In about 30 B . C ., the Roman poet Virgil began composing the Aeneid, an epic about the legendary hero Aeneas and the founding and destiny of Rome. Woven from strands of myth, history, and imperial pride, the Aeneid summed up everything the Romans valued most about their society. At the same time, it offered tales of adventure featuring gods and goddesses, heroes and ghosts, and warriors and doomed lovers. Virgil died before finishing the work, but it established his reputation as the foremost poet of the Romans.
Creating a Roman Heritage. The Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas, a hero of Troy, the city in Asia Minor* that the Greeks destroyed during the Trojan Warf. According to legend, Aeneas survived the war and led a group of Trojans on a journey to the kingdom of Latium in central Italy, where Rome eventually arose.
The story of Aeneas was much older than Rome. The hero appears as a character in the Iliad], an epic about the Trojan War by the Greek poet Homer. However, as Rome was emerging as the leading power in the Mediterranean world in the 200s B . C ., the Romans became eager to claim Aeneas and the Trojans as their ancestors. Some Romans even visited Ilium, a Roman city in Asia Minor said to stand on the ancient site of Troy.
Aeneas was an ideal figure to serve as the legendary founder of Rome. As the son of Aphrodite (Venus), the goddess of love, and Anchises, a member of the Trojan royal family, he had both divine and royal parents. In addition, the ancient tales portrayed Aeneas as dutiful, pious, brave, and honorable—virtues that the Romans felt characterized their culture. Finally, Aeneas was part of the Greek heritage so admired by the Romans. Because he was a Trojan rather than a Greek, however, he provided the Romans with a distinct identity that was not Greek but equally ancient and honorable.
A number of Roman writers contributed to the story of how Aeneas came to Italy so that his descendants could build Rome. However, the person who assembled the elements of the legend into a great national epic was Publius Vergilius Maro, known as Virgil. His patron, Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, considered himself a direct descendant of Aeneas. Virgil's Aeneid glorified not just Rome but also Augustus, whose reign was portrayed as the fulfillment of the grand Roman destiny that the gods had predicted to Aeneas long ago.
Structure and Style. Virgil modeled the Aeneid on the Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer's two much-admired epics of ancient Greece. Like the Greek poems, the Aeneid features the Trojan War, a hero on a long and difficult journey, and stirring descriptions of hand-to-hand combat between heroic warriors. It is also similar in form to the Greek epics, which are composed in dactylic hexameter, a verse that has 18-syllable lines with the first of every 3 syllables accented. The epic consists of 12 books.
epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
destiny future or fate of an individual or thing
imperial relating to an emperor or empire
pious faithful to one's beliefs
patron special guardian, protector, or supporter
Yet the Aeneid differs from Homer's epics in ways that reflect the different circumstances in which it was created. Literary scholars are still debating Homer's existence. There may or may not have been an individual author who put the Iliad and the Odyssey into the form in which they have been handed down. In any case, storytellers told and retold the Greek epics over a long period before they were written down. Many features of their style, such as the frequent repetition of phrases and images, reflect the traditional methods used by oral storytellers. Virgil, by contrast, was an educated man writing a poem for readers. He could study the traditional legends of Greece and Italy, determine his plot, and polish his language.
Virgil first wrote the entire Aeneid in prose and then turned it into verse a few lines at a time. As he lay dying, Virgil requested that the manuscript of his still unfinished work be destroyed. Nevertheless, the emperor Augustus preserved the work and had it published after Virgil's death in 19 B . C .
The Story and Its Significance. In Book 1 of the Aeneid, Aeneas and his followers arrive in Carthage in North Africa after escaping a storm sent by Juno (Hera), the queen of the gods. Early in the story, Virgil establishes the fact that Juno does her best to ruin Aeneas's plans because of her hatred for the Trojans, while Venus supports him. Jupiter, the king of the gods, reveals that Aeneas will ultimately reach Italy and that his descendants will found a great empire. This is the first of many prophecies in the Aeneid. Their meaning is clear: Rome rules the world because it is fated to do so and has the support of the gods.
