Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
The Emergence of Subjectivity in the Ancient and Medieval WorldAn Interpretation of Western Civilization$

Jon Stewart

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780198854357

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: February 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198854357.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2020. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use.  Subscriber: null; date: 08 April 2020

Virgil’s Aeneid

Virgil’s Aeneid

(p.236) 9 Virgil’s Aeneid
The Emergence of Subjectivity in the Ancient and Medieval World

Jon Stewart

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 9 begins by introducing Virgil as an epic poet in the tradition of Homer. An account is given of Virgil’s goal to provide Rome with a great national epic during the time of Augustus Caesar. In order to legitimate Rome’s claim to power, Virgil traces the history of Rome back to the hero Aeneas from the Trojan War. An account is given of Virgil’s treatment of the fall of Troy and Aeneas’ love affair with Queen Dido. Aeneas’ character as a hero differs from that of the Homeric heroes in the sense that he is inwardly divided between his personal inclination and his greater sense of duty for the future of Rome. This picture of an inward division recognizes a subjective element, which was not clearly present among the Homeric heroes. An account is also given of Virgil’s portrayal of divine justice and the Underworld. This is contrasted to the account given by Homer in Book XI of the Odyssey. Virgil’s account reveals a greater sensitivity towards the individual and one’s specific actions and responsibility.

Keywords:   Roman Empire, epic poetry, Aeneas, Dido, Augustus Caesar, Elysium, Troy, inwardness, subjectivity, duty

The Roman poet Virgil was a leading figure in the so-called Golden Age of Roman literature, which included writers such as Cicero, Horace and Livy. Although he wrote other works, the Aeneid was his masterpiece. Using Homer’s poems as his model, Virgil attempts to create a national epic for the Romans along the same lines. Drawing on Homeric mythology, he creates an ancient and distinguished lineage for Roman history that goes back to the Trojan War. This poem had a profound influence on the development of Roman literature and was even used as a textbook for writing. A large number of Latin writers refer to the work or use it as a model for their own. Likewise, in the Middle Ages it took on a special importance for Dante, who makes Virgil his spiritual guide through the first and the second parts of the Divine Comedy. In the Middle Ages the Aeneid was also used as a means of prophecy; people would open the work to a random page, and then attempt to interpret the future based on the passage that appeared. This practice was known as the Sortes Vergilianae or Virgilian Lots. Virgil came to have the reputation of a magician, and many legends arose about him.

Virgil (or with an alternative orthography, Vergil) is the anglicized name for Publius Vergilius Maro. Virgil was not originally from Rome but was born in 70 BCE in a town near Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul, today’s northern Italy. He was sent to school in a number of places, first Cremona, then Milan, and finally Rome itself. He studied rhetoric, medicine, and philosophy, and it is thought that he was initially interested in pursuing a career in law. He went on to Naples, where he lived with a group of Epicureans. It was there that he began to write poetry. Virgil’s first major work, the Eclogues, is a series of ten pastoral poems. This book is perhaps most famous for the fourth Eclogue, which is said to prophesy the birth of Christ. His next work was the Georgics, a didactic poem that explains the different tasks in managing a farm. Virgil composed this poem during the time when he became a member of the intellectual circle surrounding Maecenas, who became his patron. Maecenas was one of the close aides to Octavian, the later Emperor Augustus. Virgil was commissioned by Augustus to write the Aeneid, and this task occupied him for the last ten years of his life. He is said to have given readings of individual parts of the work to the emperor. Virgil died in 19 BCE when he was returning from a trip to Athens, where he had been with Augustus. At his death, he left the great epic poem unfinished. It is said that Virgil requested the book to be burned, but Augustus intervened and ordered it to be published. It (p.237) is thought that the unfinished lines of the work were completed and the whole slightly edited for publication by members of Augustus’ circle.

The Aeneid tells the story of the group of Trojan refugees led by the hero Aeneas, who, following the fall of Troy, make their way to Italy in order to found a new city, Lavinium, that would, three centuries later, lead to the founding of Rome in 753 BCE. Instead of creating an entirely new hero for his epic, Virgil selects Aeneas, who appears in the Iliad as one of the great Trojan warriors.1 This is one of many attempts to draw on the Greek tradition in order to create a mythological history for Rome. The first six books of the poem take Homer’s Odyssey as their model, tracing the wanderings and trials of the Trojan refugees as they make their way from their defeated homeland in Asia Minor, then to Carthage on the north coast of Africa, and then to Italy. The second half of the poem corresponds to the Iliad and portrays the war that the band of Trojans with their allies fought with the indigenous peoples for the right to settle in Italy and found a new town. The two halves of the work and their correspondences to the Homeric epics, are indicated in the first line: “I sing of arms and of the man” (Arma virumque cano).2 The “man” is of course the hero Aeneas, and the “arms” is a reference to the war fought upon the arrival of the Trojans in Italy. In addition, Virgil creates numerous scenes that are intended to parallel episodes in the Homeric poems,3 such that the readers can always hear an echo of the Greek epics.

Given its origin as a work commissioned by the Emperor Augustus, the Aeneid contains a strong ideological dimension. It in a sense legitimizes his rule by providing him with a prestigious family lineage that goes back to Aeneas and ultimately the goddess Venus. The Romans conquered Greece with their victory at the Battle of Corinth in 146 BCE. They subsequently organized the city-states and regions of Greece into the Roman province of Achaea. While Rome was a great military power, it recognized the important cultural achievements of the ancient Greeks and in many ways stood in awe of them. The famous line from Horace is often quoted in this context: “Captive Greece captured her rude conqueror” (Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit).4 Due to Greece’s reputation for knowledge and wisdom, it was common for wealthy Romans to send their sons to Athens to be educated. The Greeks had the famous Homeric poems as their national work. These poems were very old and contained information about history and religion that was formative for later Greek society. In Virgil’s time the Romans had nothing similar that could compare to the Homeric works. Virgil was thus keen to (p.238) write a national epic for the Romans that was worthy of Homer. He thus invested in the work what he took to be typically Roman values and virtues. He likewise wanted to legitimize the expansion of Roman power by means of the establishment of a longer historical tradition. While the Aeneid can be seen as an encomium for the rule of the Emperor Augustus, it has also been claimed that there are elements in the work that can be seen as critical of the Roman Empire.

In connection with the ideological nature of the Aeneid, we should take note of the age in which it was written. The Homeric poems stem from a time when traditional customs and religious belief were still firmly intact. The depictions of the gods and goddesses are reflections of a living tradition. But by Virgil’s time in the first century BCE, there had already taken place a degree of erosion in the Greco-Roman world with respect to such things. By this time the sciences were beginning to develop, and there were skeptical voices about religion. The process of critical reflection about values and traditions that had begun with Socrates was now more widespread. The great age of the glory Greece was now past, and there was some serious soul-searching about what had happened to reduce all of Hellas to a Roman province. Thus, the picture that Virgil presents of the Roman tradition and religion can be seen to be a very conservative and even reactionary one. In a certain sense, one can say that his work is an anachronism since he is presenting a world-view and mindset that had long since disappeared from his own age. He wants to celebrate and revive old traditions that made Rome great. It has been noted that his depictions of the gods lack the believability of those of Homer. More superficial and hollow than the Homeric divinities, the gods in Virgil seem to be more literary characters than actual personalities who are truly venerated. It is a matter of debate the degree to which Virgil himself actually believed in the ancient gods or just needed them as literary devices for his poem. Some have argued that his use of the gods is merely symbolic.5

Virgil is known for the visual tableaux that he provides in the work. Upon his arrival in Carthage in Book I, Aeneas and his men see images of themselves and the Trojan War portrayed on the walls of the temple. Similarly, Virgil ingenuously contrives for Aeneas to be shown famous images of Roman history. The Aeneid is also known for its use of the literary devices of alliteration and onomatopoeia. Evoking vivid images, these literary elements presumably led to the work being a lively and moving experience for the reader or auditor.

