Aeneas (ee-NEE-uhs), the legendary progenitor of the Roman rulers whose son Ascanius, in fulfillment of a prophecy, founded Alba Longa and whose later descendants, Romulus and Remus, founded Rome. The son of Venus and of Anchises, the king of Dardanus, Aeneas is somewhat more diffident than the warrior heroes of other ancient epics, and he displays the Latin virtues of moderation and filial devotion. Only occasionally does he indulge in righteous indignation. Twice during the siege of Troy, he is saved from death by the intervention of his divine mother. After the fall of the city, he flees, carrying his aged father on his shoulders and leading his son Ascanius by the hand. In the confusion, his devoted wife Creusa is lost. Aeneas searches for her in vain until her shade appears to tell him that he will find his destiny in a distant land. After long wandering, Aeneas and his small band of followers arrive in Italy, where he engages in warfare with the people of Latium and Rutuli. Eventually, a truce is arranged and he marries Lavinia, the daughter of King Latinus. In her honor, he founds the city of Lavinium.
Anchises (an-KI-seez), the king of Dardanus, King Priam’s ally in the Trojan War, and the father of Aeneas. A man of great wisdom, he guides his son through many dangers during the wanderings of Aeneas and his followers from Troy to Sicily, where Anchises dies. From the underworld, he foretells the greatness of Rome and commands Aeneas to end his travels at the place where he will eat his tables. Although he appears only as a shade within the poem, the old man figures as a sage patriarch in the recital of earlier events.
Ascanius (as-KA-nih-uhs), sometimes called Iulus, the son of Aeneas. He fulfills Anchises’ prophecy of the place to settle when he declares, while the Trojans are eating food heaped on large pieces of bread, that they are eating their tables. He takes part in one battle, in which he acquits himself with bravery befitting the future founder of a city and a kingdom.
Creusa (kree-EW-suh), Aeneas’s wife. After she becomes separated from her husband and son during the flight from Troy, Aeneas searches for her despairingly until her shade appears to tell him that she is lost to Troy forever and that in Italy an empire awaits him.
Dido (DI-doh), the queen of Carthage, whose love for Aeneas causes her death. When Jupiter sends Mercury, the messenger of the gods, to remind Aeneas of his mission, the hero prepares to continue his wanderings, in spite of the vows he has sworn and Dido’s pathetic pleas that he remain with her. On the pretext of burning the love tokens he gave her, Dido prepares a funeral pyre and, lamenting her betrayal, kills herself after the departure of Aeneas and his band. Considered one of the most wronged women in all literature, Dido has beauty, charm, and character, though the latter she sacrifices to the whims of Venus.
Anna, Queen Dido’s sister and confidante.
Latinus (leh-TI -nuhs), the king of Latium. Because the oracles have foretold that a stranger will appear, marry his daughter, and rule his kingdom, Latinus befriends Aeneas and promises him the hand of Lavinia, the royal princess, in marriage. The prophecy is not immediately fulfilled, however, for Juno, the enemy of Aeneas, sends the Fury Alecto to turn Amata, the wife of Latinus, against Aeneas. Amata finds a confederate in Turnus, the leader of...
(This entire section contains 1326 words.)
the Rutulians, her choice as a husband for Lavinia. Bewildered and grieved by this dissension, Latinus goes into retirement. Turnus takes command of the Latiums and Rutulians in the war with the Trojans and their allies.
Lavinia (leh-VIH-nih-uh), the beautiful young daughter of King Latinus and his wife Amata. Loved by Turnus but betrothed to Aeneas, she becomes the prize for which the leaders contend in a bloody tribal war. She becomes the bride of Aeneas after the hero has killed Turnus in single combat and peace has been restored.
Turnus, the leader of the Rutulians and the enemy of Aeneas. A giant of a man and the favorite of Queen Amata for the hand of Lavinia, Turnus is a braggart warrior who makes good his boasts. Aided by Juno, he is almost successful in defeating the Trojan warriors led by Aeneas. When Turnus is decoyed away from the battle, Aeneas pursues and kills him. After the death of Turnus, according to the decision of the gods, Aeneas and his followers abandon Trojan ways and accept the customs of Latium.
Amata (uh-MAH-tuh), Latinus’ wife. Goaded by the Fury Alecto, she is moved to hate Aeneas and to plot against him.
