An Overview of the Aeneid

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It is impossible to imagine western literature without Virgil's Aeneid. Outside of the Bible, perhaps no other book has had more direct effect on our writing and thinking. For four hundred years the Aeneid had the place in Latin education that could be compared to the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare in English. Virgil's language, presentation, the things he found important, even the things over which he simply lingered, sank deep into the heart of Latin literature. The Aeneid became a part of the Christian tradition. Even in the so-called Dark Ages in European history students were exposed to Virgil. Education in Europe and later the Americas meant: Virgil.

Whenever writing about the Aeneid, a critic is writing about ideas and forms which have application for all areas of western literature. The story of Aeneas offered real possibilities. It was a story involving big ideas, in the distant past. Its main outlines were fixed, but many of its larger details were fluid. Material could be added or subtracted. It could be used to reflect on recent events, but was far enough in the past to be neutral. The Aeneid is characterized by inclusiveness. It is a public Roman epic for a very particular audience. It is also Virgil' s epic. It represents a series of rapprochements between what the establishment wanted and what Virgil the thinking Roman wanted. In the process of fulfilling both sets of expectations Virgil wrote an epic not just for Rome, but for humankind.

Virgil's epic is on one level a conflation of the Iliad and the Odyssey, but a conflation that is radically re-oriented away from largely self-centered, self-sufficient heroes to a hero and a chosen people. Virgil had re-invented the epic for an exploration of human nature in a social and political situation. Virgil and his original audience would have been conscious of a sense of coming age of Latin literature with such a controlled and masterful re-use of Homer, but this was not the poem's real purpose nor even his main reason for echoing Homer. Virgil manipulated the earlier material to write a commentary on the heroic life into his own poem.

The Aeneid was written to explore the source and meaning of the Roman way of life, the tool of divine providence. Against this providential social history is the history of the heart—and not Aeneas's heart alone. All the private human plans and hopes of characters great and small are caught within the larger sweep of the will of the gods. It is these personal passages of the Aeneid which have always maintained interest because paradoxically Virgil's treatment of the individual simultaneously stresses the particular and the universal.

The vision of what the providential role of Rome in human history could achieve is just and dignified. It was the gods' offer of a humane society for the world, in which evil would be overcome by the concerted physical and ethical courage of the Roman people. Unfortunately it remains through out the poem, even in the poem's projected future only a possibility which seems doomed to be frustrated, not only by those who do not understand it, but by the character who is expected to bring it into being, Aeneas. The reader is constantly confronted with the paradox that in pursuit of this humane ideal, Aeneas becomes less than he was.

Quinn wrote in one of the most perceptive and simplest sentences in the history of Virgilian criticism that Virgil is "never completely for a character or completely against the character opposing him" (see Topics for Further...

(This entire section contains 1339 words.)

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Study). It is impossible to find a character in the epic who does not show some ambiguity. Nevertheless, criticism, particularly of the major characters, has too often attempted to read characters as either good or bad, and not as Virgil meant them to be read, human and fallible.

The characters make their own lives and deaths with their decisions. Like all great literature, the Aeneid is about characters' reactions to events and to each other In it moral responsibility cannot be shirked. The tears are not only shed by men and women, they are caused by them.

Presiding over human action and choices are the gods. Divine providence is as ambiguous and dark as human nature in the Aeneid. Critics and readers focus on Juno's rage. More disconcerting is the chilling picture of the gods destroying Troy on the night of the city's fall. There is something cold and deeply frightening in that scene, like something out of a monster movie, for a modern reader in the vision of these vast beings pulling up the walls of Troy, while antlike humans fight and flee. There is a legendary streak of perfidy and disrespect for the gods in the history of Troy, but Virgil does not make this clear. Troy is not innocent, but on that night it hardly seems to matter. Only Jupiter rises above this divine terror. His is the vision, his is the disposition of all things towards a plan, but it is only late in the poem that he masters the other divine powers in the poem's universe. The new world order is being mapped out not merely on earth, but in heaven.

Thematic discussions take up a large part of critical analysis, particularly those aimed at first-time readers who meet the poem in translation. Virgil's characters and themes are memorable both because they seem to tap into constants of the human situation, but also because of his technique. For readers who do not know Latin, a good entry into Virgil's technique is his use of imagery. It has been remarked that Virgil has a very small vocabulary of images. What Virgil does with that relatively restricted range of images is important.

