Virgil’s Aeneid

Summary

Virgil’s poetic masterpiece, The Aeneid, tells of the plight of Aeneas and a group of Trojans as they sail across the Mediterranean Sea in search of Rome. Their homeland, the city of Troy, has been destroyed by the Greeks. As the group near closer to their destination, they are thrown off course by a ferocious storm and end up docked on in Carthage. Despite their uninvited arrival, Aeneas and his group are welcomed by Dido, the queen and founder of Carthage. Aeneas and Dido discuss, in great lengths, the tragic and tiresome journey that the group has experienced thus far.

Aeneas relates to her the story of the sack of Tray that brought the Trojan war to a halt after nearly a decade under siege by the Greeks. In the end, the Trojans were duped when they accepted a ‘gift’ of a wooden horse, that once passed the city walls, was found to host many Greek soldiers. He shares with her how he was able to flee the burning city, along with his father and his son, and also tells of the gods that represent their lost city.

Aeneas had been promised by the gods that should he set sail for Italy, he would be met by the promise of a fruitful future. Based on this, he gathered the remaining inhabitants of Troy and set sail. The group was met with several challenges along the way. On more than one occasion, they had attempted to rebuild their fallen city, only to be chased away by plagues and curses. They had been hexed by Harpies; half women half bird creatures. However, that was not to say that they had not encountered friendly men as well. It wasn’t until the loss of his father, Achises, and a course of horrible weather, that they had made their way to Carthage.

Notably impressed by the tales of Aeneas’s travels and adventures, Dido was sympathetic to the suffering that the group had endured. She herself, a Pheonician Princess by birth, had been forced to flee her home after her husband met an untimely fate at the hands of her own brother. It wasn’t long after the group’s arrival to Carthage that Dido fell in love with Aeneas. The pair cohabitated as lovers, briefly, until Aeneas receives a reminder from the gods that his main purpose is to build a new city to replace the one that his people had lost. With this in mind, he pledges to set sail. The news of her lover’s departure causes great despair for Dido, who orders a massive pyre to be constructed with the possessions that Aeneas had left behind. Upon completion, Dido climbs upon the pyre, takes out a sword that had belonged to her lost love, and kills herself.

The Trojans battle a scourge of bad weather along their course for Italy, and again find themselves blown off course – this time ending up in Sicily. Here they host funeral games to celebrate the honor of Anchises. The female Trojans, irritated with the journey, band together and set fire to the ships, however, the fires dissipate when it begins to rain. Many of the sick, and those who can no longer bare to travel, stay behind, while Aeneas – who is refreshed after a spiritly visit from his father – continue on towards Italy.

As they arrive, Aeneas is taken to the underworld by the Sibyl of Cumae, with the promise of visiting his father. He is witness to the pageant of the future and the heroes of Rome. This vision will aid him in better understanding the immense importance of his mission. After returning from the underworld, the Trojans continue their journey and travel up the coast of Latium.

Initially, their arrival to Italy is a peaceful one. The leader of Italy, King Latinus, offers his hospitality to the group, believing that Aeneas is the foreigner that was said to marry his daughter, Lavinia, in a prophecy. However, the king’s wife, Amata, has other plans. She wishes for their daughter to wed Turnus, a local gentleman. Amata, along with Turnus, begin to plot against the Trojan. Meanwhile, the son of Aeneas, Ascanius, accidentally kills the pet of a local herdsman, mistaking it for a wild stag. This accidental hunt prompt a fight between the Trojans and a group of locals and several people lose their lives. Turnus uses this as an opportunity to wage war against the newcomers.

At the suggestion of the river god, Tiberinus, Aeneas sets sail northward to request the aid of the military and also neighboring tribes. On his journey, he is gifted a new set of weapons from his mother, Venus. These are delivered by Vulcan. Using the absence of the Trojan leader as an opportunity to attack, Turnus instructs his men to take down the Trojans. When Aeneas returns, he finds his countrymen entwined in battle. When Pallas, the son of one of Aeneas’s newest friends, Evander, is murdered by Turnus, Aeneas flies into a fit of rage, and the bodies of the fallen continue to add up.

Not wanting to see any more men lose their lives, the two sides agree to come to a truce so that they may bury the fallen. In a bid to spare any further unnecessary destruction, the leaders agree to a fight to the death between Turnus and Aeneas. As the men prepare to dual, however, their supporters begin to argue and a full blown battle ensues.  Aeneas receives a slight wound, but the Trojans still have control. As they rush the enemy city, Turnus rushes out to fight Aeneas, who conflicted with the decision to spare Turnus; however, Aeneas ends up delivering a fatal blow after remembering how his opponent had killed Pallas.

