Rome: Literature "The Aenid" and "The Metamorphisis"

Roman Literature

Latin literature, the literature of ancient Rome and of that written in Latin in later eras. Very little remains of the ritualistic songs and the native poetry of the Romans and Latins before the rise of a literature. The history of the Roman Empire is fundamental to the fabric of this literature: in the first three centuries of its development, the influence of captive Greece was all-pervasive.

The close of the First Punic War (c.240 B.C.) marks the beginning of literary work in Rome with the plays of the slave Livius Andronicus, adapted from the Greek. The epic poet Gnaeus Naevius also wrote dramas, but he was far surpassed by the greatest of Roman dramatists, Plautus, a master of comedy. In his Satires Ennius introduced the hexameter into Latin; Cato the Elder opposed the hellenizing group, to which Ennius belonged, and wrote his works in as rude a Latin as possible. However, his efforts had little effect and the works of Terence, Greek in scene and origin, manifest the tremendous interchange of Greek and Latin writing.

The 1st cent. B.C., the last era of the Roman republic, produced some of the greatest figures in Latin literature : the encyclopedist Varro, the statesmen and prose masters Cicero and Julius Caesar, the poets Lucretius and Catullus, and the historian Sallust. Vergil, the greatest of Latin epic poets, exemplifies a new atmosphere in the Augustan age, with his celebration : and somber questioning : of the new empire. In his epodes, odes, and satires, the poet Horace brought the Latin lyric to perfection, while the elegy was cultivated by Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid. The notable historian of the age was Livy.


During the first half of the 1st cent. A.D., Latin literature in its classical form was in decline. The works of Seneca, Lucan, Persius, and Statius typify a period in which the masters, both Latin and Greek, were imitated. Among the most original poets were Martial and Juvenal, celebrated for their satiric writings. Petronius, Frontinus, Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger (see under Pliny the Elder), and Tacitus were the chief writers of prose; Suetonius exemplified the richness of historical and biographical writing under the Principate, while Quintilian brought classical literary criticism to its greatest development.

In the 2d cent. Marcus Fronto distinguished himself as an orator; his pupil Marcus Aurelius gained fame both as a ruler and as one of the masters of the Latin essay. In the 3d and 4th cent. the writings of Ausonius and Avienus extended beyond classical studies, developing traditional themes to deal with everyday life and the world of nature. Claudian is considered the best of the late poets. Ammianus Marcellinus was a noted historian. The philological scholars of the empire were numerous. These included Aulus Gellius, Terentianus, Macrobius, Martianus Capella, and Priscian.

As the classical inspiration died, the tradition of Latin literature was borrowed from and carried forward in Christian writing. Prudentius attempted to build a Christian style on classical models, but failed. The Latin language became the standard language of the West and by far the greater bulk of medieval literature as well as records, documents, and letters was written in Latin.


Biography of Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro)

70-19 B.C.

Virgil remains one of the most influential Roman authors throughout history and his texts have exhibited profound effects upon writers throughout the years. He was recognized even by his own contemporaries as an exemplary poet and a model for others. He employed a vast knowledge of ancient legends and associations throughout his texts resulting in his reputation as a "learned" poet. Unlike other poets of his time, Virgil's freshness and wit never diminishes over his career and he retains a delicate subtlety of expressions throughout his works.

His qualities of tenderness, humanity and deep religious sentiment caused him to be regarded as the herald of Christianity throughout the middle ages. This ensured a wide transmission of his works and caused Dante to choose him as the guide in his master work The Divine Comedy. Later, in the modern era, his works became required reading in scholastic curricula and his texts became vehicles for education in Latin grammar.

As well as the Aeneid, Virgil left behind two other major works, the Eclogues and the Georgics. The Eclogues are ten short poems in dactylic hexameter. They belong to the genre of pastoral poetry: the poems are imagined as being composed or performed by herdsmen and other rustic characters, and they are much concerned with the natural world of plants, trees, flocks and so on. However, the Eclogues also have political themes. The Georgics is a longer poem, four books of dactylic hexameters in the genre of didactic (instructional) verse, as practised by Hesiod in the Works and Days. The Georgics purports to be a book of advice for farmers; but it too has major mythological and political components.

