Aeneid Summary

Aeneid cover image summary

The Aeneid is divided into twelve books. The first six books tell the story of Aeneas, a Trojan hero and the future founder of Rome. The last six books tell of how the Trojans settled in Italy and defeated the Italians in battle.

  • Aeneas's story begins in medias res, as he's sailing to Italy after the Trojan war. His ships are caught in a storm, and he's forced to land near the ancient city of Carthage.

  • While in Carthage, Aeneas tells Queen Dido about the Trojan War and how, after the loss, he and his men traveled to Delos, where the oracle of Apollo told them they would found a great nation. Dido falls in love with Aeneas, but he must leave her to follow his destiny.

  • Aeneas and the Trojans settle in Latium and almost immediately go to war with the city's natives, the Italians. Aeneas kills Turnus, the leader of Latium's defense, and then marries Lavinia, the princess of Latium, fulfilling Apollo's prophecy.

Overview

Summary of the Poem
The Aeneid is an epic poem, detailing Aeneas' journey. The first six books of the Aeneid recount the adventures of Aeneas, the future founder of Rome. The last six books tell of the settlement of the Trojans in Italy and the war with the Italians.

After the fall of Troy, a small group of refugees (the Aeneidae) escaped, and Aeneas became their leader. Several prophecies predicted that this group would settle in Italy and become ancestors of the Romans. The Aeneidae suffer many hardships; similar to those suffered by Odyseus (attacks by the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis.) After wandering for years, the Aeneidae arrived in Italy, settling in Latium. Before they are accepted, they have to fight a terrible war. After slaying Turnus, Aeneas is free to marry Lavinia, the princess of Latium.

Virgil begins the poem as Aeneas is sailing on the last leg of his predestined journey to Italy. Tremendous storms batter his ships and they take refuge on the nearest land. Aeneas hears that Queen Dido is constructing Carthage. The Queen falls in love with Aeneas and begs him to tell her the story of the fall of Troy.

Aeneas relates the tale at the request of the Queen. After the fall, the band of exiled men sailed to Delos where the oracle of Apollo predicted that they would found a great nation. He details his adventures up to the present time for the Queen. Dido and Aeneas' love is ill-fated. He must follow the destiny the Gods have made for him. When he leaves Dido commits suicide.

The ships finally arrive in Italy, near Cumae. Aeneas visits the temple of Apollo to consult a prophetess. She appears to him and tells Aeneas of the war he will fight and of his enemies. He asks to descend into Hades, where he meets his father, Anchises. Anchises shows Aeneas his future heirs and the heroes of Rome.

The Trojans continue on and settle in Latium. Aeneas realizes his prophecy has been fulfilled. A war breaks out and Aeneas is given magical armor by the Gods for protection. Turnus, the leader of Latium's defense, attacks the Trojan camp, and many lives are lost. Turnus announces that the husband of Lavinia will be determined by a duel between Aeneas and himself. Aeneas kills Turnus in battle. The prophecies of the gods have been fulfilled.

The Life and Work of Virgil
Born in 70 BC, Publius Vergilius Maro grew up in northern Italy on a gentleman's farm. His parents recognized his talents and gave him a good education, hoping he would take up a career in law. After studying in northern Italy at the schools of Cremona and Milan, he went to Rome in 53 BC to complete his training as a lawyer. Neither the city nor the occupation appealed to him, and after pleading his first case he returned permanently to the countryside.

From the Bay of Naples, Virgil (as he is called in English) began to write poetry. Ignoring the tide of chaos overwhelming Rome, he chose to focus on pastoral subjects. His first work, the Eclogues ("selections"), were presented as poems of shepherds. The descriptions of happy flocks and bucolic love were well received by the Roman public, who wanted to hide from the turmoil of their lives in poems that celebrated and romanticized the simple life. Two years later, in 42 BC, Virgil found his estates confiscated by Julius Caesar's heir Octavius. Fortunately, his work had won for him the attention of Maecenas, Octavius's good friend and the premier literary patron of the time. With Maecenas' help, he had his farm restored to him.

Virgil's next work was the Georgics, a treatise on farming. Written over the course of seven years, it was finished in 31 BC. In form it is a "how-to" book, but the lavish detail and beautiful verse turn it into a celebration of the importance of husbandry. While farming itself was in decline and most farmers were indifferent to the moral value of their occupation, city-dwellers once again found the work perfectly suited to their tastes.

With his reputation and finances secured, Virgil was able to devote the last 11 years of his life to the Aeneid. It was Augustus who suggested Virgil use the history of the Roman Empire as the subject for an epic poem. In it he attempted to take the works of Homer, who was considered the best of poets, and turn his words and style into a celebration of both the Roman nation and the Latin tongue.

While returning from a research trip to Greece, Virgil fell mortally ill. Unable to complete his work, he ordered it to be burned upon his death. Augustus countermanded Virgil's wishes, and he commissioned two of Virgil's fellow poets to edit the work. Upon its publication, the Aeneid was immediately hailed as a masterpiece and adopted as the official poem of Augustus' "Restored Republic." Since then, it has never fallen out of popularity.

Estimated Reading Time
There are many translations of the Aeneid. Each book can be read in about an hour or two, with a range of approximately 12-24 hours for the whole work.