Episode 54: Out of Troy

Virgil’s Aeneid, Books 1-3. The Aeneid is Rome’s great epic. Learn the story of its first three books, and when and why Virgil began writing it.

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Virgil’s Aeneid, Books 1-3

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 54: Out of Troy. This is the first of four programs on Virgil’s Aeneid, a twelve book long epic poem put into circulation in 19 BCE. In this show, we will hear the back story of Rome’s most famous work of literature, explore the first three books of the epic, and afterwards, spend some time discussing the reasons why Virgil spent the last decade of his life writing Aeneas’ saga, which begins with these words. [music]
Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam fato profugus Lavinaque venit
litora – multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
vi superum, saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram,
multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem
inferretque deos Latio; genus unde Latinum
Albanique patres atque altae moenia Romae.
     Musa, mihi causas memora, quo numine laeso
quidve dolens regina deum tot volvere casus
insignem pietate virum, tot adire labores
impulerit. tantaene animis caelestibus irae?

Arms and the man I sing, who first from the coasts of Troy, exiled by fate, came to Italy and [Italian] shores; much buffeted on sea and land by violence from above, through cruel Juno’s unforgiving wrath, and much enduring in war also, till he should build a city and bring his gods to Latium; whence came the Latin race, the lords of Alba, and the lofty walls of Rome.

Tell me, O Muse, the cause; wherein thwarted in will or wherefore angered, did the Queen of heaven drive a man, of goodness so wondrous, to traverse so many perils, to face so many toils. Can heavenly spirits cherish resentment so dire?1

Introduction to the Aeneid

Sometimes in the stories that we tell, a minor character gets his or her own spinoff series. A secondary figure, memorable, perhaps, for a scene or two, is suddenly made the focus of a new narrative, and becomes the central hero, or villain, in a new story, or even cycle of stories. In the Ancient Mediterranean, this happened again, and again. Old epics that had roots in the oral traditions of the Late Bronze Age – epics like the story of the war at Thebes, for instance, were given new life when their secondary characters were made the focus of new works of literature. Sophocles’ play Antigone is one such example, and Euripides’ Bacchae are part of a long set of works associated with legends surrounding the central Greek city of Thebes. Most famously, though, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey spawned dozens of what we might call spin offs – stories in which minor characters and off camera events receive extended treatment – boughs and branches all extending outward from the central trunk of an older epic cycle, like the Oresteian trilogy, which we covered some time ago. Perhaps the most famous spin off from Homer is Virgil’s Aeneid, written some seven hundred years after Homer’s works were completed in their present forms. Virgil’s protagonist is minor Trojan hero from the Iliad called Aeneas – a figure who gets clobbered in Book 10 by the Greek warrior Diomedes and walloped again by the champion Achilles in Book 20. In the midst of all the slashing swords and stabbing spears of the ancient Mediterranean’s most famous story, Homer’s Aeneas is a brave but ultimately middling figure, fortunate because in the two scenes that feature him, he is rescued by means of gods who favor the Trojan cause. The enterprise of writing a full scale epic about Aeneas himself, therefore, seems like a shaky one. At the Iliad’s end, he’s a forgettable Trojan – one who gets his pelvis broken by Diomedes and his shield destroyed by Achilles, a man full of bluster but short on martial prowess. And yet Virgil, and before him other Roman epic poets, saw Aeneas as the first founder of Rome – a figure who, before even Romulus and Remus, lay at the beginning of Roman history.2

Aeneas exiled

The journey of Aeneas, which takes place mostly in Book 3 of the Aeneid. Image by QuartierLatin1968

The origins of the Aeneid are in some ways a little tacky and inauspicious. When Virgil commenced it, he hadn’t yet written a long narrative poem. The story was certainly in part written to glorify the new emperor Augustus, and to trace Augustus’ lineage back to Aeneas himself. Aeneas’ son’s Greek name is Ascanius, but Virgil also calls him Iulus, thus making him part of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, of which Augustus was a member. A political work, then, the Aeneid was also in itself an act of cultural imperialism. Inasmuch as Virgil’s epic continued Greek literature’s sagas about Homeric heroes, the Aeneid was also a decisive break from the Homeric tradition, its references to the Roman world as frequent as they are distractingly anachronistic. Although Virgil was a famous poet at the top of his game when he commenced the Aeneid, the poem’s political and nationalistic origins might have rendered it an artistic failure – a piece of tawdry propaganda left to the dustbin of history. But this is not, of course, how the Aeneid turned out.

For more than two thousand years, the Aeneid has been at the center of European literature. To some readers, the Aeneid was the center of European literature. In his 1956 introduction to a popular translation of the Aeneid, scholar W.F. Jackson Knight wrote that the poem “is certainly the principal secular book of the Western World.” He adds that during the Middle Ages and afterward, “the Aeneid was probably the most widely known of all secular books in Europe; certainly no other has continued to be so famous from Roman days to ours. On the whole, the Aeneid has usually been considered the best book. It has always been easy to argue that it is the best poem.”3 Now, hierarchical superlatives like this one may be out of fashion in academia these days, but nonetheless the quote should give you a sense of the esteem that Virgil’s most famous poem has held over the past two thousand years. For its vast influence, its marvelous language and technical brilliance, the breadth of its cast of characters, and its gripping descriptions of perilous adventure and apocalyptic war, the Aeneid is a tour de force that everyone should read.

While the Aeneid is fun to read as a standalone story, it’s also, as I said before, a decisive turning point in a longer saga of epics – a saga whose roots lie all the way back in the eighth century BCE, with the Iliad, the Odyssey, and lost epics like the Nostoi, the Cypria, and the Telegony. Throughout the Aeneid Virgil expects you to be familiar with the legendary history of the Trojan War and what unfolded after it ended, and so if you read Rome’s most famous work of literature, you find the book opens in the midst of a long, complex story with hundreds of characters. Virgil expects, in his decisive appropriation of Ancient Greece’s most famous story cycle, that you’ll know how, and where, and why he has taken Greek characters and brought them into a Roman literary tradition.

Homer British Museum

A comprehensive knowledge of the Iliad and Odyssey is evident throughout the Aeneid.

Fortunately, we’ve covered the Iliad and Odyssey in Literature and History, in over nine hours of programs on the Homeric epics. If you’re just jumping into the podcast, it would be practical to listen to episodes 9-14 before listening to this set on Virgil. If you’re just here for the Aeneid, though, or if it’s been a while since you’ve thought about the Iliad and the Odyssey, let me give you a couple of quick paragraphs summarizing the parts of these older texts that are most relevant to Virgil’s Aeneid.

The Iliad came together about 700 years before Virgil wrote the Aeneid. And the Iliad is about the Trojan War. In the Trojan War, a band of armies from Greece crosses the Aegean Sea to make war on the city of Troy in northwestern Asia Minor, because the Trojan prince Paris has seduced the Greek king Menelaus’ wife, Helen. There are hundreds of characters on both sides, and the Olympian pantheon line up variously in support of Greece and Troy. The climax of the Iliad happens when the Greek champion Achilles killed the Trojan champion Hector. And after this, old King Priam of Troy, heartbroken at his son’s death, begged Achilles to give him Hector’s body, so that Hector could have a proper burial. In this climactic scene of the poem, Achilles consented, and the Trojans were given time to hold a funeral and mourn the loss of their great hero. After describing this funeral, Homer writes, “That was the funeral of Hector, breaker of horses” (24.860).4 The Iliad ends with this line. As to what happened next, we’re left to wonder.5

And the Odyssey picks up some time later, with the Greek tactician Odysseus’ wanderings and long journey home. We learn a bit about the end of the Trojan War in Book 4 of the Odyssey – Odysseus’ son Telemachus has an audience with Menelaus, and Menelaus offers the story of the Trojan Horse and the fall of Troy, but it’s a relatively brief account. And so strangely, even though the Trojan War is the central episode in the Homeric epics, the ending of this war is only covered obliquely in the Iliad and Odyssey.

While later Greek authors wrote about the end of the Trojan War, the general tendency was to skirt around the edges of the massacre that happened when Troy’s walls were breached. Sophocles’ play Philoctetes is set after the Iliad, while the war is still taking place, and covers the attempt of Odysseus and another Greek soldier to retrieve one of Greece’s master archers from an island in the Aegean, so that he can contribute to the continued war effort. Euripides’ Andromache, Helen, and The Trojan Women are about the female survivors of the massacre at Troy some time after events ended. Euripides’ Hecuba is an exception, detailing the Trojan Queen Hecuba’s revenge after her daughter is sacrificed by the Greeks who have just invaded the city. But for those of us who want to know about the sack of Troy – what exactly happened, and how bad things got in the last days of the war, we have a mosaic of peripheral episodes with no central picture – an ornate frame but only the barest outlines of a murky and disturbing painting.

Virgil, seven hundred years after the finalization of the Iliad and Odyssey, and four hundred years after the works of Sophocles and Euripides, sought to fill this painting in. The central hero in the Aeneid is a Trojan. And the opening three books of the Aeneid are largely filled with Aeneas’ recounting of Troy’s final hours and his escape from the doomed city. The beginning of the Aeneid is, thus, the adhesive material that connects it to the Homeric epics, a carefully wrought bridge between Roman literature of the Augustan Age and the sagas of the archaic Greek past. Our goal today is to hear Aeneas’ famous retelling of the sack of Troy. But to get there, we need to talk a little bit about Aeneas first – who he was, where he came from, and why, out of many, many Homeric characters available to him, Virgil chose to write about Aeneas. [music]

Juno and Aeneas

The famous opening lines of the Aeneid, in the Oxford Frederick Ahl translation, are
Arms and the man I sing of Troy, who first from its seashores,
Italy-bound, fate’s refugee, arrived at [Rome’s future]
Coastlands. How he was battered about over land, over high deep
Seas by the powers above! Savage Juno’s anger remembered
Him, and he suffered profoundly in war to establish a city. . .
What divine will was wounded,
What deep hurt made the queen of the gods thrust a famously righteous
Man into so many spirals of chance to face so many labours?
Anger so great: can it really reside in the spirits of heaven? (1.1-5,8-11)6

Virgil thus opens his great epic with a question, and proceeds to answer it. And that question is: Why did Juno hate Aeneas? Just as the Homeric heroes Hector and Odysseus suffered catastrophic losses due to divine disfavor, Virgil tells us at the outset, Aeneas had Juno against him from the very beginning. What had Aeneas done to incur her hatred? And, Virgil adds, following thinkers like Plato and his predecessor Xenophanes, how could the most powerful goddess in the Greco-Roman pantheon – a pantheon of beings supposedly far above the petty jealousies and squabbles of humanity – how could this goddess nurture such an awful, inflexible spite?

