Scholars have long recognized the civic nature of much of Virgil’s work, and such is seen throughout the pages of The Aeneid. The most commonly cited passages, of course, are those scenes in which later Roman figures predominate the account, such as Aeneas’ conversation with his father in Hades (Book 6) and the description of his shield (Book 8). Yet dozens of lesser references are also scattered throughout the text, demonstrating the political motivations of his work. So, for example, Carthage is described as “drafting laws, electing judges, a senate held in awe” (Aeneid 1), while even in Hades, the dead are put on trial, “But not without jury picked by lot, not without judge” (6). Even more central to Virgil’s work, however, is the dynamic relationship between identity, memory and self-image. The purpose of this study will be to examine the significance of these themes in The Aeneid, and particularly how Virgil participates in the broader Augustan program of recasting Roman history and religion in light of the principate.
Virgil was no mere political pundit, and stuck to no party line. Instead, there was a certain tension to his work. On one hand, he sought to express his own hopes and fears for the new order ushered in by Augustus. As Freeman points out, “He was preoccupied, like so many Italians, with the need for peace” (460). On the other hand, he had an acute understanding of the “brutal realities involved in the struggle for power” (Freeman 461). Virgil the Patriot, then, wanted nothing more than to praise the accomplishments of Augustus and celebrate the Pax Romana the Emperor ushered in. Virgil the Poet, however, simply could not overlook the moral and political lessons learned over the previous fifty years of civil war, and therefore could not help but speak out concerning what he saw as a victory too hard-won.
Because of this tension between truth and context, Virgil was presented with a further conundrum: How does one praise the princeps, while subtly exhorting the senatorial class? Both Roman memory and Roman identity stood against him. “The Romans had never shown any hesitation in declaring that their wars of conquest were justified and they showed a similar confidence in their right to rule others” (Freeman 497). But Virgil understood his audience well, and therefore praises Rome’s role in the world: not to forge bronze, carve marble, plead cases or chart the skies (such menial tasks were for the Greeks), but to “rule with all your power the peoples of the earth—these will be your arts: to put your stamp on the works and ways of peace, to spare the defeated, break the proud in war” (Aeneid 6).
The poet therefore juxtaposes art and might, thus inviting the reader to participate in his very personal struggle. He reinforces this ambiguity by narrating scenes in which art depicts violence rather than demonstrate it (such as Aeneas’ shield), while also pointing out that these scenes spurred violence of their own (see Bartsch 323, 325). Thus, as Aeneas observes “the workmanship of the shield . . . . He fills with wonder—he knows nothing of these events but takes delight in their likeness, lifting onto his shoulders now,” and doing so again later in battle (Aeneid 8; see too 12).
For Virgil, then, he could not merely recount the historical founding of Rome, but needed instead to redefine what it meant to be Roman, while also developing the implications of this self-image for an imperial context. As Bartsch posits, “We could even say that the control of self and control over others are the twin goals of the poem’s ideological trajectory towards the foundation of Rome” (322). This, in part, explains Virgil’s choice of Aeneas as his prototypical Roman. A work written in his day on the rise of Caesar or Augustus would have been viewed as an overt political statement rather than art, thereby incurring either public animosity or regal wrath. By setting his epic many centuries prior, however, Virgil was afforded the opportunity to freely discuss Rome’s recent course of events, while placing any criticisms in the mouths of others.
Thus in The Aeneid’s sole passage addressing Julius directly, Aeneas’ father, Anchises admonishes, “never inure yourselves to civil war, never turn your sturdy power against your country’s heart. You, Caesar, you be first in mercy—you trace your line from Olympus—born of my blood, throw down your weapons now” (Aeneid 6; see Taylor 179)! Though the Aeneas-Julian connection may seem tenuous, the poet’s choice was not merely a matter of artistic license or self-preservation; it also allowed him to operate within the well-known Roman norms of collective memory, particularly among the senatorial nobles. “The dominant figures in Roman party politics and party organization were usually members of the hereditary noble or consular houses. By their traditions these houses kept alive the hallowed customs of old Rome, the mos maiorun” (Taylor 25). Virgil therefore found a balance between the requirements of art and power, truth and prudence, by creating a “glorious tradition for the Julian House” and critiquing the new order from within this new milieu (Taylor 27).
While Virgil, however, struggled with this tension personally and artistically, he also participated in the greatest re-imagining of Roman identity that ever took place. Virgil was not alone in observing the ambiguous grounds of the regime, however beneficial that regime might be. Augustus himself understood this better than most: his only predecessor in the principate was Caesar, who had been murdered by his closest confidantes. So after decades of internal strife, “One of the critical problems facing Augustus . . . was to reestablish a sense of unity amongst the Romans” (Orlin 74). Though in one sense, Octavian was the penultimate tyrant—hijacking the Roman Republic in its time of need, and through the sheer force of arms—once in power, Augustus was essentially the first enlightened despot.
