Background to Virgil

The Aeneid is a Roman epic poem by Virgil, written between 29 B.C. and 19 B.C., concerning the founding legends of Rome. It deals with the journey of Aeneas from Troy to Italy and the ensuing battles to establish Rome. Virgil was known to the Imperial court of the time as a poet, based on the success of his Eclogues and Georgics. It is unlikely that Augustus commissioned the Aeneid, but as Virgil would have wanted Augustus as his patron to be pleased with the work, he made many references to Augustus and his rise to power. Virgil tells the story of Aeneas because of its relation to Roman history and because he believes it has reference to contemporary Rome.

Background to Augustus and the Civil War

Augustus (or Octavian/Octavius before the senate gave him the title ‘Augustus’) was Julius Caesar’s grand-nephew intended as Caesar’s heir. When Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C. Octavian came into conflict with Antony, and defeated him. After his defeat, Antony, Octavian and Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate in 43 B.C. and turned their attentions to Caesar’s assassins, defeating them in Greece at the battle of Philippi (42 B.C.). Antony’s involvement with Cleopatra and divorce of Octavia resulted in the alienation of Antony and Octavian, also Antony’s plan to use Egypt to unite the eastern Mediterranean under his rule pushed him further from Octavian. The resulting civil war was ended by the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 B.C. After Octavian’s victory, he started a program of restoring order by reuniting the Roman present with its old moral, religious and political traditions. Octavian pretended to restore the old Roman republic, but his control of the army and the finances meant he was in charge of the empire. In 27 B.C. the senate awarded him the title ‘Augustus’ symbolising his position of authority within the state. Octavian was welcomed as a saviour by the Roman people for ending the civil war and bringing peace to Rome.

Relevance to Augustus and the Julian Clan

There are many parallels in the Aeneid to the rise to power of Augustus. To start with the most basic, the entire story of the destruction of Troy and the resulting wanderings of Aeneas before founding a new state in Italy is a connection to Roman history of the first century B.C. including the destruction of the Republic, civil war, and the creation of peace and order by Augustus. Virgil includes many similarities of Augustus and Aeneas leading us to identify one with the other. Augustus claims Aeneas as his ancestor, and as this is an epic about the founding of Rome, written at the time of the founding of the empire, it is only sensible for Virgil to identify Augustus with Aeneas. This can be seen especially in the line ‘… standing and listening with all their attention while his words command their passions and soothe their hearts’ (Aeneid Book II Lines 2-4). Augustus was already the master of propaganda and didn’t specifically need an epic of Roman history glorifying him, so Virgil’s original motive for writing the epic must have been that he wanted to reach the highest ranks of poets by the writing of an epic, the view in antiquity was that epic and tragedy were the highest forms of verse, so those who succeeded in these fields were truly great. Virgil had already written a poem glorifying Augustus, The Georgics, (specifically Georgic III), and wanted to not only celebrate Augustus’s achievements but to attempt to influence them as well. Augustus would be shown an image of heroic splendour, moral elevation and true patriotism, this can be a form of pressure on the ruler to live up to these virtues. Or perhaps Virgil wanted to be the laureate of Rome’s revival. The difficulty with a poet trying to present recent history and people is that many people knew what actually happened at the events Virgil is trying to portray. Augustus had to be presented as a great military leader, but everyone knew he was ill at the battle of Philippi and there was very little actual fighting at Actium. So Virgil uses Aeneas’ shield (Aeneid Book VIII Lines 620-730) as a way of creating a symbolic image of Augustus’ victories.

Augustan Propaganda

This technique allowed Virgil to evade the problems created by some of the more unheroic events of Augustus’ rise to power, and to create a strongly symbolic image of the clash between the Romans and Mark Antony’s Eastern forces. The other place in the Aeneid where Virgil explicitly writes about Rome is when Aeneas is in the underworld and sees the parade of future Roman heros (Aeneid Book VI Lines 757 ff.). The context of this is the spirit of Anchises showing Aeneas who is to come after him when he succeeds in founding Rome, it provides Aeneas with another push towards his destiny. Virgil’s use of this is to make reference to the glorious history of Rome, and to show off the past glories of Rome and the Roman myth. Augustus himself had no problem with managing his self-image, to the degree that he was worshipped as a deity in some parts of the empire even before he died. Octavian’s use of the title of Augustus reflects his interest in religion, including the imperial cult and his position of Pontifex Maximus, the title of the highest priest. His portrayal to the Roman people was of a third founder of Rome, a bringer of peace and stability after years of war. His work, the Res Gestae (literally: ‘Things Done’) was inscribed on the great bronze pillars outside his mausoleum. It was a catalogue of all of his achievements in his life, and copies were distributed to all the colonies. Augustus’ power management extended after he died.

Problems with the association

One problem with identifying Aeneas with Augustus’ propaganda image is Aeneas’ actions in Book XII, where for the only time he is referred to as furens as opposed to pius. As this occurs right at the very end, and as we know Virgil regarded the work as unfinished, perhaps this is a portion he intended to revise. Another possible explanation is that because Aeneas is representing Augustus, and Aeneas killing Turnus when he is supplicating before him, this could be a reference to Augustus’ attacks on his political enemies, perhaps a commentary by Virgil on Augustus’ overly harsh methods. Or it could be just a way of describing Aeneas’ extreme anger with Turnus for killing Pallas and taking the baldric as spoil.

Conclusion

The Aeneid is a piece of pro-Augustan propaganda, but it is more than that, it has elements of Augustan propaganda within a wider story of Roman founding myth, elaborated and collated into an epic by Virgil. The Roman attitude of respect and worship to ancestors and the fact that the Julian clan trace ancestry back to Aeneas means that the story of Aeneas has particular relevance to the them, hence Virgil using parts of it for propaganda about Roman heroes to come and the triumph of Augustus at Actium. This re-enforces Augustus’ legitimacy by placing associations with Aeneas and his shield with Augustus’ recent victories, convincing the reader that it was fate and was meant to happen.


Bibliography
Line references from Aeneid, D. West translation, Penguin, London 1990 (2nd Edition).
J. Griffin, Virgil, Oxford University Press 1986.
W.A. Camps, Introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid, Oxford University Press 1969.
H.J. Rose, Aeneas Pontifex, Phoenix Press, London 1948.
R.D. Williams, Aeneas and the Roman Hero, Macmillan, London, 1973.

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