The Aeneid Study Guide
The Aeneid Study Guide
Virgil, the preeminent poet of the Roman Empire, was born Publius Vergilius Maro on October 15, 70 B.C., near Mantua, a city in northern Italy. The son of a farmer, Virgil studied in Cremona, then in Milan, and finally in Rome. Around 41 B.C., he returned to Mantua to begin work on his Eclogues, which he published in 37 B.C. Soon afterward, civil war forced him to flee south to Naples, where seven years later he finished his second work, the Georgics, a long poem on farming. Virgil’s writing gained him the recognition of the public, wealth from patrons, and the favour of the emperor. Virgil lived at the height of the first age of the Roman Empire, during the reign of the emperor Octavian, later known as Augustus. Before Augustus became emperor, though, internal strife plagued the Roman government. During Virgil’s youth, the First Triumvirate—Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus—governed the Roman Republic. Crassus was killed around 53 B.C., and Caesar initiated civil war against Pompey. After defeating Pompey, Caesar reigned alone until the Ides of March in 44 B.C., when Brutus and Cassius, two senators, assassinated him. Civil war erupted between the assassins and the Second Triumvirate—Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus. By 36 B.C. only Octavian and Antony remained, and they began warring against each other. At the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., Octavian defeated Antony and his ally Cleopatra of Egypt, finally consolidating power in himself alone. Four years later, he assumed the title Augustus. Virgil witnessed all this turmoil, and the warring often disrupted his life. Immediately after finishing the Georgics, Virgil began his masterwork, the Aeneid. He was fortunate enough to enter the good graces of Augustus, and, in part, the Aeneid serves to legitimize Augustus’s reign. The Aeneid tells the story of the Trojan hero Aeneas’s perilous flight from Troy to Italy following the Trojan War. In Italy, Aeneas’s descendants would go on to found Rome. In the epic, Virgil repeatedly foreshadows the coming of Augustus, perhaps to silence critics who claimed that he achieved power through violence and treachery. (Whether or not Virgil truly believed all the praise he heaped upon Augustus is a matter of debate.) When Rome was at its height, the easiest way to justify the recent brutal events was to claim that the civil wars and the changes in leadership had been decreed by fate to usher in the reign of the great Augustus. Yet the Aeneid is by no means a purely political work; like other epic poems, its subject stands on its own as a story for all time. Virgil did not invent the story that Rome descended from Troy; he crafted the events narrated in the Aeneid from an existing tradition surrounding Aeneas that extended from the ancient Greek poet Homer through the contemporary Roman historian Livy. In Book XX of the Iliad, Aeneas faces off with Achilles, and we learn about Aeneas’s lineage and his reputation for bravery. However, in that scene, he is no match for Achilles, who has been outfitted in armour forged by the divine smith Hephaestus. Poseidon rescues Aeneas from certain doom and praises the Trojan for his piety. Poseidon also prophesies that Aeneas will survive the Trojan War and assume leadership over the Trojan people. Ancient accounts of Aeneas’s post-war wanderings vary. Greek art from the sixth century B.C. portrays Aeneas carrying his father, Anchises, out from the burning ruins of Troy. Archaeological evidence suggests that the myth of Aeneas was often depicted in art on the Italian mainland as early as the sixth century B.C. The settlement of Aeneas and the Trojans in Italy and their connection with the foundation of Rome entered the written tradition centuries after Homer, at the end of the third century B.C. earlier poets, including the Roman Varro, had connected Dido and Aeneas, but Virgil was the first to tie all the elements of Aeneas’s story together in epic...
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