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The Aeneid

Background

The Aeneid is a Latin epic poem, written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BCE, that connects the Julio-Claudian dynasty to the heroes of Troy. It presents a founding myth for the Roman empire and explains the Punic Wars.

Structure and Outline

The poem is 9,896 lines of dactylic hexameter verse in Latin, and is split into 12 books.

  1. A storm, sent by Juno, wrecks Aeneas’ ships. Venus guides him to nearby Carthage, where he meets Dido and others, thought lost, from his fleet. Cupid, disguised as Ascanius, inflames her for Aeneas.
  2. Aeneas tells of Troy’s fall: the great horse, Sinon’s lies, Laocoön’s death, his resistance, Priam’s death, his encounter with Helen, Venus’ intervention, the escape with Anchises, and the futile search for his lost wife Creusa.
  3. Aeneas tells of their journey to Carthage: Polydorus’ second burial, Apollo’s prophecy at Delos, plague in Crete, Apollo’s dream, the three day storm, the Harpies, the encounter with Helen, Helenus’ prophecy, crossing to Italy, Achaemenides and the cyclops, and Anchises’ death.
  4. Dido confides her love for Aeneas to Anna. Juno and Venus conspire a mid-hunt cave consummation. Spurned Iarbas’ anger reaches Jove, who sends Mercury to prod Aeneas to leave. Dido’s downward spiral ends in her suicidal burning as Aeneas flees in the night.
  5. Anchises’ funeral games—ship and foot races, boxing and bows. The Trojan women burn the ships, and Aeneas leaves the elderly and exhausted behind. Anchises shade asks his son to visit in the underworld. Departure on Neptune’s calm seas. Pandurus’ falls into the sea.
  6. Aeneas asks the Sibyl to take him to his dead father; first he needs to clear the death taint and tear off the golden bough. Recently dead Palinurus. Charon takes them across the Styx. Cereberus. Encounter with Dido. The captains from the Iliad. Mutulated Deiphobus. The Sibyl’s description of Tartarus, its sinners and punishments. Dropping off the bough and going to the Elysian fields. Orpheus, Museaus, etc. Conversation with Anchises about metaphysics and reincarnation and his prophecy of Rome’s greatness and Ceasar Augustus and others. Departure through the ivory gate.

Book I

Aeneas’ speech to his people upon landing near Carthage:

“Call up your courage again. Dismiss your grief and fear.

A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this.

Through so many hard straits, so many twists and turns

our course holds firm for Latium. There Fate holds out

a homeland, calm, at peace. There the gods decree

the kingdom of Troy will rise again. Bear up.

Save your strength for better times to come.”

Jupiter’s prophecies to Venus:

“Aeneas will wage

a long, costly war in Italy, crush defiant tribes

and build high city walls for his people there

and found the rule of law. Only three summers

will see him govern Latium, three winters pass

in barracks after the Latins have been broken.

But his son Ascanius, now that he gains the name

of Iulus—Ilus he was, while Ilium ruled on high—

will fill out with his own reign thirty sovereign years,

a giant cycle of months revolving round and round,

transferring his rule from its old Lavinian home

to raise up Alba Longa’s mighty ramparts.

There, in turn, for a full three hundred years

the dynasty of Hector will hold sway till Ilia,

a royal priestess great with the brood of Mars,

will bear the god twin sons. Then one, Romulus,

reveling in the tawny pelt of a wolf that nursed him,

will inherit the line and build the walls of Mars

and after his own name, call his people Romans.

On them I set no limits, space or time:

I have granted them power, empire without end.

Even furious Juno, now plaguing the land and sea and sky

with terror: she will mend her ways and hold dear with me

these Romans, lords of the earth, the race arrayed in togas.

This is my pleasure, my decree. Indeed, an age will come,

as the long years slip by, when Assaracus’ royal house

will quell Achilles’ homeland, brilliant Mycenae too,

and enslave their people, rule defeated Argos.

From that noble blood will arise a Trojan Caesar,

his empire bound by the Ocean, his glory by the stars:

Julius, a name passed down from Iulus, his great forebear.

And you, in years to come, will welcome him to the skies,

you rest assured—laden with plunder of the East,

and he with Aeneas will be invoked in prayer.

Then will the violent centuries, battles set aside,

grow gentle, kind. Vesta and silver-haired Good Faith

and Romulus flanked by brother Remus will make the laws.

