Depending on the week's assignment, you may have several pages of Background Reading. This week, you have THREE PAGES of Background reading.
Vergil: The Roman Poet Who Imitated Homer
The first half of your readings this week come from Homer's Odyssey: you will hear Ulysses describe what happened when he visited the land of the dead. The second half of your readings describe the visit of the Trojan hero, Aeneas, to the land of the dead - an episode from the Roman epic, the Aeneid, which was written by the Roman poet Vergil.
Publius Vergilius Maro is usually called "Vergil" or "Virgil" (the spelling "Vergil" is the original Roman spelling). He was born in 70 BCE., as the Roman Republic was recovering from the slave uprising led by Spartacus, that had lasted from 73-71 BCE.
In Vergil's childhood, Rome was ruled by the first "triumvirate" (or "rule of three men"), when in 60 BCE Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar divided up Rome between them. Julius Caesar was later assassinated in 44 BCE, and Pompey was assassinated in 48 BCE.
By the time Vergil came to Rome in 41 BCE, all the members of the first triumvirate were dead, and Rome was being ruled by a new triumvirate: Antony, Lepidus, and Octavian (who was a close relation of Julius Caesar). It was Octavian who would emerge as the first ruler of imperial Rome. In 29 BCE Octavian was named imperator (emperor), in 28 BCE he was given the title of princeps (prince), and in 27 BCE he was given the title augustus (majestic). As Caesar Augustus, this ruler of Rome wanted an epic poem that would do justice to his empire. Augustus became Vergil's patron.
Vergil, meanwhile, had published his collection of poetry - the "Bucolics" (or "Cowherd Poems") - in 37 BCE. In these poems, Vergil was closely imitating the bucolic poetry made famous by the Greek poet Theocritus. His next poem was called the "Georgics" (or "Farmer's Work"), which describes farm life with great fondness. Vergil had grown up in the Italian countryside and even though he was living and working Rome, his poetry was located far from the city.
Then, for the rest of his life, Vergil labored over the Aeneid, or "Adventures of Aeneas", an epic poem about the founding of Rome by the legendary Trojan hero Aeneas. The poem was mostly finished when Vergil died in 19 BCE, although he was dissatisfied with the final product and had left instructions that the epic should be burned if he died - but his request was not honored.
Vergil imitated Homer in this work, combining elements of both of the Homeric epics, the Odyssey and the Iliad. In the same way that Odyssey described the wanderings of the Greek hero Odysseus on his way home from the Trojan War, Vergil describes the wanderings of the Trojan hero Aeneas, a refugee from Troy who is destined to found a new city in Italy. Then, just as the Iliad is about the military struggle around the city of Troy, the second half of Vergil's Aeneid describes the battles that Aeneas had to fight in Italy in order to found his new city. Aeneas's rival is an Italian named Turnus, and at the end of the Aeneid, Aeneas and Turnus engage in an epic confrontation of single combat that recalls the combat between Achilles and Hector in Homer's Iliad.
An important difference between the Homeric epics and Vergil's poetry is that Vergil was not an oral poet. Vergil wrote his poems down; they were not transmitted by means of oral tradition, as the Homeric poems were for centuries.
Aeneas Visits the Underworld
Like Ulysses, Aeneas goes on a journey to the land of the dead. Once again, this journey serves as a frametale, because during his journey, Aeneas meets other characters who are storytellers. He hears the story of what happened to his steersman Palinurus who was swept overboard and died; he speaks with the Trojan prince Deiphobus who died during the destruction of Troy; and, most importantly, Aeneas has a long conversation with his own father Anchises who died shortly after their escape from Troy.
Unlike Ulysses, Aeneas has a guide on his journey through the underworld (Circe gave Ulysses directions about how to get to the land of the dead, but she did not accompany him). Aeneas's guide is a priestess of Apollo, called a "Sibyl." She is also known as the "Cumaean Sibyl," since she was a priestess of Apollo in his temple at Cumae in Italy. The SIbyl helps Aeneas gain entrance to the underworld, and then she leads him through it so that he can find his father Anchises. Aeneas does not actually visit the depths of hell, where the terrible punishments takes place, but the Sibyl has been there, so she tells Aeneas the story of what she saw - another example of a story (the Sibyl's story) within a story (the story of Aeneas).
There is another frametale device used in the Aeneid - this is the device of ecphrasis which you also saw last week in the readings from Ovid. The term ecphrasis refers to the way a story can be depicted in the form of a painting or sculpture or other work of art inside another story. In Ovid's Metamorphoses, poor Philomela wove the story of her rape into a piece of cloth in order to communicate with her sister Procne, for example. Minerva and Athena also wove stories into cloth.
In Vergil's Aeneid, when Aeneas first arrives at Cumae he sees the artwork created by Daedalus, in which Daedalus depicted all the details of his own story. Daedalus was famous for having built the "labyrinth" for King Minos of Crete, a maze in which King Minos locked up the Minotaur, the half-man-half-bull creature who was born when his wife Pasiphae had an affair with a bull. The Minotaur demanded human sacrifices, but finally the hero Theseus offered himself as a sacrifice but managed to escape from the labyrinth with the help of princess Ariadne, the daughter of Minos. Minos was furious at Theseus's escape and imprisoned Daedalus and his son, Icarus. They managed to escape by flying away on wings that Daedalus made of wax and feathers, but Icarus flew too near the sun, so his wings melted and he fell into the sea. This is the story that Aeneas sees depicted on the walls of the temple at Cumae. It was a very famous story in the ancient world, so Vergil does not have to tell the whole story. It is enough for him to mention a few key details, and everyone in his audience would remember the rest!
MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D.
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