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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for The Aeneid by Virgil

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On the 2nd September 31 BCE, Octavian (later Augustus) defeated Mark Antony in the Battle of Actium, thereby establishing himself as sole ruler of Rome, making him the first emperor of Ancient Rome, and laying the Roman Republic forever to rest. This was the culmination of constant civil strife that had plagued Rome for the previous half-century, and contemporaries who had suffered from land confiscations, the loss of relatives, and the threat of official governmental hit-lists, looked anxiously towards Augustus to deliver much-needed stability to the state. Augustus’ cultural advisor, the flamboyant Maecenas, fostered a circle of poets, including Vergil, Propertius and Horace, who would celebrate the new peace, and what is now known as the Golden Age of Roman poetry was the result. Vergil’s Aeneid is a powerful part of the Augustan political program. It does not merely celebrate Rome’s past, but creates a ‘destiny’ that leads inexorably to the Augustan present, encouraging readers to identify the pious leader Aeneas with his future descendent, the pious and civic-minded Augustus.

Yet scholars throughout the twentieth century have come to emphasize the intellectual independence of the poets patronized by Maecenas. No longer seen as mere propagandists, their endlessly subtle and multi-vocal literary texts raise searching and difficult questions about the nature of Augustan rule. Influenced by reactions towards the Vietnam War, scholars of the so-called ‘Harvard School’ of Vergilian interpretation in the 1970s began to stress the dark tone of the Aeneid, the ways in which the epic consistently emphasizes the emotional cost of Aeneas’ actions on his crew and himself, the innocent victims seemingly discarded to advance the imperial mission (such as Dido), and the moments of troubling violence (including, most importantly, the ambiguous final lines), when ‘pious Aeneas’ does not seem so pious after all. Today’s Vergilian scholars seek to find a balance between the ‘pro-’  and ‘anti-Augustan’ readings of the Aeneid, since the subtlety of the text resists easy generalizations. Vergil is not interested in either politics or its human costs, but both; his is simultaneously a public, and an intensely private, mode of verse.

Written by: James Uden (Classics Dept, Columbia University)

The text of the Life of Vergil by Suetonius (early second century A.D) can be found here, in Latin and English:*.html.

A thorough scholarly account of the sources for Vergil’s life is offered by N. Horsfall, A Companion to the Study of Virgil (2nd ed), Leiden: Brill, 2001, p.1-26. C. Martindale offers a brief but nuanced account of twentieth-century shifts in interpretation of the Aeneid in light of broader thinking about colonialism and empire: Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993: 40-3.