Study Guide

The Aeneid Power

By Virgil


Book 1

"[…] young Romulus
Will take the leadership, build walls of Mars,
And call by his own name his people Romans.
For these I set no limits, world or time,
But make the gift of empire without end." (1.371-375)

In these words, Jupiter seems to give his seal of approval to the Roman Empire, allowing it to expand infinitely in both space and time. The modern reader might be tempted to snicker at these lines; after all, we know that the Roman Empire never expanded much beyond the Mediterranean (making it limited in space, as this map shows), and it certainly isn't still around today (making it limited in time). The thing is, Virgil can't have meant these lines literally. Just look at how Jupiter clarifies the issue a few lines later when he says that Julius Caesar will "circumscribe [i.e., put a border around] / Empire with Ocean, fame with heaven's stars." (1.385-386)

Book 6

"[…] this is the man, this one,
Of whom so often you have heard the promise,
Caesar Augustus, son of the deified,
Who shall bring once again an Age of Gold
To Latium, to the land where Saturn reigned
In early times. He will extend his power
Beyond the Garamants and Indians,
Over far territories north and south
Of the zodiacal stars, the solar way,
Where Atlas, heaven-bearing, on his shoulder
Turns the night-sphere, studded with burning stars.
At that man's coming even now the realms
Of Caspia and Maeotia tremble, warned
By oracles, and the seven mouths of the Nile
Go dark with fear." (6.1062-1076)

For the Romans, the Age of Gold (an idea they borrowed from the Greek poet Hesiod) meant the first period of the world's history, when people lived in harmony with each other and with nature, which spontaneously gave them food without them having to work for it. Virgil had already talked about a new Age of Gold in the fourth poem from his book of "Eclogues," which you can read here. In that poem, Virgil connects the new golden age with the birth of a child; modern scholars think this was the child of a prominent Roman – though the rise of Christianity gave birth (so to speak) to a long tradition of interpreting the Fourth Eclogue as prefiguring the coming of Jesus. Be that as it may, these lines from the Aeneid, definitely give to Caesar what is Caesar's: namely, the credit for bringing peace to the lands he conquered. This peace is clearly the result of Caesar Augustus's political power – hence the contrast in Virgil's lines between the happiness of Latium, which is already under his control, and the distant regions that haven't been conquered yet, which "tremble."

"Roman, remember by your strength to rule
Earth's peoples—for your arts are to be these:
To pacify, to impose the rule of law,
To spare the conquered, battle down the proud." (6.1151-1154)

These words, spoken by Anchises to his son Aeneas in the underworld, similarly put a positive spin on Roman conquest. It isn't hard to see echoes of Anchises's words in countless later justifications of empire, which the conquerors usually portray as being in the best interests of the conquered peoples. (It is true that being part of the Roman Empire could bring various benefits – as is discussed in this scene from Monty Python's 1979 film, The Life of Brian.) And yet, it is interesting to note that Aeneas can't quite live up to his father's advice; after forcing Turnus to beg for mercy ("battling down the proud"), he kills him in a fit of anger, which doesn't sound much like "sparing the conquered" to us. How might the final scene of the Aeneid serve as a commentary on the overall theme of Roman imperial power?

Book 7

"Propose no Latin alliance for your daughter,
Son of mine; distrust the bridal chamber
Now prepared. Men from abroad will come
And be your sons by marriage. Blood so mingled
Lifts our name starward. Children of that stock
Will see all earth turned Latin at their feet,
Governed by them, as far as on his rounds
The Sun looks down on Ocean, East or West." (7.125-132)

This prophecy given to King Latinus expresses, once again, the Aeneid's pervasive theme of a future world dominated by Roman power. This quotation in particular illustrates the popular saying that "history is written by the victors." This can be seen in the fact that Latins will have their name "lifted starward" – and thus recorded in the annals of history – if they join forces with the Trojans. The implication seems to be that if they don't join forces with the Trojans, they will soon be forgotten. As the rest of the quotation notes, conquerors seek to remake the conquered in their own image, and blot out the traces of what was there before; if the Latins don't get to "see all earth turned Latin at their feet," then some other conquering people will see it turned into a reflection of themselves. Do you think this is an accurate portrayal of how empire works? More importantly (since we are talking about literature after all), do you think the rest of the Aeneid confirms this portrayal of how empire works?

