Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2071
Vergil’s works can be considered in the light of two relationships: his literary connection with the Greek poetry on which his works are modeled, and his personal and ideological connection with the builders of the Roman Empire. Vergil, like most Roman artists, worked within genres invented by the Greeks, but...
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- Critical Essays
Vergil’s works can be considered in the light of two relationships: his literary connection with the Greek poetry on which his works are modeled, and his personal and ideological connection with the builders of the Roman Empire. Vergil, like most Roman artists, worked within genres invented by the Greeks, but he also left on his works a uniquely Roman imprint. It was his great genius that he was able to combine both Greek and Roman elements so effectively.
The Aeneid of Vergil is an epic poem combining historical and mythical elements in twelve books celebrating the origin and destiny of the Roman people. It owes much to Homer, something to Apollonius Rhodius, and even something to the first Latin epic writer, Quintus Ennius. At the heart of the poem is a success story made poignant by the careful delineation of the great price of that success. Indeed, it is precisely this sense of loss which hovers over the successful plot line which makes the Aeneid a more richly ambiguous poem than its predecessors and all of its successors save Paradise Lost (1667).
In outline, the Aeneid tells the story of a Trojan prince Aeneas, the son of the goddess Venus and the mortal Anchises, from the time he leaves the burning city of Troy to his conquest on the site of the new Troy in Italy. In between he has many adventures, endures several temptations, displays little variety in personality, but emerges with a character experienced in Stoic fashion and representative or emblematic of the ideal Roman leader—in fact, not unlike Augustus, putatively descended from Trojan ancestors, as he seemed to some. The poem therefore displays both the unity of long fiction and the generic traits of early short fiction—for many of the individual episodes can stand alone but together tell the larger story.
Book 1 begins as epic poems should, in medias res, with the storm-tossed Trojans and their captain Aeneas driven onto the coast of North Africa not far from Carthage. The storm was prompted by Juno, ever hostile to the Trojans from the time Paris, the Trojan prince, had made his famous judgment in favor of Venus, not Juno or Minerva (to continue the Latin names); but Venus in disguise provides her son with helpful background information. He enters Carthage and sees in the newly constructed temple painted with scenes of the now-famous struggles of Achilles, Priam, Hector, and even himself. He meets the Carthaginian Queen Dido, who is hospitable to the wandering Trojans, chiefly because she has known what it is to suffer as a refugee. Indeed, her statement which has moved countless readers, moved especially another sufferer and student of suffering, Sigmund Freud, who kept her lines on his desk (“My own acquaintance with misfortune has been teaching me to help others who are in distress”). Dido orders a celebratory banquet and, already smitten with love for Aeneas, asks him to tell the entire story of the fall of Troy.
Book 2 is Aeneas’s narrative of the destruction of Troy in which ruin he lost his wife, Creusa, and with difficulty persuaded his father, Anchises, to flee along with Aeneas and his son, Ascanius (also called Iulus). This book has firmly imprinted itself in the Western imagination. Among the most vivid episodes are Sinon’s treachery; the death of Laocoon and his sons; the murder of Priam by Pyrrhus (see William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, 1600-1601); the appeal of Creusa and the flaming sign about the head of little Ascanius; and most especially, Aeneas carrying his aged father, a necessary link with the Trojan past, and holding in his right hand little Ascanius, the necessary link with the future, struggling to keep up with his short steps to the strides of his heroic father. Meanwhile the wife, Creusa, significantly follows behind this trio of males and finally is lost in the flames of Troy. It is Creusa whose death frees Aeneas to meet the temptation of Dido and the opportunity of Lavinia, and whose ghost assures Aeneas that all is for the best as the gods have ordered it and that happiness and a kingdom await him in the West.
Book 3 continues Aeneas’s tale of his wanderings, and along with book 10 shows most the signs that Vergil would have revised or polished it if he had lived. Among the adventures are the meeting with Andromache, the widow of Hector, another of the grieving women in this masculine world; the advice of the seer Helenus to look for the huge white sow with its thirty young as a sign guaranteeing the proper place for the founding of the new Troy; the counsel to avoid Scylla and Charybdis; the description and appearance of Polyphenus; and finally, the death of Anchises in Sicily, the last landfall before the arrival in Carthage.
Book 4, the most humanly moving, the most romantic, the saddest, and the most Vergilian segment of the poem, involves the love and death of Dido. Vergil’s presentation with sympathetic understanding of the defeated moved Augustine to tears, reduced Aeneas in the eyes of readers immemorial to a mere instrument of the gods rather than a feeling human being, and tempted Milton to repeat the story in the form of Adam and Eve with an antithetical resolution. Like John Milton after him, Vergil had some difficulty in succeeding with the tactic of criticizing by authorial statement the all-too-moving conduct he depicts. The image of Rumor is especially memorable, but even it pales in comparison to the final lamentation and suicide of Dido, betrayed by Aeneas and destiny.
