By Jean Marie Carey

Publius Vergilius Maro – better known as the Roman poet Virgil – was born 15 October 70 BCE. The Aeneid, considered the national epic poem of Rome from the time it was written until today, was created between 29 and 19 BCE and tells of the legendary Aeneas, a Trojan who travelled to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the Romans. Modelled to some extent on the Iliad, the first six of the poem’s twelve books tell the story of Aeneas’s wanderings from Troy to Italy, and the poem’s second half tells of the Trojans’ ultimately victorious war upon the Latins, under whose name Aeneas and his Trojan followers are destined to be subsumed.

In addition to its narrative teleology, the Aeneid provides many of the “back stories” of the deities of the Roman pantheon which persisted as popular stories after belief in the Olympians had ceased as a religious practice. “Fate” as a central concept coincides with the will of Jupiter, though the exact relationship is kept vague. Juno, pained and angry at past events, attempts always to retard the progress of the story, as a sort of “counter‐fate.” She is doomed to failure; at the end of the epic she is reconciled to the fate of Aeneas, but we know that this is only temporary. Onto the opposition between the king and queen of heaven may be projected many other oppositions in the poem: heaven and hell, order and disorder, reason and emotion, success and failure, future and past, epic and tragedy. The treatment of these oppositions became a central subject for Renaissance artists and writers who recast the conflicts in contemporary Christian allegories and metaphors.

Coincidentally 15 October is also the birthday of another famous Roman poet, Titus Lucretius Carus (94–55 BCE), a writer and philosopher whose only known work, De rerum natura, is at once a masterpiece of Latin literature and also the chief conduit through which the philosophy of Epicurus was transmitted to Renaissance Italy and beyond. Despite the widespead unease about Lucretius being one of the few ancient writers whose doctrines seemed to be in direct conflict with Christianity, the poem, which encourages virtuous living, continued to be read throughout the period, and was an important influence on the thought of cosmologists, philosophers, writers, and book lovers, including Aldus Manutius, who printed a version in 1500.

Reference: “Lucretius in the Renaissance.” In The Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance, edited by Campbell Gordon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. and “Virgil,” in Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World, Oxford University Press, 2007.

Correggio. Jupiter and Io, c. 1530. Google Art Project.

Titian. Bacchus and Ariadne, c. 1520. The National Gallery

Clio, Virgil and Melpomene. Imperial Roman, c. 200. The Bardo Museum, Tunis.

As três Tyches, c. 160. The Borghese Collection at the Louvre, Paris. Photo: Ricardo André Frantz.

Sandro Botticelli. Primavera, c. 1475. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Further Reading: Philip Hardie. The Last Trojan Hero, A Cultural History of Virgil’s Aeneid.London: I.B.Tauris, 2014. 

Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by David Ferry. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. 

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