Virgil's masterpiece, the Aeneid, composed during the last decade of his life (29 BCE-19 BCE), is a long continuous narrative poem in twelve books. The epic tells the story of the Trojan hero Aeneas and his struggle to fulfil his divinely-imposed mission, to leave the ruins of Troy and sail west to Italy where, after overcoming Italian resistance, he is to marry an Italian princess and establish a settlement that would eventually lead to the foundation of Rome. Although set in the remote heroic world, the narrative continually looks forward to the Augustan age as the culminating point of Rome's divinely-ordained destiny. The epic closes with the death of Turnus and the collapse of Italian resistance, but its true end is the future greatness of Rome under Augustus.
In the ancient world the epic was regarded as one of the highest literary forms and to compete with Homer's unrivalled supremacy in this genre was the height of literary ambition. Like other writers of the Augustan age, Virgil shared the competitive spirit that fired them to rival, in their own language, the achievements of their Greek predecessors. Virgil openly challenges comparison with Homer in the very first line of his epic: arma virumque cano. Literally translated, it reads: “of arms and the man I sing” which alludes both to the Iliad (arms) and the Odyssey (man), proclaiming from the outset that the Aeneid is to be quasi amborum Homeri carminum instar, “as it were a mirror of both the poems of Homer” (Suetonius, Vita Vergilii, 21), combining together 'Odyssean' wanderings and 'home-coming' with an 'Iliad' of warfare. The first six books, forming the Odyssean Aeneid, trace Aeneas' journey west from Troy to Italy; the remaining six books in the Iliadic Aeneid treat Aeneas' attempts to establish himself in Italy and pointedly represent the war against Turnus that Aeneas reluctantly faces there; this war is as a reprise of the Trojan War, but re-played with a difference as this time it is the Trojans who are destined to triumph.
To the Augustan reader, a long and perilous sea-journey with a ship-wreck brought about by a hostile deity, and a splendid banquet during which the hero gives his royal host a retrospective account of his adventures and encounters with strange and terrifying monsters, like the Harpies and Cyclops, together with a passionate love-affair that deflects him from his quest, would all be familiar features of the Odyssey. Similarly, Virgil refigures basic structural units of the Iliad: funeral games held in memory of a loved one, a catalogue or review of military forces, a night-expedition into the enemy camp, together with hotly debated councils of war, rallying or defiant speeches, fiercely contested battle scenes, as well as aristeia – the deeds of heroic prowess performed by individual heroes – culminating in a climactic single combat fought between the champions of the opposing forces. The true value of such creative imitation lies in the reader's recognition of the differences as well as the similarities between such structural parallels. Indeed, to those critics who accused him of over-reliance upon his Homeric models, Virgil is said to have defended the practice of intertextuality with the pointed rejoinder facilius esse Herculi clavam quam Homero versum subripere – “it is easier to take his club from Hercules than to steal a line from Homer” (Vita, 46).
While Virgil revived the full-scale epic in the grand manner and satisfied such generic expectations, he nevertheless skilfully adhered to the principles of fine craftsmanship and delicate artistry that would appeal to his sophisticated, literary audience. Alongside a careful calibration of events, evoking the outward structure of Homeric epic, Virgil develops an intricate and elaborate patterning, so that scenes from the first half of the epic are mirrored in the second. The action in Book I, the first book of the Odyssean Aeneid, begins with Juno, Jupiter's wife and queen of the gods, dwelling on her bitter hatred of all things Trojan and her grim determination to obstruct Aeneas' destiny by persuading the wind-god Aeolus to raise a violent storm to wreck the Trojan fleet. In Book 7, the opening book of the Iliadic Aeneid, Juno likewise explains in soliloquy her intention of thwarting the possibility of Aeneas' securing a peaceful settlement in Latium; though this time, as befits her darker purpose of inciting a pointless war, she reveals herself ready to summon demonic powers to enforce her will. In a chilling, epigrammatic line she resolves: flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo, “If I cannot prevail upon heaven, / I will stir up hell!” (Aeneid, VII.312).
Virgil's working methods shed some light on his poetic achievement in creating such a monumental yet living structure. He is said to have completed a first draft in prose before transforming it into verse. Thereafter he would take up sections just as he fancied in no particular order, and, so as to avoid impeding the flow of inspiration, leave some parts unfinished, completing the verses with stop-gap measures that would act, Virgil jokingly commented, pro tibicinibus interponi … ad sustinendum opus, donec solidae columnae advenirent, “like props to support the structure until the solid columns should arrive” (Vita, 24).