In Book 2, Aeneas tells Dido, the queen of Carthage, about the Greek victory in the Trojan War and how he escaped the city. This story within a story continues in Book 3, as Aeneas describes to Dido the earlier attempts by the Trojan survivors to found a city. Book 4 reveals that Dido is in love with Aeneas, and the two become lovers. Fate has other plans for the Trojan leader, however. Jupiter sends Mercury, the messenger of the gods, to remind Aeneas that his destiny lies in Italy. After Aeneas and his followers leave Carthage, Dido kills herself in despair. This episode shows Aeneas's willingness to sacrifice his own desires to obey the will of the gods. It also creates a legendary explanation for the very real hostility between Carthage and Rome.
In Book 5 of the Aeneid, the Trojans reach Sicily, an island off the coast of Italy, and Aeneas organizes funeral games to honor the death of his father, Anchises. While the games are in progress, Juno attempts to destroy the Trojan fleet, but Jupiter saves most of the ships and the Trojans depart. In Book 6, the Trojans arrive at Cumae in Italy, and Aeneas visits the shrine of the Cumaean Sibyl, a famous oracle. She leads him on a visit to the underworld, where he meets the ghost of his father. Another prophecy reveals to Aeneas the greatness that Rome will achieve in the future.
Epics and Nationalism
The Aeneid demonstrated that an epic poem could express a people's values and glorify its history. After 1800 when Europe saw a rise in nationalism—a strong loyalty and devotion to national identity combined with commitment to furthering a nation's interests—European writers began producing national epics based on folktales, legends, and history. Many of these writers used the Aeneid and the ancient Greek epics of Homer as their models. Among the most famous national epics written at this time were the Finnish Kalevala (1835), by Elias Lönnrot; the Estonian Kalevipoeg ( 1857-1861 ), by F. R. Kreutzwald; the German Nibelunge ( 1868-1874), by Wilhelm Jordan; and the Latvian Lacplesis (1888), by Andrejs Pumpurs.
prose language that is not in poetic form
prophecy foretelling of what is to come; also something that is predicted
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
Books 7 through 11 tell of the Trojans' arrival in Latium, the kingdom of the Latins in western Italy. The newcomers are welcomed at first, but then war breaks out between the Trojans and the Latin tribes, sparked by the meddling of Juno. Venus helps
The final book of the Aeneid recounts the mighty single combat between Aeneas and the Latin hero Turnus, the Trojans' chief opponent. Aeneas wins the fight and is free to marry Lavinia, daughter of the Latin king Latinus. Their marriage symbolizes the union between the Latin and Trojan peoples, and their descendants are the first Romans.
The Influence of the Aeneid. Whatever Virgil may have thought about his work while he lay on his deathbed, others quickly recognized that the Aeneid was a masterpiece. Romans loved the poem. It gave them an impressive history and justified the proud expectation that they were destined to rule the world. Yet even after the Roman empire fell, people continued to read and admire the Aeneid.
During the Middle Ages, many Europeans believed that Virgil had been a magician and that the Aeneid had magical properties, perhaps because the story contained so many omens and prophecies. People would read passages from the work and search for hidden meanings or predictions about the future. So admired was Virgil that the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, who wrote during the late 1200s and early 1300s, made him a central character in his own religious epic, The Divine Comedy. In Dante's work, Virgil guides the narrator through Hell and Purgatory, but he is not able to enter Heaven because he was not a Christian.
omen sign of future events
The Aeneid influenced English literature as well. Poets Edmund Spenser and John Milton wrote epics that reflect the work's influence. Poet John Dryden was one of many who translated the Aeneid; his 1697 version is one of the best English translations. By contrast, the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron disliked Virgil's work—perhaps because it celebrates social order, religious duty, and national glory over the Romantic qualities that they favored—passion, rebellion, and self-determination.
The Aeneid served as inspiration for musical composers as well as writers. Many operas have been based on Virgil's work. Among the best known are Dido and Aeneas (1690), by English composer Henry Purcell, and The Trojans (1858), by the French composer Hector Berlioz.