Aeneid (Virgil)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Aeneid (Virgil)

Aeneid (Virgil) (19 B.c.)

A description of the foundation of the Roman Empire, the Aeneid effectively praises the emperor Caesar Augustus (63 B.C.-A.D. 14). Following the epic style of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, the iambic hexameter narrative, composed by the poet VIRGIL (70-19 B.C.), tells of the Trojan prince Aeneas, a valiant 12th-century B.C. warrior, rescuer of the gods and traditions of his fallen country, and national HERO. The poet's love of balance marks the opening phrase—Arma virumque cano (I sing of arms and the man)—with a paean contrasting views of the hero's military acumen and his humanity. The epic statement concludes with a PROPHECY that from Aeneas's voyage toward the mythic Hesperia come political realities—the conquest of Latium, the homeland called Alba Longa, and the eventual ramparts of Rome. For justification, Virgil reminds the reader that Juno, queen of the gods, hates the future city-state because it is destined to obliterate Carthage, her pet kingdom. This long-range view of Roman history attests to ill fate and state enemies as unavoidable risks during the rise of empires.

The wanderings of Homer's Odysseus form a pattern for events in Aeneas's protracted voyage from the Troad on the northwestern coast of Turkey to Latium, a semibarbaric nation on the Tiber River on the west-central coast of Italy. Beginning in Homeric style in medias res (in the middle of things), the poet depicts Aeneas and his lieutenant Achates at a nadir after Aeolus, king of the winds, wrecks their fleet near Carthage, a Libyan kingdom on the northern shore of Africa. Grasping for comfort for his mariners, Aeneas speaks a mellifluous human truth: “We must not forget what we have suffered before— and there has been worse, but the Gods will grant sometime an end to it” (Virgil 1961, 12). Virgil halts his concern for the peripatetic Trojans long enough to recount the foundations of the Carthaginian Empire, which the Phoenicians established in 814 B.C. and which spread to Syracusa, Sardinia, Corsica, the Balearic Islands, southern Spain, Gibraltar, and northern Morocco until Rome defeated Carthage in the Third Punic War (146 B.C.).

Virgil crafted his epic to stress Roman virtues. Despite the allure and wealth of Dido, widowed queen of the Carthaginians, Aeneas clings to pietas, the Roman concept of responsibility and devotion to duty that motivates the voyager away from temporal pleasures and toward his divine destiny. In book four at an ominous moment in his romance with Dido, a dismal EPITHALAMIUM marks their ill- fated sexual encounter in the forest. In a dramatic turnabout, the shimmering aura of Venus, Aeneas's mother and the ancestor of Julius Caesar, foreshadows godly endorsement of a mission that nature and heavenly antipathies have seriously compromised. The outcome as Virgil describes in book six during Aeneas's sojourn in the underworld projects a boundless empire for Rome, exempt from borders and a defined time span.

From Troy to Hesperia

In Book II, the Homeric convention that gave Odysseus an opportunity to describe his past sufferings allows Virgil's Aeneas to recap the fall of Troy, a conquest scenario that dominates much of the sculpture, art, dance, drama, and mythos of the Mediterranean world. Gothic details—a child-crushing sea monster, the disbelieved prophetess Cassandra, and a night vision of Hector's ghost—intensify Aeneas's narrative. He describes the presentation to Trojans of a wooden horse that Odysseus designed to trick the unwary into letting down their guard. During the resulting conflict, the Greek warriors who poured out of a trapdoor in the horse and opened the city gates initiated a GENOCIDE that sapped the Trojans' royal line. The “dark wing of shadowy night … the holocaust” foretold death for the elderly King Priam, whom Pyrrhus slaughtered on the altar, and the end for his citadel and dynasty (39). More drama in the form of thunder and a comet led Aeneas to try to escape from Troy with his wife Creusa, son Iulus (also called Ascanius), and father Anchises, though in the confusion he became separated from Creusa. With this departure amid calamity, Virgil stresses the basis for Roman mores—the crucial role of the nuclear family to the imperial state. Implicit in the loss and death of Creusa in Troy is the centrality of males to imperial dynasty. Creusa was expendable because she had completed her job as mother to Iulus, the progenitor of the Julian line.

Virgil opens Book III on another Roman value, the regard for wise elders and their advice in the midst of catastrophe. At a refuge in Thrace, while Aeneas's followers construct a fleet of ships, Anchises directs them toward a new Troy, a pivotal moment in nation building involving three patriarchal generations—grandfather, father, and son. The departing company leaves behind heaps of corpses, barren fields, withered grass, and flaming battlements. Troy's royal family is put to the sword, hurled over the battlements, or allotted to Greek warriors as combat prizes. Unruffled in the face of grim phantasms—harpies, Scylla and Charybdis, Cyclopes, and a volcano—Aeneas relies on his father's guidance until the old man dies. The dutiful son mourns this passage of wisdom as “my last disaster” (74). The loss parallels the death of Julius Caesar centuries later and the leadership of the neophyte Octavian through Rome's 10 years of revolution, proscription and execution of aristocrats, and the birth of the empire under a young, untried ruler. At a theatrical point in the narration, Aeneas ends his saga and faces a hushed audience.

