Read an Excerpt
From Sarah Spence’s Introduction to The Aeneid
Written between 26 and 19 b.c., the Aeneid was virtually finished, if somewhat unpolished, at the time of Vergil’s death. Unlike the poem’s major precursors, the Greek epics of Homer, the Aeneid aims to illuminate the historical and cultural complexity of the world that surrounded its first audience. The poem looks back to the prehistory of Rome and forward to the Rome of Vergil’s day, a perspective that has led some to characterize it as nostalgic. Yet the real beauty and strength of the work lies in its ability to provide a glimpse of the underpinnings of the very world its early audience inhabited—both its strengths and its weaknesses. It is, in short, a poem that in taking us back to the origins of the Roman people takes us forward to the world of Vergil and, to a large extent, to the world we live in today. The theme of the poem is not so much a lament over the necessity of sacrifice, as it is sometimes read, but an assertion that loss is embedded in the imperial vision—that the intertwined strands of promise and loss lie at the heart of the imperial enterprise, be it Augustan or contemporary.
Aeneas’ importance derives from two sources. On the one hand, it is fated in the Iliad (20.302) that he will escape Troy and his offspring will rule over fellow Trojans. Vergil connects Aeneas’ rule with Rome, and thus establishes a clear movement of the gods and so of culture from east to west, from Troy to Latium. Alongside this, as we are told in the first book by Jupiter, the king of the gods, and in the sixth book by Anchises, Aeneas’ father, that Aeneas is genealogically linked to Caesar, to whom Jupiter has granted an empire without end. Through Aeneas’ son Ascanius, also known as Iulus, the line of the Caesars will be founded; they will trace their family back to Venus, Aeneas’ mother, and Jupiter, her father.
The poem is often approached through the opposition offered in the opening lines between pietas (the honor man pays god and son pays father) and furor (rage). Aeneas is first characterized as a man marked by piety, while his primary antagonist, the goddess Juno, is marked by her rage. Throughout the poem, the struggles to achieve the goal of reaching Rome play out between these opposing forces. Aeneas’ honor of both his father and the gods—dominated by the figure of Jupiter, the king of the gods—propels him out of Troy and through years on the ocean; it is the reason he leaves the beautiful Dido, whom he encounters in Carthage; it is the mark of his leadership during the games on Sicily and his battles in Italy. Furor, on the other hand, accounts not only for the rage of Juno, Jupiter’s wife and sister (angry because the victory of her Greeks at Troy has not destroyed the Trojans), but also for a series of characters who participate in that anger, including Dido, once spurned by Aeneas, and Turnus, whose land and betrothed are offered by his king to Aeneas. The progress of pius Aeneas from Troy to Latium is impeded by Juno and the characters in whom she inspires furor.
The interaction of pietas and furor plays out against the background of the imperial landscape. As Aeneas travels from Troy to Latium he sketches out the reach of the later empire, and in so doing, he lays his people’s future claim to that path. Key landings that will later become part of the Roman imperial project are noted. Having Aeneas land at Buthrotum, for example, Vergil lays the groundwork for the later development of a Roman colony there. When, at the end of book 5, Aeneas decides to leave some of the older Trojans on Sicily, Vergil not only explains the presence of Trojan archeological finds there; he also justifies the development of Sicily as a Roman province. The stop at Actium, brief though it is, introduces Actium into the imperial language and projects Octavian’s victory there. The lands Aeneas touches become marked for the imperial cause—they are lands that the emperor will later claim as his own. Aeneas will see them only as false Italys; they mean nothing to him except failure, both to obtain his goal and to return home. Yet that very failure offers proof that the imperial project is underway.
The literary past participates in this enterprise. Vergil’s literary models are many. On the one hand, there are the Greek epics of Homer, whose Iliad and Odyssey took four times as many books to relay their story; on the other, there is the newer movement of Alexandrian poetry (including both Apollonius’ Argonautica and the works of Callimachus), whose spare aesthetics argued that less is more, that recondite allusion and sharp delineation were the marks of cleaner, better poetry. Against these Greek traditions lies the Latin project: starting with Ennius, whose epic about the founding of Rome exists only in fragments, the tradition of telling Roman origins in Latin and highlighting the connection of the language to the Roman mission and identity was taken up by Lucretius and continued throughout the republic and into the empire, with the poetry of Catullus, Horace, Propertius, Tibullus, Vergil and Ovid. Every one of these poets aimed to grapple with the inherited Greek past in an effort not only to recast the works into a new language but, more, to show that that new literature was essential to the success and definition of the Roman mission.