Virgil in his chosen dactylic hexameter was perhaps the most technically perfect poet in the history of western literature. It has even been suggested that Virgil's perfection exhausted the possibilities of the hexameter at the same time as it created an overwhelming audience expectation for it. We cannot experience this perfection in a translation. What we can see in a good translation, and even more clearly with a good translation and a little Latin, is the way Virgil chooses and arranges his words and ideas within a pattern of symmetry and variation. The meaning of the whole is always greater than the meaning of the individual words. From individual lines up to the poem as a whole, Virgil constantly balances ideas, images, characters and actions against one another. Within that balancing he uses variety. This variety is not an exact one on one replacement. Instead Virgil's variation extends meaning and action a little at a time. It occurs from the level of the line to the level of verse paragraphs to whole books and in the poem as a whole.

If we look at one short passage in Book 1 (lines 1.490-504) which introduces Dido for the first time, we can see Virgil at his best. Aeneas is looking at a representation of Penthesilea, an Amazon queen who died helping her Trojan allies. This work of art begins to function as a simile as the narrative moves on to the approach of Dido. Dido appears exactly in the center of the 15-line passage. Her appearance is accompanied by another simile comparing her to Diana and her followers dancing through the wilderness. Penthesilea is used to bring Dido on the stage since she too is a queen who will die because of helping the Trojans. The image of the Amazon moving through the armies like fire begins the passage and Dido's radiance as she moves through the crowd ends it. The comparison with Diana looks positive, but it is subtly dangerous. There is an ironic resonance in the line which records the happiness in Latona's heart for the grace of her divine daughter, since Latona's children had been known to destroy those who thought themselves happier than the gods.

Source: Helen Conrad-O'Briain, for Epics for Students, Gale Research, 1997.

Virgil Today

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Perhaps more than any other Roman writer, Virgil has expressed the achievements, and the shortcomings, of that civilization of which we are the children, in a way that has led to his being called 'the father of the western world'. But supposing that we were not his children, supposing that we were people from Mars freshly arrived on this planet and able to read Latin, would we find in him qualities to ensure his continued survival? I think that we would.

Those qualities that make Virgil's poetry relevant today, two thousand years after his death, can be assessed by looking at two main aspects of a poet's work: technical skills in poetic craftsmanship, and the exploration of the underlying meanings and potentialities of human existence.

Technical skills mean the ability to use words in poetic composition—as a carpenter uses wood or a potter clay or an architect space—to produce something which has an aesthetic impact by its mastery of technique. The most obvious of these skills is the ability to produce word-music—'the sweetness of the sound' as Dryden called it—and here it has been universally agreed, even by those few who have been unreceptive towards him otherwise, that Virgil was pre-eminent. He was helped in this by having available as the appropriate metre for epic poetry the Latin hexameter, adapted from Greek by Ennius, and developed by Cicero, Catullus, Lucretius, and others, until in Virgil's hand it became what Tennyson called 'the stateliest measure ever moulded by the lips of man'. The full elaboration of this would involve a lengthy technical discussion, and suffice it to say here that Virgil explored to the full the sonorous beauty of the Latin language so that the sound of his words could echo, and indeed express, the sense of the meaning. In particular the nature of the hexameter (a metre based on quantity) and the pronunciation of Latin (based like English on accent) gave two rhythms which could be employed in harmony or counterpoint as the mood and sense required.

This sense of word-music contributed greatly to a second technical requirement in poetry, descriptive power, and Virgil's word-music was supported by his almost unique imaginative visualization. He loved to depict scenes which the human eye does not see: the imaginary Golden Age in Eclogues 4, Orpheus and Eurydice in the underworld in Georgics 4, the Olympian gods in the Aeneid going about their business in the halls of heaven. We see this kind of skill right at the beginning of the Aeneid in the mythological description of the winds imprisoned in Aeolus's mountain:

Hic vasto rex Aeolus antro luctantis ventos
tempestatesque sonoras imperio premit ac vinclis et
carcere frenat illi indignantes magno cum murmure
montis circum claustra fremunt: celsa sedet Aeolus
arce sceptra tenens mollitque animos et temperat
iras, ni faciat, maria ac terras caelumque profundum
quippe ferant rapidi secum verrantque per auras.