Virgil worked from within the framework of heroic epic inherited from Homer to extend the possibilities of this traditional form. Virgil's Aeneas, though retaining many of the traits of an Homeric hero, also anticipates the model Roman character in his obedience to divine will and in his devotion to his family, gradually learning to sacrifice individual happiness and personal glory to the claims of public duty. Pius Aeneas is also seen in some ways to adumbrate Augustus himself, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, whose “clan” – the gens Julia – traced their Trojan ancestry back to Aeneas and his son Iulus. Aeneas, returning by ship with reinforcements to relieve the siege of the Trojan camp by the Italians, stands aloft and lifts up the shield wrought for him by Vulcan (Aeneid, X.261-2, 270-73) on the central panel of which is depicted a strikingly similar scene showing Augustus surveying his victorious forces at Actium (Aeneid, VIII. 678-81). The calm control of each commander and the parallelism of detail in each case, draws both figures together and elides the historical distance between them.
Virgil, therefore, gave new life and contemporary relevance to the epic by suggesting the line of continuity between the Homeric and the Augustan age, tracing the lineage of prominent families back to their ancestors in heroic times. His nationalist epic appeals to the Roman people's interest in their cultural roots and glorifies the origins of the Roman nation, constantly reminding the implied Augustan reader of the aetiology of time-honoured Roman customs, traditions and religious observances. However, as well as drawing upon the exotic and romantic associations of their Trojan ancestry, Virgil is concerned to foster a sense of national pride in Rome's specifically Italian heritage. The Italian warrior Numanus taunts the Trojans by pointing to the emasculating effects of oriental affluence that produces, Phrygiae, neque enim Phryges, “Phrygian women, for no Phyrgian men are you” (Aeneid, IX. 617); by contrast, those raised in the Italian fashion are a hardy race of rustic warriors:
… patiens operum parvoque adsueta iuventus
aut rastris terram domat aut quatit oppida bello.
(Aeneid, IX. 607-8)
...young men, inured to a life of want
And used to labour, they master the soil with the hoe
Or shake cities in war.
(Translated by Michael Oakley)
The idea of Rome and her divinely-appointed destiny is central to the poem: a series of prophetic passages work together to suggest both the inevitability of her rise to power and the age of Augustus as the goal of the providential plan that had begun with Aeneas' departure from Troy. After the storm raised by Juno has driven Aeneas off-course from Italy to Carthage, Jupiter re-assures his daughter Venus, Aeneas' divine mother, that, despite the delays caused by Juno's interference, the future greatness of the Roman people has been pre-ordained by him and remains unaltered: his ego nec metas rerum nec tempora pono: / imperium sine fine dedi, “to these I set no bounds in space of time: I have given them rule without end” (Aeneid, I. 278-79). In the sixth book Aeneas journeys to the Underworld to visit Anchises, his father, who points out to him famous figures from Roman history waiting to be born. Anchises confidently identifies what are to be the strengths of the Roman people and proudly proclaims Rome's civilising mission in a sonorous and dignified address to his Roman descendant:
tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere more
parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.
Do thou, man of Rome, remember to govern the nations –
These shall be thine arts – to stablish the custom of peace,
To spare the vanquished and break in battle the proud.
(Translated by Michael Oakley)
Book VI, in keeping with its pivotal position in the epic as a whole, thus acts as a narrative hinge in which Aeneas' experiences in the Underworld allow him to turn from his Trojan past towards his Roman future. In Book VIII Aeneas visits the future site of Rome and receives the marvellous shield, wrought by Vulcan at Venus' request, which shows vignettes of famous episodes from Roman history, culminating in the central panel which depicts the battle of Actium with Augustus and the Olympian gods triumphing over Cleopatra and the monstrous gods of the East. In the last book Jupiter puts an end to Juno's obstruction of his plans and secures her support for the future by confirming that the Trojan race – so hateful to her – will be subsumed within the Latin people who will retain their native speech and their way of life, and that the Roman race, which will eventually rise from the union of the two races, will be strong because of Italian virtues (827) and be pre-eminent in their reverence of the gods and worship of her (Aeneid, XII. 791-842).
