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The Aeneid – A Glorification of the Roman Empire or a Critique?

The Aeneid of Vergil was commissioned by Augustus Ceasar to be a glorification of the current Roman Empire and its origin focused on the virtues of loyalty to state, devotion to family, and reverence for the gods. The Roman civil war had recently ended, and the rule of Augustus began but Vergil felt the city had strayed too far from its pious beginnings and seeks to critique the Roman Empire rule.   Vergil mythologizes Aeneas’ journey as a fugitive from crumpling Troy and ultimately fulfil his destiny as founder of the Roman Empire in Italy. The prophecies of the promised peace and prosperity that Aeneas will bring to the shores of Italy is challenged by Vergil, who subtly outlines the paradox of the peace that was promised to the death and destruction that Aeneas left behind him both during his journey and landing in Italy. The Aeneid follows a path of the prophesized peace versus the violent actions Aeneas took to achieve his fate. Vergil brings to light paradoxical nature of Roman’s founding virtues with their real stance on using violence to achieve their goals under King Augustus. Aeneas’ journeys are corrupted with brutality and selfishness for his own goals at the expense of other nations, providing them the same fate that Troy had been slated. Without blatantly criticizing Rome and in turn Augustus, Vergil subtly reminds Augustus of the original prophecies given to Aeneas, which is in direct contrast to the current state of Rome, through respected men, Anchises and Latinus, and gods, Venus.

On the surface, Vergil describes Aeneas as a “fugitive” and “a man remarkable for goodness” at the beginning of the epic to evoke pity on the cruel journey he would have to endure, but any sympathy Vergil tries to bestow upon him is underpinned by Aeneas’ own actions of betrayal and war along his journey (1.2, 1.15). His first act of betrayal comes in the form of Dido’s love for Aeneas, “the queen is caught between love’s pain and press. She feeds the wound within her veins; she is eaten by a secret flame” (4.1-3). Love is the emotion that brings out man’s truest self, which evokes a “secret flame”, a fire that is both full of passion and known to bring destruction in war. Lovers complement each other, seen with the relationships between Odysseus and Penelope and Hector and Andromache. The relationship between Aeneas and Dido is unnatural, sparked by Juno, the queen of marriages, as a way to prevent Aeneas from continuing his journey, but he is drawn towards her secret flame and wound within her veins as a direct comparison to his own struggles. His devotion to finding Rome and the deep wounds he experienced as he fled Troy in defeat and losing his wife as he tries to escape is mirrored in Dido, who Vergil dedicates an entire book to their love story. Vergil warns that the day Aeneas enters into Dido’s life will be “her first day of death and ruin.” (4.224). Her first day of ruin is paradoxical with Aeneas’ fate to “rule all coasts” as no ruin will come upon the kingdom he is fated to build (3.129). Before he is able to land in Italy, Dido “calls your shores to war against their shore, your waves against their waves, arms with their arms,” marking the first of many requests for his destruction. Vergil is aware of the prophecies that he will rule all coasts, but Dido prays that this will never happen. For a pious man who is believed to bring peace to the war-torn region, he is already creating enemies sparking Vergil’s disillusionment in the prophecies Aeneas was given. Further detailed by warning “For neither how things seem nor how they are deemed,” Vergil illustrates the distrust and disappointment as he questions the original understanding of “[teaching] the wats of peace to those you conquer” (4.255, 6.1136). This hidden story that Vergil examines between what is prophesied and promised versus what actually occurs. The great beginnings are full of deceit and dishonor in direct contrast to Roman virtues Virgil believe should be prominent.

Vergil cannot blatantly condemn the Roman Empire or Augustus Ceasar, the Roman emperor at the time of his writing, but he shows his disapproval by focusing on Aeneas’ betrayal of Dido as the start of the violence that follows Aeneas throughout his journey. As he leaves Eryx, the sacrifice Neptune required for safe passage is the pilot of Aeneas’ ship and he must “[take] the helm himself and steer his galley through the midnight water” (5.1147-1148). Vergil is mirroring the current state of Rome after the Civil War where Augustus is taking the throne after defeating Mark Antony.  Navigating “midnight [waters]” is impractical because the pilot can only try to prevent the ship from running aground. Augustus is in the same predicament steering the kingdom through “midnight [waters]” as the new emperor of Rome who now needs to unite the people.

