Barbara Tuchman said, “Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent…Books are humanity in print” (Tuchman). The Aeneid is simply that, humanity in print. Virgil’s epic poem is a fascinating insight into the society of 1st Century Rome. In Virgil’s time, Rome was in the midst of a civil war that was eventually won by Julius Caesar’s adopted nephew Octavian. Octavian assumed control over the empire and eventually restyled himself as Caesar Augustus, or The Respected One (Puchner 923). The civil war that preceded Augustus’ rule was caused by the assassination of Julius Caesar at the hands of disgruntled Roman senators. Augustus knew he needed to carefully craft his public opinion in order to avoid the same fate as his adoptive father, so he commissioned Virgil to write The Aeneid. At first glance, The Aeneid looks like any other ancient epic. Epic heroes, mighty gods, and forces of nature abound and meld into an epic story of an adventure to found the great empire of Rome. However, if one peels back the myth and looks at the epic in the light of its time, one can see the fingerprints of Virgil’s patron Augustus. The Aeneid is, in reality, a nationalist epic meant to instill pride in the glory of Rome and in their new leader. It is also a detailed historical insight into the small things that made up ancient Roman culture in the time of Virgil.
Ancient literary works, no matter how fictional, nearly always reflect some of the customs and culture of the people who wrote them. This is no different in Virgil’s Aeneid. However, it is not in the broad strokes, but the fine details that one can see them. Upon landing on the shores of an unknown and potentially dangerous land, Aeneas and his men disembark from their ships, and start to unload their ships. Now, as any men after a long and dangerous journey, these men were exhausted and hungry.
Then, spent as they were from all their toil,
they set out food, the bounty of Ceres, drenche
in sea-salt, Ceres’ utensils too, her mills and troughs,
and bend to parch with fire the grain they had salvaged,
grind it fine on stones. (Book I, Lines 209-213)
What is interesting here is that despite their harrowing journey, the men of Troy are still Virgil includes that they are civilized enough that they set a table and dine with utensils even. This is a fascinating insight into Roman culture and how they valued cleanliness at the table. This is similarly noted later in the epic when Aeneas and his men feast with Dido in the city of Carthage. Virgil writes, “Servants pour them water to rinse their hands, / quickly serving them bread from baskets, spreading / their laps with linens, napkins clipped and smooth” (Book I, Lines 836-838). This is a fantastic insight into Roman culture, as they placed great value in cleanliness. It is important to note here that this is not simply cleanliness for religious purposes like their Greek counterparts, but simply to promote good hygiene.
Virgil’s description of a Romanesque feast does not stop there, as the feast in Carthage is a treasure trove of insight into Roman culture. Romans often dined at low tables, as depicted by Virgil writing,
the good captain, enters, then the Trojan soldiers,
taking their seats on couches draped in purple.
In the kitchens are fifty serving-maids assigned
to lay out foods in a long line, course by course,
and honor the household gods by building fires high.
A hundred other maids and a hundred men, all matched in age,
are spreading the feast on trestles, setting out the cups.
And Tyrians join them, bustling through the doors,
filling the hall with joy, to take invited seats
on brocaded couches. (Book I, Lines 833-846)
This fashion of dining was common in the Roman Empire, so readers of the time would have truly had a great image of the feast with Dido. Another item of note is the color of the couches the men sit upon. Wearing or having materials with purple dye was a major sign of wealth in the ancient world, as such a dye was rare to come by. This purple dye was actually made by the ancient Carthaginians and would have been a sure sign to Aeneas and his men of the growing wealth of Juno’s chosen people, the Tyrians. These little details are microcosms of Roman culture and the behavior in things not associated with war and conquest that is so often the focus of Roman history.
