Virgil: Aeneid

Lesson Content

Inquire: A Roman Treasure

Overview

Virgil, ranked as one of Rome’s greatest poets, wrote three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues (or Bucolics), the Georgics, and the Aeneid.

The Aeneid is an epic poem that tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan who traveled to Italy after the Trojan War, becoming the ancestor of the Romans. The Aeneid was Virgil’s most important work and was hailed as Rome’s national epic. Virgil’s work has had a wide and deep influence on Western literature; most notably in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Virgil appears as Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory.

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Big Question

Why is Aeneas considered virtuous and heroic, even though he simply fulfills his fate as foretold by the gods?

Watch: A Choice Between Love and Destiny

Read: Virgil and the Aeneid

Overview

Epics are lengthy poems about significant events and deeds of heroic proportions. The form emerged from oral storytelling traditions, and epics are generally a remixing of pre-existing stories and characters. These works are traditionally set in the past and are often based, at least loosely, on historical events and characters.

DecorativeThe Epic of Gilgamesh is the earliest epic and is also considered by many to be our earliest work of literature. It comes from Mesopotamia and dates back to approximately 1,800 BCE. In Western civilization, the epic tradition began with the Iliad and Odyssey, and continued to develop with the Aeneid, written by the Roman Virgil in the 1st century BCE.

Virgil, ranked as one of Rome’s greatest poets, wrote three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues (or Bucolics), the Georgics, and the Aeneid.

Epic

Epics are traditionally defined by the following elements or characteristics.

  • Length — Epics are lengthy and often divided into multiple books. Examples include the Iliad with around 15,000 lines, the Odyssey with 12,000 lines, and the Aeneid with over 9,000 lines.
  • Character(s) — Epic poems focus on the deeds of larger-than-life historical or traditional heroes. These characters, sometimes demigods, display remarkable physical and mental power and demonstrate incredible bravery. In addition to a primary hero, epics often provide long lists and histories of other heroes or important characters, with an emphasis on high-born kings and great warriors.
  • Structure — The narrative action of most epics begins in the middle, or in medias res. As the work proceeds, we learn of earlier events, as well as details about the hero’s life through character narrative and flashbacks.
  • Subject — Epic poetry focuses on serious or worthy subjects and themes that are suitable for a sweeping saga and address the plight of all humanity.
  • Setting — Keeping with its larger-than-life hero and superhuman deeds, an epic generally takes place in an expansive setting that covers a broad geographic territory.
  • Diction and Style — Epics are written in highly stylized, formal language and employ many different figures of speech. This includes using extended similes to intensify the subject’s heroic stature.
  • Deity — Gods, supernatural beings, and other supernatural forces appear frequently in epics and have a direct effect on the story’s outcome.
  • Muse — Epics often begin with the invocation of a muse, a supernatural being, to provide proper inspiration for the poet.

Virgil

DecorativePublius Vergilius Maro (known in the English speaking world as Virgil) was born in 70 BCE in what is now Northern Italy. He later moved to Rome, where he began writing poetry. His first work was the Eclogues, written between 42 and 37 BCE. Virgil also composed the Georgics, written between 37 and 30 BC, toward the end of the civil wars. The Georgics focused on the ins and outs of agricultural life, serving as a straightforward treatise supported by Augustus. The Aeneid was Virgil’s last and most important work, consisting of 12 books. The Aeneid was hailed as Rome’s national epic.

The Aeneid

The Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan who traveled to Italy after the Trojan War, becoming the ancestor of the Romans. It comprises nearly 10,000 lines and its story is divided into two halves. The first six of the poem’s twelve books tell the story of Aeneas’ wanderings from Troy to Italy, while the second half tells of the Trojans’ victory over the Latins, under whose name Aeneas and his Trojan followers will eventually be subsumed.

