In 19 B.C., the Roman poet Virgil was traveling from Greece to Rome with the emperor Augustus. On the way, he stopped to go sightseeing in Megara, a town in Greece. Out in the sun for too long, he suffered heatstroke and died on his journey back to Italy. On his deathbed, Virgil thought about the manuscript he had been working on for over ten years, an epic poem that he called the “Aeneid.” Unsatisfied with the final edit, he asked his friends to burn it, but they refused, and soon after Virgil’s death, Augustus ordered it to be published. Why was Augustus so interested in saving Virgil’s poem?
The Romans had little tradition of writing serious literature and Virgil wanted to create a poem to rival the “Iliad” and “Odyssey” of Ancient Greece. The “Aeneid,” a 9,896 line poem, spans twelve separate sections, or books, the first six of which mirror the structure of the “Odyssey” and the last six echo the “Iliad.” Also like the Greek epics, The “Aeneid” is written entirely in dactylic hexameter.
In this meter, each line has six syllable groups called feet made up of dactyls which go long, short, short, and spondees which go long, long. So the famous opening line in the original Latin starts, “Arma Virvmqve Cano,” which can be translated as “I sing of arms and the man,” arms, meaning battles and warfare, another “Iliad” reference, and the man being the hero Aeneas.
To understand the “Aeneid,” it’s necessary to examine the unsettled nature of Roman politics in the second half of the 1st century B.C. In 49 B.C., Julius Caesar, Augustus’s great uncle, triggered nearly 20 years of civil war when he led his army against the Roman Republic. After introducing a dictatorship, he was assassinated. Only after Augustus’s victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra in 31 B.C. did peace return to Rome and Augustus became the emperor. Virgil aimed to capture this sense of a new era and of the great sacrifices that the Romans had endured.
He wanted to give the Romans a fresh sense of their origins, their past, and their potential. By connecting the founding of Rome to the mythological stories that his audience knew so well, Virgil was able to link his hero Aeneas to the character of Augustus. In the epic poem, Aeneas is on a quest to establish a new home for his people. This duty, or pietas as the Romans called it, faces all kinds of obstacles.
Aeneas risks destruction in the ruins of Troy, agonizes over love when he meets the beautiful Queen of Carthage, Dido, and in one of the most vivid passages in all of ancient literature, has to pass through the underworld. On top of all that, he must then fight to win a homeland for his people around the future sight of Rome. Virgil presents Aeneas as a sort of model for Augustus, and that’s probably one of the reasons the emperor was so eager to save the poem from destruction. But Virgil didn’t stop there.
In some sections, Aeneas even has visions of Rome’s future and of Augustus himself. Virgil presents Augustus as a victor, entering Rome in triumph and shows him expanding the Roman Empire. Perhaps most importantly, he’s 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. Virgil only read Augustus three selected extracts of the story and that was Augustus’s entire exposure to it. Some of the other sections could be seen as critical, if not subtly subversive about the emperor’s achievements. Aeneas, again a model for Augustus, struggles with his duty and often seems a reluctant hero. He doesn’t always live up to the behavior expected of a good Roman leader.
He struggles to balance mercy and justice. By the end, the reader is left wondering about the future of Rome and the new government of Augustus. Perhaps in wanting the story published, Augustus had been fooled by his own desire for self-promotion. As a result, Virgil’s story has survived to ask questions about the nature of power and authority ever since.