USU 1320
Ancient Literature and Language
©Damen, 2004

A Guide to Writing in History and Classics


Click here for a copy of the slides and notes presented during the lecture in class (Chapter 11.I)


Chapter 11: Vergil and The Aeneid

I. Introduction to Classical Roman Literature

A. The Roman Pantheon

Originally, the Romans had their own way of naming and worshiping the gods different from those of the Greeks. Though the equation of Greek and Roman deities is often presented as if it rests on strict, clear equivalencies—a list asserting that Jupiter is Zeus, Hera is Juno and so on begins many a modern textbook on classical mythology—the correspondence of Hellenic and native Italian gods, in fact, hardly does justice to either religious system. For instance, more than one Roman divinity was never given a Greek counterpart because nothing even vaguely similar existed in the Olympian system. For many other Latin deities, the Hellenistic counterparts assigned to them constituted a poor fit. Thus, in general, these equations all too frequently fell far short of science.

But despite their imprecision and the violence they perpetrated on native traditions, the equivalencies thrived and their impact is visible across much of ancient literature and religion. In particular, when matched with Greek gods, Roman deities often underwent dramatic and substantive changes, taking on the attributes of their foreign cousins and leaving behind the impression of congruity, when in origin there was little or none. The native traits of Latin divinities—that is, what they originally looked and acted like, and what tradition of myths surrounded them in their homeland Italy—were often recast, and in some cases entirely reworked, to force them into harmony with their imported Hellenic counterparts.

On the other side of the Adriatic Sea, however, the damage seems to have been far less because of the Greeks' cultural domination of their Roman overlords—it makes sense that the process of pairing and linking foreign deities would have made less of an impact on the more developed country—so in general, the Greek gods exerted themselves over their Roman partners to a much greater degree than the converse. Moreover, what few changes were foisted upon the Olympians can be counted as nominal. That is, even if Zeus now had to wear a Roman toga and a name-tag that said Jupiter, he was still at heart the sky-god Homer described and worshiped.

It's important to add that in antiquity the practice of comparing and equating gods was hardly restricted to Greco-Roman interaction. The ancients as a whole—and the Greeks, in particular—were fond of identifying the divinities of one culture with those of another. The Greek historian Herodotus, for instance, regularly equates the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Greek Demeter or the gods Osiris and Dionysus, often on tenuous grounds, such as that they share some attribute like horns or have similar myths such as dying and being reborn. Identifications like these almost always rested on simplifying and, in some cases, completely misconstruing one of the cultures being merged, as wrong-headed a notion as likening the Christian God to the Islamic Allah or the Hindu Brahma.

Although the equation of Greek and Roman gods has its roots in early Rome, this system of celestial similes—truly Homeric in both grandeur and accuracy—gained momentum after 240 B.CE with the evolution of Greek-based Latin literature. Ennius, an important Roman poet of the day, is largely responsible for standardizing the equivalencies handed down to us, which need to be learned in order to understand classical Latin literature.

Jupiter (or Juppiter)

To these may be added another half dozen or so which became popular later on:

Bacchus (or Liber)
Pluto (or Dis)
The Pythia
The Sibyl

In actuality, only two of these equations are strictly valid: Apollo/Apollo and Heracles/Hercules, both of whom were imported wholesale from Greece to Rome, with their names essentially unaltered. Two others find some merit in the gods' names which are related linguistically—that is, they're derived from the same word-roots in Indo-European—Zeus and Jupiter come from the same verbal base "day(-father)," and Hestia and Vesta both derive from the Indo-European term for "hearth." In each case, however, the name is virtually all that the deities share, since their powers, attributes and relative importance in Greek and Roman society hardly coincide.

The rest of the equations are even worse. It's not that Ennius was incompetent, only that ancient Roman and Greek religion, their societies and outlook on life, were so fundamentally different they didn't naturally produce similar-looking or -acting gods. Furthermore, the problem is compounded by the early Romans' habit of worshiping non-anthropomorphic deities—that is, divinities which don't necessarily have human form but instead exist as abstract principles—when all the Greek Olympians can and do resemble human beings. The inherent complications are readily apparent when one reviews them, god by god.

Jupiter (also spelled Juppiter) resembled his Greek equivalent Zeus in that both were originally sky-gods associated with thunder, lightning and weather in general. Before the Hellenization of Rome, however, the Latin god was rather colorless—more of an Anu than an Enlil—but after contact with the Greeks, Jupiter became associated with Hera's equivalent Juno, originally an Italian goddess of women in all aspects of life (especially childbirth and marriage), and through this connection his stock rose precipitously. In the native Italian tradition, these gods had little, if any, connection to each other, but their forced association as Hellenism proceeded brought both to the forefront of Roman myth.

Conversely, several indigenous Italian deities lost importance after the incursion of Greek gods and myths into Rome. In particular, the Roman Vesta was quite prominent until her equation with the mild and flavorless Hestia about whom Greek myth had little to say. While the Roman priestesses of Vesta, the famous Vestal Virgins, kept a holy fire burning eternally and remained a powerful element in Roman religion and cult well into the classical period, the goddess they worshiped slid slowly from public attention as Hellenism advanced.

Another god whose fortunes declined upon the arrival of the Greeks was Vulcan. In origin a prominent Italian deity, he began to fade from public view after being linked to the comparatively inconsequential Hephaestus. Unlike his equivalent whom the Greeks imagined spent most of his time working at forges underground, Vulcan represented fire of all sorts, especially the kind which destroys. To a society as martial as the Romans, destructive fire was a major component of the universe and so Vulcan commanded great respect in early Rome, but not so much after he was associated with the comical, ugly cuckold of Greek myth.

Finally, war encompasses the most consequential change forced upon the Roman gods in the wake of the Greeks' cultural invasion. To wit, Mars, the Latin god of war, was originally the Romans' principal deity, not Jupiter. This is well-evidenced in the calendrical system we've inherited from Rome, in which March, the month named after this god, was once the first month of the year—counting backward from September ("the seventh month"), October ("the eighth month"), November ("the ninth month") and December ("the tenth month") shows that March at one time in history stood at the start of the Roman calendar year—but his pairing with Ares proved a disaster for Mars, since the Greek god was unpopular and scarcely seen in myth. The Roman divinity never recovered from this insult.

While Vesta, Vulcan and Mars declined in importance, other Roman deities thrived, gaining importance when aligned with certain Greek gods. Originally a god of sweet waters and worshiped mainly during the dry months of summer, Neptune was linked to the Greek Poseidon—the early Romans were land-locked and had no real need for a sea-god—and inherited mythological wealth. Likewise, a minor fertility goddess of the Italians, Venus, stepped into the spotlight through her equation with Aphrodite. The Roman goddess' original function is hard to define, associated as she was with luck, the favor of the gods and well-managed gardens, which is to say fertility as much as beauty. It's hard to imagine why the Romans drew a connection between Venus and Aphrodite, except perhaps out of the desperate need to create some Roman counterpart for Aphrodite who is so pervasive in Greek literature.

Likewise, Athena's pre-eminence in Athenian religion and lore was carried over to her Roman counterpart Minerva who was subsequently thrust into the forefront of mythology. While the equation of Minerva and Athena is not nearly as far-fetched as that of Venus and Aphrodite—like Athena, Minerva was originally a goddess of war and arts and crafts and both deities were typically depicted wearing arms—as a whole, their likeness is superficial. Beneath these shared features, Athena is at heart the embodiment of Athens, and Minerva is hardly the divine personification of Rome.

In other cases, the connection between Greek and Roman deities was more than strained, requiring the all-but-complete reworking of the Roman deity to forge a correspondence with some Greek counterpart. Mercury was originally the Roman god of trade and gain, and to that extent he resembled the Greek Hermes. But the latter's role as psychopompos (escorter of the dead to the Underworld), musician and messenger were subsequently appended onto Mercury after their association. Similarly, Diana may have been in origin a goddess of the moon and childbirth like Artemis, but Artemis' principal aspects as goddess of the hunt and magic were forcibly affixed onto Diana through this association.

As the Greeks rolled in, the Roman netherworld and afterlife underwent sweeping refurbishment, too. The original Roman gods of the dead resembled more the Greek Furies, spirits of vengeance, than the dour and sophisticated Hades for whom no native Roman equivalent existed. Seeing that the Greeks also called Hades Pluto ("Wealth"), the Romans both borrowed that title and its translation Dis ("Riches") in naming their new death god.

Among the least credible matches was that of the Greek-import Dionysus with Bacchus or Liber, a Roman god of fertility. Originally and through much of Roman history, Bacchus appears as a corpulent, old man—he's often called Pater Liber ("Father Liber")—thus, his affiliation with the young, beautiful, oriental Dionysus with his long, flowing robes and locks is stretched at best. As far as we know, no one ever in Classical Greece referred to "Father Dionysus."

A host of other native gods and goddesses in Rome have no Greek equivalents. Janus is the god of comings and goings, doors and transitions. After the later Romans put January at the first of the year instead of March, they named the month after him as the divine representation of both endings and beginnings. Others include: Bellona ("War"), a goddess of war; Flora ("Flower") and Pomona, agricultural deities; Silvanus ("Forest") and Faunus ("Favor"), gods of the wild; and Tiberinus, the divine personification of the river Tiber which runs through Rome. Among the most important of these native Italian spirits which lack Greek counterparts were the Lares and the Penates ("Inside"), household gods and protectors of individual families. When their association with particular gentes was later extended to the state as a whole, Rome came to have its won national Penates, the real counterpart to Athens' Athena.

