[The Roman race] left to other nations such things as art and science, and ever remembered that they were destined to bring under their empire the peoples of earth, to impose the rule of submissive nonresistance, to spare the humbled and to crush the proud.

Hamilton ends her account of the Aeneid in Part Four, Chapter IV, with this strange declaration of Virgil on the nature of “the Roman race.” In order to understand it, we should bear in mind both the legacy to which Virgil is responding as well as the contemporary backdrop to which he addresses himself. The original Romans had a very indistinct and undeveloped religious worldview, in which deities were little more than barely personified forces. As a result, the Romans responded well to the colorful and engaging body of stories the Greeks had compiled. Consequently, when the Romans came in greater and greater contact with the Greeks, they took over the entire Greek system, only bothering to change some names to harmonize the new gods with existing traditions. They also adopted Greek philosophy, science, and artistic practices.

With so much cultural and intellectual matter adopted from another race, the Romans suffered a lingering void in their national identity. To counter the impression of such an absence, the Romans turned to the areas in which their own culture excelled. In Virgil’s time, the Romans had military prowess and a strong, organized state. The current emperor, Augustus, had expanded and consolidated the geographic possessions of Rome into an empire of unprecedented scope and status. Virgil’s remark is rather defensive, implying that the Romans had voluntarily laid aside the projects of art and science—no doubt to the Greeks, as well as to other civilizations—in favor of achieving world dominance. Interestingly, the last part of Virgil’s statement almost likens the Romans’ role to that of the gods in describing them as arbiters of humility and pride. In fact, Augustus initiated a long tradition among emperors by deifying the deceased Julius Caesar, officially declaring him a god and forcing the empire’s subjects to worship him.