Virgil’s proclamation, for Caesar had chosen to accept

Virgil’s Aeneid is regarded today as his
masterwork. An epic poem drawing heavily from the Homeric tradition, it
chronicles the adventures of Aeneas, who left Troy for Italy after the Trojan
War and ultimately became the progenitor of the Roman people. Not only does the
Aeneid offer readers a Trojan
perspective of the war and its aftermath, but it also serves to provide Rome with
its own national epic. That Augustus Caesar himself commissioned the Aeneid is significant because it set Virgil
in the role of the client, whose duty was to honor his patron: throughout the Aeneid, Virgil makes a number of references
to Augustus and his reign, which several scholars have argued lends the epic a
propagandistic quality. Although Virgil appears to be glorifying Augustus in the
Aeneid, the poem’s underlying themes
are strong criticisms of the emperor and the part he played in overthrowing
Rome’s glorious Republic.

            One
way in which the Aeneid seems to be
Augustan propaganda is by shaping the character of Aeneas into a mirror of some
of Augustus’ best attributes. Throughout the poem, Virgil depicts Aeneas as a
man who shows great pietas, or
loyalty to his family and to the gods. This pietas
is especially evident in Book Two, when Aeneas is describing the fall of
Troy to Dido. On the way out of Troy, Aeneas says to his father, Anchises, “Dear
father, let them set you on my shoulders. / I’ll carry you—you will not weigh
me down” (Virgil 2.707-708). The Trojan then instructs Anchises to “take our gods,
these holy statues” (Virgil 2.717). This strong desire to protect his father,
as well as to save the household gods, or Penates, even though his household will
inevitably be destroyed, illustrates that above all, Aeneas is a man of filial
piety. In fact, Aeneas’ pietas
reflects well on Augustus, who also was widely known for his pietas. After Julius Caesar was
assassinated, Augustus openly vowed to avenge his adoptive father (Greenley et
al. 107). This clearly was a legitimate proclamation, for Caesar had chosen to accept Augustus as his son,
and thus it was Augustus’ duty to honor him even in death. The pietas that is central to the character
of both Aeneas and Augustus establishes a bond between the two men.

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Additionally, it is a suggestion that Augustus will bring excellence to Rome in
much the same way that Aeneas did by sailing from Troy to Italy and eventually
becoming the progenitor of the Roman people.

Another obvious
hint of Augustan propaganda in the Aeneid
can be found in Book Six, during which Aeneas travels to the Underworld so
as to speak with Anchises. Anchises tells Aeneas of many glorious Romans of the
future, but he gives Augustus special attention. Anchises says:

Here is the
man so often promised you,

Augustus Caesar,
a god’s son, and bringer

Of a new
age of gold to Saturn’s old realm

Of Latium.

(Virgil 6.791-94)

 

These words are clearly praiseworthy of Augustus,
and thus it is easy to dismiss them as nothing more than an attempt by Virgil to
appease his patron. There is, however, considerable truth to them. After all,
Augustus’ adoptive father, Julius Caesar, was deified by the Roman Senate after
he died, hence establishing Augustus as the son of a god. Adding onto this idea
of Augustus as a god’s son, Suetonius writes in The Twelve Caesars that Augustus was born ten months after a
mysterious serpent-shaped mark appeared on his mother, Atia, following her
attendance of “a religious solemnity in honour of Apollo,” and thus Augustus “was
thought to be the son of Apollo.” Suetonius also mentions that “a few months
before Augustus’ birth, there happened at Rome a prodigy, by which was
signified that Nature was in travail with a king for the Roman people”
(Suetonius). Anchises’ praise of Augustus hence seems, in light of all this
information from Suetonius, to be an assessment of the Caesar as a worthy and
respectable ruler, particularly because he was related to or descended from a
powerful god.

            It
is later in Book Six of the Aeneid
that it begins to emerge as an epic that is truly critical of Augustus. Virgil
writes of Aeneas’ exit from the Underworld:

                        There are
two gates of sleep. The one, they say,

                        Is horn:
true shades go out there easily;

                        The other—shining,
white, well-crafted ivory—

                        Lets
spirits send false dreams up toward the sky.

                        His
speeches done, Anchises brought his son here,

                        And the
Sibyl too, and sent them through the ivory. (Virgil 6.893-98)

 

Given that Virgil creates obvious similarities
between Aeneas and Augustus throughout the Aeneid,
it is hardly positive that he describes Aeneas as leaving the underworld
through the Gate of Ivory, through which false dreams are sent. There are two
implications here. The first is that Augustus is himself a false dream. After
all, he only came to power through being crafty and cunning: Suetonius writes that
Augustus was not elected consul, as had been customary during the Republic, but
instead “seized the consulship in the twentieth year of his age, quartering his
legions in a threatening manner near the city, and sending deputies to demand
it for him in the name of the army” (Suetonius). One can conclude that Virgil views
Augustus as a mere usurper (like the Tarquin kings Anchises mentions later in
his speech to Aeneas), as opposed to a leader chosen on the basis of his greatness
and promise (Virgil 6.817). The second implication is that (to Virgil) a lone
ruler of Rome is inherently false—that all the power in Rome should not rest in
the hands of one man—which becomes clear when one takes into account the way
Virgil describes Priam’s death and corpse in Book Two of the Aeneid.