During the last ten years of his life, Virgil worked on The Aeneid while living in Naples and Sicily. Caesar Augustus was deeply interested in Virgil and his new work and while in Spain in 26 and 25 B.C., he wrote Virgil to send him drafts of sections of the poem. Virgil refused his request, but did recite portions of the poem to him in 23 B.C. Virgil died while traveling from Athens to Naples with Augustus in 19 B.C., leaving his final work The Aeneid unfinished. Prior to his departure, he arranged for his friends Varius and Tucca to dispose of the incomplete text should he not return from his journey. However, Augustus ordered them not to harm the manuscript and published the unfinished text.




Frequently Asked Questions about the Aeneid

When was the Aeneid written?

Virgil was still working on revising the Aeneid when he died in 19 BC. The poem contains a few lines which are only half as long as they should be, which confirms the traditional belief that the work is unfinished. The poem is not, however, incomplete; it was meant to end where it ends. The tradition also says that Virgil was so dissatisfied with the Aeneid that on his death bed he gave orders for the manuscript to be burned, but the executors of his estate did not comply.

In what period does the story take place?

Aeneas is a character in Homer's Iliad. The story of the Aeneid is set in the years immediately after the fall of Troy. One ancient chronographer figured that Troy had fallen in the year 1184 BC, and archaeological evidence at the site of Troy confirms that there was a violent destruction in the second half of the 12th century BC.

Is the Aeneid historically accurate?

Yes and no. The Aeneid is primarily a work of fiction. No Trojans or Greeks settled in Latium (the region of Italy where Rome is) in the 12th century BC. The first signs of advanced civilization in the region and on the site of Rome are much later. The Romans were not originally ethnic Greeks or Trojans, they were a blend of Etruscans (whose ethnic identity and place of origin are disputed) and local Italic peoples (an element which the Romans acknowledged). However, the Aeneid contains allusions and references to people and events from the centuries immediately prior to its composition, and these are historical.

Did the Romans believe the Aeneid was historically accurate?

This is hard to answer because the evidence is limited. Based upon what the Roman historians had to say about the earliest beginnings of Rome, it seems likely that a Roman would have seen the Aeneid as a fictionalized account of events which in their broad outline were historically accurate.

What about the meter and performance of the Aeneid?

The Aeneid is written in dactylic hexameters, the same meter as the Iliad and the Odyssey. The meter is based upon a combination of long and short syllables. Unlike those poems, the Aeneid was written to be read rather than recited or sung to an audience. But most people in antiquity read out loud even when they were alone. And performances of selected parts of the Aeneid certainly did take place.


Virgil's Aeneid (published cir. 19 B.C.)

translated by John Dryden


AENEAS COMES TO CARTHAGE ARMS, and the man I sing, who, forc'd by fate, And haughty Juno's unrelenting hate, Expell'd and exil'd, left the Trojan shore. Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore, And in the doubtful war, before he won The Latian realm, and built the destin'd town; His banish'd gods restor'd to rites divine, And settled sure succession in his line, From whence the race of Alban fathers come, And the long glories of majestic Rome.

O Muse! the causes and the crimes relate; What goddess was provok'd, and whence her hate; For what offense the Queen of Heav'n began To persecute so brave, so just a man; Involv'd his anxious life in endless cares, Expos'd to wants, and hurried into wars! Can heav'nly minds such high resentment show, Or exercise their spite in human woe?

Against the Tiber's mouth, but far away, An ancient town was seated on the sea; A Tyrian colony; the people made Stout for the war, and studious of their trade: Carthage the name; belov'd by Juno more Than her own Argos, or the Samian shore. Here stood her chariot; here, if Heav'n were kind, The seat of awful empire she design'd. Yet she had heard an ancient rumor fly, (Long cited by the people of the sky,) That times to come should see the Trojan race Her Carthage ruin, and her tow'rs deface; Nor thus confin'd, the yoke of sov'reign sway Should on the necks of all the nations lay. She ponder'd this, and fear'd it was in fate; Nor could forget the war she wag'd of late For conqu'ring Greece against the Trojan state. Besides, long causes working in her mind, And secret seeds of envy, lay behind; Deep graven in her heart the doom remain'd Of partial Paris, and her form disdain'd; The grace bestow'd on ravish'd Ganymed, Electra's glories, and her injur'd bed. Each was a cause alone; and all combin'd To kindle vengeance in her haughty mind. For this, far distant from the Latian coast She drove the remnants of the Trojan host; And sev'n long years th' unhappy wand'ring train Were toss'd by storms, and scatter'd thro' the main. Such time, such toil, requir'd the Roman name, Such length of labor for so vast a frame. Now scarce the Trojan fleet, with sails and oars, Had left behind the fair Sicilian shores, Ent'ring with cheerful shouts the wat'ry reign, And plowing frothy furrows in the main; When, lab'ring still with endless discontent, The Queen of Heav'n did thus her fury vent:


