Of the great epics, The Aeneid by Virgil is one of the best and most popular. Written long after its companions, The Illiad and The Odyssey, it was Rome’s attempt to connect itself and its founding myths with the conquered Greeks whose culture Romans respected and admired.
Written around the time that Rome transitioned from a barely-functioning republic into a prosperous empire under the wise leadership of Augustus Caesar, The Aeneid was begun by Virgil in Greece and left unfinished when he died attempting to return home to Rome. However, Augustus had been read parts of it and liked it so much that he ordered it to be finished and released with as few edits as possible.
The reason why he probably made that order is that The Aeneid reflects Rome as many of its best imagined it and wanted it to be. Rather than praise the personal accomplishments of Aeneas or present selfishness in a positive light, it’s a story of a man sacrificing personal desires to duty and community; rather than do what he wants, Aeneas does as the gods command and his fugitive nation requires. That spirit was the one Augustus, a conservative ruler that worked throughout his reign to re-introduce traditional virtue and value to what had become a deeply decayed and decadent republic.
The main hero, Aeneas, flees from his home of Troy with a band of Trojan refugees after the Greeks enter the city with the famed Trojan horse and burn the city to the ground. Characters from The Illiad, namely Ulysses, are included, but only tangential to the story; it is about what came after and how the Trojans eventually settled in Italy and became the predecessors of the first Romans.
To tell that story, Virgil charted the (completely mythical) course of the Trojans away from their burning city and to the shores of Italy. They sail through the Mediterranean, facing some of the same dangers as Ulysses, before landing near Carthage, in what is modern Tunisia. There they find Queen Dido and her proud city of Carthaginians. Dido and her nation, refugees from Tyre, take in the Trojans. After Aeneas recounts their journey and how Troy fell to the Mycenean Greeks, the Carthaginians clothe the Trojans, feed them, and fix their ships as Dido entices Aeneas into her bed.
But the story doesn’t end there; the gods won’t permit it. So Aeneas must leave, scorning Dido and beginning the enmity between the Romans and Carthaginians and leading his people to Sicily. He then, like Ulysses, descends into the underworld where he communes with various famous spirits before returning to the world and ending the first part of The Aeneid.
While the first half is somewhat “Greek” in tone and storyline, the second half shows the Roman take on the epic; it’s almost entirely full of battles. The Trojans land on the shores of Italy and initially have peaceful relations with the natives before Aeneas is scorned by the king of the Latins and a notable warrior and king, Turnus, around whom much of the action in the second half turns. Turnus steals Aeneas’s bride and sparks a massive war between the Trojans and natives, which only ends after many rounds of slaughter in an epic battle. Of course, like every good Roman, Aeneas defeats Turnus and secures land for his people.
While The Aeneid is great; it’s not a rival to its two predecessors. The story is exciting and engaging, the characters are lifelike and interesting, and the battle scenes are thrilling.
But it’s forced. While The Illiad and The Odyssey were organic creations of a proud culture, it’s hard to view The Aeneid as much more than an attempt at recreating them many hundreds of years later. The similarities aren’t organic, but rather forced and there to connect the Romans to the Greek culture.
Furthermore, it’s obviously something of a propaganda piece. Take these passages as examples:
“And sweet revenge her conqu’ring sons shall call, To crush the people that conspir’d her fall. Then Caesar from the Julian stock shall rise, Whose empire ocean, and whose fame the skies Alone shall bound; whom, fraught with eastern spoils, Our heav’n, the just reward of human toils, Securely shall repay with rites divine; And incense shall ascend before his sacred shrine.”
“There find the Trojan chief, who wastes his days In slothful not and inglorious ease, Nor minds the future city, giv’n by fate. To him this message from my mouth relate: ‘Not so fair Venus hop’d, when twice she won Thy life with pray’rs, nor promis’d such a son. Hers was a hero, destin’d to command A martial race, and rule the Latian land, Who should his ancient line from Teucer draw, And on the conquer’d world impose the law.’ If glory cannot move a mind so mean, Nor future praise from fading pleasure wean, Yet why should he defraud his son of fame, And grudge the Romans their immortal name!”
“Now fix your sight, and stand intent, to see Your Roman race, and Julian progeny. The mighty Caesar waits his vital hour, Impatient for the world, and grasps his promis’d pow’r. But next behold the youth of form divine, Caesar himself, exalted in his line; Augustus, promis’d oft, and long foretold, Sent to the realm that Saturn rul’d of old; Born to restore a better age of gold.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; every great nation needs founding myths to tether the people to their culture. But it is important to recognize when reading it; unlike the others, it’s not meant to be a believable story, but rather a fun tale that would bring back Roman virtue and reestablish a society that had been wracked by decades of bloody civil strife.
And that it does quite well. The tales of honor, glory, and manhood found within it are all marvelous and inspiring. It’s obvious why Augustus wanted the people to read or hear it.
But still, while it’s a great story full of lessons we’d do well to relearn, it lacks the authenticity of the others, and that must be remembered. Imitations are never as great as the original.