Vergil’s Aeneid – The Roman Hero Remade

The Arrival of Aeneas in Carthage, by Jean-Bernard Restout, c.1773 / Los Angeles County Museum of  Art, Wikimedia Commons

By Louise Taylor / 06.21.2013
TEFL Educator
Southwest France


Here we look to the first five books of Virgil’s Aeneid. We start with a close look at the opening eleven lines of Virgil’s Aeneid which gives the full panoply of what’s about to happen.


The first sentence talks about the whole thing in a condensed way, and the opening words also talk about the whole theme of the epic in a condensed way. Virgil tells an epic that is about “arma uirumque”, arms and a man. “Arma” is a marshal word talking about arms in a war context. “Uirum” is the idea of a human male. These first two words tell us that we will hear the Odyssey, as he tells us with ‘uirum’ and also the Iliad. The Iliad begins with the word for war rage which sets the tone for this as being an epic about war. Virgil creates an Iliad and an Odyssey. The Odysseyan part of the story is in the first six books and the more Iliadic part is in the second six books. It isn’t broken down quite so neatly but that is roughly the breakdown.

After Arms and the Man there is a Latin word, ‘cano’. That’s very distinctive in Latin it means ‘I’, first person singular. Virgil then carries forward a Homeric tradition of talking about a song, but rather than the way Homer does, asking the muses to use him as a mouthpiece, Virgil sings the tale for the audience as himself a human being.

I sing of warfare and a man of war

From the sea coast of Troy in early days,

He came to Italy by destiny,

To our Lavinian western shore,

A fugitive, …


That term, ‘fato’, in Latin translated as’ by destiny’, is an important one. The idea of fate in the Greek materials is typically backward looking. There is something that happened in the past that’s anchoring you to that past. This was how it worked in Oedipus. In Virgil it’s much more closely linked to the idea of destiny, in the English term. It’s a forward looking concept that talks about future as laid out. Virgil’s story, through Aeneas, is very much a story drawn along by forces of the universe that are pushing it forward. The destiny that brings Virgil to his home base and Aeneas to his home base is what propels us. He moves from the sea coast of Troy over to Italy to the Lavinian western shore, and the Romans know he’s talking about them. Vergil has the character on his way to found a city.

A fugitive, this captain, buffeted

Cruelly on land as on the sea

By blows from powers of the air-behind them

Baleful Juno in her sleepless rage.


Juno appears in this epic as a very strong force that is pushing against fate. Fate draws us forward into the future that is Rome and the glory that’s coming, Juno is a force that pulls backward. It’s a destiny will be achieved with great pain and suffering. Juno is the emblem of backward pushing vectors. She is constantly retarding the progress that Aeneas might like to make. Aneas has friends pushing him forward, and Juno constantly pushing back.

And cruel losses were his lot in war,

Till he could found a city and bring home

His gods to Latium, land of the Latin race,

The Alban lords, and the high walls of Rome.

The future, toward which Aeneas is being pulled, is one that will lead him to build a city, found it and get it started. He makes order out of something chaotic. There will be lots of confusion along the way. There are things that get mixed up, but in the end there is a nicely ordered, well drawn city, that’s put together with a careful plan. Aeneas consistently tries to build the walls of Rome. Building of walls is something he has anchored to in his own heroic expression.

Tell me the causes now, O Muse.

Virgil is building in a reference to this mythic, epic past of Homer. He’s talking about being inspired by a muse and the muse is a part of it. But not the first line, it is moved down a little bit in the order of events.

…how galled

In her divine pride, and how sore at heart,

From her old wound the queen of gods compelled him-

A man apart, devoted to his mission –

To undergo so many perilous days

And enter on so many trials.

Aeneas is a character that we come to know quite well. He is pushed around by this old wound that the queen of the gods has. He is a man apart and devoted to his mission. The Latin here “insignum pietate uirum” a man marked by his pietas. There is a English equivalent in the term piety, but this idea of utter devotion to his mission is what is being brought out. The hero is motivated by something closer to duty than we had with heroes in our Greek past. A Roman hero is motivated and anchored by duty.

At the end of these opening lines Virgil is wondering just how awfully outraged Juno is and how much outrage she brings to bear on Aeneas.

Can anger, black as this prey on the minds of heaven?

How is it that the divinities become so, warped in their anger, and visit such nasty things on our hero? Juno throws some awful things Aeneas’ way. He stands up to them, he has to take some time to find his feet and work his way through the challenges.

 On Reading Virgil


How people thought about myth is one of those questions that if we tried to ask it of Homer or of the Trojans, we wouldn’t get much in the way of an answer. With Virgil there is some good evidence for certain ways he understood myth to work. Virgil had a linkage to the tradition of interpretation of Homer. He was a scholar and a poet, an artist poet of the first order, but also an extremely learned person. He was not only familiar with the traditions that he wrote and re-wrote, he was also familiar with the traditions of commentary on Homer, and that gave him rich context in which to remake the traditions. This gives us a window on to what Virgil was up to as a creator of myth.