Giovanni Andrea Sirani - Minerva, Venus and Juno (The Judgement of Paris), 1638 aeneid background

Giovanni Andrea Sirani’s Minerva, Venus, and Juno (1638) depicts the three goddesses at the moment Paris selected Venus as the most beautiful.

Virgil provides a thorough explanation. I’m going to give you that explanation, with some extra information from the Homeric epics and other ancient sources from the Greek archaic period.7 If you listen to Literature and History in chronological order, you’ll remember this from a past episode. Every single event in the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid happened because of an apple. A couple of decades before the Trojan War, Achilles’ parents Thetis and Peleus were getting married. A particularly dangerous guest not being invited to the wedding feast, but she came anyway. Her name was Eris, and she was the goddess of strife, and she brought with her an apple. Eris brought this pivotal apple to the Trojan prince Paris, and on it were inscribed the words, “for the fairest.” Paris was then put into the awkward position of determining whether Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite was the most beautiful, or to use their Roman names, Juno, Minerva, or Venus. Each goddess offered Paris a prize, and in the end Paris chose Aphrodite, who offered him marriage with Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. Aphrodite got her apple, then. And not long thereafter, Achilles was born and grew to manhood, Helen left her Greek husband Menelaus for the Trojan prince Paris, and the Trojan War began.

The Iliad, we forget sometimes, was spurred on principally by Hera and Athena, who favored the Greeks, and Aphrodite who, loyal to Paris and Helen, supported the Trojans. A shiny apple and a bit of mealtime brouhaha at a wedding feast kicked off decades of carnage – carnage that continues to unfold throughout the Odyssey and the Aeneid. So one of the main reasons that Hera hated Aeneas was that Aeneas was a Trojan, and another Trojan had once slighted her.

Hera had another reason to oppose Aeneas. In Book 20 of the Iliad, Aeneas challenges Achilles. As is the case in many of the one-on-one duels in the Iliad, Aeneas’ fight with Achilles belongs with a lengthy verbal altercation. Virgil read this altercation very, very carefully. Aeneas’ prefatory speech to Achilles is over fifty lines in length, and in it, Aeneas treats Achilles to an abridged version of his genealogy (20.207-262). What we learn in Aeneas’ genealogy is that two of Aeneas’ ancestors – in incidents unrelated to the Trojan War – had done things that had angered Hera. Specifically, Aeneas’ great great great great grandfather Dardanus was the product of Zeus’ illicit union with a sea nymph.8 Now, you know that rule number one of Greek mythology is that Zeus has sex with every living organism on the planet, and that rule number two is that Zeus’ extramarital adventures anger his wife Hera/Juno to no end. Five generations before Aeneas was born, then, Zeus had had sex with a sea nymph, and Hera found out about it, and she hated the progeny of this illicit union.

Ganymede Louvre

A bust of Ganymede from a larger group of figures.

Unfortunately for Aeneas, another figure in his lineage had offended Hera. This was Aeneas’ great great uncle, Ganymede.9 Ganymede was what earlier generations of stuffy scholars called Zeus’ cupbearer, which means that Ganymede was Zeus’ male lover. And Hera found Zeus’ homosexual affairs just as unacceptable as his heterosexual ones. So two figures in Aeneas’ ancestry had slept with Hera’s lusty husband, and Hera thus saw Aeneas as the product of her husband’s adulterous activities. Aeneas’ lineage was problematic for yet another, simpler reason. Aeneas was the son of Aphrodite. The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, produced during the Greek archaic period a century or two after the Iliad, takes as its central episode the union of Aphrodite with Aeneas’ father, and how after they slept together, Aphrodite had her nymphs raise Aeneas for five years until his father could take him to Troy to be raised to manhood. Hera, spiteful at Aphrodite for being declared the most beautiful of the goddesses, thus extended her spite to her rival’s son. Now, I’m going to switch to the Roman names for the gods, now – Hera is Juno and Zeus is Jupiter – because this is the part of the story where the later Roman tradition begins to surface.

In addition to Aeneas’ distant relations and his association with Troy, when the Trojan War ended, Juno found yet another reason to detest Aeneas. Virgil tells us in some of the Aeneid’s opening lines that Juno loved the city of Carthage more than any other place, and that she kept her chariot and weapons there. However, she had heard in a prophecy that from the descendants of the Trojans, there would come a people who would cross swords with the Carthaginians, and destroy them. Aeneas, then, as a Trojan, was in Juno’s eyes a potential threat to the survival of her favorite city, and so she hated him for the acts that his distant ancestors would commit in centuries to come. These ancestors, as you may know, were the Romans, who in 146 BCE razed the ancient city of Carthage and massacred its citizens after over a century of war.

So Virgil’s Aeneas is, at his story’s outset, a divinely cursed refugee. Juno hates him because of things in his distant past and because of things his descendants would do centuries and centuries later. Aeneas appears initially as something like Job – a tragic figure who loses everything due to a scuffle between deities that has nothing to do with his own actions, a man who failed to win the war for his people, but cared too much for his infant son and aging father to remain in Troy and throw his life away during the city’s final destruction.

All of this should give you a good sense of who Aeneas is. And this discussion of Juno and Aeneas should also clue you into the main plot of the epic – Juno is going after Aeneas, and Aeneas is trying to protect his son and find a place to live for the Trojans who escaped at the end of the war. Before we begin, the only other thing you should know is that the Aeneid begins seven years after the fall of Troy. Like the Odyssey, the Aeneid starts some time after the culmination of the Trojan War, and also like the Odyssey, the Aeneid includes long spans of text in which the protagonist recounts past events – in Aeneas’ case, what happened in the last days of the war, and how he escaped. Much of what we’ll hear today is a vivid flashback that Aeneas offers his hosts in the city of Carthage – a flashback about the Trojan War’s end.

There’s only one other thing that’s useful to know right at the outset. And that is that from the beginning of the story, both Aeneas and Juno have heard that Aeneas and the Trojans are fated to settle in a land called Latium – the site of Rome. While Odysseus in the Odyssey is just trying to get back to his previous home of Ithaca, Aeneas has it even tougher – he not only has to get home, but also has to create his home, once he gets there. Homeric heroes like Odysseus and Menelaus first win a war, then have adventures and return home. Virgil’s Aeneas loses a war, and then wanders for a number of years, and in the last six books of the epic, finds himself in the middle of another Iliad. That’s something scholars have long observed about the Aeneid for a long time, by the way – the first six books are the Odyssey half, in which Aeneas one ups various deeds Odysseus undertook, and the final six books are the Iliad half, in which Virgil depicts the founding of Rome as an epic every bit on par with the Trojan War.10 Anyway, for what you’re about to hear, the most important thing to remember is that Juno doesn’t want Aeneas to reach his destination, because she doesn’t want Rome to ever be founded, and that Aeneas’ goal, throughout the opening books of the Aeneid, is to reach Latium and found his city. As the epic opens, Aeneas and his men have managed to make it all the way to Sicily, and are just on the verge of reaching their fabled promised land.

So let’s turn to the main course for today – the Aeneid, Books 1-3. I’ll be quoting from a number of different translations, and in the case of longer quotes, will let you know whose translation I’m using – all quotes are footnoted with editions and line numbers at literatureandhistory.com. Oh – and – uh – also, buckle up. This is one of the most famous and best loved stories in literary history. [music]

The Aeneid, Book 1

A Storm in the Tyrrhenian Sea

For seven years after the Trojan War, Aeneas’ fleet sailed far and wide, pressed by unseasonable winds and mysterious occurrences. Aeneas and his people grew to know little else but the sight of their ships’ bronze prows gliding through strange expanses of ocean water. They searched, year after year, for a place to call home, but only found danger, hostile natives and monstrous creatures. The goddess Juno, watching from afar, kept them drifting – always drifting – through the far reaches of the Mediterranean, pressing them at every turn away from Latium, the future site of Rome. Juno had heard that the descendants of the surviving Trojans, beaten and bedraggled as they now were, would one day defeat and flatten her beloved city of Carthage, the jewel of the North African coast, and so Juno, along with a series of unlucky incidents, kept the Trojan refugees far away from the western reaches of Italy.

François Boucher - Kimbell 'Juno Asking Aeolus to Release the Winds' aeneid scene

François Boucher’s Juno Asking Aeolus to Release the Winds (1769).

Nonetheless, as the story begins, the Trojans were setting sail from Sicily toward the Italian mainland. To the fury and consternation of Juno, Aeneas was on the verge of reaching Latium. And so Juno paid a visit to Aeolus, the king of the winds, in search of help. In the land of the god Aeolus, great winds lived deep in the earth – tempests and hurricanes that rattled the portcullis and chains of their subterranean prisons. Juno beseeched Aeolus, the lord of the winds, to help her pulverize Aeneas’ fleet. She promised him that if he helped her, he would receive her most beautiful nymph for his wife. Aeolus said he would do her bidding, and he punched his spear point down into the earth, releasing the winds.

Aeneas, out in the Tyrrhenian Sea, saw them coming – tornadoes and rain filled squalls, huge drafts that pushed walls of water up from the beds of the sea. Clouds massed in the sky and a ghoulish darkness fell over the heaving ocean. Aeneas shivered and looked up into the unnatural gloom. He said he wished he’d died in Troy, in his fatherland. Those who had fallen in battle, tragic as their deaths had been, had had it easier than Aeneas and the other survivors, who faced year after year of tribulation and uncertainty. The Trojan hero screamed up at the sky as water snapped the oars of ships and crashed into their masts. Three ships splintered into hidden reefs, and three more ran aground on sandbars and shoals.

From his position on the deck of his ship Aeneas watched one of his comrade’s ships spin, spin, and in spite of the best efforts of the helmsman, descend into a whirlpool. To the surface, afterward, came straggling swimmers, and various valuables salvaged from Troy during the evacuation – paintings, baubles, and mementos bobbed on the surface of the storm torn water. Other ships went down, too, their hulls cracking and filling with rushing brine.

The general noise and commotion of the storms were enough to awaken Neptune, the god of the sea. Neptune saw that, without his permission, destructive winds had been released over his domain. He chastened the overlord of the winds Aeolus, and calmed the weather, even parting the clouds and letting the sun come out.

