Virgil’s epic has inspired countless generations because it formed the mythology of the exceptional Roman and became integrated into Western history through its alignment with Christian belief. In each of the stories, the hero leaves behind a seductive protoself and chooses a fated life. In this choice, some heroes fail because of their tragic flaws. Yet, heroes such as Achilles and Turnus demonstrate deeper humanity in their failings. Still, the Christian idea and the Western foundations of duty and promise have come down to us in a hero that embraces a destiny bigger than his desire. While it is a story of duty, it is also one that reminds us all that the fate and destiny we eventually achieve end the same way.
Keywords: Virgil, the Aeneid, comparative cultures.
Publius Vergilius Maro, or, as he is more frequently known, Virgil, strides midway between the work of Homer’s Odyssey and Dante’s the Divine Comedy. In this work of the golden mean, Virgil captures both a literary and a historical conception of Troy through a reproduction of a Homeric epic. So revered was this piece that Dante formed a special place for Virgil within the Divine Comedy. Through this work, Virgil has chiselled a place into the imagination of the Western world and created a position equalled only by Homer and Dante.
The Aeneid combines myth, legend, and historical events in a poetic work that encapsulates theological prophecy. Yet, the work remains prudent due to its emotional depth and the ostentatious exaltation of the Roman form of government. First, the story captures the revival of a people from a state of utter despondency after being defeated by the Greeks at Troy. Then, following a series of events that led to exasperation and anguish, the people of the Aeneid found an unparalleled world empire.
Aeneas is the Roman epitome of a heroic leader, appointed by the heavens with a geas binding him to fulfil the mission despite his personal sentiments, desires, and inclinations. A story of love, compassion, and duty set the stage for the Roman cultural ideal: the relations between a man and his wife, a lover and his paramour, the affection of parents and children, and even the adoration of comrade-in-arms, structured an epic tale of how the ideal Roman citizen should behave.
This poetic work incorporates the real, the supernatural, the metaphysical and the world of both the dead and the living and, in doing so, encapsulates a theological and philosophical foundation of Roman civilisation. At the time of writing, “peace and order” were the foundational motive of the Empire. The Pax Romana created the pinnacle of ancient European civilisation. To capture this, Virgil set out to fulfil the long ambition of many Roman writers to equal the Greek authors and, in particular, to rival Homer’s epic.
The War in Latium
Books VII to XII document the prophesied war. In the second half of Virgil’s work, Juno remains opposed to Aeneas, and Venus remains in support. Despite the rivalry between the gods, Aeneas remains the true Roman hero on the path to Jupiter’s proclaimed destiny. In a counterpoint to Homer’s great hero, Achilles, Virgil introduces the Rutulian Prince, Turnus. However, while Achilles slew the Trojan prince Hector, Aeneas, as the remaining Trojan prince, conquers and kills the new Achilles.
King Latinus of Latium seeks to fulfil a divine Oracle and marry his daughter to Aeneas but is thwarted by Juno, leading to war with the Trojans and eventually the abdication of the King, who incarcerates himself in his palace. However, Virgil seems to forget this in the later series of books. This mistake is most likely attributed to the incomplete state of the work that Virgil had not completed.
Virgil reverses some of the ancient enmities. In creating an alliance with the Akkadian ruler of Pallanteum, Evander, Aeneas structures an alliance with the ruler of the future site of the Roman capital. With touching scenes of Evander mourning his son Pallas and the deafness of the gods who did not hear the prayers for his survival, Virgil mixes grief and tragedy with touching scenes of love. The filling pride that Aeneas displays for his son Ascanius (Iulus) and similarly displayed by the rival despot Mezentius for his son Lausus offset the displays of grief and loss.
Motherly affection and loss counterpoint the angst and anguish displayed by the men for their sons. The Lamentations of grief of Euryalus’s mother and the devotion of the nymph Juturna for her brother Turnus demonstrates familiar love and affection. In this work, Virgil captures the deep heartfelt humanity of the characters and uses this to exemplify and contrast the devotion of the Roman people. While Ulysses seems to care primarily for himself in Homer’s Odyssey , Aeneas places the good of his people first despite the high emotional costs to himself.
