Author: Vergil (70-19 B.C.)
Type of plot: Heroic epic
Time of plot: The period immediately following the Trojan War
Locale: The Mediterranean region
First transcribed: Augustan manuscript
Written at the emperor's request as an endorsement of the newly established principate, this epic Latin poem celebrates the glory and heroism of the Roman race. In twelve books it traces the legendary founding of Rome, from the time of the Trojan War down to the establishment of the reign of Augustus Caesar.
Aeneas (e.ne.??s), the legendary progenitor of the Roman rulers whose son Ascanius, in fulfillment of a prophecy, founded Alba Longa and whose later descendants, Romulus and Remus, founded Rome. The son of Venus and Anchises, king of Dardanus, Aeneas is somewhat more diffident than the warrior heroes of other ancient epics, and he displays the Latin virtues of moderation and filial devotion. Only occasionally does he indulge in righteous indignation. Twice during the siege of Troy he is saved from death by the intervention of his divine mother. After the fall of the city he flees, carrying his aged father on his shoulders and leading his son Ascanius by the hand. In the confusion his devoted wife Creusa is lost. Aeneas searches for her in vain until her shade appears to tell him that he will find his destiny in a distant land. After long wandering, Aeneas and his small band of followers arrive in Italy. There he engages in warfare with the people of Latium and Rutuli. Eventually a truce is arranged and he marries Lavinia, the daughter of King Latinus. In her honor he founds the city of Lavinium.
Anchises (an.ki'sez), king of Dardanus, King Priam's ally in the Trojan War, and the father of Aeneas. A man of great wisdom, he guides his son through many dangers during the wanderings of Aeneas and his followers from Troy to Sicily, where Anchises dies. From the underworld he foretells the greatness of Rome and commands Aeneas to end his travels at the place where he will eat his tables. Though he appears only as a shade within the poem, the old man figures as a sage patriarch in the recital of earlier events.
Ascanius (as.ka'ni.??s), sometimes called Iulus, the son of Aeneas. He fulfills Anchises' prophecy of the place to settle when he declares, while the Trojans are eating food heaped on large pieces of bread, that they are eating their tables. He takes part in one battle, in which he acquits himself with bravery befitting the future founder of a city and a kingdom.
Creusa (kre.oo's??), the wife of Aeneas. After she became separated from her husband and son during the flight from Troy, Aeneas searched for her despairingly until her shade appeared to tell him that she was lost to Troy forever and that in Italy an empire awaited him.
Dido (di'do), the queen of Carthage, whose love for Aeneas causes her death. When Jupiter sends Mercury, the messenger of the gods, to remind Aeneas of his mission, the hero prepares to continue his wanderings, in spite of the vows he has sworn and Dido's pathetic pleas that he remain with her. On the pretext of burning the love tokens he gave her, Dido prepares a funeral pyre and, lamenting her betrayal, kills herself after the departure of Aeneas and his band. Considered one of the most wronged women in all literature, Dido has beauty, charm, and character, though the latter she sacrifices to the whims of Venus.
Anna (an'??), Queen Dido's sister and confidante.
Latinus (l??ti'n??s), king of Latium. Because the oracles have foretold that a stranger will appear, marry his daughter, and rule his kingdom, Latinus befriends Aeneas and promises him the hand of Lavinia, the royal princess, in marriage. The prophecy is not immediately fulfilled, however, for Juno, the enemy of Aeneas, sends the Fury Alecto to mm Amata, the wife of Latinus, against Aeneas. Amata finds a confederate in Turnus, the leader of the Rutulians, her choice as a husband for Lavinia. Bewildered and grieved by this dissension, Latinus goes into retirement and Turnus takes command of the Latiums and Rutulians in the war with the Trojans and their allies.
Lavinia (l??.vi'ni.??), the beautiful young daughter of King Latinus and his wife Amata. Loved by Turnus but betrothed to Aeneas, she becomes the prize for which the leaders contend in a bloody tribal war. She becomes the bride of Aeneas after the hero has killed Turnus in single combat and peace has been restored.
Turnus (tur'n??s), the leader of the Rutulians and the enemy of Aeneas. A giant of a man, the favorite of Queen Amata for the hand of Lavinia, Turnus is a braggart warrior who makes good his boasts. Aided by Juno, he is almost successful in defeating the Trojan warriors led by Aeneas. When Turnus is decoyed away from the battle, Aeneas pursues and kills him. After the death of Turnus, according to the decision of the gods, Aeneas and his followers abandon Trojan ways and accept the customs of Latium.
Amata (??.ma't??), the wife of Latinus. Goaded by the Fury Alecto, she is moved to hate Aeneas and to plot against him.
