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A Beginner’s Guide to Roman Epics

By: Emma Colino

Due to Italy’s long and rich history, it can be quite daunting to dive into a single subject. Nowadays, classic literature has the reputation of being too complicated or verbose which leads people to skipping it altogether. For example, Italian poetry dates all the way back to the Roman Empire, with works such as Virgil’s Aeneid going down in history as one of the most iconic epic poems. Despite how they may appear at first glance, these poems are incredibly entertaining once you break down their plot.

Virgil - Aeneas battles Turnus

The Aeneid

The Aeneid is a twelve book epic poem written by the ancient Roman poet Virgil. The story follows the Trojan hero Aeneas and his adventures after the events of the Trojan War. Aeneas has several dangerous exploits in this epic, including falling for a queen that was shot with Cupid’s arrow and journeying into the Underworld. This epic culminates in a grand battle between Aeneas and his foe, Turnus, that will determine the future of Rome. The Aeneid is intricately tied to the history of Italy, as Aeneas is a direct ancestor of Romulus and Remus, the twins who founded Rome. Additionally, this epic is not nearly as difficult as some make it out to be and it is definitely worth the read.

9 Circles of Hell

Dante's Inferno

Virgil’s Aeneid is responsible for inspiring countless works, perhaps the most iconic of them being Dante’s Inferno. In this epic, the poet Dante Alighieri journeys through the nine circles of Hell, guided by his idol Virgil. Each of the circles represents a different mortal sin, like lust or pride. Dante encounters several notable Roman figures in these Circles, such as Pope Nicholas III in the Eighth Circle of Hell and the hero Achilles in the Second. Even Virgil and Ovid are said to be in the First Circle since they were pagans who lived before they could worship Christ. Dante’s mastery of imagery gives this epic a new level of immersion that makes the reader feel as if they are accompanying him on this expedition.

Ovid's Metamorphoses

Another writer inspired by Virgil was the legendary Roman poet, Ovid. This fifteen book poem takes the same form as Virgil’s Aeneid, though its contents greatly differ. Rather than follow a single protagonist like Aeneas, Ovid’s epic details several stories that share a central theme of metamorphosis. The stories in Metamorphoses span from the very creation of the world, the Gods’ influence on mankind, and the Trojan war. This poem beautifully captures the ever-changing nature of the universe and is simply an enjoyable read. Ovid finishes his epic by proclaiming that his work will live on forever, which as of two millennia later holds true. Not only has Ovid’s poetry withstood the test of time, so has Virgil, Dante, and a plethora of other celebrated Roman poets. While these celebrated works may appear to be intimidating to the untrained eye, they are truly worth reading.