A Brief Summary of the Aeneid

In Aeneid Book 1, Aeneas is shipwrecked on the coast of North Africa, near where Dido, the young Phoenician queen - herself a refugee from her homeland - is building a city which will become Carthage. Aeneas, who had escaped death when Troy fell to the Greeks, has been wandering in search of a new land in the west, where it has been prophesied he shall establish a race whose destiny is to rule the world in peace and prosperity. The people are the Romans, and Aeneas' mission comes from Jupiter, king of gods and men. Unfortunately, Juno, queen of heaven, is set on thwarting Aeneas - because she knows that Rome is destined to destro Carthage, her own favorite city. But it is inevitable that Aeneas and Dido meet - and she falls hopelessly in love.

Book 2 begins with Dido begging Aeneas to tell her his story. She falls more deeply in love with him as he warms to the tale. He begins with the building of the Wooden Horse, and shows the Trojans' agony at the destruction of their home and way of life. As yet he does not fully comprehend the gods - why have they allowed Troy to be destroyed? Why won't they let him die fighting gloriously for his land like any other hero? Only when the ghost of his wife Creüsa (who'd somehow disappeared in the rush to leave) tells him about a western land where he is destined to find a new bride, does he begin to have a faint glimmer of understanding of what the gods have in store for him.

In Book 3, Aeneas carries on telling Dido about his adventures - his fruitless search for his promised land all over the Mediterranean. In Sicily his beloved father Anchises had died - but the rest of the party were soon on route for Italy, when Juno's storm brought them to Carthage instead.

Book 4 takes up the story of Dido's deepening love for Aeneas from Book 1. She had sworn never to get involved with a man again, after the murder of her husband.

Meanwhile, in Book 5, Aeneas has returned to Sicily - where he celebrates the anniversary of his father's death with games. But Juno takes the opportunity to strike - she makes the women set fire to the ships. Most of the ships are saved, but Aeneas decides to press on to Italy with a leaner force, leaving those without the relish for further fighting behind in Sicily.

Book 6 begins the story of Aeneas' visit to the Underworld.

In Book 7, Aeneas finally reaches Italy - where he's welcomed by king Latinus. Latinus had a beautiful daughter, Lavinia - and there was a prophecy that she should marry a foreigner. So he at once offered her to Aeneas, angering his wife Amata. But she already had a suitor, Turnus of the Rutulians. Juno stirs up war betweeen them and the Trojans.

Book 8. Aeneas is reluctant to fight his new hosts, but is promised help by Evander, a Greek whose capital is on the future site of Rome. Venus asks Vulcan for new armour for her son for the coming battles. The shield is decorated with scenes from the future history of Rome, right down to the Battle of Actium, where Augustus had recently defeated Antony and Cleopatra.

Book 9 takes place while Aeneas is away. Turnus blockades the Trojan camp, but Nisus and Euryalus are killed trying to take the news to Aeneas. Iulus, Aeneas' son thwarts Turnus' bid to capture the camp.

In Book 10 Aeneas returns, with his new allies, Pallas, young son of Evander and an Etruscan contingent. He wins a great victory over Turnus, but Pallas is killed.

Book 11 opens with celebration and mourning, for the young hero Aeneas had promised his father he would protect. It's decided to settle the quarrel with single combat between Aenaes and Turnus, but fighting breaks out, in which Turnus' ally the Volscian warrior princess Camilla is killed.