Virgil’s Aeneid also represents a unique perspective concerning the forces of nature and how metaphors are used within the work. One of the defining traits of ancient texts is their constant use of nature metaphors to describe items of great import. The gods themselves are even considered forces of nature. What is unique to Virgil’s Aeneid is that beauty and other descriptions are sometimes compared to human creations and not to that of nature. For example, when Dido first looks upon Aeneas, Virgil describes him saying, “His beauty fine / as a craftsman’s hand can add to ivory, or aglow / as silver or Parian marble ringed in glinting gold” (Book I, Lines 707-709). It is interesting here that Virgil does not compare Aeneas to a subject of nature, but that of things made by human hands, crafted ivory or sculpted Parian marble. This artistic metaphor is used twice in the work, when describing the look of Dido when she realizes she is losing Aeneas with Virgil writing, “But she, her eyes fixed on the ground, turned away, / her features no more moved by his pleas as he talked on / than if she were set in stony flint or Parian marble rock” (Book VI, Lines 545-547). Nevertheless, some nature metaphors made their way into the epic, as can been seen in one of the most visually poignant descriptions in the work. As the Trojans gaze upon Carthage,
Aeneas marvels at its mass—once a cluster of huts—
he marvels at gates and bustling hum and cobbled streets.
The Tyrians press on with the work, some aligning the walls,
struggling to raise the citadel, trundling stones up slopes;
some picking the building sites and plowing out their boundaries,
others drafting laws, electing judges, a senate held in awe.
As hard at their tasks as bees in early summer
The hive seethes with life, exhaling the scent
of honey sweet with thyme. (Book I, Lines 511-528)
The scene stands in stark contrast to Book IV when the hive is silent, as Dido is distracted by her love for Aeneas, and is a beautiful nature metaphor that shows precisely the things that Romans found beautiful and civilized about their culture.
The Aeneid is not only a history of the founding of Rome, but a nationalist history. With a bloody civil war behind them, post-Actium Rome needed a unifying force. Virgil’s Aeneid was one of those unifying forces. The future Roman people throughout The Aeneid are considered a separate, chosen race. In Book IV of The Aeneid Venus remarks, “Would Jove / want one city to hold the Tyrians and the Trojan exiles? / Would he sanction the mingling of their peoples, / bless their binding pacts?” (Book IV, Lines 136-139). Virgil’s framing of Venus’ remark is almost one of incredulity, as if the mingling of Roman and Phoenician blood is something insulting to the king of the gods. Because The Aeneid is partly a propaganda piece, it is not surprising that Romans of Virgil’s day would consider themselves a race apart from the other people of the world. This is also used when comparing themselves to the Greeks, with whom they might be more closely compared culturally. In the middle of Anchises’ recounting of great Romans in history in Book VI, he pauses to tell what Bernard Knox describes as, “[R]ather the moral of all these tales—the Roman character and the Roman mission in the world” (39). This moral that Knox refers to begins with Anchises alluding to the Greeks by telling the Romans who they are not, saying,
Others, I have no doubt,
will forge the bronze to breathe with suppler lines,
draw from the block of marble features quick with life,
plead their cases better, chart with their rods the stars
that climb the sky and foretell the times they rise (Book VI, Lines 976-980).
This passage refers to the Greeks (“others”) skill in craftsmanship, sculpture, democracy, and astronomy, that while practiced in Rome, were not to be the defining trait of Rome. Anchises goes on to tell them directly what Rome will become: “But you, Roman, remember, rule with all your power / the peoples of the earth—these will be your arts: / to put your stamp on the works and ways of peace, / to spare the defeated, break the proud in war” (Book VI, Lines 981-984).
This directly reflects Augustus’ view that he needed to unite the people of the Roman empire as one chosen people to rule the earth. This was not to be a cruel rule, but one that made Romans the subduers of the barbaric peoples. They were to teach the world the “ways of peace”, and “break the proud”. Throughout the work, Virgil is constantly reflecting this “moral” Knox refers to, or theme that Romans are to tame a wild world. Michael Putnam notes that the shield of Aeneas “…[E]nds not with Augustus in glory but with conquered peoples in procession…” (3). He also finds that “Once again the shield is a microcosm of the poem into which it is embedded. The one finds nature, in the figure of Araxes, tamed by Roman domination…” (Putnam 3). This imagery of Rome being able to tame nature, in this case a river in modern day Turkey, makes it easy to see Roman domination as a key theme throughout Virgil’s Aeneid and was a result of the need to unify the people of Rome after such a bloody civil war.
