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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Publius Vergilius Maro (anglicized as Virgil) was born on October 15, 70 BC, in a village, near Mantua in the north of Italy which was called Gallia Cisalpina, not given Roman citizenship until 46 BC. He came from a rural background, which served him, well when he wrote the Eclogues and the Georgics. But his education, was that of an aristocrat, and from the age of fifteen, he was given the “toga of manhood” and he studied in Milan and Rome. His family home, near Mantua, was confiscated by the young Octavian for his demobilized legions, after the battle at Philippic.
In Rome, he studied Greek and Roman history and literature and cultivated a circle of friends, including Maecenas who was later to help Augustus Caesar gather a galaxy of artists and writers for the Roman Empire. It is not certain whether Virgil took part as a soldier in the civil war of 49 BC, between Julius Caesar and Pompey. Around 47BC, he was in Naples and studied under the Epicurean Siro. By this time he had begun writing poetry and in 37 BC his Eclogues meaning “The Selection” were published. In 29 BC the completed Georgic were read to Octavian in the Campania region. This seems to have triggered off the commissioning of The Aeneid although Augustus was looking for an epic celebrating his life.
In his pastoral poems, Virgil used the model of the Sicilian poet Theocritus who had written, the Idyll about two centuries before Virgil. However, the allegorical allusions to real people, gives the Eclogues an added interest. The Georgics, are modeled on the Greek poet Hesiod’s Works and Days and his own personal knowledge of farming. For his epic, which he left incomplete on his death in 19 BC, Virgil inevitably turned to the source of epic poetry, Homer. Later imitators of Homer also provide Virgil with vignettes and characters involved in the Trojan War. It took Virgil ten years to write what he has written of The Aeneid. His revisions and attention to minute poetic details show, that he was above all a literary craftsman.
The action of The Aeneid, is historically in the Bronze Age, after the Trojan war (between 1300-1100BC). But Virgil wrote it, in the first century BC between 29 and 19 BC when Augustus Caesar had just taken charge of Rome after, the defeat of Mare Antony of Actuim. At Virgil’s death, the epic was left incomplete, with instructions for its destruction, but Augustus was so anxious for a Roman epic that he sent two officers to Naples to prevent its destruction.
The Aeneid indeed projects Augustus Caesar’s worldview with a deep commitment to peace and unity among the different peoples who made up the Empire. Augustus wanted the Romans to have a common heritage of art and culture, which would unite them after the bitter strife of civil wars, which had started after the assassination of Julius Caesar and ended with the defeat of Marc Antony. Virgil’s epic eulogized Rome while reflecting in Aeneas the inspiring leadership, good organizational skills, a high sense of moral responsibility and justice, which were the qualities Augustus willed to project. Above all Aeneas like Augustus Caesar is shown to place the interest of the state above his personal interest. The contemporaries of Virgil could discern public personalities and recent events in the course of the epic.
The Roman emperor’s need, to project himself as partly divine, is also obvious in Aeneas through whom Augustus is made to trace his descent. A Lineage traced to the gods, gives the emperor, moral authority, to defend Roman tradition and demand absolute obedience. Moreover, the epic glorifies the paternal virtues and filial devotion as necessary for stability and peace. The ruler is like a father figure as Augustus projected himself in relief sculptures and paintings where he would appear, in a family group.
The racial consciousness of the Romans, of Virgil’s times, is also reflected in The Aeneid. Not only, are the founders of Rome descended from gods but, they are morally superior respecting treaties, keeping their word. Even people from the provinces of Italy, were considered rural simpletons, uncouth and racially inferior. Virgil himself from the ‘barbarian’ west has presented a very balanced view of the armies supporting Turnus. He has emphasized the war-like bravery of both sides. Greeks, whose civilization helped civilize, the Romans, were regarded as cowardly, effeminate and cunning by the Romans. Virgil tries to redress this balance by providing reasons why Diomedes will not fight and Evander cannot.
[Source] The main epics of the Trojan war, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were the main sources of the inspiration and structure of The Aeneid. As many critics have observed, the first half of The Aeneid dealing with the voyage from Troy to Italy resembles the Odyssey, while the series of battles in Latium, resemble the Iliad. However, the structure being Homeric, the stories of the Trojan war and the plight of certain individuals, Andromache, for instance reached Virgil through a number of fragmenting epics existing from the Greeks of the Hellenistic period. Other stories referred to by Virgil, were from the Greek tragedies, which for instance dramatize the murder of Agamemnon on his arrival home. However, the epics written in the Hellenistic age did not present adequate portraits of people in action.
[Style] The Aeneid, shifts the accent from the heroic warriors, to present a vision of the world, as viewed by the best Romans of the Augustan age. Moreover, it is the most significant “literary epic” of the pagan age. The special features of its style, includes a dramatic narrative, centered around a hero of half-divine parentage. A panoramic geographical setting is supplemented by a panoramic historical view, which includes by way of prophecies, the history of Rome upto Virgil’s time. Long arduous journeys and feats of almost superhuman action, to accomplish the preordained goal, are other characteristics of the epic as also the involvement of the gods in human affairs. Virgil’s worldview demands absolute submission to higher authority, which informs the whole action of The Aeneid.
Most stylistic devices, which characterize an epic or grand style, are found in The Aeneid. The epic similes are ornamental and often anticipatory of the action or suggest the poet’s attitude to a particular situation. Some repetition for intended irony or to draw a parallel, which is a common feature of oral poetry, is also used.
The warrior’s armour, specially the description of the shield and other material objects, through a device called ‘ekphrasis’ has been employed by Virgil for prophetic purposes when he shows Aeneas’s shield designed by Vulcan. The invocation, to the muses to help the poet present momentous scenes apart from the first invocation and the statement of the subject of the epic are a part of the style. So also are the great catalogues of ships and the roll call of the armies, which use formulaic descriptions to characterize certain people. The epics generally begin in the middle of the action followed by a flashback in the form of a recapitulative narration. In short, Virgil has used the structure and style of the Homeric epics and introduced into it, the concept of presenting the history and philosophy of the Romans.