Book VI of the Aeneid is the most important section of the work. Book VI describes Aeneas' trip to the Underworld, where he experiences his epiphany and discovers how to resolve his fate and how his fate is connected to the fate of Rome.
QUESTION: How does each of the following elements from Aeneas' epiphany help him to resolve his fate and help us (Virgil’s readers) to understand how the Romans viewed their history and its impact on their daily lives?
1. Aeneas's meeting and interaction with Anchises.
2. Aeneas's meeting with Dido.
3. Aeneas's meeting with the "Promised One".
4. Aeneas's departure from the Underworld through the gate of ivory.
In Book VI, the journey to the underworld provides much in way of meaning and purpose for Aeneas. It is a reflection of what Dante would in his work in terms of being immersed in the midst of a "dark wood." The trials and tribulations that Aeneas has endured are given clarification and understanding in Book VI. Through his journey into the underworld, purpose is given to Aeneas. At the same time, Virgil understands this parallel structure to the Roman setting. As Aeneas seeks to understand his purpose and destiny, Virgil uses it for those reading the text to better grasp what it means to embrace the Roman way of life and the historical virtues associated with Rome. The view that Aeneas takes towards history is what Virgil would want those in Rome to see as their own construction of being in the world.
The dominant element that emerges from Book VI is that Aeneas understands that he is a part of a larger configuration. Sibyl's prophecy is one that asserts "truth wrapped in mystery." This helps to provide background to the struggle that Aeneas endures to understand what he must do and why he has to embrace his destiny. The truth veiled in mystery and confusion is a significant aspect of the revelations that Aeneas experiences at this point in his voyage.
Part of this truth is the establishment of one's public virtue coming at the cost of private suffering. No better is this seen than in the interaction with Dido in the Underworld. Having been forced to leave her, Aeneas comes into full contact with the implications of his action, the result of his destiny:
Dido, unhappy spirit, was the news, that came to me of your death, true then, taking your life with a blade? Alas, was I the cause of your dying? I swear by the stars, by the gods above, by whatever truth may be in the depths of the earth, I left your shores unwillingly, my queen. I was commanded by gods, who drove me by their decrees, that now force me to go among the shades, through places thorny with neglect, and deepest night: nor did I think my leaving there would ever bring such grief to you.
Aeneas is pointed in his sadness of having to undertake a professional duty in the midst of personal suffering. There is little doubt that he suffers in having to do what he knows he must do. In his assertions of being "commanded by the gods" and arguing that he is "forced," it is clear that Aeneas embodies the result of a collision between equally desirable, but ultimately incompatible courses of action. Virgil understands such a reality in Rome. Public responsibility and virtue collide with personal desire and satisfaction. Through the inclusion of Aeneas' sadness and forlorn over having brought "such grief" to Dido, Virgil reminds the reader that Rome is forged through acknowledgement of the sacrifices in the historical condition of being a Roman. Historical consciousness is forged through such a collision, and Virgil seeks to authenticate it through this encounter. The meeting with Dido is a validation of personal suffering at the cost of following "the gods above" and swearing one's actions "by the stars."
The submission of one's own personal understanding to a larger configuration is evident when Aeneas meets Anchises. Overcome with the emotion of his father's embrace, Aeneas shows himself struggling to understand what he sees in the Underworld. It takes guidance from Anchises to provide the elements that enable truth to emerge from mystery: "Indeed I’ll tell you, son, not keep you in doubt,’ Anchises answered, and revealed each thing in order." Virgil is deliberate in suggesting that individuals must look to a higher force for guidance. In this case, Virgil suggests that we look towards individuals, such as great emperors, who have the answer for us. Their experience and counsel enable us to discern truth from deception and bring light into our darkened thoughts. Aeneas is shrouded with challenges around him and his father's counsel helps to provide meaning. Part of this lies in how Anchises tells Aeneas that he is not alone, but rather he is part of "a spirit within them nourishes the sky and earth, the watery plains, the shining orb of the moon, and Titan’s star, and Mind, flowing through matter, vivifies the whole mass, and mingles with its vast frame." For Virgil, it is a deliberate suggestion that individual identity is a part of something larger than the self. It is significant that the first lesson that the father imparts to the son is to reflect his condition in the "spirit" of being that underscores all consciousness. The understanding of the historical condition of this spirit is relevant to the reader in Virgil's context.
From this, Anchises speaks to the political and civic legacy that Aeneas will spawn. Anchises is purposeful in regaling his son with all that will be. He offers him counsel in this process:
Come, I will now explain what glory will pursue the children of Dardanus, what descendants await you of the Italian race, illustrious spirits to march onwards in our name, and I will teach you your destiny.
Virgil's voice through Anchises helps to develop how the Roman citizen is to understand their role as part of this "spirit." The progression that Aeneas envisions is one where errors have been made and must be understood. Like Aeneas, they are to understand where mistakes have been made and not repeat them, making the future better than that which was:
Roman, remember by your strength to rule
Earth’s peoples—for your arts are to be these:
To pacify, to impose the rule of law,
To spare the conquered, battle down the proud.
Aeneas is shown to be an active learner, reflective of how Virgil sought to educate the reader about the complex glory intrinsic to the Roman way. When Anchises tells Aeneas about the future, it reflects how the past is understood in order to make the future better.
When Aeneas meets Augustus through Anchises's guidance, it is meant to cast awe upon the reader. It is at this moment where Virgil makes clear that the historical condition of Rome is one of astonishment and marvel:
Here is Caesar, and all the offspring of Iulus destined to live under the pole of heaven. This is the man, this is him, whom you so often hear promised you, Augustus Caesar, son of the Deified, who will make a Golden Age again in the fields where Saturn once reigned, and extend the empire beyond the Libyans and the Indians (to a land that lies outside the zodiac’s belt, beyond the sun’s ecliptic and the year’s, where sky-carrying Atlas turns the sphere, inset with gleaming stars, on his shoulders): Even now the Caspian realms, and Maeotian earth, tremble at divine prophecies of his coming, and the restless mouths of the seven-branched Nile are troubled.
The power of meeting Augustus is a reflection of the past and future, and the glory that is Rome. It is in this light where Aeneas is led to the gate of Ivory. The movement towards the gate of Ivory is a challenging element. Its explanation surpasses what can be offered here. Perhaps, one potential reason why Virgil has Aeneas leave through the gates of ivory, the path of delusion, is to reflect how Rome is constructed with the ideal in mind. Virgil might be suggesting that Rome is a dream, a vision of the subjective that must be constructed and shared with the deepest of belief and conviction. The ideals of Roman life have to be envisioned with the mind's eye and have to be taken upon a firmament of faith. There is no definitive answer to this, other than to combine the reality of movement towards the ivory gate with the noble vision that Virgil has sought to impart in his depiction of the Roman notion of the good. This becomes the fundamental truth that is wrapped in mystery.