Themes in the Aeneid


The World of the Dead

- The first half of the Aeneid, the journey of Aeneas from Troy to Italy is marked by three great climaxes:

1) The fall of Troy (2)

2) The tragedy of Dido (4)

3) The arrival in Italy and the underworld (6)

- Book 6 is a central part of the poem, a pivotal point, with its reflections on the destinies of the human soul and the spiritual structure of the universe

- It has Pagan and Christian ideas of the after life, and is seen as the turning point of the whole poem

1 of 22

The World of the Dead

- Book 6 is seen as Aeneas' 'rite of passage' from spiritual alienation and grief at the loss of his wife Creusa, his homeland and most of all Anchises who dies in book 3

- He is 'born again' in the Elysian fields where his father's ghost instructs him in his mission as the first founder of Rome

- He returns to the upper world ready to resume this mission

- Book 6 is about ghosts and supernatural experiences, which have been visited earlier on in the poem

- Aeneas' encounter with the mutiliated ghost of DEIPHOBUS who was killed in Troy recalls Aeneas' dream of the mutilated ghost of HECTOR in book 2

- Aeneas' meeting with Anchises is one of the great emotional climaxes of the poem. Up to this point, Sibyl has been Aeneas' guide to the underworld, but now Anchises takes over to instruct him on the future, causing a grand Roman conclusion

2 of 22

The World of the Dead

- The greatness of Rome is compared to in other passages, Jupiter's prophecy to Venus and the shield given to Aeneas

- The epic model by which Virgil uses as a basis for Aeneas' trip to the underworld is Odysseus' journey to the land of ghosts in book 2. He was sent by the enchantress Circe to consult the ghost of the blind seer Teiresias about his future

- Anchises speech has alot of dramatic and narrative content. When Aeneas sees a crowd of souls waiting by a river, his father explains that they are waiting for the summons to new bodies and must drink the waters of the Lethe to enable them to forget their past lives

- After Aeneas asks 'what was that river in the distance and who were all those companies of men crowding on its banks' Acnhises answers, then Aeneas says:

' Why do the poor wretches have this terrible longing for light?'

3 of 22

The World of the Dead

- It is the answer to this sad question that Anchises makes his great speech, unfolding the mysteries of the soul's progress from death through purgatory to rebirth, and eventually to reunion with the divine from where it came

- Aeneas is admitted into the underworld through his virtue and because he has secured the Golden Bough, the mysterious talisman that guarantees him safe passage, a ritual offering to appease Persephone and a protection against corruption

- The poet himself offers a solemn prayer and invocation to the underworld deities:

- 'May it be lawful for me to reveal things hidden in darkness'

- The solemnity of the narrative generates a sense of awe and strangeness, lending power and genuine authenticity to a world view which isn't very clear, but full of spiritual insights and memorable imagery

4 of 22

The World of the Dead

- Figures like Charon the ferryman and Cerberus the three - headed dog, and other giants, monsters and archetypal sinners are recurring features of Greek mythology

- The described process of purgation and the external home of the blessed in the form of the Elysian fields includes elements of Christianity

- The Sibyl escorts Aeneas out of Hades by the ivory gate (gate of false dreams) instead of the gate of horn (true dreams)

- Virgil took the figure of two gates from Homer's Odyssey, where Penelope says deceptive dreams come through the ivory gate and 'their message is never accomplished' but those which go through the gate of horn come to pass

- It has been suggested that because Aeneas is not a true ghost he can't leave by the gate of horn, because in the underworld he could potentially be the one who is 'unreal' because he has sen things the living aren't meant to witness, and his memory of them can't go beyond that world. They aren't mentioned or referred to again, so it can become a strange interlude

5 of 22

Father Figures

- The Aeneid is dominated by fathers and father - figures

- Jupiter is called 'father of men and gods' and Aeneas is often referred to as PATER (father) as he is called pius

- Not only is he literally a father to Ascanius, who will create the line of Roman kings, but in general the term PATER symbolises moral responsibility

- Aeneas' relationship with paternal figures is very important in the poem, in terms of moral structure

- Anchises disappears from the narrative after the underworld episode, and Priam, who died at his own altar, is retold to Dido in book 2 when he says: 'there came into my mind the image of my dear father, as I looked at the king who was his equal in age breathing out his life with that cruel wound.'

6 of 22

Father Figures

- In the second half of the poem Virgil introduces two other elderly princes who may inherit the roles of Priam and Anchises, in books 7 and 8, the transitional books between peace and war, where Aeneas tries to make peaceful terms with the people of Latium, with only some success

- In book 7 Aeneas sends an embassy to negotiate with Latinus, king of Latium

- Latinus recognises Aeneas as the promised son in law and offers him a peaceful alliance

- Latinus is an ITALIAN PRIAM. His citadel is grandly built. However, Latinus' peace is the peace of old age and weakness

- When Turnus is threatened with the loss of his promised bride he decides to wage war on the Trojans independently of the king, and Latinus is too weak to resist, relinquishing his authority and retiring into his citadel, somewhat like Priam retreating to his altar when faced by the invading Greeks

