In approximately 30 bce, the Roman poet Virgil began composing the Aeneid (pronounced uh-NEE-id), an epic, or long, grand-scale poem, that told the story of Aeneas and the founding and destiny of Rome. Using myth, history, and cultural pride, the Aeneid summed up everything the Romans valued most about their society. At the same time, it offered tales of adventure featuring gods and goddesses, heroes and ghosts, warriors and doomed lovers. Virgil died before finishing the work, but it established his reputation as the foremost poet of the Romans.
Creating a Roman Heritage The Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas (pronounced i-NEE-uhs), a hero of Troy, the city in Asia Minor that the Greeks destroyed during the Trojan War. According to legend, Aeneas survived the war and led a group of Trojans on a journey to the kingdom of Latium (pronounced LAY-shee-uhm) in central Italy, where Rome was eventually built.
The story of Aeneas was much older than Rome. The hero appears as a character in the Iliad , an epic about the Trojan War by the Greek poet Homer. However, as Rome was emerging as the leading power in the Mediterranean world in the 200s bce, the Romans became eager to claim Aeneas and the Trojans as their ancestors. Some Romans even visited Ilium, a Roman city in Asia Minor said to stand on the ancient site of Troy, Aeneas's home city.
Aeneas was an ideal figure to serve as the legendary founder of Rome. As the son of Aphrodite (called Venus in Roman mythology), the goddess of love, and Anchises (pronounced an-KY-seez), a member of the Trojan royal family, he had both divine and royal parents. In addition, the ancient tales portrayed Aeneas as dutiful, spiritual, brave, and honorable, which were virtues the Romans believed characterized their culture. Finally, Aeneas was part of the Greek heritage so admired by the Romans. As a Trojan rather than a Greek, however, he provided the Romans with a distinct identity that was not Greek but equally ancient and honorable.
A number of Roman writers contributed to the story of how Aeneas came to Italy so his descendants could build Rome. The person who assembled the parts of the legend into a great national epic, however, was Publius Vergilius Maro, known as Virgil. His patron (someone who provides financial support for an artist) was Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. Augustus considered himself a direct descendant of Aeneas. Virgil's Aeneid glorified not just Rome but also Augustus, whose reign was portrayed as the fulfillment of the grand Roman destiny that the gods had predicted long ago.
Structure and Style Virgil modeled the Aeneid on the Iliad and the Odyssey , Homer's much-admired epics of ancient Greece. Like the Greek poems, the Aeneid features the Trojan War, a hero on a long and difficult journey, and exciting descriptions of hand-to-hand combat between brave warriors. It is also similar in form to the Greek epics: the twelve books of the Aeneid cover two major themes, the wanderings of Aeneas after the Trojan War, and the wars in Italy between the Trojans and the Latins.
The Story and Its Significance In Book 1 of the Aeneid, Aeneas and his followers arrive in Carthage in North Africa after escaping a storm sent by Juno (called Hera in Greek mythology), the queen of the gods. Early in the story, Virgil establishes the fact that Juno does her best to ruin Aeneas's plans because of her hatred for the Trojans, while Venus supports him. Jupiter (called Zeus in Greek mythology), the king of the gods, reveals that Aeneas will ultimately reach Italy and his descendants will found a great empire.
In Book 2, Aeneas tells Dido (pronounced DYE-doh), the queen of Carthage, how the Greeks won the Trojan War and how he escaped Troy. This story within a story continues in Book 3, as Aeneas describes to Dido the earlier attempts by the Trojan survivors to found a city. Book 4 reveals that Dido is in love with Aeneas, and the two become lovers; however, fate has other plans for the Trojan leader. Jupiter sends Mercury (called Hermes in Greek mythology), the messenger of the gods, to remind Aeneas that his destiny lies in Italy.
In Book 5 of the Aeneid, the Trojans reach Sicily, an island off the coast of Italy, and Aeneas organizes funeral games to honor the death of his father, Anchises. While the games are in progress, Juno attempts to destroy the Trojan fleet, but Jupiter saves most of the ships and the Trojans depart. In Book 6, the Trojans arrive at Cumae (pronounced KOO-may) in Italy, and Aeneas visits the shrine of the Cumaean Sibyl, a famous oracle, or person through which the gods communicated with humans. The oracle leads him on a visit to the underworld , where he meets the ghost of his father. Another prophecy reveals to Aeneas that Rome will achieve greatness in the future.
Epics and Nationalism
The Aeneid showed that an epic poem could express a people's values and glorify its history. After 1800, Europe saw a rise in nationalism (a strong loyalty and devotion to national identity combined with commitment to furthering a nation's interests), and European writers began producing national epics based on folktales, legends, and history. Many of these writers used the Aeneid and the ancient Greek epics of Homer as their models. Among the most famous national epics written at this time were the Finnish Kalevala (1835-1836), by Elias Lönnrot; the Estonian Kalevipoeg (1857-1861), by F. R. Kreutzwald; the German Nibelungenlied (circa 1200), by an anonymous poet; and the Latvian Lacplesis (1888), by Andrejs Pumpurs.
