Publius Vergilius Maro, more commonly known as Virgil or Vergil,
was a Roman poet who lived from about 70 B.C. to 19 B.C. His epic poem, The Aeneid is one of his most famous. It
is the story of the final destruction of Troy and the founding of Rome. Though it is considered mythical, there are probably also factual elements within it.
It is a retelling of Homer's epic, The Illiad, from the 8th century B.C.
The poem is composed of twelve books. It begins as the last remaining Trojans, led by Aeneas, are in the final leg of their journey, where they find temporary sanctuary in Carthage, ruled by the beautiful Dido. She compels Aeneas to tell the story of the fall of Troy. I will give a brief synopsis of each book.
Just a couple notes here first, though. My translation is the second edition by Frank O. Copley, printed in 1977. It is very readable and easy to understand. It contains two invaluable elements: a map of the route the Trojans took to reach the future Rome, and a glossary of proper names. I found myself constantly flipping to both of these sections (without really disrupting my reading), which brought clarity and comprehension to the story. If you read this book, make sure you use an edition with both of these helpers.
The second note here is a comment on the story itself. The Greek/Roman gods and goddesses were a bitchy, selfish, nasty bunch and it is their intrusions that caused the whole disaster told here, but I guess that was the case, or at least how the ancients saw it, with everything that happened. The will of the gods (and the individual gods fighting to assert their own will and using the humans as pawns) was the name of the game. Troy (which was on the coast of modern-day Turkey, across from Greece), was in a state of war with Greece because of the abduction of Helen of Sparta by Paris, son of Priam (King of Troy). This tale tells of the final ruse with the famous Trojan Horse, where the Greeks gained access to Troy and killed everyone who did not escape with Aeneas's fleet. Aeneas was the son of the goddess Venus. Juno, wife of Jupiter (Jove) is the biggest trouble, out to destroy the Trojans for several reasons, mostly because of the Helen issue, and also because Fate had determined that these descendents would one day destroy her beloved Carthage. Still despite the catastrophic years suffered by the Trojans and the ill luck sent by Juno and her allies, the end result fulfilled the heroic fate of Aeneas, which was the founding of the great Roman Empire.
Here we see the fleet of Aeneas floundering off the coast of Sicily after fleeing Troy en route to Italy. Juno implores Aeolia to loose his cave of "battling storms and roaring hurricanes," but Neptune, though no friend of the Trojans, is angered that Juno and Aeolia have infringed upon his territory. He stops the tumult and most of the ships and those aboard are rescued. They land safely at Carthage (which is now in Tunisia, Africa). Venus, mother of Aeneas, sends his brother Cupid to make Dido, ruler of Carthage, fall madly in love with Aeneas.
Dido, now entranced by Aeneas, compels him to tell the story of the fall of Troy, and the trickery the Greeks employed by using the Trojan Horse to gain access beyond the city's gates. Aeneas tearfully tells of carrying his elderly father, Anchises to safety, along with his young son, Ascanius. His wife, Creusa is lost and though he searches, no sign of her is ever found. Her ghost appears, however, and tells Aeneas to sail to the western land, (Italy), which is his birthright.
This book tells of the constant troubles the fleet encounters as they sail toward Italy, landing on one island after another without respite or safety, at least for any length of time. This ill luck keeps them moving toward their final destiny. After being attacked by the Harpies, they finally land in Epirus, on the east coast of Greece, where they find that Priam's (the former King of Troy) son Helenus is now king, and has recreated a city like Troy. They are welcomed and take rest. Helenus takes Aeneas to a temple of Phoebus, where a prophet tells them to continue to their destiny of Italy (the future Rome). They are also warned to take the long way around, via Sicily's west coast, because there is danger on the east coast of Italy, and between Italy and the east coast of Sicily. Anchises, the father of Aeneas, dies shortly before they reach Carthage. And that's how they end up in Dido's great city.
Aeneas has now finished the telling of his story. Dido is madly, hopelessly in love with Aeneas. Juno makes a deal with Venus, in order to prevent Aeneas from continuing his journey to Italy, that he should reciprocate Dido's love. They are out on a hunting expedition when they are caught in a storm. Finding shelter in a cave, they make love. (Dido had sworn fidelity to her deceased husband, Sychaeus.) Their passion keeps Aeneas in Carthage, while Dido becomes obsessed, neglecting her duties of running the city and angering former suitors whom she had turned down, particularly King Iarbas of Libya, upon whose land Dido built her city. He prays to Jove, who sends Mercury to remind Aeneas of his true purpose, and send him on his way. Aeneas is alarmed and frightened by the message, and takes steps to leave Carthage at once, without telling Dido, but she finds out and begs him to stay. When he refuses, she kills herself.
In this book, Aeneas and his fleet make their way back to Sicily, where they land at Eryx. They disembark and are greeted by their friend Acestes. Here they relax and challenge all who wish to join in games, with a prize awarded to everyone who participates. There is both a ship race and a foot race, archery and javelin throws, and boxing, all in honor of the late Anchises. But while the games are being enjoyed by the men, Juno again causes trouble by sending Iris to arouse the wrath of the women, who set the ships on fire. Jove, however, sends rain, and most of the fleet is saved. But those people who are weary of the years of exile, who wish to not continue on to Italy, are allowed to stay in the land of Acestes. With the remaining people, Aeneas sets off again.
Their next major stop is in Italy, shortly before their destination, at Cumae. There they meet with the prophetic priestess the Sibyl of Cumae, who assists Aeneas to descend to the Underworld, where he meets with his father. His father once again confirms his victory in Italy and the founding of Rome, and points to souls who will reincarnate in the future—the future offspring of Aeneas. He tells his son that Lavinia will become his new wife. Anchises then leads the Sibyl and Aeneas to the ivory gate, where they exit the Underworld. Aeneas gathers his fleet and sets sail.
Latinus is the ruler of Latium, His daughter, Lavinia, is promised in marriage to the handsome prince Turnus, but when Latinus seeks the oracle, he is told that his daughter should wed the Trojan, Aeneas. The elderly Latinus wishes for peace, and obeys the oracle, but again, Juno, in her wrath, calls for the Daughter of Darkness from Hell, Allecto, who sets the heart of Turnus aflame for war.
These books give a graphic and gory account of the war between the armies of Turnus and Aeneas and his allies, the Arcadian Greeks ruled by Evander. His son Pallas goes with Aeneas to lead the warriors, but is killed. It is not until the concluding paragraph of the poem that Turnus dies by the blade of Aeneas, and the war ends.
Think ancient Roman epic poems aren't exiting? Think again. A lot, I'm sure has to do with the translation, and this one is particularly readable. Maybe one of these days I'll brush up on my Latin and read it as it was written! Or not. In any case, when I reached the middle of Book 11, though it was late at night and I was really tired, I couldn't put it down until I finished. Books don't survive over 2,000 years if they ain't good, huh? I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and found myself wrapped up in the characters, cheering every victory of the hero, Aeneas. Highly recommended reading.
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