However, co-existing with this optimistic celebration of Rome's present greatness under Augustus is an awareness of the price that was paid in human suffering before her foundations were even laid. The epic is framed by the tragedies of Dido and Turnus. Dido, Queen of Carthage, is a successful ruler of outstanding abilities who is brought to utter ruin by the arrival of Aeneas on her shores. Dido generously offers hospitality to the shipwrecked Trojans but falls hopelessly in love with their leader. An atmosphere charged with foreboding and impending disaster surrounds Dido in Book IV as she becomes the helpless prey of an irresistible love for Aeneas.
The account of Aeneas' stay in Carthage is told almost exclusively from Dido's perspective. Whereas Aristotle had singled out Homer's self-effacing narrator for especial praise, Virgil makes the presence of his poetic persona constantly felt. Virgil involves his reader's sympathies in Dido's plight and hints at a tragic outcome in a haunting simile: her restless, distracted behaviour and the way in which she is helplessly tormented by this fatally obsessive love is movingly conveyed by likening her to a doe that quam procul incautam … fixit / pastor agens telis liquitque volatile ferrum / nescius (Aeneid, IV. 70-2), “some shepherd out hunting has struck from afar / And left in her side the point of his fluttering steel / Though he knows it not”; for all the deer's frantic movement, the arrow cannot be dislodged, haeret lateri letalis harundo, “there in her side it sticks, the arrow of death”. The pathos of the situation is strongly amplified by the grim irony whereby the shepherd who has inflicted the mortal wound remains entirely nescius, “unaware”, of the harm he has caused his wretched victim.
The exclusive nature of her self-absorbing love for Aeneas leads Dido to neglect her public role, and it is a measure of her city's dependence on her informing presence that the withdrawal of her influence affects every aspect of civil life. What before had resembled a thriving colony of bees, working harmoniously together for the common good, is brought to a standstill:
non coeptae adsurgunt turres, non arma iuventus
exercet portusque aut propugnacula bello
tuta parant: pendent opera interrupta minaeque
murorum ingentes aequataque caelo.
(Aeneid, IV. 86-89)
No higher arose the towers whose building had started;
No more did the young men practise their martial array,
Nor work at the harbours and bulwarks for war-time defence.
Neglected and still to be finished the works were, the great Threatening walls and the crane that reached the sky.
(Translated by Michael Oakley)
However, rather than encouraging the reader to condemn such apparent self-indulgence, Virgil complicates the reader's reactions by the delicate elision between human and divine agency when accounting for Dido's behaviour. Dido is a young childless widow and her growing passion for the unattached Trojan leader (Aeneas had lost his first wife Creusa during the sack of Troy) would seem a natural development. Nevertheless the reader has privileged access to another order of reality from which Dido is clearly seen to be the victim of the ruthless scheming of supernatural powers who infect her with such a disastrous love to further their own purposes. It is the unlikely alliance of these opposing forces on the divine plane – Venus the champion of her son Aeneas, prepared to promote his interests in whatever way she can, and Juno, Aeneas' great antagonist, eager to thwart his destiny at whatever cost to her favourite, Dido – that is ultimately responsible for her downfall and death rather than Aeneas or the queen herself. On being reminded by Mercury, Jupiter's messenger, of his duty to fulfil the destiny divinely assigned to him, Aeneas promptly abandons Dido. Having sacrificed all she had previously held dear for this relationship, Dido takes her own life.
The tragic conclusion of Dido's story has never lacked responsive readers: in his Confessions St Augustine berated himself for weeping over the death of Dido when his own salvation should have been a more pressing concern (Book I.xiii); Purcell composed a moving aria for Dido in his opera, Dido and Aeneas (1689), and Reynold's passionately expressive painting, The Death of Dido, is a dramatic rendering of her final moments. Whereas previous epics had been mainly concerned with a male world of heroic exploits, Virgil's account of Dido's tragic fall in the opening books of the Aeneid is a haunting and powerful psychological study in the manner of Greek tragedy.
In the Iliadic half of the poem, it is Turnus who stands as the main obstacle in the way of Aeneas' destiny and the foundation of Rome. Turnus is a great warrior in the Homeric mould; he has long desired to marry Lavinia, daughter of the Latin King Latinus, but she is fated to be Aeneas' bride, thus bringing about a union of the two peoples. Like Dido, Turnus refuses to acknowledge Aeneas' divinely-endorsed destiny and fiercely resists the Trojan invader whom he regards as a second Paris, seeking to rob him of his royal bride. Also like Dido, Turnus draws sympathy from his equivocal position, being both Juno's protégé and, ultimately, an expendable pawn in the goddess' strategy to protract the inevitable completion of Aeneas' destiny.