7 of 22

Father Figures

- Parallel with Latinus is Evander, another father - figure. He is said to have known Anchises, and there is a sense he takes his place as Aeneas' guide in the second half of the poem

- Aeneas seeks him out in fulfillment of Sibyl's prophecy that he ironically would need help from a Greek city, their encounter in book 8 offers significant similarities/parallels with Aeneas and Anchises in Elysium

- Just as Aeneas recieves first hand guidance in the Elysian fields, now he recieves first hand guidance in the very place where Rome will arise

- In book 8, Virgil emphasises the pastoral simplicity of Evander's hut - settlement and contrasts it with the splendour of Augustan metropolis, this contrast between 'then' and 'now' is used to remind the Romans of their simple beginnings - Evander's poor settlement

8 of 22

Father Figures

- Not only does Evander entrust his son Pallas to Aeneas as Latinus entrusts his daughter Lavinia to him, but he also acts as Aeneas' guide on a lecture/tour around the site of Rome, welcoming him to Pallanteum like Anchises welcomed him to Elysium, teaching him about the past while Anchises taught him about the future

- The reader remains in the present

- So both Anchises and Evander, speak with the insight and authority of age, wisdom and knowledge, and serve as mouthpieces of the origin and significance of what Aeneas sees, maintaining the authority of it

- Ironically the modern reader would relate to Rome to more like Evander's than to Augustus' due to the ruins of its great imperial monuments

- Just as Anchises made Aeneas discern in the souls awaiting rebirth, the future of Roman heroes they were destined to become, so Evander makes Aeneas see in the caves, rocks and groves of Pallanteum, the monuments of the future city of Rome

9 of 22

Father Figures

- Aeneas' immediate task is to re - establish, through the cost of war if need be, the simple moral traditions which Evander and Latinus have tried to preserve but are too old to defend without help

- Just as Aeneas may find difficulty in comprehending Rome in the far future, enjoying the pictures on his shield but not quite understanding the reality of it, so does the modern reader enjoy the experience of reading the poem but missing its historical shape, which lies not in the remote future but in the remote past, so the Aeneid is a constantly shifting text concerning historical persepectives

10 of 22


- Anchises, Evander and Latinus all help to fulfill Aeneas' mission, but his most difficult obstacle is the strangely female, immortal goddess Juno

- Most of the plot of the Aeneid is generated by Juno, who is Homer's Hera, and like the Iliad is very anti - Trojan, because of the 'judgement of Paris'

- Along with her personal resentment she is also aware of how the Trojans fought against her cherished Greeks, and knows her favourite city, Carthage, is destined by fate to be destroyed by a race of the Trojan blood

- Juno's attempts to prevent the Trojans survival and the course of history continue until the very end of the Aeneid

- Both halves of the Aeneid begin with a soliloquy by Juno where she reflects angrily on her humiliating failure to prevent the Trojans from fulfilling their destiny

11 of 22


- In book 1 she is described to be 'nursing in her heart an eternal wound' similar to that psychological wound Dido becomes to Turnus

- Juno succeeds in transferring her anger and hatred to Turnus who calls for arms, so the war which occupies the last 4 books of the poem is the enactment of Juno's hatred

- If she can't alter destiny long term, or the declared will of Jupiter, she can exact a terrible price in blood for Lavinia's inevitable wedding to Aeneas

- It is characteristic of Juno to spare neither side in war, she doesn't care as long as she has her own way, the costs of the madness of war do not matter to her

- Dido is sacrificed and ultimately Turnus too

- The whole of this passage where she schemes for war is full of the language of hatred, war - fury and the spilling of blood

- The stirring up of war in Latium contrary to the will of Jupiter and Latinus is Juno's masterpiece. It's clear that for Virgil, Juno embodies the dreaded spirit for civil strife. However once the war has started, her power starts to go as events move toward their destined end

12 of 22


- In Juno's heart hate is not quite yet against Turnus, and there is still time for the all - powerful Jupiter to change his mind

- Juno's hope is shared with Dido and Turnus, both of whom attempt to delay or stop the course of destiny, but are forced in the end to admit defeat and pay a terrible price for their actions

- Juno's obsessional hatred of Troy provides the motivation of the whole poem, but as the gods abandon doomed cities (E.G Troy) we may feel that Juno's reconciliation with Aeneas is only one of a series of such changes of side, prompted not morally, but militarily and by historical necessity

 - This reconciliation of opposites is the true resolution of the poem

13 of 22

War and Heroism

- In contrast to Homer's often digressive presentation of events during the Trojan war in the Iliad, which form part of a ten year struggle still happening when the poem ends, Virgil's telescoping of the war in Latium provides urgency and intensity to his narrative

- Aeneas and Turnus meet in single combat, like Hector and Achilles, but Homer's duel didn't end the war, despite foreshadowing an eventual Greek victory, this time the Trojans will be victorious and the ancient defeat at last redeemed

- Virgil's war narrative does, though, contain echoes of Homer, with similes, divine interventions, and the hall - mark of heroic epic: ARISTEIA

- Homer's ideal of the heroic code was: Heroes are honoured among lesser men, and must repay these honours by fighting

- The victorious will win further glory but there would be no point at all in fighting if they could run away to immortality. This concerns the all important question of reputation

14 of 22

War and Heroism

- Throughout the Iliad reputation is often expressed through the comments of others, being or prime importance to the hero

- The Aeneid sustains this view of the epic hero but doesn't go unchallenged.