In sum, the importation of new gods and the equation of local and foreign deities put considerable stress on Roman social and religious institutions. With every generation, it seemed, the traditional gods were once again recast, reinvented or, worse, rejected as new cults and myths intruded into Rome. The early Roman playwright Plautus touches on this issue humorously in his comedy The Bacchises, when a lovesick young man confronts his old teacher with a list of the gods he prefers to worship:


Love, Desire, Venus, Grace, Joy, Joke, Fun, Gab, Blissfulkissifiction*!

TEACHER: If those are gods, you should not have anything to do with them.
YOUNG MAN: (obviously quoting his tutor's own words) "Evil the man who evil of good men does speak." Your answer is not correct. (shaking his finger) That's two points off.
TEACHER: There is a god called "Blissfulkissifiction"?
YOUNG MAN: Oh, so you've never heard of her, have you? Well, I used to think you were an educated man. But this proves you are a barbarian, Mr. Greek. And not even a senior barbarian but a freshman! To think, at your age, someone can't even name the gods!
*literally in Latin, Suavisaviatio [SWAH-wee-SAH-wee-AH-tee-oh], literally "Sweet-Kiss-Making"

B. The Myths of Early Rome

Like Greece, Italy already had a well-established, native population when the Indo-Europeans began to invade in the second millennium BCE. And as in Greece, these wide-ranging conquerors entered Italy in discrete waves displacing a resident population of non-Indo-European peoples and, later, peoples from earlier Indo-European migrations. One branch of these invaders became the Romans, a people who spoke a dialect of the Indo-European language which would eventually evolve into the Latin tongue.

The proto-Romans founded several settlements in Latium—the name is the basis for the adjective Latin—an area of western central Italy along the Tiber River. We today know little about the era of early Roman settlement and expansion, and neither, it seems, did the classical Romans whose own accounts of the period preceding the rise of their state as a world power amount to little more than myth and legend—the Romans of the Classical Age had no idea that the Indo-Europeans had ever existed, much less that they were their ancestors—indeed, until the third century BCE, there was no serious comprehensive record kept of the Romans' civilization or how it rose to power prior to their conflict with the Carthaginians in the Punic Wars. Nor did it help the situation much that literacy spread through Rome relatively late as compared to the cultures around them.

Thus, the first centuries of Roman history are less fact than fable, but as with most invented history—"invented history" is a collective term for historical fictions which stand in place of fact, usually in the absence of hard data—there is some truth haloing the lies. And the great truth which emerges from the myths of early Rome is the powerful attraction of Greek culture in the ancient Mediterranean world. Indeed, most early tales about the Romans either attempt to tie them to Hellenic literary traditions or were concocted from story types borrowed out of Greek myth, nothing of historical merit.

But the appearance of truth is all that invented histories require to grow and thrive, especially when no real history exists to confront and contradict them. Thus, the Romans were able to claim descent from Troy, specifically the Trojan hero Aeneas, one of the few such heroes whose death is not recorded in Homer. And as with so many of the mythological heroes of this age, a later Greek author composed a saga about Aeneas' wanderings subsequent to the war, in this case, from Troy to a new homeland in Latium. He took with him his young son Ascanius who was also called Julus, a name which sounded to the Romans enough like Julius that he could later be designated the founder of the Julian gens, the family of the Caesars. Even if it's a complete fabrication, Aeneas' story had a pleasing ring of truth to it and, without anything else to put in its place, it became the foundation myth of the Roman people, though not of Rome itself.

The founding of the city required an entirely different story, one set many centuries after Aeneas' day, since the earliest anyone in antiquity could even imagine the establishment of the city was the eighth century BCE. Because the ancients recognized that, if the Trojan War ever actually happened, it must have taken place at some time around the twelfth century (ca. 1200 BCE), there was clearly a significant gap in time between the establishment of the proto-Roman presence in Latium (before 1100) and the founding of Rome itself (after 800). Thus, even though it would have simplified things considerably, Roman myth-makers in antiquity couldn't cast Aeneas as the man who built their capital city, only as the father of their race.

This called for the invention of another myth, the story of Romulus and Remus who were twins said to have laid the groundwork for the city of Rome itself in 753 BCE. This legend begins in the generation prior with two brothers, Amulius and Numitor, rivals for the throne of Alba Longa, said to be the center of a pre-Roman kingdom in Latium. Amulius, the younger of this pair, wrongfully deposed the other, killed all his brother's sons and forced Numitor's only daughter, Rhea Silvia, to become a Vestal Virgin—the equivalent of making her a nun—in order to prevent her bearing a son who might overthrow him. But the god Mars secretly impregnated her and she bore twins, Romulus and Remus.

When Amulius discovered them, he ordered that the babies be put in a basket and drowned in the Tiber River but instead they floated to safety and, when they washed up on the banks, their cries of hunger attracted a she-wolf. Normally, such a beast would have killed and eaten the children, but the Romans believed the she-wolf to be an animal sacred to Mars and, sensing that these were his divine offspring, it nursed the children instead of devouring them. Thus, the infants were fed literally on the milk of war, a symbol of the martial culture which Rome would later embrace. [It's worth noting that not only does this detail point up the myth's fictional nature but it also dates its creation to the later centuries of the first millennium BCE, when the Romans had at last achieved military supremacy over Italy. That is, no one would have concocted such a myth for the early Romans until they'd achieved their many triumphs on the battlefield.]

Eventually shepherds found and raised the boys who, when grown, overthrew the malevolent Amulius and restored the throne to their kindly grandfather Numitor. But restless as young men often are, they decided to set out from home and found their own city. Having settled on a location, what was to be the site of Rome, they quarreled over the auspices (omens) for their new city—or, in some stories, Remus insulted his brother—whatever the reason, in the end Romulus killed Remus and named the new city for himself, Rome.

Thus, bloodied-handed, super-patriot, god-born scions snatched from a virgin priestess of the hearth fire and suckled on wolf's milk and war became the symbolic founders of Rome, by all appearances a thoroughly Roman conception. But in fact, it isn't. While on the surface this story may look fundamentally Roman because it alludes to the geography of Latium and Latin customs, close investigation shows that it is, in fact, as Greek an invention as Aeneas or anything in Homer—and, no doubt, just as historical.

For one thing, there is no historical evidence that the myth of Romulus and Remus existed much before the fourth century BCE, the very period in which direct interaction between Greeks and Romans was beginning to build. Moreover, the birth of the twins from the union of a mortal and a god and the habit of naming a founding father after his city or race are conceits which the ancient Greeks were particularly fond of. In Greek mythology, for instance, the Ionians are said to stem from a character named Ion and the Persians from a person called Perses and, of course, neither individual has any historical validity.

More damning yet, the Romulus and Remus story bears close resemblance to an older, well-known Greek myth about Amphion and Zethus, the twins who purportedly founded the city of Thebes. Their mother Antiope was impregnated by Zeus, just as Mars seduced Rhea Silvia. Antiope's evil step-mother Dirce forced her to flee Thebes and abandon her children, much the same way the cruel Amulius drove the hapless Vestal Virgin to set her babies afloat on the Tiber River. Also in similar fashion to Romulus and Remus, the Theban babies survived and were raised by shepherds. Then, when grown, they returned to their hometown, overthrew the loathsome Dirce and rescued their mother from her cruel imprisonment. Subsequently, Amphion and Zethus became city-builders by helping to construct the great central fortress of Thebes.

Thus, except for a few nominal changes and a whitewash coating of Roman institutions such as the Vestal Virgins, it's hard to see anything original at all about the Romulus and Remus story, strong evidence that it's invented history. That, in sum, made early Rome a field better suited for artists to plow than ancient historians who, for the most part, avoided it. But it proved, indeed, very fertile soil for Latin poets, among them the best Rome would ever produce, Vergil.

Terms, Places, People and Things to Know

Jupiter (Juppiter)/Zeus
Vestal Virgins

Tiber River
invented history
Romulus and Remus
753 BCE
Rhea Silvia
Amphion and Zethus



II. Vergil's Aeneid: Books 1-2

A. An Introduction to Vergil: His Early Life and Works

We know more about Vergil than practically any other ancient poet, in large part because his Roman contemporaries held his poetry in such high esteem that reliable biographical information was collected and preserved along with his works. Indeed, Vergil's masterpiece The Aeneid was accorded that greatest of dubious literary awards, instant translation into textbook status—in other words, almost immediately upon its publication The Aeneid became required reading for Roman schoolboys—and as such, its cult status also worked to preserve data about the author. Moreover, because there were many still alive who knew and remembered Vergil personally, the biographical information about him seems uniquely reliable. To seal the case, Vergil's poetry has never fallen out of general favor since his lifetime, even during the Middle Ages when classical literature was often denounced as promoting the worship of pagan deities, a tribute to his enduring appeal and the extraordinary quality of his verse. All in all, if Western civilization has a superstar, it's Vergil.

Publius Vergilius Maro, a name with Etruscan overtones, was born in the small village of Andes near Mantua on October 15, 70 BCE. Though, like Catullus, he came from humble and provincial origins, Vergil's father had risen far enough up the Roman social ladder to give his son the best possible education. If parents today need a reason to invest well in their children's schooling, Vergil provides an incontestable argument for doing so. The fine academic training he received paid enormous dividends, indeed, the very paradigm of money well-spent.

