The hero Aeneas appears in both Greek and Roman mythology. He was a defender of Troy, the city in Asia Minor* that the Greeks destroyed in the Trojan War*. After the war, Aeneas led the Trojans who survived to the land now called Italy. According to Roman versions of the myth, Aeneas and his followers founded Rome, and he became its first great hero and legendary father.
demigod one who is part human and part god
The Setting. Like many legendary heroes, Aeneas was a nobleman and a demigod as well. His father was Anchises, a member
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
of the royal family of Troy. One day Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love (called Venus by the Romans), saw Anchises on the hills of Mount Ida near his home. The goddess was so overcome by the handsome youth that she seduced him and bore him a son, Aeneas.
Mountain nymphs raised Aeneas until he was five years old, when he was sent to live with his father. Aphrodite had made Anchises promise not to tell anyone that she was the boy's mother. Still, he did so and was struck by lightning. In some versions of the legend, the lightning killed Anchises; in others, it made him blind or lame. Later variations have Anchises surviving and being carried out of Troy by his son after the war.
When the Greeks invaded Troy, Aeneas did not join the conflict immediately. Some versions of the myth say that he entered the war on the side of his fellow Trojans only after the Greek hero Achilles had stolen his cattle. Aeneas's reluctance to join the fighting stemmed, in part, from the prickly relationship he had with King Priam of Troy. Some sources say that Aeneas resented the fact that Priam's son Hector was supreme commander of the Trojan forces. For his part, Priam disliked Aeneas because the sea god Poseidon had predicted that the descendants of Aeneas, not those of Priam, would rule the Trojans in the future. Nevertheless, during the Trojan War, Aeneas married Creusa, one of Priam's daughters, and they had a son named Ascanius.
The Greek Tradition. Aeneas appears as a character in the Iliad, the epic by the Greek poet Homer that tells the story of the Trojan War. The Iliad and other Greek sources provide a number of details about Aeneas's role in the war.
According to Greek tradition, Aeneas was one of the Trojans' leaders, their greatest warrior after Hector. An upright and moral man, he was often called "the pious" because of his respect for the gods and his obedience to their commands. In return, the gods treated Aeneas well. Not only his mother, Aphrodite, but also the powerful gods Poseidon and Apollo gave him their protection.
There are various accounts of the last days of the Trojan War. One story relates that Aphrodite warned Aeneas that Troy would fall and that he left the city and took refuge on Mount Ida, where he established a new kingdom. In later years, several cities on the mountain boasted that they had been founded by Aeneas. Another version states that Aeneas fought bravely to the end of the war and either escaped from Troy with a band of followers or was allowed to depart by the victorious Greeks, who respected his honor and piety.
nymph minor goddess of nature, usually represented as young and beautiful
epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
piety faithfulness to beliefs
In the 700s B . C ., the Greeks began establishing colonies in Italy and on the island of Sicily off the Italian coast. Legends often linked Greek heroes to these colonies, whose citizens liked to think of themselves as descended from the characters that Homer had described in his works. By the 400s B . C . if not earlier, a story had taken shape that Aeneas went to Italy after fleeing the destruction of Troy. The next stage of Aeneas's tale, however, would be told by the Romans, not the Greeks.
The Roman Tradition. By the 300s B . C ., Rome was a rising power in the Mediterranean world. As the city grew larger and more powerful, it faced a dilemma. The Romans shared many myths and legends with the Greeks and had considerable respect for Greece's ancient culture. At the same time, however, the Romans did not want to be overshadowed by Greek culture and tradition. They wanted their own connections to the ancient world of gods and heroes.
Roman writers found a perfect link to the legendary past with Aeneas, who was supposed to have come to Italy around the time of the founding of Rome. Furthermore, because Aeneas was a Trojan, he could give the Romans what they wanted—an ancestry that was connected to the ancient heroes yet separate from the Greeks.