(Aeneid 1.52-59)

Where in a spacious cave of living stone,
The tyrant Aeolus from his airy throne,
With power imperial curbs the struggling winds,
And sounding tempests in dark prisons binds.
This way and that the impatient captives tend,
And pressing for release, the mountains rend;
High in his hall the undaunted monarch stands,
And shakes his sceptre, and their rage commands,
Which did he not, their unresisted sway
Would sweep the world before them in their way:
Earth, air, and seas through empty space
would roll,
And Heaven would fly before the driving soul.
(tr. Dryden)

This sort of imaginative description colours the whole of the Aeneid. We are invited to visualize Juno striding majestically through the halls of heaven, Jupiter smiling at his daughter Venus, Neptune driving over the sea in his chariot with his retinue of strange sea-deities, Iris descending to heaven on her own rainbow:

Ergo Iris croceis per caelum roscida pennis mille
trahens varius adverso sole colores devolat
(Aeneid 4.700-702)

Downward the various goddess took her flight,
And drew a thousand colours from the light.
(tr. Dryden)

Another essential technical skill for an epic poet is the ability to tell a story in an exciting way. In this respect Virgil is often compared unfavourably with Homer, and most people would agree that in sheer narrative speed and excitement Homer takes the palm. Virgil's epic method (like Milton's) is different, but that is not to say that he does not hold us with bated breath on occasion; for example, the story in Book 2 of the wooden horse, the treachery of Sinon, the last hours of Troy, moves with a verve which is breathtaking.

One might continue with other instances of technical skill in poetry, for example, Virgil's use of brilliant rhetoric in speeches. Those between Turnus and Drances, or especially between the goddesses Juno and Venus, enable us to relax emotionally, and enjoy intellectually the brilliant firework display of exaggerated oratory, in which Cicero would have revelled.

Or again we might consider the structure of Virgil's poetry. The Eclogues are symmetrically and elegantly organized in the Alexandrian mode, sometimes with balancing verses from two competitors in a song contest, sometimes with repeated refrain. The first two and the last two books of the Georgics cohere in their content, but in mood Books 1 and 3 correspond, and Books 2 and 4. Descriptive passages throughout are interspersed with didactic information in order to give variety of structure. The Aeneid especially shows architectural construction on a large scale. This is clearly a requirement of epic above all other kinds of poetry: the epic poet must be a builder on a large scale, able to handle his masses of material. Symmetries and contrasts may be seen between the two halves of the poem, between the first third and the last third, between the different books, and between the different sections of each book. Much has been written about Virgil's skill in structure during recent years, so much so that one should enter a caveat and say that however important the structure of poetry may be, it differs from architecture in that structure should be subservient to the poetic message; it is not an end in itself.

This brings us to the second main aspect of a poet's work: the underlying significance of the poetry in relation to human experience. The message conveyed by means of technical skills is obviously deeper in some poets than in others. Most of us could name poets whom we greatly enjoy solely or very largely because of the technical skills just mentioned, and we derive aesthetic rather than intellectual pleasure from their poetry. Virgil, however, is one of those poets who used his aesthetic skills not only for their own sakes, but in order to explore human behaviour in its most crucial aspects.

In the Eclogues some critics have put their greatest emphasis on the pure loveliness of the poetry, but increasingly in modern times these poems have been seen as explorations of an idyllic world to which mankind could attain but from which he may be excluded by the social and political pressures of real life. The fourth Eclogue is a vision of such a golden world; the first and ninth show the agony of the loss, through dispossession, of the happiness which the idyllic countryside offers. Here is a part of the first Eclogue, conveying the envy of the dispossessed for the shepherd who still retains his pastoral world:

fortunate senex, hic inter flumina nota et fontis sacros
frigus captabis opacum, hinc tibi quae semper vicino
ab limite saepes Hyblaeis apibus florem depasta
salicti saepe levi somnum suadebit inire susurro, hinc
alta sub rupe canet frondator ad auras, nec tamen
interea raucae, tua cura, palumbes nec gemere aeria
cessabit turtur ab ulmo.

(Eclogues 1.51-58)

Ah, fortunate old man, here among
hallowed springs
And familiar streams you'll enjoy the longed-for
shade, the cool shade.
Here, as of old, where your neighbour's land
marches with yours,
The sally hedge, with bees of Hybla sipping
its blossom,
Shall often hum you gently to sleep On the
other side
Vine-dressers will sing to the breezes at
the crag's foot,
And all the time your favourites, the husky-voiced
wood pigeons
Shall coo away, and turtle doves make moan in
the elm tops.
(tr. Day Lewis)