The terrible Gates of War with their welded iron bars

will stand bolted shut, and locked inside, the Frenzy

of civil strife will crouch down on his savage weapons,

hands pinioned behind his back with a hundred brazen shackles,

monstrously roaring out from his bloody jaws.”

Book II

Athena sends serpents to kill Laocoön, who is arguing that the Trojans should burn the horse. The event convinces the Trojans to listen to Sinon’s lies and wheel the horse into the city:

Laocoön, the priest of Neptune picked by lot,

was sacrificing a massive bull at the holy altar

when—I cringe to recall it now—look there!

Over the calm deep straits off Tenedos swim

twin, giant serpents, rearing in coils, breasting

the sea-swell side by side, plunging toward the shore

their heads, their blood-red crests surging over the waves,

their bodies thrashing, backs rolling in coil on mammoth coil

and the wake behind them churns in a roar of foaming spray,

and now, their eyes glittering, shot with blood and fire,

flickering tongues licking their hissing maws, yes, now

they’re about to land. We blanch at the sight, we scatter.

Like troops on attack they’re heading straight for Laocoön—

first each serpent seizes one of his small young sons,

constricting, twisting around him, sinks its fangs

in the tortured limbs, and gorges. Next Laocoön

rushing quick to the rescue, clutching his sword—

they trap him, bind him in huge muscular whorls,

their scaly backs lashing around his midriff twice

and twice around his throat—their heads, their flaring necks

mounting over their victim writing still, his hands

frantic to wrench apart their knotted trunks,

his priestly bands splattered in filth, black venom

and all the while his horrible screaming fills the skies,

bellowing like some wounded bull struggling to shrug

loose from his neck and axe that’s struck awry,

to lumber clear of the altar …

Virgil’s depicts the tragedy of a great city fallen when he describes Troy’s downfall:

Who has words to capture that night’s disaster,

tell that slaughter? What tears could match

our torments now? An ancient city is falling,

a power that ruled for ages, now in ruins.

Everywhere lie the motionless bodies of the dead,

strewn in her streets, her homes and the god’s shrines

we held in awe. And not only Trojans pay the price in blood—

at times the courage races back in their conquered hearts

and they cut their enemies down in all their triumph.

Everywhere, wrenching grief, everywhere, terror

and a thousand shapes of death.

Book III

An interesting description of Aeneas’ city-founding during their short stint on Crete:

Our ships were no sooner hauled

onto dry land, our young crewmen busy with weddings,

plowing the fresh soil while I was drafting laws

and assigning homes, when suddenly, no warning,

out of some foul polluted quarter of the skies

a plague struck

Aeneas’ portrayal as a better, nobler Ulysses is especially clear in the cyclops scene, where they face a whole pack of cyclops.

Book V

Overall, reading about the funeral games was less interesting than its surrounding chapters, but there was a really great comparison between a nearly sunk ship and a snake:

He’d barely

worked her free of the ruthless rock with craft and effort,

one bank of her oars gone, one in splinters. A laughingstock,

shorn of glory, she came crawling in … Like a snake caught,

as they often are, on a causeway, crushed by a bronze wheel

or heavy rock flung by a traveler—trampled, left half dead,

trying to slip away, writing in gnarled coils, no hope.

Part fighting mad, its eyes blazing, its hissing head

puffed high—part crippled, wounds cutting its pace,

struggling in knots, twitching, twisting round itself.

So the ship limped in, oars laboring, slowlying, and still

she spreads her sails and enters the harbor, canvas taut.

I also liked a comment made at the end of Anchises’ funeral games. A parade of young boys goes by and the crowd “of many thousands” is “delighted to see in their looks their own parents’ lost faces.

Book VI

It’s fun to read book six, wherein Aeneas seeks his dead father in the underworld, having freshly read Dante’s Inferno. It makes their small similaries and differences stand out.

Virgil is to Dante what the Sibyl is to Aeneas.

When Aeneas speaks too long with Deiphobus, the Sibyl urges him, much as Virgil urges Dante to hurry several times in his poem.

Aeneas questions his guide much like Dante questions Virgil:

And Aeneas froze there, terrified, taking in the din:

“What are the crimes, what kinds? Tell me, Sibyl,

what are the punishments, why this scourging?

Why such wailing echoing in the air?”

… “When Hecate put me in charge of Avernus’ groves

she taught me all the punishments of the gods,

she led me through them all.”

