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Monarchy, Republic, Empire: a simple history of Rome to help you read the Aeneid

infographic showing the place of the Aeneid set text in the history of Rome
NB: simplified version to show timescale

This is a very short guide to Roman history for GCSE, A-Level, AP, and IB students getting started with the Virgil's Aeneid.

Below, I have summarised the main periods and some key events and explained how they influenced the political ideas of Virgil’s time.

For general resources to delve deeper into the Aeneid, you can also read more about the author and the set text in my OCR GCSE Virgil blog post or in my post dedicated to literary devices in Roman literature.

This post contains affiliate links, which help me keep producing free resources at no extra cost to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases, but I only ever recommend products that I use and believe are worthwhile.

The 3 Periods of Roman History

We generally divide the history of Rome into 3 periods:

Roman Monarchy (753BC-509BC)

An early Latin settlements made up of huts
Romans often remembered their humble beginnings

The date for the foundation of Rome is legendary, as is the line of seven kings. In fact, we have very little historical evidence for this period. However, the stories about the beginnings of Rome help us at least to see how the Romans remembered the period:

·       Rome was formed through the coming together of different peoples that had been living separately in the area, and Latin eventually became their first language

·       The original Roman government was a monarchy

·       Some of the peoples in Southern Italy were originally colonists from the East

·       There was an important Greek and Etruscan presence at the time the Romans were not yet a hegemonic, i.e. dominant, power in Italy.

·       Whereas some monarchs are presented as benevolent towards their people, the last king, Tarquin the Proud, was sent into exile by Brutus after abusing power (see the story of Lucretia)

The main storyline of the Aeneid precedes this period by around 300 years. Note, for example, that Aeneas visits Evander in the future site of Rome, which does not even exist yet! However, Aeneas prefigures in many ways the founding future kings of Rome (character, feats). The Trojans, Calchidians and Etruscans are examples of real or perceived ancestors of the Romans who had migrated from the East.

Roman Republic (509BC-27BC)

Contemporary to the great changes to the city-states in the East (think Athens!), Rome underwent its own revolution. The monarchy was overthrown to give way to an oligarchic system that was more democratic:

·       Every year 2 consuls were elected to rule the ever-expanding territory attached to Rome

·       There was a Senate that gave advice to the different people in office. This was a legacy of the Republic, both in terms of its aristocratic origins and in its advisory role; however, it later became a much more powerful body and a symbol of the collective power of citizens (cives) and of Republican values (mores)

·       The Republic was later seen as the Golden Age of Rome because, despite the wars and conflicts that tore it apart, it allowed greater individual political freedom than the later imperial system.

In the first century BC, attempts to accumulate power beyond the system’s somewhat more democratic design started taking place. You may remember Cicero’s consulship and Catilinarian conspiracy in the year 63 BC and the assassination of Julius Caesar in the year 44 BC. Both events are representative of tensions between individuals and the traditional institutions.

Octavian and Antony discussing terms in a military term
The conflict between Antony and Octavian led to the battle of Actium in 31 BC

It is worth remembering that Augustus claimed to be restoring the Republic rather than leading an Empire. There are constant references to Republican feats throughout the Aeneid, but these are sometimes ambivalent, and it is difficult to assess Virgil’s personal politics from them.

Roman Empire (27BC-476AD for the West and 1453AD for the East)

The convention is to mark the beginning of the Empire with the bestowing of ‘imperium’ (power to rule) on Octavian (named Augustus from then onwards) by the Senate. We call the first part of this period (27 BC – 284 AD) the Principate because the illusion was kept that Rome was still a Republic protected by one person:

·       Most offices and titles were kept as they were

·       The ‘emperor’ was called primus inter pares (first amongst equals) and princeps senatus (first man of the senate) and was indeed the leader de facto of the Empire. In the case of Augustus, this was achieved through actions such as his successive election as consul from 31-23 B.C or his control of the most important provinces.

·       The prerogatives of the princeps were not always visible, as it had much to do with political influence and control of opinion

·       Augustus was the first to put propaganda in place to present himself as the ideal benevolent leader: just, peaceful, magnanimous, generous, pious, divine, etc. This is why he is often referred to as pater (father), which

·       The government of Rome became somewhat dynastic

An old style book illustration with a map of Rome in Latin showing the hills
Plan of Rome at the time of Augustus

We have been debating for over 2000 years the extent to which Virgil intended to praise Augustus in the Aeneid. This is a question that you need to ask yourself, and it is possible that you will change your mind throughout the progress of reading the Aeneid or, indeed, when every time you read it. In order to do that, you need to contrast the presentation of leadership, war and politics in the Aeneid with the facts that we have about Virgil:

·       He was from Cisalpine Gaul

·       He grew up in the turmoil of civil wars and social unrest of the late Republic

·       He was well-educated and a well-known Hellenophile

·       Whereas the underlying philosophy of the Aeneid is mostly Stoic, we know that he was an Epicurean (hence his comment in the Georgics "Happy is he who has discovered the causes of things and has cast beneath his feet all fears, unavoidable fate, and the din of the devouring Underworld.")

·       He frequented the circle of Maecenas, a patron of the arts and friend of Augustus

·       He died in 19BC (and we cannot therefore expect him to know about the later development of the Empire, marked by rulers like Caligula or Nero)

What we can say for sure is that Virgil foresaw the magnitude of the changes that were coming, and even though he never got to see the empire at its fullest extent, he already invited us to think about the price of war and, indeed, peace, as well as the morality of conquest and expansion.

A map of the Roman Empire in 117 AD
The Roman Empire 136 years after the death of Virgil


Historical allusions: further Reading


It would be too long to refer here to all historical references in the Aeneid, and it is best to focus on the ones relevant for the books you are currently reading. Some (very simplified) examples here are Cleopatra for book 4, Pompey for book 2 or  Antony for book 8, but the list is rather overwhelming, given Virgil’s skill appealing to . He takes this from the neoteric poets, but that will require a whole new blogpost!

I recommend consulting the following books:

  • Penguin's West translation of the Aeneid comes with handy appendixes for the historical characters and settings (see the parade of future Romans or the shield of Aeneas sections)

  • R.D. Williams' The Aeneid of Virgil has a very well organised list of references that are easy to check and include the main historical references

  • Camp's Introduction to Virgil's Aeneid has a very relevant chapter once you are ready for more extensive reading: X. Echoes of History


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