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...
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