Written by the Roman poet Vergil in the 20s B.C., the Aeneid is an epic* that recounts the adventures of the Trojan prince Aeneas. In the Aeneid, Vergil combined myth, legend, and history to tell the story of the founding of Rome and to explain why Rome was destined to rule the world.
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
AN EPIC CRYSTAL BALL
Vergil's poems remained popular long after they were written, partly because of the belief that they could predict the future. In the Middle Ages they became known as the Oracles of Vergil and, along with the Bible, were used to tell fortunes. People of all walks of life would open the Aeneid and read the first passage of the poem they saw. This passage was regarded as an omen, or a prophecy of what was going to happen. King Charles I, who ruled England in the early 1600s, is said to have done this before his execution. The passage he read predicted the death of Aeneas. Evidence suggests that this superstitious practice may have begun as early as Hadrian's reign and persisted until the early twentieth century.
The Story of Aeneas. Modeled on the Iliad and the Odyssey of the Greek poet Homer, the Aeneid, written in verse, consists of 12 books and almost 10,000 lines. Aeneas, the hero of Vergil’s epic, also appeared in Homer’s Iliad, which tells the story of a long war between Greece and Troy. In the Aeneid, Vergil takes up Aeneas’s adventures after he escapes from the Greek conquerors of Troy to lead a band of followers to Italy. Vergil drew the material of his story from Homer, from Greek historians, and from earlier Roman writers who considered Aeneas the ancestor of the Romans.
From the start, the Aeneid shows through prophecies and conversations among the gods that Aeneas is destined to be the founder of a great civilization in Italy. First, however, Aeneas and his men must survive dangers and temptations on the journey to their destiny. Many of these obstacles are the work of the goddess Juno, the wife of Jupiter, who hinders Aeneas’s journey because of her deep hatred for the Trojans.
As the poem opens, Aeneas and his men are caught in a terrible storm at sea. The storm drives them to Carthage, a city on the coast of North Africa. There Aeneas has a love affair with Dido, the queen of Carthage, but he abandons her to continue his journey to Italy. The grief-stricken Dido kills herself, but not before cursing Aeneas and vowing that Carthage will be the enemy of his nation. Indeed, many years after the founding of Rome, Rome and Carthage fought a series of wars, which ended with the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C.
Like Homer’s hero Odysseus, Aeneas visits the gloomy underworld* of ghosts and spirits. During a dream, he goes to the world of darkness, beneath the earth, where he can talk to people long dead and to those not yet born. In the underworld Aeneas meets his father, who gives him a glimpse of the civilization that will be created by Aeneas’s descendants. He tells Aeneas how the Romans should rule the lands they will one day conquer—by using their authority to establish peace and order.
* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades
Finally Aeneas and the Trojans arrive in Latium in western Italy, where they plan to settle. At first they are welcomed by Latinus, the king of the local people. Other Latins, however, view the Trojans as a threat, and war erupts. Aeneas defeats Turnus, the champion of these Latins, and weds Lavinia, the daughter of Latinus. Thus the Latins and the Trojans are joined to form a new people. Several hundred years later, Aeneas’s descendant Romulus will found the city of Rome.
The Importance of the Work. The Aeneid gave the Romans a history as heroic as that of the Greeks, and one that linked Roman military skills with legendary warriors. Vergil’s epic celebrated the Roman virtues of responsibility, religious devotion, and order. It also glorified Augustus,Rome’s first emperor, who ruled at the time the epic was written. Yet, according to legend, when Vergil was on his deathbed, he ordered the manuscript of the Aeneid burned—an order that was not followed. Some modern scholars think Vergil considered the Aeneid a failure, perhaps because its hero is troubled and brooding, or because the poem praises peace but does not establish the triumph of peace and justice over war and violence. (See also Punic Wars.)