Vergil uses the prophecy of glory and peace to contrasts with the true violence that Aeneas evokes throughout his journey. Vergil unveils the paradox in Aeneas’ journey to the underworld, to speak with his father, Anchises. Immediately after seeing his son, Anchises asks, “Has the pious love that your father waited for defeated the difficulty of the journey” (6.908-910)? His father’s egotism seems to overshadow the difficult decisions Aeneas had to make as if only his son’s love for him is the reason he has survived putting aside the fact that Venus is protecting him and his “pious love” was not shown to Dido. He is told about Rome greatness, “Famous Rome will make her bounders as broad as earth itself…and enclose her seven hills within a single wall, rejoicing in her race of men” (6.1035-1038). Vergil is subtly reminding “Augustus Caesar, son of a god, who will renew a golden age in Latium” of the qualities Rome was founded on and who is now in a position to fix the destruction brought by internal strife and civil war. He cannot outright criticize the emperor but makes it clear the Roman’s original manifest destiny to unite the “race of men” in the boundaries of Rome. Anchises praises the idea that Augustus accomplishments will renew a golden age with prosperity and peace, but it comes at the expense of the of terrified victims. “And even now, at his approach, the kingdom…shudder before the oracles of gods; the seven mounts of Nile, in terror, tremble” (6.1057-1060). By referencing “the oracles of gods,” a bridge that links mortals and gods, about the forthcoming violence sanctioned by the gods contradicts the idealized empire Aeneas is destined to build. The message of fear that comes from the highest power brings into question the true fate the gods allow Aeneas to believe. Anchises focuses on the far future in which Vergil is currently writing to caution his sons from allowing war and violence to consume the great empire and singling out “Caesar [to] be the first to show forbearance” and “cast down the weapon from your hand” (6.1104-1007). The current Roman political and social state is on the verge of collapse after the civil war and Vergil provides direction to Augustus to focus on the pen rather than the sword. Ironically, the last prophecy Anchises gives after telling of the future peace and glory is heeded by the warning “of the wars he must still wage” against the Laurentians (6.1188). Vergil is skeptical of the foretold benevolent empire when it seems to only emerge after violence and chaos. The disillusionment continues as Aeneas exits the underworld “through [the] way the Spirits send false dreams into the world above” (6.1195-1196). This implies all the stories and prophecies Aeneas were told are fictitious and Rome’s prosperity and success of his bloodline are nothing but a “false dream” (6.1195). Vergil is suspicious of this depiction of the ideal Rome promised by the gods and fated for Aeneas and his sons. This further highlights the question if Rome’s Golden Age under Augustus will truly exist or is merely a façade.

Throughout The Aeneid, Virgil warns of the destruction of war but rather the importance of creation. Aeneas and his men are faced with a food shortage, he is reminded of his father advice to “remember in your weariness to hope for homes, to set your hands to building dwellings and raising walls around them” (7.161-163). This portrayal mirrors that of Rome’s current state. In the new Ancient Rome Augustus should be focused on rebuilding rather than continuing the conflict that has plagued the Roman Republic for the previous four years. As the “final trial to end our sorrows,” he emphasizes Augustus’ responsibility to change the dire conditions the Romans have lived under as the “final trial” (7.165). Augustus must bring Rome back to its pious beginnings promised to Aeneas or the empire will fall back into chaos and distress. Without every using Augustus’ name when giving guidance, Vergil speaks through King Latinus saying “Aeneas’ sons return, high on their horses, bringing peace” (7.376-377) because Augustus will respond better if it comes from a king or a god. Aeneas’ son, Augustus, is returning to the throne high on a horse after a long civil war. Augustus relates with this prophecy and would try to fulfill it by bringing peace to the region. The intense focus placed on peace juxtaposes with the current distressed state of Rome embattled in civil strife. Virgil writing at a pivotal point in Roman history allows him to be a force for change by subtly guiding Augustus in the right direction politically, militarily, and socially without committing the same atrocities of past emperors.