We can say for sure that Virgil had a strong rationalizing impulse, we see that when we get to strange, wondrous, mystical kinds of events. Virgil typically provided redundant causation for those events. For example, the falling in love scene, at the close of Book one where Venus decides to weaken Dido by making her fall desperately in love with Aeneas. But in order to do so, she uses her son Amor, later known as, Cupid. Venus reshaped her young son, Amor, into the shape of the infant son of Aeneas. Virgil paints a picture about on the one hand a goddess in a powerful act of divine intervention making a woman fall in love with a man. But on the other hand, he does it through a surrogate that takes the shape of a young infant. Virgil uses Dido as an example of the “puppy effect”, seeing this young infant and thinking, that this person might be okay. Using the infant as the vehicle by which passionate love falls upon her is, in a sense, Virgil giving us a redundant set of causations for an otherwise rather grandiose divine intervention.


Later in the story there is some mention of Aeneas’s household gods. There are some that show up in the story over and over again. He has a dream about them telling him that it’s important that he should leave Crete, now that there’s a plague. He should go and try to found his city somewhere else. Aeneas is thinking about Crete as a possible place to begin his new city. The appearance of the gods is pretty exciting mythic stuff, but Virgil casts it in the form of a dream. Aeneas imagines something which gives us another psychological way of understanding it. The pestilence visited upon the group means they have to leave Crete anyway.  Rome as a future site for the city is determined by the pestilence and by a dream, which could be looked at as a psychological reality or maybe as a divine visitation. It’s also cast, in Virgil, as a pure and simple divine visitation. There’s a redundant set of causes that’s given for the action, some more mystical than others in a typical Virgilian move.

In Virgil’s story the connections of the gods and what they mean are slightly changed. Jupiter is removed from most of the events that happen. This is a little bit different from Zeus, who gets his hands dirty, threatens people, sends messengers and all the other action that we see Zeus engaging in. Virgil is building on an association here that of the highest god Jupiter, with the highest levels of the cosmos. The Romans would have known this by a Greek term, “iphare”. The very highest reaches of the cosmos are the places that Jupiter is associated with and are where he stays.


Another interesting example of this is Juno. Virgil talks about her at the very beginning, talking about how Aeneas is buffeted by blows from the air, directed by Juno. When Juno becomes involved in events down below the earth, she’s typically a storm goddess. She blows winds and storms at Aeneas. In the Greek materials, Hera is not a storm Goddess. She doesn’t throw storms at people, Poseidon does, Zeus can but it’s not normally Hera’s way of doing things. Virgil works from a tradition that draws on Greek scholarly work, and on a long and deep allegorical reading of the goddess Hera as being associated with weather. The Greek term for Hera has an eta, a rho and an alpha. Hera is her name in Greek. The Greeks noticed that this was actually an anagram for the straightforward Greek word for air. Air is the dense air of our atmosphere around us. They unscrambled the letters and made her associated with their understanding of the air. Early Greek allegorists read Hera as an allegorical symbol of the air. They also thought, according to the science of the day, that the air was responsible for the weather, and if it got heated up, or moist, that we had crashes of thunder, winds, hot winds, cold winds,  all the meteorological phenomena, including storms and blowing, were built into this lower atmosphere of air. Virgil talks about Juno as a storm god and in doing so he is working from a long and deep allegorical tradition that had for many centuries associated Hera with the air. Homer’s interpreters do this and Virgil is working from this traditional scholarship around Homer’s interpreters.

In Virgil’s pantheon not only do we have grand and separate far away Olympian divinities, especially in the case of Jupiter we also have the household gods. These are effigies actual statues, which are the local gods of particular families, a very Roman custom, not a Greek one at all. These are very important for Virgil’s story and they’re a concretization of abstract divine forces in the form of specific effigies that people can direct their acts of worship toward.

Virgil’s story is entirely mappable. It’s mappable on specific locations in the Mediterranean. When we look at Homer’s Odyssey we didn’t propose any mapping there, because all mappings of the Odyssey are the creations of the map makers. Homer didn’t give us any settled atlas. No one spent time disagreeing over which mapping should go where and whether the Scylla and Charybdis is in one place of the Mediterranean and the Pillars of Hercules somewhere else. Homer’s treatment of this area was as a land of mythic fantasy, strange and wonderful places but you can’t really find them in any specific way on maps. Totally different with Virgil where every place he talks about is specifically mappable. The classical Romans knew these places, may have grown up or visited them.

We see some other treatments where Virgil’s rationalizing impulse takes over. He worked with a sense of myth in history that we can link back to. In that historical time there was great learning around him that he didn’t ignore in building his own myth. Within this very learned time, historically and scientifically, with great records everywhere. Virgil was still able to construct myth.

Landing on an Unknown Shore

There are parallels between the stories that Virgil tells, and the story that we see in Homer’s Odyssey. For example with their wanderings Aeneas is moving around the Mediterranean, in ways that parallel Odysseus’, ‘nostos’, his journey home

Odysseus vs Aeneas

  • Aeneas is on his way to found a home, he’s trying to find a place where a home doesn’t exist and create one, whereas Odysseus is trying to get back to a home that already exists.
  • Odysseus is trying to fight to regain his kingdom. Aeneas will have to fight in order to gain a kingdom, one he didn’t own before.
  • Odysseus is harried by Poseidon. Aeneas is harried also but in this case, by Juno, Poseidon (Neptune) comes to his rescue.
  • Odysseus is protected and looked after by Athena. Aeneas is looked after and protected by his mother, Venus.