The Georgics too have had, and still have, a great appeal purely because of their descriptive power, and the best-known parts have always been the most brilliant of the descriptive passages, like the praises of Italy (2.136ff.) or the activities of the bees (4.67ff.). But again modern criticism has concentrated on the concept in the poem of man as part of nature, divinely created, and on his successes and failures. The poem is seen as a presentation of the positive achievements of man in fitting himself in to the world of nature, and of the disasters which sometimes seem inexplicable (like flood or fire or the plague) and which sometimes are due to man's own folly in the neglect of his duty towards 'the divine countryside'. Above all the life of the countryman is extolled as a religious communion with nature, calling for 'unremitting toil' and resilience, but offering the richest of rewards. Here is a passage contrasting the ambitious, wealth-seeking town-dweller with the contented farmer:

condit opes alius defossoque incubat auro; hic stupet
attonitus rostris, hunc plausus hiantem per cuneos
geminatus enim plebisque patrumque corripuit;
gaudent perfusi sanguine fratrum, exsilioque domos
et dulcia limina mutant atque alio patriam quaerunt
sub sole iacentem agricola incurvo terram dimovit
aratro: hic anni labor, hinc patriam parvosque nepotes
sustinet, hinc armenta boum meritosque iuvencos
(Georgics 2.507-515)

One piles up great wealth, gloats over his
cache of gold;
One gawps at the public speakers; one is worked
up to hysteria
By the plaudits of senate and people resounding
across the benches;
These shed their brothers' blood
Merrily, they barter for exile their homes beloved
And leave for countries lying under an alien sun
But still the farmer furrows the land with his
curving plough:
The land is his annual labour, it keeps his
native country,
His little grandsons and herds of cattle and
trusty bullocks.
(tr. Day Lewis)

The Aeneid differs from the Eclogues and the Georgics with regard to its underlying significance in that it deals with man's problems by presenting and developing individual characters in constantly changing situations. The characters of the Eclogues are in a sense static pictures in a given situation; the characters of the Georgics (except for the Orpheus and Eurydice story) are not individuals at all, but generalized types. The Aeneid, however, as is appropriate for an epic poem, dwells at length on character, and this is best illustrated by focusing on the hero of the poem.

First and foremost Aeneas is a man who has accepted a divine mission which dictates the whole of his actions. He would have preferred to die at Troy among his friends, he would have preferred to stay with Dido, but because he has received intimations by means of visions, dreams and oracles that he has been chosen as the agent of Providence to fulfil a destiny which will bring great benefits to mankind, he devotes himself to this mission. Throughout the poem Virgil explores the effect which such a calling has upon an individual, and many readers of the Aeneid have thought that it causes Aeneas to be a puppet-like creature in whose activities it is hard to take an interest. This is a wholly mistaken view: he is in fact free at any time to cry 'Enough', to decide that his mission is too hard or too uncertain or too unconvincing for him to continue. That he does continue—often by the skin of his teeth—is due to a series of acts of his own free-will. This is explicitly shown, as we have seen, in a passage already referred to (5.700-703) where he ponders on two possible courses of action: continuing with his mission, or abandoning it, 'forgetting' the fates. Thus the fascination of Aeneas lies in the character study of a man whose actions are guided by a sense of divine duty, which he has to struggle to obey, falteringly at first but then with increasing confidence as he becomes more aware of the nature of his calling. Throughout the poem he is devoutly religious in prayer and sacrifice, but increasingly he begins to understand God's purpose for the world and his part in it.

This devotion to the divine will, involving often the sacrifice of personal wishes, covers a large part of Virgil's frequent epithet for Aeneas—plus, 'devoted', 'ready to accept responsibility', 'aware of his duty'. But there are other aspects of this specially Roman virtue which affect his actions. Patriotism is one, and in Aeneas's case this merges with his devotion to the gods whose intention it is to found the Roman race. Care for his family is another, and this is a powerful motivation for his actions. He saves his father from the burning ruins of Troy, and pays the utmost attention to his advice until the very moment of his death. His concern for his son Iulus is evident throughout, and his last words to him are the poignant ones:

Disce, puer, virtutem ex me verumque laborem, fortunam ex allis.
(Aeneid 12.435-436)

Learn, my son, valour from me and the reality of
toil, but good luck from others.

Care for his friends and his fellow-soldiers is a part of pietas, and here again Aeneas does all he can to safeguard his followers (unlike Turnus, whose rash impetuousness leads to many unnecessary deaths). Aeneas is the group hero, the social man.

