Virgil and Ovid: Roman Poetry in the Golden Age of Rome

From a Lecture Series presented by Professor Thomas F. X. Noble, Ph.D.

The reign of Augustus has often been called the Golden Age of Rome. This was the age of many great cultural achievements including the writing of Roman poetry by the master poets Virgil and Ovid.

Image of More details Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia for the golden age of rome and roman poetry Virgil and Ovid post
Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia by Jean-Baptiste Wicar, Art Institute of Chicago

Virgil and the Aeneid

The greatest poet of the Golden Age of Rome, Publius Virgilius Maro—Virgil—was born in 70 B.C. and died in 19 B.C. Virgil is one of the true immortals, a poet who was read in antiquity and who has been read ever since, who has always been known by educated persons. He is best known for his great epic the Aeneid, the story of Aeneas, the founder of Rome. Aeneas, in some ways the dullest character in epic literature, elicited the values that the Romans wished to hold up to themselves, what the Romans wanted to see when they looked in the mirror.

Learn more: The Rise of Rome

The Aeneid is one of the great masterpieces of world literature. Its theme is the somber dignity of Rome’s past. In almost dirge-like quality, Virgil composed his poem, thousands of lines, in dactylic hexameter. A hexameter is a six-foot line; a dactyl is a poetic foot that consists of one long and two short beats: boom, boom-boom. The fifth foot of a dactylic hexameter line is always the dactyl. We’re unfamiliar with dactylic hexameter in English because English almost cannot be written in dactylic hexameter. The rhythms of our language just don’t lend themselves to it.

Virgil wrote the poem from the first word to the last. When he died, about two-dozen lines of the poem were still incomplete, and in his will Virgil wanted the entire poem destroyed. The emperor Augustus violated his will, and he saved the Aeneid for us, for which we are very grateful.

The 33rd line of the first book of the Aeneid is where Virgil tells us what his great poem is going to be about. “Tantae molis erat Romanum condere gentem.” There’s something very dignified about it, very graceful and very elegant. But what does it mean? This line says “Oh, what a job it was to found the Roman people.” Virgil was not the kind of person to run around going, “We’re number one, we’re great!” Tantae molis erat, such a great burden it was to found the Roman people. It was a hard job, but we stuck at it and we got it done. That’s his great theme.

Learn more: The Culture of the Roman Republic

Image of More details Aeneas Fleeing Burning Troy for the article on the Golden age of Rome and roman poetry
Aeneas Flees Burning Troy, Federico Barocci, 1598 Galleria Borghese, Rome

When we first meet him, Aeneas is carrying his aged father Anchises on his back out of burning Troy. Roman families believed in deference to the pater familias and in the importance of ancestors. Aeneas isn’t fleeing Troy, saying “I’m out of here,” but carrying his aged father on his back out of the city. That’s the first time we’re told this is what you’re supposed to pay attention to. Want to know how to be a Roman? Look to Aeneas.

Aeneas has set forth on a mission from which he will not be deterred. Along the way, the reader encounters examples of family devotion, honesty, integrity, determination, courage, and humanity. In other words, all the “typical” Roman values.

Aeneas was harried by Juno, the goddess who had favored the Trojans. Everything was not to be smooth and easy. The Romans had their qualities and they had their problems—Rome was going to struggle. It was a big job to found Rome.

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At one point Venus, Aeneas’s patroness, went to her father, Jupiter, to ask if he was going to remain true to his promises. He’d made her great promises for Aeneas. Virgil put these words into the mouth of the chief of the gods, and in doing so, tells us something about the early years of Augustus’s reign and about the way the Romans saw themselves and their sense of destiny. Venus has gone to her father and said that “Juno is stirring things up and making awful problems down there; aren’t you going to fulfill your promises?” Jupiter says to her:

… fate remains unmoved

For the Roman generations. You will witness

Lavinium’s rise, her walls fulfill the promise;

You will bring to heaven lofty-souled Aeneas.

There has been no change in me whatever. Listen!

To ease this care, I will prophesy a little,

I will open the book of fate. Your son Aeneas

Will wage a mighty war in Italy,

Beat down proud nations, give his people laws,

Found for them a city …

To these I set no bounds in space or time;

They shall rule forever. Even bitter Juno

Whose fear now harries earth and sea and heaven

Will change to better counsels and will cherish

The race that wears the toga, Roman masters

Of all the world. It is decreed.

Thus, Virgil on the Romans. And thus, the Roman sense that the world would last exactly as long as Rome. It is decreed.

While he is mainly remembered for the Aeneid, it’s worth mentioning that Virgil wrote two other technically accomplished poems, the Georgics and the Eclogues, which were much admired in later times as models of Latin poetic meter. These poems were in praise of the countryside and in praise of traditional rural life.

Learn more: Rome—From Republic to Empire

Ovid Lightens the Tone

Not everything in Augustus’s time was quite so serious and somber. The poet Ovid, 43 B.C. to A.D. 18, was learned, accomplished, and prolific. Ovid wrote love elegies notably, the Amores, the Loves. He also wrote a didactic spoof, Ars Amatoria, The Art of Love, which is a sort of a seduction manual. Most famously, he wrote an epic scale encyclopedia of mythological tales, The Metamorphoses, or, The Great Changes. There is lot of tongue-in-cheek humor in Ovid, but there’s also a very powerful sense of deep feeling. He betrays something else, too. He’s immensely learned, but it is perhaps his feelings that are clearest.

Image of Ovid for the article on Roman poetry in the Golden age of Rome
Ovid as imagined in the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.

Ovid could be technically accomplished, but he got a little bit too playful, for which the ever-stern Augustus exiled him from Rome. His poetry has survived however as a delight and entertainment of the Western tradition ever since.

A bit different is the elegant Horace, 65–8 B.C., a sage, urbane Epicurean. He was prized in his own time and has been prized ever since. Perhaps the most technically accomplished of all the Roman poets, he was patronized by a man named Maecenas, whose name became a synonym for patronage throughout the Western tradition. Horace was one of those who flourished under Augustus, whose regime provided an opportunity for him to do all that he was able to do. He wrote odes. He wrote satires. He wrote letters. He wrote a treatise on poetry. Again, a man of considerable learning, of considerable breadth, of considerable ability.

Here is a 17th-century translation of one of Horace’s odes:

Strive not, Leuconoë, to know what end

The gods above to me or thee will send;

Nor with Astrologers consult at all,

That thou mayest know what better can befall:

Whether thou liv’st more winters, or thy last

Be this, which Tyrrhene waves ’gainst rocks do cast.

Be wise! Drink free, and in so short a space

Do not protracted hopes of life embrace:

Whilst we are talking, envious Time doth slide;

This day’s thine own; the next may be denied.

You can note the Epicurean tone: Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die. Of the future, who can say?

Virgil, Ovid, and Horace—they were the poets of the Golden Age. This was a period that marked Western civilization as, before it, only Periclean Athens had done.

Keep reading:
Chariot Racing: Ancient Rome’s Most Dangerous Sport
Ancient Roman Architecture: Rome’s Most Impressive Buildings
The Sack of Rome, 410 A.D

From the course The Foundations of Western Civilization taught by Professor Thomas F. X. Noble, Ph.D.

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