Virgil lived through one of the bloodiest periods in Rome's history, during which enormous constitutional change took place. Four hundred years of Republican government, with its system of two annually elected consuls, was ultimately replaced by the imperial government of Caesar Augustus after one hundred years of bitter in-fighting and civil war.
Shortly before Virgil's birth, Cornelius Sulla had seized power and had published his notorious proscription lists. Civil unrest continued with the Catilinarian conspiracy of 63 BC and the rise to power of Julius Caesar, who, together with Pompey and Crassus, formed the first triumvirate in 60 BC. The alliance was sealed by the marriage of Julia, Caesar's daughter, to Pompey. However with her death during childbirth in 54 BC and Crassus' in 53 BC, already strained relations between the two remaining triumvirs reached breaking point. In 49 BC, Caesar declared war on Pompey and the Roman senate, crossed the Rubicon and marched on Rome with his forces.
The defeat of Pompey established Caesar as the sole ruler of the entire Roman empire. However, despite his merciful treatment of his political and personal enemies (in stark contrast to previous Roman leaders), fears grew over his monarchical aspirations and his desire to keep supreme power within his own house. Eventually, he was assassinated in the senate house in a conspiracy led by his former friends and supporters, Brutus and Cassius, who claimed to be acting for the old Roman republic.
After Caesar's death the second triumvirate was formed by Octavian, Caesar's great nephew and heir, Mark Antony and Lepidus. In 42 BC, they met and defeated the Republicans, led by Brutus and Cassius, at the Battle of Philippi. They divided the empire between them, but relations became increasingly strained, despite a temporary settlement at the treaty of Brundisium, in 40 BC, and the politically expedient marriage of Antony to Octavia, Octavian's sister. Lepidus, the least powerful of the three, having been given command of Africa, was deprived of it, in 35 BC, by Octavian. Antony, meanwhile, was occupied against the Parthians in the East, but spent much of his time at the court of the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. As Caesar had done before him, he took her as his mistress. When he dissolved his marriage to Octavia, Octavian denounced him to the senate and declared war on Egypt. The combined forces of Antony and Cleopatra clashed with those of Octavian in a naval battle at Actium in 31 BC. During the battle, Cleopatra's ships were seen fleeing southwards and Antony swiftly followed, leaving his fleet to surrender to Octavian. When Octavian invaded Egypt in 30 BC, Antony, hearing falsely that Cleopatra was dead, took his own life. Cleopatra herself was captured but, rather than be paraded through the streets of Rome as a captive, she also killed herself with a bite from an asp. Consequently, Egypt became a Roman province, and Rome finally passed from Republic to Empire.
Octavian returned to Rome as sole ruler and took the additional name of Augustus. Despite formally resigning the dictatorship, returning power to the senate and thus restoring the old republic, he nevertheless held supreme authority. Named 'Imperator' (General), 'Princeps' (First Citizen) and ultimately 'Pontifex Maximus' (Chief Priest), he was military, civil and religious leader. However, his rule was not characterized by attempts to extend Rome's empire but rather to consolidate what she already possessed. In stark contrast to the preceding period of Roman history, Augustus' reign saw a time of relatively secure peace, in which he aimed to re-establish the simple ethical values of the old republic.Within this atmosphere, poetry, particularly that of Virgil and Horace, flourished under the patronage of Maecenas, a friend of Augustus', and that of the emperor himself. The poets sought to provide works in tune with the new age, celebrating Rome, her achievements and her ideals, through poetry that was refined and polished and which assimilated much from the literature of the past, Greek, Hellenistic and Roman.
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