Landfall in North Africa

Aeneas and his men, now fewer and more battered than ever, found themselves driven far from the Italian coast. With a leaky fleet and exhausted arms, they set sail for a mysterious coast to the south, and rowed into a natural harbor, where a broad island guarded a picturesque inlet from the breakers. The Trojans rowed into the calm waters of this harbor, and above them there towered rock walls covered in dark woods. The new land in which they found themselves was strange and ominous, but the Trojans were too fatigued to be picky. They ran down onto the beaches, descending from the seven ships that were all that remained of Aeneas’ navy, made fires, and began drying out their soaked grain and preparing a meal.

As his men settled into the camp for the night, Aeneas climbed one of the cliffs that ringed the natural harbor. He looked out into the southern Mediterranean, hoping to pinpoint one of his lost ships, but he only saw the ocean and empty horizon. Down below, however, a herd of deer grazed through the lowlands near his ships, and Aeneas was able to shoot seven of them before they dispersed. He brought them to his men – each of his surviving ships receiving an animal. Then, to hearten everyone’s spirits, Aeneas distributed wine. And at this point, we begin to get an idea of what kind of a leader Aeneas is.

As his men ate dinner, Aeneas noticed their sorrow and made a short speech, and this is the Frederick Ahl translation.
Crewmates, [said Aeneas,] by now we are hardly strangers to evil and hardship.
We’ve suffered worse. God will grant us an end to these sufferings also. . .
Take heart once again and dispel your fears and depression.
Maybe the day’ll come when even this will be joy to remember.
Through all these varied events, these many critical junctures,
We’re reaching out towards Latium, where fate reaches out to us, offering
Homes where we’ll settle in peace, where Troy has the right to reburgeon.
Just hold firm, conserving your strength for the good days to follow.
[And Virgil adds immediately afterward:]
Such were the words that [Aeneas] voiced. He, sick as he was with his worries,
Masked his expression with hope, kept gloom in his heart, deeply buried. (1.198-9,202-9)

Thus, comforting his men with food, wine, and inspiring words, Aeneas concealed his own sadness and bewilderment. The Trojans, who had spent ten years under siege and another seven drifting through perils and rough stretches of ocean, drank wine and talked in subdued tones about the comrades they’d lost that day – and those they’d lost in the years before. [music]

Jupiter and Venus Plot the Trojan Arrival at Carthage

The solemn sight of the Trojans on the beach affected Jupiter, who sat on the summit of heaven. The goddess Venus came to her father Jupiter and addressed him.11 She said asked him what Aeneas had done – what the Trojans had done – to deserve nearly a generation of slaughter. Jupiter, according to Venus, had once promised that from the Trojans would come the Romans, a people who would hold dominion over the known world. Other survivors of the Trojan War, Venus said, had found new homelands. Why did Jupiter tolerate the continued misery of Aeneas and his people?

Heinrich Friedrich Füger - Jupiter Enthroned aeneid

Heinrich Friedrich Füger’s Jupiter Enthroned.

Jupiter smiled gently. Jupiter said that Rome would rise in Latium with Aeneas at its helm, and offered Venus a long and detailed prophecy – one which foretold the rule of Aeneas’ son, the coming of Romulus and Remus, the ascension of the Romans, and the coming of a ruler who would put an end to a long series of wars. We’ll talk about this important prophecy a bit later – for now let’s stick with the main story. Jupiter assured Venus that the long suffering Trojans would get their comeuppance, and then he summoned the god Mercury for an important mission.

On the Libyan coast was a newly constructed citadel called Carthage. Carthage was ruled by a powerful queen called Dido. Knowing that the Trojans were nearly in the lands of Carthage, Zeus wanted them to have a warm reception at the hands of the Carthaginians. The Trojans were exhausted, after all, and needed the succor of a city – not damp stores of grain in the wilderness. And so, with his mind on the far distant future, Jupiter sent Mercury to Carthage to ensure that once the Trojans reached this town, they would be warmly received. [music]

Aeneas and Achates Take a Walk

In the early hours of the morning, Aeneas couldn’t sleep. The Trojans seemed safe enough for the moment, but Aeneas had no idea of where they were. He had his men drag the ships up underneath canopies of trees so that they would be invisible to passerby, and then, taking his best friend with him, Aeneas set off to explore. This friend was named Achates.

Aeneas and Achates were soon walking through a forest, and they met a strange woman – perhaps a Spartan or a Thracian. This woman, Virgil tells us, was Aeneas’ mother Venus, but she was disguised. The disguised Venus asked the Trojans if they’d seen her sister, and Aeneas said he hadn’t. But he noticed something strange about her, asked whether she were a goddess. Whatever she was, Aeneas said, he and the other Trojans needed help – they needed at the very least to know where they were. Venus denied that she was a goddess, and told the two Trojans where they were. They were in a Phoenician settlement, she said. A woman named Dido had fled her brother’s reign in the city of Tyre (in the south of modern day Lebanon, by the way). Dido had suffered greatly in her Phoenician homeland before crossing the Mediterranean to found Carthage. What had happened was that Dido had married a man called Sychaeus while very young. She loved Sychaeus, and he was extremely rich. But Dido’s brother Pygmalion, the king of Tyre, wanted his brother-in-law’s money. He murdered Sychaeus, stabbing his brother-in-law in the chest while Sychaeus was at the foot of an altar. Dido, devastated, began to have dreams about her butchered husband afterward. The ghost of Sychaeus told Dido that it was time to flee Tyre and the Phoenician homeland. Dido was told where to find undiscovered stores of buried treasure. And so Dido gathered up a set of allies who also hated her brother Pygmalion, sailed almost 1500 miles to the west, to the north of modern day Tunisia, and founded Carthage. Wrapping up a rather lengthy explanation of Carthage and how it had recently been founded, the disguised Venus then asked Aeneas who he was, and what he was up to.

Turner Dido Building Carthage aeneas

J.M.W. Turner’s Dido Building Carthage (1815). The story of Dido’s expatriation is one of the more poignant parts of the Aeneid‘s opening.

He said he’d keep it short. He was Aeneas of Troy, and he was trying to get to Italy. He’d set out from the ruination of the Trojan War with twenty ships, and he was now down to seven – and those that survived were barely holding together. He closed his short, bleak autobiography by adding, “Nobody knows me, I’ve nothing, I’m wandering Libyan deserts. / Europe and Asia reject me” (1.384-5). It’s worth pausing here for just a minute and considering Virgil’s initial presentation of Aeneas. Like Odysseus at his worst moments, Aeneas is despondent and uncertain. Like Apollonius’ Jason, Aeneas has a team to manage, and he masks his own personal gloom and uncertainty with a front of public strength and certainty. Somewhat different than the heroes of earlier Greek epics, Aeneas refers to himself, and is commonly referred to as “pious” and “dutiful.” More than, say, Homer’s Diomedes, or Ajax, or Agamemnon, Virgil’s Aeneas is a man of his people, fated to serve a cause greater than himself. A man like Achilles might stab and butcher foes for personal glory, or kleos. Aeneas, however, as an ideal Roman citizen was supposed to, is a subject of a collective greater than himself, and his piety to this collective and its traditions subsumes his personal wishes. Virgil’s depiction of Aeneas as “pious,” or “dutiful,” or moreover accountable to something greater than himself is a central part of his protagonist’s characterization. Anyway, let’s continue.

Following Aeneas’ sad description of his current doings, his mother Venus told him to have heart. Aeneas would be welcome in Carthage, she promised. And even better, the ships that he thought that he’d recently lost were still afloat, along with their crews. Their sails were full of wind, and they were headed to rejoin their comrades in North Africa. She then revealed herself as the goddess Venus and placed a cloak of darkness around Aeneas, so that he wouldn’t be seen as he made his way into the city. But before Aeneas had a chance to complain to his mother, or ask her questions she flew off to a nearby temple.

Then it was time for Aeneas to make his way into Carthage. The city, Aeneas saw, was a hive of activity. New walls, and gates, palaces and columns were going up everywhere – even a new theater. In the center of the freshly built city there was a shady park. And in this park, a temple was being built to Juno, who had favored the Carthaginians over the turbulent years since they had fled from Phoenicia.

Looking at the bronze and brass metalwork of this new temple, Aeneas was startled to see that artisans had covered it with scenes from the Trojan War. Aeneas asked his companion Achates if any land in the world had been untouched by the awful conflict, but at the same time felt glad that seven years later, the Trojan side of the conflict had not been forgotten. Captivated at the temple artisans’ recreations of the war, Aeneas did not notice a new, and rather arresting figure approaching. [music]

Dido Meets Aeneas

Dido, queen of Carthage, refugee of the city of Tyre, came toward the temple shrine as Aeneas admired it. She was a beautiful woman, and in her entourage of youths she appeared confident and vibrant. Aeneas was still concealed by Venus’ spell, and so Dido didn’t see him. But she did see some other men – in fact, Aeneas’ lost men! Aeneas and his companion Achates were speechless at the sight of their comrades they’d thought they’d lost to the storms to the north. Antheus, Sergestus, Cloathus, and a captain called Ilioneus, all thought drowned and perished, had made their way to North Africa with their men, and had come to Carthage to seek an audience with its ruler. The Trojans saw Queen Dido and approached her humbly. One of the Trojans leaders addressed her. He said that they’d approached the shores of Carthage and had been repulsed, in spite of their overtures of peace. The Trojan captain Ilioneus said that their leader Aeneas was a great man, but when the ships had been separated by storms, they’d lost him. The captain asked Dido if they might moor their ships there long enough to repair them, and added that once that was done, they’d be off to Italy.

Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland - The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas aeneid - Google Art Project

Nathaniel Dance’s The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas (1766). This is one of my favorite scenes in the poem.

