Back To CourseWestern Civilization I: Help and Review
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The Aeneid is an epic poem written by the Roman poet Virgil between 29 and 19 BCE. Virgil composed this epic for his patron, Augustus Caesar, the first Emperor of Rome. Augustus wanted the Romans to have an epic of their own, a story that would be to Rome what the Iliad and Odyssey were to Greece. He wanted to give the Romans a glorious and ancient history full of Roman virtue and foreshadowing Rome's future glory. Yet Augustus's motives were not simply nationalistic.
While Virgil was writing his epic, Augustus was in the process of replacing the ancient Roman Republic with a new sort of government, the Principate, in which Augustus controlled all aspects of the empire. A lot of people were unhappy about this change of events. The Republic was an ancient and revered institution. Augustus needed a way to make himself and his new government even more ancient, even more revered.
This was the task Augustus set before Virgil. 'Write me a Roman epic glorifying the Roman people and Roman virtue. Oh, and be sure to work me, my lineage and my agenda into it.' So Virgil set about weaving the Romans and Augustus into the mythical world of Greek epic. The result was the Aeneid.
In the Aeneid, Virgil tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan hero from Homer's Iliad. Aeneas is the son of the goddess Venus and the distant ancestor of Augustus's family, the Julians. Virgil's tale recounts Aeneas' quest to establish a new city for the Trojan people. From the beginning, we learn that Aeneas is destined to settle in Italy and give rise to the mighty Roman Empire, to whom all nations and people look in awe and wonder.
This is the will of Jupiter, king of the gods, and it is immutable. Though men or gods might struggle against this fate, they can only delay the inevitable. Thus, from the beginning, Virgil establishes Augustus's family as the founders of Rome. It is Aeneas' destiny to leave behind the rubble of the old and lead his people to a new and glorious future.
Aeneas accepts this destiny, though he does not understand it. All he knows is that this is the will of the gods. Throughout the story, Aeneas is tempted to turn from his quest by the frustration of mounting catastrophes or by the enticement of a friendly port. Yet Aeneas accepts the suffering and hardship. He ignores the deepest wishes of his heart and obeys the will of the gods.
This makes Aeneas a very different hero from his Greek counterparts. Achilles is so selfish that he lets his comrades die as he sulks about a slight to his pride. Odysseus left Troy with scores of Greeks under his command. By the time he got to Ithaca, he was the only one left alive. Aeneas is a different sort of hero altogether. Where Odysseus is selfish, Aeneas is selfless. Where Achilles struggles against his fate, Aeneas accepts his destiny.
Yet not all the characters in the Aeneid are so stalwart and fatalistic as Aeneas. Several important characters spend the story fighting tooth and nail against the will of Jupiter. The foremost of these is Jupiter's wife, Juno.
Juno has it out for Aeneas and his Trojans. Juno lost a sort of goddess beauty contest to Venus, Aeneas' mother. This divine beauty pageant indirectly led to the Trojan War. Yet even with Troy sacked, Juno is still not satisfied with her revenge. Moreover, Juno is aware of Jupiter's plans for Aeneas and the Romans. She knows that Rome will grow into a mighty empire and destroy Carthage someday, and Juno is a big fan of Carthage.
For these reasons, Juno is determined to keep Aeneas from his destiny. So when Aeneas and his small fleet of Trojan refugees approach Italy, Juno persuades Aeolus, the god of winds, to drive Aeneas away from his goal. Aeolus complies, and a mighty storm scatters the Trojans. Aeneas and his few remaining ships are driven south, where they wreck off the coast of Libya.
Coming to the shore, they see a grand new city going up on the coast, its walls just rising from their foundations. Aeneas, the father of Rome, has found himself wrecked on the coast of Rome's greatest rival, Carthage.
There they meet the Queen of Carthage, the widow Dido. Dido welcomes Aeneas, the Trojan hero whose exploits are known and renowned in her city. Dido is curious why the Trojans are still wandering so many years after the fall of Troy. So Aeneas tells her the story of their adventures.
He begins by recapping the fall of Troy from the Trojan perspective. This account seems mainly concerned with explaining why the Trojans were stupid enough to roll a giant wooden horse full of Greek soldiers into their city. The trick was, apparently, a conspiracy of gods and men. The Greeks left a single man behind - Simon. Simon told the Trojans that the Greeks had angered the goddess Minerva by defiling one of her temples. The wooden horse was their way of getting back in the goddess's good favor. The Greeks wanted the Trojans to burn the horse to the ground because then Minerva would shift her anger to the Trojans. What the Greeks didn't want was for the Trojans to bring the horse into the city. If they did that, Minerva would shift her favor to the Trojans, and the Trojans would conquer the Greeks in turn.