9.1 The Fall of Troy

In Book II the Trojan refugees have arrived at Carthage and are the guests of Queen Dido and her court. At her request, Aeneas recounts the story of the fall of (p.239) Troy, an important event in the tradition which is not portrayed in either of the Homeric poems. Aeneas’ moving account of the last day of Troy gives the audience insight into the nature of his character as a hero.

Aeneas tells the story of the Trojan horse that the Greeks left behind when they abandoned their camp. The Trojans come up and marvel at it, wondering what to make of it. The priest of Neptune, Laocoön, violently urges the Trojans to caution. After the many years of the war, he is wary of the Greeks’ tricks and cannot bring himself to believe that the Greeks would simply abandon their siege of the town and sail home without further ado. He throws a spear at the horse but fails to convince the people that it presents a serious threat. Later, two serpents come out of the sea and attack his sons, and when Laocoön rushes to try to save them, they are all killed by the sea monsters. This is taken as a sign of divine punishment against Laocoön for having hurled the spear at the horse. This then opens the way for the Trojans to bring the horse into the city, thus spelling the doom of Troy. The image of Laocoön is known from the famous ancient sculpture of him and his sons that is found today in the Vatican Museums in Rome. This sculpture was further the inspiration for the work on aesthetics entitled Laocoön by the German Enlightenment philosopher Lessing.6

By returning to the Homeric world, Virgil is able to revisit some of the old characters and motifs that his audience was familiar with, but from a slightly different perspective. One of the old favorites is Odysseus, who is referred to here as Ulixes. As we have seen from the Odyssey, Odysseus was a great hero known for his intelligence and cunning. In the Odyssey, the audience follows him in his travels and trembles with him as he fights to restore his proper place in Ithaka. Now in the Aeneid Virgil gives us a rather different picture of the Greek hero. Instead of being a positive and sympathetic figure, Ulixes is portrayed as a sneaky and underhanded person. In Laocoön’s plea to his fellow Trojans to be wary of the great wooden horse, he says, “Do you imagine Greeks ever give gifts without some devious purpose? Is this all you know about Ulixes?”7 In the broader tradition, this negative picture of Odysseus culminates in Dante who reserves a special place for him among the sinners in Hell. This shift in the assessment of the character of Odysseus reflects a shift in the understanding of the status of human knowledge. Originally, Odysseus is praised for his cleverness in creating the ruse of the Trojan horse, which ultimately decides the fate of the war. But then this same act takes on a negative shade and is regarded as something morally devious.

In contrast to Homer’s generally positive depiction, Virgil repeatedly characterizes the Greeks as morally reprehensible. While Odysseus is among the worst, all of the Greeks are thought to be liars and traitors. No matter what they do, it is ill-advised to trust them. What is referred to as “Greek treachery” is not something (p.240) confined to specific individuals, but rather it represents the character of “a whole people.”8 Virgil seems to want to evoke an implicit contrast with Roman virtue. The Trojans, and by extension, the Romans are portrayed as being noble and innocent. They are so morally righteous that they are wholly unfamiliar with the kinds of tricks and deceptions that the Greeks engage in. Aeneas recounts, “We had never met villainy on this scale before. We were not familiar with the arts of Greece.”9 Thus, while knowledge and stratagems are portrayed in Homer as something positive, here it is turned into something morally reprehensible that stands in stark contrast to Roman simplicity. The idea that Virgil tries to convey to his readers is that while the Romans have fought many successful wars and military campaigns, they did so in a virtuous manner and never had to resort to underhanded tricks in order to gain victory. Although Rome’s lineage goes back to a defeated people, the Trojans, they are morally superior to their conquerors, the Greeks.

Another exemplary scoundrel in the story is the Greek Sinon, whom the Trojans find apparently having been left behind by his comrades. All a part of the ruse, Sinon tells the Trojans a lying story in order to induce them to let down their guard and bring the horse into their city. With the horse once inside, he is then able to open the secret compartment and allow his Greek comrades to come out and begin the attack. When the Trojans first find Sinon, they tie his hands and treat him hostilely as a prisoner. But then when he begins to speak, Aeneas recounts, “We had a change of heart and all our passions were checked.”10 After hearing his lying story, the Trojans “spared him and even began to pity him.”11 Here we can see the old motif of pity being regarded not as a virtue but as a great vice and the cause of suffering, as we saw earlier in Sophocles and Thucydides. If the Trojans had not pitied Sinon and not believed his story, they would have been suspicious of the Trojan horse and never allowed it into their city. Instead, their pity cost them their lives.

One of the key elements in Book II is the depiction of Aeneas as rescuing the national and familial divinities from the onslaught of the Greeks. He is then able to bring these with him on his journey and instate them as the religion of the new community that he wishes to found. Thus, Virgil is trying to establish the antiquity and sacredness of the Roman religion by tracing it back to that of Troy. The gods were conceived as protectors of the city, and they were thought to live in the temples, which were located in the highest places. For the Romans, their most sacred statues and images of the gods were guarded by the priests in a long unbroken tradition. Thus, when Aeneas describes the attack of the Greeks on the temples of Troy, this is an act of great sacrilege. Similarly, each Roman family worshiped its own deities, the Lares and the Penates that were specific to their family tradition. The images of these deities and the sacred things from the temple at Troy are what (p.241) Aeneas is portrayed as rescuing and taking with him. When Aeneas is first warned of the fall of Troy by the ghost of the hero Hector, he is told that the city has entrusted “her sacraments and her household gods” to him.12 It is his mission to save them and continue their traditions elsewhere. Before departing, Aeneas’ father Anchises is told to take the “sacraments and the ancestral gods” of Troy since it would be sacrilegious for Aeneas to touch them with the blood on his hands from his fighting in defense of the city.13 Aeneas then carries his father on his shoulders out of the burning city, thus symbolizing that he is the bearer of the future tradition of Rome.

Aeneas is portrayed as constantly struggling against fate. He is first warned of the fall of Troy by the ghost of Hector,14 but he does not want to comply with the request simply to flee. Similarly, he disregards the words of the priest Panthus who describes the situation as hopeless.15 Only when he is warned by his mother, the goddess Venus, does he concede.16 He falters again when his wife Creusa cannot be found, and he rushes back to try to find her. He can only be persuaded to take the others and leave by the shade of Creusa herself. His conflict is clearly between, on the one hand, his warrior ethic, which demands that he fight to the bitter end to protect his city and his family, and, on the other hand, his fate, which demands that he flee and lead the other surviving Trojans to safety. There is thus an inward struggle in the hero between what he personally wants to do and what fate and duty demand of him. He is portrayed as a man of passion who yields to a higher duty, albeit at times reluctantly.

This can also be seen when he catches sight of Helen of Troy, the cause of the war and all of the suffering on both sides.17 After having witnessed the brutal death of King Priam and the sack of great citadel of Troy, Aeneas is burning with anger. He wants to take his sword and kill Helen on the spot. This scene is the pendant to the one at the beginning of the Iliad, where Achilles wants to attack and kill Agamemnon, but then is restrained by Athena. So also here when Aeneas has worked himself up into a rage, he is restrained by his goddess mother, Venus, who physically grabs his right hand and holds him back. Her explanation of the situation to Aeneas is that neither Helen nor her lover Paris is responsible for the calamity; instead, she says, “it is the gods, the cruelty of the gods.”18 She explains how each of the gods, Neptune, Juno, Minerva and Jupiter all had a hand in the fall of Troy. The gods themselves are the enemies of the city. In order to demonstrate this, she removes the fog from his vision so that he can clearly see the gods themselves occupying the strong points of Troy. Venus’ account of the cause of the fall of Troy raises the question of divine justice. In fact, while she shows that (p.242) the gods are responsible for what has happened, she never really gives an explanation for why. This recalls the picture of the hostile divinities in The Epic of Gilgamesh, who had no compunction about causing great disasters among the humans. In line with the picture in the Mesopotamian epic, Venus refers to the gods as cruel, thus implying that it would be a mistake to seek justice in their actions.

