At first the plan was to sing the battles of Octavian. But the supposed descent of his adoptive father from Venus and Aeneas led the poet- perhaps the Emperor- to conceive an epic on the founding of Rome. As the theme developed it came to include, by preview through prophecy, the expansion of Rome into the Augustan empire and peace. It would also show the role of Roman character in these achievements and seek to make the ancient virtues popular; it would picture its hero as reverent of the gods and guided by them, and would fall in with the Augustan reformation of morals and faith. Virgil retired to various lairs in Italy and spent the next ten years (29-19) on the Aeneid. He wrote slowly, with the devotion of a Flaubert, dictating a few lines in the fresh morning and rewriting them in the afternoon. Augustus waited impatiently for the poem’s completion, repeatedly inquired about its progress, and importuned Virgil to bring him any finished fragment. Virgil put him off as long as he could, but finally read to him the second, fourth, and sixth books. Octavia, Antony’s widow, fainted at the passage describing her son Marcellus, but lately dead. The epic was never completed, never finally revised. In 19 B.C. Virgil visited Greece, met Augustus in Athens, was sunstruck in Megara, started home, and died soon after reaching Brundisium. On his deathbed he begged his friends to destroy the manuscript of his poem, saying that at least three years more would have been necessary to give it finished form. Augustus forbade them to carry out the request.

Every schoolboy knows the story of the Aeneid. As Troy burns, the ghost of the slain Hector appears to the leader of his Dardanian allies, the “pious Aeneas,” and bids him resume from the Greeks the “holy things and household gods” of Troy- above all, the Palladium, or image of Pallas Athene, on the retention of which the preservation of the Trojans was believed to depend. “Seek for these” sacred symbols, says Hector, “the city which, when you have wandered over the sea, you shall at last establish.” Aeneas escapes with his old father Anchises and his son Ascanius. They set sail and stop at divers places; but always the voices of the gods command them to go on. Winds drive them ashore near Carthage, where a Phoenician princess, Dido, is founding a city. (When Virgil wrote this, Augustus was carrying out Caesar’s plan for rebuilding Carthage.) Aeneas falls in love with her. A convenient storm enables them to take refuge in the same cave and to consummate what Dido considers their marriage. For a time Aeneas accepts her interpretation, and shares with her and his willing men the tasks of construction. But the relentless gods- who, in classic myth, never cared much for marriage- warn him to depart; this is not the capital that he must make. Aeneas obeys, and leaves the mourning queen with a theme song in his words:

I will never deny, O Queen, that thou hast deserved of me the utmost thou canst set forth in speech…. I never held out the bridegroom’s torch, nor took the marriage vow…. But now Apollo has bidden me sail…. Cease then to consume thyself and me with these complaints. Not of my own will do I seek Italy.