Vergil’s works can be considered in the light of two relationships: his literary connection with the Greek poetry on which his works are modeled, and his personal and ideological connection with the builders of the Roman Empire. Vergil, like most Roman artists, worked within genres invented by the Greeks, but he also left on his works a uniquely Roman imprint. It was his great genius that he was able to combine both Greek and Roman elements so effectively.
The Aeneid of Vergil is an epic poem combining historical and mythical elements in twelve books celebrating the origin and destiny of the Roman people. It owes much to Homer, something to Apollonius Rhodius, and even something to the first Latin epic writer, Quintus Ennius. At the heart of the poem is a success story made poignant by the careful delineation of the great price of that success. Indeed, it is precisely this sense of loss which hovers over the successful plot line which makes the Aeneid a more richly ambiguous poem than its predecessors and all of its successors save Paradise Lost (1667).
In outline, the Aeneid tells the story of a Trojan prince Aeneas, the son of the goddess Venus and the mortal Anchises, from the time he leaves the burning city of Troy to his conquest on the site of the new Troy in Italy. In between he has many adventures, endures several temptations, displays little variety in personality, but emerges with a character experienced in Stoic fashion and representative or emblematic of the ideal Roman leader—in fact, not unlike Augustus, putatively descended from Trojan ancestors, as he seemed to some. The poem therefore displays both the unity of long fiction and the generic traits of early short fiction—for many of the individual episodes can stand alone but together tell the larger story.
Book 1 begins as epic poems should, in medias res, with the storm-tossed Trojans and their captain Aeneas driven onto the coast of North Africa not far from Carthage. The storm was prompted by Juno, ever hostile to the Trojans from the time Paris, the Trojan prince, had made his famous judgment in favor of Venus, not Juno or Minerva (to continue the Latin names); but Venus in disguise provides her son with helpful background information. He enters Carthage and sees in the newly constructed temple painted with scenes of the now-famous struggles of Achilles, Priam, Hector, and even himself. He meets the Carthaginian Queen Dido, who is hospitable to the wandering Trojans, chiefly because she has known what it is to suffer as a refugee. Indeed, her statement which has moved countless readers, moved especially another sufferer and student of suffering, Sigmund Freud, who kept her lines on his desk (“My own acquaintance with misfortune has been teaching me to help others who are in distress”). Dido orders a celebratory banquet and, already smitten with love for Aeneas, asks him to tell the entire story of the fall of Troy.
Book 2 is Aeneas’s narrative of the destruction of Troy in which ruin he lost his wife, Creusa, and with difficulty persuaded his father, Anchises, to flee along with Aeneas and his son, Ascanius (also called Iulus). This book has firmly imprinted itself in the Western imagination. Among the most vivid episodes are Sinon’s treachery; the death of Laocoon and his sons; the murder of Priam by Pyrrhus (see William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, 1600-1601); the appeal of Creusa and the flaming sign about the head of little Ascanius; and most especially, Aeneas carrying his aged father, a necessary link with the Trojan past, and holding in his right hand little Ascanius, the necessary link with the future, struggling to keep up with his short steps to the strides of his heroic father. Meanwhile the wife, Creusa, significantly follows behind this trio of males and finally is lost in the flames of Troy. It is Creusa whose death frees Aeneas to meet the temptation of Dido and the opportunity of Lavinia, and whose ghost assures Aeneas that all is for the best as the gods have ordered it and that happiness and a kingdom await him in the West.
Book 3 continues Aeneas’s tale of his wanderings, and along with book 10 shows most the signs that Vergil would have revised or polished it if he had lived. Among the adventures are the meeting with Andromache, the widow of Hector, another of the grieving women in this masculine world; the advice of the seer Helenus to look for the huge white sow with its thirty young as a sign guaranteeing the proper place for the founding of the new Troy; the counsel to avoid Scylla and Charybdis; the description and appearance of Polyphenus; and finally, the death of Anchises in Sicily, the last landfall before the arrival in Carthage.
Book 4, the most humanly moving, the most romantic, the saddest, and the most Vergilian segment of the poem, involves the love and death of Dido. Vergil’s presentation with sympathetic understanding of the defeated moved Augustine to tears, reduced Aeneas in the eyes of readers immemorial to a...
(The entire section is 2071 words.)