Virgil's Aeneid

From Gerald R. Lucas

Virgil’s Aeneid recounts events after the fall of Troy (9th century BCE), and written as a secondary, or literary, epic by Virgil in 14CE. Out of the destruction of Troy came an heroic figure who would found a new state. The Aeneid is a story of return that is providentially ruled by the gods. Aeneas’ story is one of founding and rebirth that is very different from the Homeric epics, but borrows from them in important ways.

The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, 1766.

Virgil uses the Greek tradition of the epic, but made it a Roman expression; he wanted to find a place in the Greek history without claiming kinship — to disassociate by association. Aeneas, having been saved by Poseidon from certain death at the hands of Achilles in book twenty of the Iliad (“it is destined that he shall be a survivor”), provided Virgil (and the Romans) a link to the rich tradition begun by the Greeks.

Virgil wrote the Aeneid for Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome. He recast the traditional Roman foundation story in its enduring form in order to authenticate the Roman myth by tying it to the past. It presents the Roman ideals and their mission: to conquer the known world by a sense of duty to family, state, and the gods (pietas).

The Aeneid is an epic of social and national heroism. Pietas means a sense of duty to community that the Romans cherished above all values. Aeneas, unlike his Homeric predecessors, exemplifies the true hero: one who sacrifices his own desires in favor of the good of the community. Turnus represents the old ways of the Greeks that must be overcome (by violence) so that the new order may begin.

The journey of Aeneas is typical in an epical tradition. In the Aeneid, Virgil presents the founding of a new empire and the story of its patriarch by manipulating history to show the influence of Greek culture on the Romans, but also to illustrate Rome’s new order and the death of Greek/Trojan ideology and way of life. Aeneas, the typical epic hero, must found the new empire by killing the old, and its representative, Turnus.

Aeneas, in the tradition of the epic hero, is partially-divine, being the son of Anchises and Venus and is the quintessence of his people. His education was achieved in the Trojan War, where he discovered that he is to found a new kingdom. With his quest clear, he sets out for Latium and encounters many trials along the way, his personal love for Dido being the most difficult to overcome in lieu of his destiny. His descent to the Underworld solidifies his destiny by showing him the numerous heroes of Rome waiting to be born. Finally, Aeneas is reborn and able to fulfill his destiny by defeating Turnus.

Turnus is the symbolic representation of the Greek culture — a culture that Aeneas and his men must defeat to begin their new empire. Turnus, while he may influence the flow of events, is ultimately unable to stop Aeneas from destroying the past ideologies that he represents. Turnus’ death is, therefore, necessary in Aeneas’ quest/destiny to found a new kingdom.

Dido by Heinrich Friedrich Füger, 1792.

Another obstacle in Aeneas’ journey is Dido. Dido, unlike Turnus, is a very real character, and is therefore a very real threat to Aeneas and his quest. Dido represents a threat to community and duty by offering Aeneas a private life and love. Aeneas momentarily forgets his duty to his people and indulges his own, personal desires. Their relationship is full of the complexities that make Dido more than just a two-dimensional character. Yet, personal love is cast aside in pursuit of communal efficacy. Aeneas is successful in leaving behind the one and embracing the many.

In the brief portraits of Turnus and Dido, Aeneas is shown to be relentless in his goal to form a new empire in Latium. The death of Turnus and Dido are instances where Virgil structurally bridges the gap between the past and present of Rome. Other instances that show the future of Rome include Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld and the description of Aeneas’ shield. As mentioned above, Aeneas sees the future glory of Rome by witnessing the birth procession of its great leaders and heroes from those who had been great before. Notice that Aeneas is in the Elysian Fields, the part of the Underworld reserved for great warriors; therefore, the future Romans are to be just as great. But not too great, for the boy who stands next to Marcellus is only to be shown to the earth and no more; Rome would become too powerful if they were to be blessed with this person. There is a sort of elegy before birth for both this boy and Rome. Aeneas’ shield portrays “the story of Italy and the triumphs of the Romans.” Aeneas saw the future heroes of Rome in the Underworld and realized their accomplishments on his shield.

Virgil, in writing the Aeneid, was able to manipulate historical events into the epical founding of Rome. The Aeneid both glorifies Virgil’s Rome while romanticizing its genesis linked to the Trojans and their rich, mythical culture. Virgil tied Rome’s roots with the Greek world portrayed in Homer and, yet, still created something novel and compelling in its own right.