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Aeneid, an Epic Poem by Virgil Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Jun 20th, 2022

Introduction

One of the traps of history is the tendency for social reality projections of our own culture with those we have limited information about. Human beings, as we are, it is inherent for us to have human tendencies to think in linear patterns, seeing ourselves as the result of progression and progress to an ideal state of being. This was true of the ancient histories as it is today and much of our ingrained understanding of the past stemmed up from our dependence on the accounts of historical past.

Rome has been a very powerful metropolis ever since. It’s empire, so huge that it seemed to be so invincible in all historical accounts there had been. The story of Aeneid by a remarkable poet and writer Virgil reflects the historical Rome in every aspect of reality. Thus; this study aims to project the relevant connection of Virgil’s Aeneid with the culture of Rome and it intends to show or discuss how this book, “The Aeneid” and its characters display a traditional and distinctly Roman traits, beliefs, and values and thus; shall we see the evidence of culture supremacy in Virgil’s writing of the Aeneid.

This piece of work by Virgil was written at a time of major change in Rome, both political and social. The Republic had fallen, civil war had ripped apart society, and the sudden return of prosperity and peace after a generation of chaos had badly eroded traditional social roles and cultural norms. As a result, the emperor Augustus was trying to re-introduce traditional Roman moral values and the Aeneid is thought to reflect that aim. One might also note the relationship between the Trojans and Greeks in the Aeneid. The Trojans were the ancestors of the Romans according to the Aeneid, and their enemies were the Greek forces who had besieged and sacked Troy; yet at the time the Aeneid was written, the Greeks were part of the Roman Empire and a respected people who were considered cultured and civilized. This situation is resolved by the fact that the Greeks beat the Trojans only through the use of a trick, the wooden horse, not on the open field of battle: thus Roman dignity was saved.

Interpretation

In a sophisticated and self-conscious literature of Rome, with a Hellenistic predecessor at that, the tradition and imitation always stand in a dialectical relation to one another. The self-conscious use of literary models also straddles the dialectical relation between a literary work of cultural content and its deliberate recasting of the content in a new form not estranged from the familiar discourse of culture. On the other hand, allusion used in the Aeneid assimilates present experience to past tradition and therefore provides a larger frame for validating a literary work as a representation of reality and as an epitome or embodiment of the cultural norms.

The poetry of the Aeneid is polished and complex; legend has it that Virgil wrote only three lines of the poem each day. Although the work is substantially complete, with the same length and scope as Homer’s epics, which as stated, was an imitation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, it does appear to lack some finishing touches: a number of lines are only half-complete, and the ending is generally felt to be too abrupt to have been intentional. Actually, Virgil did not so much ‘copy’ Homer as fit Homeric motifs into a radically un-Homeric scheme that he had elaborated without reference to either Homer or the epic genre or indeed any sort of narrative plot or story.

Historically speaking, Roman culture differs from the Greek in many ways: the Romans prided themselves on their practicality and traditional morality, and on their military, organizational, and engineering skills. In what we call “culture”, the Romans often seem derivative: their art, philosophy, literature, and in many respects religion all look as if they were borrowed from the Greeks. Yet appearances can be deceiving. Take the matter of religion, for example. Though the Romans borrowed some deities (and were used as Roman counterparts) from the Greeks (mythology) just like Apollo, and grafted the personalities of others onto already existing Italic deities (Zeus became Jove, Hera became Juno, Hermes became Mercury, Aphrodite became Venus, etc.), the Romans retained their own particular beliefs, especially those centered around the household gods and the family hearth. Each household had its own, rather vague, protective deities of the hearth, called Lares and Penates, which was radically different from the Greeks’ own goddess of the hearth.

Notice how Virgil stresses these gods in Book II of the Aeneid: Priam is killed in front of his son and household gods; and, just as Panthus, priest of Apollo, tries to save the city of Troy’s gods, so does Aeneas carry his father and “hearthgods, our Penatës” out of the burning city.

