European Humanities
Fall 2005

Notes on Virgil's Aeneid  (from Mr. Rogers' 'Vandiver Notes') 

I. Overview of Roman History
Founded in 753 BC (Topographical Map)

The Republic:

  • becomes a republic in 509 BC
  • not a democracy, but certainly not a monarchy
  • magistrates were elected who chose two consuls each year
  • power in the Roman Republic was skewed towards the Senate and aristocracy
  • in times of civil emergency, dictators would emerge who temporarily were granted absolute power

Roman Expansion:

  • During the 4th c., Roman legions conquered the Italian mainland. (The Rise of Rome 380 B.C.E.)
  • During the late 3rd c. and the 2nd c. BC, Rome fought three wars with her primary rival in the Western Mediterranean: Carthage.
  • Carthage fell in 146 BC, the same year that the Romans conquered and colonized Greece.

Internal Politics of Rome: Complicated and Full of Strife

  • Assassination of Julius Caesar 44 BC.
  • fears that Caesar, the great general, would name himself king
  • Power struggle after Caesar's death: Pompey, Marc Antony, Octavius Caesar
  • Antony and Cleopatra declare power in the East, Pompey in the West
  • Battle of Actium 27 BC.
  • Octavius consolidates power and in 27 BC. names himself emperor: Augustus Caesar

Imperial Rule

  • Augustus sought to restore old-fashioned Roman values of frugality, hardiness, and simplicity.
  • He encouraged the veneration of Rome's ancient ancestors.


II. Introduction

- The Aeneid is the great national epic of Rome.
- Virgil retells Homer's Iliad and Odyssey in a new story that explains how and why Rome came to be. 
- The Aeneid was written during the first years of Augustus Caesar's reign. Augustus had just named himself 'Emperor', ending the ancient Roman Republic.
- The Aeneid is a great adventure story that tells the tale of Rome's founder, the Trojan hero Aeneas. 
- Aeneas escaped the sack of Troy and endured a long arduous sea journey which took him and his men to the new found land of Italy. 
- The key episode in this journey occurs at Carthage, on the north African coast, where Aeneas must overcome his passion for Queen Dido and leave her in order to complete his journey to Italy. (compare to the Calypso episode in The Odyssey.)
- The central themes of The Aeneid focus upon the personal sacrifices that Aeneas must make in order to found Rome and start her on the path to fulfilling her heroic destiny. Virgil celebrates the Roman citizen's public duty and encourages patriotic dedication over individual desire.

III.. The Influence of Greek Culture on Roman Culture

- When Athens was at her zenith in the 5th century BC, Rome was still developing as a political and military power.
- From the 4th c. BC to the 1st c. BC, Macedonia dominated the Mediterranean world in an empire that had been created through the military exploits of Phillip II and his son, Alexander the Great. 
- Roman power extended into Southern Italy in the 3rd c. BC. There the Romans conquered the ancient Greek colonies that had long thrived in Italy. (the home of Pythagoras and the Eleatic School of philosophy.) (Map)
- The Romans incorporated Greek poetry, philosophy and mythology into their own culture, adopting the Greek pantheon and renaming the Greek gods: Zeus- Jupiter, Hera- Juno, Aphrodite- Venus, Ares- Mars, Athena- Minerva, etc.
- Although Romans adopted many of the central features of Greek culture, they remained ambivalent about the Greeks themselves. Greek intellectualism was thought to be suspicious, deceitful and unmanly: not in keeping with the Roman model of martial virility.

IV. Romulus vs. Aeneas

- Before Virgil wrote The Aeneid, Romans already had their own legends about the founding of their city: the story of Romulus and Remus.
- As infants these two twins, the grandsons of the King of Alba Longa, were set adrift in a basket on the River Tiber by an evil step-uncle. 
- The basket washed ashore where the infant boys were rescued and suckled by a she-wolf. A passing peasant found the boys and brought them up as his own, but when they came to manhood, their true royal identities were discovered. 
- The fully grown twins helped punish their wicked uncle and re-establish the rightful king's reign.
- The twins left home to found their own city in 753 BC, but they quickly fell into a power struggle. Romulus killed his brother in combat and named himself ruler of Rome.
- In need of wives for their growing settlement, the Romans invited a neighbor tribe, the Sabines, to a religious festival within the city walls and then stole their women. 
- Virgil must have found this tale of fratricide and rape unflattering because he glosses over the story in The Aeneid.

V. The Aeneid

- Augustus encouraged the formal celebration of Roman values by getting a magistrate to commission Virgil to write a new national epic.
- In The Aeneid, Virgil celebrates patriotism and puts the performance of public duty above the achievement of individual desires.
- He also asserts Rome's ancient destiny to rule the world.