The Sibyl then lists a few types of sinners. The list includes “those killed for adultery,” traitors and many others. The Sibyl ends her descriptions by saying:

“No, not if I had a hundred tongues and a hundred mouths

and a voice of iron too—I could never capture

all the crimes or run through all the torments,

doom by doom.”

Dante, however, meets this challenge with his hundred cantos.

In both, the sinners gather on Acheron’s shores to be shuttled across by Charon, who as in Dante, protests at carrying a living being. Dante even uses the same simile—of falling leaves, to describe the crossing shades:

A huge throng of the dead came streaming toward the banks:

mothers and grown men and ghosts of great-souled heroes,

their bodies stripped of life, and boys and unwed girls

and sons laid on the pyre before their parents’ eyes.

As thick as leaves in autumn woods at the first frost

that slip and float to earth

This simile is, in turn, building on Homer’s simile—“Like the generations of leaves the lives of mortal men.”

Virgil’s underworld contains Tartarus, perhaps analogous to hell, and a sort of purgatory:

True, but even on that last day, when the light of life departs,

the wretches are not completely purged of all the taints,

nor are they wholly freed of all the body’s plagues.

Down deep they harden fast—they must, so long engrained

in the flesh—in strange, uncanny ways. And so the souls

are drilled in punishments, they must pay for their old offenses.

Some are hung splayed out, exposed to the empty winds,

some are plunged in the rushing floods–their stains,

their crimes scorched away by fire.

Each of us must suffer his own demanding ghost.

Only after being purged by each of their appropriate punishments, can the elect few go to the Elysian fields—Virgil’s heaven:

Then we are sent to Elysium’s broad expanse,

a few of us even hold these fields of joy

till the long days, a cycle of time seen through,

cleanse our hard, inveterate stains and leave us clear

ethereal sense, the eternal breath of fire purged and pure.

In Virgil’s eschatology, like the one in the final myth of Plato’s Republic and so unlike Dante’s, sinners are purged, return to heaven, and are reincarnated.

But all the rest [those who don’t go to Elysium], once they have turned the wheel of time

for a thousand years: God calls them forth to the Lethe,

great armies of souls, their memories blank so that

they may revisit the overarching world once more

and begin to long to return to bodies yet again.”

Virgil uses reincarnation to connect Caesar Augustus to Aeneas.

Anchises, who Aeneas has come down to meet, explains how elemental fire fuses with mass to drive all men along:

“First, the sky and the earth and the flowing fields of the sea,

the shining orb of the moon and the Titan sun, the stars:

an inner spirit feeds them, coursing through all their limbs,

mind stirs the mass and their fusion brings the world to birth.

From their union springs the human race and the wild beasts,

the winged lives of birds and the wondrous monsters bred

below the glistening surface of the sea. The seeds of life—

fiery is their force, divine their birth, but they

are weighed down by the bodies’ ills or dulled

by earthly limbs and flesh that’s born for death.

That is the source of all men’s fears and longings,

joys and sorrows, nor can they see the heavens’ light,

shut up in the body’s tomb, a prison dark and deep.”

I like Virgil’s description of the Elysian fields because he suggests that engineers and scientists and all who benefit mankind will be appreciated for their contributions:

“And here are troops of men

who had suffered wounds, fighting to save their country,

and those who had been pure priests while still alive,

and the faithful poets whose songs were fit for Pheobus;

those who enriched our lives with newfound arts they forged

and those we remember well for the good they did mankind.”

This quote also suggests a parallel between meaningful deeds in times of war and meaningful deeds in times of peace.

Aeneas sees the Trojan captains, “arrayed in a long ranked line.” He also sees the Greeks army:

But the Greek commanders and Agamemnon’s troops in phalanx,

spotting the hero and his armor glinting through the shadows—

blinding panic grips them, some turn tail and run

as they once ran back to the ships, some strain

to raise a battle cry, a thin wisp of a cry

that mocks their gaping jaws.

Virgil positions his poem as building on Homer, much like Dante builds on Virgil:

Wars, horrendous wars,

and the Tiber foaming with tides of blood, I see it all!

Simois, Xanthus, a Greek camp—you’ll never lack them here.

Already a new Achilles springs to life in Latium,

son of a goddess too! Nor will Juno ever fail

to harry the Trojan race

All quotations are taken from Robert Fagles’ 2006 translation of the Aeneid.