The masterpiece of Rome's greatest poet, Virgil's Aeneid has inspired generations of readers and holds a central place in Western literature. The epic tells the story of a group of refugees from the ruined city of Troy, whose attempts to reach a promised land in the West are continually frustrated by the hostile goddess Juno. Finally reaching Italy, their leader Aeneas is forced to fight a bitter war against the natives to establish the foundations from which Rome is destined to rise. This magnificent poem, in the modern translation by C. Day Lewis, is superbly read by Paul Scofield with Jill Balcon, Toby Stephens and cast.
Of Virgil's life we do not know much for certain. He writes little about himself in his surviving poetry, and contemporary records are scarce. We are told that he was born in 70 BC in Andes, a village near Mantua in what is now Northern Italy - but at the time of Virgil's birth this area was called Gallia Cisalpina ('Gaul on this side of the Alps'). He is said to have been educated in Cremona and Mediolanum (Milan); but we have no sure information about his life until the publication of his first collection of poems, the pastoral Eclogues, in (probably) the early 30s BC. Around this time he seems to have entered the circle of Maecenas, the aristocratic literary patron close to Octavian (the future emperor Augustus, who was the adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar and at this point one of the key figures on the Roman political scene). Of Virgil's activities in the turbulent period of the 30s, we again know very little - although a vignette survives in the poetry of his contemporary and friend Horace (Satires 1. 5). He seems to have lived near modern Naples.
At least some of his time will have been spent in the composition of his next poem, the four-book Georgics: this masterpiece (for Dryden, simply 'the best poem by the best poet') is ostensibly a work on agriculture and farming couched in didactic terms, but the poem also offers sustained reflection on contemporary history as well as on timeless themes of love and sex, rural life and the relationship between man and the earth. Dedicated to Maecenas, and finally published in 29 BC, the Georgics established Virgil as the foremost Latin poet of an exceptional generation (his rough contemporaries included Horace, Propertius, Tibullus, Varius Rufus and Gallus).
Exactly when Virgil made the decision to embark upon what was to be his final work, the epic Aeneid, is not known. The beginning of the third book of the Georgics announces his plan to write an epic for Octavian, but the Aeneid as published is very different from the poem there imagined. At any rate, the poem must have taken up much of his time during the 20s; eagerly anticipated during its composition ('make way, Roman writers, make way, you Greeks! - something greater than the Iliad is coming to birth', said Propertius), the Aeneid confirmed Virgil's reputation as Rome's greatest poet - and is said to have made him a very rich man. The poem seems to have been substantially complete when the poet died in 19 BC, but the presence of incomplete lines clearly indicates that the finishing touches had not yet been applied. Indeed, there is a story that Virgil ordered the poem to be burned, but that this was forbidden by the emperor Augustus - the poem was instead handed over to Virgil's friends Varius Rufus and Plotius Tucca to be edited for publication.
Virgil lived through one of the most tumultuous periods of Roman and indeed world history, when the Republican system which had seen the city rise from humble beginnings in central Italy to a position of dominance in the Mediterranean world finally collapsed amidst a series of brutal civil wars. Hundreds of thousands died as Roman armies fought each other from Spain to Asia, from Greece to Egypt; furthermore, the cherished libertas (freedom) of the old Republic was lost in the process, as firstly Julius Caesar, and later his adopted son and heir Octavian, established positions of dominance in the state. It was the latter (who took the name Augustus in 27 BC) who encouraged Virgil to compose the Aeneid.