As in Greek religion, the Romans also looked to nature to tell them what to do in difficult situations. Nature was the medium of communication between the gods and human beings. When Anchises refuses to leave his home, even though it is in flames, he asks for a sign from Jupiter: “Scarcely had he spoken when a sudden peal of thunder rang out on the left and a star fell from the sky, trailing a great torch of light in its course through the darkness.”19 It is by means of nature that Jupiter tells Anchises that he is supposed to leave. So also in Book IV we see Queen Dido examining the entrails of sacrificed animals for guidance from the gods.20 This was of course a standard practice in Roman times. Similarly, watching the flights of birds was also a form of prophecy in the Roman world, with the idea being that the gods communicated their wishes in this way. In Book VI, Aeneas’ mother Venus sends two doves to lead him to the golden bough that he needs in order to enter the Underworld.21 So here again there is a close connection between nature and the divine.

9.2 Dido

Book IV tells the story of the love of Aeneas and Dido. The end of the Book makes clear that the story is to be regarded as Virgil’s etiological tale to explain why Rome and Carthage were archenemies. As Rome expanded its power throughout the Mediterranean, it inevitably came into conflict with Carthage, the great city across the sea. Carthage controlled the entire coast of North Africa and much of Spain and had an experienced navy. Rome was in possession of Italy but had little experience with naval warfare. From 264 BCE to 146 BCE the two powers fought the so-called Punic Wars, a series of three protracted conflicts that ultimately saw Rome defeat its rival and emerge as the sole superpower in the Mediterranean world. Dido was the legendary founder and first queen of Carthage. According to Virgil’s story, when Aeneas and his group of wandering Trojans approach the city, his mother Venus is worried that the Carthaginians might harm the refugees, given their vulnerable situation. In order to protect her son, she makes Dido fall in love with him. Thus, Aeneas and his men enjoy the best hospitality among the Carthaginians. However, when he begins to linger too long and help Dido build the walls and towers of the new city, Jupiter sends his messenger Mercury to (p.243) remind him of his mission to go to Italy and found a new empire there. Aeneas thus hastily leaves Carthage with his men, and, heart-broken and half insane, Dido commits suicide. With her dying words she curses Aeneas and his comrades,22 and appeals to the gods that there will never be any form of friendship between the descendants of Aeneas and her own people. This is thus purportedly the origin of the historical conflict between Rome and Carthage.

After the arrival of Aeneas, Queen Dido begins to feel the first tinges of love for the exotic foreign hero. She is initially hesitant to act on this, and so she makes religious sacrifices and checks the omens in order to determine how to proceed. This should have alerted her to the danger that she was entering into with her love for Aeneas, but yet the omens fail to warn her. In his description of this, Virgil writes, “But priests, as we know, are ignorant. What use are prayers and shrines to a passionate woman?”23 He implies that Dido’s passion makes her blind, but at the same time the “as we know” suggests a skepticism with regard to the role of the priests to understand the workings of the gods. He portrays the passions as the absolutely decisive element in the story. In Thucydides’ history, we saw how the historian portrayed the power of human passions which were constantly seething below the surface, controlled only tenuously by the laws and conventions of society. Here we see a similar picture of human psychology. Dido’s passion is a destructive force that not even custom or conscience can control.

Dido has already fallen in love with Aeneas, and this is the main cause for everything that happens. Virgil describes her with a simile of a “wounded doe” who has been shot with an arrow.24 Although the animal initially escapes, the arrow remains in the wound and eventually leads to its death. Dido’s love is like a wound from one of Cupid’s arrows, and it precipitates her downfall. The simile draws the reader’s attention to the role of fate. Once hit by the arrow, the doe is destined to die.

The queen of the gods, Juno, is Aeneas’ main divine enemy in the story. She wants to prevent him from establishing Rome. She proposes to Venus to have Aeneas marry Dido and to incorporate the Trojans into the Carthaginian people. In this way she plans to put an end to Aeneas’ journey to Italy. While Aeneas’ mother, the goddess Venus, sees through this, she pretends to go along with it. In response to Juno’s proposal, Venus says that she, although a powerful goddess, is “at the mercy of the Fates.”25 Venus thus proposes that Juno consult Jupiter, the king of the gods and Juno’s husband, about the plans for Aeneas, since Venus knows that Jupiter intends for Aeneas to reach Italy and found an empire. Despite being a goddess, Venus recognizes the clear limitations of her power, which is (p.244) subordinated to both that of the Fates and Jupiter. She is also clever and does not allow herself to be tricked or manipulated by Jupiter’s wife.

Juno contrives to bring Aeneas and Dido together to consummate their love in a cave during a storm. This event is portrayed as a kind of marriage, although there was no formal ceremony. The important thing is that Dido takes it to represent a marital bond and believes that Aeneas has given her a conjugal vow. The two live briefly in the bliss of love, and Aeneas seems to have forgotten everything about his mission to found his own empire. This prompts Jupiter to send down his messenger Mercury to remind him of this and induce him to continue his journey. When Mercury arrives, he finds Aeneas helping to build the citadel of the new city.26 To the Roman reader, this would seem to be a kind of shocking act of treason since he was effectively helping Rome’s enemy. Once reminded of his destiny, Aeneas snaps out of his haze of love and immediately orders his men to ready the ships for departure. It is implied that his men were tired of lingering in Carthage and were thus zealous to carry out his orders and finally be on their way. Interestingly, his men remained attentive to their mission, while Aeneas was forgetful of it.

With the story of Aeneas and Dido, Virgil invites a comparison in the minds of his Roman readers. Before becoming emperor and taking the name Augustus Caesar, Octavian needed to defeat the last rival to his power, his former ally Mark Antony. Together with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, the two men had entered into an alliance, the Second Triumvirate, in order to bring order to Rome in the wake of the civil wars. After the fall of Lepidus, animosities arose between Octavian and Antony. While Octavian had control of Rome and Italy, Antony had led successful campaigns in the East and ultimately went to Egypt, where he fell in love with Queen Cleopatra VII, with whom he lived in Alexandria. Before launching a military operation against his fellow Roman Mark Antony, Octavian needed to prepare public opinion with a propaganda campaign. He played on the Romans’ negative image of the East and portrayed Antony as a traitor who had betrayed Roman interests, having succumbed to the charms of a decadent Eastern ruler. Octavian was thus able to win support for his military campaign which ended in the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra.

Book IV of the Aeneid presents a parallel to this story that would not have been lost on the contemporary Roman reader. Queen Dido is the pendant to Cleopatra, the queen of a powerful city on the coast of North Africa. Likewise, Aeneas, who represents Rome, is like Mark Antony. Aeneas is portrayed as falling under the spell of Dido to the extent that he even forgets his mission of finding Italy. He treasonously begins to help the Carthaginians build their new city, just as Mark Antony was seen as misusing Roman resources for Egypt. Virgil can be seen (p.245) as supporting Augustus Caesar’s propaganda campaign after the fact since he depicts Aeneas as ultimately remaining true to his mission and sacrificing his personal desires. By contrast, Mark Antony, a victim of his own passions, makes the wrong choice and sides with the Egyptians against his own country.27

9.3 The Struggle Between Duty and Inclination

The overarching tension in Book IV is that between fate and duty, on the one side, and desire and personal inclination, on the other. Aeneas himself in many ways would prefer to remain in Carthage with the Queen for whom he has genuine feelings. However, he is pressed on by his sense of duty towards his people and his son, who will take over his power and continue his mission of creating a great empire. When Dido learns of his plans to leave Carthage, she, like any hurt lover, reproaches him for his lack of fidelity and honesty. In his defense, Aeneas claims that, in leaving Africa, he is following not his own personal inclinations but rather the demands of the Fates and the gods. He says, “It is not by my own will that I search for Italy.”28 Along the same lines, he claims that if he himself could decide, he would have remained in Troy and rebuilt the city there.29 But now he has no choice but to follow the commands of the gods. He refers to Apollo and Jupiter, who both demand that he move on and make a new homeland in Italy.30 In Book VI when Aeneas sees the shade of Dido in the Underworld, he repeats the same argument, but to no avail, claiming, “I swear by the stars, by the gods above, by whatever there is to swear by in the depths of the earth, it was against my will, O queen, that I left your shore. It was the stern authority of the commands of the gods that drove me on.”31 He must sacrifice his own love for Dido for his destiny and that of his people. Virgil describes this concisely: “Aeneas was faithful to his duty.”32 His inner conflict is portrayed as follows: “Much as he longed to soothe her and console her sorrow, to talk to her and take away her pain, with many a groan and with a heart shaken by his great love, he nonetheless carried out the commands of the gods and went back to his ships.”33 Similarly, he is said to have “felt the pain deep in his mighty heart.”34 So Aeneas must give up his personal interest for the sake of a higher duty.

