While on the surface the Aeneid could be seen as a Roman epic meant to glorify Rome and rival those of the ancient Greeks, the author was engaged in a struggle. Virgil had to satisfy the cultural demands of his work, the political demands of his time, and his own personal demands as an artist. In tackling his problem, Virgil is revealed to be slightly reluctant of embracing fully the still young regime of Octavian but still proud of Rome and his ancestry, and concerned with the moral issues of civil war.
When considering the style with which Virgil composed the Aeneid, it is important to look at the time in which he lived and exactly what was going on around him when it was written. Virgil was born in 70 BC and died in 19 BC. This places him in the very beginning of what was to be a long and relatively stable existence of the Roman Empire. Further, it was during the poet’s lifetime that Rome made citizens of all Italians, allowing a huge community to share in Rome’s growing heritage. People who formerly may have felt like outcasts under the oppression of Rome could now call Rome their own.
This included Virgil because he came from a provincial Italian town far outside Rome. W. A. Camps cites that while Virgil was still a young man, his family’s estates were confiscated by Caesar to be given to veterans of the battle of Philippi (1). Caesar was eventually assassinated and the next twenty years of the poet’s life are shaded by bloody struggles for power among heirs and military leaders. Eventually Caesar’s adopted son Octavian defeats Marc Antony and Cleopatra’s forces and brings all Rome under his rule, in about 30 BC.
This is important because Virgil had been fond of Octavian, although it is not known if he publicly supported anyone during the conflict. It is known that Virgil came to enjoy first the friendship then the patronage of Octavian and his minister Maecenas, both of whom bestowed a small fortune upon him (Freeman 389). While Virgil accepted their patronage he was still wary of capitulating the new emperor and sacrificing any integrity. Charles Freeman writes that Virgil’s contemporary, Horace also reflects these feelings. Octavian, now known as Caesar Augustus, took a liking to Horace just as he did Virgil, endowing him with gifts and money.
Eventually Augustus asked Horace to be his secretary, and Horace refused, citing the need to protect his integrity as a poet. (391) Virgil felt great gratitude towards an emperor who vigorously supported the arts and brought the Empire much stability but at the same time faced a moral dilemma. Augustus was looking for a poet to write a national epic about him and his rise to power. In a letter Augustus wrote to Maecenas he says, If I had any talent for the heroic epic, I’d not waste my time on stories from mythology . . .
I’d write about Caesar’s wars and achievements (qtd. in Quinn 27). This sheds light on the morality issue Virgil faced as an artist. There were plenty of epic poets available in Rome at the time, and plenty were approached with this daunting task of writing an epic with Augustus as the hero. Nearly all declined, and even Virgil was reluctant. That says something about the attitudes of the poets of his time. They were not interested in art for art’s sake. They wanted to create of their own accord something that came from within.
Kenneth Quinn points out that they wrote with very high standards of integrity, and wrote not for widespread popularity of their works but for approval of their literary peers (30). Poets were writing of their own personalities; their own views and ideas of right and wrong. They were not to be leased out for purposes of glorifying Rome’s leader. In a widely known of reply to Augustus’ letter inquiring as to Virgil’s progress, the poet writes that he thinks he may have been out of his mind to have undertaken the task in the first place (Freeman 387).
He was obviously struggling to balance his need to satisfy himself artistically without sacrificing principle and simultaneously honor the emperor Augustus. As is obvious in the work, Virgil is unable to clearly conquer his moral problem, seeming to side-step it. He must focus on the historical epic, and glorify the emperor rather indirectly. This is exemplified in a Book II passage mentioning Iulius, son of Aeneas and source of the Julius Caesar lineage. A point on Iulius’ head seemed to cast light, a tongue of flame that touched but did not burn him, licking his fine hair, playing round his temples.
Virgil symbolically prophesizes the greatness to come of his posterity. Again in Book IV the poet sings of the glory to come to Iulius and his heirs, as well as Rome. The god Mercury speaks to Aeneas, Think of the expectations of your heir, Iulius, to whom the Italian realm, the Land of Rome, are due (356-357). Aeneas is reminded of the glory of the future that is Rome and the role that his son would play. The poet, as earlier mentioned, was not a native of Rome. He first alludes to the ‘Italian realm’ then to Rome herself, reflecting that newfound feeling of unity and nationality among Italians.
In preparation for the war with Turnus, a magic shield brought to Aeneas by Venus depicts the future glories of Rome. Among the numerous drawings is one showing the victory at Actium. Augustus is leading the charge with flames flowing from his brow. Virgil then tells of Agrippa and Antonius being honored on the shield . Apart from reference to a flaming brow, they are honored in just the same fashion as Augustus (Book VIII 90-106). Augustus is not alone in being accredited for the victory at Actium.
