Publius Vergilius Maro, better known as Vergil, is among the greatest poets Rome produced. His finest work, the Aeneid, became the national epic and, when Rome collapsed, it survived to become the most influential book Rome contributed to Western culture. Dante Alighieri drew direct inspiration from book 4 for The Divine Comedy (c. 1320), allowing the spirit of Vergil to guide him through the Inferno and up the heights of Purgatory.
Vergil was a modest, retiring man who preferred the seclusion of his country estate to life in the bustling metropolis of Rome. He was much liked and esteemed by important people, including the poet Horace and the Emperor Augustus. He won the patronage of the great, secured the wealth and leisure necessary to write, composed three supreme poems—the Georgics (36-29 b.c.e.), the Eclogues (42-37 b.c.e.), and the Aeneid—and died revered and honored. In his lifetime, he saw the closing years of the civil war that destroyed the Roman Republic and the established Roman Empire under Augustus. To celebrate the Pax Romana and the leadership of Augustus, Vergil wrote the Aeneid, his patriotic epic dealing with the mythical Roman past.
According to legend, the Trojan hero Aeneas came to Italy after escaping the fall of Troy and became the ancestor of the Romans through his descendant, Romulus. Vergil took this material and, borrowing his structure from Homer, fashioned an epic. The first part of the poem, dealing with Aeneas’s wanderings, resembles Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.) in form and content; the second half, which treats Aeneas’s war in Latium and its surroundings, imitates in some ways the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.). Certain poetic devices, such as the repeated epithet, are taken from Homer, as well as the way the gods interfere on behalf of their favorites. However, the Aeneid is wholly original in concept, possessing a unique unity of its own.
The originality lies in its presentation of Aeneas, a hero who struggles and fights, not for booty, personal fame, or any existing country but for a civilization that will exist in the distant future, that of Rome and of Augustus. He sacrifices his personal comforts, leaving home after home because of the prodding of his inner sense of destiny. He knows that he is to be the founder of a new nation, but the details are revealed to him gradually in the course of his journeying. Chronologically, the pattern is one of revelation and sacrifice, and each new revelation about his destiny imposes a greater burden of responsibility. The final revelation—when Aeneas descends with the Sibyl into the cavern of death and is shown the coming glory of Rome by his father, Anchises—prepares him spiritually and physically for the greatest fight of his life. Finally, he is something greater than a man. In fulfilling his grand fate, he becomes a monument, an unstoppable force, an instrument of the gods, like the Roman Empire as Vergil visualized it.
When the poem opens and Aeneas and his men are shipwrecked at Carthage, the hero already knows two things: that he has an important mission to accomplish and that his future home lies on the western coast of Italy. This knowledge ensures, on his part, a limited commitment to Dido, who falls completely in love with him, giving herself freely even though it ruins her as a woman and a queen when Aeneas is ordered by Jupiter to sail on to Italy. In the coldness of his parting, the founder of Rome draws upon himself all the wrath of Dido, the founder of Carthage, which points forward to the Punic Wars between those cities.
Aeneas is not hard-hearted, however. He feels pity for those who are crushed in trying to prevent him from accomplishing his aim—Dido, Lausus, the son of Mezentius, even Turnus. The entire epic is weighted with the sadness of mortality. Aeneas’s sense of destiny gives him courage, fortitude, patience, determination, and strength; yet it also makes him humorless, overbearing, and relentless. Still, without that inner conviction in the future destiny of his life and of his fellow Trojans, he would be nothing. Pity is the most that a person who knows he is doing right can feel for those who oppose him. Aeneas has a noble character, although somewhat inhuman, and he seems to embody the best traits of the Roman people.
The crux of the Aeneid comes, as Dante rightly perceived, in book 4, when Aeneas enters the realm of Death to gain enlightenment about his future. From the fall of Troy, where the ghost of Hector warns Aeneas, to this point, the dead are associated with revelation. In the underworld Aeneas must purify himself ritually, enter the cavern of death, brave all the terrors of hell, meet dead comrades, and finally, with a rite, enter the realms of the blessed to learn the truth about himself and his fate. Like Dante’s hell, Vergil’s has various places assigned for various acts, sins, and crimes, but punishment there purges the soul to prepare it for the Elysian Fields, from which it may reincarnate.
In this section, Vergil delineates his view of the meaning of life and death. There is a Great Soul that gives birth to all living spirits, which incarnate themselves in flesh as assorted creatures, including people. The desires of these spirits hinder them from living up to their true purpose in bodily form, so that they must be cleansed after death, only to take on flesh again until they learn their rightful end and achieve it. Thus, death purifies and life tests one on the long road to perfection. This occult view is, in Vergil’s case, a mixture of Pythagorean reincarnation, Stoic pantheism, and Platonic mysticism. That view gives credence to everything Anchises shows Aeneas about his illustrious descendants and the rising power of Rome. Aeneas sees the souls of the future waiting their turn, and he knows how much responsibility he really bears. Anchises’s judgment of Aeneas is a fitting comment on Rome itself:
But yours, my Roman, is the gift of government,That is your bent—to impose upon the nationsThe code of peace; to be clement to conquered,But utterly to crush the intransigent!
In these lines, Vergil sums up the particular genius of Rome, together with its greatness and its terrors.