Dido nodded. She apologized for her strict border patrol policy and said it was necessary – her state was young and it needed to protect its interests in the region. She said she knew all about the Trojans. They were not only welcome to repair their fleet there, said Dido – they were welcome to stay and merge with her kingdom. She said she’d send her ships to patrol the coastline to search for Aeneas. And just then, Aeneas’ companion Achates spoke and the cloud around them dissipated. Venus put a sheen of beauty over Aeneas, who told Dido there was no need to search for him. Aeneas said, and this is the David West prose translation, published by Penguin in 2003,
The man you are looking for is standing before you. I am Aeneas the Trojan, saved from the Libyan sea, and you, Dido, alone have pitied the unspeakable griefs of Troy. We are the remnants left by the Greeks. We have suffered every calamity that land and sea could inflict upon us, and have lost everything. And now you offer to share your city and your home with us. It is not within our power to repay you as you deserve, nor could whatever survives of the Trojan race, scattered as it is over the face of the wide earth. May the gods bring you the reward you deserve, if there are any gods who have regard for goodness, if there is any justice in the world, if their minds have any sense of right. What happy age has brought you to the light of life? What manner of parents have produced such a daughter? While rivers run into the sea, while shadows of mountains move in procession round the curves of valleys, while the sky feeds the stars, your honour, your name, and your praise will remain for ever in every land to which I am called. (1.595-610)12

Not a bad first encounter between heads of state, if you ask me. Dido said she’d heard of Aeneas and the Trojans. Once, her father had pillaged the island of Cyprus and taken its treasures, and hearing of its fall, she’d ever after thought sadly of the plights of conquered kingdoms. Further, Dido says in the Ahl translation, “Fortune has battered me too, with some similar twists, through so many / Trials, yet finally willed that I settle down here in this country. / I am no stranger to hardship. I’m learning to help those who suffer” (1.628-30). She said they were welcome in Carthage – all of them. Refugees, and the survivors of wars, Dido emphasized, needed to stick together.

The instant camaraderie between the Trojans and Carthaginians resulted in a welcome banquet. Animals were sacrificed, a lavish table was set, and cloths of that famous Phoenician hue of purple were set out. Aeneas, however, missed his son, and so Achates ran to retrieve the young man so that he could enjoy the Carthaginian hospitality, as well. And at this juncture, regrettably, the gods took it upon themselves to get involved. [music]

Venus’ Strategy for Aeneas’ Safety

Venus was worried about her son Aeneas. Venus knew that Carthage was Juno’s city. And she knew that as nice as Dido had been to the Trojans, Phoenicians were tricksters who sometimes did underhanded things to their enemies.13 And so, fearing a strike from Juno against Aeneas, Venus sought the help from her other son, sometimes called Eros, other times Love, and today called Cupid. Venus told Cupid to disguise himself as Aeneas’ son for the night, and, when the disguised Cupid met Dido, to make Dido fall in love with Aeneas. This way, Venus reasoned, Juno couldn’t turn the Carthaginians on their Trojan guests.

The Feast of Dido and Aeneas by François de Troy, 1704

The Feast of Dido and Aeneas (1704), by the appropriately named François de Troy.

It’s an interesting and rather sad moment in the Aeneid if you know what happens later on. By stirring up a romance between Aeneas and Dido, Venus decides that she’ll solve the immediate problem of Juno possibly attacking the Trojans in Carthage. Aeneas, however, is supposed to be going to Italy, and so getting him romantically involved him with a lovely queen in North Africa doesn’t show a great deal of foresight on the part of Venus. Then again, most of what Venus does in Greco-Roman literature has about as much logic and circumspection as a drunk guy jumping out of an airplane with puke all over his shoes instead of a parachute, so let’s move on.

The Trojans brought gifts to the Carthaginians for the banquet – gifts kept in the hulls of their ships for the past seven years of wandering. As the meal proceeded, Cupid first hugged Aeneas, who thought he was hugging his son, and then went over to Dido, and slowly stirred the fires of passion in her heart. As the afternoon lengthened, lamps were lit, and Dido had unmixed wine brought out. She toasted to hospitality and for the health of the Carthaginians and Trojans alike, and as the drinking began, Carthaginian musicians started playing their instruments.

Dido was conscious of feeling strange. A sudden lack of fulfilment overtook the queen, and, sitting near Aeneas, she plied him with questions. She asked him about the war – about Priam, and Hector – about Diomedes and Achilles – their armor, and horses. The soft sound of a harp filled the room. What had happened at the end of the war? Dido asked. What artifice had the Greeks employed to win? Aeneas took a deep breath, and he began speaking. [music]

The Aeneid, Book 2

Aeneas Tells the Story of the Trojan Horse

Aeneas tells Dido the misfortunes of the Trojan city Louvre 5184

Aeneas tells Dido the misfortunes of the Trojan city (1815) by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin. A lovely painting, excepting perhaps the weirdly svelte man-child figure presumably representing Ascanius.

It was dark, said Aeneas – so dark that the stars were fading. But if the Carthaginians wanted to hear about the last days of Troy, he would try to push through his anguish and trauma, and tell them the story. The Greeks had seen ten years pass as they lived in their camp near the Trojan plain. And one day, after the funeral of Hector, they’d gathered a huge amount of pitch pine, and they built a horse – a horse “high as a mountain” (2.15). The horse had a message inscribed on it – “Vowed to ensure our return” (2.17), and the Trojans took it as an armistice. It was not, as you surely know, a token of an armistice. “Inside its flanks,” Aeneas explained, “unseeing, unseen, [the Greeks] secretly sealed up / Bodies of men they’d selected – for lots had been drawn. And they loaded / Deep in its vast hollow spaces, its womb, quite an army of soldiers” (2.18-20).

The Greeks moved their fleet to a nearby island, and the Trojans, thinking that the coast was clear, opened their gates for the first time in a decade, wandering amidst the abandoned Greek camp. It was a surreal experience to walk along the Trojan plain and the banks of the rivers – spots where terrifying Greeks had lived – to pass beneath the shadow of the wooden horse whose presence seemed to betoken the war’s end.

The Trojans debated what to do with the horse. Some said it should be pushed out to sea. Others said it should be set on fire, or drilled into. One man, a priest called Laocoön, issued dire warnings against the horse. “I am afraid of [Greeks,]” said Laocoön, “not least when they offer donations” (2.49). The horse had Greeks inside of it, Laocoön said, or it was a war engine built to breach Troy’s walls. Laocoön punched a spear through the horse, and the Trojans heard a groan from within it. The evidence of treachery was strong, Aeneas admitted to his Carthaginian listeners, but divine powers were against the Trojans, and no further punctures were made through the horse’s central chamber. Because at that moment, a young Greek captured by Trojan shepherds was dragged up to where the horse sat on the Trojan plain.

Mykonos vase monochrome aeneid background

A very early depiction of the Trojan Horse, the Mykonos vase dated to about 670 BCE. Photo by Travelling Runes.

The young man said his name was Sinon, and that he was hated equally by Greeks and Trojans. He’d come to serve in the Greek army, essentially, because he was poor and had a familial acquaintance fighting on the Greek side. This acquaintance, however, crossed Ulysses, and Ulysses saw to his death, and so young Sinon found himself implicated with the crimes of his family friend. Sinon stopped himself, however, and said he realized the Trojans were going to execute him for being Greek, and to get on with it. The Trojans, however, were intrigued, and urged Sinon to continue.

The Greeks, said Sinon, faced a curse. They had killed Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia to get winds to take them to Troy. And to get back, the gods wanted more blood. Ulysses and the Greek seer Calchas discussed the matter for ten days, and then it was decided that young Sinon himself would be the sacrificial victim. He was caught and bound, but he escaped. And he was, he told the Trojans in the shadow of the Trojan Horse, distraught – for in fleeing the sacrificial knives of the Greeks he’d surely doomed his family to punishments back at home. The Trojans then accepted young Sinon as a fellow sufferer under Greek violence. They cut Sinon’s chains, and old King Priam of Troy said he could be a Trojan. And afterward, King Priam asked Sinon, the turncoat Greek, what the Trojan Horse was for.

Sinon said now that he had cut the bonds with the Greeks, he could break his oaths of secrecy to them, as well. Something bad had happened to the Greeks, said Sinon, that no one knew about. They had needed the support of Athena, and due to impious acts carried out by Diomedes and Ulysses, they had lost Athena’s support. The Greeks had given up the war in order to go back to their homeland and reknit ties with Athena, said Sinon, and once they had done so, they would be back with reinforcements. And the beginning of their penance was the construction of the Trojan Horse, a talisman that would protect whoever held it, and doom any who damaged it.

aeneid background Laocoon Pio-Clementino Inv1059-1064-1067

One of the most famous sculptures from antiquity, the Laocoön Group is a Roman marble copy of a Greek sculpture dated to about 200 BCE. The sculpture in this picture is usually dated to the beginning of the first century BCE.

As if on cue, the priest Laocoön, who had stabbed the Trojan horse, was sacrificing a bull on the seashore with his two sons when the Trojans on the plain saw a pair of sea serpents rushing toward him. The monsters came out of the water and onto the beach and proceeded to devour the poor priest and his sons in spite of Laocoön’s best efforts to fend them off. Now, you may have seen the Roman sculpture called the Laocoön group – it’s at the Vatican and it may have been produced during the lifetime of Augustus or his immediate descendants – and it shows the priest with his sons on either side and the two serpents raveling all around them. It’s a beautiful, disturbing, sinuous sculpture, and I think Virgil’s language must have inspired it – Virgil has Aeneas recount the serpents’ arrival in present tense, and here’s the Frederick Ahl translation of a couple of pivotal lines:
Blood-red, up [the serpents] surge on the swell, bodies skimming the water, Spiralling measureless tails in whiplash whirls of propulsion. Foaming brine crushes noise. In a trice they have reached the enclosure. Flickering, viperous tongues lick mouths spitting silibant hisses, Eyes blaze, reddened with fire and with blood in a sanguine suffusion. Anguished and pale at the sight, we scatter. (2.206-10)

So Laocoön, who had harmed the Trojan Horse, was massacred by sea serpents along with his sons, just after the Greek traitor Sinon had said that anyone who harmed the sculpture would face divine retribution. This was all the proof the Trojans needed of Sinon’s truthfulness, and the necessity of safeguarding the talisman. The serpents then proceeded to the temple of Athena in Troy.

Now, for clarification, Sinon, the young Greek who was ostensibly a traitor against the Greeks, was in reality still loyal to them all along, and his entire story had been a ruse. Athena, ever loyal to the Greeks, in spite of Sinon’s lies, had sent the serpents to massacre Laocoön so as to corroborate Sinon’s false narrative. The Trojans, Aeneas told his listeners, fell for this elaborate ruse wholesale. The Trojan horse was so large it wouldn’t fit through Troy’s gate, and so they had to destroy part of the wall to get it through. In spite of the thing’s immense size, and in spite of it getting stuck four times, and in spite of the sound of weapons clanging together in the sculpture’s belly, the Trojans, mad with fear of divine retribution, persisted, and when it was over, the horse sat in the city center, and the great walls of Troy were compromised. [music]

Aeneas and the Fall of the City

With the Trojan horse inside of the city, night fell. Not far off, the Greek fleet disembarked from the island where they’d hidden their ships, and soon enough were making landfall near the plains of Troy. Under cover of darkness, the traitor Sinon unbolted the Trojan horse’s belly, and an elite group of Greek fighters emerged, including Ulysses and Menelaus. The Greeks hurried through the dark city, killing sentries and opening gates. Late that night, Aeneas said, while he was asleep, and he dreamt of the dead Trojan champion Hector.

