you, will not be founded for another few centuries, when Romulus kills his brother Remus, both suckled as babies by the she-wolf, and starts building the city he names after himself.
But the Romans bridged those centuries in their story with genealogy. Romulus and Remus were the offspring of Aeneas and Lavinia fifteen generations downstream. If you define a generation as 25 years, this places Romulus and Remus 375 years after Aeneas. If you assume that Aeneas arrived in Italy between 1,200 and 1,100 BCE, then this fits Romulus’ customary founding date of 753 BCE.
Name is destiny
Ever wonder why the Iliad is not called the Troiad? Well, there’s a little story there that brings us full circle in this post. (This is a bonus round for geeks.)
Remember what my premise for this post is: The Aeneid was a genius work of propaganda for Octavian.
Well, Octavian was adopted by Gaius Julius Caesar, and in Roman law the son takes the name and lineage of his new father. So Octavian’s name was also Gaius Julius Caesar. We call them the first of “the Caesars” (whence the words Kaiser, Tsar, Shah, etc). But they were from the clan of the Julii.
Now, Troy and the Trojans were a city and people with many names (ditto the Greeks), depending on which ancestor you wanted to emphasize.
There was a Dardanus, so the Trojans in the Aeneid are sometimes the Dardans or Dardanians. In fact, we still call the former Hellespont, the straits that separate Europe from Asia, the Dardanelles. Troy was a few miles inland.
There was a Teucer, who married Dardanus’ daughter, so the Trojans are also sometimes called Teucrians. And Teucer had a grandson named Tros, whence Troy.
Tros had three sons: Assaracus, Ilus and Ganymede.
Ilus gave the city one of its names, Ilium. Hence the Iliad. (Ilus was also the grandfather of Priam and great-grandfather of Hector.)
Assaracus, meanwhile, was the grandfather of Anchises, who had the enormous luck to sleep with the goddess Venus (Aphrodite) and sire Aeneas. Aeneas then married Hector’s sister (his own third cousin) Creusa, and they had a son, Ascanius, also named Iulus, a form of Ilus.
Ilus, Iulus, Julius: They are all variations of the same family name. The Julii claimed direct descent from Aeneas and Venus.
Julius Caesar Augustus, you see, was Iulus, was Aeneas, was the reluctant warrior peacemaker, and Rome was the new Ilium, the new Troy.