We noted that the Homeric heroes are known for specific qualities, such as cunning Odysseus or swift-footed Achilles. Aeneas’ epithet is “pius,” that is, (p.246) “pious” or “devout.” This is signaled at the beginning of the work, when he is introduced as “a man famous for his piety (pietate).”35 In Book VI the Sibyl describes him as “Trojan Aeneas, famous for his devotion (pietate) and his feats of arms.”36 When he is reunited with his father in Elysium, Anchises says to him, “I knew your devotion (pietas) would prevail over all rigor of the journey and bring you to your father.”37 By making “piety” or “devotion” the defining feature of his hero, Virgil is consciously departing from the Homeric tradition. The Homeric heroes had epithets that concerned for the most part their military prowess: they were strong, fast, or skilled with weapons or in making strategies. By contrast, Aeneas is defined for his moral quality. Although he is also a great warrior, this is in many ways something secondary. What is important about him is not his military strength but an inward characteristic. This is a new kind of hero.

So, what exactly is meant by the term “piety” and by referring to Aeneas as “pious”? Today when we say that someone is pious, this means that they are especially religious and strictly keep to specific religious beliefs, duties, or rituals. This overlaps with the Roman sense of “piety” but does not exhaust the meaning of the term, which has much broader implications due to the fact that religion for the Romans had a much wider meaning. Roman religion was bound up with traditions and customs relating to the state and the family. This was due to the fact that, as we have noted, the state had its own gods as did each family. Thus, religion was not conceived as something primarily individual or confined to a narrow sphere of life, as we often tend to think of it today. Instead, for the Romans, it refers to one’s dedication to one’s family and by extension one’s people. Aeneas is called upon to save his family and all of the refugees from the burning Troy so that a new start can be made. He is said to be pious since he is willing to endure enormous personal sacrifices for the sake of his people and his family line. He is in the first instance devoted to them and only secondarily to his own desires and wishes. Thus, his epithet “pius” could be translated as “dutiful” since his guiding character trait is that he is aware of his duty. This is illustrated by his love for Queen Dido, which stands in contradiction to his duty to his family and people.

This quality of piety might seem somewhat less heroic than the more martial qualities of the Homeric heroes. But yet it is also in some ways more modern and sympathetic. His life of self-sacrifice can be contrasted with the self-indulgence of Achilles, who at first refuses to fight due to an insult suffered and then precipitously throws himself into the battle again not for the sake of the general cause but only as a personal vendetta to avenge the death of his friend Patroclus. Similarly, Odysseus’ mission is all about himself: returning to his home and restoring his fortune, even if this means the destruction of all of his men. Compared to Aeneas, both Achilles and Odysseus appear to be hopelessly (p.247) self-centered people, whose only thought is for themselves. In stark contrast, Aeneas must put his own personal desires and wishes aside in order to fulfil the destiny of his family and his people, which he himself will never have the opportunity to enjoy.

Aeneas’ situation captures ethical dilemmas that we are all familiar with. There is often a basic conflict between inclination and duty. Our personal desires want to do one thing, but then our rational faculty tells us that we must do another. Often duty is portrayed as something that is bitter for this reason. We know that it is the right thing to do, but we are not happy about doing it. Kant’s ethical theory is based on precisely this principle, and he claims that the real moral value of doing our duty is demonstrated by the fact that we do not want to perform it. Thus, we should be suspicious about self-deception if we find ourselves in a situation where we are eager and excited about doing our duty.

Aeneas’ dilemma is also characteristic of these kinds of cases. One example of this is when we must tell our friends or loved ones things that they do not want to hear for their own good. This is not an easy thing to do since we risk a conflict or a misunderstanding by doing so, even though we feel impelled to say something out of our sense of friendship or love. Virgil thus makes Aeneas very human by portraying him as caught up in moral dilemmas of this kind that we have all experienced at one time or another.

The story also raises questions about the complex relation of fate and free will in the ancient way of thinking. We have already seen that it is fated that Aeneas will lead the Trojans to Italy and settle there. Moreover, the Fates make Aeneas impervious to the pleadings of Dido, who sends her sister to talk to him. It is written that the Fates forbade him from heeding her words, and “God blocked his ears to all appeals.”38 This seems to imply that he has no free will in the matter. But yet within this broader picture, he does make some of his own decisions. At first, he lingers in Carthage and must be reminded of his mission, before he takes action to continue on his journey. Then once he has things ready for departure, he decides to rest, and only when prodded once again by the gods is he impelled to leave immediately.39 The gods thus act as a kind of corrective to his own decisions, which are continually overruled by the higher powers. One might argue that once again this detracts from the heroic aspect of his character. He does not perform the heroic act of sailing to Italy and creating the beginnings of a great empire since he is motivated by the love of glory in the way that the Homeric heroes are. Instead, he is a reluctant hero, whom the Fates have chosen as their agent. But if he had had it his way, he would have preferred that they had chosen someone else.

(p.248) The question of free will is also relevant for Queen Dido. She does not choose to fall in love with Aeneas; on the contrary, she is made to fall in love with him by Venus, who sends Cupid to effect this. When she feels the first urgings of love, Dido in fact tries to resist this and reminds herself of her reputation, good name, and the tenuous political situation with her hostile African neighbors. But the force implanted in her by the gods is too great, and she capitulates. This is what ultimately leads to her death. This raises puzzling ethical questions about the workings of the gods, who bring about the demise of an innocent person in this way merely for the sake of furthering their own goals. It also raises questions of human agency. In the modern world, we like to think that we make the important decisions in our lives: we choose those to whom we extend our friendship and love. This is regarded as our own inward decision and an expression of our free will. But in the case of Dido, what we conceive as an aspect of our own inner life is represented as something external: Cupid and his arrows. Something must come from the outside to induce her to feel a certain way. She does not determine her own feelings. There is no recognition of the inward life of the individual. It is instead the external, outside circumstances that determine everything.

9.4 Tartarus and the Question of Divine Justice

In Book VI Aeneas lands in Italy at the Greek colony of Cumae, near today’s Naples. There he seeks out the cave of the Sibyl or priestess. Like the Greek Oracle at Delphi, this was a sacred place where people went in order to hear the prophesies of the god Apollo, who would take possession of the priestess and speak through her. This took place in a cave that was located near the Temple of Apollo. This was a real place, which scholars believe they have identified, although there is some argument about this. The use of a real location of course fits with Virgil’s attempt to connect mythology with historical fact, which he does throughout the work.

Corresponding to Book XI of the Odyssey, Book VI of the Aeneid depicts the hero’s descent to the Underworld. While it is clear that Virgil is using the text from Homer as his model, there are some significant differences in the depictions, and these provide rich material for comparison and contrast. Odysseus is told that he must go to the Underworld in order to hear the prophecies of Tiresias before he and his men can continue their journey. This is a terrifying prospect. By contrast, Aeneas himself asks to go to the Underworld in order to see his deceased father.40 While there are certainly some frightening aspects of the Underworld, he is not terrified by the prospect of going there as were Odysseus and his men; (p.249) instead, he seeks it voluntarily. Moreover, Odysseus, after having performed certain religious rituals and having been instructed about how to gain access to the land of the dead, goes there on his own. By contrast, Aeneas, who also must perform numerous rituals, has the Sibyl as his guide. She accompanies him and explains the many wonders that they see along the way.