Book 5 is a relaxation between the two most powerful books, 4 and 6; its funeral games are a more morally sophisticated version of the games in book 23 of the Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.). Although there is a relaxation in narrative tension, symbolic significance remains high, for the book is framed by two deaths. It opens with Aeneas, as his fleet heads for Sicily, looking backward at the walls of Troy which reflect the flames from Dido’s funeral pyre, and it ends with the sacrificial death by drowning of the Trojan helmsman Palinurus. Both Dido and to a lesser degree Palinurus represent the cost in human terms of political obligation. Of the several events in the funeral games themselves, the most memorable is the boxing match between the huge braggart Dares and the old champion Entellus, whose initial humiliation and ultimate regeneration reveal in small the fortunes of the Trojans in large. The psychological understanding and symbolic patterning show Vergil at his best. This book and this episode are important influences upon the imagery, structure, and theme of Milton’s drama, Samson Agonistes (1671).
Book 6, with Aeneas’s descent into the underworld guided by the Sibyl, is the greatest of the books of the poem in terms of vision and poignancy. The obstacles and dangers which Aeneas avoids in the underworld are another version of the hurdles he has had to clear throughout his career presented in the first five books. Among the memorable scenes are Palinurus with his appeal for a proper burial, and Dido, marble cold in her scorn of Aeneas’s exculpatory explanation, an episode described by T. S. Eliot as the most “civilized” in Western literature. Aeneas finally reaches that part of the underworld called the Land of Joy, where his father Anchises provides a vision of the destiny of his descendants, that is, a vision of the Roman future, a future already history to Vergil’s contemporary audience. Of all the Roman heroes, the young Marcellus, son to Octavia and nephew to Augustus, is the last, and his tragic, early death foretold in the poem and experienced only recently by his readers led to his mother’s swooning when Vergil read aloud the passage to her.
The sixth book brings an end to the “Odyssean” part of the Aeneid; Aeneas’s wanderings are at an end. The last six books constitute the “Iliadic” Aeneid, concerned primarily with battles and the preparation for battle. As Vergil’s nature was not very martial, his success in the last part of the work seems less memorable, although his profound insight into human character and into the inescapably tragic, nature of existence has allowed him to create two unforgettable characters only less memorable than Dido herself. These are Turnus, the young king of the Rutulians who plays the role of the vanquished Hector to that of the avenging Achilles of Aeneas, and Mezentius, the savage tyrant, grieving at the loss of his son, indomitable in defeat. That Vergil’s three most memorable characters should all suffer loss and defeat is not without significance in any analysis of the poet’s sensibility and humanity.
Book 7 tells of Aeneas’s landing in Latium, of his dealings with King Latinus, who obeys an oracle and offers Aeneas the hand of his daughter Lavinia. By the intervention of the ever hostile Juno, however, war is created between the Trojans and the Latins. Latinus does not oppose Aeneas but Turnus does, claiming Lavinia for himself.
Book 8 has Aeneas acquire allies in the form of Evander and his son Pallas, their troops, and the Etruscan troops and their leader Tarchon. Most celebrated is the description of the shield which Vulcan forges for Aeneas. On it are depicted scenes from a Roman history, the very beginning of which Aeneas is fighting to create. At the center of the shield is depicted the Battle of Actium and the consequent triumph of Augustus.
Book 9 presents the siege of the Trojan camp nearly successful in the absence of Aeneas and costing the lives of the two young men Nisus and Euryalus, who perish through the rashness of Euryalus and the profound loyalty of Nisus. Vergil stops his narrative at their deaths to expostulate on their happy fate of dying together and to argue for their immortality through his poetry. The intensity of this celebration of male bonding should not obscure the artistry with which Vergil has prepared this episode, for during the funeral games of book 5, Nisus, who is an apparent winner in the footrace, unexpectedly slips and in that slip saves victory for Euryalus by interfering with his rival Salius. His apparent triumph in book 9 should be compared with his sacrificial return to help his less able friend.
In book 10 the Trojan siege is relived, and in a great battle Pallas is killed, as are Lausus and Mezentius, son and father. The death of Mezentius is described in a particularly powerful manner, and the despoiling of Pallas by Turnus proves, like that of the Rutulians by Euryalus, to be the cause of the death of the conqueror.
Book 11 provides a temporary truce and the suggestion of single combat between Aeneas and Turnus. Turnus wishes to continue the war, but in the fight loses his most valuable ally Camilla, a warrior-maiden slain by a javelin while watching another whose resplendent armor she fancies. Like Euryalus before her and Turnus after her, she dies partly through her desire for spoil.
Book 12 brings Turnus and Aeneas into single combat for the hand of Lavinia and the possession of the city of Latium. Aeneas defeats Turnus, who asks for mercy. Aeneas begins to grant Turnus his request but sees the spoils of Pallas worn by Turnus and in a fit of rage kills the Rutulian king. On this note the epic ends and in its oddly un-Vergilian close provides further argument that the poet had left his work in need of some revision or addition.
The traditional Homeric devices of epic construction appear throughout the poem: the invocation to the muse, the beginning of the poem in medias res, the use of flashbacks, repetition by epithets and formulas, the catalogues, and the epic similes. All these devices contribute to a written work which, while lacking the power of its Homeric, oral predecessors, surpasses them in its psychological insights and structural subtleties. Modern readers perhaps no longer share Vergil’s conception of the Roman imperium, of the moral supremacy of Stoicism, or even of the nature of the hero, but the broad drama of personal desire and political obligation, of the tension between the individual and the state, remains current. Even if it were the case that apolitical readers should come to the poem, they would find there the essential sadness of things expressed in language as close to perfect as language can be.