Following Book VI, Aeneas returns through the gates of Hades in sales from Cumaeto, the mouth of the Tiber. The prophecies have aligned to have the Roman hills become the base of the Trojans’ new city. King Latinus welcomes Aeneas as the prophesied hero who will join the families through marriage to the daughter of the King and whose heirs will bring fame to the Latin people. This good fortune upsets Juno. While Juno understands that she cannot destroy the destiny given to Aeneas, she assumes the position that “if powerless to bend heaven, I’ll stir up hell.”
The Fury of war and wrath, Allecto, is dispatched and creates a hysterical rage in Queen Amata, leading to outrage from the jilted former betrothed Turnus. In a rage, Turnus summons the Rutulian people to rise and attack the Trojans, while Allecto causes problems that lead to an uprising in the peasant community and brings them into conflict with the Trojan forces.
Turnus rises in anger and leads the people of Italy against the Trojan seeking to push them out and stop them from settling. Yet, the God of the Tiber gives Aeneas council, and he wisely allies with the Arcadian King Evander. But unfortunately, the old indemnity between these Italian forces of the Tiber and the mainland leads to conflict with Aeneas gaining from his alliance with the Etruscans.
In the form of Deus Ex Machina, reminiscent of the Odyssey, we see Venus move in and give Aeneas a suit of armour created by Vulcan. This interaction includes a shield that portrays a detailed history of Rome as it will be. The history portrays the time from Ascanius to that of Augustus and captures “the fame and fortune of his sons to be” The story portrays a new anti-hero in Turnus, mirroring the form of Achilles.
As Aeneas seeks to form allegiances and strengthen his, Turnus besieges the Trojans in a form analogous to the Greek warriors who attacked their former city. However, this time, the Greeks attempted to burn the Trojan ships. Yet again, a god steps in to change destiny . Yet, with Neptune aiding the Trojans by turning the ships into sea goddesses, Turnus is satisfied with his goal of cutting the Trojans from the sea being successfully completed.
The poem demonstrates that the Greeks and Romans do not believe that God is to be omnipresent, and the distress displayed by Jupiter in demanding why the Trojan battle with the Italians has taken place even though forbidden demonstrates his lack of knowledge controller understanding over the other gods.
Venus besieges Jupiter to interject and argues that the Trojans have been obedient and have upheld the wishes of the gods. Juno scorns this argument and counters that the suffering of the Trojans should fall on Aeneas. The invasion of Italy is said to parallel the rape of Helen by Paris. Because of this, all the Trojans must suffer for the misdeeds of their leader. Jupiter remains impartial.
It shall his only sowing reap
Or toll or triumph; Jupiter is King
Alike for all, the fates will find a way.
Aeneas leads a fleet of Etruscan vessels coming to rescue the other Trojans. Turnus seeks to thwart Aeneas’ men from disembarking but fails. However, Juno intervenes and interferes with the battle protecting Turnus. Using a phantom that looks like Aeneas, Turnus is lowered away from the battlefield and out of danger. However, both the Latins and the Trojans witnessed the carnage and the horror of the scene.
Aeneas demonstrates his piety by allowing the Latins a truce to collect the bodies of the dead and to take them from the battlefield to be buried. The sensor slaughter leads to a council and an agreement proposed by Aeneas that the two leaders fight man-to-man with the fate of everyone on this individual duel. The winner will take Princess Lavinia to be a wife and Queen. Turnus is haughty and again displays the hubris of Achilles in the way that he accepts the duel.
Turnus scorns those who “sit praising peace, while they [the Trojan army] rush armed on Empire”. In some ways, this is reminiscent of modern generals directing their army and politicians sitting and watching others in the battle. However, the battle is not going well, and the Latins are despondent and likely to end through route. Consequently, in a position reminiscent of the biblical David and Goliath, Turnus proposes to settle the battle through a one-on-one conflict between the generals.
