Greek mythology played a fundamental role in the literary culture of ancient Rome. Roman writers, often inspired by their Greek predecessors, viewed myths as one of the main components of successful narrative texts. Mythological stories were accepted as fictitious, but many tales were also believed to have some historical origin as well as cultural importance. Homer famously combined history and myth in his epic Greek poems, the Odyssey and the Iliad. These great works served as continual inspiration for later ancient writers, including the Roman poet Virgil. Allusions to Greek mythology are particularly evident in Virgil’s Aeneid, as well as his earlier work the Georgics. While Virgil used myth to add authenticity to his poetry, he also used it in more innovative ways—not least as a propaganda tool for the powerful regime of Emperor Augustus.
Who Was Virgil?
Publius Vergilius Maro, known today as Virgil, was born in 70 BCE near Mantua in northern Italy. Few certain details are known about his life and much of what we do know comes from the work of other authors, so must be treated with caution. It is thought that Virgil did not come from a family of great wealth. But his parents must have had sufficient funds to send him to be educated since he is believed to have studied first in Milan and later in Rome.
Virgil’s first known work was the Eclogues, published around 39-38 BCE. The Eclogues were ten short poems with a pastoral theme, inspired by earlier Greek poets such as Theocritus. After this publication, Virgil became part of the literary circle of patron of the arts Maecenas. This was a turning point in his career since Maecenas was also the right-hand man of Octavian, who would later become Emperor Augustus.
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In 29 BCE, Virgil wrote the Georgics, a collection of poems on agriculture and the natural world. The rest of his life was then dedicated to writing and perfecting his epic masterpiece, the Aeneid. Virgil’s Aeneid tells the story of the Trojan Aeneas fleeing the burning city of Troy after defeat to the Greeks. Aeneas is then given the enormous task of founding a new race in a new land that will become the home of the Romans.
Written during a period of great political change and under the patronage of Maecenas and Augustus, Virgil’s Aeneid is very much a product of its time. The influence of Augustan Rome looms large over Aeneas’ story and the Trojan hero is even shown to be a distant ancestor of the emperor himself. Aeneas’ epic challenges and heroic qualities are all designed to provide the ultimate mythical history and necessary legitimacy for Rome’s new Imperial era.
1. Virgil and the Mythical History of the Trojan War
As the man who would become the founder of the great race of the Romans, Virgil’s Aeneas needed to have a sufficiently impressive heritage. The poet, therefore, turned to Greek mythology to provide the necessary level of grandeur for Aeneas’ back story. What better way to establish a hero’s credentials than by giving him a part in the greatest mythical conflict known to the ancient world—the Trojan War.
In Book 2 of the Aeneid, Virgil describes Aeneas’ role on the final night of Troy’s destruction. This dramatic episode is unashamedly Homeric. The mythical heroes of the Iliad are present: Hector, Odysseus, and Achilles, and the gods are on hand to provide divine assistance when necessary. Aeneas fights bravely on the streets of Troy, but eventually, it becomes clear that all is lost and that he must find his family.
In a dream, the doomed Trojan prince Hector tells Aeneas that he must take a group of Trojans and their household gods, and establish a new home in a new land. So Aeneas escapes with his father Anchises, wife Creusa, and son Ascanius. Together they flee through the streets, but tragically Creusa is lost in the chaos and never seen again. Aeneas’ divine mother Venus keeps her son safe in his hour of need, and eventually they reach the safety of the mountains along with a group of other Trojans. The Romans’ mythical origin story has now begun.
2. Aeneas’ Odyssey
After the escape from Troy, Aeneas and his men are faced with a long and arduous journey to the shores of Italy. Like many mythical heroes, he must also contend with the wrath of a goddess. Juno, the queen of the gods, has a passionate hatred for the Trojans, and she does everything she can to stop them from completing their voyage.
Virgil’s Aeneid takes great inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey and nowhere is this more evident than in Aeneas’ journey to Italy. Aeneas encounters some of the very same mythical challenges as Homer’s hero Odysseus, and it is interesting to compare how the two heroes fare in identical situations.
In Virgil’s Aeneid Book 3, Aeneas comes up against the multi-headed monster Scylla, the dangerous whirlpool Charybdis, and the terrifying cyclops Polyphemus. Whereas Odysseus loses many men to these foes, Aeneas does not. Instead, he uses good sense and careful judgment to avoid them. The Aeneid and the Odyssey even briefly cross paths when Aeneas meets Achaemenides, a comrade of Odysseus. Achaemenides recounts the story of how Odysseus escapes Polyphemus. Aeneas is able to learn from this experience and avoid the same fearsome encounter.
In Virgil’s Aeneid Book 7, Aeneas’ small fleet nears the palace of the witch Circe. Unlike Odysseus, Aeneas does not fall for Circe’s charms and spells, and the god Neptune steers them safely away from her shoreline. In this way, Aeneas’ men are spared the humiliation of being turned into pigs.
The literary parallels between these mythological encounters help to establish a certain level of authenticity for Virgil’s Roman epic. But whereas Odysseus is a wily hero on a journey home, Aeneas is on a journey to found a new city and race. Virgil’s presentation of Aeneas’ challenges against mythical monsters is designed to portray him as a man of great courage driven by duty (Latin: pietas), and one who is worthy of his destiny. Furthermore, in praising Aeneas for his heroic qualities, Virgil is also paying tribute to Aeneas’ contemporary so-called descendant, Augustus.