Book 8

But Caesar then in triple triumph rode
Within the walls of Rome, making immortal
Offerings to the gods of Italy—
Three hundred princely shrines throughout the city.
There were the streets, humming with festal joy
And games and cheers, an altar to every shrine,
To every one a mothers' choir, and bullocks
Knifed before the altars strewed the ground. (8.965-972)

These lines come from the description of the shield made for Aeneas by Vulcan in Book 8. The "Caesar" they refer to is Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, who was just consolidating his political power when Virgil wrote his poem. Why do you think Virgil might have wanted to emphasize that Caesar made "offerings to the gods of Italy" in a poem that depicts Augustus's supposed ancestor, Aeneas, making war against the Italians? Between this brief image and the rest of the Aeneid, who do you think is more important in guaranteeing political power: the gods, or the people?

The man himself, enthroned before the snow-white
Threshold of sunny Phoebus, viewed the gifts
The nations of the earth made, and he fitted them
To the tall portals. Conquered races passed
In long procession, varied in languages
As in their dress and arms. Here Mulciber,
Divine smith, had portrayed the Nomad tribes
And Afri with ungirdled flowing robes,
Here Leleges and Carians, and here
Gelonians with quivers. Here Euphrates,
Milder in his floods now, there Morini,
Northernmost of men; here bull-horned Rhine,
And there the still unconquered Scythian Dahae;
Here, vexed at being bridged, the rough Araxes. (8.973-986)

The preceding quotation shows Augustus's domestic power, expressed in his people's fervent love for him; these lines show Augustus's power over foreign nations (though the line blurs a bit when he hangs up his trophies on "the tall portals" of Rome, which is clearly designed to impress his own people). We think the final lines of this passage are especially amazing. If you want, you could take Virgil's reference to the rivers as an instance of the poetic technique of "metonymy," in which you refer to something by something connected to it. Thus, the "Euphrates" would really just mean "the people who live around the Euphrates." On the other hand, you could also take it literally, or at least as a literal representation of the vanity of emperors, who would love it if geography itself resented their power – just as here the River Araxes resents having a bridge built across it.

Book 9

"Blessèd be
Your new-found manhood, child. By striving so
Men reach the stars, dear son of gods
And sire of gods to come. All fated wars
Will quiet down, and justly, in the end
Under descendants of Assaracus,
For Troy no longer bounds you." (9.892-898)

These lines, spoken by Apollo to Ascanius after he kills his first man in battle, express The Aeneid's prevalent theme of how Roman imperial power will bring an end to wars between the nations within its domain.

Book 10

"My son, I stained your name with wickedness—
Driven out as I was, under a cloud,
From throne and scepter of my ancestors.
Long since I owed my land, my hating folk,
Punishment for my sins." (10.1191-1195)

These lines are spoken by Mezentius as a sort of apology for his son, Lausus, who has just died trying to save him. Thus, they do not immediately address the theme of power. That said, by alluding to the fact that Mezentius was exiled by his own people, they reveal an important truth about political power – namely, that subjugated peoples sometimes have the power to overthrow their rulers. This is not a common theme in the Aeneid, which usually portrays power as absolute – we never hear about the possibility that, say, the conquered peoples of the Roman empire might rise up against their overlords. Why do you think this is so? How would you compare the Aeneid's depictions of the rule of Mezentius with that of rule of the Caesars?

Book 11

"Much earlier than this
I should have wished—and wiser it would have been—
To meet and take decisions in this crisis,
Not with the enemy at the walls, as now." (11.410-413)

Unlike most of the other quotations we have looked at under this theme, which extol the virtues of power, these lines by King Latinus express the frustration of the powerless. It is always nicer to be able to make decisions for yourself, in your own good time, rather than under the threat of a bunch of marauding Trojans destroying your city – don't you think?


"In war
There's no salvation? Sing that to your Trojan
Chief and your own prospects, you mad fool!
Go on confusing everything with fear,
Exalt a race twice-conquered and their strength,
Cry down Latinus' power. Nowadays
The Myrmidons tremble at Phrygian spears,
Diomedes and Achilles tremble—
Yes, and Aufidus torrent flows uphill
In flight from the Adriatic." (11.539-548)

With these sarcastic words, Turnus emphatically characterizes Drances – who had just suggested that he give up his claim to marriage with Lavinia in favor of a less prestigious match – as weaksauce. In them, he displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of political power. Just because the Trojans were beaten twice before, Turnus assumes that it is literally impossible for them to be powerful now – about as likely as the Aufidus river flowing uphill. Even setting aside the fact that the Trojans are fated to win this time, Turnus seems pretty naïve (or willfully ignorant) of the way the world works.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...