Aeneas the Patriarch

Book IV enlarges on the leader's humanity. Picturing Aeneas as a widower tempted by Queen Dido and her prosperous North African realm, Virgil engineers a sinister forest mockery of a sexual union between man and woman, serenaded by ululating wood sprites, which Dido decides constitutes a wedding. The epic contrasts the unsanctified union with the summons of Mercury, the winged messenger of the Gods who reminds the voyager that transporting the dynasty of Teucer, Troy's founder, to a new landfall outweighs the physical charms of Dido, ruler of Carthage. Aeneas therefore leaves, and Dido climbs a funeral pyre and stabs herself to death. A dire spectacle—Aeneas's disembarkation from the harbor under the smoke generated by Dido's funeral pyre—reminds readers that empire building exacts a human price as well as ongoing struggle toward a national aim. The allusion to Carthaginian enmity summons a vision of the Punic Wars (264-146 B.C.), a costly hiatus in Rome's rise to greatness.

Virgil inserts order into the lives of the wearied refugees. The zigzag course that Aeneas follows makes landfall at Sicily, where tradition obligates him to honor his father Anchises with Homeric accolades to manhood—the traditional postfune- real athletic contests and appropriate titles and prizes to the winners. The poet takes a bizarre turn in Book V when Trojan women go mad with grief and light a sacred fire that spreads to the fleet. A pair of prophecies from the Trojan elder Nautes and from the disembodied Anchises convinces Aeneas to take new directions and sail on with only the hardiest of the Trojan voyagers. The winnowing out of the weak presages Charles Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest as an assurance of genus survival. One near miss—a brush with the Sirens' rocks—repositions Palinurus, who is at the pilot's wheel to guide Troy's brightest and best from Sicily east to Latium on the Italian mainland. His valor and sacrifice after he tumbles into the sea can be interpreted as a reflection on past Roman heroes who arose at a crucial moment to decide the nation's fate by giving their lives for their country.

Virgil constantly emphasizes the fate of the fallen. In Book VI, Aeneas makes his way to Hades to glimpse Rome's future. The ancient literary traditions of Charon, ferryman over the River Styx, retain their terrors as the hero ventures among hordes of wraiths; these include the voiceless spirits of warriors and citizens slain, trampled, or burned in the fall of Troy, an overwhelming proof of the mortal cost of founding Rome. This backdrop contrasts with the Elysian Fields, home of the blessed, where Anchises enumerates for his son Rome's seven kings; patriots Brutus and the Gracchi (Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus); warriors Scipio and Julius Caesar; and the pinnacle of greatness, Augustus Caesar, whom Virgil extols with his epic. To exalt history over myth, the poet proclaims, “Not even Hercules covered so much of the world” (143). Virgil halts long enough to toss a second sop to the emper- or—an encomium to Marcus Claudius Marcellus, Augustus's heir, who sickened and died in 23 B.c. at age 19. The text links Marcellus and Aeneas in their reverence for old-style morality: “Oh weep for his piety! His faith like the faith of old! His invincible valor!” (145). The passage anticipates the opening of the Theater of Marcellus, which neared completion in Virgil's last year.

A Battle for Conquest

With Book VII, Virgil looks toward the ideal, an eternal nation wreathed in honor. He builds suspense with a grand invocation to Erato, muse of lyric poetry: “Goddess, O guide me, Goddess, O guide your poet! I shall tell of a grim war, of battlelines, of kings whose courage drove them deathward” (147). Again, the action focuses on male concerns—a battle of monarchs for control of the realm. Virgil foretells the history of the Latins and their dynastic union with the Trojans through the Princess Lavinia's marriage to Aeneas. At the acme of exaltation for Imperial Rome, Virgil anticipates a leader who “shall bear our name to the stars, and our descendants rule all the peoples of the turning world from sunrise to sunset” (149), an overstatement of Rome's centrality to world history. Meanwhile, Aeneas arrives in Latium and sketches an outline of conquest in the dirt, the epitome of humble beginnings for human dreams.

The union of dynasties preceding a universal golden age requires a mustering of warriors in book VIII for an epic battle, which draws heavily on Homeric posturing and conflict and, in Book X, on the intrusion of the gods of Mount Olympus. With Juno sowing discord throughout the faceoff in Book IX, the fight for Lavinia—a female war prize—boils down to a duel in Book XII, an evocation of Achilles's battle with the Trojan Hector in the Iliad. Destiny tips in favor of the Trojan refugees with the thrust of Aeneas's spear through the thigh of his rival Turnus. The last five lines savor the coup de grace to Turnus's heart and the flight of his groaning, sighing spirit to Hades. Aeneas's victory ends a spiritual journey that began in arson and genocide and concluded with single combat. The restoration of order in Latium suits Virgil's lofty celebration of national character and of the peace that Augustus brought to the Roman Empire.

During the era of CRUSADER LORE, the German knight-poet Heinrich von Veldeke turned the Norman Aeneas story Roman d’Eneas (ca. 1160) into a chivalric romance in Eneit (ca. 1186). In 1428, Italian poet Maffeo Vegio wrote a supplement to the Aeneid that summarizes Aeneas's marriage to Lavinia. The Portuguese epic Os Lusiadas (The Lusiads; 1572), by Luis Vaz de Camoes, emulates Virgil's rhythm and elevated tone. The story recurs in the writings of WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, the operas by Hector Berlioz and Henry Purcell, and Ursula Le Guin's feminist novel Lavinia (2008).


Adler, Eve. Vergil’s Empire: Political Thought in the Aeneid.

Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by Patric Dickinson. New York: Mentor, 1961.