To achieve this object (which he does not always succeed in doing) Aeneas has to sacrifice something of himself—he gives away something of his own personal individuality in the interests of his duty. In this he contrasts with the vivid personalities of Homer's heroes; they shine more brightly than Aeneas because they are always themselves, seeing life very clearly, understanding their obligations clearly, but not having to struggle inwardly with themselves in order to try to determine the right course of action. They know instinctively what the right course is, and to the best of their ability they set about doing it. But Aeneas is always groping for a way of life which he does not fully understand, and in the course of it tragedies and disasters befall him and others for which he feels guiltily responsible. In a paradoxical way it is his pietas which is responsible for the cruelty with which he treats Dido (indeed Virgil implies as much, 4.393): he sacrifices his own personal wishes (and with them hers) to what he sees to be a higher responsibility.

In contrast with Aeneas both Dido and Turnus are characters drawn very simply, on Homeric lines. Dido knows exactly what she wants, and is not swayed from her personal desire by any other considerations at all. Her duty towards the city of Carthage is forgotten and she alienates her subjects by her disregard of all her queenly duties. She is completely unable to understand Aeneas's arguments that he would like to stay with her but cannot; for her 'like to' and 'can' are the same. Similarly, Turnus is not confused in his attitude by any attempt to weigh up the requirements of Fate, or the wishes of his king, against his own personal determination to have his own way if he possibly can. With both Dido and Turnus we feel that they have been treated scurvily by the force of events—but they are neither of them prepared to compromise in any way with what they want to do.

Aeneas for the most part is very different—thinking always of the implications of a situation and often deciding to act against his own personal wishes. But there are moments when he loses this rational control and lets himself be swayed by his personal instincts—as when he hears of the death of Pallas in Book 10 and rages wildly over the battlefield dealing indiscriminate slaughter; or again after he has been wounded in Book 12; or finally at the end of the poem when he kills Turnus in hot anger. The last adjective to be applied to him in the poem is fervidus, 'in a passion'. In founding Rome he has not trodden an easy path, and he has left it bestrewn with the corpses of those who wished to help as well as those who wished to hinder.

Very many critics in the two thousand years of the Aeneid's existence have found it above all a poem of sadness, of the world's tragedies, of this our vale of sorrow, and Virgil is often thought of as the poet of the 'tears in things', lacrimae rerum. To a very large extent this is true; and yet the vision of a Roman Empire spreading peace and civilization to a war-weary world never fades altogether, and in the attempts of Aeneas, very imperfect though they are, to set in motion the beginnings of this worldly paradise we see something of mankind's indomitable spirit, through mistakes and setbacks and calamities, to press onwards: 'to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield'.

Source: R. D. Williams and T. S. Patue, "Virgil Today," in Virgil: His Poetry through the Ages, pp. 57-67, London, British Library, 1982.

Virgil Begins His Epic

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It is not enough ... to describe Vergil's opening ["I sing of arms and of the man"] as a skillful allusion to inevitable rivalry with Homer. To be sure, he used two nouns of different orders, one referring to a person, one to a thing, and the nouns suggest main elements of the two Homeric narratives. Two nouns together, however, interact; they cannot be absorbed separately as mere equivalents to separate Greek epics. When George Bernard Shaw entitled his comedy Arms and the Man, he knew exactly what he was doing and exactly what Vergil meant with his pair of nouns: they affect each other. Shaw humorously explores some of the paradoxical ways in which warfare affects the personality of the warrior. One appreciates the comedy all the more if he has read the Aeneid and grasped the near tragic vision which Vergil presents of Aeneas the man of arms. Homer knew that warfare can turn a man into a beast, but in the Iliad war remains a fact with which men must deal; within the limited context of battle, men can become heroes. It is part of Achilles' tragedy that he can no longer accept the war as a necessary fact for himself. Vergil goes beyond Homer, since he does not present war as a necessary or desirable fact, and furthermore he shows not only that war brutalizes men, but also that men alter the meaning of war. Note, however, that he does not define Aeneas from the beginning as a tragic warrior, as Homer does Achilles. Instead of the negative term "anger" (later elaborated for its ruinous effects), Vergil uses the neutral word "arms," which he explains in the next lines as crucially important for the establishment of Rome. Together, "arms and the man" could be viewed as positive words, interacting creatively to make possible the good that undoubtedly existed in Rome. So from the beginning Vergil has started a theme of rich ambiguity, a theme which runs through the poem and remains provocatively rich even after the last lines.