… I go to meet him. Bring the holy rights,
Sire, and rehearse the treaty. Or will I
To Tartarus held this Dardan runagate
From Asia – let the Latin sit and see –
With my sole arm our common shame rebut;
Or let him hold us as his thralls of war,
And take to bride Lavinia.
Crossland detailed Book X noting that “two warlike youths on opposite sides” form an adjunct in Eneas that parodies this in an attempt “to make Virgil unpopular”. The later French poet took the “description of a slender youth, greatly daring like David, opposed to a first Goliath” and twisted the story to create a more violent version of the battle.
Virgil, however, has an honourable meeting where Aeneas agrees to leave Italy with his people if he is defeated and that the Italians will be treated as equals. Moreover, Latinus can remain Regent. Such an approach differs greatly from that in the Bible. In the Old Testament book 1 Samuel, David and his men rushed the Philistines and destroyed the opposing army. Based on the actions of Aeneas, it would be expected that he would continue to fulfil his duty and either leave Italy or bond with the Italian people as brothers.
… Nor shall Italian at my bidding how
To Teucrian, nor list I to reign; let both,
Unconquered, beneath equal laws unite
In everlasting bonds of amity.
My gods I’ll give them, and my sacred things;
The sword Latinus, as my sire, must sway,
And, as my sire, the daily round of State…
Despite several twists and turns to the story, including a story analogous to that of Homer’s with a battle of chariots and those between great heroes, the end is finally to be determined when Turnus agrees to single combat with Aeneas. However, misfortune leads to a borrowed sword shattering in the hand of Turnus, who was left bladeless. As he runs, seeking his sword in the field, Aeneas pursues him relentlessly, chasing him five times around the battlefield.
… for not light
the praise they seek, nor trivial; the heart’s blood
and very life of Turnus are at stake.
The nymph Juturna then returns to the field to help Turnus find his lost sword and, working for Juno, seeks to aid this delay of destiny. Venus likewise interposes and finds the sword of Aeneas, and each heroic character can now meet. One with a sword, one with a spear . At this point, Jupiter finally intercedes and warns Juno and her followers, “further venture I forbid”. Juno finally accepts that she cannot intercede and further changes the fate decreed by Jupiter. However, she does secure a final promise that must be delivered to her Latins.
… bid them not put by
The native name of Latins, nor become
Trojans, or pass for Teucrians on men’s lips,
Nor alien speech assume, nor altered garb.
Let Latium, and let Alban kings endure
For ages; be there still a Roman stock,
Strong with Italian valour. Troy is fallen,
And, name with the nation, let the fallen lie.
With this agreement, Jupiter signals the end to Turnus by having one of his furies appear as a small bird that instils fear.
And fearful numbness loosed his limbs; his hair
Stood stiff with horror, the voice stuck in his throat.
Like David and his stone, Turnus fails to use his strength to gain victory and Aeneas, through his spear, defeats Turnus, who then begs for his life to seek a victor’s mercy. Aeneas has won all and is even contemplating the possibility of sparing his enemy. However, he notices “the fatal badge” represented as a trophy. This trophy is Pallas’ sword belt that Turnus wears upon his shoulder. In seeing this, grief overtakes him, and Aeneas claims, “Pallas deals this blow”.
Virgil and Christian Prophecy
Virgil gained a special place in Dante’s literary world and was known as “the prophet of the Gentiles”. Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue prophesied the return of a golden age without war and where all shall live in abundance. Further, this coming world of peace is one without fear. A “golden race” of men will come back to the earth, and a baby boy should be born and “reign o’er a world at peace”. In this world, sheep need not fear the lion. In this world where poisonous snakes and toxic plants have disappeared, the biblical image of the lion and the lamb has been represented as the “messianic” eclogue.
The similes used in the Georgics and the Aeneid follow a similar pattern. In representing “the coming time”, which may be seen to now be at hand, many Christians saw a clear analogy between their own belief and the Aeneid. The end of Virgil’s work prophesies a time of peace, order, heavenly bliss and virtue. Moreover, it was foretold that this time was imminent where the last stage of the old cycle had come and gone, and the world was on the verge of a new golden age where “the majestic roll / of circling centuries begins anew”.