Hector, in Aeneas’ dream, was bloodied and filthy, bearing the wounds he suffered at the hands of Achilles. Aeneas asked the fallen champion why he’d come to him in his sleep, and Hector delivered dire news. Troy was falling, he said. Aeneas had to get out – he had to at least take Troy’s sacred artifacts so that its memories wouldn’t be lost to history. After hearing the counsel of Hector in his dream, Aeneas awoke to a nightmare. Everywhere, people were screaming. He climbed up onto his roof and saw that all through the city – like fire through a crop field, or a sudden flood coming down a mountain, Greeks were bearing down on the trapped Trojans. Aeneas got his weapons and asked another man where the Trojan defenders were rallying? Where could he give his life to defend his city? But the man shook his head. Troy, he said, was already finished. The Trojan Horse was puking up Greek soldiers, and the traitor Sinon was lighting everything on fire. The soldiers of Agamemnon were everywhere, unseen, moving invisible through alleyways and murdering any Trojan who appeared. But Aeneas didn’t care. He said he’d rather die than live with defeat. With a small band of lethal Trojan fighters, Aeneas began a guerilla resistance. Here’s how he describes what happened next, in the Oxford Frederick Ahl translation.
Youthful courage is. . .augmented by rage. We are henceforth Predators roving the mist-veiled dark, wolves driven by raging Bellies and blindly forced from our lairs, where cubs we’ve abandoned Wait dry-jawed. We stride through the volleys of arrows, through foemen, On to a death beyond doubt in a resolute march to the city’s Centre as dark night circles her caverns of shadow about us. (2.355-60)

Aeneas and his little band ran into an enemy captain who mistook them for allies. He asked them why they were prowling around in the dark – why not take part in the plunder and the rape of Trojan women? Aeneas and his men butchered the captain and his soldiers, and then disguised themselves in enemy armor. Through a mixture of subterfuge and open assault, Aeneas’ group killed scores of Greeks, even chasing a group of them back into the belly of the Trojan Horse.

An unlucky skirmish led to the Aeneas and his men being shot at by Trojans who mistook them for actual Greeks, and then things grew worse. The Greek warriors inside the walls realized Aeneas and his men were impersonators, and many of Aeneas’ men died under the chaos of Trojan arrows and Greek spear points. At a critical moment when Aeneas resigned himself to death, however, distant noises of calamity drew the Greeks elsewhere. At the palace of Priam, a battle was raging that made the rest of the city look peaceable by comparison. Trojans twanged arrows down at the Greeks on the streets, and the Greeks formed their shields up into turtle shells and clattered ladders against walls. When they were out of ammunition, the Trojans began tearing apart the stones of their parapets and casting these down on the Greeks, knowing that it was their last stand. A tower stood, high atop Priam’s palace, and Aeneas and others bashed away at the foundations until it fell, broadside, into the assaulting Greeks.

Pyrrhus and Priam

But the Trojans never had a chance. A huge Greek smashed the crossbeams of the place doors with a double ax, and then they were in. The palace courtyard turned into a general massacre, and upstairs, women who lived in the palace cried and trembled and put their hands on their doorposts. Priam’s huge family then began to be slaughtered. The old man, when he realized the palace was being invaded, had buckled on his armor and belted on his sword, but it was a sad sight. There was an old laurel tree at the center of the palace compound, and a sacred altar there. Priam, his wife Hecuba, and their daughters all huddled, terrified, at this sacred site as the Greeks cut their way into the palace.

The old king watched as Achilles’ son Pyrrhus slaughtered one of his sons. Cursing the brawny warrior, Priam tried to attack him with a spear, but he was an old man, and helpless before the young fighter. Achilles’ son Pyrrhus dragged King Priam to the altar near the laurel tree at the center of the palace, pulled his head back by the hair, and killed him with his sword. Aeneas saw the slaughter of his dear old king, and suddenly thought of his own father nearby, and his wife and son. He turned to go to his father’s house, but stopped in a temple on the way there, because he saw someone.

Aeneas and Helen

Flames were licking up the walls, and when Aeneas saw her, he felt himself swelling with rage. Helen of Troy crouched in the interior chamber of a vestal virgins’ temple – Helen who had been the catalyst of the past decade of suffering. Helen had been the cause of Priam’s death – Priam, who’d taken her in. She’d made the Trojan plain and beach wet with blood for a ten long years. Aeneas decided he would do it – he would kill the woman over whom the war was fought, though there was no honor in it.

But just as he went to end the life of Helen, Aeneas’ mother Venus appeared. She told him to go to his family. “Blame,” said Venus, “doesn’t lie with the evil-eyed face of [this] detested / Spartan bitch, or with Paris. It’s the gods’ inclemency, gods’ will, / Ruining all this wealth, dashing Troy from its heights into rubble” (2.601-3). It’s an interesting line, coming from Venus. Venus, after all, was the very goddess who set Paris and Helen up with one another, and when presented with an opportunity to end the Trojan War, she did not do so. Virgil thus exculpates the human actors of the great Homeric saga from blame or control of its events, and by placing this exculpation in the mouth of Venus herself, he makes it very clear that the lusts, and petty vanities, and caprices of the Greco-Roman pantheon are responsible for the human suffering in the epic cycle, and not the actions of mortals.

In order to show Aeneas the divine actors at the heart of the Trojan War, Venus lifted a fog from his vision and she showed him that deities were all around him – Neptune was shaking the city’s walls down. Juno was cutting Trojans down at the main gate of the city. Athena was fighting at the city’s summit, and Jupiter himself inspired the Greeks and their gods to fight harder. Venus then vanished, and Aeneas was alone in the burning city, which seemed to rock side to side as he walked. When he arrived at his father’s house, the old man refused to go with him.

Aeneas and His Family Escape

Aeneas’ father is Anchises, and Anchises is an important character in the Aeneid. His first act in the Aeneid is refusing to accompany his son out of the city. Aeneas’ father Anchises is not only old – he’s also been disfigured by Jupiter for having the affair with Venus that produced Aeneas. Citing his advanced age, Anchises said Aeneas should get out of the city without him.

aeneas anchises

Perhaps the most famous image of Aeneas in antiquity is this one, shown in Charles-André van Loo’s 1729 Aeneas Carrying Anchises. To Roman readers, this was the iconic Aeneas, sandwiched between generations and epochs of civilizations, cursed to suffer in order to secure the future of Rome.

Aeneas couldn’t take it. He’d already seen one dear old man murdered that day. He prepared to fight to the last to defend his dad. But Aeneas’ wife Creusa reasoned with him. Creusa pushed Aeneas’ little son in front of him and told him that he left all of them to die if he went out to fight. And then something strange happened. Aeneas’ son is alternately called Ascanius and Iulus – and remember that this is the way Virgil links Aeneas with the Julio-Claudian dynasty that included both Julius Caesar and then the first emperor Augustus. Anyway, at the critical moment when Aeneas was figuring out what to do, he saw that his son Iulus’ hair was glowing with a light that looked like flames. Just then, a falling star flared down over the general conflagration of Troy.

Aeneas’ father Anchises took it as a sign from Jupiter that they were fated for something more than dying in Troy, and agreed to leave with his son. And so Aeneas decided on a rallying point for his household and slaves – an old cypress tree beyond the city walls. He said he’d carry his father and that little Iulius would walk alongside them, and also that “my wife [will] follow on in our tracks at a distance” (2.711). A peculiar line – I think most of us would want our spouse to stick close to us as we evacuated a war torn city – and we’ll talk this little oddity later.

With the escape plan crafted in detail, Aeneas and his father and little family crept through the shadows of the city. Earlier, while in battle, he’d rushed toward the sounds of calamity with his sword drawn, but now that he was with his loved ones, Aeneas cowered at the sounds of distant fighting. He hurried with his family through a rabbit warren of familiar streets, and when they emerged from the city and huddled around the cypress tree, he saw that his wife Creusa was missing. In Aeneas’ words, “I didn’t look back, didn’t even / Think back about her until we’d arrived at the mound” (2.741-2). Again, an odd admission to make, particularly considering that Aeneas is telling this story to Queen Dido, who, as you may know or have guessed, is going to fall madly in love with Aeneas. He’s not exactly presenting himself as a model husband, but then, at least he’s not lying or whitewashing what happened either.

Aeneas, however, in spite of losing his wife Creusa during the escape from the city, soon attempted to make up for his earlier incompetence with cunning and bravery. He put his armor on and snuck back into the city, retracing his steps and going all the way back to his house. Upon his reentrance into the city he saw more awful sights, including Ulysses hulking over a pile of treasure he’d stolen. Aeneas looked and looked, and called his wife’s name, until finally he saw her ghost.

Aeneas and the ghost of his wife, Creusa

Bartolomeo Pinelli’s Aeneas and the Ghost of His Wife, Creusa (1879). Creusa’s speedy and preventable death is one of the lumpier parts of the Aeneid‘s opening.

For having only been dead for ten or fifteen minutes, Creusa’s spirit seemed rather – uh – serene and untroubled. Creusa’s spirit told Aeneas that it was Jupiter’s plan for her to have died in Troy. And Creusa told Aeneas that he would suffer a long exile, but that then he would go to the lands around the Tiber River. There, he would be prosperous and marry a princess. As for Creusa herself, she said not to fear for her – Jupiter had determined that Creusa should remain in Troy. Creusa told Aeneas to take care of their son, and then vanished in a night breeze.