This Vergilian theme of arms and man is so crucial that the reader should be prepared for it a little more elaborately. Vergil narrates two distinct occasions of war: the fall of Troy and the conquest of Latium. In the first, Aeneas meets defeat; he battles heroically—and his triumphs are not neglected—but the gods do not permit him to die, with conventional heroism, fighting for Trojan home and country. Although briefly bestialized by the exigencies of desperate resistance to the Greeks, Aeneas remains uncompromised; and it is evident that the gods have selected him because he has more importance as man than mere warrior. The second war is more complex. It starts under checkered circumstances, not without some responsibility on the Trojan side. It continues despite many cruel losses on both sides. Aeneas loses control of his passions and slaughters indiscriminately until at last he vents his anger on the guiltless Lausus and the guilty, but devoted, father Mezentius. Neither of these victories is clean and glorious, neither entirely tarnished by circumstances, but our uncertainty as to the attitude to adopt toward them applies to Aeneas as well. What is this war doing to him and to his ultimate goal? We see now that Vergil never intended to limit our sight to arms and Aeneas in themselves. We are always concerned, as we were but rarely in the Iliad, with the ultimate purpose to which this warfare is instrumental. Aeneas while being a man, also stands for Rome itself. If his victories are compromised, what happens to the Rome he founds? That is the tragic question which Vergil makes us face in Book Twelve, as we watch the encounter between Aeneas and Turnus. Without any obvious guilt on his part (such as Achilles' anger), Aeneas becomes so involved in the Italian war as to render his final victory equivocal.

A few words about Vergil's verb "I sing." Just as Vergil felt free to exploit Homeric convention and to present a theme of complexity that accorded with the new complexities of civilization seven centuries after Homer, so he altered somewhat his relation to material and reader. I have already emphasized the tradition of impersonality and insisted that Vergil could not have begun with a set of autobiographical lines. Now it is time to note the other facet of the poem: with all its impersonal narrative devices, it is also highly personal. A recent writer has used the term "subjective," and perhaps that is more serviceable here, to avoid the awkwardness of the pair "impersonal" and "personal." Vergil's subjectivity is developed from a post-Homeric attitude in Greek and Roman writers, who openly placed themselves in their poetry, expressing attitudes toward narrated events and openly influencing readers. It is too much to detect in "I sing" an assertion of this artistic method. The reader, however, will do well to notice how often and ambiguously Vergil suggests attitudes, especially sympathy for Aeneas' victims....

In the myths about Troy, there is little doubt that the city deserved its destruction. A heritage of deceit and ruthless exploitation culminated in the selfish lust of Paris, who stole Helen, the wife of the man who was his host in Sparta, and heedlessly took her back to Troy, where the Trojan leaders permitted him to enjoy his criminal passion. Homer adds to this heritage of evil by staging a violation of truce negotiations: Pandarus shoots Menelaus, the injured husband, at the moment when a carefully arranged duel has promised to settle the war with a minimum of bloodshed. Thus, although the individual Trojan might feel deeply the defeat of his country, it was conventional to depict the end of Troy as an event favored and promoted by gods as well as men. To escape from Troy, defeated but alive, would mean to leave behind the sinful taint of the past and to seek some new, creative future. And since Aeneas was permitted to escape, it should also follow that he himself was hardly tainted by the misdeeds of Paris and other members of Priam's family. In Italy, destiny had chosen a new environment for the Trojans under Aeneas; there, the good aspects of the Trojan heritage could flourish, stimulated by the change of milieu and the proximity to the new Italian culture.

At one level, then, the flight from Troy to Rome signifies the abandonment of a corrupt past and dedication to a creative future in a new land—all this happening far back in the mythical past just after the Trojan War, that is, around 1200 B.C. But Vergil saw more immediate, contemporary relevance in the Trojan theme, and he shared his insight with other writers of the period. Also writing in the 20's, Horace published a poem in which he made much of the Trojan War, the move to Italy, and the hostility of Juno. Horace's theme concerns the absolute and necessary break between guilty Troy, which must remain ruined and uninhabited, and the new land founded by the Trojan survivors. To this extent, his short Ode 3.3 parallels Vergil's epic. Horace also links this remote mythical past with the present by comparing the reward of apotheosis won by Romulus, Aeneas' descendant who founded Rome, with the divinity to be granted Augustus for his heroic achievements. For Horace the myth of Troy-Rome was a symbolic story which could be applied fruitfully to contemporary history. Vergil made a similar application on a larger epic canvass.

Source: William S. Anderson, "Virgil Begins His Epic," in The Art of the Aeneid, pp. 1-23, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969.


Critical Overview