There are some Virgilian twists so the parallels are not ever 100%. One scholar of this material noted how even down to little pieces of sentences and vocabulary choices Virgil makes references to Homeric backgrounds. Each time he does he tweaks it a little. He borrows but always changes. An example of this is a famous scene in Book One where Aeneas has washed up on the shore of Carthage. Over the top of a hill he and his companion saw a beautiful site looking down to Carthage.

“Meanwhile, the two men pressed on, where the pathway lead. Soon climbing a long a ridge that gave a view down over the city and facing towers. Aeneas found, where lately huts had been, marvellous buildings, gateways, cobbled ways and din of wagons. There the Tyrians were hard at work; laying courses for walls, rolling up stones to build the citadel, while others picked out building sites and plowed a boundary furrow. Laws were being enacted, magistrates and a sacred senate chosen. Here, men were dredging harbours, there they laid the deep foundation of a theatre and quarried massive pillars to enhance the future stage. As bees in early summer in sunlight in the flowering fields hum at their work and bring along the young full-grown to beehood; as they cram their cones with honey brimming all the cells with nectar or take newcomers’ plunder, or like troops alerted, drive away the lazy drones and labour thrives and sweet thyme scents the honey. Aeneas said “How fortunate these are whose city walls are rising here and now!”

This scene is one that appears in Homer multiple times, approaching an unknown village after landing on an unknown shore. There are parallels here with Odysseus landing on Scyrea. There’s a grand citadel that is marvellous and amazing to him for example. There are also some really important differences. When Odysseus stood at the threshold in Scyrea he was amazed by the wealth, he saw beautiful things, gold and silver and lapis blue, the gorgeous stones around him, the materials, the fine craftsmanship and workmanship. He was amazed by the careful craft, the extreme wealth that he saw in front of him. These are the things that he admired. Aeneas on the other hand admires the orderliness of it all. The building of the walls is amazing to him. They’re working like bees together in perfect unison and harmony. They’re bringing in good things to store, they’re organizing things, they have a, a senate set up and laws set up. Virgil looks at different aspects of the ordering of a society, architecturally, in a civic way, according to legal structures and according to political structures. Aeneas admires not just the wealth but also the carefully constructed society.

This is a classic way that Virgil draws on Homeric precedents but always turns them in some interesting way, to add to his own story and the story that he tells. It helps us to mark the ways in which Aeneas is quite different from Odysseus. There are some ways in which they are similar but whereas Odysseus is constantly trying to traverse boundaries and jump over walls, Aeneas is trying to find boundaries and secure them and make sure that there is stability and order in the world.


Also in book one is a scene with a poet called Iopas. In the Odyssey there were scenes that featured Homer’s treatment of Demodocus. He was a bard, and Homer’s treatment of Demodocus gave us a window into what Homer thought poetry was all about. The Song of Iopas toward the end of Book One is a way of understanding what Virgil understands poetry to be. Virgil is of course aware of the Demodocun background that he’s drawing from and he’s aware of the tradition that existed even in antiquity, that looked to Demodocus as a way into, Homer’s ideas on poetry. Virgil presents his own story of a poet expressing his own idea of what poetry is all about.

“And Lord Iopas, with flowing hair, whom giant Atlas taught, made the room echo to his golden lyre. He sang the straying moon and toiling sun, the origin of mankind and the beasts, of rain and fire; the rainy Hyades, Arcturus, the Great Bear and Little Bear; the reason winter suns are in such haste to dip in Ocean, or what holds the nights endless in winter. Tyrians, at this, redoubled their applause; the Trojans followed. “

Virgil’s account of poetry seems to be pretty much the story of the whole universe. He gives a large cosmological understanding of the importance of poetry. Poetry talks about things like the shape of the universe, the elements of rain and fire, the constellations of Arcturus and the Great Bear, why winter sun departs early from the daytime.  Virgil gives us an invitation to say; when you look to my poetry you should imagine me as a poet, trying to tell you a story of the entire cosmos. Virgil has larger ambitions for poetry even than Homer (if that is possible). For Virgil, it was possible to use poetry to convey structures of the cosmos. It’s something that Homer touched on, but Virgil tells, he purposefully created a poem that can be read by every lens you could imagine, as rich as you can possibly make it out to be.

The Trojan War Again

In book two, parallel to what happens in the Odyssey, Aeneas takes over the story and now begins to narrate for his Carthaginian hosts, his own past and what’s happened to him. The Trojan War had ended and Virgil has our hero Aeneas talk about what happened in his relatively recent past, and the fall of his beloved city. Virgil gives us a customary twist right away, the story doesn’t come purely from Aeneas. It gets turned over early on to Sinon, a Greek whom the Trojans met near the end of their undoing. It appeared that the Greeks had all left, so they went outside, Aeneas with them. There was this vagabond Greek who claimed to have been abandoned by his Greek countrymen. As they talked to him, they see next to him this giant wooden horse. Sinon tells such a beautiful, well-constructed lie that the Trojans buy it. He tells them that evil crafty Odysseus, Ulysses he has abandoned Sinon so he’s now ready to betray the Greeks and give away their secret. The Greeks have built this horse because they understood from Athena that she was very angry with them for stealing the Palladium. As a substitute they constructed this beautiful horse on the hopes that the horse will never be brought into Troy because if it is then Troy would never be able to be conquered. The Trojan are listening to this, it has an air of truth about it.


