Long before Virgil’s time, Romans liked to believe that among their ancestors were the legendary Trojans, who, under Aeneas’s leadership, sailed from Troy, in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), westward across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy and settled in Latium, site of the future Rome. This legend of Aeneas’s voyage, which the Romans elaborated for their own patriotic purposes, was recorded as far back as the fifth century B.C. by a Greek, Hellenicus of Lesbos. In the following century, another Greek, Timaeus, told how Aeneas established the city of Lavinium, which is referred to at the very beginning of the Aeneid.
According to Roman legend, Rome itself was founded in 753 B.C. by one of Aeneas’s descendants, Romulus, who, with his twin brother, Remus, was a son of Mars, the god of war, and the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia. To account for the gap in time between the date of the fall of Troy, which a Roman historian fixed at 1184 B.C., and the date of the city’s founding, it was imagined that several generations of kings had intervened between these two dates, including Aeneas’s son, Ascanius — also known as Iulus — and Numitor, the grandfather of Romulus and Remus.
In fact, the Romans were descended from Indo-European tribes that came southward over the Alps into Italy perhaps as long ago as the middle of the second millennium B.C. Rome, while it had begun to exist in the century assigned by legend, was initially a confederation of shepherd villages. Until 509 B.C., this coalition of villages was ruled by kings, some of whom were Etruscans, members of a tribe who supposedly came from Asia Minor, as the legendary Trojans were supposed to have done. In 509 B.C., however, when the last Etruscan king, Tarquin the Proud, was deposed and Rome became a republic, the Etruscans were vanquished, and thereafter their power waned. In the Aeneid, Etruscan warriors, rebelling against their evil king, Mezentius, fight on the side of the Trojans in their war against the Latins.
This instance of a real people who played a real role in the early development of Rome, fighting in a war that can only be regarded as essentially fictitious, offers an example of how legend and history could easily coexist in the Roman mind. Virgil probably assumed that his contemporary readers would regard the primary legends of their national origins, those surrounding Aeneas, as true, and that they would recall Book XX of Homer’s Iliad, in which Aeneas, after boasting of his illustrious lineage to Achilles and then engaging in combat against this greatest of Greek warriors, is rescued from certain death by the sea god Poseidon — the Roman Neptune — because it had been prophesied that Aeneas would be the leader of the Trojan survivors.
Not only Greek literature but Greek religion, as well, was familiar to the Romans, who, during the third and second centuries B.C., merged it with their own, identifying Italian divinities with Greek counterparts to the point of regarding the latter as being the same ones except under different, Greek names. Virgil’s contemporary readers were thoroughly acquainted with the personalities and doings of the gods and goddesses, who generate so much of the action of the Trojan War and provide the vital force of so many other Greek legends and myths.
Therefore, when Virgil, in the opening section of the Aeneid, cites the “judgment Paris gave” — the judicium Paridis, in Latin — as a reason for Juno’s implacable hatred of the Trojans, his readers would have understood immediately this wonderfully succinct allusion, which helped explain why Juno, the queen of the gods, would be a formidable opponent throughout the epic poem. Paris’s judgment, which concerned the awarding of a golden apple — the prize in a kind of divine beauty contest presided over by Paris, a son of Troy’s King Priam and Queen Hecuba — led to the Trojan War and so to the downfall of Troy and, by extension, to Rome’s founding.
The golden apple, with its inscription, “For the Fairest,” was in itself a trifle, but it produced such far-reaching effects because it acted as a stimulus to the passions of humans and immortals alike. Angered because she had not been invited to a wedding, Eris, the goddess of discord, tossed the apple among the assembled guests, setting off a controversy among three goddesses who were present: Venus, the goddess of love; Juno, the queen of the gods; and Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, each of whom believed that the inscription on the apple could refer only to herself.
Paris, who had been appointed by Jupiter to pronounce judgment in the matter, awarded the apple to Venus, who in return for this favor promised him the most beautiful woman in the world, a reward that he, reputed to be the most handsome man in the world, valued more than those offered by Juno and Minerva — worldly power and victory in war, respectively. Juno took Paris’s judgment as a personal insult that wounded her vanity and aggravated a deep-seated antagonism, for she knew that her favorite city, Carthage, was destined to be razed by Rome and its citizens sold into slavery.
The woman Paris won was Helen, the wife of the Greek Menelaus, king of Sparta. When Paris and Helen eloped, Menelaus attempted peacefully to have her returned to him. However, when these attempts failed, he and his brother, Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, assembled a fleet of a thousand ships and an enormous army, and the war against Troy began.
The bitter hatred that existed between the Greeks and the Trojans seemed too great for Virgil to explain without including a supernatural reason for it. His contemporary readers would have been certain that when, in Book IV, Queen Dido of Carthage curses the Trojans and calls for a hero to avenge Aeneas’s abandoning her, she is referring unwittingly to the great Carthaginian general Hannibal, who with his warriors and elephants laid waste to Italy for more than fourteen years during the Second Punic War. In all, there were three Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome: the First Punic War (264-241 B.C.), the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.), and the Third Punic War (149-146 B.C.), which ended with Carthage’s destruction. For Virgil’s readers, all three of these wars would have seemed like the fulfillment, in far later times, of Dido’s curse.
In the years that followed Carthage’s destruction, Rome waged war victoriously against foreign powers that stood in the way of her irresistible drive toward domination, notably kingdoms that had been parts of Alexander the Great’s empire: Syria, Macedonia, and Egypt. The wars against Macedonia, four in all, finally brought Greece under Rome’s complete control.
These wars vastly increased Rome’s power and wealth, but at home the republic entered a period of civil disorder to which many causes have been assigned. These include inflation; the monopoly of agriculture by wealthy landowners to the detriment of small farmers; the clamor for Roman citizenship by Italians who were not Romans; the devastation of Italy during the Second Punic War; the corruption of the governors of new provinces; and, most important, the very expansion of Rome, which changed from a small city-state into an empire that was too large to be administered by the old republican type of government in which two consuls, elected every year, wielded power between them, each having the right to veto the other’s decisions.
In the final days of the Roman republic, a series of ambitious and brutal leaders struggled for control of the state, but none was able to solve Rome’s problems or establish lasting power for himself and his faction of supporters. Among these would-be rulers were the three members of the First Triumvirate, Crassus, Pompey, and Julius Caesar, who in 49 B.C. marched on Rome with his legions and in the following year defeated Pompey, who had become his rival; and the Second Triumvirate of Mark Antony, Lepidus, and Octavian, who finally gained power for himself in 3l B.C. after defeating the combined forces of Antony and Cleopatra, Egypt’s queen, at the Battle of Actium.
Octavian, Rome’s first emperor, whom the Roman Senate officially named Augustus — meaning “revered” — in 27 B.C., had been as unscrupulous and cruel as any of the other power seekers while consolidating his position. Able to bring order where other leaders had failed, he reorganized the Roman bureaucracy and opened its membership to common men, freedmen, and even slaves. He cleverly masked his power, which was absolute, by retaining the old forms of republican government.
Virgil, who came to maturity as a poet while the republic was in its death throes, longed for the peace that Augustus promised and eventually brought, and supported wholeheartedly the emperor’s policies. The simultaneous appearance of these two figures on the world’s stage — the man of power able to inspire the man of poetic genius — resulted in the Aeneid, whose primary purpose was to remind its original readers of the heroic past from which Rome was believed to have sprung, and to arouse hopes for an equally heroic future.
(All quotations are from Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, The Aeneid, published by Random House, 1983.)