After considering briefly a career in rhetoric and law, the young Vergil turned his talents to where they naturally lay, poetry. Even if he had stayed with the legal profession, he probably wouldn't have been able to remain a lawyer for long. When he was still in his early twenties, civil war broke out between Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompey, culminating in the Battle of Pharsalus in 49 BCE, a confrontation which turned out to be the Rome's version of Leuctra, the graveyard of the Roman aristocracy.

For the next two decades, chaos and internal dissension swept the Roman world, making politics or law too dangerous a career path for most people's liking. When the crisis at last abated, the Republic lay dying in its own blood. Rome had metamorphosed into an empire, leaving it now pointless to pursue a life in public service, but this time for a different reason. With the democratic foundation of the state lying in ruins, prominent figures in government like attorneys and senators had become merely the hirelings and hangers-on of the emperor. In a nascent tyranny such as this, there can be only one star in the firmament, the man at the top.

While he would surely have made an excellent lawyer, Vergil also had a natural genius for poetry, so the proper choice of vocations must have seemed fairly clear to him. And of the various poetic genres active in the day he was attracted, in particular, to neoteric verse like Catullus', the Hellenistic mode of writing in short poems with great emotional intensity. His first important publication was a collection of pastoral idylls entitled The Eclogues ("Selections"), smooth and well-crafted musings on the pleasures and perils of country life. Short though it was, this body of poetry achieved enough renown to secure its author the patronage of rich and well-connected people and, more important, the time necessary to write another work.

Vergil's second published tome was a longer work called The Georgics ("Farming"), consisting of four books of poetry but still relatively short and solidly Alexandrian in the obscurity of its subject matter and density of expression. This proved to be an even greater hit than The Eclogues. In spite of its pseudo-scientific premise and the allusive and erudite tone which the genre called for, Roman readers avidly embraced The Georgics, naturally attracted as they were to the subject of agriculture. Indeed, it was an ideal topic for Vergil to have chosen inasmuch as it blended Roman and Greek tastes perfectly. The grand multicultural experiment of Latin literature which had begun with Livius Andronicus two centuries earlier was now bearing its richest fruit, not that any of this had come quickly or easily, especially Vergil's efforts.

The man of Mantua would not be rushed, so it seems, but produced poetry at a painfully slow pace. That is, in spite of their relative brevity, both his early works were the harvest of intensely meticulous spadework, each syllable of the Latin carefully groomed and shaped before being entrusted to the public eye. A notorious perfectionist and inveterate workaholic, Vergil composed The Eclogues and The Georgics at the rate of less than one line a day, a fact he himself seems to have recognized. In his own words it is said, he "licked his poems into shape like a mother bear"—the Romans believed mother bears gave shape to their new-born cubs by licking them over and over—the importance of revision needs no other testament than this, the polished perfection of Vergil's early verse.

Moreover, to judge from his biography, he did little else in life but study and read and write—we hear of no marriages, no love affairs with anyone in particular, no government or military service—rather, his life was, by all appearances, completely invested in poetry, an effort well-spent, to say the least, since few books in any language are worth examining in the detail Vergil's are. Thus, in the much the same way Homer had made ancient Greek worth learning, Vergil took Latin to new and unimagined heights. Chaucer, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Ezra Pound and countless millions of others over the last twenty centuries will concur: learn Latin, read Vergil and you will have one of the most fulfilling and meaningful experiences life offers.

It must also be remembered that Vergil did all of this as the world was exploding in violence around him. Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 BCE brought the faction which had supported and deified Caesar and the one which had hated and murdered him into direct conflict. His former lieutenant and right-hand man Mark Antony drew up Caesar's loyal legions against those of his Republican assassins Brutus and Cassius, and when the dust had settled after their battle at Philippi, the pro-Caesarians held up the victors' trophy. The Republic was now a de facto corpse, as yet still breathing but brain-dead.

Antony had virtually no chance to enjoy this triumph, however. When Caesar's will was published after his death, it named as heir his great-nephew, Octavian, at the time still a teenage boy—there's some evidence the will was tampered with, perhaps even forged—and as the only adult male surviving from the entire Julian gens in the day, this man-child stepped unexpectedly into the foreground of Roman politics before Antony could secure control over the freshly dead-and-deified Caesar's former dominion. In the next few years, through sheer political savvy and opportunistic glad-handing, Octavian forced Antony from the capital city and ultimately into the arms of Caesar's ex-mistress, Cleopatra, the reigning queen of Egypt, a distant descendant of Alexander's general Ptolemy.

The conflict between Octavian and Antony slowly escalated into full-scale war, capped by a climactic naval battle in 31 BCE near the city of Actium along the western shore of Greece. There, Caesar's heir and his generals defeated the combined forces of Caesar's lieutenant and his mistress. In what seemed to many the final whiplash of Caesar's vengeful Fury, both Antony and Cleopatra were subsequently driven to suicide. Soon thereafter dubbed Augustus ("Holy One"), Octavian consolidated his hold over the Roman state and imposed a peace that was to last two hundred years, the famous Pax Romana (31 BCE-180 CE)—the empire he inaugurated would endure even longer, over half a millennium—and Vergil spent this entire decade, we must never forget, all the years between Philippi and Actium, sitting at his desk writing exquisite, polished Latin verse.

B. An Introduction to The Aeneid

After the victory at Actium, Augustus tried to conscript several of the more famous and respected Roman poets at work in the day to compose an epic based on patriotic themes, a propagandistic anthem which would make the Romans feel proud of their history, their state, and especially their current regime—new rulers have a strong need for positive publicity—but all the major working poets politely demurred, proffering various excuses for why they weren't the right bard for the job. Beneath their courteous denials, the real reason they refused isn't hard to fathom. None wanted to be seen as a puppet of an untested government in an age which had recently seen many leaders come and go. Besides that, political poetry is usually tedious beyond belief.

But Augustus persisted, and finally coincidence worked in his behalf—and ours!—since Vergil, it turned out, had recently published The Georgics and in 30 BCE was free to embark on a new project. The young emperor convinced the as-yet-exclusively-pastoral poet to make a stab at heroic epic, though how we'll never know. The step from country-western-singer to epic-press-secretary is hardly a small or direct move.

Slow and careful worker that he was, Vergil spent the better part of the next decade (the 20's BCE) composing, revising and polishing The Aeneid. Only when most of the work had been outlined and some of it even transferred from wax to papyrus, did the mother bear of Roman poetry consent to recite her cubs in public. By then it had been something on the order of seven years since Augustus had started paying for Vergil's services, and so it was not without some justification that the emperor insisted on hearing the verse he'd commissioned.

Thus, at last in 23 BCE the epic debuted before Augustus and his court, and was greeted, of course, with the great acclaim it deserves. Vergil, however, had his eye on a higher prize, more than the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame and immediately went back to work revising it. With a first draft of sorts in hand—a hundredth draft by anyone's else standard! —he headed off for Greece in 19 BCE to pursue further research in the great libraries of the East. Unfortunately, shortly upon his return to Italy and before he could complete the revisions, he died leaving The Aeneid done but not finished.

As evidence of its imperfection, about fifty lines scattered across the poem are incomplete—that is, they don't constitute whole metrical lines—moreover, in several places the plot seems to jump abruptly, suggesting there may be even larger gaps not immediately visible in the verse. Because the prospect of seeing his work go into publication pocked with such inconsistencies galled the assiduous Vergil, he asked on his deathbed that the manuscript of The Aeneid be burned. Augustus, however, rescinded this last wish and had it published, flaws and all. It was, of course, an instant literary triumph, the greatest in all of Roman history, and immediately vaulted Vergil into the ranks of Western Civilization's premier poets, a well-earned renown but one he never knew and, were he alive today, would probably bridle at, based as it is on an unpolished masterpiece.

Among the more remarkable achievements entailed in the work itself is what has to count as the principal challenge facing Vergil in writing The Aeneid, the character of the title figure himself, Aeneas. According to Homer and Greek literature, he was not the sort of hero with which the Romans naturally identified—if given a choice of forefathers, the Romans would probably have picked someone more like one of the great fighters seen in Homer, for instance, Ajax the sturdy, laconic "bulwark" of the Greek army—Aeneas was, instead, the offspring of the goddess Venus (Aphrodite) and a Trojan mortal Anchises. To the ancient Romans, descent from divinity was all very well, but far too frequently for their tastes the Greek traditions surrounding this child of divinity had Venus meddling in her son's affairs, certainly more often than a good Roman mother should. Worse yet, Homer's Aeneas spent relatively little time on the battlefield, a trait as foreign to the Romans' self-image as could be.

For instance, in The Iliad 20.75-352, Apollo appears to the Trojan "hero" in the form of his friend Lycaon and recalls how the mighty Aeneas once bragged over drink that he wasn't scared to face Achilles in battle. Now, however, that Achilles is advancing on Troy, Apollo-Lycaon notes that Aeneas seems less than eager for a fight and reminds his "friend" of the one encounter he's already had with Achilles and the way he saved himself, by running away—this could, of course, be interpreted as wise discretion, but then again perhaps as cowardice—and in this way shamed into battle, Aeneas goes forward to meet Achilles. In their subsequent confrontation, the tough-talking Trojan puts on a brave front but, once the real fighting starts, shows quickly that he's no match for his mighty Greek foe in strength or spirit. In the end, Poseidon appears out of nowhere and saves his Trojan pet, with a stern warning not to fight again until Achilles has died.

