VIRGIL’S AENEID: AN INTRODUCTION

Note: references to the Iliad use the book and line numbers of the assigned translation (R.
Lattimore/U. of Chicago Press) and correspond to the original Greek text; references to the
Aeneid use the book and line numbers of the assigned translation (A. Mandelbaum/Bantam
Books).
WHAT IS THE AENEID?
The Aeneid is an epic poem in twelve books or chapters, written by the Roman poet, Virgil
(70-19 B.C.), between 30 B.C. and 19 B.C. It tells the story of the Trojan warrior, Aeneas, in
the aftermath of the Trojan War. During the sack of Troy, Aeneas fled the city with his father,
Anchises, and his son, Ascanius. Led by the prophecies that promised him a future kingdom,
he and his followers finally settled in Latium, a region of central Italy. From his descendants
were said to come the Roman people.
THE LEGEND OF AENEAS
The legend of Aeneas’ escape, his journey to Italy, and his role as the ancestor of the
Roman people grew out of an episode in Homer’s Iliad that takes place during Achilleus’
rampage on the battlefield. With Apollo’s encouragement, Aeneas (=Aineias, in the Greek
spelling) challenges Achilleus. As they fight, Poseidon, the god of the sea, sees that Aeneas is
in danger of being slain by Achilleus. He says:
“But why does this man, who is guiltless, suffer his sorrows
for no reason, for the sake of others’ unhappiness, and always
he gives gifts that please them to the gods who hold the wide heaven.
But come, let us ourselves get him away from death, for fear
the son of Kronos may be angered if now Achilleus
kills this man. It is destined that he shall be the survivor,
that the generation of Dardanos shall not die, without seed
obliterated, since Dardanos was dearest to Kronides
of all his sons that have been born to him from mortal women.
For Kronos’ son has cursed the generation of Priam,
and now the might of Aineias shall be lord over the Trojans,
and his sons’ sons, and those who are born of their seed hereafter. (20.297-308)”
This short passage - easily overlooked in the dramatic account of Achilleus’ rage - lies at the
heart of the legend of Aeneas. It establishes that Aeneas was destined to survive the sack of
Troy, and it explains that he and his descendants would rule over the descendants of the
Trojans. In the classical and Hellenistic periods, various legends developed that described
Aeneas’ wanderings and the cities he allegedly visited or founded. By the end of the fifth
century B.C., the Greek writer, Hellanicus, is known to have written that Aeneas eventually
reached Italy. As the Romans came into contact - and conflict - with the Greeks in the third and
second centuries B.C., they sought to link themselves with Greek legends, and gradually
adopted Aeneas - an enemy of the Greeks - as an ancestor and a founder of a city, Lavinium,
that was a precursor of Rome itself.
In the Aeneid, Virgil elaborated upon these legends, reworked some of them, and organized
them into a grand epic that stressed Aeneas’ role as the ancestor of the Roman people and
linked his personal destiny with the historical destiny of Rome to become the seat of a great
empire. At its core, though, is the hero whom Homer destined for survival in the Iliad. Even the
brief sketch of Aeneas in the Iliad (20.297-99) as a “guiltless” man who suffers sorrows for no
reason, despite his devotion to the gods, became the starting point for Virgil’s portrayal of his
hero. In the prologue to the Aeneid, Virgil echoed that description by asking why Juno
“compelled a man remarkable for goodness to endure so many crises, meet so many trials”
(1.15-17).
THE STORY IN THE AENEID
The first half of the Aeneid charts Aeneas’ wanderings, and may be compared with Homer’s
account of Odysseus’ wanderings in the Odyssey. It begins in the middle of the story - in the
typical fashion of ancient epic - with Aeneas’ arrival in Carthage where he meets Queen Dido,
herself a refugee from the Phoenician city of Tyre. In Carthage, Aeneas tells his own story.
This gives the audience a "flashback", for Aeneas describes the sack of Troy (book two) and
his subsequent wanderings (book three). Virgil’s tale continues with the tragic love affair
between Aeneas and Dido (book four) and the queen’s suicide after Aeneas abandoned her to
pursue his destiny. After Aeneas commemorates the first anniversary of his father’s death with
funeral games in Sicily (book five), the first half ends with his landing in Italy and visit to the
underworld (book six). There, he meets figures from his own past, and the shade of his father,
Anchises, shows him a pageant of great Romans, as a prophecy of the destiny of their
descendants.
