Critical Essays The Aeneid as a National Epic

During the century prior to Augustus’s rule, the Roman republic was ravaged by a constant series of civil wars, which caused large human and financial losses. Finally, under Augustus, the state was unified once again. With the restoration of peace and order, and with the government taking an active interest in many different phases of economic and social life, Rome regained its prosperity and happiness. Unfortunately, this return to order was brought about through the establishment of an imperial form of government. While peace was restored, many of the old liberties that Romans had become accustomed to were abandoned, a situation that caused serious problems and occupied the minds of many responsible citizens, including Virgil.

In the Aeneid, Virgil evaluates the new conditions under which Romans live. His epic poem enumerates the most worthwhile features of both republican and imperial Rome and treats the two together as if they were a single, intertwined whole. This unity implies that the glories of one form of government are the glories of the other, an argument that weakened the belief that the empire under Augustus was a new and foreign political entity. Furthermore, through prophecies, Virgil indicates in many ways that the imperial period is destined to be a new golden age for Rome: Only now, during the Augustan Age, can all of the Roman people’s noblest aspirations and hopes be fulfilled.

By writing the Aeneid, Virgil hoped to extol the virtues of Augustus in a literary fashion that would last forever. Unlike the Iliad and the Odyssey, which are oral epics, the Aeneid is a literary epic, composed in writing and intended to be read by an audience of literate people who live in a settled, civilized society. All epic poetry has a serious theme narrated on a grand scale and intended to heighten the understanding of human nature and the meaning of life, but in a literary epic, the ideological content is more important than the human story itself. A comparison of the Aeneid and the Iliad, for example, shows that literary epic is more didactic; it subordinates its human characters and their affairs to its philosophical and moral themes.

Most important, the purposes of oral and literary epics are greatly distinct, a difference that has a profound effect on the epics’s contents and the ways in which their stories develop. Oral epic was intended primarily to provide diversion and entertainment to its audience, although it also embodied much of the history and folk-wisdom of the culture in which it was created. For example, although the Iliad has a serious theme with many important moral lessons, these teachings are only a by-product of Achilles’s story, which is the main reason for the poem’s existence. Literary epic, on the other hand, always has a didactic purpose that is foremost in the poet’s mind when he composes his work. Poems like the Aeneid communicate serious philosophical, moral, and patriotic messages that subordinate their narrative stories. Because of this subordination, literary epic has a higher degree of unity and coherence than oral epic, but its human characters are less believable and oftentimes less admirable in human terms, for they lack many important human qualities. To the poet and his readers, the underlying national theme is the epic’s main element.

Aeneas, the hero of the Aeneid, is plainly a personification of the most respected Roman virtues, and we are frequently reminded that Augustus is his descendent. The implication of this association between Aeneas and Augustus to Virgil’s contemporary readers is clear: They would infer that Augustus shares many of his ancestor Aeneas’s fine qualities; their full confidence in the emperor’s judgment would be justified; and they would be foolhardy and pretentious to criticize Augustus’s new government.

During his wanderings, Aeneas undergoes many hardships. In every instance, he consoles himself by remembering the great destiny of the empire that he is fated to found. With this knowledge to strengthen him, he constantly subordinates his own desires to his dream of a new Rome, an attitude that set an impressive example for many Romans. Aeneas’s many personal sacrifices taught Roman citizens that their own personal doubts or complaints about Augustus’s government were of little importance compared to the welfare and the needs of society. Individuals had to submerge their petty grievances for the good of all; a strong and centralized state was the only guarantee for peace and unity.

Romans also would have been comforted to know that the Aeneid’s gods and goddesses were concerned with Rome’s future. Troy’s fall is a grave defeat for the Trojans, but it is a necessary condition for the evolution of Rome, which, according to the poem, is destined to become Troy’s successor in the far distant future. The exultation of the gods, Jupiter among them, as they behold Troy’s collapse in Book II does not contradict the belief that, as a group, they are on the Trojans’s side. At times, Venus speaks with the voice of a prudent Roman matron, and even Juno is on her way to becoming reconciled to the Trojans’s presence in Italy. In any case, Virgil’s Roman contemporaries had only to point to their own unending series of successes in order to demonstrate to their satisfaction that Rome and its empire had permanently won divine favor.

Convinced by Virgil’s arguments in the Aeneid, many members of Rome’s educated class ceased their opposition to Augustus and grew accustomed to their emperor’s government. Meanwhile, the Aeneid became a standard school text. Every new generation of students was exposed to Virgil’s epic poem, and from it developed an unselfish dedication to the Roman imperial ideal. Thus, besides being a literary masterpiece, the Aeneid became what was, perhaps, the strongest intellectual bulwark of the Roman Empire.