Handed a mythological tradition inflexible in this regard—the founder of the Roman line had to be a Trojan and that Trojan had to be Aeneas!—Vergil could not have forged a typical Homeric hero even if he'd wanted to. Fortunately, such a thing was likely not on his mind since, to judge from his earlier works which featured none of the standard combat or battle-scarred characters seen so often in Greek epic, he wasn't interested in writing anything centering around the usual early Hellenic fare of blood and guts. And besides, the Homeric Aeneas brought something else, something very intriguing to the tablet, something which might serve Alexandrian-style poetry well.

The Greek traditions surrounding Aeneas could be interpreted as saying that the proto-Roman hero was a very different sort of man from swashbuckling brigands like Achilles: a person not quick to rush into a fight, the type the gods clearly favored not with prowess in battle but thoughtful temperance and a natural reluctance to kill. Focusing on these aspects of the character freed Vergil to explore a new species of protagonist, a pious and peaceable man who hated war and felt for others in ways the implacable characters of Greek myth and epic all too infrequently do, that is, the sort of anti-hero with whom we today are very familiar. In other words, from this experiment in resurrecting Homer, Vergil mothered nothing less than the modern psychological novel.

C. The Aeneid, Book 1

The plot of The Aeneid covers the period of Aeneas' life from the destruction of Troy to his establishment of a Trojan presence in Italy, but it doesn't move chronologically through the material. Like Homer, Vergil begins his work by leaping in medias res, jump-starting the story by casting the reader into a storm at sea off the coast of North Africa. Seeing an opportunity to avenge herself on the Trojans whom she hates because of Paris and his mis-Judgment, Juno (Hera) conspires with Aeolus, the king of the winds, to sink Aeneas' fleet. In a scene clearly inspired by the Dios Apate passage of The Iliad (see above, Chapter 4.III.C), Juno bribes her breezy vassal with a nymph in marriage. It's a needless offer in this case because, unlike his Homeric counterpart Sleep who balks and at first refuses to help the Greek Hera, Aeolus plays the good Roman provincial governor and does what his superior Juno orders without the incentive of bribery. That's what bureaucracy does to epic.

Dispatched by the obedient Aeolus, an enormous whirlwind rains hail and ruin onto the Trojan fleet as it's sailing at sea, and in this midst Vergil gives his readers their initial glimpse of the hero. The first words to come from Aeneas' mouth are a prayer for respite from the gods—"O three and four times blessed are they who died at Troy! How I wish I'd been killed there, too!"—this plea for death is important and telling, in more ways than one. First, Vergil's Homer-reading public would have recognized immediately the god-born and -bound man as Homer's Aeneas, a warrior with strong divine connections. Second, they surely also saw a reflection of themselves in this sea-sick traveler, since all too often the Romans, who were never a people as collectively comfortable on shipboard as the Greeks, had found themselves in Aeneas' position, retching overboard and wishing, no doubt, they were dead. Finally, just as in Book 20 of The Iliad, the storm ends with Poseidon coming to Aeneas' rescue and calming the winds. All in all, Vergil's comparison is pointed and blatant. He has taken the Aeneas he expects his reader to know from Homer and set him in a scene which reflects Greek epic but has strong Roman overtones, too.

After the storm subsides, Aeneas and his surviving men are cast up on the beaches of Carthage (modern Tunisia), where the hero gathers his forces and offers them surprisingly cold consolation, revealing a philosophical bent that his Homeric counterpart never would or could have owned: "Even these things some day it will be pleasure to remember." That their near-death in the gales at sea will one day make a great story—clearly, Vergil is referring to his own epic—cannot have been very soothing for Aeneas' men to hear at that particular moment. The poet seems to be suggesting that Aeneas has as yet some distance to go before he becomes a true Roman, a military leader who can inspire his men and drive them boldly forward into battle, carnage and uncertainty.

Into the city of Carthage Aeneas walks hidden under a cloud of invisibility, the protection Venus provides to shelter her boy from harm, yet another reflection of The Iliad, Book 20, where Poseidon casts a blinding mist over the battlefield and whisks Aeneas away magically from the threat of Achilles' sword. In Carthage, the Trojan sees etched on a temple under construction scenes depicting the Trojan War. Here Vergil is deploying a form of exposition called ecphrasis ("description"), again clearly inspired by passages from Homeric epic like the forging of the Shield of Achilles in Book 18 of The Iliad. That is, instead of narrating the background of the story, the poem reminds the audience about it by describing pictures which recapitulate the Trojan War.

At this point for the first time Aeneas meets the ruler and founder of Carthage, a woman named Dido. When his mother Venus suddenly strips away his invisibility and endows him with radiant beauty, he seems to have appeared from heaven, in more ways than one. A lonely widow, she's instantly intoxicated and falls hopelessly in love with the handsome Trojan—shades of Helen and Paris!—so she invites him and his whole company to her palace for a banquet that evening.

When the dinner is done, she asks her noble guest to tell his story, how Troy fell and how he ended up shipwrecked on her shore. Aeneas' narration of these events, including the Fall of Troy and the seven years of wandering which have brought him to Carthage, takes up the entirety of Books 2 and 3 of The Aeneid.

D. The Aeneid, Book 2 (annotated)

Now begin reading Vergil's Aeneid, Book 2, with one eye on the notes below.

1-2 Like Homer, Vergil is a master of oxymoron. He begins what is surely the noisiest book in the epic with "The room fell silent."

3-39 After a perfunctory sigh of reluctance, Aeneas begins the tale of the Fall of Troy, passing quickly over the death of Achilles and going immediately to the Trojan Horse. For all his superficial Homeric quality, Vergil's Aeneas is, in fact, an Alexandrian narrator who drives straight for the scene which he wishes to expand upon and doesn't first impose long books before getting to the heart of the story. This way, he can focus on the pathos and skirt the unnecessary and lengthy narrative that some might see as characterizing Homer's works.

Many wonderful details from Vergil's fertile imagination garnish Aeneas' tale: the fall of Tenedos after Priam's day, the Trojans sightseeing at the Greek camp—"Here cruel Achilles lodged," as if they were listening to a tour guide taking them around the famous sites—and especially the arrival of Laocoon.

40-56 The short speech by the pious and wise—if somewhat gruff—priest Laocoon prepares the way for the next scene in which a lying Greek named Sinon convinces the naive Trojans to take the horse inside the city. That they have heard the truth, the reality that there are, no doubt, armed warriors inside the horse, and still the Trojans are dissuaded from acting on this all-but-certain knowledge because some skilled story-teller convinces them not to, makes the progression of events which follow quite believable, indeed all the more tragic because the doomed Trojans were exposed to the truth but deaf to it.

Moreover, the irony inherent in all this, the fact that, according to Vergil, it's less the Trojan Horse than Sinon's poetic fiction which brings the city to ruin points to the dangerous power of narrative in a society. Vergil, it seems, is justifying his own line of work.

There are two things to note about Laocoon's first appearance in the poem. First, the memorable line, "I fear Greeks even bearing gifts" (2.49), is a clear reflection of the Romans' distrust of the Greek world and its dazzling pleasures, an ironic comment coming as it does from Vergil, a highly Hellenized poet. Moreover, Laocoon's distrust of the Greeks surely hit home with the Roman audience, many of whom saw their captive teachers as bringing a dangerous proclivity for double-talk along with the cultural treasures they bestowed, as well as a tendency to over-complicate simple matters of justice and ethics. It was around this very issue that the controversy of Hellenism swirled. Second is the moment when Laocoon throws a spear at the horse which reverberates, proving the structure is hollow and thus could have something inside it.

All in all, Laocoon's short, simple, direct and honest speech forms a strong contrast with Sinon's long, complicated, roundabout web of prevarication. Again, it's ironic that the winning argument in this agon is the Greek lie. Thus, Vergil appears to be commenting on the human preference for elaborate dramatic fictions over simple, unadorned truths, Hellenized fictions like the Latin epic he's writing.

57-198 Vergil takes the Romans' prejudice against the Greeks and creates what to his countrymen would have been a quintessential Greek, the masterful liar Sinon. Ironically, he's also Vergil's most Euripidean character, especially in terms of his eloquence and cynicism. To wit, this groveling fraud could come straight out of Orestes, in particular, that moment when Orestes intending to kill Helen first throws himself at her mercy (see above, Chapter 6.III). As a seemingly humble gift-giver, Sinon might have been borrowed from Euripides' Medea, especially the scene where the title character gives her husband Jason a robe which will burn up his new wife, Medea's rival. Vergil could have taken the picture of the orator-in-rags-and-chains from Euripides, too, either his Telephus or Alexander. To cap it off, the very story Sinon tells may itself be based on Euripides' Palamedes, a play about how Odysseus treacherously destroys one of his own comrades of whom he's jealous. However it's added up, the Sinon scene is clearly modeled on Euripidean drama.

