Arma virumque cano
I sing of arms, and of a man...
So begins the greatest Latin epic poem. The Aeneid was written by Publius Vergilius Maro, usually known as Virgil, between 29 BC and the poet's death in 19 BC. Virgil did not consider it finished when he died, and asked his friends to burn it. 1 Augustus overruled him, which is why it is preserved today.
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The poem tells the story of the voyages of the Trojan Aeneas, son of Anchises and the goddess Venus. It begins when Virgil flees from Troy as it is sacked by the Greeks2. He carries his aged father on his back, and brings the family gods (the lares and penates) with him. His son, Iulus or Ascanius, comes with him, but his wife gets left behind.
After various travels, the crew fetch up in Carthage, where the local queen Dido becomes Aeneas' lover. The Trojan party is ready to settle there, but the gods urge Aeneas to move on, because his destiny lies elsewhere. As they sail away, Dido kills herself in grief and fury.
When the Trojans reach Italy, they are welcomed by the local king Latinus. After a trip to Hades3, Aeneas finds himself at war with Turnus, chief of the neighbouring tribe, over the hand of Latinus' daughter Lavinia. The poem ends with Turnus' defeat in single combat with Aeneas.4
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The Aeneid is deliberately remniscent of Homer's epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as the Argonautica by Appolonius of Rhodes. It is usually considered their inferior. However, the Aeneid is fundamentally different from its Greek models, in both nature and intent.
First of all, the poem was written, and indeed rewritten extensively, by Virgil. Homer's poems were composed orally, and have a less studied tone as a result. Also, the poem was written in a literary culture that appreciated the retelling of old stories as much as the creation of new ones. This is not a modern taste.
Virgil's intent in writing the Aeneid was very different from Homer's and Appolonius'. His work is essentially a political poem, designed to honour Augustus and celebrate the restoration of Rome. (The common sentiment of the time was that Augustus' creation of the Roman Empire freed Rome from the corruption and decay of the late Republic.) During his sojurn in Hades, Aeneas has a series of visions predicting Rome's future greatness, culminating with Augustus' reign.
The poem also emphasises the links between Rome and the goddess Venus. Mars had long been acknowledged as the patron of Rome (he was the father of Romulus and Remus in most versions of the story). However, the Julian clan had always reckoned its descent from Venus, and the Aeneid underlines that element of Rome's foundation story.
The Aeneid celebrates traditional Roman values, which Virgil felt were being neglected in his day. Aeneas is described with the Latin word pius, a word with much more complex meaning than its modern descendant, pious. He demonstrates his piety by his respect for his father and his household gods. When he abandons Dido, he shows that obedience to the will of the gods must take precedence over personal happiness. He sacrifices his own good for the good of Rome, a trait Virgil felt was missing in his time. It is also significant that the characters who try to thwart the will of the gods (most prominently Dido and Turnus) are destroyed.
The popularity of the Aeneid has waxed and waned since its composition, usually in parallel with how much a society values self-sacrifice over individualism, and honour over love. However, it remains one of the greatest works of Roman literature.
- One Classicist in the 60's, Duckworth, has determined how far Virgil had got in revising the poem by an extensive analysis of the metre.
- as described in the Iliad
- Dante Alighieri, who was an admirer of the Aeneid, made Virgil his guide in the Inferno as a tribute to this section.
- If you're wondering how this story ties into the whole Romulus and Remus myth...they are descendants of Lavinia and Aeneas.