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Authors tend to put their own opinions on the subject in their literary works; some do it subtly and others prefer to impose their opinion on their readers. When the author is retelling the history of a civilization, they often criticize or support the government or ruling authority. Both Virgil’s epic, the Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses are considered a commentary on the Roman Empire and specifically the reign of Augustus. Virgil uses minor details as well as Aeneas’ deteriorating humanity to criticize Octavian Augustus, and the way Augustus established his rule.
Ovid uses ironic stories to give legitimacy to Augustus’ rule and some of his moral legislation. Octavian Augustus employed Virgil to write an epic to glorify Rome and its history. The Aeneid was first published in the year 19 B.C. after Virgil’s death. Virgil was to use Homeric values such as gravitas and pietas to show the splendor of Roman civilization. A common opinion is that Virgil did just that; he told the lineage of Aeneas, ancestor of Romulus and connected the Aeneas to Julius and Augustus Caesar.
However, why was Virgil’s last wish to burn the Aeneid? Were there some underlying ideas that actually criticized Augustus rather than praised him?
One small section that criticizes the Julian lineage and Augustus’ rule is the death of Priam. “A huge trunk upon the shore, head severed from his neck, a corpse without a name” Pyrrhus decapitated Priam and puts his head into a crate; most likely to show proof of Priam’s death.
This story sounds very similar to the story of Julius Caesar and Pompey. While the two struggled for power, the Senate supported Pompey and ordered Julius Caesar to dissipate his army. Pompey flees to Egypt, where he thinks he will be safe, but King Ptolemy has Pompey beheaded. In order to show allegiance to Julius Caesar, the King kept Pompey’s head in a box. Therefore, the death of Pompey is redolent with Priam’s death in the Aeneid. Priam was highly regarded as a great leader, and through this comparison, Virgil is calling Pompey a strong leader. From the point of view of the epic (Trojan/Roman), one can argued that the death of Priam, the Trojan King, was tragic. Also, that Pompey had the support of the Senate, then one can consider him as the champion of the Roman Republic/Senate.
Therefore, Virgil is condemning the murder of Pompey and the rise of Julius Caesar. Due to how significant family lineage is in Roman society, Virgil is also denouncing Octavian Augustus. A reader must read and reread a literary work to gain a true understanding of the authors meaning. At a quick glance one could argue that Virgil’s Aeneid is a pro-Augustan text and Ovid’s Metamorphoses is an anti-Augustan text. However, after a closer read, one would notice underlying details that would prove otherwise. Throughout the Aeneid, Virgil uses Aeneas’ withering humanity and redolent comparisons to show his disgust with the Augustus and his rise to power. On the other hand, Ovid uses irony and humor to warn his readers about acting immoral and to give weight to Augustus’ moral code.
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