The made-up story about the Greeks' attempt to sail away (2.81-144) is also modeled on Greek myth, the tale of the Greeks' departure from Aulis, which Aeschylus refers to in the parodos of Agamemnon (see above, Chapter 7.II.B) and which Euripides also dramatized in his play Iphigenia in Aulis. The fabrication gains strength from the fact it feeds off the expectation of the Trojans who presumably already knew about the contrary winds at Aulis and Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia there. Sinon now retells largely the same story but with himself as "Iphigenia"—a male actor playing a young virgin, hardly an unexpected mask for a Greek hypocrites to don!—and he becomes the sacrifice demanded by the gods for the Greeks' safe nostos, their passage back to Greece. And, of course, this primordial liar-playwright Sinon casts himself in the lead role of his own dramatic concoction, a ham before there was theatre.

The Palladium is a statue of Athena which was said to protect the Trojans from capture as long as they kept it inside their city walls. In Greek myth, Odysseus sneaks into Troy and steals it, clearing the way for the siege to take place. Ingeniously, Sinon has recast this essential element in the sack of Troy as the beginning of the Greeks' downfall, not the Trojans' (2.162ff.). That is, according to the lying Greek, Odysseus committed a grave sacrilege when he stole it because he had blood on his hands, and therefore the Greeks' fortunes have fallen severely. They, then, decided to retreat and re-start the whole expedition, to try to do it all over again with new omens, which, according to Sinon, is why they've gone away and left the Trojan Horse.

It's important to note that this part of Sinon's great lie—that is, the Greeks' sudden decision to return home—is modeled on Roman custom, not Greek. In other words, it's all a falsehood cooked up by a Greek using ingredients from Rome. As a people innately superstitious, the Romans were naturally attentive to all details concerning religious ceremonies. If, for instance, during a Roman festival a bad omen of some sort appeared or anything went significantly awry, the Romans often declared an instauratio, the practice of stopping the festival and beginning it anew the next day so that it could be re-done right from the start.

Maliciously appropriating this habit, Vergil's Sinon suggests that the Greeks' inability to capture Troy after ten years of siege combined with the bad omen of the Palladium coming to life and moving around in a threatening fashion convinced the Greeks to go back and begin the expedition to Troy all over again, in an attempt to seek the gods' favor. Ironically, then, the cheating Hellene imports into his prevarication the custom of instauratio—not a feature seen in Greek religion—and thus uses their own belief system against the proto-Romans he's trying to deceive.

199-249 The second Laocoon scene is Vergil at his best. Two hideous, huge snakes rise out of the sea and devour the priest and his helpless sons. The scene climaxes with a brilliant simile. Laocoon falls "like a slashed bull escaping from an altar, the fumbled axe shrugged off." (2.223-4) The sacrifice that misfires forms an ingenious analogy to the false omen of the sweating Palladium and the Greeks' imaginary nostos. Simply and effectively, Vergil shows that the Trojans' universe and religion are falling apart, with omens upside down, their very world turning inside out.

To stumble while going over a threshold constituted to the Romans a terrible omen. It presaged doom at the outset of some enterprise. Thus, the horse catching in the gate of Troy (2.242-3) should have spelled imminent disaster, something they ought to have seen, but the gods have blinded their better judgment. Incidentally, this superstition is the basis of our custom that a groom carries his bride over the threshold. As standard practice, a new husband in ancient Rome carried his wife over the threshold so she couldn't trip and start their marriage off on a bad footing.

Note Vergil's tendency to write less rather than more. For instance, at the point where Cassandra enters (2.246-7), Homer or Aeschylus would probably have put in her mouth a long speech of foreboding in which she warns the Trojans about the horse. But an Alexandrian poet avoids such excess, and so Vergil passes her by with only a brief mention and not one quoted word.

250-297 The appearance of the bloody and bruised ghost of Hector in Aeneas' dream runs counter to The Iliad, in which Homer makes it clear that in spite of Achilles' abuse the gods preserved Hector's body from damage. Vergil's motivation is clearly to create an eerier scene, and an unbloodied ghost is simply less effective in that regard.

In the dream, Hector entrusts Aeneas with things that would have seemed holiest to a Roman: the fire of the hearth (Vesta) and the images of their ancestors and household gods (Penates and Lares). These are the items that said home to the Romans, who would have known immediately that Aeneas was being entrusted with transporting the very heart of Troy to a new site.

298-437 The simile of a mountain shepherd watching in amazement as a fire blazes below him or a river floods in torrents (2.304-8) is an aptly chosen comparison for Aeneas when he stands on the roof of his house and senses for the first time his city is under siege. Perhaps the image of the shepherd is also intended to hearken back to Vergil's earlier career as pastoral poet.

The Greek warrior Androgeos, realizing that he's surrounded by Trojans and not his Hellenic allies, backs up "like a man who had just stepped on a poisonous snake." (2.379-81), another simile clearly designed to reflect Homer.

438-505 The battle scene is essentially Roman. The "tortoise shell of overlapping shields" (2.441), in particular, refers to an offensive formation the Romans actually used in sieging cities. In this, the attacking soldiers held their shields over their heads to protect themselves from whatever was thrown down on them as they battered the gates of a fortress.

This siege passage is executed as a sort of ecphrasis, inasmuch as it's composed and narrated as if the reader were looking across a mural. That is, Vergil describes the siege like a moment frozen in time. To underscore this, he uses the present tense—modern translators often employ the past tense in accordance with standard English practice, but in Latin many of the verbs in this passage are present tense—for instance, Vergil says at one point literally, "Ladders cling to the wall, and men strive upward" (2.442-3), which creates the effect that the reader's eyes are scanning a poetic picture which is meant to be visualized as much as heard.

506-558 Pyrrhus (also called Neoptolemus) is Achilles' teenage son, the heir of his father's bloodthirstiness, boldness in combat and sense of mission in destroying the Trojans, but not the compassion Achilles learned at the end of The Iliad. In this scene, the young warrior murders the aged Priam with a merciless rage worthy only of the Achilles seen in the first twenty-two books of Homer's epic. In a breath-taking sequence of war crimes, the boy proves himself a heartless butcher.

Hecuba's speech to Priam begging him not to wage battle against Pyrrhus (2.519-524) is an inspired inversion of Homer's scene at the Scaean Gates between Hector and Andromache in Book 6 of The Iliad, the touching moment where the latter begs her husband not to fight (see above, Chapter 4.II.B). In similar fashion, the plea of Vergil's Hecuba brims with pathos, the very thing one would expect of a neoteric poet like Vergil. There is, of course, one enormous difference between the Roman and Greek epics in this regard. Where in The Iliad Hector answered his wife Andromache with the magnificent "Warrior's Creed" (6.440-465), in the corresponding situation of The Aeneid his father has nothing to say in reply to his wife Hecuba, yet another taciturn response to Homer from a poet schooled in Alexandrian style.

The exchange of speeches between Priam and Pyrrhus (533-550) is a dark reflection of the finale of The Iliad. The Roman Priam even alludes his earlier meeting with Pyrrhus' father Achilles and uses it to draw a contrast to his son's present behavior, uncivilized and sacrilegious. In answer to this, Pyrrhus could hardly be accused of being long-winded. His scant three lines in the Latin poem show well that he's a brutal, unfeeling butcher, a chip off the angry side of his father's block, lacking the decency Achilles eventually learned: "Complain to my father, then. You're about to see him. Tell him what a bad boy I've been. Now, time to die."

For the murder of Priam, Vergil produces an unrelenting series of horrific images, culminating with Pyrrhus dragging Priam to an altar to kill him—by ancient standards, an act of unmitigated and premeditated heresy—the old man even slips in his dead son's blood.

To cap it off, the resolution of the scene is pure poetic genius: "On the distant shore lies a vast and headless trunk, a body without a name" (2.557-8). It's a clear image of the death of Pompey, the Roman general whom Caesar defeated at the end of the Roman Republic. After his loss in battle, Pompey fled to Egypt where he was betrayed and beheaded, his decapitated corpse left floating in the tidal pools outside Alexandria. The demise of this "defender of the Republic" ended all hope of democracy in Rome and produced an image which haunted Romans for generations to come. Thus, Vergil uses Pompey's death to draw a connection between Homeric epic and current political events. Why Augustus who rose to power through the defeat of such Republican forces allowed such a blatant political allusion to stand is unclear.

559-633 Creusa is Aeneas' wife, the mother of his son Ascanius (Julus).

The mention of Creusa forms an excellent transition to the next scene in which Aeneas spots Helen, the bigamist wife of Menelaus, that most treacherous of unfaithful women, hiding in the temple of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home. It's hard to miss the irony here, as Vergil again borrows from Euripides' Orestes and briefly raises the possibility that Aeneas will kill Helen before traditional Greek myth says she dies (see above, Chapter 6.III).

The scene also resolves on a Euripidean minor chord: Venus appears and stops Aeneas' murderous rage, much as Apollo prevents Orestes from killing Helen in the finale of Euripides' tragedy. Notably, Venus no more belongs in the temple of Vesta than Apollo does at the end of Orestes. Nevertheless, she appears there—more evidence that the Trojans' world is turning upside down—and, just like Athena who prevents Achilles from murdering Agamemnon in Book 1 of The Iliad, she keeps Aeneas from murdering Helen.