However, before the account of the Underworld, Aeneas hears the prophecies of the Sibyl. The first thing that he is told by the priestess is that, although he is done with his difficult travels on the sea (recounted in Books I–V), now that he has arrived in Italy he will have to fight great wars before he can settle the land.41 It is the depiction of these wars that takes up the remainder of the work (Books VII–XII). After the prophecies concerning his own immediate fate, Aeneas asks for permission to enter the Underworld. The Sibyl explains to him that this will not be easy, but the request can be granted. Once all of the conditions are fulfilled, she leads Aeneas into the depths of the cave, where the entrance is thought to be.

In Virgil’s account of the Underworld, the souls are differentiated by their different circumstances. First, Aeneas sees crowds of souls trying to cross the river Styx in the boat of Charon, who only allows the buried to come aboard. The unburied are not permitted to make the crossing but are forced to endure first a hundred years of wandering on the shores. Then there are the souls of children who died before they reached adulthood; then those who were executed unjustly on false charges. These souls are given a new trial in the afterlife and thus a chance to prove their innocence. This is described as follows: “Minos, the president of the court, shakes the lots in the urn, summoning the silent dead to act as jurymen, and holds inquiry into the lives of the accused and the charges against them.”42 This recognizes that there is something special and unique about the moral life of each individual. Moreover, the souls of dead children are recognized as full human beings. The account that Virgil gives here resembles in some ways that which Socrates recounts at the end of the Gorgias, where Minos and the other judges are mentioned.43

Aeneas and the Sibyl come to a fork in the road, with Elysium on the one side and Tartarus on the other. With this division of the Underworld into a heaven and a hell, Virgil again follows the myth recounted by Socrates in contrast to that found in the Odyssey. Aeneas is not allowed to enter Tartarus since he is pure and virtuous, but the Sibyl describes the place in great detail.44 She outlines all of the different crimes that people have committed and the terrible punishments that they are suffering. Here the degree of detail involved goes beyond Socrates’ myth. So just as Plato used the account given by Homer and elaborated on it, so also (p.250) Virgil takes the account given in the Gorgias and develops it even more. Moreover, we can clearly see in the Sibyl’s descriptions the inspiration for Dante’s elaborate portrayals in the Inferno, where he creates a detailed system of gradated punishments for the different crimes and sins.

In Tartarus, the Sibyl explains, Rhadamanthus is the ruler, and he upholds the laws and exacts the punishments on the sinners (another point of commonality with Socrates’ account). Moreover, he gets them to confess the crimes that went undetected during their lives.45 This is an idea that was presumably created in order to resolve the problem of divine justice. We might think of the question of justice as having two aspects. If there is divine justice, then no one who is innocent would ever be punished and no one who is guilty of some crime would ever get away with it with impunity. With regard to the first part, Aeneas has just seen the judge Minos who corrects the injustices that have happened to the innocent who were wrongly punished. Now Rhadamanthus rectifies the second half of the concept of injustice by punishing those who got away with crimes undetected. It will be recalled that this was a key element in Job’s complaint. He could not understand why, given God’s infinite power and justice, bad people seem to get away with their ill-deeds and live happy and prosperous lives. The answer to this that he was given is, in effect, that it is a mystery and one needs to believe that God is just, despite all appearances to the contrary. In Virgil’s Underworld, this problem is resolved. While some evil people might have gotten away with their crimes in life, they will be caught by Rhadamanthus, made to confess, and punished accordingly. On this account, there is no escaping responsibility for one’s ill-deeds. There is perfect divine justice, and it is clear to see. It is no longer a mystery that needs to be taken on faith. The wicked are made to suffer for their crimes, and, as in Dante, one feels a sense of satisfaction in seeing that justice is done, especially when one reads about their heinous crimes. While there are injustices in the world, these will all be corrected in the afterlife. This can be seen as a great psychological help to victims who suffer injustices in this world since it assures them that if they simply be patient and bravely endure the wrong done to them for a while, then after death they will in fact be vindicated and rewarded, while the ones who did them harm will be punished.

Another new element here is that of the confession of the guilty party. In Socrates’ account, the judges could see the moral characters of the individuals transparently since the latter were naked, and this seemed to be a guarantee for the correctness of their judgment. However, there always remains something slightly unsatisfying about such cases when unrepentant swindlers and manipulators stick to their claims of innocence even in the face of overwhelming and conclusive evidence to the contrary. Now here in Virgil this problem is also resolved (p.251) since not only are such souls rightly judged by others, but importantly, they are also made to confess their own guilt. This seems to be a more certain vindication of the justice of their condemnation. The ultimate recognition of their own misdeeds is morally satisfying to see.

In Homer’s account of the Underworld there were no real distinctions made among the dead souls, with regard to the lives they led. Odysseus sees a number of souls who have suffered injustices in life, but they receive no real consolation for this. Moreover, those who committed great crimes are not punished. As has been noted above,46 while there is a judge in Homer’s Underworld, there are only a few mythological creatures who are seen to suffer punishments for their misdeeds: Tityos, Tantalus, and Sisyphus.47 In Homer there was, for the most part, a kind of levelling in death, with the ethically good and bad enduring the same fate. This was also the case in the Mesopotamian Underworld in The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Hebrew Sheol. All of the dead souls were miserable and dwelt in a dark and gloomy place. There was no differentiation. This all changes in the accounts given by Socrates and now Virgil. What is important here is that the souls of the dead are judged individually for their merits. This shows an increasing awareness of the importance of not only divine justice but also individual ethics and responsibility. The idea of the individual emerges more and more clearly.

In Homer, it is not obvious what the dead souls in Hades are actually doing. They seem to have no real activity but are simply hanging around or wandering about. Similarly, in both the Mesopotamian and the Jewish Underworld, the souls also seem to be simply sitting there languishing in darkness and despair. By contrast, here in Virgil’s Underworld, all of the souls have specifically appointed activities. The souls who committed some evil deed are made to suffer, whereas the souls who led virtuous lives, such as Aeneas’ father Anchises, are enjoying themselves. There was no such differentiation in the Mesopotamian or Hebrew conceptions of the Underworld. Once again, the picture of the afterlife presented by Virgil seems much more satisfying to our basic moral intuitions.

9.5 Elysium

While the wicked are punished in Tartarus, the virtuous are rewarded in Elysium, which is described as “the land of joy” and “the home of the blest.”48 While Tartarus is portrayed as a dark and gloomy place, Elysium is said to have its own sun and to bask in a “glowing light.”49 While the souls in Tartarus are made to (p.252) suffer terrible punishments, those in Elysium enjoy a pleasant existence, engaging in exercise, music, dancing, and other enjoyable activities.

This happy picture does not bear critical scrutiny with regard to the underlying philosophical anthropology. For example, it is not clear how physical exercise makes any sense for disembodied souls. Moreover, Aeneas is said to see the dead souls of his fellow Trojan warriors, who take “the same joy in their chariots and their armor as when alive.”50 The idea seems to be that the warriors can still practice their military skills in the afterlife since this is a source of pleasure, even though they have no need to engage in warfare and thus no need of such skills. But it would seem impossible for an immaterial shade, who cannot even be grasped, to wear armor. Perhaps most absurd in this picture is the image of them feeding and caring for their horses in Elysium. It is clear that Virgil wants to portray this condition as a positive form of a continued earthly existence with all of the pleasures and joys that one experienced during life. Since tending to horses is a pleasant pastime for some, this requires that horses also be present in the afterlife.

