Archived Pages |  Syllabus  |  Resources  | Current Events |  Email Instructor |  Discussion     

Vergil, Aeneid I-VI
(click here for continuation)


Buy this book at!

Q.: How come Vergil's name is spelled with an "e" on the website (and on Butler Library), but with an "i" (in the first syllable) on the cover of our book?

A.: In Latin, Vergil's name is Publius Vergilius Maro. The "e" in his first syllable seems to have been switched to an "i" (in English) around the 5th century C.E., probably to make it look more like "Virgin," as in, the Virgin Mary. Other theories about that "i" include:

  • the Latin word for a virgin or maiden is: virgo, virginis (f., III), and Vergil's friends nicknamed him this in teasing reference to his bashful behavior;
  • the Latin word for a wand, particularly a magical one, is virga, virgae (f., I), and people after Vergil's death nicknamed him this in awed reference to his presumed magical powers. (In the Middle Ages, some claimed that he could even resurrect the dead, although this claim would be more applicable to Dante, as we shall see anon.)

For a brief biography of Vergil, click here.

The Aeneid--background
At the time the Aeneid was written, Rome had just emerged from literally hundreds of years of war--foreign and civil--into an era of peace and prosperity that generations of Romans had never known.
Some important details of the historical circumstances in which the Aeneid was written are supplied below.

i]  Timeline
[click here to see a timeline showing Roman, Greek and Judaeo-Christian history in parallel]

  • 753 B.C.E.: traditional date for the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus.
  • 510 B.C.E.: beginning of the Roman Republic; Rome, ruled by consuls, consolidates power throughout the Italian peninsula
  • 264-146 B.C.E.: The Punic Wars [Rome vs. Carthage]--brought to us, if Vergil is to be believed, by Dido's curse (Aeneid IV: 865-875, p.118).
          *264-241: First Punic War [Rome wins, occupies Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica]
          *218-202: Second Punic War [Hannibal crosses Alps, is defeated and returns to Carthage]
          *149-146: Third Punic War [Rome wins, Carthage is destroyed]
  • 133-30 B.C.E.: Roman Time of Troubles [civil wars, insurrections, coups]
          *71 Slave revolt led by Spartacus, put down by Pompey
          *60 First Triumvirate [Pompey+Julius Caesar+Crassus, against senatorial party]
          *58-51 Caesar conquers Gaul
          *49 Caesar crosses the Rubicon, defeats Pompey's army
          *47 Caesar establishes Cleopatra as queen of Egypt (and his lover)
          *46-44 Dictatorship of Julius Caesar; Julian calendar established
          *44 Murder of Caesar by Brutus and Cassius
          *Second Triumvirate [Mark Anthony+Lepidus+Octavian Caesar]
  • 31 B.C.E.: Battle of Actium; Roman Republic ends, age of Roman Empire begins; Octavian (later Augustus Caeasar) becomes supreme ruler of Rome
  • 31 B.C.E.-14 C.E.: The Augustan Age
          *29-19 B.C.E.: Vergil writes Aeneid

ii]  Augustus Caesar
The decisive battle in the civil wars that had plagued Rome since 133 B.C.E. was the Battle of Actium, in which the fleet of Octavian Caesar (Julius Caesar's great-nephew) and Agrippa defeated that of Anthony and Cleopatra. When that happened, in 31 B.C.E., the era of the Roman Republic came to an end and Octavian became the first Roman Emperor. In 27 B.C.E. he was given the honorary name "Augustus" by the Senate.

The following description of Augustus's rule is taken from

      "After the naval battle off Actium, which Agrippa won over Antony and Cleopatra, Octavian controlled all Roman territories. Although he began to reform the city and the provinces, he never returned control of the state back to the people.
       He did, however, give the impression that Rome had gone from a military dictatorship to constitutional rule. He established no court, and he considered himself, at least publicly, not the ruler, but rather the first citizen of the republic. The senate delighted to honor him: in 29 B.C. he was made imperator [Lat., "commander"; from it is derived emperor], in 28 B.C. princeps ["leader"; from it is derived prince], in 27 B.C. augustus ["august, reverend"], in 12 B.C. pontifex maximus ["high priest"], and a month of the calendar (Sextilis) was renamed Augustus (August) in his honor.
      Augustus studied the plans of Caesar for colonization throughout the empire. In economic policy, he supported business and industry. He made taxation more equitable and had general censuses taken. Knowing that the roads were the arteries of the empire, he lavished expenditures on them. He built a new forum, beautified the streets, improved housing conditions, and set up adequate police and fire protection. He was munificent to arts and letters, and he was a close friend of Maecenas and a patron of Vergil, Ovid, Livy, and Horace. He was succeeded by his stepson Tiberius."

iii]  A New Golden Age
The "Golden Age" that ensued under Augustus's rule--which was characterised by peace, stability, a massive building program, and a flourishing in the arts--was supposed to recall the original Golden Age of Saturn, which Evander describes at Aeneid VIII: 415-431 (p. 240). The idea of a "Golden Age," in which life had been simple and effortless (cf. Eden, in Judaeo-Christian mythology), comes down to us from the Greek poet Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer. In his Works and Days, Hesiod developed a mythological history of humankind, divided into five periods:

  1. the Golden Age, beneficently ruled by Saturn (in Greek, Kronos, or Time--cf. English "chronology") a period of serenity, peace, and eternal spring;
  2. the Silver Age, ruled by Jupiter (Zeus), less happy, but with luxury prevailing;
  3. the Bronze Age, a period of strife;
  4. the Heroic Age of the Trojan War;
  5. the Iron Age, Hesiod's present, when justice and piety had vanished.

Hesiod's conception of a world and race of humans "fallen" from an irrecoverable state of grace was as compelling and influential in Greco-Roman culture as the similar Eden story is in Judaeo-Christian culture. As you read, note how Vergil uses Golden Age imagery in the Aeneid to unite the span of human (or, at least, Roman) history under an arc of both loss and hope. Why is it important that Evander lives right on the spot where Saturn used to rule?

iv] by the way...
Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival celebrated Dec. 17-23, commemorated the "Golden Age" of Saturn's rule. Gifts were exchanged in remembrance of the bounty Saturn had once upon a time bestowed upon the Roman people. In the 3rd century A.D., the Roman emperor Aurelian consolidated the festival into a single day, Dec. 25. Shortly thereafter, the early Christian church fathers set the festival commemorating the birth of Jesus for the same date, which had the advantages of (a) already being a widely and officially observed festival, and (b) coinciding with the winter solstice, when the days start to get longer again.

Interestingly, the Church placed John the Baptist's birth on the Summer Solstice (decreasing sunlight) and Christ's birth on the Winter Solstice (increasing sunlight)--symbolizing the Baptist's statement, in the Gospel according to John (Jn. 3:30) that "He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease."

Study Questions
The Aeneid is fiendishly complex, so I've prepared a book-by-book list of study questions for Books I-VI (which I also handed out in class). NB: it is mandatory to look over the study questions before posting to the online discussion!

Don't forget that I also asked you to think about the following:
--Aeneas's relationship to the past (you can thinik about this in relation to Odysseus "nostalgia," which helps drive him to achieve his nostos...)
--that scene on pp. 20-21 where Aeneas "reads" the temple of Juno at Carthage.

  Archived Pages  |  Syllabus  |  Course Info  |  Email Instructor |  Go to Discussion  
  Other Resources  |  Literature Humanities Homepage at Columbia | Current Events Pages