Here Vergil produces yet another masterful moment, a startling and terrifying image. When Venus rips off the veil of mortality from her son Aeneas so that he can see the gods destroying his city, Vergil seems to suggest that there floats around our mortal world a twilight zone in which supernatural beings rage and thrust their swords at us. Furthermore, Venus treats her son with the same brutality she did Helen when she forces her into bed with Paris in Book 3 of The Iliad. Like Ishtar in The Epic of Gilgamesh, she shows that ancient sex goddesses are vicious and cruel, even to their nearest and dearest.

634-804 The story of the omens which tell Aeneas to leave is quickly followed up by the narration of his wife Creusa's death and her subsequent appearance as a ghost who bids him on to Italy and his Roman destiny. Her farewell speech is beautiful in its pathos and simplicity.

Thus, Aeneas leaves his homeland Troy which sinks in flames behind him as he departs. He carries his father on his shoulders and has his little son Ascanius running by his side—a symbol of the generations rising from the earth—and takes with him, too, the Lares and Penates of Troy, representing both the continuation of his people's spirit and, when Aeneas finally reaches his new home in Latium, the alliance of the past with the future.


Terms, Places, People and Things to Know

Publius Vergilius Maro (Vergil)
Julius Caesar
The Eclogues
The Georgics

Mark Antony
Pax Romana




III. Vergil's Aeneid: Books 3-6

A. The Aeneid, Books 3-5

Aeneas and his rag-tag band of refugees flee Troy and wander for many years around the Mediterranean, much as Odysseus does in Homer's Odyssey. Ultimately, the Trojans end up in Carthage, a landing site of some significance in Vergil's time since nearly a millennium later the conflict between the Dido's descendants at Carthage and Aeneas' Roman heirs will result in a monumental struggle from which Rome will eventually emerge bloodied but victorious. Thus, Vergil casts Aeneas and Dido as personifications of Roman history-yet-to-come, using his epic to "foreshadow" the Punic Wars.

In Book 4 of The Aeneid, Dido and Aeneas consummate their love, but all too soon the gods call Aeneas away so that he can fulfill his destiny, the divine mission to bring the Trojans to Italy. Though Dido begs and pleads with him to stay and for a brief moment he's torn between love and duty, in the end pius Aeneas ("dutiful Aeneas") is left with no choice but to depart. As she watches her beloved leave, Dido curses him and then kills herself. [If you have time for extra reading, Book 4 tells a beautiful, tragic love story.]

Unaware of Dido's demise, Aeneas sails on to Sicily, where he commemorates his father Anchises' death in funeral games, then continues sailing north. One night, while the Trojans are passing along the western shore of Italy, Aeneas' pilot Palinurus accidentally falls asleep at the helm, rolls off into the ocean and disappears. The next morning, when Aeneas and his men realize their helmsman is missing, they assume he's dead and so proceed on in sadness to Italy. As Book 6 of The Aeneid opens, Aeneas is grieving the pilot he lost at sea.

B. The Aeneid, Book 6 (annotated)

Now begin reading Vergil's Aeneid, Book 6, with one eye on the notes below.

1-41 "Some struck seeds of fire out of the veins of flint" refers to the belief advanced by Epicurus that "seeds" (atomic bits) of fire were contained in flint which, when struck, released them as sparks.

Hesperia is another name for Italy and means "West-land." The literal implication of the name is, of course, appropriate here, since Aeneas as a native Trojan looks toward Italy from the East.

In many ways the counterpart of the Pythia in Delphi, the Sibyl is the principal prophetess of Apollo in the West. At Cumae along the coast of southwestern Italy, she resided in a temple near a cave believed in antiquity to be an opening to the underworld. Because Cumae is close to the volcano Mount Vesuvius, the general area around it is inhospitable, having many sulphur pits which emit a terrible stench and abet in the myth that it was a gateway leading down to Hades.

Vergil equates the Roman goddess Diana not only with her Greek counterpart Artemis but also Hecate, the divine patroness of black magic. Since one of Hecate's aspects was the "goddess of crossroads," Diana can serve as the same.

After landing in Cumae, Aeneas walks into the woods where he sees the temple Daedalus built after he escaped Crete by air and landed in Italy (see above, Chapter 9.I.B). The passage culminates in an ecphrasis (see above, Chapter 11.II.C), as Aeneas and his comrades scan the artwork on the double doors leading into the temple. The panels on these doors present four scenes: (1) the death of Minos' son Androgeos which, according to Vergil, led the Cretan king to impose on the Athenians a fine of children to feed the Minotaur in the Labyrinth; (2) the selection of those children by lot; (3) Pasiphae and the Minotaur; and (4) the Labyrinth. Clearly, then, there are two panels are on each of the doors, the first pair representing Athens and the other designating Crete. Thus, passing through portals signifying civilization (Athens) and the barbarian world (Crete), Aeneas begins his journey to the underworld.

The ecphrasis is notable not only for its visual imagery but also the way it's written. First, in good Alexandrian fashion, Vergil addresses the mythological character Icarus directly, a figure of speech (poetic device) called apostrophe ("turning away," i.e. from the current situation so as to address someone or something far off): "In that high sculpture you, too, would have had your great part, Icarus, had grief allowed." In much the same way, Homer addresses Patroclus as he rages forward to his premature death in Book 16 of The Iliad (see above, Chapter 4.III.D.2.684-867): "So you sprang, Patroklos, on Kebriones." As if somehow chastising, mocking or consoling, the poet's words in both cases signal the characters' mental instability.

Second, Vergil plays up the pathos of Daedalus by making him so stung with grief over the death of his son that he's unable to sculpt Icarus' image on the temple. It's appropriate that Aeneas who's about to enter Hades and meet his deceased father is reminded of Icarus, Daedalus' dead son. Similarly, at the opening of Book 16 of The Iliad, Achilles assumes from Patroclus' copious tears that he's learned of his father's death, but in the end the lamentation will turn out to be not for a dead father but a dead son, when Patroclus himself dies at the end of Book 16. As is common and to be expected, death prefigures a journey to the underworld.

Vergil underscores Daedalus' role in the myth by crediting him, not Ariadne as was traditional in classical myth, with the invention of the thread-trick which resolved the riddle of the Labyrinth.

Achates is Aeneas' closest friend, as Patroclus is Achilles'.

The Sibyl's demand that Aeneas sacrifice seven young bulls and seven heifers recalls Minos' fine of fourteen Athenian youths and draws a parallel between Theseus' voyage to Crete and Aeneas' upcoming trip through the underworld. That is, the young Theseus sailed across the Aegean sea to an immense labyrinth from which with the help of Ariadne and the wizard Daedalus he emerged a man and a hero. Likewise, the Trojan warrior Aeneas has crossed the Mediterranean Sea and now will journey through the spiritual maze of Hades with the Sibyl and his father guiding him, to emerge a Roman champion. Both death journeys change men into heroes.

42-123 The temple Aeneas promises Apollo (6.69f.) is, no doubt, a reference to the temple Augustus built to Apollo on the Palatine in 28 BCE commemorating his victory at Actium. Vergil adds majesty and epic splendor to Augustus' building program by having Aeneas first promise it to Apollo long ago, as if Augustus in constructing his temple were fulfilling the honorable intentions of his ancestors.

The prophesies mentioned immediately thereafter (6.71f.) are the three books of prediction given to the Romans by the Sibyl outlining the future of their nation. They were actual tomes stored in temples and consulted by priests at times of crisis in Roman history. The leaves that Vergil mentions refer to the Sibyl's practice of arranging her prophesies on leaves so that, if anyone came unexpectedly into her room, the wind from the doors opening would scatter them and thus no one could receive her prophesies without her permission.

The new "Achilles" whom the Sibyl foresees (6.89) is Turnus (see below, Section C), who will be Aeneas' principal foe when he reaches Latium in the last six books of The Aeneid.

124-235 One of Vergil's most famous lines is "Easy is the descent to Avernus (Hell)" (6.126), that is, "The road down to hell is no effort." The Sibyl means, of course, that the path drops and thus isn't a difficult journey, but a moral implication—"Decadence is no real challenge"—also rings beneath her words.

The Sibyl tells Aeneas that, before he may enter the underworld, he must first retrieve a golden bough which grows on a tree in a dark grove near Cumae. His ability to secure this precious branch represents the gods' acceptance of his mission, essentially a ticket to Hades. Like King Arthur's "sword in the stone," the golden bough is destined to yield only to the hero whom the gods have deemed worthy of taking it. That Vergil, then, describes it as surrendering itself to Aeneas only reluctantly ("delaying," 6.211) makes for a strange moment, hinting that the universe only grants Aeneas' passage into Hades and his vision of Roman glory-yet-to-come with a sigh, presumably because of all the carnage that will be necessary in bringing the Italians to this triumph.

"Juno of the lower world" is Proserpina (Persephone), the queen of the dead.

The dead friend whom the Sibyl orders Aeneas to bury is Misenus. Typical of Hellenistic poets who often gravitate toward the citation of minutiae and obscure characters in myth, Vergil tells Misenus' story in some detail. At the same time, however, the tale has strong Homeric overtones. Like Patroclus who dies wearing Achilles' armor, Misenus serves as a symbolic surrogate for Aeneas, his death allowing the hero to enter the underworld without actually dying.

Vergil's description of the burial of Misenus (6.212-235) has the formulaic flavor of a stock description in Homer, but the literate Vergil, of course, doesn't need or use the traditional phrases and oral formulas so familiar and necessary to Homer. The reason for including this passage in The Aeneid seems to be that it lends gravity and a sense of grandeur to the funeral.

