Plot: An epic poem in hexameters that ostensibly salutes the achievements of Rome and its emperor. It tells the story of Augustus's mythic forebear, the Trojan Aeneas. Troy is destroyed and for seven years Aeneas has been struggling to reach Italy and complete his destiny. The ships leave Sicily but are blown off course by Juno. Aeneas lands near Carthage and is greeted by the widowed Queen Dido who he entertains with edited highlights of his sub-Odyssean wanderings. Dido finds Aeneas's seduction technique irresistible.There is a hunt, a storm and a marriage. But Jupiter reminds Aeneas that it is his duty to become the founding father of a great people, the Romans. Aeneas scarpers. Dido is furious and pours curses on the Trojans. She then immolates herself on a funeral pyre. Aeneas visits the Underworld and sees Dido in the distance, but she turns away from her former love. Aeneas arrives in Italy where Latinus, King of Latium, follows the prophecy and betrothes his daughter to the handsome stranger. This angers her suitor Turnus, hot-headed King of Rutulians and civil war breaks out. Eventually Aeneas and Turnus meet in single combat. Aeneas overcomes the king but decides to spare him until he notices Turnus is sporting the armour of Pallas Athene. In a tantrum, Aeneas kills his opponent and thus the poem ends with an act of spiteful violence.
Theme: Aeneas is bound on a wheel of duty. As a result, he loses Dido but gains a war and a young girl he doesn't really want. Imperial conquest is shown as exacting ferocious personal sacrifices and Aeneas is equally protagonist and victim.
Style: The verse is compact with each word working hard. Virgil's temperament turns the heroic to elegiac, the tragic to pathetic. Dryden's translation is a neo-classical masterpiece.
Chief Strengths: In a supreme work of literary art, Virgil recognises the unimportance of refined culture for the Roman mind. Rome's job is ''to rule mankind and make the world obey''.
Chief Weaknesses: Virgil's penchant for beautiful young men expiring in edifying ways. This contrasts with most of the women, who tend to evolve into harridans.
What they thought of it then: It was unfinished at the time of Virgil's final illness. He wanted it destroyed. Saved from the flames, it became an instant classic.
What we think of it now: Virgil's aversion to imperialism is over-emphasised. Whatever the poem's ambiguities, it still asserts the virtues of piety, duty and proper drainage.
Responsible for: Homer vanished in the Dark Ages but Virgil survived. He influenced everyone from Chancer and Dante to Francarasto.