Laocoon, tells them not to believe any of it that it’s a terrible lie. Out of the sea come serpents that bite him famously depicted in many art forms from our past, and he instantly dies. The Trojans take this as a divine sign that Laocoon is wrong. They then had a redoubled urgency to take the horse inside their city.

Focusing on Sinon for a second, it’s interesting to look at what happened. In The Odyssey, think about the number of times Odysseus lies, and the number of times Homer seems to admire him for doing it. Athena eggs him on to lie; she’s delighted when he lies. The gods like it, humans like it; everyone is entertained by Odysseus’s lies. Here we hear more lies coming from a Greek. You can imagine the Romans thinking about these Greeks as being great liars. In this case, there’s nothing charming about it at all. It’s the undoing of the people that Virgil’s story cares most about.

At this point we are told the most authoritative representation from all of antiquity, about the Trojan Horse and the events surrounding the end of the Battle of Troy. Written 1200 years after the fact, Virgil’s account is the definitive version.

The Greeks come out the horse in the middle of the night, after there has been great drinking and revelry. The Trojans are not ready for war and the Greeks annihilate the city. Virgil narrates it with great detail and with great concern on the part of Aeneas. Part of what’s built into the story Virgil tells is a sense that Aeneas is a hero figure founded on a core sense of duty and following through. The first thing he has to do is to abandon Troy. Aeneas is able to get his men through.


Aeneas main core skill is his ‘piatas’, his duty, his ability to follow things through. There are plenty of good reasons for him to abandon what’s happening. There are figures that tell him to, divine Gods come and tell him, ghosts come and tell him, other human beings, even his wife in the end comes and begs, Aeneas to leave. There are lots of reasons Aeneas has to leave and, of course he does. There’s a wonderful one that brings home a very specific   Virgilian twist of how to present scenes of disaster like this. There is an eerie proof to Aeneas that all is lost. Venus lifts the veil of reality and allows Aeneas to peer behind the superficial surface of things to see what’s actually happening in the underlying structure of things, the structure of the cosmos such as we hear Iopas singing about. He witnesses the gods themselves in these shadowy forms dismantling the walls of Troy. That’s a terrifying thing to see. For Homer there is anger and there is rage. For Virgil there’s an existential menace, the whole universe seems to be operating with behind the scenes forces that sometimes could have deeply sinister ends to them. Virgil’s world is built on a sense that there may be depths of sinister forces operative in a world that otherwise we as humans might be ignorant of its depths.

Aeneas rushes to save his father and his son from a burning Troy. He carries his father on his shoulders. This is a neat representation of Virgil’s story of Aeneas’ past and tradition; he’s carrying that forward as a burden whilst also guiding his son by the hand, the future in other words. Destiny is bringing him forward via his son whereas tradition in the past comes with him, as his father is up on his shoulders.

Virgil’s is a world characterized by darkness and shifting surfaces. It’s a strange world to enter in to compared with Homer’s brightly lit world. For Virgil, there is difficulty in just getting at what the even what basically is happening. There is a surface level and always other levels operating at the same time.  Aeneas is not in full command of all the things that happen around him. He is pulled along by this grand destiny toward a future that he is on his way to meet but there is pain, struggles and suffering along the way.

Retelling Tales

Aeneas, having left Troy, started on his wandering adventures. Although we can draw parallels between this and Books nine through twelve of the Odyssey, Virgil’s stories are quite different.

First of all there is the rationalizing impulse that Virgil brings to his myths these stories are all mappable. The stories are specifically located on real geographical places that we can point to. Troy was on a map back then and people knew what Troy was all about. The first place they stopped at after their escape from the burning of Troy was Thrace up in northern part of the area of the great extent of Greece. It was well known for being a little bit wild and strange in Greek custom. The first adventures that they had lead them to rather spooky scene at Thrace which is right near Troy. Aeneas locates the body of Polydorus, Priam’s son who was entrusted to the King of Thrace during the Trojan War with a hefty ransom. After Troy fell the king decided to take the ransom and kill the son. So poor Polydorus is there under awful circumstances, buried in the ground, and he starts spouting up oracles. Oracles that come from the dead are called necromancy. These are things that are well known, but understood to be very spooky in Ancient Rome. When they hear this that it’s time for them to move on, this is not a good place to get their city started Aeneas and his crew board ship and off they go.


The next place they go is Delos which is a well-known, famous place for Apollo’s oracle. It’s not quite as Greek as Delphi is. Delphi has a very rich tradition, Delos has one too, both of them are anchored in the Greek past. Virgil couldn’t have quite had his hero find out the truth of what he needed to find at Delphi. The oracle there tells them they should seek where the Trojans first came from. The idea is that there is some early ancestral land out there where Troy needs to be re-established. The story that Delos tells, makes this new home that Aeneas is seeking an earlier home, a primal home. It’s not just that the Romans come from the Trojans, but the Trojans originally came from the Romans. Virgil’s giving us a story in which the ancestral home of Troy is actually Rome.

From Delos they head off thinking that they’re looking for an ancient place that could have been the background of Troy. They go to Crete which was well known mythologically as a very ancient place. They start building their walls. One of many times Aeneas and his men start building a city. They build walls, make out plans, and then something bad happens. At Crete there’s a pestilence, an awful plague. The household gods appear to Aeneas in a dream. These gods tell to move on to Italy.