The second half of the poem describes the wars he fought in Italy. It is a complex account
rich in allusions to the Trojan War and Homer’s Iliad. As in the Iliad, a contested marriage lies
at the heart of the struggle. The aged king of the Latins, Latinus, welcomes Aeneas and
proposes that his daughter, Lavinia, marry Aeneas to unite the two peoples and fulfill a
prophecy (book seven). The goddess, Juno - Aeneas’ antagonist throughout the poem,
inflames Latinus’ wife, queen Amata, with rage against the Trojans, and war soon breaks out.
The queen had supported a marriage between Lavinia and the Rutulian warrior, Turnus.
Turnus leads the forces against the Trojans, and, at the end of the poem, he is slain by
Aeneas.
THREE APPROACHES TO THE AENEID
In our discussion of the Aeneid, I will focus on three ways of examining the poem.
Poetically, Virgil offers a sophisticated reworking of Homer’s epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey,
to create an epic for the Roman people that would rival the poems of Homer. Ethically, Virgil
explores the making of a Roman hero, as Aeneas struggles to become a figure characterized
by the Roman virtue, pietas, and embodying the ideals of Stoic ethics. Politically, Virgil reflects
upon Roman history. By linking Greek mythology with Roman history, he looks ahead to the
growth of Rome’s empire and the century of violence and civil strife that preceded the triumph
of Octavian (Augustus) over Marc Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 B.C.
VIRGIL'S POETRY: HIS CREATIVE USE OF HOMER
In the most obvious way, Virgil connects his poem with the Homeric epic by telling a story
that grows out of the legends of the Trojan War. He also fills his tale with the familiar meddling
gods and goddesses - under their Latin names - of the Homeric epic. Virgil, however, does
much more than simply build on the legends in Homer’s poem. He carefully transforms specific
scenes from Homer, purposefully develops complex parallels between his characters and those
in the Iliad and the Odyssey, and creatively adapts poetic devices, like the simile and
embedded narrative, from Homer’s epics. At first, this might challenge our ideas of artistic
creativity or originality, but Virgil is most creative precisely in the imaginative and surprising
ways in which he uses familiar material from Homer, and the Odyssey's own complex
relationship to the Iliad provides one starting point for Virgil's approach. References to Homer’s
poems suggest contrasts and comparisons that deepen the meaning and intensify the impact of
Virgil’s work. What at first seems like imitation soon reveals itself to be a complex dialogue
between Virgil and Homer, in which the Roman poet seeks to outdo his own mentor.
For us, Virgil’s use of Homer is one example of a larger issue: the response of Rome to the
culture of the Greeks whom they conquered. As such, it represents an important thread linking
different parts of the course together. We’ll discuss how early Christian writers, like Augustine,
and medieval artists responded to the classical tradition of Greece and Rome, and we’ll see
how the medieval Italian poet, Dante, literally made use of Virgil as a character in his Divine
Comedy, as he created a Christian epic in the vernacular language, Italian. It may suggest
some reflection on how we still today make use of this past.
AENEAS: A ROMAN OR STOIC HERO IN THE MAKING
Virgil uses the figure of Aeneas to reflect upon the Roman hero. While many scenes invite
us to compare Aeneas with Homeric heroes like Achilleus, Hektor or Odysseus, there are
important differences. From the opening lines of the poem, Aeneas is characterized as a good
man who suffers. As he develops, he is portrayed as a man who must learn to dominate his
passions, suppress his own desires, and subordinate his own individual will to a larger divine
plan. In short, he must be willing to make and accept sacrifices to fulfill a destiny for the good
of his descendants. He must learn to embrace a “sense of duty”, the Roman virtue, pietas; he
must fulfill his duty to those to whom duty is owed: the gods, his father and son, his
descendants and, by extension, the future people of Rome. Whether Aeneas achieves this is a
question that is left open in the poem, and Virgil may be exploring the difficulty - or impossibility
- of fully becoming the sort of character who can tame the passions and subordinate the will for
a higher purpose.
Some of the characteristics that Aeneas displays - or aspires to - are consistent with Stoic
philosophy. Stoicism was a philosophy that gained popularity in the Hellenistic period. The
Greek philosopher, Zeno of Citium, was its founder (c. 300 B.C.), and it derived its name from
the Stoa Poikile - the painted porch, the place in Athens where he and his followers taught.
