The Aeneid | Study Guide

Virgil

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The Aeneid | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Virgil's The Aeneid, written c. 30–19 BCE, is one of the founding works of Western literature and has been taught regularly for some 2,000 years. Chronicling the exploits of the famed hero Aeneas, the epic poem follows his journey from the fallen city of Troy, ravaged by the war described in Homer's The The Iliad, to find a new homeland for his people.

The home Aeneas finds is in Italy, where he establishes what will one day become the greatest empire in Western history: Rome. The Aeneid is a monumental literary accomplishment to compare with the works of Homer, one that created a lasting myth for an empire during the reign of Emperor Augustus.

1. The Aeneid was written out of obligation, as a type of government propaganda.

Although Virgil spent 10 years of his life writing his masterpiece, it was political duty to his emperor, Augustus Caesar, rather than the desire to craft an epic that led to its creation. Instead of featuring pastoral scenes of farm life, which is the type of poem Virgil preferred to write, The Aeneid portrays the fantastic journey of a strong, resilient hero. Aeneas is intentionally representative of Augustus, and his heroics are meant to parallel and glorify the emperor's achievements.

2. Virgil wanted the manuscript burned.

Virgil died of fever in 19 BCE, before finishing the edits he intended for The Aeneid. He requested the unfinished work be burned upon his death, but according to legend, Emperor Augustus ordered it be published with as few changes as possible, so that it would serve to reflect upon his own leadership of the new empire.

3. In Roman education, The Aeneid had to be memorized—all 63,000+ words of it!

The epic was such a staple of Latin education that, even long after the fall of the Roman Empire, memorizing the text in full was essential to an educated upbringing. Any learned man would be expected to have studied Virgil's work in depth.

4. Dante was influenced by Virgil's work when writing The Divine Comedy, even giving Virgil a key role in the epic.

Not only did Dante draw inspiration from Virgil's masterpiece when crafting his own epic, but Virgil actually appears as a character in The Divine Comedy, guiding Dante through the descending levels of Hell and part of the way on the path to Heaven.

Virgil's central role in the story is explained due to the fact that he has knowledge of the underworld and has found favor in the eyes of God despite being a pagan, born before the arrival of the Messiah.

5. A reading of The Aeneid caused the emperor's sister to faint.

While the epic was apparently well received by Augustus, it supposedly caused his sister Octavia to swoon and collapse when read aloud. The moment was recreated on canvas by painter Jean-Joseph Taillasson in a painting now held at the National Gallery in London.

6. The first work written in the Ukrainian language was based on The Aeneid.

The book, titled Èneida, was written by Ivan Petrovych Kotlyarevsky in 1798 and was the first literary text published in popular Ukrainian. While borrowing much of the plot of Virgil's epic, Kotlyarevsky changed the setting to his own homeland and portrayed the characters as Ukrainian Cossacks instead of Trojan exiles.

7. Virgil's name is actually spelled "Vergil."

Romans knew the poet of The Aeneid as "Vergilius," eventually shortened to "Vergil." How the name then began to be written as "Virgil" is not known. Latin vowels are the same as English vowels, so that cannot explain the change. Nevertheless, in nearly all literary circles today, the famous poet is known as "Virgil."

8. In one film adaptation of The Aeneid, the gods were removed.

Although divine intervention from the Roman pantheon plays a large role in the plot of The Aeneid, a 1962 film adaptation titled The Avenger tells the story of the titular hero, demythologizing him to focus more on his mortal struggles.

9. In medieval times, a popular belief held that Virgil was also the architect who designed the Colosseum.

Virgil died long before the Colosseum was ever thought of, yet the belief that he designed it shows how wildly popular the poet remained. Medieval Romans wished for the heroics of a bygone era to remain a significant part of their culture. By linking Virgil to an important monument, they strove to keep the marvelous destiny he described alive.

10. Virgil's epitaph states in just a few words his evolution as a poet.

An epitaph found on what is believed to be Virgil's tomb includes an important closing phrase, translated in English as: "I sang of pastures, of sown fields, and of leaders." This phrase has been seen as describing Virgil's journey as a poet, from the writer of pastoral poems, to the voice of teacher in his poems about farming, to the epic poet who became so famous. The words also have been viewed as presenting a snapshot of civilization, as humans evolved from shepherds to farmers to warriors.

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