Camilla (k??.mi'l??), a warrior maiden of the Rutulians brought up in the worship of Diana. She dies in battle, her exposed breast pierced by a Trojan spear, and her death incites Turnus to frenzied rage and even greater efforts against the warriors of Aeneas.
Aruns (a'r??ns), the slayer of Camilla.
Opis (o'pis), the nymph charged by Diana to look over Camilla and protect her. Opis kills Aruns to avenge the death of the warrior maiden.
Evander (??.van'der), the leader of an Arcadian colony and the ruler of the city of Pallanteum, built on the site of later Rome. In a dream, Tiber, the stream-god, directs Aeneas to seek the help of Evander in the coming battle with the Latium and Rutulian forces under Turnus. The Arcadian leader welcomes Aeneas to his city and sends a band of warriors, under the leadership of his son Pallas, to aid the Trojans.
Pallas (pal'??s), the son of Evander. During a hard-fought battle, Pallas, while trying to rally his followers, meets Turnus in single combat and is killed by the Rutulian. His death causes great grief among the Trojans, and Evander is heartbroken. In the conflict between Aeneas and Turnus, Aeneas is about to spare his enemy's life when he sees that Turnus is wearing a gold-studded sword belt stripped from the body of Pallas. Proclaiming that Pallas really strikes the blow, Aeneas drives his sword through Turnus and kills the Rutulian leader.
Euryalus (u.ri'??.l??s) and Nisus (ni's??s), valiant young Trojan warriors. During the absence of Aeneas, who has gone to Pallanteum to ask Evander for aid, the two leave the beleaguered Trojan camp and steal into the tents of the besieging enemy. There they kill a number of the Latin soldiers and collect trophies of their exploits before they are surrounded and killed. The followers of Turnus parade the heads of the dead heroes before the Trojan camp.
Anius (a'ni.??s), king of Ortygia, where Aeneas and his followers sail after the ghost of Polydorus has warned them not to settle in Thrace. At Ortygia the priest of Apollo prophesies that the descendants of Aeneas will rule over a world empire if the wanderers will return to the ancient motherland of Troy. Anchises mistakenly declares that the Trojans had come from Crete.
Celaeno (s??.le'no), Queen of the Harpies. When the Trojans land in the Strophades, they unknowingly offend her and she threatens them with famine.
Acestes (??.ses'tez), the son of a Trojan maiden and a river-god. He rules over that part of Sicily where Aeneas and his followers go ashore to hold funeral games in observance of Anchises' death. Aeneas awards Acestes first prize in the archery contest because he is "the favorite of the gods."
Nautes (no'tez), the wisest of the Trojan band. He advises Aeneas to leave the aged and infirm behind with Acestes when the Trojans continue their wanderings.
Palinurus (pa.li.noo'r??s), the helmsman drowned shortly after the Trojans sail away from the kingdom of Acestes. Venus has offered his life as a sacrifice if Neptune will grant safe convoy to her son and his followers.
Aeneas, driven by a storm to the shores of Libya, was welcomed gladly by the people of Carthage. Because Carthage was the favorite city of Juno, divine enemy of Aeneas, Venus had Cupid take the form of Ascanius, son of Aeneas, so that the young god of love might warm the heart of proud Dido and Aeneas would come to no harm in her land. At the close of a welcoming feast Aeneas was prevailed upon to recount his adventures.
He described the fall of his native Troy at the hands of the Greeks after a ten-year siege, telling how the armed Greeks had entered the city in the belly of a great wooden horse and how the Trojans had fled from their burning city, among them Aeneas with his father Anchises and young Ascanius. Not long afterward, Anchises had advised setting sail for distant lands. Blown by varying winds, the Trojans had at length reached Buthrotum, where had been foretold a long and arduous journey before Aeneas would reach Italy. Having set sail once more, they had reached Sicily. There Anchises, who had been his son's sage counselor, had died and had been buried. Forced to leave Sicily, Aeneas had been blown by stormy winds to the coast of Libya. Here he ended his tale, and Dido, influenced by Cupid disguised as Ascanius, felt pity and admiration for the Trojan hero.
The next day Dido continued her entertainment for Aeneas. During a royal hunt a great storm drove Dido and Aeneas to the same cave for refuge. There they succumbed to the passion of love. Aeneas spent the winter in Carthage and enjoyed the devotion of the queen. But in the spring he felt the need to continue his destined course. When he set sail, the sorrowing Dido killed herself. The light of her funeral pyre was seen far out at sea.