The relationship of the poem to contemporary history and to the Augustan regime is not straightforward. As we have seen, Georgics III offers an 'advance notice' of an epic praising Octavian's military exploits - but Virgil seems to have reconsidered this idea (if it was ever seriously entertained). His eventual choice of a distant mythical past as the setting for his poem solved a number of problems; firstly, it enabled him to avoid sustained direct engagement with recent history (the dangers of which were very real, being compared by Horace to walking upon ashes beneath which the fire was still smouldering); and secondly, it offered considerably greater prospects for Virgil's literary ambitions. For although epic poems on historical events or figures were not unknown in the ancient world (indeed, some were very popular), they had not gained the prestige which mythological epics held. By setting his epic for Augustus in the mythical past, Virgil was able to invite comparison with the great early Greek epics, the Iliad and Odyssey attributed to Homer. These two poems formed the cornerstone of Greek and Roman literary culture. Although any attempt to rival them was therefore fraught with danger - the danger of seeming derivative, or merely a Homeric pastiche - it also represented the height of literary ambition, the greatest achievement possible for a poet. And Virgil announces his rivalry in the opening words of the Aeneid; 'arma virumque cano', 'I tell about war and the hero' (Dryden's famous 'Arms and the man I sing'). 'Arms' looks back to the martial epic exemplified in the Iliad; 'the man' alludes to the first word of the Odyssey ('andra' in Greek, meaning 'man').
Virgil attempts to bring the two epics together in his Aeneid, the first half of which is dominated by an Odyssean-style wandering, the second half by an 'lliadic' concentration on the war in Italy And his success in this creative imitation is perhaps his most important contribution to European literature - as one of the first and quite possibly the greatest of all sustained creative responses to earlier literary traditions, the Aeneid inspired poets centuries later, from Dante to Milton to Eliot.
The story of the Aeneid centres on the fortunes of Aeneas, a refugee from the city of Troy sacked by the Greeks after the famous ten-year siege. Having escaped from Troy, Aeneas and the Trojans who have followed him wander the Mediterranean in search of a new home. A series of warnings and prophecies tell Aeneas to head for Italy in the West, where he is destined to found a mighty empire. But his attempts to reach Italy are continually frustrated, not least by the goddess Juno, who engineers a particularly lengthy delay in the city of Carthage on the North African coast. When Aeneas finally reaches Italy he is forced to fight against fierce native resistance in order to establish a settlement - and only after a prolonged struggle, concluded by his killing of the Italian leader Turnus, is he able to fulfil his destiny.
These are the bare bones of the plot (a more detailed book-by-book account follows this introduction) around which Virgil builds his epic. To the Homeric themes of wandering and fighting are added elements inspired by later poetry - for example Aeneas' extended love affair with Dido, the queen of Carthage, the presentation of which draws on the tragic heroines of Greek theatre and of Apollonius' Hellenistic epic on the Argonauts. Elsewhere, Virgil expands the range of epic even further, above all in the magnificent account of Aeneas' journey to the underworld in Aeneid VI; this finds a superficial model in Odyssey XI where Odysseus consults the shade of the seer Teiresias at the entrance of Hades, but Virgil develops this idea far beyond the Homeric conception, creating an atmosphere profoundly different from anything in surviving Greek heroic epic - a creation which was to inspire Dante's The Divine Comedy and many lesser imitations.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the Aeneid is its juxtaposition of mythical material with celebration of the achievements of Augustus. For Virgil takes the claim of Julius Caesar's family - the lulii - that they were descended from lulus, the son of Aeneas, and is thus able to establish a direct link between the mythical founder of the Roman state and its current head Augustus. This facilitates the inclusion of much encomiastic material -particularly in Jupiter's reply to Venus after Aeneas' shipwreck in Book I, and later in the parade of Roman heroes in the underworld in Aeneid VI. But the Aeneid is not only about Augustus: it is about Rome, and Roman history. Aeneas is not only the ancestor of Augustus; as a refugee, and then an imperialist conqueror, he is a prototype of the Roman people themselves. In the most famous lines of the poem, Aeneas is told by the shade of his father Anchises:
'But, Romans, never forget that government is your medium! Be this your art: to practise men in the habit of peace. Generosity to the conquered, and firmness against aggressors. ' (VI. 851-3)
The Roman imperial destiny with all its glory and all its difficulties and dilemmas, looms into view in these lines - and is subjected to a searching analysis as we follow Aeneas' own (sometimes imperfect) attempts to follow his father's advice throughout the second half of the poem. In such ways as this, Virgil's great epic moves beyond its immediate historical context to consider great human themes - and takes its place in the pantheon of the world's great classics.
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