3. Aeneas and Dido
Book 4 of Virgil’s Aeneid is concerned with the trajectory of the love affair between Aeneas and Queen Dido of Carthage. Like many mythological figures, there are some possible historical origins for the character of Dido, but the details are obscure. The earliest known reference to her comes from the 4th-century-BCE writer Timaeus (Odgers, 1925). Timaeus records a queen of Tyre in Phoenicia, known there as Elissa, who fled her violent and power-hungry brother Pygmalion. She eventually reached Libya, having taken the family treasure with her, and established her own city of Carthage.
In the Aeneid, Aeneas is shipwrecked on the shores of Carthage and soon encounters this impressive queen. She is friendly and hospitable to the Trojans, and over time she and Aeneas fall in love. But it is a tenuous love, manipulated by the goddesses Venus and Juno, and one that is doomed to fall victim to Aeneas’ greater duty and destiny.
As Aeneas becomes comfortable in his new home, the gods decide that he needs a reminder that Carthage is not his ultimate destination. Despite his feelings for Dido, Aeneas is soon packing up his ships and setting sail for Italy. Meanwhile, Dido is left with little explanation and a lot of anger. She is ravaged by paranoia and eventually takes her own life with Aeneas’ sword.
The trope of the abandoned woman is common in Greek mythology. Virgil would likely have been inspired by the famous stories of Ariadne and Medea, abandoned by Theseus and Jason, respectively. But Virgil’s Dido is also quite different from these other mythical women. She is a leader in her own right and is presented as Aeneas’ equal. It is this elevated position of power that, arguably, adds even more pathos to her eventual abandonment by Aeneas.
4. Virgil’s Aeneid and the Underworld
Journeys to the Underworld are well-known in Greek mythology from the stories of men such as Odysseus and Orpheus. Only mortal heroes can visit the Underworld and then return to the land of the living. The fact that Aeneas visits the Underworld in Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid is another marker of his greatness and worth as founder of the Romans.
Aeneas sees all the mythical landmarks of the Underworld during his brief visit. Charon the ferryman, the dark river Styx, and Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog, are all there. But his real purpose is to find his father Anchises, who died in Book 5, to get his advice on how to move forward with his destiny. Other figures from Aeneas’ past are also there, including Dido, and his stay in the Underworld is one filled with grief and regret.
But Aeneas’ visit also has an important political aspect, which contrasts sharply with other encounters with the Underworld in Greek mythology (Williams, 1965). When Aeneas is reunited with Anchises, his father presents him with a parade of heroes who will be his future descendants. Anchises points out the faces of the men who will become the great Romans of history. This is designed to give Aeneas the confidence he needs to move forward with his quest and to show him what glories lie ahead.
The parade of heroes also has another narrative purpose. The vast majority of the participants are members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. There is even a mention of Younger Marcellus’ death, an event that was contemporary to the Aeneid. An ancient biography of Virgil tells how Marcellus’ mother, Augustus’ sister Octavia, fainted when this extract of the Aeneid was first read aloud to her (Vita Donati 32). Therefore, the parade of heroes is an effective way of linking the mythological past with the Roman present. But it is also a way of establishing a mythical origin story for the Julio-Claudian family line, stretching all the way back to Aeneas himself—a master stroke of propaganda for the Augustan regime.
5. Greek Mythology in the Georgics
The Georgics were a collection of poems that took the form of a manual on agriculture. Inspired by the works of Hesiod and Lucretius, Virgil’s poems cover everything from growing crops to breeding cows and horses. Greek mythology is alluded to throughout the poems, often as a way of explaining various phenomena of the natural world. One of the most interesting examples of this is the story of Aristaeus and the bees (Georgics 315—558).
In Classical literature, bees are often used as a metaphor to illustrate the industry of a cohesive group. Virgil emphasizes the importance of bees to the natural environment, and he goes into great detail about how they should be cared for. He uses the story of Aristaeus to explain the process of bougonia. This was a misunderstood belief in antiquity that bees were created from the rotting carcasses of dead animals.
Virgil uses the well-known story of Orpheus and Eurydice as a backdrop to his mythological tale. Aristaeus, son of Apollo and the nymph Cyrene, was a minor god of rural arts and crafts, including bee-keeping. One day he discovers that his bees have died due to illness and famine. In order to restore his beehives, he travels to the Underworld to visit his mother Cyrene and seek her advice. She tells him that he must seek out a seer, Proteus, and force him to reveal the secret to restoring the bees. It transpires that the ghost of Orpheus killed Aristaeus’ bees as revenge for Aristaeus’ part in sending Eurydice to her death. Proteus instructs Aristaeus to sacrifice many animals to Orpheus in apology. Aristaeus carries out these instructions and, as he does so, suddenly he sees the bees appearing from the stomachs of the dead oxen and cows.
Virgil and Greek Mythology
Virgil’s use of Greek mythology, particularly in the Aeneid, could be described as largely derivative. For example, the parallels with the Odyssey and Iliad are clear, and there is even some cross-over between Virgil’s Aeneas and Homer’s Odysseus and the challenges they encounter. But while the echoes of Greek literature are undisputed, there is also much clever adaptation and innovation in Virgil’s relationship with mythology. Earlier influences were used to create pioneering Roman poetry, which reconfigured the mythological tale for the imperial age.
Virgil’s work also went on to inspire writers and artists across the centuries. The poet himself even plays a starring role in Dante’s Inferno as he guides the 14th-century CE Italian writer through the Nine Circles of Hell. Here we see Virgil coming full circle as he steps into the shoes of Aeneas and witnesses the mythological horrors of human sins for himself.