Aside from Christianity there is no other force that shaped Western civilization other than the Greco-Roman culture. And there is no better representation of that period in history other than Rome and Publius Viirgilius Maro, also known as Virgil. A closer examination of Virgil and his works made many to realize that Virgil was a byproduct of events and it is the twin forces of the Roman Empire and Greek history that prompted Virgil to write. This paper will look into the two factors that influenced the writing of Publius Virgilius Maro.
This can be done by looking first at the events that transpired before Virgil began writing and this means tracing back Greek and Roman history. The second way of knowing the connection between history and Virgil’s writings is to dig into his works and of course this means analyzing the Aeneid. It will be shown later that it is Roman history and Homer that shaped Virgil to become the writer that he was destined to be.
Rome After more than two thousand years the world is still mesmerized by Rome. It is because of its legacy, it military prowess, and form of government. Rome was without equal when it comes to how it help shape Western history.
Yet in the early days of Roman history there is not much to see. There is nothing that could make an outsider ascertain its potential to be a dominant ruler of known world in antiquity. Ting Morris traced its early development in obscurity and he remarked, “Rome began around 2,800 years ago as a few small settlements on wooded hills overlooking the Tiber River” (4). But then Rome began to distance itself from the Latin communities from which it was supposed to be a part of. What happens next began a series of development that will catapult this small community into the world map, “…the roman Republic conquered first Latium, then all of Italy.
The Romans annexed much foreign territory to their own state, but they also established a system of alliances with all other states. This gave the Romans a vast reserve of manpower that allowed them to overthrow every major power in the Mediterranean…” (Mackay, 40). A new age has come and a new military superpower was born. But when the Romans began to assimilate remnants of Alexander’s Empire, the new European power came face to face with an ancient civilization whose insight into religion, politics, and philosophy was far ahead of its time. In short the Romans, “…
recognized something in Greek culture that was more impressive than anything Rome itself achieved, in spite of Rome’s unprecedented military success” (Cox). At this point Rome was all brute force. Yes the soldiers led by the Caesars were brave, strong and are very eager to make their mark in the battlefield but when it comes to culture, the Romans were barbarians compared to the Greeks. The Romans discovered an effective methodology in fighting wars and they even had the distinct advantage of knowing how to build an empire out of disparate tribes and nations.
They were experts in campaigns that require traveling far from home and yet they lack one more thing. They did not have a good system that can be put in place after victory. This is similar to the idea that it is easy to start a war but the more difficult thing to do is how to end it. So when Rome began to feel the success of empire building the more that they felt the need for a way of life that will enhance their reputation in Europe while at the same time offer them an opportunity to enjoy life more. They found the answer from the sophisticated Greeks.
Virgil The Romans had to learn from the Greeks and their history can be characterized not only by empire building but also by the why they incorporated Greek thought and the Greek’s way of life into their own unique system. Now there is none better who understood the need for assimilating Greek culture than the Roman intellectuals of that time. In fact, “Among the adaptors of Greek culture, none was more brilliant … than the poet Virgil. He faced a formidable challenge. Everyone who encountered Greek culture recognized how much it was shaped by Homer” (Cox).
This means that there is a great need to surpass Homer and if this is not possible then at least equal Homer’s genius. If this can be achieved then the Romans had done something which other Greek imitators failed to do and that is to provide a great explanation for their existence. A myth has to be created, a legend has to be made and the purpose for such an endeavor is obvious. There is a need for something that will hold the empire together. At the time of writing the Aeneid, Rome was again in the cusp of revolution.
Julius Caesar was defeated by Augustus Caesar and so steps must be made to consolidate his power and to strengthen the arm of the new emperor. For a brilliant man like Virgil, times like this one is an opportunity that must be grabbed by both hands. Virgil proceeded to hit two birds with one stone. First he would write an epic that will explain the origins of Rome. He will do so by using stories that are already familiar among the people that he wants to see united under Augustus Caesar and during that time there was no other story quite like the one weaved by Homer centuries before.
Virgil saw that epic struggle for good and evil; battles between heroes; and the self-sacrificial behavior of some heroes simply because they believe in something higher than themselves proved to be a formula hard to resist. Virgil was ready to accept the challenge. But it is clear from the beginning that it would not be an easy task. Aside from that Homer is a world unto itself. And as they say there is no way one can improve on perfection, the Iliad and the Odyssey are the blueprints for creating great epics and so what else can be done to make it better.
Virgil was able to solve this problem by being inventive and by starting where Homer ended his story. When Troy fell, one of her sons went on to build another kingdom. But then again Virgil cannot escape the past. Virgil could not resist using a successful formula. As they say there is no need to fix what was broken. Judging from the power of the Iliad and the Odyssey to move people it is almost impossible not to use the same method and technique of telling a great story. And so Virgil copied many ideas from Homer. In the introduction to the Aeneid Levi Robert pointed out that:
Virgil borrowed from Homer a great many items: his verse form, the division into twelve books, mythology, many episodes and similes. In the Aeneid Venus doubles for Nausicaa, Dido for Calypso and Circe, and Drances for Thersites. The funeral games the desecent into Hades, where Aeneas meets Dido as Odysseus met Ajax, the prophecy of Anchises, the catalogue of ships, Turnus attempt to burn them, a broken truce … a quarrel of two Italian leaders … and a final single combat (Robert, xiii). Aeneid The Aeneid is basically the story of Aeneas, the god-like leader of a band of Trojan refugees fleeing to Italy after the fall of Troy.