Having assumed the form of Calybe, the elderly priestess of Juno, Allecto, Juno's demonic agent from the Underworld, tries to urge Turnus to take precipitate action against the Trojans. When Turnus calmly dismisses the hysterical promptings of the messenger, Allecto reveals her true form and hurls a firebrand at the youth. From this point on he is her creature, entirely possessed by a mad lust to be wielding the sword:
... magno veluti cum flamma sonore
virgea suggeritur costis undantis aëni
exsultantque aestu latices, furit intus aquai
fumidus atque alte spumis exuberat amnis
nec iam se capit unda, volat vapor ater ad auras.
(Aeneid, VII. 462-66)
So with a mighty cracking, faggots aflame
Under a seething cauldron are heaped up high,
And the waters dance in the heat, the liquid within
Simmers and steams as the froth bubbles high on the surface;
Then unable at last to contain itself any longer,
In a cloud of darksome vapour goes floating aloft.
(Translated by Michael Oakley)
However, the sight of the Latin city, Laurentum, in flames finally brings Turnus to his senses, and he is determined to face Aeneas alone in spite of his conviction of defeat. In confirmation of this premonition, Jupiter sends one of the Furies, in the form of a screech owl, to mark Turnus out for death:
hanc versa in faciem Turni se pestis ob ora
fertque refertque sonans clipeumque everberat alis
(Aeneid, XII. 865-66).
the horror sped backward and forward,
Screaming in Turnus' face and beating his shield
With her wings in flight
Virgil actively secures sympathy for Turnus, openly inviting his readers to identify with the hero's nightmarish predicament by conveying, with chilling dramatic power, the horror of Turnus' isolation and helplessness in the face of the divine will:
ac velut in somnis, oculos ubi languida pressit
nocte quies, nequiquam avidos extendere cursus
velle videmur et in mediis conatibus aegri
succidimus; non lingua valet, non corpore notae
sufficiunt vires nec nox aut verba sequuntur:
sic Turno, quacumque viam virtute petivit,
successum dea dira negat.
(Aeneid, XII. 908-914)
When languorous sleep lies heavy upon our eyes,
We seem to be eagerly striving to race ahead,
But yet we cannot; while yet we are trying, in anguish
We sink to the ground; our tongue is unable to speak,
Our body is robbed of its wonted powers of action;
No words will come, no speech will follow our efforts:
So did it happen to Turnus; whatever he tried
To effect by his valour, the Fury denied him success.
(Translated by Michael Oakley)
Over-powered by Aeneas, Turnus admits defeat, gives up his claim to Lavinia and asks Aeneas to spare him for his own father's sake. As Turnus humbles himself before Aeneas and pleads for mercy, the reader cannot help but recall Anchises' admonition to future generations that the Roman custom should be to extend clemency to the conquered who have acknowledged their defeat. Aeneas does indeed stay his hand and hesitates over whether to extend mercy to his vanquished enemy. In the final moments of the epic Aeneas' dilemma is dramatically realised in his restless shifting gaze as he struggles to come to a decision. His natural inclination is to be swayed by Turnus' words and not to extend his hatred further, but then he suddenly catches sight of the sword-belt belonging to Pallas that his opponent had unluckily taken as a trophy from his ally Evander's young son. Aeneas is overcome once more by “savage grief” and the need to assuage that pain in bloodshed. The death of Pallas – a youth dear to Aeneas who had been entrusted to his care and whom he had failed to protect – had had a devastating effect upon Aeneas, so, losing all self-control, Aeneas had himself become a ruthless killing machine, slaughtering indiscriminately (Aeneid, X. 510-604) until the death of young Lausus at his own hands, as the youth tried to defend his father, restored his self-possession (Aeneid, X. 811-32).
Aeneas blazes with fury and pitilessly kills Turnus with these words:
Pallas te hoc vulnere, Pallas
immolat et poenam scelerato ex sanguine sumit.
(Aeneid, XII. 938-49)
It is Pallas who wounds thee now, it is Pallas who takes
Revenge for his murder in this thine own wicked blood!