He achieved this coup d'état by, “maintaining a proper balance between change and continuity, and . . . regularly presented his innovations as a return to older traditions rather than as revolutionary re-conceptions” (Orlin 88). Caesar had, of course, charted much of this course for him, but Augustus’ longevity and success establish him as the greater politician. “Caesar as he had been in life was forgotten. Augustus, the restorer of the republic, was the architect of the new order. Caesarism was not the frank monarchy of Julius. It was still monarchy, but it was veiled now in republicanism—in Catonism, if you like” (Taylor 180).
Aside from this emphasis on moderation, Augustus also recognized the powerful influence of Roman culture (and especially religion) as opposed to relying on mere political power—or worse, the loyalty of the army. Religion in Rome had been connected with the power of the state long before the Edict of Milan. As Taylor states, “The Roman state religion, inseparably bound up with politics, was in the hands of the governing nobles and could be manipulated by them in the interests of the entire body or for the benefit of one group in rivalry with another” (76).
Even before Augustus, Romans understood this integral connection between faith and power: “Both founder-figures of Rome, Aeneas and Romulus, were born of a divinity, both received special attention from the divine during their lifetimes, and both were divinized upon their deaths” (Orlin 75). Augustus, however, took this association to new levels by displacing the Senate as the primary embodiment of religious piety. “Although Augustus would not assume the office of pontifex maximus until 12 B.C.E., the close inter-relationship between religion and politics at Rome ensured that he became the dominant figure in the religious sphere at the same time as he became the dominant political figure” (Orlin 78, emphasis added).
Virgil appears to share this view of the principate by recasting Roman religion on pre-Roman grounds: “Never forget the Latins are Saturn’s people, fair and just, and not because we are bound by curbs or laws, but kept in check of our own accord: the way of our ancient god” (Aeneid 7). For the poet, then, religion becomes at once more ancient and therefore more universal than most Romans of his day conceived it. For this reason, Aeneas is not merely a man of war, but a man of the gods. Sacrificing at his father’s funeral games, he is “bound by custom” and “true to custom,” although the customs here referred to are clearly Greek, rather than Roman (Aeneid 5).
Later, in Book 12, we begin to see why. As Juno withdraws from the battle, she implores her brother-husband, Jupiter, for the sake of Latium, “never command the Latins, on their native soil, to exchange their age-old name, to . . . alter their language, change their style of dress. Let Latium endure. Let Alban kings hold sway for all time. Let Roman stock grow strong with Italian strength” (Aeneid 12). Virgil, as effortless as he is subtle, sheds his ambivalence concerning Caesar and unites the new Rome on the uniquely Augustan pillars of a shared language (Latin), a shared place (Italy), a shared state (monarchy), and a shared descent.
Jupiter’s response is even more telling; he will not only fulfill his sister’s request, he “will add the rites and the forms of worship . . . you will see them outstrip all men, outstrip all gods in reverence. No nation on earth will match the honors” (Aeneid 12). The significance of this statement is almost entirely lost on modern readers. To a Greek, such a statement would seem a mere truism, their religion being centered on the prophecies of oracles and semi-inspired poets such as Homer and Hesiod. To a Roman, however, religion was primarily an act of collective memory, not one of a shared future. And yet, Virgil’s work is nothing if not a contemporaneous history of the Roman civil wars posited as an ancient prophecy. “Virgil thus offers a profoundly different conception of Roman religion in this passage, one that is at sharp odds with the actual history of Roman practice,” which was known for its syncretism (Orlin 74).
The extension of the rites to other Italians is particularly important: Virgil not only ties these rites to the Julian House (and therefore to Augustus), he also widens its appeal and, therefore, Augustus’ religious and political base. “The reader need not assume that the process of amalgamation will be easy, but the poet’s suggestion offers an avenue towards creating unity between Roman and Italian” (Orlin 81). This explains the unqualified acceptance of Aeneas’ Greek rites earlier in the work: “because such practices are not specifically Roman; Greek culture is as much a part of the Italian heritage as the Roman, and more so for some areas of Italy” (Orlin 80).
The success of such an approach could be seen around the city within a generation, as Augustus rebuilt and rededicated all eighty-four of Rome’s existing temples, while also building one for Caesar, thus, both literally and figuratively re-shaping “Roman memory and, in the process,” thereby redefining “what it meant to be Roman” (Orlin 84; see too 85).
In the first century BC, Italians of all stripes had seen their fair share of violence and intrigue as Rome worked out its less than perfect republic. In Augustus, they saw a glimmer of hope, one that would finally end the unceasing strivings of lesser men and unite the peninsula under his leadership. Though Virgil’s comments toward Caesar reveal the poet’s ambivalence toward the statesman, Virgil appears to have no such shortcomings concerning the blessings of Rome’s new Golden Age. For such to be possible, though, Rome had to forget, or at least redefine for herself, who she was. Augustus achieved this feat by reworking Rome’s identity, memory, and self-image—politically, religiously, and historically. And he succeeded in no small part through the aid of Virgil’s pen, and for that reason we and he might both be grateful that after Virgil’s death, Rome’s first prince saved her greatest myth from the ash heaps of history.