Halfway through Virgil’s Roman epic the Aeneid, the hero descends into the underworld. There he encounters not just the souls of the dead, but the souls of those about to live—a long line of future Roman luminaries, waiting to be born. Through them Virgil takes us on a triumphant tour of Roman history. We see Romulus and the Scipios, Cato, valiant Caesar. You can almost hear the drums and trumpets: the story of humanity presented as one glorious march of progress, from savagery to civilization, culminating in Octavian Augustus, Virgil’s own emperor.
From the moment it was published in 19 BC the Aeneid was hailed as the most successful and sublime celebration of empire ever conceived. Its author became famous as the patriotic poet par excellence of the West. His reputation was so powerful that long after Rome’s fall, leaders as disparate as Elizabeth I, Louis XIV, and Benito Mussolini borrowed his words to endorse and bolster their own authority. Even the Founding Fathers, who generally preferred Homer, appropriated Virgil’s language.
But beginning in the 1960s, a group of scholars, later dubbed the Harvard school, began to notice a number of alarming problems with such imperialist readings of the Aeneid. They pointed out incident after incident where Virgil undermined the sense of glorious progress, or even overturned it. Beneath the poem’s golden patina they found a far more pessimistic view, one that seriously questioned the idea of human progress and imperial power. This new reading hit Virgilian scholarship like a lightning bolt, revolutionizing and redefining our entire understanding of the Aeneid, Virgil, and Augustan history. Though the debate is ongoing, it is now the dominant interpretation in the field.
The question is: how did we miss Virgil’s real meaning for two thousand years? And what made it possible for this small group of scholars to point it out?
Relative to Homer, whose origins are obscure to the point of being fictitious, we know a lot about the poet named Publius Virgilius Maro. Virgil was born in 70 bc in the countryside near Mantua to a family of small farmers. His father was able to send him away to be educated, first at Cremona, later at Milan and Naples. From an early age he showed a passion for literature and philosophy, and in the course of his studies, he was befriended by Maecenas, the great Roman patron of the arts and adviser to Octavian, future first emperor of Rome.
Not long after, either through Maecenas or another literary connection, Virgil received an invitation to an audience with Octavian himself. It must have been an extraordinary first meeting: the man who would be Rome’s greatest poet, and the twenty-something youth who would become its most renowned ruler. We do not know what transpired in that conversation, only what followed—Octavian took Virgil under his protection, and gave him the financial freedom to spend the rest of his life writing.
Virgil lived during one of the most critical junctures in Western history. In the forty years from his birth until 30 bc, he witnessed a Rome continuously roiled with civil wars: first between Pompey and Caesar, then between the Tyrannicides (Brutus and Cassius) and the Triumvirs (Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus), and finally between Octavian and Antony themselves. The last man standing, Octavian, dealt the final blow to the tottering Roman Republic and founded the Empire. In other words, Virgil was born under a senate and died under a dictator.
Octavian was a savvy ruler, well aware of the power of propaganda, and it made sense that he would want pet poets. Virgil and his close friend Horace were welcomed into the emperor’s inner circle, and while both benefited from this association, they must also have known that the emperor scrutinized every line they wrote. The danger of displeasing Octavian was quite real: he had a hand in ordering Cicero’s assassination, and was known for his political purges. A few years after Virgil’s death, he exiled the poet Ovid for some overly cheeky verses.
Canadian subscribers add $10; All other international subscribers add $40.