This reverse psychology did not fool the Trojan high priest, Laocoon, who said, 'What, are you stupid? That thing is full of soldiers!' and hurled a spear at the horse. Minerva, however, had never been angry at the Greeks; she was their ally in their trick. Minerva sent a pair of serpents, who devoured Laocoon and his children, before slithering to rest beneath the shrine of Minerva. This was enough evidence for the Trojans, who obediently dragged the horse into their town. As Laocoon had predicted, the horse was indeed full of murderous Greeks who waited until nightfall to kill off the guards and throw open the gates to the forces amassed outside. Realizing his city was lost, Aeneas struggled to save as many people as he could. Though he was able to save his father Anchises and many of his countrymen, Aeneas lost his wife in the chaos and bloodshed.
With no time to even mourn their dead, Aeneas and his countrymen fled to sea. After a brief stopover in Thrace, where they heard of the treachery of the Thracian king - thereby justifying Rome's later conquest of Thrace - Aeneas and his people made it to the island of Delos. There, Apollo, the god of prophecy, told Aeneas he must settle in the land of his forefathers. Anchises, Aeneas' father, interpreted this as a command to settle on the island of Crete, whence the Trojans traced their heritage. Yet when the Trojans settled on Crete, they were struck by plague. Aeneas' ancestral gods visited him in a dream to tell him that his true homeland was Italy. It turns out that the valiant Trojans were actually Italians. This concept probably surprised the Romans of Virgil's age as much as it did Aeneas.
Yet with his mission clear at last, Aeneas left Crete for Italy. Along his path, he encountered many of the same horrors as Odysseus: the sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, and the cyclops. In this section, we see a clear comparison between the Greek hero Odysseus and the Roman hero Aeneas. Where Odysseus sacrificed his men to sail through the twin dangers Scylla and Charybdis, Aeneas was unwilling to make this sacrifice and wisely sailed around. Where Odysseus left men behind to be eaten by cyclopses, Aeneas rescued those men and took them with him.
As Aeneas finishes his tale, Dido is moved by Aeneas' story. Dido is impressed by Aeneas' bravery and piety. Dido is stricken by Aeneas' beauty. In short, Dido is head-over-heels in love with Aeneas. Aeneas seems to return the feeling, and the two spend a rainy day making love in a cave. After this tryst, Dido assumes that they are married. Aeneas and his people will settle in Carthage and take honored places.
Aeneas, however, is aware that he cannot stay in Carthage. Aeneas wants to stay, but the gods make it clear that his destiny lies in Italy, not Africa. As Aeneas sails away, Dido jumps onto a huge pyre and runs herself through with a sword, cursing Aeneas with her dying breath.
The doomed romance of Dido and Aeneas became one of the most enduring themes in Western literature, on par with Romeo and Juliet. With this tale, Virgil was attempting to explain Rome's strange relationship with Carthage. When Rome was small and powerless, it received significant aid from the Carthaginians, yet as Rome's power and ambition grew, its old ally became its chief rival. Rome eventually utterly destroyed Carthage. Virgil's account suggests that they still felt a little bit of cultural guilt over this betrayal.
Though stricken with grief for Dido, Aeneas leads his Trojans to Sicily, where they hold funeral games in honor of Aeneas' father, Anchises, who died on the journey to Carthage. Anchises visits Aeneas in a vision and tells his son that he has one epic journey left to make before he can settle in Italy. Aeneas must visit the underworld.
In his description of the underworld, Virgil follows an ancient tradition of epic. Odysseus made a similar trip to the land of the dead in the Odyssey, and in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu sees the underworld in a dream. Virgil's account is far more vivid than any of his predecessors, and it would provide inspiration for later Christian writers like Dante. With Apollo's prophetess, the Sibyl, to lead the way, Aeneas passes into the underworld. There he sees how souls are divided in the afterlife.
People who were not buried properly cannot cross the river Acheron to enter the underworld. This seems sort of like a precursor to the Catholic notion of Limbo. Across the river Acheron, the recently deceased line up before Minos for judgment, just as Christians expect to stand before the judgment of God. Beyond the great king lay the Field of War Heroes, where the shades of fallen Greeks scurry in fear from Aeneas, and the Field of Mourning, where those who died for love wander in grief, among them the recently departed Dido, who gives Aeneas the cold shoulder when he tries to apologize for breaking her heart.
When Aeneas gets to the Fortress of Rhadamanthus, we gain a special insight into the morals of Rome, or at least the morals Augustus wanted for Rome. As Aeneas watches people pushing boulders uphill or being flayed alive, he asks the Sibyl who are these sinners to deserve such awful punishments.