Again on the shores of Sicily, Aeneas bade his men refresh themselves with food, drink, and games. First of all there was a boat race in which Cloanthus was the victor. The second event was a foot race, won by Euryalus. Entellus engaged Dates in a boxing match, which Aeneas stopped before the obviously superior Entellus achieved a knockout. The final contest was with bow and arrow. Eurytion and Acestes made spectacular showings and to each was awarded a handsome prize. Following the contests, Ascanius and the other young boys rode out to engage in war games. Meanwhile, the women were grieving the lost guidance of Anchises, and at the instigation of Juno set fire to the ships. Aeneas, sustained by the gods, bade his people repair the damage. Once more the Trojans set sail.
Finally, they reached the shores of Italy, at Cumae, famous for its sibyl. The Sibyl granted Aeneas the privilege of visiting his father in the underworld. After due sacrifice, the two of them began their descent into Hades. At length they reached the river Styx and persuaded the boatman Charon to row them across. Aeneas saw the spirits of many people he had known in life, including the ill-fated Dido. Then they came to the beginning of a forked road. One path led to the regions of the damned; the other led to the land of the blessed. Following this latter road, they came at last to Anchises, who showed Aeneas in marvelous fashion all the future history of Rome, and commanded him to found his kingdom at the place where he would eat his tables. On his return to the upper regions Aeneas revisited his men and proceeded to his own abode.
Again the Trojans set sail up the coast of Italy, to the ancient state of Latium, ruled over by Latinus. On the shore they prepared a meal, laying bread under their meat. As they were eating, Ascanius jokingly observed that in eating their bread they were eating their tables. This remark told Aeneas that here was the place Anchises had foretold. Next day the Trojans came to the city of King Latinus on the Tiber. Latinus had been warned by an oracle not to give his daughter Lavinia in marriage to any native man, but to wait for an alien, who would come to establish a great people. He welcomed Aeneas as that man of destiny.
A Latin hero, Turnus, became jealous of the favor Latinus showed Aeneas, and stirred up revolt among the people. Juno, hating Aeneas, aided Turnus. One day Ascanius killed a stag, not knowing that it was the tame favorite of a native family. There grew from the incident such a feud that Latinus shut himself up in his house and ceased to control his subjects. Meanwhile Aeneas made preparations for battle with the Latins under Turnus.
In a dream he was advised to seek the help of Evander, whose kingdom on the Seven Hills would become the site of mighty Rome. Evander agreed to join forces with Aeneas against the armies of Turnus and to enlist troops from nearby territories as well. Now Venus presented Aeneas with a fabulous shield made by Vulcan, for she feared for the safety of her son.
When Turnus learned that Aeneas was with Evander, he and his troops besieged the Trojan camp. One night Nisus and Euryalus, two Trojan youths, entered the camp of the sleeping Latins and slaughtered a great many of them before they were discovered and put to death. The enraged Latins advanced on the Trojans with fire and sword and forced them into open battle. When the Trojans seemed about to beat back their attackers, Turnus entered the fray and put them to flight. But the thought of Aeneas inspired the Trojans to such bravery that they drove Turnus into the river.
Aeneas, warned in a dream of this battle, returned and landed with his allies on the shore neat the battlefield, where he encountered Turnus and his armies. Evander's troops were being routed when Pallas, Evander's beloved son, began to urge them on and himself rushed into the fight, killing many of the enemy before he was slain in combat with Turnus. Aeneas sought to take the life of Turnus, who escaped through the intervention of Juno.
Aeneas decreed that the body of Pallas should be sent back to his father with appropriate pomp during a twelve-day truce. The gods had watched the conflict from afar; now Juno relented at Jupiter's command, but insisted that the Trojans must take the Latin speech and garb before their city could rule the world.
Turnus led his band of followers against Aeneas in spite of a treaty made by Latinus. An arrow from an unknown source wounded Aeneas, but his wound was miraculously healed. The Trojan hero reentered the battle, was again wounded, but was able to engage Turnus in personal combat and strike him down. Aeneas killed his enemy in the name of Pallas and sacrificed his body to the shade of his dead ally. No longer opposed by Turnus, Aeneas was now free to marry Lavinia and establish his long-promised new nation. This was Rome, the mistress of the ancient world.
Publius Vergilius Maro, better known as Vergil, was the greatest poet Rome produced. His finest work, the Aeneid, became the national epic and, when Rome collapsed, it survived to become the most influential book Rome contributed to Western culture. Dante drew direct inspiration from book 6 for The Divine Comedy, allowing the spirit of Vergil to guide him through the Inferno and up the heights of Purgatory. The work has been the cornerstone of liberal education from the Christian Middle Ages to the late nineteenth century. Even today it is still studied in universities and read for pleasure by a literate public.
