Choice of Subject, Literary, Predecessors and Sources
The choice of the Aeneas legend enabled Virgil to assimilate literary models to the glorification of the Roman race past, present and future, while at the same time offering him plenty of freedom to manipulate his material. For there was an existing tradition, through writers such as Timaeus, Lycophron and Naevius, that attested to the Trojan foundation of Rome and Aeneas' role in it. However, the details were fluid. Therefore, Virgil had at his disposal a legend that was unequivocally national in character, but with enough scope for him enlarge some episodes (e.g. Dido and Aeneas), alter various relationships (e.g. Latinus and Turnus) and invent some elements entirely (e.g. the funeral games of Anchises). Through the narration of the journey from the conquered city of Troy to the first settlement in Italy, Virgil could praise the Roman race through the deeds and characters of their ancestors, thus glorifying the race and avoiding the awkwardness of praising the deeds and characters of living people. Through the devices of prophecy and ekphrasis (e.g. the pictorial representations on Aeneas' shield), and Aeneas' voyage to the Underworld, he could celebrate those men, and famous figures from Rome's past, as heroes destined to fulfil glorious fates. While through the explanations of various Roman festivals and customs (aetiology), he could legitimise aspects of Roman social life, by providing cogent links from the past to the present.
At the same time as fulfilling these functions, the Aeneas legend also provided Virgil with a link to the mythical past and in particular the epics of Homer. For Aeneas is a contemporary of the heroes of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is represented as a Trojan prince of some renown in the former. Again, however, his characterization is vague enough to provide Virgil with a relatively clean slate. The connection to Homer demonstrates something of Virgil's purpose in writing the Aeneid. For the Iliad and Odyssey were unparalleled as literary models for writing epic poetry, depicting, as they do, a broad cross-section of the culture of the Greek heroic world. They are the ancestors and sources for much of the literature of the Greeks and by extension, that of the Romans. Now Virgil was setting himself the task of creating for his people what Homer had created for the Greeks. And yet, the society in which Virgil lived was far more complex than that of Homer. He had to adapt his hero such that he would be an exemplum of contemporary Roman ideals and morals; a man who had grown from the more primitive heroic code of the Homeric epics into a more modern Augustan hero.
In addition to Homer, Virgil also made use of many of his other literary predecessors, Greek, Hellenistic and Roman. The influence of 5th Century Greek tragedy is clear, particularly in the story of Dido. She is very much a tragic heroine, brought down by a combination of her own hubristic actions and the designs of the gods. Her attempts to persuade Aeneas resemble the agones (verbal contests) of classical tragedy; while her death at her own hands at the end of Book 4, when she realises the full extent of her fall from grace, is typical of the destruction of the hero in tragedy when his/her pride can no longer countenance living on with such shame.
The poem also demonstrates Virgil's debt to his predecessors in the Roman literary tradition. Latin literature had begun late in the third century BC with the works of men such as Livius Andronicus, Ennius, and Plautus, who sought to emulate Greek literature and create for Rome Latin equivalents of the Greek literary forms. In the Aeneid, we find passages and phrases that echo Ennius in particular, whose Annales was the first Latin epic and who was the first to adapt the Greek hexameter to Latin. By Virgil's time, however, such slavish reproductions of Greek literary forms were out of fashion. The previous generation of Latin poets had, on the whole, eschewed long poems in favour of short, ornate verses that focussed not on the deeds of great men, but on the minutiae of decadent existence: love affairs, dinner parties, fine living. In this they were led by Catullus, but the initial motivating force was the Hellenistic poet Callimachus, who had labelled long poems 'boring' and whose sophisticated, learned and polished style was imitated by his Latin successors in the middle of the first century BC. Catullus' Peleus and Thetis (Poem 64) is the longest narrative poem of the period and occupies only four hundred lines. Yet, Catullus is still an important influence upon Virgil, particularly stylistically. For there are times, especially in Book 4, when Virgil wishes to express tenderness or pathos and we see that it is to Catullus that he turns for inspiration. At the same time, Lucretius, who alone wrote a long poem of consequence in the period prior to Virgil - De Rerum Natura, an impassioned support of the philosophy of Epicurus - provides another model for the application of the Latin hexameter and we find passages throughout the Aeneid that are reminiscent of his great work, particularly in Virgil's use of imagery.
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