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The Aeneid | Context

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Homer's Influence

The Aeneid was modeled after The Odyssey and The Iliad, epic poems written by Greek poet Homer. Like The Odyssey the first six books of The Aeneid describe the hero's quest for a home, although in Homer's work Odysseus is trying to return home from the Trojan War, whereas Aeneas searches for a new home. Like The Iliad, the second six books of The Aeneid describe events from the Trojan War. Homer tells of the fall of Troy, whereas Virgil describes a Trojan victory.

Roman History

Unlike Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, which exist mainly independent of historical context, The Aeneid is intertwined with Roman history. There were very few historical records from the early days of Rome, but the legend of Aeneas (a survivor of Troy) as Rome's ancestor had been developed through previous centuries and was generally accepted by Romans as real. Virgil tied this belief together with mythology and historical events to create a new legend of the destiny of Rome.

Roman Virtues

It is difficult for modern readers to understand why Aeneas acts the way he does as a Roman hero without knowing the entrenched Roman concepts of who a Roman was and how he was expected to behave. In the first place, only men of specific lineage could be Roman citizens, or ideal farmer-soldiers. This lineage was secured through the paterfamilias (the male head of the household). Women could be citizens but had few rights; the materfamilias (mother) was interchangeable. Aeneas easily goes through several wives without loss of honor. The only Roman respect to family had to do with the paterfamilias. A father without a son could publicly adopt a young man as his own "son" or publicly denounce a son if he thought his wife had been unfaithful.

A most important Roman virtue was gravitas, a serious and grave attitude toward all issues with an emphasis on truth, reality, and reason. Gravitas stands in opposition to levity—a lighthearted or humorous attitude —and furor, extreme passion. Levity was attributed to the less-than-manly Greeks, and furor was an attribute held by any non-Roman (such as slaves and barbarians). It was by way of giving up passions of pride, jealousy, anger, and love that a Roman hero found his path to his duty. So it is not surprising that the main troublemakers in Aeneas's story are female.

The sum expression of Roman heroism in gravitas is in pietas, or reverence of duty to family, country, and the gods. However, Virgil's portrayal of the Roman gods and goddesses as reckless, impulsive to the point of being capricious, jealous, and even silly would not have been much of a surprise to the educated Roman. Pietas in reference to the gods was defined as a public display of respect. By attributing to their gods and goddesses more human personal lives, the Romans gave themselves a more godlike image. This concept allowed Augustus Caesar to make the claim that as Aeneas's descendant, he had the goddess Venus as his ancestor.

Founding and Roman Republic

Historians believe the city of Rome was founded in Latium (the ancient name of a territory in central western Italy) around 753 BCE. According to legend, its founder and first king, Romulus, organized the abduction of women from the neighboring Sabine tribe to help populate his new city (which was founded primarily by men).

The last king of Rome was overthrown around 509 BCE, beginning the Roman Republic. In the republic, the king was replaced by two consuls with equal power who were elected each year, and the Senate and a popular assembly controlled administrators and made decisions. A military dictator could be appointed for up to six months in times of emergency. Although many details were modified over time, this essential balance of power lasted for almost 400 years.

Expansion

From its start as a single city-state, Rome expanded to control most of Italy by the early third century BCE. Rome's expansion brought it into conflict with Carthage, a seafaring and commercial center on the African coast of the Mediterranean. Beginning in 264 BCE, Rome and Carthage fought in three wars called the Punic Wars after the Latin word Punicus, meaning Carthaginian. Although Carthage's great general Hannibal (247 BCE–c. 183 BCE) invaded and occupied Italy during the Second Punic War, he never conquered Rome. Roman sea power and armies ultimately overwhelmed Carthage, destroying the city and ending the Third Punic War in 146 BCE. As a result, Rome gained territory to its west, in Spain and northern Africa. At the same time, it expanded eastward, conquering the Adriatic coast, Greece, Macedonia, and parts of Asia Minor. War and conquest became a vital part of the Roman identity, the best way for the ambitious to gain money and power.

Civil War

However, as Roman territory continued to expand in Europe, Africa, and Asia, tensions rose at home. Beginning around 90 BCE a series of uprisings in Italy and the territories fostered the rise of two powerful generals—Pompey (106–48 BCE) and Julius Caesar (100 BCE–44 BCE)—who seized political control in Rome. Both rose to prominence via the military: Pompey mostly in the eastern Mediterranean and Caesar in Europe. They used their power and wealth to gain political power in Rome, first as allies but eventually as rivals fighting a war for control. Caesar's superior army won, and in 46 BCE he declared himself dictator for 10 years, an unprecedented length of time.

Caesar's success was short-lived, however—he was assassinated two years later. Again there was a fight for control, won by two of Caesar's allies: his adopted son, Octavian (63 BCE–14 CE), and his supporter Mark Antony (83 BCE–30 BCE). Once again initial alliance turned into civil war, and Octavian defeated Antony in a naval battle at Actium, Greece, in 31 BCE. Octavian was granted the name Augustus Caesar by the Senate in 27 BCE, and he showed a great deal of political savvy as he steadily reorganized government systems to gain more power without jeopardizing his own popularity. These changes made Augustus the first Roman emperor, and he ruled for four decades.

Destiny of Rome

When Virgil wrote The Aeneid (roughly 30–19 BCE), Rome was exhausted from decades of civil war. Using the legend of Aeneas as the father of Rome, Virgil celebrated the peace achieved by Augustus Caesar as the start of a new golden age in which Rome would responsibly dominate the world. The destiny of Roman power is the driving force of the epic, so much so that scholars have commented that the true hero of Virgil's work is not Aeneas, but Rome.

One of the main obstacles to the achievement of Rome's destiny in this story is Aeneas's attachment to Carthage's queen, Dido. This is more than a love story, however. By choosing Rome over Dido, Aeneas proves his honor. It is a point Romans would not have missed, given their knowledge of the love affair between Mark Antony and Cleopatra. In sharp contrast to Aeneas, Antony chose love over his duty to Rome. While ruler of Rome's eastern territories, Antony fell in love with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Their affair lasted more than a decade, and Antony eventually took her side in a war against his homeland. It was a choice that resulted in his dishonor and suicide in 30 BCE. So whereas Aeneas proved his true Roman heroism by leaving Dido and going on to glory, Antony didn't leave Cleopatra and was destroyed.

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