Given the starkness of that final moment, it is difficult at first to imagine how so many readers ignored it for so long. But there are some equally powerful factors that conspired to obscure it.
First and foremost is the fact that the new-minted Emperor Augustus specifically requested that Virgil write the poem. The year was around 30 bc, and Augustus had just vanquished Mark Antony and Cleopatra to emerge as Rome’s sole leader. The Roman republic was officially dead, but this young man with his impeccable pedigree (adopted son of Julius Caesar, descendant of the great god Jupiter himself) seemed poised to usher in a new imperial era of peace. After over fifty years of civil war and exhausting politics, Rome was again a place of vitality and hope. The only thing lacking was a poem to immortalize its people’s unique powers of conquest, endurance, and ingenuity. Augustus let it be known that he desired such an epic, and modestly suggested himself and his mighty deeds as the subject matter. All eyes turned to Publius Virgilius Maro.
It must have been a tricky moment for this former farmboy. The poem was practically an imperial command, and Virgil’s life and livelihood were dependent upon the emperor’s good will. Rome’s other leading poets had already bowed out, including Virgil’s friend Horace, citing genre problems—they were lyric poets and unsuited to tackle such an epic subject.
Initially, Virgil seemed to accept the task at face value. In the Georgics, his poem that preceded the Aeneid, he announced that he was “girding [him]self to sing about the fiery battles of Caesar Augustus.” That story never came to be. Perhaps Virgil realized just how much imperial scrutiny he would be under if Augustus were his main character; perhaps he wanted the freedom of mythology over the facts of history. Whatever the reason, he shifted the epic’s subject from Augustus to his heroic ancestor, the half
It was a brilliant move, and may be regarded as a very quiet first step down the path to the subversive work he produced. But it was not widely noted, and did little to dispel the general view that the Aeneid was composed as an emperor-
pleasing celebration of all things Roman.
And celebrate them it does. It cannot be denied that the Aeneid is full of passages that praise Rome and its new emperor. From Jupiter granting the Romans “empire without end,” to a prophetic golden image of Augustus routing Cleopatra at Actium, we are reminded again and again of Rome’s divine destiny, realized through the power of the emperor. Given such dazzling grandeur, it is easy to lose sight of Virgil’s more subtle chiaroscuro effects. But, as the Harvard school’s Adam Parry puts it, Virgil always speaks with two voices, one of loud and “public triumph” and one of “private regret.” This quieter voice was all the more difficult to hear because it was unexpected.
Both contemporary Romans and later readers knew how unwise it was to threaten the image-conscious Augustus, and assumed that Virgil would not have dared to cross him. In the words of psychology, readers suffered from “inattentional blindness”: they did not see the shadows because they were not looking for them.
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