236-425 Aeneas finally embarks on his death journey, in this case a literal trip to the underworld as opposed to Priam's figurative one in the Book 24 of The Iliad (see above, Chapter 4.IV.C). More than a millennium later, Aeneas' descent into the world of the dead served as inspiration for Dante's The Divine Comedy, a description of the author's passage through the Christian afterlife. Appropriately, then, Dante alludes to his Latin source by casting Vergil as his personal escort through Hell and Purgatory.

In another Homeric gesture, Vergil uses Aeneas' journey to the underworld to recapitulate, not the story he's telling, but the very development of myth and ancient history itself. It's as if Aeneas were returning to the beginning of time and quickly reviewing the progress of life on earth and human evolution, the way it was understood in the ancient world (see above, Chapter 3.II).

That is, as he descends, the Trojan hero first encounters abstract personifications like Care, Disease, Hunger and Death. These recall the types of deities seen often in early Greek mythology, such as Hesiod's Theogony ("Birth of the Gods"), the Greek equivalent of Genesis (see above, Chapter 3.II.A). Next come chthonic monsters like Harpies, Centaurs and Gorgons, the sorts of beings which dominate the second generation of life on Earth according to Hesiod. After that, Aeneas begins to see ghosts, that brand of the un-dead most closely related to the Furies, zombies and creatures which haunt the living, another type of spirit found often in early myth. Since Aeneas will ultimately pass through this deep past to a vision of Rome's distant future—at the end of Book 6, his father Anchises will show him a pageant of Roman history-yet-to-come—by beginning Aeneas' death journey with images of the remote past, Vergil gives this part of the epic a sense of recapitulating all myth and history, a panoramic overview of all time as he knew it.

Among the un-dead, Aeneas sees the ghost of his pilot Palinurus (6.337ff.), who can't cross the Styx because he has yet to be buried after he fell overboard and died. Palinurus' ghost explains to Aeneas that, although he lived to reach shore, he was discovered by savages who murdered him.

Alcides ("Alcaeus' descendant") is Hercules, the "grandson of Alcaeus." To fulfill one of his labors, Hercules went to the underworld and abducted Cerberus, the three-headed hellhound. Similarly, Theseus and Pirithous came to hell with the misguided ambition of carrying off Proserpina (Persephone), Hades' wife. Though for a long time stuck to his seat as punishment for such hubris—"he sits and always will sit, unhappy Theseus" (Aen. 6. 617-8)—eventually Hercules came and cut Theseus loose, returning him to the world above. Pirithous, however, remained in Hades forever.

When Aeneas is crossing the Styx, the river which divides the worlds of the living and the dead, Vergil adds a wonderful detail. The ferryman Charon's boat groans under Aeneas' weight as he steps into it (6.413). The boat, of course, is accustomed only to carrying disembodied spirits, not a living human with real substance.

Vergil borrows a trick from Apollonius' Argonautica (see above, Chapter 10.I.B.3). Like Medea who drugs the dragon guarding the golden fleece so that Jason can steal it, the Sibyl slips Cerberus a treat steeped in a sleeping potion, which knocks the monstrous watchdog out, allowing her and Aeneas to pass unmolested (6.420ff.).

426-476 As he descends further, Aeneas encounters first the souls of those who died as babies, then the falsely accused, followed by suicides, and finally those who died for love. In particular, he sees Eriphyle, a woman killed by her own son Alcmaeon because she had sent her husband (Alcmaeon's father) on the expedition of the Seven Against Thebes in which he died. There is Evadne, too, the wife of another member of the same septet who also died besieging Thebes. During her husband's funeral Evadne, grief-stricken, threw herself on his pyre and burnt up along with his corpse.

The stories of Laodamia and Caeneus are relatively minor episodes in myth, the very types of tale a neoteric poet like Vergil seeks. Laodamia died of grief after her husband was killed at Troy. Caeneus was born a girl but, after being raped by Poseidon and then accorded one wish from him, asked to be turned into a man so she could never be violated that way again. According to Vergil, when Caeneus died, she reverted to the female gender.

This part of Book 6 comes to a climax, when Aeneas sees Dido among the lovesick dead, leading to one of the most poignant moments in The Aeneid and some of Vergil's best poetry yet. At this point in the story, Aeneas has only heard rumors that Dido committed suicide and that he was the reason behind her abject grief, but now he sees that these stories are true and regrets having left her, but too late. His words and remorse are cold comfort to his beloved now.

The simile comparing Dido's ghost walking through the dark wood of the dead to the moon passing behind clouds (6.452-4) is one of the most beautiful and memorable in all literature, as is the finale of this scene. Without so much as a word, Dido floats off leaving Aeneas behind in tears—the exact converse of their last meeting when he left her pleading and weeping—her bitter silence says it all, everything that's in her heart: contempt, scorn, betrayal, heartbreak, anguish. It's a classic example of where Alexandrian poetry is right to be brief.

477-636 Vergil again refers to minor episodes in Greek myth, in this case the later stages of the Trojan War. After Paris' death, Deiphobus, another son of Priam and Hecuba, was given Helen in marriage. On the night the Greeks sacked Troy, Menelaus murdered him in the savage manner Vergil describes.

Laconian means "Spartan" and refers to Helen, the wife of Menelaus who is the king of Sparta.

Because Aeneas as a good soul cannot enter Tartarus, the "hell" of classical Hades, the Sibyl describes the punishments of the wicked imprisoned there. On its rampart walls stands Tisiphone, one of the Furies, who serves as a sort of prison guard. Inside is Rhadamanthus, the judge of the wicked. Among the damned sequestered within is Salmoneus, a man tried to act like Zeus and rode around in a chariot throwing torches as if they were lightning, for which hubris the sky god set him ablaze with real thunderbolts. Also there is Tityus, a giant who tried to rape Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis, and is punished by having a vulture eternally eat out his entrails which grow back continually to ensure his lasting pain. Finally, for attempting to seduce Juno, Ixion is strapped to a wheel on which he spins forever.

637-751 After passing by Tartarus, Aeneas and the Sibyl enter the Elysian Fields, a sort of heaven where the good dead live. They all do in death what they did best in life, be it fighting, dancing or singing.

Like Orpheus, Musaeus is a famous singer-bard in myth. He leads Aeneas and the Sibyl to Anchises, Aeneas' recently deceased father.

Vergil incorporates an admixture of beliefs and precepts drawn from several ancient mystery religions which preached the reincarnation of souls. In order to explain why the living don't then remember their former lives, Anchises points out to Aeneas the Lethe ("Oblivion"), the river of forgetfulness, from which souls must drink before returning to the upper world.

Next, Vergil serves up a smorgasbord of ancient philosophy and science, outlining his views on cosmology and the principles by which his brand of reincarnation works. For instance, the idea that the body impedes true understanding is a notion borrowed from the Greek philosopher Plato whose "Doctrine of Ideas" maintains that the perceptible world is merely a distant reflection of true reality to which only the mind has full access. Conversely, from another philosophical sect, the Pythagoreans, comes the notion of reincarnation. And finally, Epicureanism supplies the idea of "seeds" as the essence of being (see above, Aen. 6.1-41).

752-892 During the pageant of Roman history-yet-to-come, Anchises reveals to Aeneas the imminent grandeur of Rome and shows him the great men who will lead their people to world domination. By Vergil's day this was, of course, well-known history, making him a sort of "prophet-in-reverse," predicting a past-yet-to-come.

The pageant itself is cast in the form of a triumph, a type of Roman military procession. It's as if Aeneas and Anchises were standing on the sidewalk of the Via Sacra ("The Sacred Way") in Rome, watching future Roman heroes march by and commenting on them as they pass. The highest honor a victorious Roman general could earn was to be accorded such a triumph, but instead of celebrating a single man and just one victory in battle, father and son witness the triumph of all Rome.

At 6.778 Vergil mentions the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus, whom he refers to by an alternate name "Ilia," in order to tie her more closely to Troy (Ilium).

Vergil acknowledges Augustus' domination of the Roman world with a long panegyric (hymn in praise) of Augustus' accomplishments (6.781ff.). This is as close as he gets to overt flattery of the emperor and, as we will see later, he casts a dark, mysterious shadow over Roman greatness at the end of this book—the encomium (laudatory poem) is a far cry from the open adulation served up to Augustus by other poets—actually, Vergil is quite bold in how infrequently he fawns over his benefactor and boss.

The Etruscan (Tarquin) kings listed here (6.808ff.) were those who, according to legend, ruled Rome before Brutus—not the famous assassin of Caesar but one of his distant ancestors—this Brutus was an early Roman who started an uprising that toppled the Etruscan tyranny. In 510 BCE Brutus established the Republic, Rome's form of democracy, and as a symbol betokening the power and unity of his new government, used the fasces, sticks bound together with an axe. This fasces signified to Romans what the flag does for us: freedom, self-sacrifice, and all the things that citizens of the state should stand up for. Brutus, indeed, killed his own sons when he discovered them plotting to overthrow the Republic, an act which represented his highest ideal, putting the good of Rome before all else in life.

Among other early Romans mentioned, Cato (6.841) in the days of Hellenism during the second century BCE championed the anti-Greek faction pushing for a return to simple Roman virtues. The Scipios (6.843) were the generals who led the way to victory against the Carthaginians in the Punic Wars at the end of the third century BCE.

