Once upon a time, there was a restless and inventive people living in scattered city-states on the shores of the northeastern Mediterranean, and these people were mad about poetry. They loved it. They had a founding poet they revered almost as a god: young men learned his epic poetry by heart in school, to form their moral character. Their chief religious festivals had, as centerpieces, dramatic poetry contests. We call these productions “plays,” but they were more like stylized poetry readings than like modern drama. The playwrights who consistently won were not just celebrities for life: they were celebrities for ever.
Enter another people, with a talent for military organization and administration, semi-literate but hugely ambitious. They admired the Greeks, as the inventors of the phalanx and as the people who, improbably enough, had driven the enormous armies of the Persian Empire back into Asia. The Greeks, they thought, had everything but the one essential virtue: an overriding sense of duty to the State. This new people – the Romans -- determined that they would excel at everything the Greeks did. There would be Roman sculpture, Roman philosophy, Roman architecture. And there would be Roman poetry.
From the start it was a top-down enterprise, and a game of catch-up. It was like the American response to Sputnik. The Romans had their own doggerel, jogtrot rhyming poetry, stuff that makes, say, Hiawatha look like the height of taste. They ditched it. They were going to do elegant hexameters too. They were going to have great poets and a great national literature, just like the Greeks.
Eventually they found their man in Publius Vergilius Maro, a brilliant poet, who did write an epic for them, although it questioned Roman duty and subtly undermined the whole culture it was supposedly celebrating. He had nothing of Homer's simplicity, and nothing really of the epic poet about him. He was a love-poet, an endlessly inventive patterner, full of baroque and grotesque figures of speech and tricks of poesy: a poet's poet. Roman boys were set to learn his poetry in school, but they must have wondered what on earth they were doing. Twelve centuries later, Virgil would have a starring role in Dante's hit comedy, Mr Poetry Goes to Hell. It would be the belated vindication of Octavian's imperial ambitions for Latin poetry. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
For now, notice the pattern: a latecomer state scrambles to create a corpus of poetry commensurate with its sense of its place in the world, and does so by sponsoring poets it does not quite understand or trust. It's a pattern we will see again.