They have a stop at the island of the harpies in the Strophades on the western edge of Greece. Harpies are nasty beasts with wings that come down and spoil your food. They were unable to get any nourishment. They also hear an oracle there from the Harpy Celaeno that they won’t found Rome until they eat their tables. This prophecy is fulfilled in book seven when they realize that the bread platters that they’re using to hold their food is actually what the Harpy was referring to. They go right past Ithaca with not much mention of it. It’s almost a snub to Odysseus. Then they go to Chaonia in Northern Greece on the Adriatic side and we hear the story of Andromache, who was Hector’s wife. She was abducted by a Greek man named Pyrrhus, a son of Achilles, after the Trojan War and taken back to Chanoia. Then Pyrrhus died and Helenus, a son of Priam and another one of Pyrrhus’s captains, inherited the kingdom. A new Troy was founded here, Chanoia, by great Trojan aristocrats, Helenus and Andromache, Hector’s wife. This would seem like a good place to found Troy, but it turns out it isn’t. Aeneas has to move onto another place. A famous prophecy then comes up. Helenus is well known for his prophetic acumen in the Trojan materials. He tells them that they have to go and talk to the Sibyl. He gives them a further clarification of the prophecy. Before they go to Italy they have to go find the Sibyl and she will give them specific directions on where to go. That requires a trip to the underworld.

They make their way across the sea between Greece and Italy and over to the land of Aetna where they see a belching volcano. They hear discussion of the Cyclops. On their way there they don’t do is go through the Scylla and Charybdis. They could have gone through the little narrow isthmus between Italy and the island Sicily but they avoid it. Virgil is perhaps telling us that Aeneas is a different captain. Scylla and Charybdis forced Odysseus into choosing one or the other. He sacrificed some of his men and went past Scylla. Aeneas finds another way round the outside of Sicily. He avoids the tough choice that Odysseus faced. Vigil makes a point here about Aeneas’ wisdom and respect for all the men in his crew.

They reach Aetna and meet the Cyclops. The Cyclops’s tale is told by Achemenides who was abandoned by Odysseus. He talks about how his shipmates left me here. Odysseus’ famous story of defeating the Cyclops is told via one of the men that Odysseus abandoned.  We have seen Odysseus in a different light, the abandoned man here, the sort of brush off to Ithaca is that Odysseus is a conniving liar and he’s someone who doesn’t get all his men home safe. The different values in this story are contrasted specifically with the values we saw placed front and centre in Homer’s story.  There is a different hero here and Odysseus is recast as a nasty liar and someone you can’t trust.

After the tale of the Cyclops they make their way around Sicily They could have gone there after the meeting on Aetna with, with Achaemenids, but instead they go to Drepanum. Aeneas’ father died which is sad for Aeneas but a necessary thing as the past now needs to be inhabited and carried forward by, by Aeneas. There is a definitely an Odyssean character and quality to these but it’s not only Odysseus’s journey captured here but also some of Telemachus’ journey. Aeneas is referred to as a young man by the Trojans as he runs into them. Some of them school him and bring him along, especially Helenus and Andromache. He’s raised and nurtured in the adventures he has, in some ways parallel to the way Telemachus is in books one through four of the Odyssey. Telemachus isn’t the only parallel, Odysseus is there too but it’s a way of seeing how Virgil always takes elements from Homer and puts a different spin on and twists them to come up with something entirely new in his way of treating them.

Two Themes

Two specific themes have emerged here that are interesting contrasts with the previous materials. They give us a window into what happens with the Roman version of ancient myth.

Pietas as a hero’s central value

The idea of pietas is a definitive marker of what Aeneas is all about. It is translated as dutiful which is quite good as a single English word, but it’s much more than being simply dutiful. ‘Pietas’ has an etymological relationship with the English word ‘piety’, and it means showing due reverence to the gods. In addition to this sense of dutifulness and showing piety, it means all the things that a Roman would want to see in a Roman man. A sense of follow through, commitment to getting something done, a sense of appeal to the broader responsibilities of a person who takes on a leadership role, who needs to make sure everybody is brought along, no one is over looked. ‘Pietas’ is about doing the difficult correct thing as opposed to the easy quick thing, carrying through with your promises, being honourable, all of these things are built into the idea of ‘pietas’. It’s impossible to be a great Roman without exhibiting this and aspiring to it.


This is a very different central virtue than that of Odysseus. For him it was ‘polytropos’. Odysseus is able to get out of any jam he finds himself in. Through whatever strength, whatever guile he has to use, he gets himself out of trouble. A Roman might look at that   cultural valuation, and ask what he did getting into trouble in the first place He shouldn’t have been so swashbuckling and telling lies and being all sneaky like that. The Romans don’t hold up an idea of being ‘polytropos’, or any Roman equivalent, as a centrepiece of what they want their hero to be. Instead, the new centrepiece of what a hero’s all about is this notion of being dutiful.,

Aeneas shows this in his relationship with the divinities. He’s got a relationship with his own god, the Penates, that allows him to exhibit his ‘pietas’. He shows it in his relationship with his subordinates, he shows duty to them and he’s honourable to them. He tries to bring them along. He also shows it when he is constantly subordinating his own individual desires to the larger needs of the society. This is also built in to the idea of ‘pietas’, which says that your own individual interest is only one small piece of the world where a larger corporate social interest is much more important. The similes of bees and ants things that we’ve already seen in Homeric times become flavoured with a new a newly admirable quality in Virgil’s text. They are markers of this sense of group dynamic and an ability to work together in groups, to get great things done. Romans are wonderful at that and they’re rightly proud of their ability to do such things.

