Virgil (70 – 19 B.C.E.) was no Roman but a Gaul, since he was born near Mantua, situated in what was then called Cisalpine Gaul. Spending a great deal of his time in both Rome and his farm in Mantua, he dedicated his life to studying and writing. The great Maecenas, minister of the Emperor Augustus, was his patron, as he was that of Virgil's friend, the poet Horace.
Having spent a lifetime composing the Aeneid and being the perfectionist he was, he ordered that the poem be burnt. This was prevented, though, by emperor Augustus who saw great value in it. Virgil started the literature of nationalism. The Aeneid was written with a deliberate purpose: to dramatize, through the revision of legend, the glory and destiny of the Roman Empire. In composinig the Aeneid, Virgil felt he was writing a form of a sacred book.
The epic poem begins on the high seas with Juno stirring up a storm to keep Aeneas and the Trojans from their fated home of Italy, but Neptune stops the storm and they wash up, splitting into two groups on the shore of Africa near Carthage. Venus, Aeneas' mother helps her son into the city of Carthage where he is reunited with his companions. Venus sends Cupid to Dido so that she will fall in love with Aeneas.
Aeneas tells Dido the story of the fall of Troy, how the Greeks built a giant wooden horse and left a man behind to urge the Trojans to bring it inside the city. Once inside the city walls, the Greek army snuck out of the horse and began to sack the city. Witnessing the death of many Trojans, he rushed back to his house and took his son and father with him leaving his wife behind him. Later, his wife’s ghost tells him to go to Italy. In Crete, the statues of their ancestors came alive. They went to the island of the Harpies and were given a dire prophecy. Finally they arrived at an island ruled by a Trojan who prophesied for them the many things to come: where they would find their new home and how to get there. Aeneas' father dies when they stop in Sicily.
Dido is love struck by the Trojan hero. Jupiter has Aeneas ordered to leave for Italy, and when Dido finds out that he is leaving, she goes crazy, killing herself.
They return to Sicily and have funeral games for Aeneas' father. There is a galley race, a foot race, a boxing match and an archery contest. Juno inspires the Trojan women to set the ships on fire. Jupiter puts out the fire with rain but four ships are lost, causing Aeneas to leave many of the women and the old men in Sicily. Aeneas meets the Sibyl who instructs him how to get to the underworld. They descend together and Aeneas meets many people he knew, including the unhappy Dido, but she doesn't talk to him. He also finds his father and is told the future of his descendants as they look on the souls waiting for a second chance at life. Aeneas returns to the upper world, and sails to the mouth of the Tiber River; there he meets the local leader Latinus. Jealousies, conflicts, and misunderstandings cause a war among the factions and against Aeneas. Sailing upstream, Evander seeks help from King Evander and his son Pallas. They welcome him and offer their help. Evander admits, however, that he can't give them too much help so he sends them further upstream to a tribe of Tuscans who have a grudge against some of the Latins.
While Aeneas is away, the Latins attack his camp, besieging them within their walls. The Latins rest for the night. In the morning, Turnus tries to have the ships burned but they turn into nymphs. Aeneas gets the help of the Tuscans and is sailing back to the mouth of the river when one of the nymphs tells him that his camp is besieged. He rushes back and they enter battle. Many men are killed and Pallas falls at the hand of Turnus. Juno takes Turnus away from the battle to protect him. Aeneas rages and then holds a funeral for Pallas.
The Latins want to end the war, but Turnus decides he cannot bear to give up Lavinia. They attack the city and the warrior-virgin Camilla gains glory by fighting them off. Many Trojans die before she is killed. The next day Turnus offers himself in a one-on-one match to end the battle. When the match comes, however, Juno has Turnus' nymph sister inspire the men to break the truce. There is another great battle and Aeneas is wounded. His mother eventually heals his wound. He returns to battle and fights, pushing ever closer to the walls of the city. Turnus overcomes his sister and calls for the match. He is no match for Aeneas. When he asks Aeneas for mercy, the Trojan considers, but he sees his friend Pallas' belt on Turnus and kills him in a blind rage.
Virgil’s Intent and Purpose
By calling the hero Aeneas "pious," he meant to make the hero worthy of the gods and thereby an undisputable founder of Roman supremacy. In Book VI, we read how the spirit of Anchises shows forth to his son the credo of the glorious future of Rome: "Romans, these are your arts: to bear dominion over the nations, to impose peace, to spare the conquered and subdue the proud,"
Because of the nationalist impulse in Virgil's mind, scholars and critics tend to diminish his poem, attaching little importance to it, denigrating it and classifying it as a political tract. The fact remains the Aeneid today is a magnificent work of literary art.
Its story is part Western Civilization. Although we may not have read Virgil, nonetheless the names and deeds of the characters he created have become part of many languages: the unhappy Dido, the death of Laocoon, the Harpies, the Trojan Horse, the fiery Turnus, etc.
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