DecorativeMuch like Homer’s hero Odysseus in the Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneas is a hero with an important final destination who must navigate through a series of obstacles to fulfill his purpose. Having traveled to Delos after the Trojan war, Aeneas learns from the oracle of Apollo that he is destined to sail to Latium (Italy) and found a great nation. While en route, his ships are caught in a storm, and he’s forced to land near the ancient city of Carthage. There, Aeneas meets Queen Dido and, through the meddling of the goddesses Venus (his mother) and Juno, the two fall in love. After delaying longer than he should, and with prompting by Jupiter, Aeneas finally chooses to leave Dido so that he can fulfill his foretold destiny. This choice causes Dido to throw herself on a sword Aeneas has left behind. When Aeneas and the Trojans arrive in Latium, they go to war almost immediately with the city’s natives, the Italians. Aeneas kills Turnus, the leader of Latium’s defense, and then marries Lavinia, the princess of Latium, fulfilling Apollo’s prophecy.

Read: The Aeneid Book IV: Dido and Aeneas

From: The Aeneid of Virgil, Translated into English Verse by Virgil by E. Fairfax-Taylor, 1915

XXVIII .

“And now that Paris, tricked in Lydian guise,
With perfumed locks and bonnet, and his crew
Of men half-women, gloats upon the prize,
While vainly at thy so-called shrines we sue,
And nurse a faith as empty as untrue.”
He prayed and clasped the altar. His request
Jove heard, and to the city bent his view,
And saw the guilty lovers, lapt in rest
And lost to shame, and thus Cyllenius he addressed:
244

XXIX .

“Go, son, the Zephyrs call, and wing thy flight
To Carthage. Call the Dardan chief away,
Who, deaf to Fate, his destined walls doth slight.
This mandate through the wafting air convey,
Not such fair Venus did her son pourtray,
Nor twice for this from Grecian swords reclaim
One born to rule Italia, big with sway
And fierce for war, and spread the Teucrian name
Through Teucer’s sons, and laws to conquered earth proclaim.
253

XXX .

“If glory cannot tempt him, nor inflame
His soul to win such greatness, if indeed
He takes no trouble for his own fair fame,
Shall he, a father, envy to his seed
The towers of Rome, by destiny decreed?
What schemes he now? what hope the chief constrains
To linger ‘mid a hostile race, nor heed
Ausonia’s sons and the Lavinian plains?
Go, bid him sail; enough; that word the sum contains.”
262

XXXI .

Jove spake. Cyllenius to his feet binds fast
His golden sandals, that aloft in flight
O’er sea and shore upbear him with the blast,
Then takes his rod—the rod of mystic might,
That calls from Hell or plunges into night
The pallid ghosts, gives sleep or bids it fly,
And lifts the dead man’s eyelids to the light.
Armed with that rod, he rules the clouds on high,
And drives the scattered gales, and sails the stormy sky.
271

XXXII .

Now, borne along, beneath him he espies
The sides precipitous and towering peak
Of rugged Atlas, who upholds the skies.
Round his pine-covered forehead, wild and bleak,
The dark clouds settle and the storm-winds shriek.
His shoulders glisten with the mantling snow,
Dark roll the torrents down his aged cheek,
Seamed with the wintry ravage, and below,
Stiff with the gathered ice his hoary beard doth show.
280

XXXIII .

Poised on his wings, here first Cyllenius stood,
Then downward shot, and in the salt sea spray
Dipped like a sea-gull, who, in quest of food,
Searches the teeming shore-cliffs for his prey,
And scours the rocks and skims along the bay.
So swiftly now, between the earth and skies,
Leaving his mother’s sire, his airy way
Cyllene’s god on cleaving pinions plies,
As o’er the Libyan sands along the wind he flies.
289

XXXIV .

Scarce now at Carthage had he stayed his feet,
Among the huts Æneas he espied,
Planning new towers and many a stately street.
A sword-hilt, starred with jasper, graced his side,
A scarf, gold-broidered by the queen, and dyed
With Tyrian hues, was o’er his shoulders thrown.
“What, thou—wilt thou build Carthage?” Hermes cried,
“And stay to beautify thy lady’s town,
And dote on Tyrian realms, and disregard thine own?
298

XXXV .