Anchises' description of the triumphal pageant of Roman history comes to a climax with his—really Vergil's—statement of Rome's mission in the world:

Others will cast more tenderly in bronze
Their breathing figures, I can well believe,
And bring more lifelike portraits out of marble;
Argue more eloquently, use the pointer
To trace the paths of heaven accurately
And accurately foretell the rising stars.
Roman, remember by your strength to rule
Earth's people—for your arts are to be these:
To pacify, to impose the rule of law,
To spare the conquered, battle down the proud. (6.847-853).

Although on the surface it reads as an anthem to the glory of Rome, it could also be taken as an apology of sorts, an admission that Vergil's Roman peers lacked artistic accomplishment. That is, whereas the Greeks started with very little—certainly in terms of wealth and natural resources—but engineered extraordinary achievements in art, literature, science and philosophy, the Romans by the end of the first millennium had done considerably less for Western Civilization, other than, of course, conquering it. It's courageously honest of Vergil to say this, but it's also somewhat ironic that the greatest work of Latin literature includes such half-hearted praise of his fatherland.

The pageant climaxes with another nod in Augustus' direction (6.868ff.). The last figure in the parade is Marcellus, Augustus' nephew and adopted son who had recently died young. The emperor had chosen this young man to be his heir, so his death was a blow to both the family and the state. The story goes that, when Vergil read this passage to Augustus at court and Marcellus' mother (Augustus' sister) realized the identity of the mysterious "young man beautifully formed and tall in shining armor, but with clouded brow and downcast eyes," she fainted.

893-901 At the end of the book, Vergil describes the two gates by which it's possible to leave Hades. One is a gate of ivory through which false dreams pass to the upper world, and the other is made of horn through which true dreams go. With almost no fanfare—and certainly no explanation or apology—Anchises sends Aeneas off through the ivory gate, that is, the gate of false dreams!

What Vergil meant by this unexpected turn in the story has been debated for centuries. Are we, for instance, to understand that Aeneas' vision of the underworld and the triumphal procession of Roman greatness-to-come is all a false dream designed somehow to mislead us? On the surface, that's what Vergil's words would appear to imply. Unfortunately, only the poet can provide definitive answers—and even if Vergil were alive today, it's unlikely he'd say what he was thinking when he wrote this passage—so in the end we're left to puzzle over this insoluble riddle. All in all, it seems safe to conclude only that it's an odd thing to have said if Vergil didn't intend to cast some sort of pall over his description of Rome's triumph.

C. Conclusion: Book 7-12 of The Aeneid

Asked what he thought of Aeneas the hero, a schoolboy once purportedly said, "Hero? I thought he was a priest!" But clearly, this boy hadn't finished his homework and read to the end of The Aeneid. There, Vergil obliterates once and for all our impression of a passive, forlorn pius Aeneas and turns both story and hero back to a more traditional mode of epic, one saturated with carnage and bloodshed.

Indeed, the last six books of The Aeneid (Books 7-12) all but erase the image of the thoughtful hero, the weepy wanderer who dominated the first half. From a man who deeply mourns the passing of his former life and his city's destruction, Aeneas evolves into a more Iliadic warrior apt to resolve his problems through violence. In the end we're left with a wounded creature who's been taught by hurt to hurt.

After leaving the underworld, Aeneas arrives in Latium where he lays the groundwork for Troy's rebirth in the West. Among the many battles and adventures he encounters there, the Trojan exile faces the best warrior of the Rutulians, a man named Turnus who turns out to be Aeneas' principal opponent, the "Hector" of The Aeneid. Their struggle centers on Lavinia, the princess of Latium whose hand in marriage brings with it her father's kingdom. Amidst their war over power and property, Turnus kills Aeneas' good friend Pallas, just as Hector slaughters Achilles' friend Patroclus in The Iliad.

At the conclusion of The Aeneid, Aeneas finally confronts Turnus in single combat, a one-on-one fight to resolve their conflict. At the outset of this climactic passage, Vergil describes the chase leading up to their death struggle, which he begins with a suitably Homeric simile, but one with modern psychological overtones:

Just as in dreams when the night-swoon of sleep
Weighs on our eyes, it seems we try in vain
To keep on running, try with all our might,
But in the midst of effort faint and fail;
Our tongue is powerless, familiar strength
Will not hold up our body, not a sound
Or word will come: just so with Turnus now:
How bravely he made shift to fight
The immortal fiend blocked and frustrated him. (trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

Though an aptly inept Homeric comparison—but not just because the things being paralleled are as different as they are similar—the principal disjunction of this simile lies in the way it contrasts reality and unreality, that is, mixes sleep and consciousness, linking our ghostly fears with the haunting struggle to live. It reminds us, moreover, that Aeneas exited the underworld through the gate of ivory, the portal of false visions, for here again dreams intrude upon our conscience, carrying the potential for lies and deceptions as ruinous as Sinon's.

Finally Aeneas corners Turnus and drives him to the earth. Realizing he's defeated, Turnus concedes everything: land, power and, most of all, Lavinia. He begs only that Aeneas spare his life, not kill him out of anger.

Fierce under arms, Aeneas
Looked to and fro, and towered, and stayed his hand
Upon the sword-hilt. Moment by moment now
What Turnus said began to bring him round
From indecision. Then to his glance appeared
The accursed swordbelt surmounting Turnus' shoulder,
Shining with its familiar studs — the strap
Young Pallas wore when Turnus wounded him
And left him dead upon the field; now Turnus
Bore that enemy token on his shoulder —
Enemy still. For when the sight came home to him,
Aeneas raged at the relic of his anguish
Worn by this man as trophy. Blazing up
And terrible in his anger, he called out:
"You in your plunder, torn from one of mine,
Shall I be robbed of you? This wound will come
From Pallas: Pallas makes this offering
And from your criminal blood exacts his due."
He sank the blade in fury in Turnus' chest.
Then all the body slackened in death's chill,
And with a groan for that indignity
His spirit fled into the gloom below. (trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

Thus ends The Aeneid, the final words of not only Rome's greatest epic but its greatest poet as well. It's as if The Iliad concluded with Book 22: no athletic games which rebind the Greeks, no symbolic death journey epitomizing the end of Troy, no hint of an eventual reconciliation between the Trojans and the Greeks. Just one thrust of a sword, and it's over. "Strike down the proud"—the dead Anchises' credo for Rome—that's all too apparent here, but where is "spare the vanquished"? Again, the ivory gate seems to gape, along with our hollow dreams of the glory to be found in conquest. All in all, it's hardly the fulsome patriotism that swells most verse ordered up by politicians from their poetical hirelings.

Distressed by the abruptness of this conclusion, some scholars have supposed that Vergil's sudden death is responsible for the epic's seemingly premature closure. In fact, one eager but misguided fan even wrote in Latin a thirteenth book for The Aeneid in order to tie up the loose ends of the story. Vergil's biography, however, makes it clear that the purpose of his final trip to Greece was to revise, not complete The Aeneid. In sum, it seems as if he's gone as far in the story as he planned. "Our tongue is powerless . . . not a word or sound will come" sounds, at least, like a poet who's finished with making verse.

Moreover, twelve books is a suitably round number, encompassing a plot that's neatly divided into two halves by Aeneas' death journey. And twelve is precisely a quarter the number of books in The Iliad and The Odyssey. That colors Vergil's epic as exactly what it looks to be, a "hemi-epic" miniaturized in good Alexandrian style, the crumbs of morsels from the banquet of Homer.

But if it's a reflection of Homer, the image is upside-down. The first half of The Aeneid recasts The Odyssey, the latter and more psychological of Homer's epics, while Books 7-12 of The Aeneid imitate The Iliad, the more brutal and probably also older of the pair. By putting the war-story after the tale of wandering, Vergil has in essence inverted the traditional order of the Greek epics and, along with that, any pattern inherent in them. That certainly could include the evolution of their principals, from the thoughtful caution of Odysseus backwards to the rampaging anger of Achilles.

The rest of The Aeneid bears this out. Whereas the development from The Iliad to The Odyssey may be taken to represent the growth and civilization of the human spirit—the impulse to fight slowly giving way to the struggle to understand—the development in Vergil appears to be quite the opposite. At the outset, Aeneas is a "thinking man" much like Odysseus, an errant hero who respects the gods and considers the moral implications of his actions, but after witnessing the death of almost everyone he loves and then having to face them again in the underworld, the cruelty of life and the gods who've made it his fate to found Rome turns him into a brutal murderer, so cruel and heartless a creature that in the end he kills a helpless suppliant prostrate before him, a man who's begging for his life. And, worse, Aeneas does it out of little more than revenge.

Much like the second half of Euripides' Orestes in which the title hero regresses into a monster of vengeance who tries to murder the helpless Helen (see above, Chapter 6.III), by the end of The Aeneid Vergil's hero has become a fate-driven, god-plagued exterminator who lives by the code of "blood for blood," a hero who's de-evolved from thinker to killer, from man to beast. Perhaps the poet's message is, then, that the world doesn't always progress toward the better. Maybe our aspirations of conquest and glory are very dangerous "ivory" dreams. If so, Augustus and two millennia of generals have yet to hear Vergil's message.

Terms, Places, People and Things to Know

golden bough
death journey

Elysian Fields
gate of ivory



A Guide to Writing in History and Classics


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