When Aeneas is engaged in his making of boundaries, and building of walls, this is further an act of ‘pietas’. It is a dutifulness he’s carrying through, building things out in his marking out of a city by. Using his plough he is engaging in this following through of what is expected of him. A contrast with Odysseus could not be greater on this score. If Aeneas is the great maker of boundaries, Odysseus is the great crosser of them. He is constantly trying to find a way to skip over whatever boundary or wall is in his way whereas, Aeneas probably would find such a thing child’s play. Much more interesting for him is a sense of duty of building a wall, of making some order out of an otherwise utterly chaotic world.

It’s tempting to map these two central cultural values onto political and social dynamics of the times and cultures out of which they emerge. The Greeks were in a stage of exploration. There was lots of settlement happening during the time that Homer was writing his epic. All the way through into the Athenian classical period Greeks were sending out colonies, exploring and expanding, moving into new uncharted territories and running into strange things.

The idea of pietas and dutifulness maps onto subordinating your own individual desires to larger group needs to a culture that was now all of a sudden in control of and worried about maintaining a vast empire. The Romans when Virgil wrote his epic was a time of preservation. The expansion of the Roman Empire had reached its peak, and the idea was to put up boundaries that could be enforceable and talk about laws that would not be crossed. It was not a time of fleeing to far flung places but a time to shore up things and to enforce boundaries.

Teleology as a driving force


Teleology is another way of talking about the sense of a destiny, the history that’s moving towards some predetermined end. ‘Telos’ in Greek is a completion, an end point, an end or fulfilment.  This idea seemed to be entirely absent in Homer but it is definitely present in Virgil’s Aeneid.

Universal law number eight. People at the top of the power structure and people at the bottom of the power structure tend to embrace the idea that history is moving toward some predetermined end point. People at the top of the power structure and at the bottom of the power structure tend to embrace the idea of teleology.

People who have already won all the games, that society puts out to measure value in that society, like to think that history has put them there. Everything works for a purpose. All of history is made to bring them, to the point of grand influence and power and wealth. This theme endorses their own position in society, with giant wheels of machinery of the universal mechanisms that have brought them there.

Those at the bottom of the power structure actually embrace this idea, but for quite a different reason. If you are getting ground up by the machineries that seem to be operating around you, you are likely. To think that it wasn’t your fault and that instead there’s all of these larger purposes that are acting in the historical times, but they just don’t happen to include you. So it exonerates you from the sense of having to feel like whatever position you’re in is one that you somehow deserve. It gives a larger meaningful structure in the world and you just happen to be on the outs of it, but it’s operating.

Those in the middle who have aspirational goals of moving up social and cultural ladders, don’t like the idea that history moves toward a predetermined end. It’s more interesting to those at either end of the spectrum of political and social influence on power.

Teleology or destiny pulls Aeneas forward. There were all those false starts where Aeneas started to build a city, in Thrace, Dylos, Crete, the land of Caeonia, Dydos’ Carthage in Sicily, all of these places, there’s aspiration. But no he’s pressed on, some divine sign, some message, some prophecy, comes along and says, no, it’s not here, it’s later. He’s pulled toward an end point that is not something that is just under the control of Aeneas’ troops or Aeneas but it is in the larger building in of the cosmos.  He brings them toward to the end point in Italy almost despite themselves. At a certain point Aeneas has just had enough, he seems to be almost fed up.


Dido and Marriage

In book four, we get a chance to get close in to the character of Dido. We learn about her in detail, we see a rich, psychological portrait of her, her interaction with Aeneas, her interaction with her sister Ana, the, complexity of Dido’s character makes her quite a strong figure. She’s probably the most complex character of these opening books more so than even Aeneas. She is sympathetic. We get to know a lot about her we’ve seen her already being a pretty good person. She welcomes in Aeneas and his men, she shows them hospitality, and we know that in the ancient Mediterranean, it’s a good thing to do. She’s building a city, something Aeneas can admire she seems to be doing everything right. In Book one through no fault of her own, the Goddess Venus sneaks up on her and gets her to fall in love with, with Aeneas, through the intervention of Amour, her son. She’s portrayed in that sense as not fully in control, but we can understand how she is overcome by divine intervention.


Her tale doesn’t lead to happiness and friendliness, quite the opposite. This sympathetic character, Virgil spent a lot of time watching get ground up by the machinery that’s leading toward the founding of Rome. Dido gives us a way of focusing in. One specific scene of book four is the richest portrayal of what, she goes through.

At the start there is a hunt. Aeneas and Dido and their parties head out for a hunt in the wilderness.  A storm breaks and Aeneas and Dido find themselves taking shelter in a cave. They have an interlude that Virgil describes in really interesting language.

“Now to the self-same cave came Dido and the captain of the Trojans. Primal Earth herself and Nuptial Juno opened the ritual, torches of lightning blazed. High heaven became witness to the marriage. And nymphs cried out wild hymns from a mountain top. That day was the first cause of death and first of sorrow. Dido had no further qualms as to impressions given and set abroad; She thought no longer of a secret love but called it marriage. Thus, after that name, she hid her fault.”