Over the centuries, a number of Roman myths developed about Aeneas. According to Roman tradition, Aeneas fought with great courage in Troy until messages from Aphrodite and Hector convinced him to leave the city. Carrying his father on his back and holding his son by the hand, Aeneas led his supporters out of burning Troy. During the confusion, Aeneas's wife, Creusa, became separated from the fleeing Trojans. Aeneas returned to search for Creusa but could not find her.
Aeneas and his followers found safety on Mount Ida, where they began building ships. After several months, they set sail to the west. Dreams and omens told Aeneas that he was destined to found a new kingdom in the land of his ancestors, the country today called Italy.
Aeneas's Travels. After surviving many dangers, including powerful storms and fierce monsters, Aeneas and his Trojan followers landed on the coast of North Africa. Along the way, his father died. At this point in Aeneas's tale, Roman storytellers mingled the history of the hero with earlier tales of a queen named Dido, founder of the city of Carthage in North Africa.
According to Roman legend, Dido and Aeneas fell in love soon after the hero arrived in Carthage. Aeneas stayed with the queen until Mercury, the messenger of the gods, reminded him that his destiny lay in Italy. Aeneas sorrowfully but obediently sailed away. When he looked back, he saw smoke and flames. Lovesick and abandoned, Dido had thrown herself onto a funeral pyre.
After stopping in Sicily and leaving some of his followers to found a colony there, Aeneas sailed to Italy. Upon his arrival, he sought advice from Sibyl, a powerful oracle who took him to the underworld. There Aeneas saw the ghost of Dido, but she turned away and would not speak to him. Then he saw the ghost of his father, Anchises, who told him that he would found the greatest empire the world had ever known.
omen sign of future events
pyre pile of wood on which a dead body is burned in a funeral ceremony
oracle priest or priestess or other creature through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such words are spoken
underworld land of the dead
Founder of an Empire. Heartened by his father's prophecy, Aeneas went to Latium in central Italy. He became engaged to Lavinia, the daughter of the king of the Latins. Turnus, the leader of another tribe called the Rutuli, launched a war against the Trojan newcomers. Some of the Latins also fought the Trojans, but Aeneas had finally arrived at his destiny and could not be defeated. First he killed Turnus and married Lavinia. Then he founded the city of Lavinium, where Latins and Trojans were united.
After Aeneas's death, his son Ascanius ruled Lavinium and founded a second city called Alba Longa, which became the capital of the Trojan-Latin people. These cities formed the basis of what came to be ancient Rome. Some legends claim that Aeneas founded the city of Rome itself. Others assign that honor to his descendant Romulus.
Later Roman historians altered the story of Rome's origins to make Ascanius the son of Aeneas and Lavinia, thus a Latin by birth. Ascanius was also called Iulus, or Julius, and a clan of Romans called the Julians claimed descent from him. Julius Caesar and his nephew Augustus, who became the first Roman emperor, were members of that clan. In this way, the rulers of Rome traced their ancestry—and their right to rule—back to the demigod Aeneas.
Aeneas in Literature. Although many ancient authors wrote about Aeneas, the most complete and influential account of his life and deeds is the Aeneid, a long poem composed around 30 to 20 B . C . by the Roman writer Virgil. Using a style similar to that of the Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, Virgil reshaped in Latin the legends and traditions about Aeneas to fit Rome's view of its own destiny In the poem, Virgil tells the story of Aeneas's journey from Troy to Italy.
destiny future or fate of an individual or thing
pagan term used by early Christians to describe non-Christians and non-Christian
Like other figures from Greek and Roman mythology, Aeneas appears frequently in Western literature. In The Divine Comedy, written in the early A.D. 1300S by Italian poet Dante Alighieri, Aeneas is shown in Limbo, a realm of the afterlife where virtuous pagans dwelt. In British mythology, Brutus, Britain's legendary first king, is considered the great-grandson of Aeneas. Generally, Aeneas represents duty and piety, but some authors have portrayed him less favorably. In his play Cymbeline, for example, William Shakespeare refers to the "false Aeneas" who abandoned Dido. Shakespeare also mentions Aeneas in his plays Troilus and Cressida and Julius Caesar.