The Aeneid

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The Aeneid Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Virgil's The Aeneid. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Virgil

No biography of Virgil from his time survives, but scholars have pieced together his probable life story from commentaries on his works. He was probably from a well-off, landowning family, because they had the money to send him to study throughout Italy. He studied primarily philosophy. At around age 28, he began writing his first major work, the Eclogues, a collection of ten pastoral poems. On the surface, these poems are about singing shepherds and countryside life, but they already contain the themes of love, heartbreak, and loss of homeland that run throughout so much of Virgil's work. His second major work, the Georgics, follows the form of earlier didactic Greek works, supposedly teaching lessons about farming. Again, though, the Georgics are more complex than they first seem, as the work shifts between praising the ease and joy of farming, and highlighting the tragedies of disease and natural disasters. Virgil worked on the Aeneid from approximately age 39 to his death at 50. He cared so much about its perfection that he reportedly only wrote a few lines a day. He died of an illness he caught on a trip to Greece before he'd finished revisions.
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Historical Context of The Aeneid

Virgil composed the Aeneid during a turning point in Rome's history. The old system of the Roman Republic, governed by two leaders called consuls, had crumbled during the time of Julius Caesar. First, Caesar had unofficially set up a three-man leadership system called the Triumvirate. After a civil war, Caesar had proclaimed himself the sole dictator of Rome. Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC by men who wanted to preserve the Republic. Octavian, a young man who had been adopted into Caesar's family, created the Second Triumvirate along with Marc Antony and Lepidus to avenge Caesar's death. The Second Triumvirate was successful and divided rule of the Roman Republic between themselves, but soon began to fight. Octavian, now called Augustus, defeated Lepidus and sent him into exile, and defeated Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium, after which Antony and his wife Cleopatra committed suicide. By 31 BC, Augustus was the sole ruler of Rome, changing the Republic into an Empire. A smart and image-conscious leader, he ushered in a 200-year-long period of peace, and the arts flourished under his reign. Virgil, Ovid, and Horace wrote poetry, and Livy wrote his monumental history, in this era now called the Golden Age of Latin literature.

Other Books Related to The Aeneid

The Iliad and the Odyssey (Greek oral legends perfected and recorded by Homer probably around 600-800 years before Virgil) hugely influenced the Aeneid, in structure, topic and even meter (both poems are in dactylic hexameter). Indeed, Virgil deliberately tried to create for Rome what the Iliad and the Odyssey were for Greece: an epic about a great hero to define and ennoble his nation. Like Homer, Virgil wrote about a war and Mediterranean wanderings, though he switched Homer's order, describing wanderings first and war after. The Trojans in the Aeneid travel to many of the same places as Homer's Greeks, such as the Cyclops's island, the strait of Scylla and Charybdis, and the Underworld. To a lesser extent, the texts share some characters—though Ulysses, Achilles and Hector only get a few mentions in the Aeneid. In fact, Aeneas himself is a character from Homer. In the Iliad, Aeneas appears as a captain in the Trojan War and both Apollo and Neptune save him for his destined future as leader of the Trojans. Other Roman authors also wrote stories about Aeneas before Virgil, but none came close to the Aeneid in creativity and influence.
Key Facts about The Aeneid
  • Full Title: The Aeneid
  • When Written: 29-19 BC
  • Where Written: The Roman Empire
  • When Published: After 19 BC
  • Literary Period: Classical (Augustan)
  • Genre: Epic poem
  • Setting: Troy, Carthage, Italy, and the Mediterranean Sea, in 12th century BC
  • Climax: The defeat of Turnus
  • Antagonist: Juno, Turnus
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient

Extra Credit for The Aeneid

Virgil's Last Wish: Right before Virgil died, he demanded that the unfinished manuscript of the Aeneid be burned. Fortunately, Augustus ignored this, and the version we have of the Aeneid, despite its occasional unfinished lines, has not undergone any significant post-Virgil editing. It's still controversial whether Virgil might have been planning to end his poem on a more positive note.

Virgil the Wizard: In the Middle Ages, scholars believed that Virgil had predicted the birth of Jesus in one of his Eclogues. Because of this, they thought his texts had magical powers, and used them for fortune telling. The Virgil that guides Dante through Hell in the Divine Comedy comes out of this mystical tradition.