Book 12. Turnus and Aeneas are ready for their duel, but it is again interrupted, when Juturna, Turnus' sister, stirs up the Rutulians. Aeneas is wounded in the fighting, but healed by his mother. The Trojans take the unguarded city of Latinus, and Amata kills herself. Turnus returns and faces Aeneas at last. He is wounded, but Aeneas intends to spare his life, until he sees the spoils from Pallas that he is wearing. Aeneas in rage buries his sword in Turnus' body.


The Aeneid of Virgil





Ovid was either the last of the Golden Age poets, such as Vergil and Horace, or first of the Silver Age poets, such as Lucan and Statius [see Karl Galinsky (1989). "Was Ovid a Silver Latin Poet?" Illinois Classical Studies 14(1-2): 69-88]. Unlike Vergil and Horace who lived through the civil wars that marked the violent end of the Roman Republic, Ovid was the first major Roman Poet to come of age wholly in the Augustan Age--the beginning of the Roman Empire.

Coming from Sulmo (modern Sulmona), Ovid was not Roman but Paelignian. The Paeligni had a long association with Rome and the Ovidii were a locally prominent family--we know of another, earlier member of the family, Lucius Ovidius Ventrio, who held office [see Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1939. p. 289]. The death of his elder brother made Ovid the focus of his family's hopes and so he went to Rome, studied rhetoric with the famous teachers Arellius Fuscus and Porcius Latro, and embarked on a career in government. He became either one of the tresuiri monetales (administrators of the mint) or of the tresuiri capitales (administrators of prisons and executions), then one of the decemuiri stlitibus iudicandis, a kind of judge [see Kenney, E. J. "Ovid and the Law." Yale Classical Studies 21 (1969): 241-263]. However, though he was on track to become the first Roman senator from Sulmona [see Syme, Ronald. The Roman Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939 p. 383], he threw it all away for a life of poetry.

Ovid began by writing love poetry, and he wrote at least one play in the earlier part of his career. His greatest work, the Metamorphoses, is an epic but of an unusual sort. In 8 A.D., probably while he was still working on the Metamorphoses and the Fasti, he was exiled to Tomi, where he continued to write poems on his sad predicament.

During his life and even after his exile, Ovid enjoyed great literary success, and later poets imitate him often. Even in in the middle ages and the Renaissance the popularity of the Metamorphoses cannot be overstated. Allegorical versions of his poetry were widely circulated and many of the stories of Greek and Roman mythology are best known in the versions told by Ovid. To give just one example, his tale of Pyramus and Thisbe (Metamorphoses, book 4) -- two star-crossed youths whose parents forbid their relationship and who accidentally and tragically kill themselves -- is the source of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.



Narcissus and Echo in Ovid's Metamorphoses

Tiresias, the man recently blinded by Juno (known as Hera in Greek mythology, but this is the story of Ovid who wrote in Latin) and made a prophet by Jupiter (Zeus), quickly gained a reputation for being infallible in his answers about the future. Sometimes, however, the answers of Tiresias were as opaque as those of any other oracle.

Liriope, a naiad, became pregnant with the child of the river god Cephisus. When their child was born, Liriope named him Narcissus. She asked the blind seer Tiresias if her son would live a long life and received for an answer a qualified affirmative. Narcissus would live a long time if he never got to know himself.

Narcissus was so handsome everyone loved and desired him, but Narcissus was too proud to offer his love in return. His rejection of Echo turned her from an unhappy nymph into the barest wisp of what she had been. Echo shriveled up until all that was left of her was her voice. Not all the would-be lovers of Narcissus were so self-deprecating. One of them took his complaint about rejection to the goddess of vengeance, Nemesis. The rejected suitor asked the goddess Nemesis to make Narcissus fall in love with himself but not be able to accept his own love.

On a hot day Narcissus bent down to drink from a clear, silvery pool. As he drank he saw a beautiful image in the pool. Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection. He tried to kiss and embrace it -- encouraged because he saw the other raising his lips to meet Narcissus' own -- but couldn't. Yet Narcissus could do nothing else. In time he realized he was in love with his own reflection. Since he knew he could never hold himself, he couldn't go on. He beat his breast and died. When his naiad sisters went out to bring him back for burial, the body was gone. In its place was a lovely yellow-centered white flower, the narcissus.


John William Waterhouse

Echo and Narcissus (1903)




Ovid Metamorphoses