- The character of Turnus is a classic example of an old - style Homeric hero, dedicated to personal glory and the protection and enhancement of his reputation

- He is also deeply affected by what people say of him - in the great debate in book 9 about whether to continue war or sue for peace Turnus stereotypically wants to fight on, and is stung by a taunt of his opponent Drances, who wants peace, that he should admit he is already defeated

- He recalls this taunt in book 12 when he says he will never surrender

- Turnus is brave and foolhardy, but above all violent and uncontrolled, like Homer's Achilles after Patroclus is killed

15 of 22

War and Heroism

- The difference is Achilles showed pity and humanity at the end of the Iliad by giving back Hector's body to Priam, but Turnus doesn't get any redemptive opportunity, the poem ends with is death and his last words are noble but self - vaunting, he shows how in the world of Homer's mortality the only choice is death or glory

- Camilla is glamourized by the poet and has huge amounts of ARISTEIA but she brings her own downfall by her blind, selfish pursuit of a single Trojan whose gear attracts her

- Virgil solved a chief problem where he didn't want to undermine the heroism of the aboriginal Italians, but at the same time the Trojans must avenge their defeat as the hands of the Greeks

- So he made his Italians brave, but unable to see beyond their own lives

- So a thirst for individual glory is therefore the prime motivation of many heroes in the Aeneid no less than the Iliad

16 of 22

War and Heroism

- But Virgil created in Aeneas a new type of STOIC hero, willing and ready to sacrifice his individual will to that of destiny, the commonwealth and the future

- He is reluctant to fight but when Aeneas must fight, he fights savagely, and with as much furor as any other hero in the poem

- This is central to Virgil's theme, which is that war is madness and spares none who engage in it

- Aeneas is at his most violent in book 10 after Pallas has been killed by Turnus. Virgil's model for his behaviour at this point it evidently Achilles

- At the end of the poem, the sight of Pallas' baldric on Turnus gives Aeneas he same motive for killing him that Achilles had for killing Hector = revenge

17 of 22

War and Heroism

- Aeneas' character is complex, pius but also a great soldier, Troy's greatest after Hector

- The motives of his final act of killing Turnus are complex - revenge, dynastic necessity, and fate itself, which narrowed down the future to this moment and choice for Aeneas

- Turnus would never have fit into the future alliance planned by Aeneas and Latinus, his pride, egotism, and old fashioned courage would have been an obstacle for peace and progress

18 of 22

Fate and Free Will

- The concept of fate (FATUM) or destiny dominates the Aeneid

- Fate is something predestined known to the gods, and to a few others with gifted prophetic powers

- It is unalterable

- In Homer, divine intervention in human affairs by individual gods is direct, frequent and unpredictable, it can't be dismissed as a series of metaphors for chance

- The principle of chance is basically absent from Homer's narrative, the gods decide all things

- This means it is deeply confusing and distressing to the heroes, who have to operate against or with them as best as they can

19 of 22

Fate and Free Will

- The gods desert their doomed champions

- Virgil doesn't eliminate these divine interventions from his narrative, but greatly reduces their frequency, and when they happen they are treated seriously or imaginatively

- Juno's most notable attempt to rescue Turnus is only allowed by Jupiter on the condition the goddess understands it will make no difference in the end

- In the final encounter between Aeneas and Turnus, Jupiter sends a fury which terrifies both Turnus and his sister Juturna, who is forced to abandon her brother as Apollo abandoned Hector

- Turnus' limbs turn to jelly, he is like a man trying to run in a dream. The simile is Homeric but Virgil significantly changes it by saying when in a dream we seem to run but falter, allowing the reader to identify with Turnus' final moments of isolation and despair

20 of 22

Fate and Free Will

- In the Aeneid, the gods work through human wills and desires

- Mars in the Aeneid simply often means war, while the visions of Venus to Aeneas are the embodiment of peace, caring love and beauty

- Virgil regarded the will of Jupiter as an expression of fate, although certain events are predetermined, the precise moment and circumstances of their fulfillment remain flexible, allowing for the operation of human free will to continue

21 of 22


- Homer took war for granted, for Virgil it was not so much an emblem of the heroic age

- He found Actium a glorious victory against barbarism, with all the Olympian gods finally on the same side

- However the war Aeneas had to fight was a forbidden war, a war which distressed and divided the gods themselves, as well as mortals

- The poem's chief claim to fame was its genre - status as the first great national epic to be written in imitation of Homer

- The poem could be read in many ways, as a fascinatingly crafted piece of rhetoric, or a learned poem about Italy and its legends, or for its moral and political philosophy and powerful insights into human emotion

22 of 22


No comments have yet been made

Similar Classical Civilization resources:

See all Classical Civilization resources »