Camilla (kuh-MIH-luh), a warrior maiden of the Rutulians brought up in the worship of Diana. She dies in battle, her exposed breast pierced by a Trojan spear, and her death incites Turnus to frenzied rage and even greater efforts against the warriors of Aeneas.
Aruns (A-ruhns), the slayer of Camilla.
Opis (OH-pihs), the nymph charged by Diana to look over Camilla and protect her. Opis kills Aruns to avenge the death of the warrior maiden.
Evander (eh-VAN-dehr), the leader of an Arcadian colony and the ruler of the city of Pallanteum, built on the site of later Rome. In a dream, Tiber, the stream god, directs Aeneas to seek the help of Evander in the coming battle with the Latium and Rutulian forces under Turnus. The Arcadian leader welcomes Aeneas to his city and sends a band of warriors, under the leadership of his son Pallas, to aid the Trojans.
Pallas (PAL-uhs), the son of Evander. During a hard-fought battle, Pallas, while trying to rally his followers, meets Turnus in single combat and is killed by the Rutulian. His death causes great grief among the Trojans, and Evander is heartbroken. In the conflict between Aeneas and Turnus, Aeneas is about to spare his enemy’s life when he sees that Turnus is wearing a gold-studded sword belt stripped from the body of Pallas. Proclaiming that Pallas really strikes the blow, Aeneas drives his sword through Turnus and kills the Rutulian leader.
Euryalus (yew-RIH-uh-luhs) and
Nisus (NI-suhs), valiant young Trojan warriors. During the absence of Aeneas, who has gone to Pallanteum to ask Evander for aid, the two leave the beleaguered Trojan camp and steal into the tents of the besieging enemy. There, they kill a number of the Latin soldiers and collect trophies of their exploits before they are surrounded and killed. The followers of Turnus parade the heads of the dead heroes before the Trojan camp.
Anius (A-nih-uhs), the king of Ortygia, where Aeneas and his followers sail after the ghost of Polydorus has warned them not to settle in Thrace. At Ortygia, the priest of Apollo prophesies that the descendants of Aeneas will rule over a world empire if the wanderers will return to the ancient motherland of Troy. Anchises mistakenly declares that the Trojans had come from Crete.
Celaeno (seh-LEE-noh), the queen of the Harpies. When the Trojans land in the Strophades, they unknowingly offend her, and she threatens them with famine.
Acestes (eh-SEHS-teez), the son of a Trojan maiden and a river god. He rules over that part of Sicily where Aeneas and his followers go ashore to hold funeral games in observance of Anchises’ death. Aeneas awards Acestes first prize in the archery contest because he is “the favorite of the gods.”
Nautes (NOH-teez), the wisest of the Trojan band. He advises Aeneas to leave the aged and infirm behind with Acestes when the Trojans continue their wanderings.
Palinurus (pa-lih-NEW-ruhs), the helmsman drowned shortly after the Trojans sail away from the kingdom of Acestes. Venus has offered his life as a sacrifice if Neptune will grant safe convoy to her son and his followers.
One of the most discussed ideas in the Aeneid is commonly termed the "Imperial Theme" and concerns the glory and significance of the Roman Empire. For a long time, the poem was considered the cleverest piece of propaganda for Rome ever created. However, modern scholars have noted how sympathetically Vergil treats the enemies of Aeneas and contend that Vergil could not have intended his work as mere propaganda. Perhaps it would be fair to say that Vergil believed the founding of Rome to be divinely fated, but also realized how much sacrifice was necessary in the achievement.
Sacrifice is another major theme in the work. Aeneas, in effect, sacrifices all that he holds dear in order to settle his people in a new land and establish a line of kings that eventually produces Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. In one moving episode, in which the theme of sacrifice takes on a special poignancy, Aeneas abandons a comfortable life and his true love, Queen Dido of Carthage, when a messenger of the gods demands that he leave to complete his mission. Possibly because he spent years studying the Stoic philosophy, Vergil greatly emphasizes the necessity of doing one's duty, no matter what the cost. Thus, Aeneas follows the calling of his duty at great personal sacrifice.
After Aeneas leaves Carthage, pays funereal homage to his father, Anchises, and visits the Underworld, the wandering Trojans reach Italy, which by portents is recognized as their intended homeland. From this point on, the epic treats the negotiations and combats that are required to bring peace and stability to the Trojans, their allies, and even their former enemies. The theme of the human need for order is sharply etched in the tense scenes of argument and armed conflict. The gods and goddesses take a hand in the action, but under Vergil's direction, their deeds are the result of believable human motivations, such as pain, anger, love, or pride.