Notice, too, that is the father, the head of the family (patriarchal) who has charge of these gods. The Romans believed that a father’s authority came from what they called his genius, or guiding spirit and wisdom. This genius was handed down from father to son (women need not apply) and assured that the head of the family would exercise his power wisely and well. In later times, pious Romans often carried masks or busts of fathers and grandfathers at funerals and other religious ceremonies. Thus when Aeneas has a vision of his father, he is receiving guidance from the family genius. When directly after this vision, he makes a small offering to the “Lar of Troy,” we see that Aeneas is responsible not only for his own household, but for all past Trojan households and all future Romans as well. Aeneas is on a mission (from the gods) to found the greatest empire in the world: that’s why his epithet is pius (“pious”) and not polymetis (“resourceful”) like Odysseus. For a Roman, piety means responsibility towards the ancestors, towards one’s extended family, and towards generations of unborn descendants. Aeneas is responsible for an entire empire of descendants, so he must stick to his mission and not get sidetracked by North African queens like Dido. (Besides, he needs an Italian wife to marry the genius of Troy to native Italian stock.)

Nearly the entirety of the Aeneid is devoted to the philosophical concept of opposition. The primary opposition is that Aeneas, as guided by Jupiter, representing pietas (reasoned judgment and performing one’s duty), whereas Dido and Turnus are guided by Juno, representing unbridled furor (mindless passion and fury). Other oppositions within the Aeneid include: Fate versus Action, Male versus Female, Rome versus Carthage, Aeneas as Odysseus in Books I-VI versus Aeneas as Achilles in Books VII-XII, Calm Weather versus Storms, and the Horned Gate versus the Ivory Gate of Book VI. Pietas, possibly the key quality of any ‘honourable’ Roman, consisted of a series of duties: duty towards the Gods (hence the English word piety); duty towards one’s homeland; duty towards one’s followers and duty to one’s family – especially one’s father. Therefore, a further theme of the poem explores the strong relationship between fathers and sons. The bonds between Aeneas and Ascanius, Aeneas and Anchises, Evander and Pallas, Mezentius and Lausus are all worthy of note. This theme reflects Augustan moral reforms and was perhaps intended to set an example for Roman youth (Trans. David West, “The Aeneid” (1963).

However, despite their later reputation for decadence and every sort of sybaritic indulgence, the Romans in general were fond of thinking of themselves as extremely moral people or people with wholesome morality. Not unlike Americans, they thought of their way of life as just, moral, upright, honest, and suitable for others to adopt. The major moral of the Aeneid is acceptance of the workings of the gods as fate through the use of pietas or piety. Virgil, in composing the character of Aeneas alludes to Augustus, suggesting that the gods work their ways through humans; using Aeneas to found Rome, Augustus to lead Rome, and that one must accept one’s fate.

The Roman Empire was founded by Augustus (reigned 27 BC-AD 14), the title of a fellow named Octavian. This Octavian was the adopted son of Julius Caesar (murdered 44 BC), and he proved to be quite adept at power politics. Augustus (Octavian) became sole ruler of Rome by defeating Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) in 31 BC at the battle of Actium, off the western coast of Greece (in the Aeneid, Aeneas passes through the area). As head of state, Augustus (which means “revered and majestic one”) was head of the Roman “family,” and genius for the entire Roman people. In other words, he was big daddy dictator. He ordered Virgil to write a poem glorifying himself and the Roman state. Virgil produced the Aeneid, which in some ways fills the bill. At other times (especially at the end of Books 6 and 12), Virgil seems to hint that peace obtained at the price of a despotic, militaristic empire may not be the best piece.

Virgil did not ‘start’ with Homer but with his own Augustan ‘symbol-complex’ and his own subjective style. Homer really came last in the genesis of the Aeneid: he was as it were the necessary model… but he was a model only in the sense that he was made to fit a pre-existent structure. What he did to Virgil how Virgil’s central design, in other words, was affected by Homeric motifs is the important question. Homer contributed nothing to the design itself. It is here, finally, that we reach the true explanation of Virgil’s ‘success’ in epic. He could write a great ‘Homeric’ epic; he could… assimilate an outmoded form and content to a contemporary subject; he could thus ‘Augustanize’ Homer and revives heroic myth in truly successful poetry, because he consistently adapted Homer to a thoroughly un-Homeric ideology, always converting the objective narrative of Iliad and Odyssey to one that was both subjective and symbolic. It is no surprise, then, that the Roman poet VIRGIL (or VERGIL) turns to Greek mythology and to the Greek epics as he fashions his own description of the origins and destiny of the Roman state, The Aeneid. Virgil writes his extended poem, in part, to win the favor of Augustus Caesar, the new emperor who emerges from the conflict surrounding the death of Julius Caesar. His other aim is to situate Rome in line with what was considered the great literary tradition of the time the Greek. Virgil’s work thus is both polemic and propaganda: his blending of history and mythology provides a platform for the imperial agenda that Augustus will undertake and thus; made a great deal of success to the grandeur that Rome has been renowned for.