            Virgil’s
descriptions of Priam’s death and corpse are another manner in which the poet subtly
criticizes Augustus. Virgil first tells the reader that Priam dies as the
result of being stabbed, but a mere four lines afterward, still referring to Priam,
he writes, “On the shore a tall corpse / Lies nameless, with its head ripped
from its shoulders” (Virgil 2.557-58). One could at first assume that this
discrepancy is due to human error—that Virgil really intended to describe Priam’s
corpse as having a massive stab wound in its side. Given that Virgil is known
for being a “meticulous, industrious writer,” however, it is far more likely
that he purposely described Priam as having been both stabbed and beheaded so as
to make a statement about the murder of Pompey, who was Julius Caesar’s main opponent
during the first Roman Civil War (Mandelbaum).

Plutarch
writes in his work The Parallel Lives
that toward the end of the Civil War, Pompey was headed for what appeared to be
a welcoming party on the Egyptian shore at Pelusium when he was fatally stabbed
by Achillas, Septimius, and Salvius, three men whom he had thought to be
trustworthy. After Pompey had died from his stab wounds, the men “cut off his
head, and threw the rest of his body unclothed out of his boat” (Plutarch 325).

The story of Priam’s murder as told in the Aeneid
is evidently quite similar to that of the murder of Pompey, indicating that
Virgil’s intention is to make the Trojan king into a surrogate for Pompey. By
equating Pompey with Priam, Virgil is claiming that Pompey was clearly a great
ruler (Priam matched this description in several ways, including that his
subjects thought highly of him and that he produced a fierce, noble soldier in
the form of his son Hector). Through his lamentation of the death of Priam, Virgil
is expressing his disapproval of Julius Caesar’s supreme power, which Caesar
was able to obtain as a result of Pompey’s death, and now the supreme power of
Augustus, Caesar’s son. More specifically, because Pompey was, as Colin Michael
Wells puts it, the “champion of the Republic,” Virgil’s lamentation of Priam’s
death is ultimately a lamentation of the death of the Republic (Wells 51). That
it was Julius Caesar who was immensely responsible for the fall of the Republic
reflects badly on Augustus as Caesar’s son, for Augustus would have to bear the
shame of his father’s actions throughout his life, as indicated by the
significance of family to the Romans. Thus, Virgil can be seen as subtly
maligning Augustus through his descriptions of the death and corpse of Priam.

Aeneas’ ultimate
disregarding of Anchises’ advice from Book Six serves to reinforce the
negativity of Virgil’s portrayal of Augustus. Anchises instructs Aeneas, “You
of the gods’ stock: take the lead, have mercy! / My son, throw down your
weapons!” (Virgil 6.834-35). Anchises wants Aeneas to understand that violence
is not always the answer—that he does not necessarily have to be violent in order
to triumph. One can reasonably assume that Virgil agrees with this statement:
after all, it is through Anchises’ taking Aeneas to the Gate of Ivory that
Virgil subtly articulates his disapproval of Augustus and the way he came to
power, suggesting that Virgil is using Anchises as a vehicle to provide the
reader with his personal beliefs. Of course, Aeneas chooses, in the end, to
ignore Anchises’ advice, despite the sympathetic portrayal of Turnus that
Virgil gives the reader throughout the epic. The poet first sets up Turnus as a
likable character by emphasizing the man’s nobility and his original
unwillingness to fight the Trojans. Later, in Book Twelve, Virgil reinforces
Turnus’ sympathetic image by having Turnus beg Aeneas to spare his life once
the Latin realizes he has lost to the Trojan. Even though Turnus does not have
any weapons at this point, and thus would be unable to harm Aeneas further, Aeneas
decides to kill him anyway. Virgil concludes the poem with the lines “His enemy’s
body soon grew cold and helpless, / While the indignant soul flew down to Hades”
(Virgil 12.951-52). This certainly is not an uplifting note on which to end the
poem: in disregarding Anchises’ advice to show mercy, Aeneas has acted more
like a barbarian than like an admirable and principled Roman. Given that Virgil
has established numerous links between Aeneas and Augustus throughout the Aeneid, there is the strong implication that
Augustus achieved his emperorship through un-Roman ways, destroying something
laudable, the Roman Republic, in order to gain territory and prestige.

Although
the Aeneid appears, at first glance, to
be complimentary of Augustus, closer inspection reveals that Virgil is really quite
critical of the emperor and the role he played in upending the glorious Roman
Republic. That Aeneas is portrayed as having great pietas is a positive comment on Augustus, who also was well known
for his pietas. Additionally, there
is considerable truth to the praise of Augustus that Anchises relates in Book
Six, as is evident from reading of Suetonius; Virgil thus seems to be painting
an optimistic picture of Augustus and his reign. However, Aeneas’ leaving the
Underworld through the Gate of Ivory, Virgil’s allusion to Pompey in his
description of the death and corpse of Priam, and Aeneas’ ultimate disregarding
of Anchises’ advice to show mercy to others serve to create an overall negative
portrayal of Augustus. Although it was Virgil’s duty to honor his patron
through his work, he could not, in the end, completely conceal his disapproval
of the emperor. Disregarding the Aeneid’s
stance on Augustus, the poem is a compelling addition to the epic canon that
enlightens readers on what it truly meant to be Roman.