1.2 Virgil and his predecessors
Unlike Livy (a contemporary of Virgil, and author of a multi-volume history of Rome) or Ennius, who tell a series of stories that occur over a long period of time, Virgil chooses to focus on one individual, the Trojan hero Aeneas. The Aeneid tells the story of how Aeneas escaped the fall of Troy and led a band of survivors to Italy, where their destiny was to mix with the native population and create a new chosen race. The story is therefore set long before the foundation of Rome, which Virgil tells his readers was established 333 years after the Aeneid ends. In Virgil’s poem, Romulus and the other early kings of Rome are the distant descendants of Aeneas’ marriage to a native Italian princess, Lavinia; this mixed heritage allows the Romans both to claim a link to the famous Greek myths and to affirm their native roots and their connection to the land of Italy. Setting the Aeneid in the aftermath of the Trojan War helps Virgil to show that he is trying to rival the epic poems of Homer, usually considered the greatest poet of all. The Aeneid is made up of twelve books of about 700 lines each: the first six deal with the travels of Aeneas after the fall of Troy, and the second six with the war he is forced to fight in Italy. This means that the first half of the poem is designed to remind the reader of Homer’s Odyssey, which narrates the wanderings of Odysseus, and the second half reflects the Iliad, which is set during the Trojan War. By combining the travel theme and the military theme in a single poem (with only 12 books, rather than the 24 in each of the Iliad and Odyssey) Virgil could imply that he was outdoing Homer, and that his poem contained all the themes of a heroic epic.