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Myth, History and Virgil


In my Greek and Roman Mythology course with Peter Struck we started to read Virgil. In doing so we moved 500 years forward from Euripides’ and from classical Athens to classical Rome.  Virgil is also more recent that Herodotus who I studied in my Ancient Greek Hero course.

Herodotus was an historian, Euripides a playwright and Virgil like Homer a poet. With Peter Struck we explored the boundaries between Myth and History.  

Italy in 400 BC (Credit : Wikimedia)

Classical Rome was a very different culture to ancient Greece. Some stories tell us that the Romans borrowed the Greek myths, changed the names and adopted the stories. Although the Greeks pre-existed the Romans, as did their literary traditions, it is probable that both Greeks and Romans were working from a common pool of Mediterranean materials that they each put their own spin on them. The Romans had their own ways of doing things. There are interesting and fascinating differences with the materials we’ve already looked at.

Previous texts such as those of Homer gave meager references to the historical contexts, even when we had some information in classical Athens. In Virgil though it’s a very different he wrote myth within history. This is an historical time; there is a lot of evidence around for the historical context in which Virgil is writing.

In previous readings myth was an important component of understanding identity. In the case of Odysseus his identity was rebuilt throughout The Odyssey. Oedipus’s identity was dissolved in his story. Identity has been mostly focused on individuals. None of the poets we’ve looked at so far have tried to craft the Greek national identity. Virgil looked at as the identity of a nation as a whole. If we’re used to the idea that myth explains national identity, it’s because Virgil was so successful.

The twin dangers of considering history in very broad terms (the Scylla and Charybdis).

The “history is just there” school.

Abraham Ortel’s 1595 map of ancient Latium (Credit : Wikimedia)

All we do is discover it. Sometimes people try to change it but there’s some reality a fact that happened. That’s too narrow a view. What counts as being the facts of what happened in history depends on what people want to focus on. If I said told you of my day doing housework and cooking you’d be bored and probably think ‘that’s not history, history is about grand political events, family dynasties, big historical events it has to be relevant to more than the narrator’. A critical part of what history is all about is the audience In order to tell a history we have to weed out almost all the functionality and tell just a very narrow piece of what is most relevant to the group. How we edit depends on a lot of normative kinds of questions.

The “history is all made up” school.

Vergilius Romanus (Credit : Wikimedia)

Sometimes people say that history is made up by the winners. That’s a little bit cynical but, those who have political power have the ability to make their own version of events the more authoritative one. But we can’t just all say that what happened in the past is totally up for grabs and anyone’s account of the past is just as good as anyone else’s.

History is not totally fabricated, nor is history just there, it’s somewhere in between. To try to understand creation of historical narrative out of this profusion of events, we have to consider how stories are edited. Accuracy is very important, the events that are being narrated must have actually happened in some historical past. Then we have to look at whether the focus on these particular events gives a fair representation of the past.

When it comes to historical accuracy in Virgil’s work it depends on whether we think Virgil has used this genre of myth fairly and accurately in order to construct an identity of this national group. We can look more closely at his engagement in the process of building the nation of Rome.

Myth, History, and Virgil 

Augustus (Credit : Wikimedia)

Virgil (70-19 BCE) lived through very interesting times. The Roman Empire was emerging from a massive conglomeration of many different nations. The Romans were the most powerful group in the Mediterranean. No one had quite done ruling the Med. as well as the Romans did.  They were proud of their military capability. They had been a fratricidal group and had seen lots of awful civil wars. Those in positions of power brought wars of Romans against Romans in attempts to be leaders of this new imperial structure. The Roman Republic had gone and there was a frightening new world. It was very difficult for people to figure out what comes next.

Augustus ruled Rome as the first emperor proclaiming himself to be carrying forward old traditions. What he was really doing was remaking things. He realized that after the great tumult Rome needed a new sense of itself. He also had great respect for the importance of the arts. He nurtured and supported poets, Virgil among them.  Augustus realized the need to have a new sense of national identity. Virgil shared that view and undertook the project of building one through this mythic form of epic poetry on Homeric and other precedents.  Virgil’s poetic project worked in tandem with Augustus’ political project of building a new sense of what Rome was all about.

Histories of Rome

Aeneaus (Credit : Wikimedia)

Aeneas is someone we’ve met before in Homer’s epics. He is in the Iliad as an important Trojan hero and in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite. Those works don’t show him as a warmly embraced character.  Aphrodite was a little embarrassed at falling in love with a mortal, Anchises, and producing Aeneas. He has immortal blood but is Zeus’ revenge against Aphrodite for weakening the immortals by making them fall in love with mortals.  Aeneas, born of a goddess, has divine blood which whilst not making him unique among the ancient mortal heroes, makes him pretty grand. Early Romans, back to at least the third century BCE, were talking about Aeneas as being a founder of the city of Rome

Romulus and Remus were also understood to be founders of the city of Rome in the 8th century BCE. That legend has a rich collection of tales around it. The Romans understood their city to come from these twins.  The problem with this vector in their history is that Rome was founded when Romulus killed Remus so Rome was founded on an act of fratricide. It would be like people looking back to your own national consciousness and national identity and talking about the founding figures of the nation killing each other and then the nation beginning.

Romulus and Remus (Credit : Wikimedia)

There are other names in Rome’s past. A first settlement of Levinium is mentioned, we also hear about the city Alba Longa, an important ancient settlement that sent a colony out to found Rome.  We hear of Latium, another ancient civilization.  Before Virgil there was no solidified authoritative narrative that strung them all together.  Virgil does the same as Hesiod in lining up all the different possibilities of divine relationships with one another through a genealogical chart. He makes sense out of this past history by taking lots of different tales and weaving them together with Aeneas as the most important one.

At the time Rome was the undisputed power in the ancient Mediterranean. Augustus sat as founder of a massive and massively successful empire.  Virgil tried to take up the project of constructing a good past for what this empire is all about. For him that meant turning to antiquity and this legend of Aeneas giving a Trojan background to what it means to be Roman.  By having Trojan-ness in their background the Romans received a sense of antiquity, the Trojans are very old. Historically that’s probably not true. The Romans thought it was, even before Virgil, but it’s probably not true that there was any biological links between ancient Trojans and the Romans. The Romans didn’t want to claim that they came from the Greeks. They chose their background to lead back to Greeks sworn enemies, the Trojans. The Trojans are somewhat admirable and they’re great people. There are some great figures, Hector, and Menelaus for example.  On the other hand, they’re losers; they didn’t win the Trojan War.  This doesn’t mean that the Romans affiliated themselves with a culture unable to win a grand victory against the Greeks. Virgil talks about an early loss but Rome’s position in the time of Virgil’s writings was undisputed. The Romans had crushed the Greeks in the previous century.


1 Comment

  1. […] In my Greek and Roman Mythology course with Peter Struck we started to read Virgil. In doing so …  […]

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