The philosophy became popular with Romans who focused upon its ethical aspects, and tried
to adapt its ethical precepts to the active lives and practical concerns of statesmen and
soldiers. Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor of the late second century A.D., wrote a
philosophical diary, the Meditations, that reflects his Stoic philosophy and expresses some of
its key tenets.
The Stoics held that the universe was rationally governed and it was the Stoic’s
responsibility to harmonize one’s own desires with what was good for the whole - whether that
refers to the order of things in nature or the social order. The image of the Body Politic
expresses this view well. Marcus Aurelius described it this way:
“We were born to labor together, like the feet, the hands, the eyes, and the rows of upper and
lower teeth. To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature, and to be angry
against a man or turn one’s back on him is to work against him.”
(Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, book II.1, translated by G.M.A. Grube, Hackett:
Indianapolis, 1983, p. 11)
For the Stoic, virtue is the only good, and one must learn to endure misfortunes, secure in the
knowledge that these are only apparent evils. This provides another answer to the issue raised
in so many works in the course - and posed by Virgil at the opening of the Aeneid: why do good
individuals suffer misfortunes? Marcus Aurelius writes:
“Neither through ignorance nor with knowledge could the nature of the Whole have neglected to
guard against this or correct it; nor through lack of power or skill could it have committed so
great a wrong, namely that good and evil should come to the good and the evil alike, and at
random. True, death and life, good and ill repute, toil and pleasure, wealth and poverty, being
neither good nor bad, come to the good and the bad equally. They are therefore neither
blessings nor evils.” (Meditations, II.11)
What on earth does that mean!? In effect, he is saying that, in a rationally governed universe, it
cannot be true that good and wicked individuals equally suffer good and ill fortune - as
Achilleus had suggested in his story of the urns of the Zeus. He accepts that those things
which people regard as misfortune - a bad reputation, labor, poverty, even death - do come to
the good and bad alike, but he concludes that, because of this, they cannot be truly bad and
must simply be endured. In other instances, he argues that we must remember that everything
that happens, happens for the good of the Whole, and we, as part of the Whole, benefit from
that:
“There is also Necessity and what is beneficial to the whole ordered universe of which you are
a part. That which is brought by the nature of the Whole, and preserves it, is good for every
part.” (Meditations II.3)
THE AENEID: REFLECTIONS ON ROMAN HISTORY
In the Aeneid, Aeneas’ destiny and that of Rome are presented as a divine plan unfolding
through history. This historical or political dimension of Virgil’s poem is one that also sets it
apart from Homer’s work. Virgil mentions nearly contemporary events like the battle of Actium
depicted on the Shield of Aeneas (8.874-929) or the death and funeral of Augustus’ nephew
and son-in-law, Marcellus (6.1148-82). By contrast, Homer never referred to specific events in
his own time, and, today, students of Homer and the oral tradition still puzzle over linguistic and
archaeological evidence in an effort to piece together the historical roots of the world he
describes. Later Greeks would try to link the Homeric stories with subsequent historical
events. The historian, Herodotus, saw the Trojan War as part of a chain of causes that
eventually led to the Persian Wars of the early fifth century B.C. Herodotus’ histories, Greek
tragedies and the public monuments of fifth century Athens show that the Greeks viewed the
Persian Wars as a clash of two contrasting cultures, and projected that view backwards onto
the Trojan War. In fact, when Alexander the Great launched his war of conquest against the
Persian Empire in 334 B.C., he is said to have visited the site of Troy. Where Homer had
described two peoples - the Greeks and Trojans - who worshipped the same gods and spoke
the same language, later Greeks came to see the Trojans as antecedents of the Persians, and
Priam as a distinctly Asian monarch.
Such efforts to link myth and history provided precedents for Virgil’s own work. Aeneas’
destiny merges with the future destiny of Rome, and Virgil incorporates prophecies, visions and
representations of Rome’s history - conceived of as the future of Aeneas’ descendants - into
the Aeneid. The conflicts between the Greeks and Trojans and the tragic love affair of Aeneas
and the queen of Carthage, Dido, become the roots of Rome’s later wars with Carthage and
Roman expansion into the Greek world. This allows Virgil to use the poem to reflect upon two
great facts of Roman history: the establishment of a world-empire through military power, and
the collapse of the institutions of the Roman Republic in a century of bloody chaos and civil
strife. Virgil examines the cost and consequences of Rome’s achievements, and he raises
questions about the future of a people whose past has been characterized by such violence.