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Character Analysis

The Living

Aeneas: The primary protagonist of the poem, the Aeneid. Aeneas is one of the last surviving inhabitants of the city of Troy. Characteristically he is a pious man, with a strong fear of the gods. In addition to being a fearless warrior, he is a steadfast leader, capable of motivating his followers regardless of what dangers they might be up against. However, despite his strong disposition, he is also capable of showing great compassion for his fellow men. He believes that he is destined to rebuild his fallen city and become the founder of the Roman race in Italy. It is this belief that guides him on his journey, and prevents him from backing down, regardless of what he encounters. Virgil’s the Aeneid is largely about his epic adventure from Troy to Italy, and his intent to fulfill his destiny.

Dido: Dido is the queen and founding mother of Carthage; a city in Tunisia. And, the former lover of Aeneas. Dido sought refuge after her husband was murdered by her brother, Pygmalion. She has created a strong and sustainable city, however, becomes a victim of circumstance when she gets caught in the middle of a battle of the gods when they insist that Aeneas must fulfill his destiny. In the end, it is her love for Aeneas that causes her demise. Unable to compete with his devotion to the gods, she kills herself with his sword when he leaves to continue his journey.

Turnus: Turnus is the leader of the Rutulians, and the most prevalent human antagonist. With the aid of her mother, Turnus vows to marry Lavinia – until her father feels that Aeneas would be better suited. It is this rivalry that causes him to take up arms against the Trojan men, resulting in a full blown war. Despite the willingness of Latinus to allow the Trojans to settle in Latium, and Turnus’s understanding the fate will always prevail, the men battle to the bitter end.

Ascanius: Ascanius is the child born to Aeneas and his first wife, Creusa. Also known as lululs, he is a true testament to the importance of Aeneas completing his mission. Despite being merely a child, Ascanius is presented with several opportunities over the course of their journey to prove himself to be years ahead of his age in terms of bravery and leadership. In Book V, he leads a group of boys and helps to defend the Trojan camp in his father’s absence.

Anchises: Anchises is Aeneas’s father, he passes away at the start of their journey for Italy. Despite his passing, he continues to aid his son in spirit form, and guides him through the underworld, helping him to see the true importance of fulfilling his destiny.

Creusa: The first wife of Aeneas, and also the mother of Ascanius. Creusa loses her life when the city falls, however, as she is dying, she pleads with her husband to take a new wife once he rebuilds the city.

Sinon: Sinon is a Greek youth, who under false pretences, insists that he had been left behind at the end of the Trojan war. Sinon convinces the Trojans to bring in a wooden horse as a gift of peace to Minerva. However, once inside the walls, he opens the belly of the horse to reveal dozens of Greek warriors that had been hiding inside.

Latinus: Latinus is the king of the Latins in Italy. He welcomes Aeneas and the Trojans into his kingdom and tries to persuade Aeneas to become a suitor for his daughter. This sparks resentment and leads to a war. Latinus firmly respects the gods and believes in fate, but is unable to control his own people.

Lavinia: Lavinia is the daughter of the king, she is symbolic of the entire Latium community. Her character is not strongly developed in the poem, her only value is as an object in the struggle between the Trojans and the Latins. Determining who will marry her – Aeneas or Turnus – is the entire historical scheme of the poem.

Amata: Amata is the queen of Latium. She is deeply against the idea of Aeneas marrying her daughter, and pledges her loyalty to Turnus. In the end, when it becomes obvious that Aeneas will win, she kills herself.

The Gods

Juno: Juno is the Queen of the gods, and the sister and wife of Jupiter. She is also the daughter of Saturn. Juno despises the Trojans because a Trojan voted against her in a beauty pageant.

Venus: Venus is known as the goddess of love, and she is also the mother of Aeneas. She is a benefactor of the Trojan people and comes to the aid of her son whenever he is under the attack of Juno. This causes turmoil amongst the gods.

Jupiter: Known as the King of the gods, Jupiter is the son of Saturn. Where other gods often battle against one another, Jupiter is seen as being supreme. He is the leading force of Aeneas journey to fulfill his fate – and the reason that the group never fully succumbs to the forces that work against them. Jupiter is calculated and rational, unlike Juno and Venus.

Neptune: Neptune is the god of the sea, and an ally of Aeneas and his mother, Venus. It is Neptune who stalls the storm that rages against Aeneas towards the end of his voyage.

Mercury: Mercury is the messenger. The other gods will typically call upon him when they have a message to deliver to Aeneas.

Aeolos: Aeolos is the god of the winds, he plots against the Trojans in Book I.

Allecto: Allecto is the avenger of sins, summoned by Juno in Book 6 to encourage the Latins to start a war with the Trojans.

Vulcan: Vulcan is the fire god, and the husband of Venus. Vulcan creates an indestructible set of weapons for Aeneas for use in his battle against Turnus.

Themes

There are several themes present in the Aeneid. The most prevalent are The Dominance of Fate, The Suffering of the Lost, and the Power of the Romans.