Aeneas was distraught at the sight of his wife’s ghost disappearing. But when he returned to the rallying point outside the Trojan walls, he had some consolation. A number of other evacuees had amassed there with his father and son. They were packed for a long journey. The morning star shown brightly as dawn began to break. Aeneas picked up his father, and, mobilizing his newly assembled band of Trojan refugees, made for the mountains. [music]

The Aeneid, Book 3

Polydorus and Thrace

In Book 3 of the Aeneid, Aeneas continues his narrative to Queen Dido and the assembly of Carthaginians, telling them that after the destruction of Troy, his trials continued elsewhere, over the course of a long journey to the west. Troy, said Aeneas, was leveled to a heap of smoke and ashes. Aeneas and his band camped beyond some mountains on the shore of the ocean. And there, over the course of a winter and spring, they built a fleet of ships. When summer broke, Aeneas suffered the sad sight of sailing away from the Anatolian land mass. They sailed northwest, into the northern Aegean, and made for the land of Thrace. Thrace, by the way, was a kingdom at the top of the Aegean Sea, and lay in the south of modern day Bulgaria, the far northwest of Turkey and the far northeast of Greece. Anyway, Aeneas made for Thrace, knowing that the Trojans and Thracians had enjoyed a long friendship, and he founded a town there. One day, while exploring the countryside around the town he’d founded, Aeneas discovered a mound of earth covered with dogwood and myrtle. Aeneas was looking for some greenwood, because he was making a sacrifice. But when he snapped off branches from the shrubs there, he noticed that they seeped forth dark blood. Aeneas was mortified, but he nonetheless needed the greenwood for his ritual. He tried again, and again, and the mound was soon matted with red, and Aeneas heard a groaning beneath his feet. It was the voice of a dead Trojan called Polydorus, from whose corpse grew the dogwood and myrtle.

Polydorus was one of Priam’s many sons. And late in the war, Polydorus explained, Priam had lost confidence in his army’s ability to win. To cement a backup plan, old Priam had sent his son Polydorus up to Thrace with a lot of treasure. But the Thracians, expecting a Greek victory also, simply hacked Polydorus to pieces, and stole all of his treasure. The dead Trojan told Aeneas that Thrace was not a safe place for Trojans. They’d have to look elsewhere.

So Aeneas, newly conscious of the dangers of the northern territory in which they’d first landed, hurried back to camp. They all concurred that it was time to leave, but not before giving the poor betrayed Polydorus a proper burial and memorial service. With this accomplished, the Trojans disembarked and sailed south. [music]

The Trojans Visit Delos and Crete

The next destination of the Trojan refugees was the island of Delos in the central Aegean, the sacred island of Apollo. Mild weather allowed the Trojans an easy landing there, and they met the island’s king – a man named Anius. In addition to being the king of Delos, Anius was also a priest of Apollo and an old friend of Aeneas’ father Anchises.

Shortly after arriving on Delos, Aeneas went to a sanctuary of Apollo there, and asked the god to please help the Trojans find a new home. The temple walls rattled. Laurel trees adjacent to the building shook and shuddered. And then Apollo spoke. As is often the case when gods offer prophecies in Greco-Roman epics, Apollo’s words to Aeneas were cryptic. He called the Trojans “Dardanus’ rugged sons” (3.94), and he ultimately advised them to go “in careful search of your ancient, original mother!” (3.95-6). When the god finished speaking, Aeneas was puzzled. He conversed with his father about what to do next.

Claude Lorrain 002 aeneas in delos

Claude Lorrain’s Aeneas in Delos (1672). The smallness of the figures and the massiveness of the scenery and structures seem apporiate to the situation – the Trojans are trying to make their way through gods and perils that dwarf their stature as mere humans.

Where were the Trojans originally from? Aeneas asked Anchises. All of Anatolia was lost to them, now – but how had they come to be there in the first place, generations and generations ago? Anchises considered the question, and said that the progenitor of the Trojans was called Teucer, and that Teucer was from the island of Crete. This scene is potentially a little bit confusing, by the way, so let me take a second to lay it out for you.

First of all, there are two Teucers in the Homeric epic cycle. One of them is a Greek archer who fights side by side with his half-brother Ajax in Homer’s Iliad. This guy has nothing to do with what’s going on in this scene, so let’s get him out of our heads. The Teucer that old Anchises is talking about is a much earlier figure – a king who was the son of a nymph and a river, and who was originally from Crete. This Teucer was the ancestor of the Teucrians, later called the Trojans. So old Anchises is being pretty logical here, and assuming that when Apollo said to find “the first land that nurtured your parents’ / Roots” (3.94-5), Apollo was talking about the land of Crete, where the Teucrians came from. Apollo, however, is actually talking about a different place. Aeneas’ great great great great grandfather Dardanus was born in Italy. And evidently an inner sect of Trojans are also descendants of this same Dardanus, and so Apollo is telling them to go to Italy. The advice, as divine oracles often are in ancient literature, is problematically unclear.

Believing, thus, that they were supposed to head down to the island of Crete, the Trojans happily prepared for the end of what seemed to be proving a rather short journey to their new homeland. They sacrificed animals and made the usual preparations for a waterborne trip. Now, Crete, everyone knew, was ruled by a king called Idomeneus. Idomeneus, unfortunately, had been a leading general in the Greek army in the Trojan War. But, handily for Aeneas and the other Trojan refugees, word had spread that Idomeneus had been exiled from Crete, and thus would pose no threat to them.

So the Trojans landed on a stretch of Crete that was uninhabited. And, confident that they were setting down roots in a divinely ordained new homeland, Aeneas and his people quickly got to work, building city walls, writing new law codes, getting fields ready to plow – some of them marrying one other. Unfortunately, though, a plague struck Aeneas and his people on Crete soon thereafter, crippling people and infesting their crops. Aeneas used holy relics from Troy to consult with the minor gods and household spirits of his homeland. These deities were a bit more helpful and specific than Apollo had been. They told him what I told you before – Apollo hadn’t been telling the Trojans to go to Crete, but instead to a place called “Hesperia,” or “Twilight Land” (3.163-4) – in other words, Italy. Italy, then, Aeneas learned, was their promised land. He hurried to tell his father.

The Trojans, Aeneas informed Anchises, had two lines of descent – one from King Teucer, and one from Dardanus. Anchises said he’d heard rumors of this before. However murky their initial instructions from Apollo had been, the father and son decided, they now had a clear course of action. It was time to go to Italy. [music]

The Trojans Meet the Harpies

The Trojan refugees disembarked from the shores of Crete, and soon found themselves in the vast emptiness of the central Mediterranean. With the first night came black rain clouds and surging seas, and a storm so persistent that they didn’t see the sun for three days. When the storm broke, they found themselves on the shore of a small island west of the Peloponnese called Strophades. The good news, then, was that they’d skirted the whole southern coast of the Greek mainland. The bad news was that the island of Strophades was home to hideous monsters called the Harpies. As Aeneas puts it in the David West translation,
These are the vilest of all monsters. No plague or visitation of the gods sent up from the waves of the river Styx has ever been worse than these. They are birds with the faces of girls, with filth oozing from their bellies, with hooked claws for hands and faces pale with a hunger that is never satisfied. (3.214-18)

Harpy aeneid background

Gustave Doré’s The Harpies, with Virgil and Dante in the background. The Inferno is particularly lush with allusions to the Aeneid.

Unfortunately for Aeneas and the other Trojans, they did not know where they were. And so they made landfall on the island, butchered some wild cattle grazing there, and began making themselves at home, grateful for a break after several days of storms. The Trojans, feasting on a particularly nice beach, were then terrified to hear the sound of sudden wing beats. The Harpies swooped down from the mountains, screeching, snatching up Trojan food, and spreading an awful stench around the banquet. Aeneas and his people tried to withdraw into a nearby cave to finish their hard-earned meal, but the Harpies pursued them there, too. Aeneas was furious.

He had his men bury their weapons and shields in the dirt and grass. The next time the Harpies descended, the Trojans attacked them, but the warriors found that their blades couldn’t harm the revolting creatures. The Harpies withdrew, and one of them landed on top of a nearby cliff and addressed the Trojans. She said they’d trespassed on the Harpies’ island. They’d eaten the Harpies’ cattle. And now they were actually attacking the island’s inhabitants. The Harpy told Aeneas that they would indeed reach Italy – even, in fact, to beach ships there. But they would never found their city. The Harpy said that the Trojans would be cursed with hunger – cursed until they were so starved that they had to eat their tables.14 With this imprecation voiced, the Harpy flew off.

Aeneas and his men were once more distraught. They set sail from the island of the Harpies, going northwest along an archipelago of islands. They saw Ithaca, and Aeneas cursed the name of Ulysses, who had been such a murderer in the last days of the Trojan War. The Trojans stopped at the beaches of Actium for the night, washing themselves and making sacrifices, grateful, in spite of their setbacks, that they were still pressing onward. [music]

Aeneas Meets Helenus and Andromache at Epirus

Not long after the Trojans had their run in with the Harpies, winter had fallen, and the seas were turbulent. But nonetheless, the Trojan refugees voyaged further to the northwest, up toward the mouth of the Adriatic. There, Aeneas learned that one of Priam’s sons ruled in a kingdom called Epirus – at the border of modern day Greece and Albania. This son, whose name was Helenus, had married Hector’s widow Andromache. Hearing this good news, Aeneas decided to visit his old acquaintances from Troy.

Jacques-Louis David- Andromache Mourning Hector aeneid background

Jacques Louis David’s Andromache Mourning Hector (1783). Andromache suffers dreadfully in Greco-Roman literature, but Virgil’s Andromache, at least, is safe with a former brother-in-law in Epirus.

He saw Andromache, first. And again Andromache was the widow of the Trojan champion Hector – she’d seen her husband killed in battle and her baby son tossed from the top of a tower to his death at the end of the war. So, Aeneas’ sudden appearance confused Andromache. Aeneas had to tell Andromache that he wasn’t a ghost. And he asked her how she had became the wife of the Trojan Helenus – wasn’t she captured by Greeks and made a slave?

Andromache offered Aeneas her story. She’d been made the sex slave of Achilles’ violent son Pyrrhus (Achilles, as you probably remember, had killed Andromache’s Hector back during the war, so it was an especially debasing and nasty experience for her.) When Pyrrhus was killed, though, Andromache was able to marry her former brother-in-law Helenus, a far better situation than her previous one. As she finished her story, her new husband came down from the city gates and he greeted Aeneas.

It was a reunion between old acquaintances, and the former inhabitants of Troy were glad to be together. Aeneas told Helenus of their adventures thus far, and asked Helenus how he’d get home, considering the dire curse the Harpies had put on them. Helenus, conveniently, was a “priest with divine inspiration” (3.373), and so his oracle was one to be taken seriously. Helenus told Aeneas that he still had a long way to go before he got to Italy, and that it would not be smooth sailing. But he also told Aeneas that when Aeneas reached Italy, and found an albino sow suckling thirty piglets, Aeneas could know that he’d reached his new home.