The prophesied time is one where Saturn rules. Saturn is the Latin God of agriculture and had previously acted as King of the city where Rome now stands. Saturn taught the arts of civilised life and gave the law. This golden age was a time of good fortune and peace. For this reason, the Italian peninsula was formally known as Saturnia or the land of plenty. Virgil has King Evander describe the ancient times when Saturn ruled and gave Latium a series of “golden years” before the world degraded into a base of time and war and avarice became a part of human life in Book VIII.
“The land of Saturn cast her name away”. In prophesying this coming age, Virgil connects the prehistoric mythology of both the Greeks and the Latins with the concurrent history of Rome. The images emblazoned on the shield of Aeneas link the Pax Romana and the Augustine age. For Virgil, Augustus represents Saturn reborn. In having Apollo salute Ascanius as the prince of the future world order and peace, Virgil represents a world in which all war is abolished .
In Book VI, Virgil has Anchises point out the prophecy that through,
Caesar Augustus, God’s son, who shall
The golden age rebuild through Latian fields
Once ruled by Saturn…
The foretold golden age aligns with the mystic religions of the time and with the rise of Christianity. Further, early Christian communities believed that the coming of Christ and the kingdom of God were at hand. While the Christian myth differs in the coming of the new Empire, the difference is in the cyclical recurrence posited in Roman mythology of good and evil ages. However, the myth aligns through the proclamation of an empire without hand. Such an empire is of an unbounded age and is prophesied to be unrestrained in time and space.
As with Christianity, the prophesied coming golden age is one where the new order of peace and plenty will be eternal and perpetual, bringing heaven to earth. Moreover, Aeneas, “the good”, Aeneas “the true”, is passively obedient, docile and restrained when interacting with the gods. Such an approach differs significantly from that of Ulysses. Tambar describes Ulysses as the “wily trickster who conceived the ruse of the Trojan Horse” . This represents a character who uses skill and trickery to fill the gods, and with whom the gods find favour for his lies.
Aeneas is penitent, pious and subject to the divine will. Through this, we see the concept of Roman piety, which can be seen as an ideal if not true. Turnus, in many ways, is more closely analogised to a figure such as Coriolanus. Turnus is fated to die but yet struggles and tragically. However, as with other tragic stories, including Coriolanus, the antagonist is the more human and more heartbreaking character. In acting disreputably, Turnus sealed his fate by defaming the sanctity of death and must die.
Similarly, Coriolanus displays arrogant pride and a lack of temperance . The security and pious major exhibited by Aeneas promote the literary ideal of the perfected Roman. Yet, this fails to compare with Homer’s work in that the protagonist forgoes humanity for destiny. Mark Van Doren criticised the work noting that all the characters and events in the Aeneid exhibit actions based on propaganda. Virgil may not have written “cheap propaganda”, yet it is hard to deny that the work proselytised the state .
The unyielding purity of purpose also helped align Virgil’s work with later Christian scholars . The Aeneid became both a theological and nationalistic work acting to construct the national mythology through an imagined community and shared concept of culture. As with the Bible, the Aeneid sets out the divine will and history of the people forming a myth that can bind multiple tribes into a nation. The work contains suffering and purgation with the elected remains of the nation surviving to re-form and rebuild a community that ends in power in Providence.
The biblical Old Testament speaks of the elected community. Consequently, the alignment themes between Christian eschatological works and the integration of Virgil into later poetic works such as those by Dante sustained this myth not only through Rome but into both the Catholic and then Protestant Christian nations. This motif may also be seen in later epics, including the epic by Milton. In Paradise Lost 9, Milton diminishes the glory associated with destruction and the passion of warriors:
of stern Achilles, on his Foe pursu’d
Thrice fugitive about Troy wall; or rage
Of Turnus for Lavinia disespous’d…
The Gates of Hades and the Gates of Hell
Virgil extends the dream of Penelope from the Odyssey (Book 19, lines 560-569) to incorporate a rich series of meanings. While we cannot determine whether Aeneas and the Sybil are not truly shades of the dead or that the story is imagination, there could be other interpretations or masses of meanings,
Two gates the silent house of Sleep adorn;
Of polish’d ivory this, that of transparent horn:
True visions thro’ transparent horn arise;
Thro’ polish’d ivory pass deluding lies.