The Sibyl replies:
'Here in a prison-house awaiting doom
Are men who hated, long as life endured,
Their brothers, or maltreated their gray sires,
Or tricked a humble friend; the men who grasped
At hoarded riches, with their kith and kin
Not sharing ever - an unnumbered throng;
Here slain adulterers be; and men who dared
To fight in unjust cause, and break all faith
With their own lawful lords...
Yon traitor sold his country, and for gold
Enchained her to a tyrant, trafficking
In laws, for bribes enacted or made void;
Another did incestuously take
His daughter for a wife in lawless bonds.
All ventured some unclean, prodigious crime;
And what they dared, achieved. I could not tell,
Not with a hundred mouths, a hundred tongues,
Or iron voice, their divers shapes of sin,
Nor call by name the myriad pangs they bear.'
Here we see the primary sins of Rome under Augustus:
Sins against the family
Sins against your fellow man
Sins against the state
Yet Virgil's underworld is not just a place to punish the sinful. It is a place of purification. Once souls have their sins stripped away through ages of torture, they make their way to the peaceful Elysian Fields, where the blessed souls reside. This makes the underworld sound a lot like Purgatory and the Elysian Fields a lot like Heaven.
It is important to remember that Virgil's epic was written decades before Jesus ever drew breath. Christianity drew a great deal of inspiration from Virgil, and it is no surprise that Dante would use Virgil as his guide in his own account of the afterlife, the Divine Comedy.
In the Elysian Fields, Aeneas is reunited with his dead father, who has a special treat for him. Before them, a line of spirits await reincarnation. Anchises informs Aeneas that these are his descendants waiting their chance to be reborn. With the foresight of the dead, Anchises tells Aeneas the fate of each, from Aeneas' son and grandson, to Romulus who would found Rome, all the way to Augustus, the proud emperor of a glorious empire. Now, at last, Aeneas understands what he is fighting for. He knows why he could not settle in Crete or Carthage. Aeneas sees the glorious destiny of the Romans and his progeny, and he knows that all of his struggles and suffering will be worthwhile.
As Aeneas makes his way out of the underworld and toward his destiny, the epic reaches its halfway point and Virgil changes gears. If the first half of the Aeneid was meant to be a Roman Odyssey, with travels and adventures, the second half of the epic was meant to be a Roman Iliad, with warfare and bloodshed.
Once Aeneas arrives in Italy, Latinus, the king of the Latins, offers Aeneas his daughter Lavinia in marriage. Unfortunately, princess Lavinia is betrothed to a Latin warlord named Turnus. In the end, like Paris, Aeneas has stolen a princess. However, unlike Paris, Aeneas isn't just some pretty boy with a roving eye. Aeneas is a hero with a destiny.
This conflict between Aeneas and Turnus is established at the beginning of the second section. It is absolutely clear that Aeneas and Turnus are going to have a duel to the death. Yet every time the two seem ready to fight, Juno intervenes. She seems to realize that she cannot stop Aeneas from achieving his destiny, but she is intent on delaying him and making him suffer. Virgil drags this conflict out over six books.
Unfortunately, Virgil does not seem so inspired in this second half of the Aeneid as he was in the first. It almost seems like he's just going through the motions. As we saw above, the underlying conflict is essentially the same as the Iliad: a Trojan steals a princess, battle ensues. Yet Virgil doesn't seem to be adapting Homer as much as he's simply copying the great Greek bard.
Just like in the Iliad, the tide of battle sweeps back and forth as various heroes take the field. Just as Achilles' companion Patroclus fought valiantly and died, leading Achilles on a killing spree, Aeneas' companion Pallas fought valiantly and died, leading Aeneas to a killing spree. Aeneas' mother Venus provides her son with a divinely-crafted shield worked with intricate detail, just like Achilles' mother Thetis did in the Iliad. And just as the Iliad ends with the death of the enemy, Hector, the Aeneid ends with the death of the enemy, Turnus.
Though Virgil ended the Aeneid rather lamely, he had achieved the goals set before him by his patron, Augustus. Virgil had created an epic for the Roman people, a story so like the Iliad and Odyssey that entire sections might as well be quoted, at least in the second half.
Yet Virgil also showed some remarkable creativity. He turned some of these Greek heroes on their heads to contrast the Roman virtues of Aeneas to the Greek virtues of Odysseus and Achilles. He offered the most vivid glimpse of the afterlife ever offered by a poet. And, most importantly to his patron, Virgil deftly wove Augustus's family and agenda into his story, granting Augustus's new regime the legitimacy of the ancients and the reverence of myth.
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Back To CourseWestern Civilization I: Help and Review
17 chapters | 308 lessons