The Aeneid tells the story of the foundation of Rome by colonists from the East, refugees from the city of Troy in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) after it was sacked by the Greeks at the end of the ten-year Trojan War, an event to which scholars traditionally assign the date 1184 BCE. Following divine instructions, the Trojan refugees along with their native gods are led by the prince Aeneas here and there throughout the Mediterranean, seeking the right place to settle. After several mistakes and misstarts, including Aeneas’ necessary but risky stay on the coast of North Africa with Dido, queen of Carthage, and his visit to the Underworld to meet with his recently deceased father, the survivors arrive in the “promised land” of “Hesperia” (literally, “the West”), namely, Italy. Here they encounter indigenous peoples who oppose their settlement, as well as Greeks who become their allies. Vergil depicts an exciting and at times desperate series of military clashes and maneuvers that eventually lead to the Trojans’ supremacy, but not before the indigenous peoples have demonstrated their military mettle. By the end of the poem the hero Aeneas has defeated Turnus, the leader of the native Rutulians, in single combat, and it has been decreed by Jupiter, who is the voice of Fate, that he will marry Lavinia, the daughter of Latinus, king of the native Latins, and establish a settlement that, centuries in the future, will be the genesis of the Roman race. The goddess Juno, who has opposed the Trojans from the very start of the poem, is finally reconciled to this outcome by Jupiter’s concession that the Trojans and Latins will blend together and that the Latins will keep their name, language, and customs.
The trajectory of the Aeneid, which is Vergil’s own version of a well-established but still fluid myth (Aeneas is depicted as early as in Homer’s Iliad), is announced in the opening seven lines of the poem:
Arms and a man I sing, the first from Troy,
A fated exile to Lavinian shores
In Italy. On land and sea divine force
Shook him, through ruthless Juno’s brooding rage.
War racked him too, until he set his city
And gods in Latium. There his Latin race rose,
With Alban patriarchs, and high Rome’s walls.
The main story covers just one year in Aeneas’ life, and it does not see him establish his promised city. But through the use of flashbacks to past events and prophecies of the future and other literary distortions of time, Vergil makes his poem embrace all of Roman history at the same time that it speaks to his contemporary Roman audience. In essence, the poem is a foundation story, like the foundation stories of other nations, such as the Pilgrim Fathers in the United States and the Maori tales of travelers arriving by canoe in New Zealand. As a foundation poem, the Aeneid is strongly teleological—that is, it looks ahead to a specific outcome—in its anticipation of the construction of the city of Rome and the Roman nation that lies in the narrative future.
From early in the poem, Vergil devises ways of looking ahead to the establishment of the Roman Empire, making Jupiter prophesy about the Trojans’ descendants in book 1 in the words “For them I will not limit time or space.” That prophecy is fulfilled toward the end of Book 12 when Juno relents from her persecution of Aeneas and from her opposition to the foundation of Rome. Likewise, Vergil frequently introduces or foreshadows Roman customs, rituals, names, places, events, and characteristics. Book 8 is especially rich in this kind of forward-focused material. Here Vergil has Aeneas visit the future site of the city of Rome, which in his narrative is the stronghold of Aeneas’ Greek ally Evander and consists, at this early date, of a few buildings in a brambly wilderness; the poet incorporates the narrative of the hero Hercules slaughtering the monster Cacus there, which offers an etiology (origin explanation) for the Forum Boarium (Cattle Market) and the Ara Maxima (Greatest Altar) in that part of Rome, both associated with the cult of Hercules; and he concludes the book with a lengthy description of the marvelous shield made for Aeneas by the smith god Vulcan at the request of his mother, Venus, a weapon on which are depicted multiple images of important people and events from Roman history.
The poem consists of narrative alternating with speeches, many of which seem long to us, since we are unaccustomed to the role that oratory played in ancient epic and in Roman society generally. In the narrative sections, Vergil takes the role of the omniscient narrator, which is conventional in epic poetry, while the speeches characterize the speakers as individuals and focalize the action from multiple points of views. This pattern is impressively stark in the confrontation between Aeneas and Dido in book 4, for example, when Aeneas mumbles his decision to abandon her in obedience to the gods and she savages him for his lack of faithfulness. At a few remarkable moments, Vergil even intervenes in his poem personally to address a few emotive words to particular characters in a device known as apostrophe. This too is alien from our experience of modern poetry.
Major themes explored by Vergil as he narrates his story include models of good and bad kings, the relationships between fathers and sons, the roles of sacrifice and self-sacrifice, and the tensions between anger and mercy, revenge and self-control. These were all themes of significance for Vergil and his contemporary audience at the point when the Republic was transitioning into the Principate, with Augustus, the adoptive son of Julius Caesar, in control. Thus Vergil makes Aeneas develop from a hot-headed Homeric warrior into a proto-Roman hero endowed with Roman virtues—above all, pietas, an untranslatable concept which embraces unwavering loyalty to one’s gods, to one’s family, and to one’s native land. Vergil often calls his hero pius Aeneas (“loyal Aeneas”) and pater Aeneas (“father Aeneas”) to indicate the responsibilities he bears and the leadership he offers. Vergil has also carefully structured the poem so that it repeats, varies, or even inverts certain narrative sequences: for example, in the role Juno plays as the obstacle to Aeneas’ mission at the start of book 1, when she creates a storm to wreck his ships, and again early in book 7, halfway through the poem, when she sends a Fury to rouse hostility against the Trojans.
It is important to note that the poem as it survives ends with Aeneas standing over the corpse of Turnus. Whether or not this is how Vergil planned to end the poem, in no sense is Aeneas the literal founder of Rome, an event traditionally dated to more than four centuries later, in 753 BCE. It is his descendants who are ultimately the founders, through his son Ascanius/Iulus, who is said to have founded the nearby settlement of Alba Longa. Centuries later, the priestess Ilia, whose name evokes “Ilium,” the alternate name for Troy, gave birth to twins fathered by the god Mars, Romulus and Remus, who were abandoned and suckled by a she-wolf. Romulus gave his name to the newly founded city, Rome, after killing his brother in a dispute over the city walls. In this way, Vergil cleverly managed to reconcile Rome’s two foundation myths, the myth of foundation by foreigners and the myth of foundation by a native Italian.
From Aeneid by Vergil. Translated by Sarah Ruden, with an Introduction by Susanna Braund. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.
Sarah Ruden is a Classics scholar, a poet, and a writer on religion and culture. She has published seven book-length translations of Greek and Roman works. Susanna Braund is Professor of Latin Poetry and its Reception at the University of British Columbia.