To both modern and ancient readers alike perhaps one theme of the Aeneid has generally been perceived most strongly, that of the poem’s glorification and aetiological justification of the values and society of the Imperial Rome in which its poet, Vergil, lived. In contrast to the Hesiodic concept of the decline of society from a bygone Golden Age, Vergil implicitly argues in the Aeneid for the constant evolution of society as having produced in Rome the very pinnacle of civilisation.
However, this does not mean that his view is universally rose-tinted: Vergil, also, manages to portray the pathos of those who give their lives for this end (e.g. the self-sacrifices of Dido in book IV and Nisus and Euryalus in book IX [at whose plight Vergil says siquid mea carmina possunt, nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo1]). Like Augustus, Vergil tends to relate the present to mos maiorum, so that innovation is given the guise of conservatism (as Rome was, after all, a generally conservative society). In this essay, I shall discuss the ways in which the poem expresses the development of such a Roman identity.
From the outset the poem explains that Aeneas’ struggles (with which we are first met) are not in vain: his descendants are, famously, to obtain imperium sine fine, in the words of Jupiter (1.277). By book XII, that goal is within clear sight. The fact that the all-powerful father of the gods programmatically and teleologically tells of such future greatness so early in the poem gives the reader no option but to focus subsequently on how Aeneas achieves this fated goal. Vergil tends not to involve the gods as directly in the narrative of human affairs as does Homer, but uses them to great effect symbolically and to give such weighty pronouncements.
Another programmatic feature of the first book involves its emphasis on kingship: to give just two examples, at line 265 we are told, by Jupiter, that Aeneas will reign over Latium and he is soon after described as king of the fugitive Trojans by Ilioneus (544). Dido ‘is [termed] regina eleven times’ in book I.2 This may not be particularly surprising considering that kingship was the traditional form of government in epic poetry and the heroic world, but such emphasis could be said not only to foresee the supreme power of Augustus (though he did not, due to the negative connotations, style himself as rex or dictator) but also to legitimise it. Augustus may be seen as a benevolent dictator in the mould of Hellenistic kings.
To become truly Roman it follows that Aeneas must, equally, become less Trojan, and we can see this process occurring in the poem. Due to the high esteem of Homer’s epics (and the relative paucity of other accounts), the Trojan world is, for both Vergil and ourselves, a predominantly Homeric one; accordingly, some critics have seen in the poem of a gradual rejection of Homeric values. For example, the Aeneas that we see in book II can be said to be ‘rash, implusive, brave [and] seeking when all is lost the glorious death’3: all perfectly Achillean attributes, which, one could argue, slowly recede as the poem progresses.
In the second half of the poem (i.e. the ‘Iliadic half’), Turnus is a clear foil to Aeneas (n.b. his bellicose words to Pandarus at the end of book IX: ‘You will soon be able to tell Priam that here too you found an Achilles!’). The Roman way of life involves, arguably, a reliance on debate and compromise more than the manliness and aggression of Homeric heroes. However, this analysis cannot be treated too simplistically as there are points, even towards the poem’s dï¿½nouement, where Aeneas is just as ruthless and cold as ever: for example, at many points during book X he rejects pleas for mercy and jeers at those who are on the point of death.
Anchises’ prophetic statement in the underworld of book VI has, also, been seen by critics as important in showing both us and Aeneas how to ‘become Roman’, whilst also sanctioning the power of the Roman state:
Your task, Roman, and do not forget it, will be to govern the peoples of the world in your empire. These will be your arts — and to impose a settled pattern upon peace, to pardon the defeated and war down the proud.
It is important to note the context, for Aeneas is now starting to act very much like the good king, by acting in accordance with the gods when he leads his men to the Sibyl; whilst in the underworld, Aeneas sees a number of his descendants and successors, many of whom are rulers, and by doing so his right to rule is implicitly confirmed. The speech of Anchises, however, sets Rome within a firm tradition: it was well accepted by many Romans that Greek culture was superior in many respects. If we look at the lines above in which Anchises mentions the Greek arts of sculpture, oratory and astronomy, he can surely be said to define Rome against Greece by tacitly accepting their superiority in these realms, but he implies that the arts of Rome, the arts of peace and war, are what really matter.
Though this may seem like an exceptionally aggressive mission, the extent to which clemency (a famous virtue of Augustus) and ultimate peace are emphasised must be noted. In the light of these ideals, Aeneas’ Achillean anger towards Turnus seems ‘in this light disturbing’.4 Perhaps the ideals are too idealistic to reflect reality truly. However, whether they were actually achieved or not, the ideals seem to have been held dearly in historical Rome, if we read what Claudian wrote (albeit with some degree of bias) four centuries after the time of Augustus:
This is the only nation which has received conquered people in her embrace, and protected the human race under a common name like a mother not a tyrant, has called those whom she defeated her citizens, and has united the distant parts of the world in a bond of affection for her.5
One has to consider, however, that Roman bravado is often tempered in the poem. The many Trojan deaths throughout the poem are often glorified to emphasize the individual sacrifice for the communal goal. For example, Vergil’s apostrophe to Lausus: ‘harsh death’s misfortune and your noble deeds … I shall not indeed leave unsung, nor you, O unforgettable youth’.