It is noted that here Aeneas sees the souls of his fellow Trojans, “the ancient line of Teucer, the fairest of all families, great-hearted heroes born in a better time.”51 Given Virgil’s goal of glorifying the heroes of Troy as the forerunners of the Romans, it stands to reason that they would be depicted as noble and dignified, enjoying a happy existence in Elysium. This should be contrasted with the picture of the Greek heroes from Troy who are described earlier. They are in neither Elysium nor Tartarus, and their location is described simply as “the place set apart for brave warriors.”52 Although some of these Greeks are interested to see Aeneas and to talk to him, others are portrayed as cowardly:

But when the Greek leaders and the soldiers of Agamemnon in their phalanxes saw the hero and his armor gleaming through the shadows, a wild panic seized them. Some turned and ran as they had run once before to get back to their ships, while others lifted up their voices and raised a tiny cry, which started as a shout from mouth wide open, but no shout came.53

Here the goal is clearly to emphasize the greatness of Aeneas as a warrior, who can instill such fear in the Greeks merely by his appearance. In contrast, to the Trojans in Elysium, they appear as weak and undignified. The obvious absurdity in this picture is that it is difficult to understand why they would fear that Aeneas would do them harm if they are already dead anyway.

Another intended contrast between the Trojans and the Greeks appears in the sad story of the soul of Deiphobus, whom Aeneas sees and speaks with at some (p.253) length.54 Deiphobus was one of the sons of Priam, who, after the death of Paris, married Helen. When Aeneas sees him, he is shocked at the mutilated body of his fellow countryman and asked what happened to him. Deiphobus explains how Helen betrayed him, by removing his weapons and leading in the Greek warriors who killed him in his bedroom where he was sleeping. This seems clearly to be a cowardly act that is unbecoming of a real warrior, and the Greek heroes Menelaus and Ulixes are mentioned by name among those participating in the murder of the unarmed man. Once again the Greek treachery is emphasized. This story also negatively colors the image of Helen. It will be recalled from Book II that Aeneas was prevented by his mother Venus from killing Helen when he saw her amidst the chaos of the fall of Troy. In that episode Venus seemed to exonerate Helen and place the blame on the gods.55 However, by contrast, here she is depicted as treasonous and deceitful, betraying her new husband to the Greeks in the hope that by this action she will mitigate whatever blame she herself bears for leaving Menelaus and going to Troy with Paris. Again the moral to the story is that the Greeks are devious and immoral, whereas the Trojans are righteous and noble.

In Elysium Aeneas is united with the ghost of his father, Anchises, who died during the journey from Troy. He now in a sense takes over as guide from the Sibyl and tells of the rationale and organization of this part of the Underworld. He presents a doctrine of reincarnation. People are born, live their lives, and then die and come to the Underworld. There the souls drink from the water of the river Lethe, which causes them to forget their past lives.56 Then they are prepared to return to mundane existence again, where they are given a new body and can live a new life. Scholars have identified elements of Platonism and Stoicism in the cosmology that Anchises presents, but it is unclear to what degree Virgil’s vision of these things was widely shared in the Rome of his day. In any case, there is a clear mind–body dualism at work. The spark of life is fire, which comes from heaven.57 The body is simply physical matter, which decays and is perishable, while the soul endures. With an echo of Plato’s Phaedo,58 the body is even portrayed as a “prison” to the soul and the cause of both grief and joy.59

Anchises seems to indicate that even the souls in Elysium were in some ways sinful and needed to pay for their missteps in different ways, before they could be allowed to enjoy the afterlife. He explains, that the souls “are put to punishment, to pay the penalty for all their ancient sins. Some are stretched and hung out empty to dry in the winds. Some have the stain of evil washed out of them under a vast tide of water or scorched out by fire.”60 These sins are thus taken seriously, (p.254) but they are apparently of a different category from the far more serious crimes committed by the inveterate and hardened sinners, who are punished in Tartarus.

Anchises emphasizes the key point: “Each of us suffers his own fate in the after-life.”61 Once again we have seen that there was a levelling effect in the Mesopotamian and the Jewish afterlife. Even in the Homeric Underworld the dead souls seemed all to be treated equally, despite the differences in their moral characters. Now, however, people are evaluated individually. The moral life of each person is of interest to the gods, and people are judged and held responsible for their own decisions and actions. This represents a new conception of individuality and an increased awareness and appreciation for the realm of inwardness and subjectivity of each person. This in turn generates a demand for individualized justice.

9.6 Anchises’ Anticipation of Roman History

The final pages of Book VI are dedicated to Anchises’ description of the future of Rome. The doctrine of reincarnation makes this possible since Anchises can see the souls waiting to return to earth and live new lives. He is able to point out specific individuals who will play important roles in Roman history. These figures are Aeneas’ descendants, and so at the same time he is also viewing the glorious future of his own family. From the perspective of imperial propaganda, this episode serves the obvious function of filling in some of the details tracing the glorious line from the goddess Venus, to the Trojans, then to the Romans and culminating with Augustus Caesar himself. Virgil thus connects the dots for his Roman readers so they can see this as a continuous unbroken tradition.

With respect to the storyline, this account can be seen as a vindication of the many personal sacrifices that Aeneas has had to make along the way. Up until now he was only acting on the urgings and commands of the gods, but he had no idea of any of the details of the times to come that his actions would lay the foundations for. All he knew was that he was fated to take the Trojan refugees, settle in Italy, and that a great future awaited his people. Now with the pageant of Roman history that Anchises recounts, Aeneas can see more concretely what all of this will amount to.

Virgil gives brief vignettes of key figures in Roman history whom his contemporary readers would have been familiar with and would have enjoyed seeing. It is easy to miss this point, because a reader of today usually needs the use of a modern commentary apparatus, since today these figures are less familiar to us. We must recall that the work was intended to be a national epic for Rome, and (p.255) thus the account that Virgil gives of these historical figures is intended to connect them with the more mythological material concerning Aeneas and his trials. Thus, the history and the mythology are staged to complement and strengthen each other.

It will be noted that, for Virgil writing in the wake of the civil wars, the exercise of naming the great figures of Roman history was a delicate matter. It was difficult to name more recent figures since they would have been marred in one way or another by the recent conflicts, and by mentioning them in this context he would have risked glorifying some of Augustus Caesar’s opponents. So instead it is understandable that Virgil makes the diplomatic decision to go back to the earlier periods of Roman history in search of heroes whom he can mention here without fear of them being associated with the wrong party in the civil wars. Thus what he presents is clearly a selective version of Roman history.

It is not surprising that Virgil dedicates the longest and most positive description to his patron Augustus Caesar.62 In this regard it is difficult to overlook the clear ideological and even propagandistic intention of the work. Augustus is hailed as a great hero who will extend the borders of the Roman Empire so as to encompass the entire globe. Moreover, his reign promises a return to the Golden Age. An inordinate amount of space is also dedicated to lamenting the premature death of the young Marcus Claudius Marcellus, Augustus’ beloved nephew, whom he adopted and made his heir. Marcellus died in 23 BCE, at only twenty years of age, without ever having the chance to fulfill the great hopes that people had for him. Virgil’s lines about him are clearly intended to console Augustus for this personal loss.

Given its obvious ideological character, this passage of the Aeneid is a good example of how the Romans of the age liked to think of themselves. Here Virgil identifies what he takes to be typically Roman values and virtues. He first characterizes other peoples: “Others, I do not doubt it, will beat bronze into figures that breathe more softly. Others will draw living likenesses out of marble. Others will plead cases better or describe with their rod the courses of the stars across the sky and predict their risings.”63 Here he acknowledges that other peoples, perhaps the Greeks, are better than the Romans at things like art or science. But then he turns to the true Roman strengths: “Your task, Roman, and do not forget it, will be to govern the peoples of the world in your empire. These will be your arts—and to impose a settled pattern upon peace, to pardon the defeated and war down the proud.”64 So Rome’s mission is to rule the peoples of the world. This is a recognition of Rome’s great developments in the practical aspects of its empire, which involved its civil administration, its legal system, and not least of all its military. These things are Rome’s great contributions to the world. The references to a (p.256) Golden Age and a period of peace were presumably an expression of a general wish. Rome had suffered many years of civil war before Augustus’ assumption of absolute power, and people yearned for an enduring peace under his reign. The last sentence of the quotation seems almost to address Augustus directly and to urge him to show mercy and clemency to the defeated enemies of Rome, while at the same time making shows of sufficient force against those enemies who are proud or defiant. Virgil’s statement emphasizes that Rome’s mission is in a sense that of civilizing the rest of the world. Rome can bring peace and prosperity to the different nations of the empire by its just rule. It will lift the world out of chaos and barbarism. It will be noted that this is a far grander ideal than what we have seen before. For the Homeric heroes, the goal was to gain personal glory in battle or to avenge the abduction of Helen. It will be recalled that Odysseus recounts to King Alkinoös with no compunction how he and his men sacked an innocent town for the sole purpose for looting and raping.65 Here there is clearly no higher goal involved. For Virgil, Rome’s mission is a lofty ideal for all of humanity that only it can realize.

