Aeneid by Virgil (79-19 B.C.) is an epic poem. There are very few works of literature that qualify as that genre and the criteria are all derived by way of the Aeneid from the traditional epics of Homer. In other words, Virgil sets the standard for the genre.
Literary epics must contain the following significant features, but there are more as well:
- The hero is a figure of great importance on a national or world level. For example, Aeneas is the son of the goddess Aphrodite.
- The setting must be large-scale, even worldwide in scope. In the Aeneid, the hero descends into the underworld.
- The epic involves extraordinary heroic deeds in significant battles. For instance, Aeneas fought furiously in the Trojan War.
- The poem must be written in a grand style, with formal diction and elaborate syntax. Virgil has accomplished that literary task.
- Perhaps the most significant feature is the active role of gods and other supernatural figures in the story being told.
In the classic writing style in Ancient Rome, the interference or intervention of gods is called the machinery. Machination is the gimmick authors use to create the problems, conflicts, and situations heroes face during their adventures. Virgil utilizes this method of direct involvement by gods and supernatural figures to contrive the epic questions to be resolved in the tale. Not only do those divine-like figures lend guidance to the characters in the epic, but they are also important symbolic images that enhance the meaning of the story.
In the Aeneid, the author introduces Jupiter as the King of the gods. While Aeneas is on a heroic quest to found Rome, Jupiter provides the support and stability he needs to accomplish his goal. He is symbolic of rational power that is not only helpful to the hero, but also necessary for him to succeed.
Contrast Jupiter’s role in the epic with that of his wife, Juno. She is the Queen of the gods with a definite hatred for Aeneas. As an emotional, vindictive, and irrational supernatural being, she takes every opportunity available to thwart the plans of Aeneas. Juno is intentionally not helpful.
The beautiful Dido, who is the Queen of Carthage, is urged by the gods to make Aeneas her love interest to lead him to failure. She symbolizes the opposition to the founding of Rome and the gods are helpful to her cause, albeit with an unfulfilled result.
In another incident, when the goddess Venus, mother of Aeneas, appears to him in disguise, he does not recognize her. Virgil uses her direct involvement in the plot to symbolize Aeneas’ ignorance with respect to the founding of Rome. In order to achieve his goal and complete his quest, the hero must learn a great deal, guided by the gods and other helpers. He learns self-sacrifice and his mother’s assistance through her image helps him see the light.
As in all epics, prophecies predict the future, and especially in the Aeneid, assure the protagonist that his future is bright and he will prevail. Omens are signs that indicate the will of the gods. They are often symbols, like the pig in Virgil’s epic, which represents Rome and the piglets that represent Rome’s future allies. They are not only essential to the advancement of the plot, but also knowledge of their existence guides the hero in making decisions on his journey.
While the intervention of gods, prophecies and omens, and supernatural guidance is not always helpful in the Aeneid or other epic poems, they provide the mechanisms necessary for epic poets to advance their classic stories.