(Translated by Michael Oakley)
The very fact that Aeneas denies final responsibility for his action makes his victory seem like an admission of defeat. Throughout the epic, Virgil repeatedly stresses the destructive effects upon the personality of giving way to such uncontrolled emotion. Nevertheless, because at the climax of his encounter with Turnus Aeneas hesitates and checks the fatal blow, Virgil momentarily encourages the reader to entertain the possibility of an alternative ending in which a magnanimous Aeneas might have let Turnus live. Back at the beginning of the first book, the sea-god Neptune had appeared like a model Roman statesman, checking his own impulse to anger before quelling the violent storm unleashed by the wind-god Aeolus on Juno's behalf; at the very end of the epic Virgil seems less optimistic about the containment of such turbulent forces in the human personality. The Aeneid closes here, not with Aeneas' triumphant victory but on this mournful note of frustrated hopes and desires:
ast illi solvuntur frigore membra
vitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras.
(Aeneid, XII. 951-52)
the body of Turnus
Grew limp and cold, and down to the shadows below,
Moaning in protest against it, his soul fled away.
(Translated by Michael Oakley)
When Virgil died in 19BCE the Aeneid was complete but unrevised. Virgil is said to have arranged with his friend Varus that he should burn the Aeneid if anything were to happen to him before its completion; it is also reported that he called for his work on his death-bed intending to burn it himself. When no-one would accede to his dying wish, he entrusted the text to Varus and Tucca with the stipulation that they should not publish anything that he would not himself have given to the world. Augustus authorised its publication after Varus had lightly edited it, leaving even the incomplete lines just as they were (Vita, 39-41).
Acclaimed by the contemporary poet Propertius as “something greater than the Iliad”, (nesquiquid maius ... Iliade) even while it was still being composed, and hailed by T. S. Eliot as, “the classic of all Europe”, the Aeneid has enjoyed a unique and enduring influence on European literature, art and politics for the past two thousand years. The early Christian theologian, Tertullian (fl. late 2nd and early 3rd centuries AD) claimed Virgil as “a naturally Christian soul”, while in his commentary on the Aeneid, Fulgentius (fl. late 5th and early 6th centuries AD) imagined Virgil himself revealing to him the hidden meaning of his epic as an allegory of the moral progress of the soul. Such allegorical readings of the epic were also popular in the Middle Ages and persisted well into the Renaissance. For Dante too, writing in the 14th Century, Virgil acts as a bridge between paganism and the Christian world: in the Divina Commedia, Virgil conducts Dante through the Inferno and Purgatorio to the very gates if Paradise, but, as a pagan, he cannot pass through them. Even in relatively recent times, T. S. Eliot – a poet and critic greatly influenced by both Virgil and Dante – claimed Virgil as an “adventist Christian” and found in Aeneas, “the prototype of a Christian hero.”
Virgil's influence on English literature has been wide-ranging. To the Renaissance, his poetic career seemed a planned programme, a linear ascent through the established hierarchy of the genres – graduating from pastoral through didactic to epic – and became a model of progression for aspiring poets. Spenser and Milton, in particular, deliberately shaped their own literary careers according to the Virgilian pattern. In the first lines of the invocation to his epic romance, The Faerie Queene (1590-6) Spenser looks back to his own pastoral poetry (e.g. The Shepheardes Calendar, 1579); in the later Renaissance, Milton wrote two fine pastoral elegies – Lycidas (1638) and Epithaphium Damonis (1639) – before embarking on his Christian epic, Paradise Lost (1667).
Towards the end of his life, Dryden, poet of the new “Augustan” age, produced a complete translation of the Aeneid (1697). Although his melodious word-music continued to be admired during the Romantic period, it was, in general, less attuned to Virgil's peculiarly self-conscious literary artistry; (witness the terms of Coleridge's famous demand: “If you take from Virgil his diction and metre, what do you leave him?”). However, the Victorians, as well as paying tribute to his mastery of the hexameter – Alfred Lord Tennyson acclaimed Virgil as “Wielder of the stateliest measure / Ever moulded by the lips of man” – valued him as a poet who gave sensitive expression to the insight that: “at the heart of things there are tears” (sunt lacrimae rerum, Aeneid, I. 462). In the last century, readers have responded to the multivocality of Virgil's work, particularly to the tension between the public and private voice that is given full expression in the Aeneid.
Citation: Green, Mandy. "The Aeneid". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 25 October 2002 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=1633, accessed 01 June 2023.]