Virgil’s poem is not necessarily unique in that it served this purpose. Shadi Bartsch states that there are many ways Virgil’s poem can be used as “…[A] gesture towards the civilizing political function of the narrative artwork…Virgil repeatedly exploits the tradition of political…imagery to allude to the Augustan establishment of order after the furor of the civil wars” (329). Bartsch also compares the procession of heroes in The Aeneid to similar processions seen in Roman architecture of the time. “Virgil’s parade of heroes, like the statuary of the forum, seems devoted to aestheticizing the violence of Roman history…” (329). This cunning use of influencing artwork, both literary and architectural, by Augustus is something that was underutilized, if not unprecedented in the ancient world before this time.
The true purpose of The Aeneid during the time it was written was to deify Caesar Augustus and solidify him as the culmination of Aeneas’ legacy. As Kimberly Bell describes it, “As Aeneas constructs a new city based on the elements of two older civilizations, Augustus sought to create a new state politically, socially, and physically, based on a solid foundation of Roman tradition laid since the early days of the republic” (16). This concept of “city founding” was unique to Virgil’s epic. This is because while many Greek, and especially Homeric epics, focused on the great feats and deeds of heroes and gods, Virgil, and to a latter extent the Romans, ascribed glory to someone who founds a city, or in Augustus’ case, an empire (Bell 20). Virgil, working from the time of Augustus portrays him almost in a messianic light (Gransden and Harrison 4) saying:
Here is Caesar and all the line of Iulus
soon to venture under the sky’s great arch.
Here is the man, he’s here! Time and again
you’ve heard his coming promised—Caesar Augustus!
Son of a god, he will bring back the Age of Gold
to the Latian fields where Saturn once held sway. (Book VI, Lines 911-916)
This might be one of the most overtly political passages in the epic. It directly connects Augustus to the gods and clearly asserts that he is the one destined to make Rome into what was promised by the fates. This overt political nature was not lost on the politicians of the day. “The Aeneid enjoyed an enthusiastic reception, both for its sophistication as a literary text and because of its political nature. Indeed, ancient critics were quick to note the political aspects of the epic,
particularly Virgil’s praise of Augustus” (Bell 12). Virgil’s entire procession in fact, is in fact one half history and other half praise and confirmation that Augustus is a descendant of the gods. Virgil even seems to gloss over the bloodiness of the civil war in favor of a unified Rome under a deified Augustus by having Anchises implore Augustus to,
yourselves to civil war, never turn your sturdy power
against your country’s heart. You, Caesar, you
be first in mercy—you trace your line from Olympus—
born of my blood, throw down your weapons now!” (Book VI, Lines 958-961)
During such a tumultuous time in Rome, it is important that Virgil portrayed Augustus as accepting to all peoples of Rome, even the ones who had rebelled, in order to avoid another rebellion that would inhibit his ability to expand the Roman empire.
Virgil’s Aeneid is a complex nationalist epic that serves as a historical insight into ancient Roman culture, but was also carefully crafted political piece. One can peer into Virgil’s magnificent descriptions of Carthage and feel as if they are gazing upon the city alongside Aeneas. Or one can wander the fields of Elysium with Aeneas and join with Anchises in recounting the past glories of every legendary Roman leading up to the culmination in Caesar Augustus. This is probably why this poem gained such acclaim in ancient Rome, because it is the humanity of Rome, in print.
Bell, Kimberly K. “Translatio and the Constructs of a Roman Nation in Virgil’s Aeneid.” Rocky Mountain Review, vol. 62, no. 1, Spring 2008, pp. 11–24. Literary Reference Center, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=lfh&AN=32139076&site=lrc-live.
Gransden, K. W., and S. J. Harrison. Virgil: The Aeneid. 2nd ed. by S.J. Harrison, Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. eBook Collection, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=165075&site=ehost-live.
Knox, Bernard. Virgil: The Aeneid. Translated by Robert Fagles, The Penguin Group, 2006, pp. 15-47.
Putnam, Michael C. J. Virgil’s Aeneid: Interpretation and Influence. The University of North Carolina Press, 1995. E-Book Collection, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1550&site=ehost-live.
Tuchman, Barbara. “Papyrus to Paperbacks: The World That Books Made.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 30 Dec. 1979, http://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/entertainment/books/1979/12/30/papyrus-to-paperbacks-the-world-that-books-made/43c411da-2bf7-4e5f-8869-caaac5422e9e/.
Virgil. The Aeneid, translated by Robert Fagles. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, edited by Martin Puchner et al., 4th ed., vol A, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 926-1025.