Aeneas and his men have landed in Latium and after a small time of greetings and peace with King Latinus, Juno sparks Turnus, the ruler of a neighboring city, to war with Aeneas over the hand of Lavinia. Peace is always short-lived as Juno sparked fear and hatred in the Queen of Latium and Turnus. Venus provides Aeneas with a shield that depicts the entire future of Rome and at the center of it all is Augustus leading the Italians in battle. Virgil glorifies the war depiction,

You might have seen all of Leucata’s bay teeming with war’s array, waves glittering with gold. On his high stern Augustus Caesar is leading the Italians into battle, together with the senate and the people, the household gods and the Great Gods; his bright brows pour out a twin flame, and upon his head his father’s Julian star is glittering. (8.876-881)

Caesar is the again on a “high stern” similar to King Latinus’ belief he will “return on their horses” alluding to Augustus’ great leadership and victories in battle. He is depicted as a uniting force for the frayed Republic bringing both politics, society, and religion under a single leader. The twin flames pouring out of his brows confirm the belief of his divinity with a reference to the Julian star. The star symbolizes the gods’ approval of Augustus as rightful emperor, which is essential for a society founded on the word of gods. The comet allowed Augustus to make claims in political discourse and “legitimizing his established position and securing a secession” (Gurval, 41). This allusion that it is his divine right to the throne concerns Virgil since Augustus has only known violence as the way to achieve his goals and the promised Golden Age could come under threat if Rome is consumed in violence and chaos again. It is surprising Aeneas “is glad for all these images” depicted on Vulcan’s shield as it foreshadows the violence that will emerge from his efforts. Ironically “he does not know what they mean”, as if he is blinded by the portrayed carnage and naïve about the future effects of his reign (8.954). The entire shield is a characterization from the founding of Rome to the rule of Augustus as “the fame and fate of his sons’ sons” (8.995). Finally, Vergil confirms the fate of Aeneas’ bloodline is consume with violence and betrayal contrasting the earlier accounts of an ideal society focused on art rather than war.

Now in battle against the Rutuli, the true spirits of Trojans emerge from one of seeking peace as fugitives to blood as warriors. Although the men have contained their more instinctive and animalistic nature, the moment Euryalus kills Rhoetus, he “is hot for secret slaughter” (9.466). The emphasis on “secret” slaughter is significant since Rome is riddled with a history of using poison to eliminate enemies and dissidents.  Virgil is aware Augustus could commit murders in the shadows, but it would plague Augustus’ rule after a civil war was already splitting the civil society of Rome. The gods have the ultimate decision choosing war or peace. Jupiter orders “that Turnus now has to quit the Trojans’ battlements” since fate had already decided the Trojan’s victory (9.1072). Jupiter warns the gods, “since the Teucrians and Latin cannot join in treaty and your quarrel cannot find an end, I shall allow no difference between the Trojans and Rutulians” (9.150-153). He advocates for peaceful resolution before succumbing to violence and by the weight that Jupiter’s words hold it is an important lesson for any leader to first seek peace through negotiation because if not, the gods will support neither side. The prophecy to conquer other kingdoms and expand Rome’s empire will surely involve battles with weaker cities but even King Latinus advocates for peace, “Join your hands to [Aeneas] as best you can. Beware of setting arms against his arms” (10.386). Aeneas’ first conquered city demonstrates it is possible to expand the empire through treaties and resolutions rather than death. Vergil is cautiously advising Augustus not through his own words but through those of a god and a king, who Augustus is most likely to emulate.

In the last books of The Aeneid, Aeneas prays future Rome will prospers and spread peace and justice, “I shall not subject Italians to Teucrians, ask kingdoms for myself; the equal laws of an eternal compact; their sacred rites, their gods, shall be intact, Latinus…hold this lawful rule” (12.254-261). Aeneas’ honorable stance is one that requires restrain from destroying conquered people’s cultures and values juxtaposed with the Greek’s total destruction of fallen Troy. As the son of Aeneas, Virgil hopes Augustus will follow these noble characteristics compared to his predecessors. War must be the final resort after resolutions are created and conversations occur between kings do not yield an acceptable outcome. Vergil does not portray his epic as giving advice but rather focuses on a multitude of issues currently facing Augustus with positions that pious Aeneas took when faced with similar situations. He tackles convoluted questions that Ancient Rome must ask itself as it progresses with the choice between continuing the cycle of violence or uniting all Romans to focus on collective peace and prosperity. No claim is made on how Augustus should govern but Virgil allows each reader to interpret it with different understandings pointing to the ultimate question of how Rome’s success should be quantified as Ancient Rome emerges from the collapse of the Roman Republic.

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