9.7 The Shield of Aeneas

A new overview of Roman history like that recounted by Anchises in Elysium appears in Book VIII. When Aeneas is preparing to make war on Turnus and the tribes in Latium, his mother Venus asks the god Vulcan to forge new arms for him. This episode is in imitation of the arms that Thetis has Hephaestus make for Achilles in Book XVIII of the Iliad.66 A long description is given of Aeneas’ magnificent weapons and especially of the shield on which are engraved numerous scenes from Roman history.67 Here again the same double perspective of past and future appears as before: on the one hand, the Roman reader in the present would be familiar with the events portrayed since they have already happened, but, on the hand, from the perspective of Aeneas all of this lies in the future, and he can only guess at the full meaning of the images. This device thus serves the same kind of purpose as before: it can be read as praise for the Roman people and its achievements by the contemporary reader, while at the same time it serves a function in the story by vindicating the great sacrifices that Aeneas must make.

While, as before, there are different scenes from Roman history, the centerpiece concerns Augustus Caesar. Specially, the shield portrays the Battle of Actium, the final event in the civil wars which resulted in Augustus assuming absolute power in the Roman world, thus marking the end of the Roman Republic and the (p.257) beginning of the Empire. This sea battle took place off the coast of Africa in 31 BCE. Augustus, then still known as Octavian, defeated the forces of his last rival to power Mark Antony and the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra. Since this was a civil war, it was a sensitive matter. Many Romans had fought and died on the side of Mark Antony, and their relatives were still alive and living under the Emperor Augustus. In Virgil’s description of the shield, this is in a sense depicted not as a civil war but as a war of Rome against a foreign power. Thus, it is written, “On the one side was Augustus Caesar, leading the men of Italy into battle alongside the Senate and the People of Rome, its gods of home and its great gods.”68 Octavian is thus seen to be acting on behalf of the Roman people and its rightful government. Like Aeneas, he is portrayed as pious, defending the gods of Rome. By contrast, the forces allied under Antony are portrayed as foreigners from Asia: “On the other side, with the wealth of the barbarian world and warriors in all kinds of different armor, came Antony in triumph from the shores of the Red Sea and the peoples of the Dawn. With him sailed Egypt and the power of the East.”69 In order to gain public support for the war in Rome, Octavian made use of an effective propaganda campaign that portrayed Antony as a traitor who had sold out Rome to the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra. This is mentioned critically by Virgil in his description of the shield.

The battle is presented not just as a human conflict but also as involving the divine. The Egyptian gods were thus pitted against the Roman ones: “Anubis barked and all manner of monstrous gods leveled their weapons at Neptune and Venus and Minerva.”70 Octavian is seen to be fighting together with and for the Roman gods. While the Roman gods are very much like humans, the Eastern gods are referred to as “monstrous.” Mention is made of the Egyptian god Anubis, who has the head of a dog. Octavian’s piety is further emphasized when he is portrayed back in Rome at his triumph after the battle. There he consecrates no less than 300 new shrines and temples to the gods of the city.

Here we can see again the motif of the West or Europe versus the East, in this case united under the aegis of an African kingdom. This motif was central in the Iliad and Herodotus’ account of the Persian Wars. Virgil draws on this tradition in order to emphasize Roman values and civilization in contrast to what is regarded as the barbarism of the East. At the end of the description of the shield a list is given of the people conquered by the Romans, who have now become a part of their massive empire. Many of these come from the East.

While the long depiction of the Battle of Actium appears at the end of the historical images portrayed on Aeneas’ shield, it helps to explain the scenes from earlier Roman history which are described before it. Once again Virgil is selective in the episodes that he chooses, and when taken together, they can be seen to (p.258) serve a strategic purpose in the service of the propaganda campaign of Augustus Caesar. One image that is depicted is the gruesome punishment of the traitor Mettus Fufetius,71 a commander of the neighboring town of Alba Longa, who treacherously broke a treaty with the third Roman king Tullus Hostilius.72 Immediately after this image appears the scene of the last Roman king Tarquin the Proud, who was deposed and expelled for his crimes and tyrannical rule.73 Tarquin then went to the Etruscan king Porsenna,74 whom he convinced to wage a war against Rome with the goal of being reinstalled in the kingship. Needless to say, Tarquin’s appeal to a foreign power to wage war against Rome was regarded as a betrayal of his own homeland. On the shield, Porsenna’s siege of Rome is portrayed, and it is emphasized that “the descendants of Aeneas were running upon the drawn swords of the enemy in the name of liberty.”75 This was a crucial juncture in Roman history since it marked the beginning of the republican form of government and the rule of the senate, and thus Virgil emphasizes that the Romans were fighting for their freedom against the oppressive rule of the kings. Yet another episode that the images on the shield recalls is the Catilinarian conspiracy, which was an event from more recent Roman history.76 The nobleman Lucius Sergius Catiline attempted to stage a coup d’état in 63 BCE. This conspiracy was detected and denounced by Cicero in a series of famous speeches, which then led to the fall of Catiline.77 These events were chronicled by the historian Sallust.78 On the shield Catiline is portrayed as suffering terrible punishments for his crime in Tartarus.

While these three figures—Mettus, Tarquin, and Catiline—do not exhaust the images on Aeneas’ shield, they do represent a consistent motif: they are all traitors to Rome, who suffer just punishments for their treasonous acts. By selecting precisely these figures, Virgil is subtly suggesting a comparison with Mark Antony, who is portrayed not as one party among others in a civil war, but rather as a traitor to Rome. The implication is that his defeat and death at Actium were just punishment for his treacherous actions. This can be seen as clearly serving Augustus’ propaganda campaign to demonize Antony even posthumously.

The pathos of the episode with the shield comes out at the end, where Aeneas’ reaction to the images is described. In the final sentence of Book VIII, we read, “Marveling at it, and rejoicing at the things pictured on it without knowing what (p.259) they were, Aeneas lifted on to his shoulder the fame and fate of his descendants.”79 By carrying the shield, Aeneas symbolically bears all of the hopes and dreams of Rome with him into battle, just as before he carried his father out of burning Troy along with the gods of the city. The contemporary Roman could read this and admire the hero for his efforts. However, the key here is that Aeneas himself cannot really understand the meaning of the images on the shield. For him, they clearly represent some important events, but it is impossible for him to know exactly what they signify. But yet, he still is prepared to go into battle for the sake of a future that he does not and cannot fully understand. Here again he proves worthy of his epithet of pious Aeneas, since he sacrifices his own personal interests and desires for the glory of his family and people in the future.

9.8 The Discovery of Inwardness

The Aeneid is a revolutionary work in many ways. It represents a growing awareness of the inwardness of the individual. This can be seen most clearly by comparison with the Homeric epics. In Homer, the main focus is on the outward events: the Trojan War and the wanderings of Odysseus. These are the great struggles that occupy the Homeric heroes. While there is also no shortage of external action in the Aeneid, there is something significantly different. Aeneas also endures protracted wanderings at sea before he reaches his destination; he also engages in war and violent conflict, like the Homeric heroes. But yet, the real conflict is not these external struggles but rather the internal one in his own soul. The story of the Aeneid is about Aeneas’ struggle with his own desires and inclinations, which are in conflict with his duty. He must give up his own happiness for the sake of others. The epic struggle thus shifts from the outward sphere to the inward.

