In Aeneid 8, Virgil describes in detail Aeneas’ shield made by Vulcan, and this ekphrasis- the longest in the poem and clearly modeled on Achilles’ shield in Iliad 18- provides the reader with an extended account of some most significant events in (future) Roman history. Many scenes are concerned with (semi-) historical events in the early days of the Republican era, but above all Virgil makes great efforts to elevate Augustus’ (at the time Octavian) achievement in the Battle of Actium and his triple triumph after the victory against his major rival in the civil war, Antony, and his eastern allies, notably Cleopatra, who is depicted in a much more hostile light than Antony. Virgil’s diligence to celebrate Augustus’s achievements is evident from the number of lines which are occupied by the description of the battle and its aftermath: the whole ekphrasis is approximately 100 lines long, about half of which is dedicated to narrating the two major events in Augustus’ life. Not only the quantity of the lines plays a role in portraying Augustus favourably, but also the images and some Pindaric components that Virgil employs to elevate Augustus are effective and are constantly found in the second half of this ekphrasis.
Before Augustus/Octavian is introduced, Virgil seems to foreshadow the great scale of the battle at Actium, and his prologue adds greater weight to the tense atmosphere. Virgil explicitly mentions ‘Actia bella’ (675), and how the whole Leucas (totum…Leucaten: 676-7) was seething because of the upcoming battle (instructo Marte…fervere). Octavian is then -and suddenly- introduced, and is called ‘Augustus’ as well as ‘Caesar’ (both 678) anachronistically. He is leading the Italians into battle (Italos in proelia: 678), and Virgil emphasises the importance of Octavian’s role: he is ‘cum patribus populoque penatibus et magnis dis’ (679), suggesting that not only he is fully responsible for the future of Roman politics and society (see patribus populoque), but also for the survival of Roman religious practices (penatibus et magnis dis). Coupled with his notable responsibility, Octavian appears rather divine: standing high on his ship’s prow (stans celsa in puppi) a double flame streams (geminas…flammas…vomunt: 680-1) from his forehead and he is under the protection of his father’s star (patriumque…sidus), the adjective ‘patrium’ referring to his adoptive father Julius Caesar, who was deified in 42 BC. Virgil therefore associates, through not explicitly, Octavian with divine beings and he is depicted like a god. The poet is certainly attempting to make Octavian an extraordinary figure in the whole of Roman history, and the poet’s ambition is achieved further by mentioning the deeds of famous ancestors in the ekphrasis and placing Octavian’s achievement among them.
Another piece of evidence that helps one to justify that Virgil intends to make Octavian someone who is chosen by the gods is found in the lines that depict the battle itself (689-713). As the two sides fight a sea-battle, the gods also become involved. The Egyptian god Anubis (cf.698) is supporting Antony and Cleopatra’s forces, whereas Octavian is favoured by Neptune, Venus and Minerva (cf.699) and especially by Apollo, who is drawing his bow (cf. 704) and frightening all the allies of Antony and even Cleopatra (cf. 705-712). Antony’s side seems to be getting additional support from ‘all manner of monstrous gods (omnigeumque deum monstra), but the fact that Virgil leaves them unnamed apart from Anubis suggests how Octavian’s opponents did not have much aid from powerful divinities, unlike Octavian, who is helped by four major gods and goddesses. Indeed Octavian’s connection with the gods becomes more apparent when he consecrates an undying vow to the Italian gods (cf. 715) in the triple triumph and sits on the threshold of Apollo (cf. 720) to enjoy watching all the festivities in Rome. Through the description of the triple triumph, the gods’ support and the catalogue of the conquered at the end of the procession, Virgil greatly celebrates Augustus’ victory at Actium against the eastern nations and tribes.
The feebleness of Octavian’s (eastern) opponents is explored in depth at two occasions: when Apollo routs them and when they are forced to walk in long procession. In particular Virgil concentrates on describing Cleopatra, Antony’s lover and Queen of Egypt, to encapsulate his distaste for those who tried to oppose Octavian. Virgil explicitly criticises Antony’s ‘Aegyptia coniunx’ (688) by injecting his own opinion (‘nefas’) and by pointing out her ignorance: she does not realise that, by fighting against Octavian, she will be forced to die, as foreshadowed by ‘necdum etiam geminos a tergo respicit anguis’ (697) and ‘morte futura’ (709). Like her allies, Cleopatra too flees from the battle back to the River Nile (707-712), utterly conquered (see ‘victos’ in 703). Antony, however, is portrayed in a completely different way: he is almost glorified, though he is essentially an accomplice in plotting against Rome. He is called ‘victor’ (686), because he has taken control of numerous Asiatic/barbaric nations (for example, viris Orientis: 687). Rather controversially, Virgil portrays Antony favourably for two possible reasons: to glorify Octavian’s victory against such a strong opposition, something that would not be possible to convey with only his description of the feeble barbarians, and to defend the moral uprightness and patriotism of Roman citizens collectively and as far as possible by blaming Cleopatra for stirring up the whole civil war.
In his description of the Battle of Actium and the triumph, Virgil successfully celebrates Augustus’ magnificent achievement with themes that are also found in Pindar’s epinikia: he has an innate ability to be a leader (cf. 678), his fortune is favoured by the gods, and though he has won a great victory he does not act insolently but instead consecrates vows and gifts in temples, benefiting the gods and the state. Octavian is depicted as a role model for martial prowess and Roman piety, and the stark contrast that Virgil creates between Cleopatra with her barbaric allies and Octavian elevates the greatness of this new Roman leader.