Introduction to Virgil, The Aeneid
by John D. Cox

When Roman armies conquered the remnants of Alexander's empire in 168 BCE, they also conquered the Greek city states. The Romans soon realized the uniqueness of what they had overcome. "Captured Greece captured its fierce conqueror," wrote the Roman poet, Horace. His point was that Romans recognized something in Greek culture that was more impressive than anything Rome itself had achieved, in spite of Rome's unprecedented military success. The result is that Roman culture adapted itself to the model of Greece, at least in art, religion, and literature. Roman statues, temples, and public buildings were rebuilt in imitation of those in Greece. Greek stories of the gods were retold with Roman names in place of Greek. Roman thinkers adapted the philosophical ideas of the Athenian academy to their situation in the Roman republic and especially in the Roman empire.

Among the adaptors of Greek culture, none was more brilliant, original, or influential than the poet Virgil. He faced a formidable challenge. Everyone who encountered Greek culture recognized how much it was shaped by Homer. To write a Roman equivalent to The Iliad and The Odyssey required an ability to think, a way with words, and a storytelling capacity that would enable a poet to do for Rome what Homer had done for Greece. Few poets before Virgil had attempted this task; none had succeeded in it.

Virgil began working on his long story with an advantage Homer lacked: he was literate. Unlike the Greek aoidos, Virgil did not learn his art from oral storytellers. He read the Homeric poems; he did not hear them. This enabled him to study The Iliad and The Odyssey and to compose his Latin adaptation while consulting the Greek original. As his hero, for example, Virgil chose a Trojan fighter whom Homer describes briefly in The Iliad. Virgil kept the outlines of Homer's Aeneas but developed the character in surprisingly new and profound directions.

The Aeneid is like The Odyssey in recounting a series of Mediterranean adventures and an eventual homecoming (Books 1-6). It is like The Iliad in recounting a war to capture a city (Books 7-12). But the home Aeneas sails to is a new one, and his quest is to establish something that had not before existed, rather than to return to something he once knew, as Odysseus does. The Aeneid is therefore a founding myth, a story about how something got started, and virtually every episode is symbollically charged with the weight of Aeneas' historic destiny. This destiny is what enables Virgil to reshape the character he found in Homer, transforming a warrior hero into a man with a mission that will influence the world for centuries to come.

Virgil makes his transformation of Homer's hero an actual part of the story he tells. We see Aeneas gradually changing in a series of crises throughout the first half of the poem. Virgil presents Aeneas' departure from Troy as a departure from the values that had defined Homer's story of the war to capture Troy. Aeneas' reluctance to leave his native city is therefore both a credit to his commitment and an impediment to his historic mission. For every gain in this story there is a corresponding loss. One of the most memorable pictures of Aeneas is his weeping in Carthage as he contemplates depictions of the Trojan war: "there are tears for passing things; here, too / things mortal touch the mind" (1.655-66). Homer's heroes are no less capable of tears than Aeneas is, but the tears of no Homeric hero ever have such weighty moral and historic implications.

Readers of The Odyssey will recognize that Virgil has modelled Aeneas' affair with Dido (Books 1 and 4) on Odysseus' dalliance with various females (human and divine) on his way home from Troy. Aeneas' departure from Carthage, for instance, has many parallels with Odysseus' departure from Ogygia, where the Greek hero lived for seven years with Kalypso. In both cases, the foremost of the gods (Zeus for Homer, Jove or Jupiter for Virgil) sends the gods' messenger (Hermes for Homer, Mercury for Virgil) on an impressive descent to the place where the hero is detained. In both cases, the gods' messenger speaks to someone about the necessity for the hero to leave. In both cases, a loving female is subsequently abandoned by the hero. But the Dido episode is not merely an imitation of Homer. It is a total reinterpretation of what such an episode means in the context of a historic destiny. Rich with symbolic and historical implications, the Dido episode is also a poignant tragedy that has inspired countless imitations and adaptations.

The foundation that Aeneas lays in The Aeneid is for "the ramparts of high Rome" (1.12). But he lays it symbolically. In the story Virgil tells, Aeneas does not literally start a city; he captures one, and it is not the future Rome. When Aeneas visits the site on which Rome stood in Virgil's day, he finds a "poor land," "rough with thick underbrush" (8.129, 456). Virgil is treating his readers here to what we would call historical fiction, imagining well-known sites as they might have looked hundreds of years before. It would be like a modern writer imagining seventeenth-century New York, when the Dutch first bought Manhattan from native Americans. When Virgil calls the primitive village that Aeneas visits "Pallenteum," it is a little like telling a modern reader about a primitive site named New Amsterdam.

The foundation that Aeneas really lays is for the moral fabric of an ideal Rome. It is an ideal that Virgil hoped for in the Rome he knew-the Rome of the early empire. That is why it is so important for Virgil to transform the character of Homer's hero into the new sort of hero he has in mind. During Virgil's lifetime (70 to 19 BCE), Octavius Caesar defeated Marcus Antonius at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE, becoming the unrivalled source of power in a territory dominated by Roman armies from Britain in the west to Syria in the east, including large portions of north Africa. Octavius became the first Roman emperor, taking the title "Augustus" to signify the importance of his position. One way to read The Aeneid is to say that Aeneas is an idealized version of Augustus, and certainly such a reading is flattering to the new, all-powerful ruler of Rome. After all, the battle of Actium is depicted at the center of Aeneas' shield (8.874-950), even if Aeneas does not know what the depiction is about.

But The Aeneid involves more than flattery. Just as Aeneas has to lose Troy in order to establish Rome, so he loses something in victory, when he defeats Turnus in Book 12. True, the victory culminates his quest in Italy; it is necessary for his destiny to be realized; and it anticipates the military success of Rome in Virgil's day. But it also involves terrible loss, and the loss tinges victory with tragedy. There are indeed tears for passing things in this story, and mortality touches the mind everywhere. If Rome is built on awareness of that insight, Virgil seems to suggest, its greatness is justified, and it may perhaps endure.

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