Books 7 through 11 tell of the Trojans' arrival in Latium (pronounced LAY-shee-uhm), the kingdom of the Latins in western Italy. The newcomers are welcomed at first, but then war breaks out between the Trojans and the Latin tribes, sparked by the meddling of Juno. Venus helps Aeneas by giving him a new set of armor and weapons bearing images of Rome's future glory. Jupiter then forbids the gods to interfere further.
The final book of the Aeneid recounts the mighty battle between Aeneas and the Latin hero Turnus, chief opponent of the Trojans. Aeneas wins the fight and is free to marry Lavinia, daughter of the Latin king Latinus.
The Aeneid in Context
The Aeneid varies from Homer's epics in ways that reflect the different cultures of their respective authors. Literary scholars still do not know for sure that Homer existed. There may or may not have been an individual author who put the Iliad and the Odyssey into the versions in which they have been handed down. In any case, storytellers told and retold the Greek epics over a long period before they were written down. Many features of their style, such as the frequent repetition of phrases and images, reflect memorization methods used by oral storytellers. Virgil, by contrast, was an educated man writing a poem for readers, not listeners. He studied the traditional legends of Greece and Italy, determined his plot, and polished his language.
Virgil first wrote the entire Aeneid in prose, using normal sentence structure and format, and then turned it into verse a few lines at a time. As he lay dying, Virgil requested that the manuscript of his still-unfinished work be destroyed. Nevertheless, the emperor Augustus preserved the work and had it published soon after Virgil's death in 19 bce. Augustus' decision was no doubt based on the unstable situation in late Republican Rome (91-30 bce) and the need for a unifying myth that all Romans could rally behind. Rome had gone through a chaotic period during Virgil's life, including a series of civil wars, the assassination of Julius Caesar, and the fall of the Republic. Augustus, Julius Caesar's adopted great-nephew and successor, had to battle powerful rivals, including General Marc Anthony, for complete control of the newly created Roman Empire. After he solidified his power, he declared it his goal to purify Rome and restore its morality. The Aeneid helped proudly define Rome and unify the many groups within the empire who had squabbled for so long.
Key Themes and Symbols
Throughout the Aeneid, Virgil describes many prophecies, or predictions of the future. In all these prophecies, Rome becomes a great empire. The meaning of the prophecies is clear: Rome rules the world because it is fated to do so, a fact that has the support of the gods. At the end of the epic, Aeneas is able to marry Lavinia, a Latin princess. Their marriage symbolizes the union between the Latin and Trojan peoples, and their descendants represent the birth of the Roman Empire.
In Book 4, after Aeneas and his followers leave Carthage, Dido kills herself in despair. This episode shows Aeneas's willingness to sacrifice his own desires to obey the will of the gods. It also creates a legendary explanation for the very real hostility between Carthage and Rome.
The Aeneid in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Whatever Virgil may have thought about his work while he lay on his deathbed, others quickly recognized that the Aeneid was a masterpiece. Romans loved the poem. It gave them an impressive cultural history and justified the proud expectation that they were destined to rule the world. Yet even after the Roman Empire fell, people continued to read and admire the Aeneid.
During the Middle Ages, many Europeans believed that Virgil had been a magician and the Aeneid had magical properties. This could be because the story contained so many omens, or mystical signs of events to come. People would read passages from the work and search for hidden meanings or predictions about the future. So admired was Virgil that the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, who wrote during the late 1200s and early 1300s, made him a central character in his own religious epic, The Divine Comedy. In Dante's work, Virgil guides the narrator through hell and purgatory, but he is not able to enter heaven because he was not a Christian.
The Aeneid influenced English literature as well. Poets Edmund Spenser and John Milton wrote epics that reflect the work's influence. Poet John Dryden was one of many who translated the Aeneid, and his 1697 version is one of the best English translations. By contrast, the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron disliked Virgil's work, perhaps because it celebrates social order, religious duty, and national glory over the Romantic qualities that they favored: passion, rebellion, and self-determination.
The Aeneid has inspired musical composers as well as writers, and many operas have been based on Virgil's work. Among the best known are Dido and Aeneas (1690), by English composer Henry Purcell, and The Trojans (1858), by the French composer Hector Berlioz.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
It is widely accepted that Virgil wrote the Aeneid in an attempt to bring glory to the Roman culture in which he lived. Compare Aeneas to more recent heroes, such as Superman or Captain America, who represent and fight for ideals important to modern Americans. How are they similar? Are there ways in which Aeneas is different from these modern comic book heroes?