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Virgils Aeneid

Scope: This lecture explores Virgils Aeneid and illustrates the Greek idea of heroism
transformed into the Roman one. Where Greek heroes are individualistic, Roman heroes
of which Aeneas is the prototypeare responsible and dutiful, subordinating their
individualism to larger and more abstract causes. Book 2, the story of the fall of Troy, and
Book 4, featuring the love affair between Aeneas and Dido, are summarized and used to
show Aeneass transformation from a Greek hero to a Roman hero. Virgils attitude
toward this new type of hero is complex: while he understands and celebrates the
greatness of Romes achievement and the contribution its heroes made to that
achievement, he cannot help but wonder about its high cost, both to the individual and to
the people who are destroyed in Romes advance. The ambiguous ending of the poem is
considered as a demonstration of Virgils subtle and humane analysis of Roman history.

I. As Sumeria became the foundation of all subsequent cultures in the Middle East, so did Greece
for Rome.
A. Rome adopted and adapted much of Greek culture when it conquered Greece: its
philosophy, literature, historiography, and even parts of its religion.
B. When Virgil (7019 B.C.E.) set out to write a national Roman epic poem, he modeled his
very closely on Homers, even to the extent of linking Roman history with Greek history
by tracing the founder of Rome back to Aeneas, a Trojan warrior in the Iliad.
C. In typical Roman fashion, however, Virgil adapted his Greek models to his own needs.
1. Where Greek heroes are individualistic, the prototypical Roman hero, Aeneas, will
subordinate his individuality to a body of laws, his family, and his state.
2. Where the Greek heroes have epithets like swift-footed (Achilles) or many-faceted
(Odysseus), Aeneass will be pius, which means responsible or dutiful.
3. Pietas really implies four levels of responsibility: to the gods, to the state, to the family,
and to fellow human beings.
4. Aeneas begins the poem as a Greek hero who fought at Troy, but he becomes a Roman
hero throughout the course of the poem, learning to subordinate his private to his
public self.
II. The poem begins, like Homers, in medias res, in the ninth year since the fall of Troy, during
which Aeneas has been at sea, looking to found a new Troy.
A. Juno (the Greek Hera) still hates the Trojans and stirs up a storm that lands Aeneass ships
dispersedly at Carthage in North Africa.
1. Carthage is Junos city; she wants Aeneas and Queen Dido to fall in love so that
Aeneass glorious destiny will be fulfilled in Carthage.
2. She enlists the aid of Venus (Aphrodite), Aeneass mother, and Dido falls in love with
Aeneas and invites him and his refugee Trojans to a huge banquet, where he tells the
story of their wanderings in flashback, as Odysseus did for the Phaiakians in the
3. We get to hear what the fall of Troy was like for the losing side, which makes this one
of the great books of the Aeneid.
B. Aeneass story describes the first stages in the transformation of a Greek hero into a
Roman one.
1. Aeneas tries to die with his city, as a good Greek hero would, but is prevented by signs
from Venus and Jupiter, who require him to leave to found a new Troy in the west.
2. The picture of Aeneas leaving Troycarrying his aged father, leading his son and
wife, carrying the household gods and then taking responsibility for the many Trojans
outside the cityis a perfect illustration of all of the aspects of pietas.
3. In Book 3, Aeneas describes nine years of wandering, during which he visited many of
the same spots that Odysseus did in the Odyssey.
III. Book 4 is Didos story.
A. Maneuvered by Venus and Juno into consummating their love, Aeneas and Dido spend the
winter together in Carthage, and for one of the few times in the poem, Aeneas seems
B. In the spring, however, Jupiter commands that Aeneas move on to fulfill his destiny, which
he does reluctantly.
C. Dido builds a funeral pyre and kills herself upon it, asking for eternal enmity between
Carthage and Rome as she dies.
D. Throughout Book 4, Virgil forces us to see events through Didos eyes, generating a great
deal of sympathy for her and distancing us from the poems nominal hero.
1. In Book 6, Aeneas sees Didos shade when he visits Hades, and she treats him as Aias
did Odysseus in the Odyssey.
2. In many ways Dido is a Greek-type heroine who fulfills her nature, while Aeneas is a
Roman-type hero who fulfills his duty.
3. Book 4 also raises some haunting questions about Roman destiny: Why does it cost the
destruction of so many innocent and admirable people? What has Dido done to
deserve such a fate?
IV. In Books 6 and 8, Aeneas is given visions of the future greatness of Rome, whose gifts to the
world will increase military might and rule, and provide security, peace, and prosperity. The
visions are designed to justify to Aeneas the personal sacrifices he has made and will make in
Romes establishment.
V. The last six books of the Aeneid are modeled on the Iliad, as the first six were on the Odyssey.
A. Aeneas must fight another Trojan War over Lavinia, whom he must win away from Turnus
so that he can marry her and found a race blended from Trojan and Latin blood.
1. In the battle, Turnus is another Greek-style hero fighting for personal reasons, while
Aeneas is by now pius Aeneas, fighting for duty, destiny, and Rome.
2. As in the Iliad, where Hectors killing of Patroclus precipitates the climactic fight
between Hector and Achilles, the killing of Pallas precipitates the climactic fight
between Aeneas and Turnus.
3. Turnus is defeated, concedes victory to Aeneas, and begs for mercy; after hesitating,
Aeneas kills him.
B. Readers and critics have argued for 2000 years about the meaning of the killing of Turnus.
1. Is it yet another illustration of pietas, with Aeneas doing what he must do in spite of his
own impulses?
2. Is it the last impulsive thing Aeneas ever does: striking back at a destiny which has
cost him his individuality just before he disappears into history?
C. The second half of the poem keeps the question of the cost of Roman achievement before
us through the deaths of beautiful young men in what seems an unnecessary war, the
pervading sadness of its tone, and the making of Dido and Turnus into the poems most
attractive characters.
1. The unprecedented era of peace and prosperity across the Roman world will be
achieved by force (all the future Roman heroes Aeneas sees in Hades are soldiers).
2. Aeneas must give up art, beauty, and personal happiness to become an agent of destiny.
3. It is in addressing both sides of the issue of establishing peace and rule of law that
Virgil shows his greatness as a poet and makes the Aeneid the most subtle analysis of
Roman history that we have.
VI. Rome created a new kind of hero for our course: the one who fights for a cause.
A. We will run across both kinds in future stories.
B. The Christian tradition in the Western world especially found this Roman conception of
heroism attractive and useful.
Essential Reading:
Virgil, the Aeneid.
Supplementary Reading:
William S. Anderson, The Art of the Aeneid.
Adam Parry, The Two Voices of Virgils Aeneid. Virgil: A Collection of Critical Essays.
Viktor Pschl, The Art of Virgil: Image and Symbol in the Aeneid.
Questions to Consider:
1. Try to find as many parallels as you can among the Aeneid and the Iliad and Odyssey, and then
think about the ways Virgil subtly adapts everything he borrows to put it to new use in his