Maybe we take it for granted that Virgil’s Roman epic, the Aeneid, is a sequel—long delayed—of Homer’s Iliad, a classical adventure in verse, part legendary history, part fantasy, part myth. It is all these things, of course, but it also served some very specific purposes for its time, the imperial Rome of Augustus, Virgil’s patron, on whose insistence the Aeneid was published after the poet’s death. (Virgil himself wanted the manuscript burned.) The Aeneid was also political and religious propaganda.
Plato famously railed against Homer and other ancient poets for trivializing religion by turning the gods into vengeful, petty soap opera characters. Virgil and Augustus, on the other hand, explicitly hoped the Aeneid would effect “a revival of faith in the old-time religion,” as Clyde Pharr writes in the introduction to his Latin edition of the poem. “The educated Romans of the day were becoming quite blasé and sophisticated and were gradually losing the faith of their fathers with its simple, unquestioning reliance on the infallible wisdom of the gods and their helpful interference in human affairs.”
Roman religion was, however, not mysterious or remote but “intensely practical,” busying itself “with the everyday life of the people.” By this token, the faith Augustus wanted to promote was also intensely political, encouraging strict patriarchal hierarchies and a sense of sacred duty, the chief heroic burden Aeneus must bear—his pietas. Virgil wrote his hero, Mark Robinson argues in the animated TED-Ed video above, as a model for Augustus, who appears in the poem when Aeneus descends into the underworld and has a vision of the future of Rome.
Augustus is presented “as a victor entering Rome in triumph… expanding the Roman empire.” He is hailed as “only the third Roman leader in 700 years to shut the doors of the temple of Janus, signifying the arrival of permanent peace. But there’s a twist.” Augustus did not read to the end, and apparently did not notice Aeneus’s many flaws, dramatized, Robinson suggests, as a warning to the emperor, or his subjects.
In sections “that could be seen as critical, if not subtly subversive of the emperor’s achievements,” Aeneus struggles to “balance mercy and justice.” The hero arrives as a refugee from the conquered Troy, carrying his aging father on his back and leading his young son by the hand. He ends, proleptically, by founding the great empire to come. But as many scholars have argued, throughout the poem “Virgil undermined the sense of glorious progress, or even overturned it,” as Madeline Miller writes at Lapham’s Quarterly.
This modern reading of the Aeneid may be controversial, but the celebration of Augustus was embraced not only by the emperor himself but by ambitious rulers “as disparate as Elizabeth I, Louis XIV, and Benito Mussolini,” not to mention “the Founding Fathers, who generally preferred Homer.” Perhaps the poem’s endorsement by those in power and those positioned to flatter them has long colored the reception of the Aeneid as an uncritical celebration of empire.
The Aeneid is a foundational epic in the Western literary tradition because of Virgil’s undeniable poetic skill in adapting classical Greek forms into Latin, and because of its influence on hundreds of poets and writers for hundreds of years after. But perhaps, Robinson suggests, “in wanting the story published, Augustus had been fooled by his own desire for self-promotion.” Maybe the poem has also “survived to ask questions about the nature of power and authority ever since” it was first published, to instant acclaim, in 19 BC.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness