Homer's Iliad, Virgil's Aeneid
Son of Aphrodite and Anchises
The hero Aeneas (pronounced i-NEE-uhs) appears in both Greek and Roman mythology. He was a defender of Troy, the city in Asia Minor that the Greeks destroyed in the Trojan War. After the war, Aeneas led the surviving Trojans to the land now called Italy. According to Roman versions of the myth, after Aeneas and his followers founded Rome, he became its first great hero and legendary father.
Like many legendary heroes , Aeneas was a demigod, meaning he had one parent who was human and one parent who was a god. His father was Anchises (pronounced an-KY-seez), a member of the royal family of Troy. One day Aphrodite , the Greek goddess of love (called Venus by the Romans), saw Anchises on the hills of Mount Ida near his home. The goddess was so overcome by the handsome youth that she seduced him and bore him a son, Aeneas.
Mountain nymphs (minor nature goddesses represented as beautiful maidens) raised Aeneas until he was five years old, when he was sent to live with his father. Aphrodite had made Anchises promise not to tell anyone that she was the boy's mother. Still, he did so and was struck by lightning. In some versions of the legend, the lightning killed Anchises; in others, it made him blind or lame. Later variations have Anchises surviving and being carried out of Troy by his son after the war.
When the Greeks invaded Troy, Aeneas did not join the conflict immediately. Some versions of the myth say that he entered the war on the side of his fellow Trojans only after the Greek hero Achilles (pronounced uh-KILL-eez) stole his cattle. Aeneas's reluctance to join the fighting partly came from the uneasy relationship he had with King Priam of Troy. Some sources say that Aeneas disliked the fact that Priam's son Hector was supreme commander of the Trojan forces. For his part, Priam disliked Aeneas because the sea god Poseidon (pronounced poh-SYE-dun) had predicted that the descendants of Aeneas, not those of Priam, would rule the Trojans in the future. Nevertheless, during the Trojan War, Aeneas married Creusa (pronounced kree-OO-suh), one of Priam's daughters, and they had a son named Ascanius (pronounced ass-KAN-ee-us).
The Greek Tradition Aeneas appears as a character in the Iliad , the epic by the Greek poet Homer that tells the story of the Trojan War. The Iliad and other Greek sources provide a number of details about Aeneas's role in the war. According to Greek tradition, Aeneas was one of the Trojan leaders, their greatest warrior after Hector. An upright and moral man, Aeneas was often called “the pious” because of his respect for the gods and his obedience to their commands. In return, the gods treated Aeneas well. Some of the most powerful gods, including Apollo , Poseidon, and Aphrodite, Aeneas's mother, gave him their protection.
There are various accounts of the last days of the Trojan War. One story relates that Aphrodite warned Aeneas that Troy would fall, so he left the city and took refuge on Mount Ida, where he established a new kingdom. In later years, several cities on the mountain boasted that they had been founded by Aeneas. Another version states that Aeneas fought bravely to the end of the war and either escaped from Troy with a band of followers or was allowed by the victorious Greeks—who respected his honor and religious devotion—to leave.
The Roman Tradition Over the centuries, a number of Roman myths developed about Aeneas. According to Roman tradition, Aeneas fought with great courage in Troy until messages from Aphrodite and Hector convinced him to leave the city. Carrying his father on his back and holding his son by the hand, Aeneas led his followers out of burning Troy. During the confusion, Aeneas's wife Creusa became separated from the fleeing Trojans. Aeneas returned to search for Creusa but could not find her.
Aeneas and his followers found safety on Mount Ida, where they settled and began building ships. After several months, they set sail to the west. Dreams and omens (mystical signs of events to come) told Aeneas that he was destined to found a new kingdom in the land of his ancestors, the country now known as Italy.
Aeneas's Travels After surviving many dangers, including powerful storms and fierce monsters, Aeneas and his Trojan followers landed on the coast of North Africa. Along the way, his father Anchises died. At this point in Aeneas's tale, Roman storytellers mingled the history of the hero with earlier tales of a queen named Dido (pronounced DYE-doh), founder of the city of Carthage in North Africa.
According to Roman legend, Dido and Aeneas fell in love soon after the hero arrived in Carthage. Aeneas stayed with the queen until Mercury, the messenger of the gods, reminded him that his destiny lay in Italy. Aeneas sadly but obediently sailed away. When he looked back, he saw smoke and flames. Lovesick and abandoned, Dido had thrown herself onto a funeral pyre, a large pile of burning wood used in some cultures to cremate a dead body.