In the Roman world, this principle of inwardness was something new, and in time it continued to grow. This idea was developed by the philosophical school of Stoicism and the new religion of Christianity, both of which taught the value of the inward sphere at the expense of the outward. While the focus in the Aeneid is largely on the inward conflict of Aeneas, the outward events are far from wholly insignificant. It is still supremely important that he continue his journey and reach Italy and that he win the battle with the local peoples in order to found a town. Virgil has added a new dimension to the traditional understanding of the hero of epic poetry, but certain elements remain the same. With Stoicism and Christianity a more radical way of thinking enters the Western tradition since they call into question the value of the external sphere altogether. Their claim is that whatever one manages to achieve in the external world is a matter of (p.260) complete indifference in the greater scheme of things. Thus with Stoicism and Christianity there takes place a negation of the external world. Virgil has in some way prepared the groundwork for this, but he still holds firmly to the value and legitimacy of the external realm.

The Aeneid contains in many ways ideas that point to our modern ways of thinking. Perhaps most important is the idea of judgment in the afterlife with rewards for the virtuous and punishments for the wicked. There appears here a new awareness of the importance of the individual. But yet, the overarching motif of the story is a rather conservative one. The hero Aeneas is not a character who represents a celebration of individuality and subjectivity. Instead, he is constantly called upon to sacrifice his own personal wishes and desires and to do what is demanded of him by the gods and his people. As he frequently repeats, he does not act of his own free will but is compelled to do so by forces greater than himself. This is the traditional way of thinking that subordinates the individual to the customs, traditions, and interests of the family or the larger group. The particular interests of the individual are not thought to matter.

But it could be argued that the Aeneid, while still very traditional in this regard, nonetheless represents a development in the concept of subjective freedom. Aeneas does not simply silently accept his fate and follow his duty without a word. On the contrary, he is constantly portrayed as being in conflict with it. He wants to do something else and must be regularly reminded to return to his duty. Thus, the story recognizes and portrays with some sympathy this inward sphere of subjectivity, although it must ultimately cede to the higher demands of duty. But Virgil clearly understands the importance of this subjective side of human beings which, in the ancient world, was continually repressed and rarely given the chance to unfold as individuals might wish.


(1) See The Iliad of Homer, trans. by Richmond Lattimore, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press 1951, Book V, lines 297–318, p. 136 and lines 467–8, p. 140; Book XI, line 58, p. 235; Book XIII, lines 459–505, pp. 283f.; Book XX, lines 156–334, pp. 408–13.

(4) Horace, Second Book of Letters, Letter I.

(6) Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, trans. by Edward Allen McCormick, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1984.

(7) Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 2, lines 44–6, p. 26.

(8) Ibid., Book 2, lines 66–7, p. 27.

(9) Ibid., Book 2, lines 107–8, p. 28.

(10) Ibid., Book 2, lines 74–5, p. 27.

(11) Ibid., Book 2, line 145, p. 29.

(12) Ibid., Book 2, line 294, p. 33.

(13) Ibid., Book 2, lines 717–21, p. 45.

(14) Ibid., Book 2, lines 269–88, p. 33.

(15) Ibid., Book 2, lines 320–7, p. 34.

(16) Ibid., Book 2, lines 590–621, p. 42.

(17) Ibid., Book 2, lines 568ff., pp. 41f.

(18) Ibid., Book 2, line 606, p. 42.

(19) Ibid., Book 2, lines 693–5, p. 45.

(20) Ibid., Book 4, lines 65–6, p. 71.

(21) Ibid., Book 6, lines 190–1, p. 120.

(22) Ibid., Book 4, lines 612–29, pp. 86f.

(23) Ibid., Book 4, lines 66–7, p. 71.

(24) Ibid., Book 4, lines 69–75, p. 71.

(25) Ibid., Book 4, line 110, p. 72.

(26) Ibid., Book 4, lines 259–61, p. 76.

(27) See also Seneca’s criticism of Mark Antony. Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, trans. by Robin Campbell, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1969, Letter 83, p. 144: “What else was it but drinking to excess, together with a passion for Cleopatra itself as potent as drink, that ruined that great and gifted man, Mark Antony, dragging him down into foreign ways of living and un-Roman vices?’

(28) Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 4, line 361, p. 79.

(29) Ibid., Book 4, lines 340–3, p. 79.

(30) Ibid., Book 4, lines 346–8 and lines 356–7, p. 79.

(31) Ibid., Book 6, lines 459–62, p. 128.

(32) Ibid., Book 4, line 392, p. 80.

(33) Ibid., Book 4, lines 393–6, p. 80.

(34) Ibid., Book 4, line 448, p. 82.

(35) Ibid., Book 1, line 10, p. 3.

(36) Ibid., Book 6, line 403, p. 126.

(37) Ibid., Book 6, line 687–8, p. 134.

(38) Ibid., Book 4, line 441, p. 82.

(39) Ibid., Book 4, lines 554–69, p. 85.

(40) Ibid., Book 6, lines 106–9, p. 118.

(41) Ibid., Book 6, lines 83–7, p. 117.

(42) Ibid., Book 6, lines 433–36, p. 127.

(43) See Plato, Gorgias, trans. by Walter Hamilton and Chris Emlyn-Jones, London: Penguin 2004, pp. 131–6, 523a–527e, discussed above in Chapter 7, Section 7.3.

(44) Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 6, lines 563–637, pp. 130–2.

(45) Ibid., Book 6, lines 568–70, p. 131.

(46) In Chapter 7, Section 7.3 above.

(47) Homer, The Odyssey, trans. by Anthony Verity, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2016, Book XI, lines 568–600, pp. 143f.

(48) Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 6, lines 639–40, pp. 132f. See also, ibid., Book 8, lines 666–9, p. 184.

(49) Ibid., Book 6, line 641, p. 133.

(50) Ibid., Book 6, lines 655–6, p. 133.

(51) Ibid., Book 6, lines 649–50, p. 133.

(52) Ibid., Book 6, lines 479–80, p. 128.

(53) Ibid., Book 6, lines 488–94, p. 128.

(54) Ibid., Book 6, lines 495–548, pp. 128–30.

(55) Ibid., Book 2, line 606, p. 42.

(56) Ibid., Book 6, lines 713–16, p. 135.

(57) Ibid., Book 6, lines 730–1, p. 135.

(58) Plato, Phaedo, in The Last Days of Socrates, trans. by Christopher Rowe, London: Penguin 2010, p. 114, 62b.

(59) Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 6, lines 735–6, p. 135.

(60) Ibid., Book 6, lines 739–43, p. 135.

(61) Ibid., Book 6, lines 743–4, p. 135.

(62) Ibid., Book 6, lines 788–809, p. 137.

(63) Ibid., Book 6, lines 847–9, p. 138.

(64) Ibid., Book 6, lines 851–4, p. 138.

(65) Homer, The Odyssey, Book IX, lines 40–3, p. 110.

(66) The Iliad of Homer, Book XVIII, lines 467–616, pp. 387–91.

(67) Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 8, lines 626–732, pp. 182–6.

(68) Ibid., Book 8, lines 678–80, p. 184.

(69) Ibid., Book 8, lines 686–9, p. 184.

(70) Ibid., Book 8, lines 699–701, p. 185.

(71) Ibid., Book 8, lines 643–7, p. 183.

(72) See Livy, The Early History of Rome, trans. by Aubrey de Sélincourt, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1960, Book 1, Chapters 23–8, pp. 58–66.

(73) Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 8, lines 647–50, p. 183.

(74) See Livy, The Early History of Rome, Book 2, Chapters 9–15, pp. 114–22.

(75) Ibid., Book 8, lines 649–50, p. 183.

(76) Ibid., Book 8, lines 667–9, p. 184.

(77) See Cicero, “Against Lucius Sergius Catilina (I–IV), in Selected Political Speeches of Cicero, trans. by Michael Grant, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1969, pp. 71–145.

(78) See Sallust, Catiline’s War, the Jugurthine War, Histories, trans. by A.J. Woodman, London: Penguin 2007.

(79) Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 8, lines 730–2, p. 186.