This was for my class on Hellenistic Greece and Rome. I was supposed to read the Aeneid, then write a paper explaining what it was about about what it tells us about Rome.
The Aeneid is a military adventure story in the epic poem format written by Roman poet Virgil. As with much Roman art, it derives its form from classical Greek works. It is uses settings and characters from Homer’s classical Greek epics, the Iliad and The Odyssey, though it tells an original story. The Aeneid is a patriotic work, despite being set in the pre-Roman era as it supposes the Trojan hero Aeneas, son of Venus, to be the ancestor of the Romans and an idealized representative of Rome itself. It tells the story of his long journey across the Mediterranean, then his war against the Latins in Italy to establish the city Lavinium as a new home for the Trojans.
Troy’s connections to Rome are surely mythical, rather than historical. Virgil himself seems to have been aware of this. He added this element to the story in order to give Rome it own epic set in the golden age of heroism. Greece had long been a cultural leader in the western world, creating poetry, sculptures and artwork that influenced their neighbors. Greece’s culture was defined largely by belief in a time in the past when gods interacted directly with men and heroes were larger than life. By the time Virgil wrote, Rome was the new world power, but their religion, philosophy and art were all highly derivative of Greek forms. If Rome were the modern incarnation of Greece’s rival Troy, however, that meant Rome had always existed apart from Greece and had its own great heroes and great destiny. Even as Virgil borrowed from Greek works, he established his independence of them. It also gave Rome a historical connection to monarchism rather than it being a recent change.
The Aeneid opens with Troy in crisis. The city itself was destroyed by the invading Greeks as related in The Iliad before the story even began. The survivors, led by Aeneas, fled on ships across the Mediterranean, but barely one-hundred lines into the poem, the god Aeolus sent a storm and sank a number of the ships, killing many of Aeneas’s companions. Still, we are immediately reassured that this is a temporary setback. Despite Troy’s defeat and the near-annihilation of the Trojans, Rome’s future is assured. At the time Virgil wrote, Rome had just been through a series of destructive civil wars and was invaded several times by its own armies. He was using the story of Troy to argue that these hopeless and troubled periods are necessary to establish future prosperity.
When Virgil wrote about the promise of Rome, he wasn’t only speaking about the past, but the future. War was a necessary evil, but a passing one. Much as Aeneas’s eventual victory was assured, so was peace for Rome as it had the divine favor of the gods, including their king, Jupiter. While a few gods opposed Rome, most notably Juno, who knew Romans would eventually destroy her favored city, Carthage, this really only served to increased their cosmic importance as the gods fought over them.
Fate is a major theme in the Aeneid. Virgil, of course, could easily assign fates to characters as he was writing from their future. He gave Jupiter a speech at the beginning of the story laying out Rome’s destiny. Aeneas would conquer the barbarians of Italy, setting up cities and civil institutions. He added that Ascanius, son of Aeneas, derived his surname from his former city Ilium, or Troy. Through a bit of linguistic sleight-of-hand, Virgil transformed this to Iülus, or Julius. By doing this, he presented Julius Caesar not only as the descendant of the hero Aeneas, and by association, Venus, but made him the embodiment of Rome itself. Much as Aeneas’s war would civilize Italy, Caesar’s Rome would inevitably bring wealth and peace to the world and through its wise leadership, end war altogether. Notably, even Carthage would be rebuilt and welcome the Romans.
Later, in the procession of future Roman souls in Elysium, Virgil presented an even grander vision of Rome’s future. Julius Caesar’s heir, Caesar Augustus, he said, would expand Rome’s benevolence even farther, reaching outside the world and into the heavens and usher in a new golden age. Rome’s ultimately destiny, he said, was to rule the world, spread peace and the arts and replace tyranny with more egalitarian societies.
To Virgil, fate wasn’t just capricious. Aeneas earned success through virtue and the gods’ favor merely reflected this. The gods are present throughout the story and heavily involved in human affairs. Minerva helped trick the Trojans into taking the infamous wooden horse into their walls, leading to their destruction. Juno tried numerous tactics to destroy Aeneas or keep him away from Italy, while Venus tried to keep her son safe. This led the two of them to conspire to keep Aeneas in Carthage and pair him with Dido, each for her own reasons, until Jupiter sent Mercury to return him to his mission. Before Aeneas went to war at the end of the story, Vulcan gave Aeneas an elaborate set of armor with a shield depicting the future of Rome. Aeneas remained humble and pious throughout. Despite Juno’s attempts to kill him, he never cursed her, was happy to find her temple and later made sacrifices to her. Throughout the whole story, Aeaneas was respectful to the gods and faithfully executed their directives, even though he was occasionally reluctant to do so, such as when he was told he had to leave Dido and Carthage. He never was so presumptuous as to question the will of the gods. For the bulk of the war against the Latins, Jupiter banned all divine intervention, leaving Aeneas and the Trojans to succeed through their own mettle. The gods guided Aeneas to his destiny, but he ultimately was responsible for his own victory.
We can see similar qualities in Aeneas’s relationship with his father, Anchises. This seems to be the most emotional relationship Aeneas had. He wept upon meeting him in the underworld and regarded him with a potent mix of love, commitment and admiration befitting an exemplary member of a highly patriarchal society. Only his love for his own son, Ascanius and his lost wife Creusa seemed to rival this relationship.
Dido, however, let her passions override her sense of duty. Despite being supposedly committed to her dead husband Sychaeus, she quickly became obsessed with Aeneas due to Cupid’s arrows. This led her to attempt to induce Aeneas to defy Jupiter and stay with her rather than travel to Italy as he was destined to do. When he left anyway, rather than accept her fate, she committed suicide. When Aeneas later met her in the underworld, she still blamed him and could not accept the idea of a greater good beyond her own needs.
Like most epic heroes, Aeneas had amazing martial skill. In the last few books, he cut through the opposing Rutulian army like he was an entire century. However, his leadership is more important. Aeneas was prone to moments of self-doubt and despair, such as when he was fleeing Troy and could not find his wife or when his fleet was sinking in Juno’s storm, but he never allowed these episodes to affect his judgment. In the worst of these situations, he could always stay focused on the mission and say or do the right thing to restore hope to his men. His soldiers took heart at the very sight of him and none of his men ever showed a hint of disloyalty, despite years of wandering and Aeneas’s absence while he was in the underworld. Aeneas’s charisma even affected potential enemies. His reputation, along with his father’s connections, gave him an alliance with King Evander of Arcadia.
While Aeneas was a great warrior, he did not relish war. He felt pity for his enemies. After slaying Lausus, he lamented that such a noble man needed to die. He even almost spared Turnus, king of the Rutulians and the main villain of the latter part of the poem.
In contrast, Turnus delighted in bloodshed. While Aeneas fought out of necessity in order to fulfill his mission, Turnus fought for love of war. He took body parts and clothing from his victims as grim trophies and let his lust for slaughter overwhelm his good sense, which ultimately caused his defeat. Like Dido, he is a model of the barbarian excess the moderate Trojans, and by extension, Romans, opposed.
The Aeneid’s patriotism was meant not only to inspire love of country, but to endorse a specific view of Rome: that the new monarchy as represented by Caesar Augustus was the proper and ideal form for Rome to take. It ends with Aeneas and Turnus in single combat, each man representing their entire country, which is a romantic and monarchist idea. Despite the endorsements of Roman law and culture, the Trojans were ultimately saved not by thinkers, but by faithfully following a singular military hero. Virgil was arguing that Rome had found such a man and needed its citizens to devote themselves to him.