6 Such apostrophes seem to be based upon formulae deriving from Homeric invocations of the Muse, however, which might imply that the sentiment is not so personal as it seems.7 Dido, too, is seen as merely another obstacle which needs to be overcome for Rome to flourish (though she is repeatedly described, perhaps in Vergil’s own voice, as ‘pitiable’). Indeed, in one startling way she could be said to resemble a disgraced Homeric warrior: she falls on her own sword. Aeneas’ ‘escape’ from her thus further represents his retreat from Homeric values. To look at one final such death, the final two lines of the poem focus on the death of Turnus:
The limbs of Turnus were disolved in cold and his life left him with a groan, fleeing in anger down to the shades.
The coldness of Turnus’ body may recall in our minds the first storm scene in which we meet Aeneas at sea, and may reiterate the degree to which Aeneas has reversed his despair (turning it into the despair of his main adversary). These lines thus emphasize both the pathos of the death and the certainty of Aeneas’ victory. It recalls, and is based upon, Homer, i.e. the deaths of both Hector and Patroclus (Iliad 16.857 & 22.363).8 The sadness of his death is thereby emphasised, since he is equated with such heroes on either side of the Trojan war. His death was a natural end to the poem (though perhaps an unnatural end for him).
It may now be useful to look closely at a part of the poem that is, undoubtedly, looking forward to Rome perhaps more explicitly than any other: the ecphrasis towards the end of book VIII (626-728) focusing on the shield of Aeneas wrought for him by Vulcan as a foresight of the coming Roman glory. However, the crucial intertext on which this scene was modelled is that of the ecphrasis on Achilles’ shield at Iliad 18.478ff, so Vergil is still using a Homeric model to emphasise Rome’s greatness; Greek epic has such gravitas as a genre that, if Rome is to be such a towering civilisation, Roman epic needs to look back to its Greek antecedent. Indeed, in Homer Achilles has a desperate need for new armour (with the loss of his own after the killing of Patroclus), whereas it seems that Vergil includes this scene merely to show ‘before the full-scale fighting begins, what is to be achieved by it’.
9 The final, and (both literally and symbolically) central, scene of the shield shows Augustus’ celebrations after the battle of Actium (31 BC) in which he gained imperium from M. Antonius. Indeed, the shield itself is reminiscent of the shield that was hung in the Curia to commemorate Augustus’ virtues in 27 BC; such virtues (i.e. virtus, clementia, iustitia and pietas) surely apply equally to the Roman imperator and Aeneas (especially pietas, since Aeneas’ pietas was proverbial and pius is a common epithet applied to him throughout the poem). The two men are poetically conflated, thereby giving heroic prestige to the emperor.
Most pertinent, however, is that the scene shows numerous and various peoples of the earth (e.g. Nomads, Scythian Gelonians, Gaulish Morini etc.) offering Augustus gifts: the implication is clearly that virtually everyone throughout the world is universally thankful for the arrival of pax Romana. The message is not quite so clear-cut and confident, however, since the theme of war is also almost always present in this vignette. Quite obviously, the theme of ‘war is apt both for the Shield as a martial instrument and for the circumstances of its delivery’,10 however, it moreover emphasizes the extent to which Roman peace relies upon the willingness to fight, however counter-intuitive that might seem. Virgil is certainly patriotic, but he nevertheless neither shies from or tries to obscure the realities of the early-Imperial political situation.
In conclusion, the Aeneid can clearly be seen as a study in becoming Roman. Aeneas’ divine mission is reiterated throughout the poem with increasing intensity, especially throughout religious symbolism and prophecy: Aeneas is well aware that he must become Roman. The poem appears to move towards Roman values as it progresses, values such as pietas and clementia, in the face of Homeric impulses and aggression. However, such an analysis needs to be tempered: most notably because of such incidents as Aeneas’ rage against and murder of Turnus when he sees him wearing Pallas’ sword belt.
Moreover, the poem continuously looks forward to a Rome to come, especially the Augustan Rome of Vergil’s era. Some have seen the poem as a mere propaganda piece, but it is clear that Vergil’s implicit praise for the Augustan rï¿½gime is sophisticated and not blind to the woes of war and those who are killed to make way for the Roman superpower: to use the phrase of the Aeneid, sunt lacrimae rerum. Through imitation (and innovation), Vergil also looks back to Homer. Perhaps the best summary of the message of the Aeneid is given by the ancient commentator Servius: ‘Virgil’s intention is to imitate Homer and to praise Augustus by means of his ancestors.’11 Vergil may, ultimately, have succeeded in his aim, when we consider that the poem was considered a seminal text in Roman civilisation and acquaintance with the poem was a primary method of teaching ancient children not only Latin but also the ‘Roman way of life’.
Cairns, F. (1989). Virgil’s Augustan Epic. Cambridge.
Hardie, P.R. (1986). Virgil’s Aeneid: Cosmos and Imperium. Oxford.
Lyne, R.O.A.M. (1987). Further Voices in Vergil’s Aeneid. Oxford.
Williams, R.D. (1985). The Aeneid of Virgil: A Commentary. London.
Williams, R.D. (1990). ‘The Purpose of the Aeneid’ in Oxford Readings in Vergil’s Aeneid (ed. S.J. Harrison), Oxford.
1 Aeneid 9.446-7.
2 Cairns (1989), 2.
3 Williams (1990), 28.
4 Lyne (1987), 112.
5 Cairns (1989), 205. (De Consolatu Stilichonis, 3.150-3.)
6 Aeneid 10.791-3.
7 Lyne (1987), 235.
8 Lyne (1987), 135-6.
9 Williams (1985), 90.
10 Hardie (1986), 347.
11 Williams (1990), 21.