The Aeneid is a Latin epic written by Virgil in the 1st century BC that tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who traveled to Italy where he became the ancestor of the Romans.
Form and Tradition
The Aeneid is an epic poem of twelve books, in conscious imitation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. It makes use of the dactylic hexameter meter of Homer, a meter better suited to Greek but which Virgil raised to the height of its Latin form.
The hero Aeneas was already a subject of Roman legend and myth; Virgil took the disconnected tales of Aeneas' wanderings, his vague association with the foundation of Rome and a personage of no fixed characteristics other than a scrupulous piety, and fashioned this into a compelling nationalist epic that at once tied Rome to the legends of Troy, glorified traditional Roman virtues, and legitimated the Julio-Claudian dynasty as descendants of the founders, heroes, and the gods of Rome and Troy.
The Aeneid is one of a small group of writings from Latin Literature that has traditionally been required for students of Latin. Traditionally, after reading the works of Julius Caesar, Cicero, Ovid and Catullus, students would then read the Aeneid. As a result, many phrases from this poem entered the Latin language, much as passages from Shakespeare and Alexander Pope have entered the English language. One example is from Aeneas' reaction to the painting of the Sack of Troy: sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt—"the actions of mankind move us to tears and touch our heart" (Aeneid I, 462) ().
Following the example of the Homeric epics, Virgil begins the poem with an invocation to the Muses and an explanation of the theme, and the root cause of the principal conflict of the plot, in this case, the resentment held by Juno against the Trojan people.
Also in the manner of Homer, the story proper begins in medias res with the Trojan fleet in the western Mediterranean, heading in the direction of Italy. Juno stirs up a storm which is on the verge of sinking the fleet. Neptune takes notice: although he himself is no friend of the Trojans, he is infuriated by Juno's intrusion onto his domain, and stills the winds and calms the waters. The fleet takes shelter on the coast of Africa, where Aeneas gains the favor of Dido, queen of Carthage, a city which has only recently been founded by refugees from Tyre and which will later become Rome's greatest enemy. However that lies in the far future; the Trojans are welcomed hospitably.
At a banquet given in their honour, Aeneas recounts the events which occasioned the Trojans' fortuitous arrival. He begins the tale shortly after the events described in the Iliad, and tells of the end of the Trojan War, the ruse of the Trojan Horse, the sack of Troy by the Greek armies, and his escape with his son Ascanius and father Anchises, his wife Creusa having been separated from the others and subsequently killed in the general catastrophe. Rallying the other survivors, Aeneas built a fleet of ships and made landfall at various points in the Mediterranean (including Thrace, Crete and Epirus) before being divinely advised that he should seek out the land of Italy, where his descendants would not only prosper, but in time rule the known world. The fleet reached as far as Sicily and was making for the mainland, until Juno raised up the storm which drove it back across the sea to Carthage.
During the banquet, Dido realizes that she has fallen madly in love with Aeneas, although she had previously sworn fidelity to the soul of her murdered husband. Aeneas is inclined to reciprocate, but the Olympian gods insist that he fulfill his destiny and he has to depart. Her heart broken, Dido commits suicide by stabbing herself on a pyre. Before dying, she predicts eternal strife between Aeneas's people and hers; "rise up from my bones, avenging spirit" is an obvious invocation of Hannibal. Looking back from the deck of his ship, Aeneas sees Dido's funeral pyre's smoke and knows its meaning only too clearly. However destiny calls and the Trojan fleet sails on to Italy.
Aeneas's father Anchises having been hastily interred on Sicily during the fleet's previous landfall there, the Trojans returned to the island to hold funeral games in his honor.
Eventually, the fleet lands on the mainland of Italy and further adventures ensue. Aeneas descends to the underworld through an opening at Cumae, where he speaks with the spirit of his father and has a prophetic vision of the destiny of Rome. Returning to the land of the living, he leads the Trojans to settle in the land of Latium, where he courts Lavinia, the daughter of king Latinus. A war ensues between the Trojans and some of the indigenous peoples of Italy, which is brought to a close when Lavinia's rejected suitor Turnus, king of the Rutuli , challenges Aeneas to a duel in which Turnus is slain.
Here the narrative of the Aeneid ends, but, as we have been told in the opening lines of the poem, Aeneas subsequently married Lavinia and became the ancestor of the Roman people.
The work was written at a time of major change in Rome, both political and social. The Republic had fallen, civil war had ripped apart society, and the sudden return of prosperity and peace after a generation of chaos had badly eroded traditional social roles and cultural norms. In reaction the emperor Augustus was trying to re-introduce traditional Roman moral values, and the Aeneid is thought to reflect that aim. In addition, the Aeneid attempts to legitimize the rule of Julius Caesar (and by extension, of his adopted son Augustus and his heirs). Aeneas' son Ascanius is called Ilus (from Ilium, meaning Troy), is renamed Iulus and offered by Vergil as an ancestor of the gens Julia, the family of Julius Caesar. When making his way through the underworld, Aeneas is given a prophecy of the greatness of his imperial descendants.
The History of the Aeneid
The poetry of the Aeneid is polished and complex; legend has it that Virgil wrote only a single line of the poem each day.
Although the work is complete, with the same length and scope as Homer's epics which it imitates, it is unfinished: a number of lines are only half-complete. It is common, however, for epic poems to have incomplete, disputed, or badly adulterated text, and because it was composed and preserved in writing rather than orally, the Aeneid is more complete than most epics. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether Virgil intended to complete such lines. Some of them would be difficult to complete, and in some instances the shortness of the lines adds to the dramatic finality of the sentence.
On his death, Virgil left instructions for the Aeneid to be destroyed if he died with his work unfinished. Virgil had also come to disfavor one of the sequences in Book VIII wherein Venus and Vulcan have marital relations, and had intentions of altering this sequence to conform better with Roman virtues. For this reason as well he wished the epic to be destroyed after his death. Augustus, however, ordered that the poet's wishes be disregarded, and after minor modifications the Aeneid was published.
In the 15th century, there were two attempts to produce an addition to the Aeneid. One was made by Pier Candido Decembrio (which was never completed) and one was made by Maffeo Vegio, which was often included in 15th and 16th century printings as the Supplementum.
The most famous translation of the Aeneid is that by the 17th-century poet Dryden. Although it takes numerous small liberties with the text, it is one of the very few examples of a poetic translation that retains the power and flow of the original in a new language, and it is often regarded as a classic in its own right.