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and race, and he anticipated, he even in a sense created, their future. In his hands Italy and Rome became sacred names, and his own name became inseparably linked with theirs. He was, in the simple and striking phrase which became current in the century after his death, Romanus Vergilius, "Roman Virgil." He was from the first the prophet of the Roman Empire; and he was accepted later as the precursor or herald of the spiritual Rome in which the divine will was to be accomplished and the divine order made manifest to the world. He fixed for the imagination of the Roman race, and of the nations which it subdued or incorporated, the limit of its aspiration and achievement, the very sea-mark of its utmost sail. When he had finished his work, and not until then, according to the belief of the early Church, the time was come for the incarnation of Christ. The establishment of peace under an universal empire was the prelude to the appearance of the Prince of Peace. It was recorded and glorified by the Augustan historians and poets. Among them, Virgil is the central figure; and the Augustan Age may be called also, and called appropriately, the Age of Virgil.
It is accordingly desirable, it is even neces
sary, towards intelligent study of Virgil and towards any adequate appreciation of his genius and of its meaning to us, to get some general view of the age in which he lived and the world which he interpreted, no less than of the earlier history of Latin poetry in the hands of his predecessors. For both purposes, a rapid glance must be taken over past history. The relevance of the points mentioned in this summary will become clear when we pass on to a sketch of Virgil's own life and work, and to consideration of the dominant motives in his poetry.
The Roman Republic, originally a small city-state with a population of farmers and tradesmen occupying a territory of a few miles square on the lower Tiber, had early in its history developed a singular genius for war and colonization, for municipal organization and commerce. By the beginning of the third century B.C. it held a dominant position in central Italy, not only among the Umbro-Latin communities of which it was one, but more widely throughout the territory inhabited by the kindred stocks of Sabellians and Oscans. By the decay of the once great Etruscan League it had been brought into direct contact with the Celtic
peoples who then occupied the Po valley and the Lombard plain. At the other end of the Italian peninsula it had come into close relations, whether peaceable or hostile, with the Greek or semi-Grecized states of Southern Italy and Sicily. These relations, alike in commerce and in politics, were necessarily extended further. Sicily was the strategic centre of the Western Mediterranean, and was in joint Greek and Carthaginian occupation. Its control was vital to any Power which sought expansion in those seas and in the circle of surrounding countries, Italy, Southern Gaul, Spain and Northern Africa.
Rome and Carthage became rivals for that control, and for the commercial and political predominance which it carried. The armed conflict between them lasted, with intervals, for more than a hundred years, and was only ended by the total destruction of Carthage. The Second Punic War, a desperate struggle of seventeen years during which Rome was brought to the brink of ruin by the genius of the Carthaginian general Hannibal, left indelible traces on the Roman imagination, no less than on the course of Rome's subsequent history. She emerged from the contest mistress of Italy,
and a world-power; but also with a loss, never wholly repaired, of her older and nobler traditions, of simplicity, patriotism, a high standard of honour, all that was meant by Roman virtue. The poison of wealth, the greed for exploitation of subject countries, the craving for idle amusement and the excitements of town life, crept into all classes of the community. The century which passed between the destruction of Carthage and the dictatorship of Julius Caesar is a record of immense material and territorial expansion, of corrupt and increasingly incapable government, of domestic dissensions and sanguinary civil wars. The huge monarchies of the Near East, founded by the marshals of Alexander the Great in the provinces, of his gigantic empire, were crumbling to pieces, and one after another fell by conquest, or lapsed as derelict, into Roman control, as those of India passed under English rule in the century between the battle of Plassey and the annexation of the Punjab. The kingdoms of Macedonia, Asia, Syria, became Roman provinces; Egypt became a Roman protectorate. The vassal monarchies of the Asiatic frontier, fragments of the enormous Seleucid empire, followed suit. The whole Mediterranean was
turned into a Roman lake. The new Oriental provinces were the richest, the most populous and the most highly civilized part of this enlarged dominion. The fatal lure of the East began to work. The ghost of Alexander's empire, which had stretched from the Adriatic to the Indus, from Bactria to the Sudan, kept rising from the grave to vex and dazzle the imagination of the West. The Asiatic policy of Rome, like her Asiatic frontier, was in perpetual fluctuation. In Virgil's seventeenth year, a great Roman army, led out across the Euphrates on a mad adventure of mixed conquest and plunder, was utterly destroyed by the Parthians in the Mesopotamian desert.
All the while, things had been going badly at home. Roman control of Italy became more and more oppressive. The Italian peoples, held down by a splendid system of military roads and a network of garrisoned Roman colonies, were treated not as allies but as subjects. But under this pressure there arose the feeling of joint Italian nationality. It shewed itself on both sides; at Rome, by a movement towards incorporation of Italy in the Roman Republic; in Italy, by a movement to shake off the Roman yoke and create an Italian na