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Why should you read Virgil's "Aeneid"? - Mark Robinson


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In 19 BC, the Roman poet Virgil suffered heatstroke and died on his journey back to Italy. On his deathbed, he thought about the manuscript he had been working on for over ten years, an epic poem called the "Aeneid." Unsatisfied with the final edit, he asked his friends to burn it. But they refused, and soon after Virgil’s death, Augustus ordered it to be published. Why? Mark Robinson explains.

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Virgil was one of the foremost poets of Roman history, and the "Aeneid" became one of the most important pieces of literature in ancient Rome. It was so well known that it was used in Roman education almost as soon as Virgil had died, and lines from the poem even appear as graffiti on the walls of Pompeii. In writing the "Aeneid", Virgil rejected the chance to write a simple propagandist praise of the emperor Augustus. Instead, he decided to write an epic poem, which meant following the style of Homer. You can find out more about the Homeric style here.

Virgil utilized the structure of the Homeric epics in writing the "Aeneid", but he used a clever trick to make his work original and innovative. The works attributed to Homer are the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey", both of which are cornerstones of western literature. The "Iliad" is set during the Trojan War and covers events during the final weeks of the Greek siege of the city of Troy. The "Odyssey" tells the story of one of the heroes of the Trojan War, Odysseus, on his long and difficult journey home. Virgil swaps around the order of the two poems, starting with the long and arduous journey, and then narrating the conflict near the future site of Rome between Aeneas and its Latin inhabitants. As you read the "Aeneid", you will see lots of parallels which have been inspired by scenes in the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey." You can extend your thinking about the Aeneid here.

When Virgil wrote the "Aeneid" he wanted to create a founding myth for the Roman people. At a time of great political upheaval and civil conflict, Virgil hoped to use the story of Aeneas to heal the divisions of the years of civil war. Throughout the "Aeneid" there are a string of prophecies that make reference to Roman history. The most striking are Jupiter’s prophecy about the future of Rome, Aeneas seeing a parade of Roman heroes in the Underworld, and scenes from Roman history on a shield that Aeneas is given by his mother, the goddess Venus. Learn more about the world that Virgil lived in here.

One of the most interesting questions about the Aeneid is the issue of the extent to which Virgil was praising or criticizing the emperor Augustus. Scholars have been divided over this, with some (often labelled the "Harvard school") arguing that Virgil is making subtle criticisms of the emperor, whilst others (the ‘European school’) saying that Virgil is praising Augustus. Visit this link to get a flavor of this debate.

You will have seen lots of Latin and Greek phrases as part of the animation of this lesson. Many are from Virgil's writings, and you can use each phrase as a way to explore the text. Look up the famous phrase: "Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes" and see how it links to the story of the fall of Troy that is recounted in book 2 of the "Aeneid."

In addition to the Latin phrases, there is a section with Greek words, too. This refers to the scene in book 6 of the "Aeneid" where Aeneas reaches the end of his journey through the Underworld. It has been a point of speculation and argument amongst readers for 2000 years. As Aeneas departs he is faced by two gates: one made of ivory, the other of horn. In the animation, the Ivory Gate is inscribed with "ἐλεφαίρομαι" - the Greek word for "deceive" (a pun on the Greek word for "ivory" - "ἐλέφας"). The Gate of Horn next to it is inscribed with "κραίνω" (Greek for "fulfil" - a pun on the Greek word for "horn" - "κέρας"). As Aeneas and the Sybil pass through the ivory gate, you will see the line "FALSA ED CAELUM MITTUNT INSOMNIA MANES", which means "false dreams sent by the spirits". What message might Virgil be sending here about what follows in the second half of the text, and how might it apply to Augustus?

To explore a whole range of further resources about Virgil, visit this site.

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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Mark Robinson
  • Director Jeremiah Dickey
  • Associate Producer Jessica Ruby
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Narrator Adrian Dannatt

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