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Virgil at Odds
While on the surface the Aeneid could be seen as a Roman epic meant to glorify Rome and rival those of the ancient Greeks, the author was engaged in a struggle. Virgil had to satisfy the cultural demands of his work, the political demands of his time, and his own personal demands as an artist. In tackling his problem, Virgil is revealed to be slightly reluctant of embracing fully the still young regime of Octavian but still proud of Rome and his ancestry, and concerned with the moral issues of civil war.
When considering the style with which Virgil composed the Aeneid, it is important to look at the time in which he lived and exactly what was going on around him when it was written. Virgil was born in 70 BC and died in 19 BC. This places him in the very beginning of what was to be a long and relatively stable existence of the Roman Empire. Further, it was during the poet's lifetime that Rome made citizens of all Italians, allowing a huge community to share in Rome's growing heritage. People who formerly may have felt like outcasts under the oppression of Rome could now call Rome their own. This included Virgil because he came from a provincial Italian town far outside Rome. W.A. Camps cites that while Virgil was still a young man, his family's estates were confiscated by Caesar to be given to veterans of the battle of Philippi (1). Caesar was eventually assassinated and the next twenty years of the poet's life are shaded by bloody struggles for power among heirs and military leaders.
Eventually Caesar's adopted son Octavian defeats Marc Antony and Cleopatra's forces and brings all Rome under his rule, in about 30 BC. This is important because Virgil had been fond of Octavian, although it is not known if he publicly supported anyone during the conflict. It is known that Virgil came to enjoy first the friendship then the patronage of Octavian and his minister Maecenas, both of whom bestowed a small fortune upon him (Freeman 389).
While Virgil accepted their patronage he was still wary of capitulating the new emperor and sacrificing any integrity. Charles Freeman writes that Virgil's contemporary, Horace also reflects these feelings. Octavian, now known as Caesar Augustus, took a liking to Horace just as he did Virgil, endowing him with gifts and money. Eventually Augustus asked Horace to be his secretary, and Horace refused, citing the need to protect his integrity as a poet. (391)
Virgil felt great gratitude towards an emperor who vigorously supported the arts and brought the Empire much stability but at the same time faced a moral dilemma. Augustus was looking for a poet to write a national epic about him and his rise to power. In a letter Augustus wrote to Maecenas he says, " If I had any talent for the heroic epic, I'd not waste my time on stories from mythology . . . I'd write about Caesar's wars and achievements" (qtd. in Quinn 27). This sheds light on the morality issue Virgil faced as an artist. There were plenty of epic poets available in Rome at the time, and plenty were approached with this daunting task of writing an epic with Augustus as the hero. Nearly all declined, and even Virgil was reluctant. That says something about the attitudes of the poets of his time. They were not interested in art for art's sake. They wanted to create of their own accord something that came from within. Kenneth Quinn points out that they wrote with very high standards of integrity, and wrote not for widespread popularity of their works but for approval of their literary peers (30). Poets were writing of their own personalities; their own views and ideas of right and wrong. They were not to be leased out for purposes of glorifying Rome's leader.
In a widely known of reply to Augustus' letter inquiring as to Virgil's progress, the poet writes that he thinks he may have been out of his mind to have undertaken the task in the first place (Freeman 387). He was obviously struggling to balance his need to satisfy himself artistically without sacrificing principle and simultaneously honor the emperor Augustus.
As is obvious in the work, Virgil is unable to clearly conquer his moral problem, seeming to side-step it. He must focus on the historical epic, and glorify the emperor rather indirectly. This is exemplified in a Book II passage mentioning Iulius, son of Aeneas and source of the Julius Caesar lineage. " A point on Iulius' head seemed to cast light, a tongue of flame that touched but did not burn him, licking his fine hair, playing round his temples." (860-862) Virgil symbolically prophesizes the greatness to come of his posterity. Again in Book IV the poet sings of the glory to come to Iulius and his heirs, as well as Rome. The god Mercury speaks to Aeneas, " Think of the expectations of your heir, Iulius, to whom the Italian realm, the Land of Rome, are due" (356-357). Aeneas is reminded of the glory of the future that is Rome and the role that his son would play. The poet, as earlier mentioned, was not a native of Rome. He first alludes to the 'Italian realm' then to Rome herself, reflecting that newfound feeling of unity and nationality among Italians.
In preparation for the war with Turnus, a magic shield brought to Aeneas by Venus depicts the future glories of Rome. Among the numerous drawings is one showing the victory at Actium. Augustus is leading the charge with flames flowing from his brow. Virgil then tells of Agrippa and Antonius being honored on the shield . Apart from reference to a flaming brow, they are honored in just the same fashion as Augustus (Book VIII 90-106). Augustus is not alone in being accredited for the victory at Actium. The poet is careful to place his emperor above the other two naval leaders but not so far as to cheapen the contributions of Antonius and Agrippa, or give solely credit to Augustus.
Virgil tends to be oblique in his reverence to Augustus, but it is rather unrealistic to expect the poet to have written such a work and completely leave out direct homage to the man bringing peace to the empire (not to mention supporting the poet quite generously). Aeneas is before his father in the underworld when a clear prophecy honoring Augustus is relayed to him. A
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