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How does Virgil succeed in writing a poem in praise of Augustus when the story is not about Augustus at all

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  • Pages: 6
  • Word count: 1358
  • Category: Poems

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At the time when Virgil was writing the Aeneid, Rome was going through a time of great political and social change, where Augustus Caesar had seized power through the destruction of the Roman Republic, and had himself installed as dictator and sole ruler of Rome. Virgil evidently through his writing is in praise of Augustus, and this characteristic is notable throughout the poem. Aeneas and Augustus when it came to politics thought along broadly the same lines.

No one could have loved the ancient traditions of Rome more than Virgil did, and the qualities by which Rome in the past had grown great with. Virgil was also quite a close friend of Augustus. The Aeneid is a reflection of the governmental policies of Augustus in moral, social and religious ideas, which Virgil seems to have been in agreement over, resulting in a poem, which seems to be overwhelmingly positive about the future of Rome under Augustus.

In writing the Aeneid, Virgil was creating a different sort of heroic figure to those created by the literary writers of the past such as Homer. In his poem, Virgil was essentially trying to make a social hero, who possessed the characteristics of ‘pietas’ or piety, where his concerns were less to do with his own honour, and instead for his own people in a very selfless manner. In his poem, Virgil presents the destiny of the roman race from the destruction of Troy through until the Augustan period and beyond.

Virgil had to create in his hero a prototype of the Roman character, a person who showed by his behaviour the kind of qualities to be the ideal Roman with qualities of leadership and piety, in order to be a sort of model for Augustus and his successors. Virgil may also have been trying to depict as character upon which Romans of his day could model themselves. The Aeneid starts with a firm statement of how Aeneas was destined by fate, and we are then given a description stating that Aeneas was destined through fate to leave Troy and found a new city in Latium, which would be transferred to Alba Longa and then to Rome.

This is the prophecy made by Jupiter in book 1 of the Aeneid. Virgil then takes the reader through a list of successive leaders and a timeline of events leading up until the rule of Augustus. Virgil then refers to Augustus and says ‘From this noble stock there will be born a Trojan Caesar to bound his empire by Oceanus at the limits of the world, and his fame by the stars. He will be called Julius, a name passed down to him from the great Iulus. In time to come, have no fear, you will receive him in the sky, laden with the spoils of the East. ‘

Virgil used the etymology of Iulus meaning Julius, and thus in this passage Virgil is referring to Augustus Caesar, adopted son of Julius Caesar, and thus of Julian race. This passage is obviously in praise of Augustus, as he says that the gods will ‘receive him in the sky’, thus professing that Augustus will be received in heaven as a god. The prophetic speech made by Jupiter ends with Augustus bringing peace throughout Rome, and foretells the success of the Roman Empire. This passage shows evidence from the beginning of the poem of the way in which Virgil praises Augustus.

Through doing this in his writing, Virgil is also potentially legitimising the Augustan regime, through depicting it as a part of the fate of Rome, recognising that the gods destined his rule, and to some degree supporting it’s legality, despite the fact that Augustus had destroyed the Roman republic in order to have himself installed as dictator. Another example that can be found of Virgil praising Augustus within his writing can be seen in book 3. Book three is an account of the wanderings of Aeneas and his people as they travel throughout the Mediterranean in search of their prophesised land.

On their travels they briefly stop at Actium where Aeneas and his men celebrate through holding games, and Aeneas dedicates a bronze shield at the temple of Apollo. It was at Actium in 31BC that Augustus Caesar had defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra thereby bringing an end to the civil wars and allowing Augustus to become the sole ruler of Rome. By dong this, Virgil has attempted to create a mythological link between Augustus and his Trojan ancestor Aeneas. Virgil in this passage is attempting to link the two characters of Augustus and Aeneas together, through this mythological connection.

Book 6 of the poem is one of the most defining moments within the book as it signals a change in the attitude of Aeneas towards his mission, where he changes from being backwards looking and somewhat unsure about what his duty really entails, into being confident in what he is doing, and determined enough to fulfil it. The most significant event, which leads to this change in Aeneas’ attitude, comes when Aeneas meets his father Anchises in the underworld, who gives Aeneas some insight into the future of the Roman race, which he will essentially be the ancestral founder of.

Anchises describes to Aeneas what is called the ‘pageant of roman heroes’, giving Aeneas a list of the future heroes of Rome if Aeneas succeeds in his mission of founding his city. Anchises’ survey of the ghosts of future Roman heroes waiting to be born is one of the most directly patriotic passages in the poem. Augustus is placed alongside Romulus in order to cast the emperor as the second founder of Rome, after the destruction and chaos caused by civil war.

He is shown as the son of a god because his father was deified, but he is also the son of a god in the sense that he is a descendant of Ascanius. Augustus is said to bring back the ‘golden age’, a legendary age when Saturn was king of the gods and mankind lived in a state of peace and prosperity. ‘Here he is Augustus Caesar, son of a god, the man who will bring back the golden years to the fields of Latium, once ruled over by Saturn, and extend Rome’s empire beyond the Indians and the Garamantes. ‘

Augustus is presented along with the other great Roman heroes, and in this way, Aeneas depicts Augustus as a great Roman hero, thus praising him. Augustus appears to be a fated element in the future of Rome, and this passage in this way also legitimises Augustus rule, by placing him along side the other great heroes in Rome’s history. It is obvious that Virgil is very effectively praising Augustus in the passage, through the subtle use of prophecy and destiny. In book 8 of Virgil’s poem, Aeneas is granted a new suit of armour by Vulcan.

The scenes on his shield form a sustained patriotic preview of Roman greatness similar to the pageant of heroes in book 6. Within the centre of the shield is an image of the battle of Actium, where Augustus defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, and the civil war came to an end. Around the outside of the shield, images of other great moments in Rome’s history and its most important characters such as Romulus and Remus are shown. By placing Augustus’ image in the centre of this shield, means that it is the focal point of the shield and thus presented as being of the greatest importance.

Once again Virgil can be seen to be praising Augustus, by suggesting that his victory at the battle of Actium was one of, if not the most important event in Rome’s history. In conclusion, it is obvious that the poem by Virgil casts a very favourable light on Augustus. Although the story has nothing to do with Augustus at all, Virgil very skilfully hints at Augustus, and very cleverly praises him, by making him a character of the future, which ties in very strongly with the prophetic nature of the poem. Augustus is depicted as a Roman hero, who returned Rome to its previous glory, and is also described as being a god.

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