Helenus warned Aeneas to watch out for Greeks who’d settled around the south of Italy. Also, Helenus advised Aeneas to be careful when going between Sicily and the Italian mainland – this was where the creatures Scylla and Charybdis lived. Aeneas was told he must honor Juno above all other deities in all of his prayers, and that he’d meet a seer in the lands south of Rome – a female seer whose services would be indispensable.

With his prophecies completed, Helenus gave the Trojans gifts to take with them, and some horses and guides, and Andromache gave Aeneas’ son a cloak that had belonged to her son. And after briefly uniting with their old acquaintances, Aeneas and his people began traveling west again. [music]

Aeneas and the Trojans Arrive in Sicily

The Trojans sailed to a crossing point, and then passed westward over the Adriatic Sea until they saw the southeast coast of Italy looming out of the ocean. On the shore of the new land, they saw four horses equipped for war, and they took it as an omen that they’d face strife upon setting foot in their new lands. Upon arrival, the Trojans made sacrifice to Juno, as Helenus had recommended. The Trojans wasted little time, there, though, and skirted along the southern shore of Italy until they came to the passage between Sicily and the mainland.

This was the place they’d been warned about, where on one side of the passage, a giant whirlpool devoured ships passing through, and on the other, a creature with six canine heads that ate unwary sailors. The Trojans chose the way of the whirlpool Charybdis, They paddled furiously and went in a reeling oval around the great maelstrom – once, then twice, then tree times, the rocks around them echoing the sound of crashing waves. When it was over, so exhausted that they could scarcely see, and the stars seemed to be dripping with water, the Trojans made landfall, on the northeastern end of Sicily – the island, in Greco-Roman tradition, associated with the Cyclops. As the Trojans arrived there, Mount Etna was rumbling, but they did not know about the nearby volcano, and so they spent the night in terror. As Aeneas relates in the Frederick Ahl translation,
During that night we endured, under forestland cover, appalling
Horrors. And, further, we just couldn’t see what was causing the noises.
No star’s gleam, no luminous vault with its bright constellations
Offered us light. There were overcast skies, fog-shrouded, entombing
Moon in a dungeon of cloud; it was night without time, utter darkness. (3.583-7)

The next morning, when dawn broke, a ragged and gaunt Greek man staggered out of the nearby forest. He admitted to them that he had served in the Trojan War under Ulysses, and asked them for help – would they take him with them, now? Or if they saw it fit, would they just kill him? The Greek stranger told them the story of how Ulysses had been trapped with his men in the Cyclops’ cave.

Annibale Carracci - The Cyclops Polyphemus - WGA04461

Annibale Carracci’s The Cyclops Polyphemus (c. 1600). The same figure has appeared in a number of texts we’ve covered – the Odyssey, Theocritus’ Idylls, and Virgil’s Eclogues.

This Greek stranger, whose name is Achaemenides, told Aeneas the story that we hear in Book 9 of the Odyssey – the Greeks had been trapped in the Cyclops’ cave, and many had been eaten. The Cyclops had drunk a great deal of wine, disgorged human flesh, and then the Greeks had driven a spear through his eye and escaped. Only, poor Achaemenides himself had been left behind, and his struggles had continued. Sicily had more than one Cyclops. Achaemenides had been in hiding, laying low and living off of meager rations. The Greek stranger’s story is an example of Virgil augmenting and rewriting some of the Homeric epic cycle in order to weave in his own story. Achaemenides said that Aeneas’ fleet was the first one he’d witnessed.

And just then, Aeneas and his men saw him – the Cyclops that Ulysses had blinded – a behemoth whose eye still oozed fluids. The creature lumbered out onto the beach and into the sea, and, not wasting a second of time, Aeneas and his men got poor Achaemenides onboard one of their ships. The Cyclops heard the commotion and summoned his kin to the shore, but the Trojans were far out enough to be safe. From the safety of their ship decks, the Trojans gawked at the herd of cyclopes, standing shoulder to shoulder as Mount Etna broiled in the background.

Staying a safe distance from the island, the Trojans sailed along its southern end, and at sea, near the southwestern part of Sicily, Aeneas’ father Anchises died. “This,” Aeneas says in the Ahl translation, “was a grief neither Helenus, seer as he was, in his many / Forecasts of horror, predicted to me. . . / This was my hardest test, the decisive turn on a long road. / Then a god drove me clear off the course, to your people and your shores” (3.712-15). These last words, of course, were spoken to the Carthaginians. And in speaking them, Aeneas had finally finished filling in what had happened to him and other Trojans who’d survived the events of the Iliad. [music]

The Aeneid and the Mostly Lost Epic Cycle

I think we should leave Aeneas there for the present, having just wrapped his back story to the Carthaginians. As we continue to move through the twelve books of the Aeneid, there will be many issues to discuss – the well known political aspects of the story, for instance, its references to contemporary Roman history, how Virgil’s story of the earliest Romans fits together with his contemporary Livy’s history of Rome, the deities of the Aeneid, and things that interest modern critics in the story, like Virgil’s portrayal of female characters, and the whether or not an imperialist message truly lies at the heart of the tale. However, we’re not very far in, yet, and so before we wrap up this program I thought we could simply talk about Virgil’s sources for the Aeneid – sources that stretch at least back to the Iliad. This is an especially helpful topic to cover up front, because if we learn a bit about the sources Virgil was using, we can also learn how he departed from them.

Virgil’s earliest known source for the Aeneid was, as I said before, the Iliad – particularly Books 10 and 20, during which Aeneas fights Diomedes and Achilles, respectively, and loses both times. The Iliad, of course, has survived to present day and it’s easy to understand the parallels between Virgil’s story and the brief cameos that Aeneas makes in the Homeric epics.

But in the century or two after the Iliad was composed – the 600s and 500s BCE – several other works of archaic Greek literature dealt with Aeneas. In fact, the Iliad and Odyssey are only two of eight epic poems that covered the Trojan War and its aftermath. These poems, called the Epic Cycle, are sequels, prequels, and interludes to the Homeric epics. They are lost poems, and our whole understanding of the Epic Cycle comes predominantly from a fairly long literary summary written by a man called Proclus. Proclus was perhaps a fifth century CE Neoplatonist, and perhaps a second century CE grammarian who tutored Marcus Aurelius, although there’s not too much evidence to support either.15 Although today we only have an outline of the Epic Cycle, strong evidence exists that suggests Virgil knew these additional six poems that in ancient times sat on the same shelf as the Iliad and Odyssey. I want to give you a general summary of these additional six poems. It may be a bit bewildering because of the quantity of names involved and references to events in the Iliad and Odyssey, but nonetheless I think reviewing the Epic Cycle as a whole will help us understand how, even way back during the Greek Archaic period, Virgil’s hero Aeneas was more than just a wimpy benchwarmer.

Eris Antikensammlung Berlin F1775

Eris, the goddess of strife, who sets in motion the entire epic cycle. From an Attic black-figure kylix, dated 575-25 BCE.

Proclus tells us that the Epic Cycle originally began not with the Iliad, but instead with a work called the Cypria. The Cypria, in eleven books, evidently, told the story of the goddess of strife, Eris, bringing the apple to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. There is a character called Helenus in the Aeneid – we met him in Book 3, and he was the seer who offered Aeneas a prophecy about how an albino pig would signal that Aeneas had reached his homeland. Helenus, one of the Trojan king Paris’ many sons, actually made many appearances in the Epic Cycle, including the Cypria, and Virgil likely learned of him there. In the Cypria, Aeneas travels with his fellow Trojan Paris to Sparta to kidnap Helen, and then, while Menelaus is away on a trip, Aeneas accompanies Paris and Helen back to Troy. The next part of this lost epic told of Agamemnon and Menelaus marshalling their retaliatory forces, and then tragic story how the brothers sacrificed Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia lying to her and telling her she was going to marry Achilles.

After some lumps and bumps, in this lost first installment of the Epic Cycle, the Greeks make landfall near Troy. As the events of the lost Cypria quicken and the Trojan War begins in earnest, Achilles scatters the cattle of Virgil’s hero Aeneas. The Cypria ends with Zeus planning to get Achilles out of the Greek army, thus neatly segueing into Book 1 of the Iliad, in which Achilles and Agamemnon feud, and the Greek champion abandons his fellow warriors for most of the epic.

Next in the sequence came the main saga of the Trojan War – Homer’s Iliad. Now you may have noticed that neither Homer, nor Virgil covers the death of Achilles. By the time Virgil’s Aeneas is dashing around Troy in Book 2 of the Aeneid, Achilles is already dead. The story of Achilles’ death was originally told in a lost epic called the Aethiopis – a five book long poem about the distant northern and southern allies of the Trojans, and then the death of Achilles by an arrow from Paris. The story – again the Aethiopis – seems to have involved an Amazonian Queen coming to aid the Trojans after the death of Hector. Achilles kills her, and also a Greek man who has fallen in love with her, an act which he has to atone for. After some squabbling in the Greek camp. Achilles leads a charge into Troy and is killed by an arrow shot by Paris and guided by Apollo. Fighting for his body ensues, which leads to the fourth installment in the mostly lost Epic Cycle.

The story after the Aethiopis continues with a work called the Little Iliad, a four-book long work which narrated the Greek tournament held to see who would receive Achilles’ arms after his death, the appearance of Achilles’ son Pyrrhus in the tenth year of war, the death of Paris by an arrow from the Greek hero Philoctetes, whom Odysseus had gone to retrieve, and finally the construction of the Trojan Horse.16 The Little Iliad explains an odd feature of the third and fourth books of the Aeneid, and this is the presence of a character called Pyrrhus, also called Neoptolemus – the rather brutal and rapacious son of Achilles. Pyrrhus hardly gets a whisper in the works of Homer, but he is a sort of arch-villain in Book 2 of the Aeneid. Earlier in this episode, we heard of how Pyrrhus smashes his way into Priam’s palace with a double headed ax, how Pyrrhus butchers the Trojan King, and how Pyrrhus makes poor Andromache into his sex slave even though his father killed her husband. Additionally in the Little Iliad, the scene of the Trojans bringing the horse into Troy was narrated, complete with the detail of how they had to bust down part of their wall to get it into the city.17

Now, after the Little Iliad came the fifth book of the Epic Cycle – a work called the Iliou Persis (or “the sack of Troy”). This story covered many of the events depicted or mentioned in Book 2 of the Aeneid – the debate about what to do with the Trojan Horse, the death of Laocoön and his sons, the murder of Priam at the hands of Achilles’ son Pyrrhus, and the abduction and rape of Hector’s widow Andromache by Pyrrhus. Interestingly, in the Iliou Persis, Aeneas and his comrades flee Troy just after seeing the death of Laocoön, believing the priest’s death to herald the inevitable destruction of Troy.18 In Virgil’s version of the story, Aeneas is more stouthearted, sticking with his city up until the bitter end. Additionally, in the Iliou Persis, Menelaus finds Helen, rather than Aeneas – the scene of Aeneas finding her and being convinced not to kill her may have also been Virgil’s invention.