We have “Primal Earth herself and Nuptial Juno opened the ritual”. To invoke Earth and Juno here is to invoke the two goddesses that have a great deal to do with marriage ceremonies. The episode here is being cast as an actual bona fide marriage. Virgil calls it a ritual. We have torches of lightning blazing. Marriage ceremonies are marked by torches. To talk about torches invokes, very strongly, the ritual context of marriage. Lightning flashes around the cave that’s taking the role of these torches. High heaven became witness to the marriage. There’s Virgil telling us that what’s happening in the cave is an actual marriage. The nymphs cry out wild hymns from the mountaintop, that’s also supposed to go on during a marriage. Then Virgil takes a turn. Dido had no further qualms as to impressions given and set abroad. She’s thought no longer of a secret love, but called it marriage, thus under that name she hid her fault. In the first half of the passage is seems clear that Virgil is telling us there was a marriage in that cave. The second half of the passage he tells us it wasn’t a marriage. It’s actually quite hard to decide if what happened in the cave counted as a marriage. Roman legal precedents on such, matters are not totally clear. Does Aeneas owe some affiliation and allegiance now to Dido? Dido surely thinks he does and he in the end thinks that he doesn’t.

Mercury tells Aeneas it’s time to go. Aeneas is ready to sneak away. When he’s caught he seems almost a little bit guilty he quickly blames fate. Dido will have none of this she is absolutely over the top, angry with Aeneas and the murkiness around the presentation of the cave episode makes the clarity of her anger even more fathomable. We see the one person here that seems to know what happened. It’s not Aeneas. It doesn’t really seem to be Virgil. The one person that seems to know what happened is Dido.

Aeneas gives his quick response

“.. so please no more of these appeals that set us both afire. I sail for Italy not of my own free will.”

Aeneas has to move forward because destiny is pulling him there.

As the story unfolds between Anna and Dido and the nastiness that they start to feel towards Aeneas there is a suggestion of a magical rite of burning things that come from Aeneas. Love magic is a very common thing in antiquity, and this would have been understood through that lens. Magic was not something you would’ve been proud of, it was something you would have done if you felt in desperate need for it and that Dido was reaching to this direction seems understandable. She calls on underworld divinities Iarbas, Chaos, the Chasm, Hecate, Diana. These are gods and goddess that you reach out to when you really need help. These are iconic divinities from the older order of things that are also associated with magic.

Peter Struck’s Readings of Dido

The sympathetic reading,

So far we’ve been really brought through her version of events. We feel sorry for her. This makes her tale and instance of these back currents that Virgil spends time on. So rather than just focusing on the destiny that’s leading us forward, we see all the suffering that has to be made to make things happen. It makes us quite sympathetic with Dido and feel her pain in a way, as we watch the awfulness that comes her direction, things that she doesn’t quite seem to deserve.

a functionalist reading.

We can examine the social values are being underwritten by the telling of the tale. There’s a pretty clear example of the overriding virtue of ‘Pietas’ being triumphant in this situation. Even if Aeneas had wanted to stay with Dido he couldn’t. Pietas’ duty requires that he go forward and even though it’s at great cost this Pietas is the central anchoring virtue of this culture and therefore it must be fulfilled. A functionalist reading here would underscore that the value being legitimized is Pietas. Irrespective of the cost, we still have to do it.

Furthermore, and in support of this reading, at the very beginning, Dido shows herself as someone who is very clearly exhibiting a traditional virtue of Xenia. She’s welcoming Aeneas and his crew, giving them a home, offering to marry him. You can marry our queen, (that’s me), you can have a kingdom. All these things are being exhibited through Dido’s reactions toward Aeneas. What Aeneas does in the end is say, Xenia is all well and good and that might have made sense in the Homeric time, but it’s Pietas now that’s the central virtue, and we have to anchor that. So in this functionalist duel Pietas wins out over Xenia.

Historical context

Understanding what’s happening during Virgil’s own time. Aeneas here shows a master Roman dominating a loved one. Carthage, who wishes to be with Rome but is eventually destroyed by Rome. This would map onto a history of the Carthaginian Wars that the Romans would have known well. Carthage was, of all the cities in the Mediterranean, the one that most powerfully stood between them and total domination of the Mediterranean. The Carthaginians, in real historical periods that the Romans knew well for over a hundred years, did awful battle and war with the Romans. The Romans remembered the Carthaginian conflict, and their ultimate victory there, as the great exhibition of Roman power and Roman strength. It showed pietas, duty, and fulfilment of your duty to the greatest degree possible. It was the great exhibition of Roman-ness as they conquered the Carthaginians no matter how awful the suffering was, they won over the Carthaginians.

Carthage in this story is feminized. There is a hyper-masculine Rome, who wins out over Carthage. Carthage wants nothing more than just to be loved by Rome, but instead Rome destroys her.

A piece of contemporary history that Virgil would have known very well can also be tied in here. Our hero, Aeneas, shuns the clutches of a North African sex goddess, thereby besting Odysseus. He does not fall for the wiles of that we see Odysseus falling for with these various kinds of exciting women in strange faraway places, he gets away. He also escapes faults that would have been on the front of the minds of Romans during Virgil’s time. What happened in Egypt when a great general named Anthony fell in love with a North African sex goddess, Cleopatra. Awful things happened and it ripped all of Rome apart. So if we’re trying to imagine, a sympathetic reading of Dido, we have to run that past what is clearly, a very un-sympathetic reading of a figure like Cleopatra, coursing around in the contemporary historical accounts. Of course Aeneas leaves behind Dido. He can’t fall victim, no matter how sincere his love is, or her love is, he can’t fall victim to that. If he did, he would be no better, than the people that had caused such awful civil war in recent history in Roman memory.

