The Roman Empire - In The First Century
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Best known for his epic poem, “The Aeneid”, Virgil (70 – 19 BC) was regarded by Romans as a national treasure.

His work reflects the relief he felt as civil war ended and the rule of Augustus began.

Rural upbringing

Born a peasant, Virgil was raised on a farm before being educated in the Greek and Roman authors. His rural upbringing influenced all his poetry, especially his earlier work, like the “Eclogues”.

As he was growing up, Rome was in crisis, with power-hungry nobles fighting between themselves. When he was 20 years old, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and began the series of bloody civil wars that would last, on and off, for another 20 years.

Civil war

Virgil hated the instability. The wars affected everyone, even simple farmers. Forced to fight, their farms fell into neglect and ruin. In the “Georgics”, he mourned the ruined countryside. The poems capture the timeless peacefulness of country life that he desperately wanted to see again.

Although he never married, played no part in public life and lived for years as a near recluse, his poetry won him fame and the friendship of important political players. By the time the “Georgics” were published, he was a member of the Roman elite.

Augustus in power

At that point, Augustus had just become undisputed ruler of Rome. Virgil was delighted. Like many other Romans, he hoped that Augustus would rescue Rome from the chaos and ruin of previous decades.

Throughout his entire life, Virgil had been getting ready to write an epic poem, the greatest poetic achievement of his time. With Augustus in power, Virgil started on a new work that would summarize his ideal Rome.

“The Aeneid”

“The Aeneid” is the story of an exiled Trojan prince, who founds the first settlement in Italy after the destruction of Troy by the Greeks in the 12th century BC. It is the story of the earliest days of Rome, a national epic honoring Rome and prophesying the rise of the Roman Empire.

The hero, Aeneas, deliberately embodies the Roman ideals of loyalty to the state, devotion to family, and reverence for the gods. Virgil believed that these virtues would help secure Rome's place in history.

Past and present

“The Aeneid” therefore has a double time scale: the story itself tells of the very earliest days of Rome through the actions of the hero, Aeneas. But Virgil also writes of the destiny of Rome “to impose peace and morality” ; the work reflects his own enthusiasm for the new Rome that Augustus had promised and the stability that the new emperor brought.

But “The Aeneid” does not just praise imperial rule. Although he preferred order to chaos, Virgil’s writing showed he knew there were costs, as well as benefits, in any political system. One reason why “The Aeneid” is considered a classic was that it did not just beat the drum for Roman virtue. It dealt thoughtfully with the complex relations at the heart of the Roman Empire.

Death too soon

Virgil worked on “The Aeneid” for the rest of his life. In 19 BC, planning to spend a further three years on his poem, he set out for Greece. He caught a fever on the voyage and returned to Italy. He died soon after. He had not finished the final edits and wanted the poem to be burned – legend says that this dying wish was overridden by the order of Augustus himself.

Virgil's poetry was an instant hit in Rome and his work was imitated by Ovid. “The Aeneid” was felt to be technically perfect in its structure and meter. More importantly, however, Virgil was regarded by Romans as their national poet. He was a man who spoke for their achievements and ideals, writing both of what they had done, and what they still hoped to do.

Where to next:
Emperors - Augustus
Writers - Ovid

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The Roman Empire

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The Roman Empire - In The First Century