Destiny was much in the thoughts of all Romans, and one reason Vergil composed the Aeneid was to justify the evident decree of fate that Rome should conquer and rule the known world. In Homer's epics, the power of fate is portrayed as stronger even than the will of the gods. Refusing to intercede in earthly events, Zeus simply says that fate has decreed that Odysseus must be allowed to return home. In a similar way in Vergil's epic, there is little doubt that Aeneas and his followers will eventually settle in Italy and prevail there. With the outcome preordained, the task of the hero is to know the will of destiny and do what must be done to secure the proper conclusion.
Throughout his adventures, Aeneas reveals a typical Roman characteristic— piety. More clearly than almost any other literary hero, Aeneas demonstrates a genuine desire to worship the gods, pay reverence to his father, and love his son. He generally displays an attitude of devotion to his divine mission and never seems to overlook the opportunity to perform "religious" rites. For example, the funeral games that mark the passing of Anchises last nine days and require an enormous number of animals to be slaughtered in sacrifice to the gods. All of the main characters pray to the gods at one time or another. Aeneas does so on a regular basis and takes to heart any sign that they send him.
In the first half of the epic, the principal human actors are the hero, his family, and his Trojan friends, and a number of scenes portray tender relationships among them. Aeneas carries his aged father from the burning city of Troy, suffers a heartbreaking meeting with the spirit of his deceased wife, Creusa, and lavishes care upon his son Ascanius. These episodes and many more help characterize Aeneas as the most loyal, loving, and thoughtful of ancient epic heroes.
Most of the characters in the Aeneid fall into the two standard epic categories—mortals and divinities—and the interaction between human beings and the gods plays a large part in the story. Aeneas, himself, is half-mortal and half-divine, his mother being the goddess Venus. Aeneas's principal enemy in Italy, Turnus, is the son of a nymph who mated with a mortal being. Being "half-divine" lends a special significance to the major hero and antagonist of the story.
As in the Greek epics, the gods and goddesses in the Aeneid often reveal human tendencies. At one point, the hero reacts to the harms caused by the goddess Juno, his sworn enemy, by demanding to know if it is true that the hearts of divine beings can hold such anger. For a number of reasons, which become clear in the course of the narrative, Juno does indeed harbor extreme resentment against Aeneas. She stirs up a disastrous storm at sea which nearly ruins his fleet, and she inspires hostility in the hearts of his enemies once his weary group has finally landed in Italy.
Other deities are also involved in the plot. Aeneas's mother, Venus, is unrelenting in her attempts to protect her son and assist his endeavor. Sometimes, as with the Fury Alecto near the close of the poem, the immortals serve the aims of one of the central divine actors; at other times they are simply the agents through which predestined events occur. Jupiter, the king of the gods, for instance, takes no side in the various conflicts in which Aeneas and the Trojans become engaged. He does, however, force the contending Juno and Venus to accept the decree of Fate. In one sense, Vergil employs the divinities as intense representations or symbols of deep-rooted human motivations.
The profuse parade of minor characters in the Aeneid is another feature of many world epics. Vergil, a diligent student of Greek and Roman history and mythology, mentions dozens of persons and gods who have little to do with the central plot but whose names were familiar to his contemporary readers. For example, Ilia, the mother of Romulus and Remus, is mentioned briefly in a prophetic remark. She would have been recognized by Romans of Vergil's day as an important personage in the mythical background of their empire.
While most of the minor characters do little to advance the story line, they often perform vital functions in terms of the structure of the poem, as when Aeneas meets the ghost of his father while journeying through the Underworld. Anchises recounts the deeds of Aeneas's descendants in detail and reveals their contributions to the future glories of Rome. Because of this foreshadowing, Vergil has no need to return to these events at the close of the poem but can concentrate instead on the thrilling combat that takes place between Aeneas and his principal rival.
Vergil portrays this rival, Turnus the King of the Rutulians, very sympathetically. Turnus is a handsome young man with positive character traits, who can be judged as having sound reasons for opposing the newly arrived "foreigners." One such reason is his loss of the lovely Lavinia, whom he plans to marry, but who is soon promised to Aeneas. For this and other reasons stirred up by the contending gods, Turnus turns against Aeneas and becomes the implacable enemy of the Trojans.