Vergil himself was a modest, retiring man who preferred the seclusion of his country estate to life in the bustling metropolis of Rome. However, he was much liked and esteemed by important people, including the poet Horace and the Emperor Augustus. He won the patronage of the great, secured the wealth and leisure necessary to write, composed three supreme poems--the Georgics, the Eclogues, and the Aeneid--and died revered and honored. In his lifetime he saw the closing years of the Civil War that destroyed the Roman Republic, and the establishment of the Roman Empire under Augustus. To celebrate the Pax Romana and the leadership of Augustus, Vergil wrote the Aeneid, his patriotic epic dealing with the mythical Roman past.
According to legend, the Trojan hero Aeneas came to Italy after escaping the fall of Troy and became the ancestor of the Romans through his descendant, Romulus. Vergil took this material and, borrowing his structure from Homer, fashioned an epic of it. The first part of the poem, dealing with Aeneas' wanderings, resembles the Odyssey in form and content; while the second half, which treats Aeneas' war in Latium and its surroundings, imitates in some ways the Iliad. Certain poetic devices, such as the repeated epithet, ate taken from Homer, as well as the way the gods interfere on behalf of their favorites. And yet the Aeneid is wholly original in concept, possessing a unity of its own.
The originality lies in its presentation of Aeneas, a hero who struggles and fights, not for booty, personal fame, of any existing country, but for a civilization that will exist in the distant future, that of Rome and Augustus. Time and again he sacrifices his personal comforts, leaving home after home because of the prodding of his inner sense of destiny. He knows that he is to be the founder of a new nation, but the details are revealed to him only gradually in the course of his journeying. Chronologically, the pattern is one of revelation and sacrifice, and each new revelation about his destiny imposes a greater burden of responsibility on him. The final revelation--when Aeneas descends with the Sibyl into the Cavern of Death and is shown the coming glory of Rome by his father, Anchises--prepares him spiritually and physically for the greatest fight of his life. And, finally, he is something greater than a man. In fulfilling his grand Fate he becomes a monument, an unstoppable force, an instrument of the gods, like the Roman Empire itself as Vergil visualized it.
When the poem opens and Aeneas and his men ate shipwrecked at Carthage, the hero already knows two things: that he has an important mission to accomplish and that his future home lies on the western coast of Italy. This knowledge ensures, on his part, a limited commitment to Dido, whereas she falls completely in love with him, giving herself freely even though it ruins her as a woman and a queen when Aeneas is ordered by Jupiter to sail on to Italy. In the coldness of his parting the founder of Rome draws upon himself all the wrath of Dido, the founder of Carthage, which points forward to the Punic Wars between those cities.
However, Aeneas is not hardhearted. He feels pity for those who are trying to prevent him from accomplishing his aim--Dido, Lausus the son of Mezentius, and even Turnus. The entire epic is weighted with the sadness of mortality. Aeneas' sense of destiny gives him courage, fortitude, patience, determination, and strength; yet it also makes him humorless, overbearing, and relentless. Still, without that inner conviction in the future destiny of his line and of his fellow Trojans, he would be nothing. Pity is the most that a person who knows he is doing right can feel for those who oppose him. Aeneas has a noble character, though somewhat inhuman, and he seems to embody the best traits of the Roman people.
The crux of the Aeneid comes, as Dante rightly perceived, in book 6, where Aeneas enters the realm of Death to gain enlightenment about his future. From the fall of Troy, where the ghost of Hector warns Aeneas, to this point, the dead are associated with revelation. And here Aeneas must purify himself ritually, enter the Cavern of Death, brave all the terrors of Hell, meet dead comrades, and finally, with a rite, enter the realms of the Blest to learn the truth about himself and his fate. Like Dante's Hell, Vergil's has various places assigned for various acts, sins, and crimes, but punishment there purges the soul to prepare it for the Elysium Fields, from which it may reincarnate.
In this section, Vergil delineates his view of the meaning of life and death. There is a Great Soul that gave birth to all living spirits, which incarnated themselves in flesh as assorted creatures, including man. The desires of these spirits hindered them from living up to their true purpose in bodily form, so that they must be cleansed after death, only to take on flesh again until they learn their rightful end and achieve it. Thus, death purifies and life tests one on the long road to perfection. This outlook--a mixture of Pythagorean reincarnation, Stoic pantheism, and Platonic mysticism--gives credence to everything Anchises shows Aeneas about his illustrious descendants and the rising power of Rome. Aeneas sees the souls of the future waiting their turn and he knows how much responsibility he really bears. Anchises' judgment of Aeneas is a fitting comment on Rome itself:
"But yours, my Roman, is the gift of government, That is your bent--to impose upon the nations The code of peace; to be clement to conquered, But utterly to crush the intransigent!"
In those lines Vergil summed up the particular genius of Rome, together with its greatness and its terrors.3