After stopping on the island of Sicily and leaving some of his followers to found a colony there, Aeneas sailed to Italy. Upon his arrival, he sought advice from the Sibyl (pronounced SIB-uhl), a powerful oracle, or person through which the gods communicated with humans. The Sibyl took him to the underworld , or land of the dead.
There Aeneas saw the ghost of Dido, but she turned away and would not speak to him. Then he saw the ghost of his father Anchises, who told him that he would found the greatest empire the world had ever known.
Founder of an Empire Encouraged by his father's prophecy, Aeneas went to Latium (pronounced LAY-shee-uhm) in central Italy. He became engaged to Lavinia, the daughter of the king of the Latins. Turnus, the leader of another tribe called the Rutuli, launched a war against the Trojan newcomers. Some of the Latins also fought the Trojans, but Aeneas, thrilled to have finally arrived at his destiny, refused to be defeated. First he killed Turnus and married Lavinia. Then he founded the city of Lavinium, where Latins and Trojans were united.
After Aeneas's death, his son Ascanius ruled Lavinium and founded a second city called Alba Longa, which became the capital of the Trojan-Latin people. These cities formed the basis of what came to be ancient Rome. Some legends claim that Aeneas founded the city of Rome itself. Others assign that honor to his descendant Romulus.
Roman historians later altered the story of Rome's origins to make Ascanius the son of Aeneas and Lavinia, thus a Latin by birth. Ascanius was also called lulus, or Julius, and a clan of Romans called the Julians claimed to be his descendants. Julius Caesar and his nephew Augustus, who became the first Roman emperor, were members of that clan. In this way, the rulers of Rome traced their ancestry and their right to rule back to the demigod Aeneas.
Aeneas in Context
In the 700s bce, the Greeks began establishing colonies in Italy and on the island of Sicily off the Italian coast. Legends often linked Greek heroes to these colonies, whose citizens liked to think of themselves as descendants of characters Homer had described in his works. By the 300s bce, Rome was a rising power in the Mediterranean world. As the city grew larger and more powerful, it faced a dilemma. The Romans shared many myths and legends with the Greeks and had a lot of respect for Greece's ancient culture. At the same time, however, the Romans did not want to be overshadowed by Greek culture and tradition. They wanted their own connections to the ancient world of gods and heroes. Roman writers found a perfect link to the legendary past with Aeneas, who was supposed to have come to Italy around the time of the founding of Rome. Furthermore, because Aeneas was a Trojan, he could give the Romans what they wanted: an ancestry that was connected to the ancient heroes yet separated from the Greeks.
Key Themes and Symbols
Although Aeneas existed first as a character in Greek mythology , he later became an important part of the origin myth for Roman culture. Because of this, he is strongly identified as the ultimate mythological symbol of the Roman Empire. To the Romans, Aeneas represented heroism, as well as the drive to create a society that would be as good as or even better than that of the Greeks.
Aeneas in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Although many ancient authors wrote about Aeneas, the most complete and important version of his life and deeds is the Aeneid , a long poem composed around 30 to 20 bce by the Roman writer Virgil. Using a style similar to that of the Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey , Virgil reshaped in Latin the legends and traditions about Aeneas to fit Rome's view of its own destiny. In the poem, Virgil tells the story of Aeneas's journey from Troy to Italy.
Like other figures from Greek and Roman mythology, Aeneas appears frequently in Western literature. In The Divine Comedy, written in the early 1300s ce by Italian poet Dante Alighieri, Aeneas is shown in Limbo, a realm of the afterlife where virtuous pagans (those who worship pre-Christian gods) dwell. In British mythology, Brutus, Britain's legendary first king, is considered the great-grandson of Aeneas. Generally, Aeneas represents duty and piety, but some authors have portrayed him less favorably. In his play Cymbeline, for example, William Shakespeare refers to the “false Aeneas” who abandoned Dido. Shakespeare also mentions Aeneas in his plays Troilus and Cressida and Julius Caesar.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.” He meant that after a conflict is settled, the winners can retell it any way they like, and that retelling becomes accepted as correct. Imagine how the history of America would be told differently had the British defeated the American colonists during the American revolution. Now think of parts of the world where there is a struggle for control: Iraq, Kurdistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Darfur, and other areas. Using your library, the Internet, newspapers, and other sources, find out more about the factions at war in these areas. Pick one of these factions as a “winner” and write a version of the conflict from the winner's point of view.