Of various things discoursing as he pass’d,
Anchises hither bends his steps at last.
Then, thro’ the gate of iv’ry, he dismiss’d
His valiant offspring and divining guest.
It is also the golden bough in Book VI that inspired the study of magical potency by Fraser. However, the inspiration for Dante’s gates into hell from purgatory.
Virgil’s epic has inspired countless generations not only because it formed a mythology of the good Roman but also because it came to be integrated into Western history through its alignment with Christian thought. In each of these stories, the hero leaves behind a seductive proto-self and chooses a life. In this choice, some heroes fail because of their tragic flaws. However, both such as Achilles and Turnus demonstrate deeper humanity in their failings. Yet, the Christian idea and the Western foundations of duty and promise have come down to us in a hero that embraces a destiny bigger than his desire.
Ecclesiastes (7:1-4) reminds us that “the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth”. For, in each part of the story, in each iteration of heroic tragedy, we see the epic not only dealing with life but acting to remind us that we have the same fate in the end. The fate and destiny we eventually achieve end the same way for all of us. As with the Aeneid, whether peasant or King, commoner or noble, pacifist or soldier…
… the warrior’s limbs
Grow chilled and slackened, and the spirit flies
Moaning indignant to the shades below.
Cf. Virgil, Aeneid, VII-XII.
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 Alighieri et al., 1972.
 Enright, 2007.
 Montgomery, 1833.
 Levin, 1971.
 Fox, 1995.
 Bowra, 1933.
 Petit, 1967.
 Farrell and Putnam, 2010.
 Blandford, 1959.
 Logan, 1964.
 Vergilius Maro and Goetz, 1990, p.244.
 Gresseth, 1979.
 Vergilius Maro and Goetz, 1990, pp.275–8.
 Pattanaik, 2008.
 Vergilius Maro and Goetz, 1990, p.305.
 Ibid., p.340.
 Kochenash, 2020.
 Vergilius Maro and Goetz, 1990, p.354.
 Crossland, 1934, 287.; cf. iuvenis tur iussa superba I miratus stupet in Turno corpusque per ingens I lumina volvit, x, 445 f.
 17:47, 52, 53.
 Vergilius Maro and Goetz, 1990, p.359.
 Ibid., p.374.
 Ravenscroft, 1982. Note, the Biblical references to the “Spear of Destiny” also align with that of Aeneas.
 Vergilius Maro and Goetz, 1990, p.375.
 Ibid., p.376.
 Ibid., p.377.
 DeWitt, 1918; Gass, 1930; Rendall, 2014.
 Vergilius, 1810, pp.14–5.
 Volk, 2008.
 Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles, 2012.
 Bourne, 1916; Austin, 1927.
 Briggs, 1980.
 Horsley, 2008, pp.62–3.
 Mezei, 2013; Volk, 2008; Vergilius, 1810.
 Dorcey, 1992.
 Daly and Rengel, 2009.
 Ligt and Northwood, 2008, pp.34, 576.
 Vergilius, 1810.
 Vergilius Maro and Goetz, 1990, p.267.
 Góráin and Martindale, 2019, pp.377, 436.
 Ibid., p.446.
 Rogerson, 2017.
 Kenneth C. M. Sills, 1914.
 Vergilius Maro and Goetz, 1990, p.232.
 White, 2010.
 Slochower, 1970, p.112.
 Kleinhenz, 1988.
 Jose, 1984.
 Tambar, 2020, p.32.
 Trahman, 1952.
 Wainstein, 1993.
 Van Doren, 1962.
 Powell, 2012, p.9.
 Yost, 1994.
 Gamble, 2014, p.37.
 Anderson, 2006.
 Anderson, 1970.
 Anderson, 1950.
 John, 2017, pp.14–7.
 Vergilius Maro and Goetz, 1990.
 Frazer and DCL, 1870.
 Vergilius Maro and Goetz, 1990, p.379.