The Aeneid by Virgil

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  • 1:32 Rome's Glorious Destiny
  • 2:27 The Good Guy and the Villain
  • 4:41 From Troy to Carthage:…
  • 10:09 Journey to the Underworld
  • 15:41 Aeneas in Italy: A Mini-Iliad
  • 17:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson explores Virgil's 'Aeneid'. It consists of a brief plot synopsis. We stop along the way to look at a few important scenes and offer analysis where necessary.

The Aeneid: A New Epic for a New Age

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.

Rome's Glorious Destiny

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.

The Good Guy: Aeneas, a Roman Hero

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.

The Villain: Juno, a Vengeful Goddess

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.

The goddess Juno torments Aeneas throughout the story.
Juno Villian to Aeneas

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.

From Troy to Carthage: A Mini-Odyssey

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.

Aeneas tried to save his family during the destruction of Troy.
Aeneas Saving People at Troy

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.

The Widow Dido

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.

Journey to the Underworld

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.

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