In the beginning, Aeneas built a fleet with the goal in mind of settling in a foreign land and to finally establish a new nation of Trojans. In Virgil’s mind, he wanted the world to understand the basis for the establishment of the Roman Empire. And there is nothing as perfect as that. Hornstein, Percy and Brown’s book, The Reader’s Companion to World Literature, was very helpful in understanding the context from which Virgil’s Aeneid was written, and they said that it was written at a time of conflict. Italy was ravaged by more than fifty years of revolution and civil war.
When the long-sought peace came, a new form of government was fashioned from a battle weary nation. And with the new set-up, ultimate power was in the hands of one man- Augustus Caesar. It was during this time that the Roman Virgil began working on the Aeneid. Hornstein, Brown and Percy wrote: Vergil began the poem in 29 B. C. , two years after the battle of Actium brought this period of civil war to an end. He had long been preparing for the task. His purpose was national: he desired to glorify the Roman people by his theme and exalt the Emperor in the person of his hero. (5)
Homer Putnam acknowledge that Virgil is under the towering shadow of Homer when he made this judgment, “Homer himself, against whose essential insights into humanity, Virgil’s own achievement will always be measured. ” Homer’s success allowed him to set the standard upon which others who will come after him will be forced to measure up. Allen Mandelbaum tells of how his previous study prevented him from fully appreciating Virgil’s works and he said, “One was a tag line of mark Van Doren that echoed through my youth with tenacious resonance: ‘Homer is a world; Virgil, a style’. ”
It also did not help that the critics saw Virgil as copying Homer, Gaskell said, “The overall plan of Virgil’s epic was plainly Homeric, with its main elements reversed: now the odyssey of the man comes first and the armed fighting follows it: but the Homeric parallels are many and obvious. ” (161). The only major difference was that Homer was illiterate and therefore had to express the beauty of his poetry in oral reform. On the other hand Virgil was literate and he could study Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in written form as well as compose his own epic and was able to write it down.
This explains the difference in style but all the more strengthens the view that Virgil was strongly influenced by Homer. Conclusion Now the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall down into its proper places and one can now see the bigger picture. It was mentioned earlier that it was in 168 BC when the Romans began to conquer the remnants of Alexander’s Empire and it is through the conquest of former Greek states that the Romans saw first hand the beauty that was Greece. In short the highly militaristic Romans lacked the cultural refinements that one can find in abundance in Greek societies.
It is through the process of incorporating Greek culture into the Roman’s way of life that they rediscovered the power of Homeric poetry. It took the genius of Virgil to use Homer’s works and use it as the foundation for his own epic. And so in 29 BC Virgil began writing the Aeneid with the purpose of emulating what Homer has achieved in Greece. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey provided a sense of identity for all Greeks and Virgil was hoping to achieve the same results. But the desire to incorporate Greek life into Roman life is easier said than done.
But everyone who will try to copy from someone begins by copying almost everything that one can see and the eye can appreciate. For instance the Romans copied the design of their temples and they also described their gods using the same attributes found in Greek society. But there is no need to worry because the Roman changed the Greek sounding names of their gods into Roman names for their statues. Virgil attempted to accomplish two major things when he wrote the Aeneid.
He wanted to impress the new emperor (Augustus Caesar) and secondly he wanted to have a unique Roman epic that will help unite the people. Virgil was successful in achieving both. The hero of the Aeneid was behaving in much the same way as Augustus Caesar especially with regards to his conquest and the subsequent creation of a new nation out of that sheer determination to succeed. Now for the second part, Virgil was also able to create an epic that can be comparable to Homer. It is true that he copied many things from Homer and yet at the same time his stories were never simply a rehash of what Homer did.
Virgil simply needed an inspiration to get going and he found it in the character of Aeneas whom Homer briefly mentioned in his work. From this little known character, Aeneid began to build a story that made the peoples pulse to race. It was indeed an epic story of battles, of struggle between good and evil, of heroes who most of the time failed to achieve their potential and sometimes die a tragic death. The Aeneid is basically an explanation as to the existence of Rome. For many there is a need to have that kind of idea, that kind of emotional anchor in times of trouble.
And there is no way to fully understand the impact of Aeneid towards the people of Rome. But one thing is sure Virgil’s work was able to unite the whole of the empire and is instrumental as to why the empire endured for so long. It is now very clear that that Virgil was influenced by historical events and the circumstances that surrounded his life. If there were two streams where these influences came from then Homer is a mighty source of inspiration while the politics and warfare in ancient Rome provided Virgil with more materials to use.
In Rome’s struggle to carve out a nation in Europe was evident in Aeneid where the hero had to travel and faced with numerous risks just so he can establish a new nation. It was Homer who provided much influence for Virgil. If Homer did not produce the Iliad and Odyssey it is hard to imagine Virgil able to make his own. This is not to take away anything form the accomplishments of Virgil but it would be almost impossible for him to write beautifully without Homer as guide. Homer did not only provide the seed from which Virgil will grow a powerful story, Homer also provided the correct format.
And so putting it all together it is now very clear that Virgil was a byproduct of the events that surrounded him. Yet even before he was born, Homer’s influence and genius was already felt in many parts of the Western world. When Virgil was still very young it is easy to imagine that he was already familiar with the Iliad and Odyssey and no doubt the stories found in those epics help to shape the way he thinks.
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