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  • When Dante walks through Limbo in the Inferno, he talks to a group that he identifies as the five greatest poets in history: Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, and Lucan. While Dante, as an Italian, obviously stacks the deck in favor of Roman poets, his list highlights the importance of the two selections in this chapter: Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. While Horace and Lucan are no longer quite as famous as the others, literary critics today recognize the influence and quality of Virgil and Ovid’s works.

    Although they were (roughly) contemporaries, the older Virgil had grown up in a world split by civil wars: first Julius Caesar against Pompey the Great, and later Mark Antony (and Cleopatra) against Julius Caesar’s nephew Octavian, who would take the name Augustus Caesar when he became the first Roman Emperor. Ovid was born after the civil wars were over. As a result, Virgil was an advocate for stability in his poetry, while Ovid took a much freer approach in his works.

    Virgil reshapes the story of Aeneas to demonstrate what he (and Augustus) saw as the perfect Roman values. Aeneas, however, is not simply a reflection of Virgil’s time period; the Aeneid attempts to use literature to shape real life by showing a model hero worthy of inspiring imitation. To a certain extent, Virgil succeeds, at least in future generations. Ovid is more of a reflection of Virgil’s actual time period. Ovid’s witty sophistication and humorous excesses in his early love poetry provide us with a more decadent picture of Rome. Both poets turn to epic poetry later in life, but for opposite reasons: one to create order out of chaos, and one to question (in all seriousness) whether that order is artificial.

    Augustus Caesar’s reaction to each poet epitomizes the difference between them. Virgil was directed by Augustus to write the Aeneid, which rewrites history to explain how Rome was pre-ordained by the gods to be an empire. Virgil’s depiction of the fall of Troy includes Roman fighting techniques and religious beliefs (such as the lares, or household gods) that would have been foreign to Homer’s Greeks and Trojans. Since the Aeneid includes the deification of Augustus (foretold in Aeneid 6), it is a splendid piece of propaganda for a man who only called himself the son of the deified (Julius Caesar), rather than a god. When Virgil was dying, he asked that the nearly complete manuscript be burnt; Augustus ordered the manuscript to be finished and published. Conversely, Ovid’s work challenged the very notion that the people around him were anything but human. Ovid’s works included a book of letters by the women who are abandoned by the so-called heroes of mythology (the Heroides), a scandalous book of love poetry (the Amores), and a manual on how to pick up women (the Ars Amatoria). In particular, the Ars Amatoria was so popular that he wrote a section on how women could pick up men (hardly an example of early feminism, but unusual for the time). Ovid’s view of power was skeptical, at best, since the Metamorphoses catalogues the bad behavior of the gods that led us to the present state of affairs. In Metamorphoses 15, Ovid explains why the gods allowed Julius Caesar to be killed, followed by a prayer that Augustus should have more time on earth before the gods take him too: not exactly the emphasis that Augustus might have preferred. Exiled by Augustus for his scandalous poetry, Ovid was never allowed to return to Rome.

    Although Roman culture had appropriated Greek literature and religion, changing the names of characters and gods but continuing their stories, there were significant differences in Roman religious practices. Worship of the most important gods was directed by the flamines maiores (the “major priests”) of the three principle cults (to Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus), while the flamines minores (or “minor priests”) directed the worship of the rest of the gods. The Romans had quite a few gods that had no equivalent among the Greek gods, and their identities sometimes altered over time. In certain cases, earlier Roman gods were absorbed into another god’s identity or replaced entirely. For example, the Greek goddess Artemis was, over time, equated with the Roman goddess Diana, who also came to be identified with the Greek goddess Hecate, whose rough equivalent was the Roman goddess Trivia. All four figures eventually were identified as one goddess, who had multiple aspects to her power, and who was worshipped by multiple names. Apollo, however, had no equivalent match among the Roman gods, so he remained Apollo. The following comparison of Greek and Roman gods is particularly useful for anyone who has read Homer’s works.

    Roman Name

    Greek Name

    Roman Name

    Greek Name










    Athena (or Pallas Athena)

























    As you read, consider the following questions:

    • How does each epic portray the gods? How do humans feel about the gods in each work?
    • How is the view of “Fate” different in these works from the earlier Greek texts? In particular, what can the gods do in Roman literature that they cannot do in Greek literature?
    • What is human nature like in each of the stories? Are there any similarities?
    • What view of authority does each epic seem to recommend? Why?
    • What is the definition of a hero in each work? How do we know, based on the evidence in the texts?
    • Is there a unified view of “duty” in these works? Why or why not?

    Written by Laura J. Getty

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