Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1073
In the Aeneid Aeneas travels from his lost home in the destroyed Troy to the land of Italy where the gods have promised him a new home for his people and a future empire. During his travels he encounters much danger. He must learn to think and act less for himself than for his people and their destiny.
The Aeneid quickly achieved a pre-eminent position in Latin literature and eventually in world literature and culture. Thanks to the Aeneid's enormous popularity and its immediate adoption as a school text, it became the standard for the epic in Western Europe. The work of Virgil's predecessors was almost completely lost. For these reasons it is difficult to properly appreciate Virgil's originality. The early Roman epics of Naevius and Ennius were essentially history, at times current events, written in the epic form. Virgil's Aeneid is equally concerned with Roman history, but handles it in a radically different way.
To handle both the flaws and the real, if frustrated, virtues and promise of the Roman way, Virgil used a legend for the main line of narrative in the Aeneid. History was relegated to digressions. In the Aeneid, legend was treated like real life, history was insinuated into prophecy, visions into the descriptions of objects (ecphrasis). This means that the main narrative can be understood both as explicating the ancient source of the Roman way of life and as a commentary on the present as Virgil experienced it. The protagonist Aeneas both is and is not equated with the ruler Augustus (who may have commissioned or requested the work).
Virgil connects ancient legendry with his modern reality. Aeneas's legendary struggles are paradoxically the reality from which the Roman people, their history, and their institutions came. Aeneas and his history forge the Roman character for better and worse. In the Aeneid, all the dangers and all the glories of the Roman way of life resonate from their origins through the nation's whole history into Virgil's present.
Right Conduct, the Roman Way of Life, and Roman Destiny
The moral center of the Aeneid is the Roman way of life which Augustus was attempting to revitalize in Virgil's own time. This system was ideally based on duty to the gods, to country, and to family and friends. It was powered by a deep sense of humanity. Virgil is aware of the social cohesion, order, even the personal happiness, which this ideal could produce. He is equally aware of the sorrows and cruelties which could result from the clash of these duties. Private experience and duty are often placed in tension against public duty. This tension is at the heart of the parting of Dido and Aeneas. On a historical level, Virgil expresses this tension with an allusion to Brutus, the first consul, who drove the tyrant king Tarquin out of Rome and ordered his own sons executed for attempting to reinstate Tarquin. These tensions are foregrounded throughout the poem.
Nevertheless, it remains clear that Virgil believes that the ideals of Roman life and public service remain worth the often difficult struggle with self. In Book 1 the god Jupiter summarizes what the Roman way of life could and would give not only Rome, but all of humanity, a world-rule which brings universal peace and humane civilization. This world is not expressed in political terms, but ethical ones. It is available to all who follow the Roman way. Without this and similar prophecies the suffering of Aeneas, Dido, Creusa, Palinurus, Pallas and others are nearly unbearable. Aeneas must be brought to understand the promise which is given through him. The pageant of Roman history in Book 6 and the pictures on his shield illustrate the moral qualities of the Roman way of life. Nevertheless, Virgil often undercuts this glorious possibility: in the lament for Marcellus in Book 6, for example, and in the end of the poem itself when Aeneas abandons his highest principles in grief for Pallas and kills Turnus, to whom he had considered granting mercy.
The Sorrows at the Heart of Things
The theme which dictates the tone of the Aeneid for modern readers is that of human loss and regret. The theme can be defined by two remarks in Book 1. In line 203 Aeneas says, "Perhaps even this will be something to remember with joy." In the most quoted passage of the Aeneid, Aeneas exclaims, "Here are tears for things and human mortality touches the heart." The first passage, however, is set in the context of promised destiny of Aeneas and his followers in lines 204-7: "Through many circumstances and various troubles we travel towards Italy where the fates point out a place of rest. There it is decreed for Troy to rise again. Endure and keep yourself for prosperity!" In the second passage the tears and thoughts of which Aeneas is conscious are themselves a reflex of fame. "What region is not full of our distress? Here," he says in lines 460-1, "is the reward of praise." The sorrows of the individual heart caught in conflicting duties are seen in the setting of a divinely granted destiny and the immortality of fame.
Private and Public Ideals
There is a strong sense of tension between Virgil's two ideals of individual human felicity and the mission of Rome. This has sometime been characterized as the tension in Virgil's own ethical ideals between Stoic and Epicurean philosophy. Stoicism was a philosophy of self-sacrificing public service, of a heart unmoved yet rationally compassionate. Epicureanism was a form of philosophical quietism, a retreat from the world. It was not a search for sensual pleasure, as is sometimes suggested, but for an absence of pain. The tension in the poem, however, is more complex. There is a tension between individual happiness and public mission. There is a frightening tension between the ideal and its fulfilment. Roman history was not a litany of broken loves, abandoned friends, and rage. Conjugal love, friendly fidelity, justice, and magnanimity towards the stranger were, for the Roman, what characterized the essence Roman way of life. The Romans never deluded themselves about the difficulty of this life of family and commonwealth. Aeneas is on one level the symbol of the difficulties which beset even an essentially decent man in maintaining the humanity which was necessary if Rome was going to be the great civilizing force the gods intended rather than simply another great power in a long line of great powers.
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