The poet is careful to place his emperor above the other two naval leaders but not so far as to cheapen the contributions of Antonius and Agrippa, or give solely credit to Augustus. Virgil tends to be oblique in his reverence to Augustus, but it is rather unrealistic to expect the poet to have written such a work and completely leave out direct homage to the man bringing peace to the empire (not to mention supporting the poet quite generously). Aeneas is before his father in the underworld when a clear prophecy honoring Augustus is relayed to him.
Anchises declares this is the man, this one, Of whom so often you have heard the promise, Caesar Augustus, son of the deified, Who shall bring once again an Age of Gold To Latium (665-669). Virgil is symbolically honoring the Julio-Claudian line as it was called, or the descendants of Iulius. In acknowledging Augustus to be progeny of Aeneas, Virgil is again able to extol the emperor while skirting unashamed eminence. As was a budding tradition at the time, the emperors of post-Republic Rome were to be deified and worshipped as a god.
Virgil stops short of this, but tells of a link in ancestry to the son of a God. The poet then prompts Anchises to sing more praise of Augustus, perhaps to overshadow the neglect to deify Augustus straightly. The truth is, even Alcides2 Never traversed so much of the earth. (679-680). He does not blatantly model his hero after the emperor however, and leaves nothing in the writing acknowledging this, it must be inferred. This takes the weight of his moral problem off of the author’s shoulders and places the problem of solving it onto those of the reader.
In grappling with the issue of civil war, Virgil is able to symbolize the dilemma of the victor. A fine description of just how symbolism is brought has Quinn quoting R. D. Williams. Symbolism is the poet’s way of suggesting different levels of significance at which his words may be taken, while allegory is the cruder method of equating. (55) Everyone in Rome knew or at least expected the Aeneid to glorify Augustus, but Virgil will simply not come out and say it. Both Augustus and Aeneas were not fighting hated enemies; they were fighting other Italians.
Both their causes were seen as just, hence the ends justify the means. This is a sensible route to take when trying to defend civil war. Virgil fulfills the expectation to produce a patriotic work, and ennobles Augustus and his victory at Actium, but provides a subtle and humane comment on the price paid, the fact that civil war was needed to attain stability, and the blood spilled was that of their own. He will not clean the hands of the victors, despite his support of their cause (Highet 61). Marc Antony was not a hated man.
He was the emperor of the entire eastern half of the Roman Empire. He lost popularity by allying himself with Cleopatra it is true but nonetheless he had legions of supporters. That brought a need for Virgil to show Augustus as a unifier, not so much for Augustus’ sake, but for the populace of the Empire. The poet sought to soften some of the bitterness of the conflict. By having Aeneas leave Dido despite the fact that he loves her, Virgil displays honor to duty above all, a classic element of Stoicism(the reigning philosophy of the Roman Republic/Empire).
Perhaps he is likening the hero to Julius Caesar, who left Cleopatra when Rome called. That likeness at the same time leads us to frown upon Marc Antony and his failure to abandon the Egyptian queen. However, Dido is greatly pitied and is not painted as an enemy in the story. The hero encounters the slain queen in the Underworld and speaks to her I swear by heaven’s stars, by the high gods, By any certainty below the earth, I left your land against my will, my queen. The gods’ commands drove me to do their will.. (Book VI 242-244).
This loose attribution to the civil war just won by Augustus neatly places the sentiments of Romans to the plight of Marc Antony and his supporters. It likewise shows Virgil’s reluctance to chastise them as ‘the enemy. ‘ The poet will not precisely identify Aeneas with any one man. As far as the hero’s exploits, refer to his manipulation of symbolism and see that he refuses to simply re-tell reality with the names changed. Virgil’s whole strategy was basically to leave inference to the reader, and never let any social pressures present at the time rear their heads in his work.
His use of symbolism for the most part distorts any hope of a crystal-clear parallel. This stylizing of a lack of clarity could have roots in the poet’s past personal experiences with an Emperor. It was Caesar, after all, who appropriated the lavish villa of Virgil’s family many years before. This event undoubtedly instilled a sense of uncertainty in the poet concerning the autocrat. Virgil did not, however, bear any malice either. Be it out of his own Stoic influence or admiration for Augustus the man. Those background circumstances aside, the Aeneid is nothing short of an epic drenched in Roman and Italian pride.
Rome saw itself as the light in a dark world. It was held that their civilization was the greatest since Athens in its heyday, and the poets conformed. The Iliad and Odyssey are oral tales that were handed down, arguably more the creation of legend than that of Homer. They could be deemed products of an entire society. The Aeneid was contrarily a singular voice, of one man alone. It was the product of an individual; free in a relative sense of the word. It lacked social constraints but still respected the ideals behind those very constraints.