Virgil isn’t trying to tell some simple tale that has tidy lessons to be drawn. Instead he presents very complex tales. In order to understand all the complexities, the different shades of grey in Virgil’s text, we have to read it very closely.

Funeral Games for Anchises

In Book five Aeneas moves from the northern coast of Africa, and Carthage, and this background that he sees in Dido, and her civilization. He moves on to the future, literally, to Rome and the future.

Sicily provides a perfect medial space in between those two locations, Northern Africa and Italy. It’s in the middle in terms of geography. It’s also an island, so it’s somewhat separate from the rest of the world. It also recalls, interestingly, another island from the mythic background of Scheria where Odysseus had an engagement in a similar activity that we see in Book five, the games in honour of Anchises. These athletic games have interesting connections with the athletic games in Book eight in the Odyssey, and allow us to make some interesting kinds of connections. The differences are as profound and interesting as the similarities, but, there are ways in which these things bear some comparison.

In Odysseus’s case, he is finding a way to reintegrate himself back into society. He has been isolated and alone for a long time in the story. He has been far away on the island of, Ogygia, and trying to find his way back to his own home. The island of Scheria gives him a, a medial position in which he can rest, rejuvenate, recover his strength, and move forward. It also give him a way to recover the fullness of his identity. In Book five through, through seven, he’s starting to recover that sense of who he is. He gets back some of his strength and starts to show wits about him. He recovers and displays that physical strength through these funeral games. This is another piece in him piecing himself back together such that in Books nine through twelve, he can take over as, as captain of the poem and carry forward in the narrative and move things forward for us there.

For Aeneas, the medial position is very much similar. He’s moving from a state of wandering and not quite sure where he’s going into a state of surety. As he moves to the coast of Italy via Sicily, he enters into a new part of the epic, a transition time as he’s moving to Italy. Aeneas’ action takes place as a militaristic conquest of territory a very definite task that takes courage and strength but it is have more definitive perimeters around it. Up till now, it’s been a lot of wandering and moving around, and uncertainty as Aeneas tries to find his way. So, the games are a transition into a time when Aeneas becomes a more powerful figure in his own right.

There are structural ties in this book to the rest of the story, they’re quite interesting to note. There are ominous fires that bookend both sides of the games. Dido’s funeral pyre is one. Just before we get on to the games, we can see that far off the coast. After the games, we have the fires of the ships that are being burned. The Trojan women set them under Juno’s encouragement, and, and we see those fires at the close of the games. Both of these have ominous, portentous kinds of meanings to them. There’s a storm that we see at the beginning that drives the fleet to Sicily, and another storm at the end puts out the flames on the burning ships. Palinurus arrives at the beginning of the book as the ship gets through the storm to Sicily. He’s the steersman that gets it carefully through that treacherous path and then as he falls off the ship. We find out in the underworld interestingly another harkening back into a theme in Odyssey.

The games in Book five show us lots of pieces of Aeneas’ character. In the games there’s a boat race, a foot race, boxing, archery, and the equestrian manoeuvre of the Lusus Troiae. These are different to the Greek games. There are some similarities but also distinctive Romanesque. People in the games constantly cut corners, they make mistakes, they are greedy, they don’t live up to their potential, they whine. Aeneas steps into his role as a strong commander with a, strong hand on the tiller of his ship and guides his people through, difficult conflicts. In The Odyssey we see important pieces of Odysseus’ character put on display and here Aeneas grows into important pieces of his character, which are central for him as he moves forward. There’s a parallelism with Telemachus, as much as there is with Odysseus. His father is now gone and he steps into his own as a prominent and powerful person at the height of his own capabilities.

We see Aeneas settle disputes, he’s very good at this as people engage in the games, and there are conflicts that arise he finds ways to settle disputes. He has judgement and fairness that he brings to bear. He has good offices that he’s earned through surviving these awful toils and bringing his people through. He steps right into the centre and takes over in order to help make things work out right for society. One of the markers of taking responsibility is another way of saying solving other people’s problems and Aeneas steps right up and does that.

After he intervenes and solves things, we see lots of goodwill. There are prizes all around and Aeneas is very generous, he makes people feel good about themselves. In each of these situations the epithet that gets put out more and more frequently with Aeneas is “Father Aeneas”.  Book five is where he shows this epithet of himself and shows himself having earned it. Aeneas makes a transition from this time of wandering and difficulty such as we saw in the journeys and all the turmoil from Carthage and forward. Now he turns to Italy, via Sicily, on a final historical note.  Sicily was a critical piece of the whole Carthaginian struggle against the role of Carthage. The connection there would have been deeply engraved in Roman minds of Sicily as a pathway between Carthage and Rome. Aeneas brings from Carthage this, determination to found a new city that will eventually make Dido’s funeral pyre go far away and distant and eventually flicker out as Rome comes to dominate the Mediterranean.

Originally published by Louise Taylor at E-Learning MOOC Blog under a Creative Commons license.