Why Should We Read Virgil’s Aeneid? An Animated Video Makes the Case

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1,600-Year-Old Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­script of the Aeneid Dig­i­tized & Put Online by The Vat­i­can

What Ancient Latin Sound­ed Like, And How We Know It

Rome Reborn: Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Ancient Rome, Cir­ca 320 C.E.

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Even Steven says:

    Yes but one must do it the old fash­ioned way … in the orig­i­nal Latin.

    Year 1 we joined the army with Cae­sar.
    Year 2 we hung around the Sen­ate with politi­cians and Cicero
    Year 3 we wnet on a sea cruise with Vir­gil.

    All I remem­ber of those three years study­ing Clas­sic Latin is that Gaul is divid­ed in three parts and to this day I can not find one part of Gaul on a map.

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