However, another legend states that Virgil, fearing that he would die before he had properly revised the poem, gave instructions to friends (including the emperor at that time, Augustus) that the Aeneid should be burned upon his death, owing to its unfinished state and because he had come to dislike one of the sequences in Book VIII, in which Venus and Vulcan had sex. He supposedly intended to alter this sequence to conform better to Roman moral virtues. The friends did not comply with Virgil’s wishes, and Augustus himself ordered that they be disregarded. After minor modifications, the Aeneid was published. Although it takes numerous, significant liberties with the text, along with the addition of a very non-Roman rhyme scheme, it is thought to be one of the very few examples of a poetic translation that retains the power and flow of the original in a new language, and it is often regarded as a classic in its own right.

There were some quite negative impacts of Virgil’s remarkable literary piece though. There were numerous mysticisms regarding the piece of work. Because, even as the Roman Empire collapsed, literate men acknowledged that the Christianized Virgil was a master poet. Gregory of Tours read Virgil, whom he quotes in several places, along with some other Latin poets, though he cautions that we ought not to relate to their lying fables, otherwise we fall under a sentence of eternal death. Despite that the Aeneid remained the central Latin literary text of the Middle Ages and retained its status as the grand epic of the Latin people, and of those who considered themselves to be of Roman provenance, such as the English. It also held religious importance as it describes the founding of the Holy City. Virgil represents the pinnacle of Roman epic poetry. He was made palatable for his Christian audience also through a belief in his prophecy of Christ in his Fourth Eclogue. Cicero and other classical writers too were declared Christian due to similarities in moral thinking to Christianity. Surviving medieval collections of manuscripts containing Virgil’s works include the Vergilius Augusteus, the Vergilius Vaticanus and the Vergilius Romanus. Whatever it takes, Virgil continues to be considered one of the greatest Latin poets of all time.

Conclusion

Historically, the Aeneid presents a great deal of beliefs, ideals and traditions that real Romans do during their time. Although, some accounts in literary reviews states that Aeneid is just a work of fiction. It is somehow historically true but not historically accurate. It reflects the real culture or way of life of real historical Romans. Virgil spent the last ten years of his life crafting the Aeneid. Unfortunately, he was not able to furnish some lines of the poem thus it had some minor imperfections. Incomplete or not, the Aeneid was immediately recognized as a masterpiece. It proclaimed the Imperial mission of the Roman Empire, while at the same time pitying Rome’s victims and feeling their grief. Aeneas was considered to exemplify virtue and pietas (roughly translated as “piety”, though the word is far more complex and have a sense of being duty-bound and respectful of divine will, family and homeland). Nevertheless, Aeneas struggles between doing what he wants as a man, and doing what he must as a virtuous hero. In the view of some modern critics, Aeneas’ inner turmoil and shortcomings made him a more realistic character than the heroes of Homeric poetry.

The Aeneid, however, is one of a small group of writings in Latin literature that have, since ancient times, traditionally been required for students. Traditionally, after reading the works of Julius Caesar, Cicero, Ovid and Catullus, students would then read the Aeneid. As a result, many phrases from this poem entered the Latin language, much as passages from Shakespeare and Alexander Pope have entered the English language. One example is from Aeneas’ reaction to a painting of the sack of Troy: Sunt lacrimae rērum et mentem mortālia tangunt—”These are the tears of things, and our mortality cuts to the heart.” (Aeneid I, 462) (Perseus Project A.1.462). The influence is also visible in very modern work.

This influence is clearly visible even now. Through the reading of Aeneid, one would really have a candid clue of the historical Rome and the traits of the historical Romans. Thus; this study showed the great relevance of the book, the Aeneid, to the culture of Rome even now. This leads to a conclusion that Aeneid as a work of art has a great influence and connection to the life of the real historical Romans and thus; reflects the future of the once grandiose Roman Empire.

There’s still much to be desired. But as people continue to rely on history to conform to the future and current culture of myriads of personalities, the masterpiece of Virgil will continue to inspire and influence our way of life. This will lead us to generalize that the culture of Rome, basically was reflected in the story of Aeneid and its characters, and the values of the real Romans were clearly related as if the reader really have lived to the conformities of their time.

Now, do you wanna be a part of history? Well, we don’t need a time machine to get back to the past. It’s just a book a way…what do you think?

Reference

West, David, The Aeneid – Virgil ( translation), Penguin Classics, 1963.

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