The Dominance of Fate

Throughout the entire poem, Aeneas is guided by the principle to fulfill his fate. Despite encountering tremendous suffering on his journey, and experiencing many victories, his course remains unchanged. His end goal is always to achieve his destiny. The will to meet his fate is far greater than the fear of the gods and any of the supernatural elements that they may call upon to knock him off course. Often times, he is guided by Jupiter, one of the most powerful gods. Jupiter is said to be more steadfast than the other gods, meaning that he is capable of combating the interference of the lesser gods and aiding the Trojans on their journey.

Throughout the poem, the main characters see various heights of development, each following out their own destiny. Turnus and Juno fight against their perceived destiny with every chance they get. However, in the end, this leads to their downfall. Dido has a strong desire to wed Aeneas, and finds herself denied by his own commitment to fate – this leaves her grief stricken.

The Suffering of the Voyagers

The first half of the poem tells the tale of the Trojans as they journey from Troy to Italy. Historically, people were drawn to familial loyalty and never went far from home. This was partly due to the fact that someone’s homeland become a true part of who they were. For example: Helen of Troy.

Becoming homeless was equal to becoming nameless. The author, Virgil, further ads to the struggles of the Trojans as he writes them into situations that cause them to be at the pure mercy of supernatural or worldly forces. On the Mediterranean Sea, they find their ship battered by tremendous storms, they are put in dire situations where they must regularly determine which direction to travel, with little clues as to where they actually are. Every time the Trojan’s dock on a new land, they are surrounded by unfamiliar territory and are unsure of what awaits them. The audience knows what is in store, but the Trojans are left to wander aimlessly, at the mercy of the gods and fate.

The Power of the Romans

Virgil penned the Aeneid during the Golden Age of the Roman Empire, while the area was still under the rein of Caesar Augustus. It was his objective to create a fictional account of the origin of Rome that would highlight the success of the empire that had conquered most of the world as it was known at the time. The poem routinely leans towards this cultural pinnacle. Aeneas can even be seen justifying the Trojan’s settlement in Latium in a manner similar to the Roman empire’s justification of its settlement of several territories. The author works in reverse, aligning political and social connections of his day with adopted Greek mythology of gods and heroes, to highlight one as being derived from the other.

Symbols

Flames: Fire plays an important role in the play. It is symbolic not only of erotic love or desire, but also of destruction and ruin. Under the imagery of flames, Virgil is able to explain how one relates to the other, and how both are connected. The desire the Paris has for Helen is what essentially causes the fires of the battle of Troy. When Dido confides in her sister that she is in love with Aeneas, she says “I recognize the signs of the old flame, of old desire.”

The Golden Bough: The priestess of Apollo, Sibyl, states that the golden bough is a symbol that Aeneas is required to carry in order to descend to the underworld. Since mortals are not often permitted to the underworld, the golden bough alerts others that he is privileged.

The Gates of War: The opening of the gates signifies the start of the war. This is a custom the Virgil would have seen in his own lifetime. The fact that Juno, rather than a king or another mortal, opens the gates symbolizes how the gods use men to settle fight their battles. The gates are said to be symbolic of the chaos and destruction in the world.

Quotes

“I sing of warfare and a man at war:

From the sea-cost of Troy in early days

He came to Italy by destiny,

To our Lavinian western shore,

A fugitive, this captain, buffeted.

Till her could found a city and bring home

His gods to Laetium, land of the Latin race,

The Alban lords, and the high walls of Rome.

Tell me the causes now. O Muse, how galled.

From her old wound, the queen of gods compelled him”

These are the infamous opening passages from the poem. In the first half of the poem, Aeneas wanders in search of a new home and in the second half, he fights to establish his new found homeland.

“Did you suppose, my father,

That I could tear myself away and leave you?

Unthinkable; how could a father say it?

Now if it pleases the powers about that nothing

Stand of this great city; if your heart

Is set on adding your own death and ours

To that of Troy, the doors wide open for it.”

(II.857-863)

Taken from book 2, this quote precedes the fleeing of Troy, while Aeneas carries his father on his back. It is now that readers recognize Aeneas’s piety and his sense of commitment to his father. Aeneas reaffirms to his father that he is patriarch of those remaining and should he resign himself to death, he would be sealing the fate of all of those who stood beside him. It is these words that pull the elder from his pit of self-loathing and convince him to resume his rightful role as a leader. Even after death, Anchises is called upon to guide and mentor his son.

Key Facts

Full Title: The Aeneid

Author: Virgil

Type of Writing: Poem

Genre: Mythological epic

Original Language of Publication: Latin

Time of Writing: 20. B.C, in either Rome or Greece

Date of Initial Publication: The author passed away in 19 BC, prior to the completion of the poem. It was published after his death.

Narrator: In books 2 and 3, Aeneas is the narrator. However, mostly it is Virgil.

Plot Setting: The end of the Trojan War, 1000 BC

Location: In the Mediterranean; Asia Minor, Tunisia, Italy

Primary Character: Aeneas

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