“Himself, the Sire, who rules the earth and skies,
Sends me from heaven his mandate to proclaim.
What scheme is thine? what hope allures thine eyes,
To loiter thus in Libya? If such fame
Nowise can move thee, nor thy soul inflame,
If loth to labour for thine own renown,
Think of thy young Ascanius; see with shame
His rising promise, scarce to manhood grown,
Hope of the Roman race, and heir of Latium’s throne.”
307

XXXVI .

He spake and, speaking, vanished into air.
Dumb stood Æneas, by the sight unmann’d:
Fear stifled speech and stiffened all his hair.
Fain would he fly, and quit the tempting land,
Surprised and startled by the god’s command.
Ah! what to do? what opening can he find
To break the news, the infuriate Queen withstand?
This way and that dividing his swift mind,
All means in turns he tries, and wavers like the wind.
316

XXXVII .

This plan prevails; he bids a chosen few
Collect the crews in silence, arm the fleet
And hide the purport of these counsels new,
Himself, since Dido dreams not of deceit,
Nor thinks such passion can be frail or fleet,
Some avenue of access will essay,
Some tender moment for soft speeches meet,
And wit shall find, and cunning smooth the way.
With joy the captains hear, and hasten to obey.
325

Reflect: What Are You Looking for in a Hero?

Poll

In literature, heroes come in all different sizes and packages.

In your opinion, what characteristic is most important for a hero?

Expand: Obligation and Humanity

Discover

Aeneas is certainly a worthy epic hero. He is a demi-god, born from a union between the goddess Venus and prince Anchises of Troy. He is a Trojan War hero and survivor, as well as savior of a remnant of survivors from that conflict. He is chosen by the gods to establish and lead a great nation.

Some might argue that Aeneas seems “too good.” He is a paragon of courage and virtue — representing “pietas” or key quality of any honorable Roman — who understands the order of the universe and his service to that order and the gods. However, it is Aeneas’ virtuous character that actually provides the point of contrast for displaying the hero’s humanity.

DecorativeIn Book IV, Aeneas is forced to choose between reasoned judgement and his duty toward the gods, and the selfish passion represented by Dido. It is a conflict between the oppositional forces of love and obligation dictated by fate. Aeneas reveals weakness in the face of love. Tempted to stray from his fate — forcing his fleet to dock in Carthage for an uncomfortably, irresponsibly long time — Aeneas is revealed as not just a goddess-born hero, but as an imperfect man. His eventual decision to give up love for the betterment of future generations is truly difficult for him, making his decision arguably more honorable.

Showing Aeneas’ humanity allows Virgil to impress another point on his Roman audience. The direction and destination of Aeneas’ course are preordained and his various sufferings and glories over the course of the poem merely postpone this unchangeable destiny. In the same way, the gods are now using Augustus to lead Rome, and it is the duty of all good citizens to accept this situation.

Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings

The Aeneid of Virgil

An English translation of the Aeneid

Virgil

A brief biographical sketch of Virgil, outlining his works and influence
Poets.org

The Aeneid

An overview, synopsis, and analysis of the Aeneid
Classical Literature

The Hero’s Journey

An introductory resource for looking at the Hero’s Journey, as outlined by Joseph Campbell, and its application in many different works
Mythology Teacher

Lesson Glossary

Terms

AJAX progress indicator
  • epics
    lengthy poems about significant events and deeds of heroic proportions that are generally a remixing of pre-existing stories and characters, and are traditionally defined by a number of specific elements or characteristics
  • in medias res
    a story that begins somewhere in the middle rather than at the beginning. Often the narrative relies on flashbacks
  • pietas
    the key quality of honorable Romans, which equates to courage, virtue, and understanding the order of the universe and service to that order and the gods

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Rob Reynolds Ph.D. for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0

Media Sources

 LinkAuthorPublisherLicense
DecorativeAeneas Latium BM GR1927UnknownWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeDecisions Way Choice3dman_euPixabayCC 0
DecorativeShip in StormRobert SalmonWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeParco della Grotta di Posillipo5 (crop)UnknownWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeIzdubarGeorge SmithWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain

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