The eight-work Epic Cycle, after the Iliou Persis that told of the destruction of Troy, originally continued onto its sixth book with the Nostoi, or “Returns.” This poem told of the homeward journeys of various Greek characters, chiefly Menelaus and Agamemnon. Menelaus was delayed in Egypt for a number of years before getting home to Sparta, and Agamemnon, after receiving prophecies of his impending doom, was killed by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Next in the cycle came the Odyssey, which we’ve covered, and then finally the Telegony.

Out of all the works of the lost Epic Cycle, the Telegony is maybe the most bizarre and surprising, and just for kicks, I want to tell you about Proclus’ summary of it, even though honestly it has very little to do with the Aeneid. The Telegony is about a strange and ugly series of events that unfolded on the island of Ithaca and the southwest Balkans just north of Ithaca in the years after the Odyssey takes place. In TelegonyTelegony is named after him. When Odysseus heads back to Ithaca, Telegonus is for whatever reason attacking his homeland while searching for his father. Odysseus goes to protect Ithaca but his son Telegonus kills him. Realizing his mistake, Telegonus packs up his father’s corpse along with Penelope and his half brother, Telemachus, and takes these principal characters of the Odyssey over to Circe’s island. There, Circe makes Odysseus, Penelope, Telegonus and Telemachus immortal, Telegonus marries his father’s widow Penelope – although is she a widow? as Odysseus has been brought back to life? And Telemachus marries his father’s former lover Circe. As to what Odysseus thinks of his sons marrying his wife and lover, we are not told, but the entire Epic Cycle, weirdly, sputters out with Odysseus living happily forever after on Circe’s wacky, incestuous island.19

I think learning about the eight books of the Epic Cycle is interesting in and unto itself, but for our purposes today, it’s safe to conclude that Aeneas was a larger figure in this cycle than it seems if we only read the Iliad and Odyssey. Originally in the Epic Cycle, Aeneas went with Paris to retrieve Helen and bring her home, and he is important enough for Achilles to go after his property at the close of the Cypria. Aeneas is also a pivotal figure in the Iliou Persis, organizing an evacuation of Troy prior to the Greek sack. And other works of the Epic Cycle give more page space to the seer Helenus and Achilles’ son Pyrrhus, figures who make lengthy appearances in Virgil’s epic. Put briefly, if we read Virgil’s Aeneid and feel as though we’re hearing about a slightly different Trojan War, part of the reason for this is that Virgil knew the whole story, and we do not. [music]

The Odd Demise of Creusa

The greater Epic Cycle beyond just the Iliad and Odyssey helps explain the way that Virgil narrates the close of the Trojan War. The Epic Cycle may also help explain the rather strange way that Virgil treats the death of Aeneas’ wife Creusa in Book 2 of the Aeneid. Creusa is someone I would like you to remember. The Aeneid is the story of Rome’s foundation. Aeneas’ son Iulus is the great ancestor of Julius and Augustus Caesar. And although other women show up in the Aeneid who overshadow Creusa, Creusa, we have to remember, is the mother of Rome. And thus, it seems utterly perplexing that Virgil disposes of her in such a strange way. To remind you of how Creusa’s disappearance and death takes place, Aeneas is evacuating his family from the city. Aeneas tells his dad that he’ll carry him, he tells his son to walk closely next to them, and then says, “Let. . .my wife follow on in our tracks at a distance” (2.710-11). Off they go, then, Anchises, Aeneas, and Iulus in front, and, as Aeneas narrates in present tense, “Further back comes my wife” (2.725). Aeneas and the boys hurry forward, weaving through alleys and side streets, and soon he realizes Creusa is gone. As Frederick Ahl translates, Aeneas realizes Creusa is missing and he tells the Carthaginians,
Lord, was it pitiful fate that made off with my wife? Did Creusa
Pause for a rest or stay from the path or slump in exhaustion?
There’s no way to be sure. She was never restored to my eyesight.
I didn’t know she was gone. For I didn’t look back, didn’t even
Think back about her until we’d arrived at the mound and the sacred
Precinct [outside the city]. (2.738-43)

Everything about this is somewhere between strange and ridiculous, from the way that Aeneas tells her to follow some distance behind, to the way that he does not, at any point while skulking out of the city, glance back to see if the mother of his son is still alive.

A common explanation for this textual oddity is as follows. The Greek historian and geographer Pausanias, working some time in the 100s CE, recorded that in the Cypria – again the first work of the mostly lost Epic Cycle, Aeneas’ wife was called Eurydice.20 In Greek mythology, Eurydice was also the name of the wife of the famous musician Orpheus. And in the tale of Orpheus, after Eurydice dies, Orpheus is told that he can lead her out of the underworld, provided that he does not look back to check on her. Orpheus does so, however, and so his beloved wife is lost to him forever.

So, centuries and centuries after the story of Orpheus and Eurydice began splashing around the Mediterranean, Virgil may have intended his clunky story of Aeneas and Creusa’s escape from Troy to be an extended allusion to the older tale of Orpheus and Eurydice escaping from Hades. In both cases, a male character does not look back at a female character as they slog through perilous territory, and in both cases, the female character is lost forever due to the actions of the male character. But while Orpheus is told by Hades and Persephone to keep his eyes off of Eurydice on the way up from the underworld, Virgil’s Aeneas imposes the distance between himself and his wife and for some reason doesn’t choose to look at her. It’s probably the best explanation for the rather absurd reason Creusa dies, and even so it’s not a very good one.21

Anyway, that’s an introduction to the key parallels between the Epic Cycle and Virgil’s Aeneid – and the way that the Epic Cycle can sometimes offer explanations for the way that Virgil orchestrates his famous poem. I want to cover just one more thing before we go today – I mean even just the first three books of the Aeneid are overflowing with things to talk about. And this final thing is a couple of other important sources that influenced how Virgil went about writing Aeneas’ story. [music]

The Aeneid and the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite

In addition to the Epic Cycle – those six poems that frame the Iliad and Odyssey and seem to have been composed in the two centuries after them, Archaic Greece also produced a set of poems called the Homeric Hymns. These mid-length poems are written to various Greco-Roman deities, and one of them – the one addressed to Aphrodite – happens to predominantly be about the union between Aphrodite and Aeneas’ father Anchises, and the birth of Aeneas himself. While esoteric, the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite is also fun – a sexy yarn about an alluring goddess and an unwitting mortal.

In the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, Aphrodite first finds Aeneas’ father Anchises as “comely as the gods.”22 She addresses him as a “son of Dardanus” (419) the same lineage that Homer and Virgil accept. And after a bit of flirting, a steamy scene ensues, in which Anchises “took off her bright jewelry of pins and twisted brooches and earrings and necklaces, and loosed her girdle and stripped off her bright garments and laid them down upon a silver-studded seat” (417). Anchises, during their tryst, does not know that he’s going to bed with a goddess, although afterwards, he finds out. After the two make love, Aphrodite reveals herself as a deity. And she tells Anchises what’s going to happen with the child that she’s just conceived. Aphrodite tells Anchises,
Anchises, most glorious of mortal men, take courage and be not too fearful in your heart. You need fear no harm from me nor the other blessed ones, for you are dear to the gods: and you shall have a dear son who shall reign among the Trojans, and children’s children after him, springing up continually. His name shall be Aeneas. (419)

Then Aphrodite, again in this archaic period Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, tells Anchises that she will take their son to the wood nymphs, where he’ll be raised until the age of five. After that, Aeneas will be brought home to his father – and, Aphrodite adds – Anchises will need to bring Aeneas to Troy.

Now, as you can guess, this is a lot to dump on Anchises, who believed he was simply hooking up with a beautiful woman. And then Aphrodite piles the discomfiting news on a bit further. She warns Anchises,
. . .if any mortal man ask you who got your dear son beneath her girdle, remember to tell him as I bid you: say he is the offspring of one of the flower-like Nymphs who inhabit this forest-clad hill. But if you tell all and foolishly boast that you lay with rich-crowned Aphrodite, Zeus will smite you in his anger with a smoking thunderbolt. (425-7)

With this horrific warning, Aphrodite vanishes to go and birth Aeneas and raise him amidst wood-nymphs. The moral of the story? Don’t have sex with preternaturally beautiful women or men who suddenly materialize and tell you that they are normal people just like you. It seems like a good idea, but it’s a dangerous road to go down.

The Homeric hymn to Aphrodite was the tale of Aeneas’ genesis, and it told of how Aeneas came to be at Troy. But the hymn was also, I think, a titillating and fun short story about a mortal who was lucky enough to sleep with Aphrodite herself. Whether Virgil knew this hymn or not, he of course accepted Aeneas’ parentage.

Naevius, Ennius, and the Aeneid

Virgil knew Greek – Greek philosophy, Greek history, mythology, and most of all literature. But in composing a Roman epic in Latin that commandeered elements of Homer and the Epic Cycle, Virgil’s nearest analogs were two Roman epics, both produced around 200 years before him. Let’s talk a bit about the Roman, and Latin roots of the Aeneid. One of these roots was a work called The Punic War. The Punic War is an epic about the Roman republic’s conflict with Carthage, although it begins in times of legend. The Punic War was authored by a veteran called Gnaeus Naevius. Although we only now have a few scraps of The Punic War, they can tentatively be linked up to parts of the story that we read today. One of them describes Anchises making sacrifices as Troy falls, while women are absconding from the city with their heads covered.23 In another fragment of this lost epic called The Punic War, an old man asks Neptune for clement weather – perhaps Anchises before setting out from Delos to Crete (13-15). In a third and final fragment, an unknown speaker – perhaps King Latinus, whom we haven’t met yet, or Dido, “With charm and shrewdness asked [Aeneas] earnestly / How Aeneas forsook the city of Troy” (19-20).24 While very little can be concluded about the specific parallels between The Punic War and the Aeneid two centuries after it, it’s safe to assume that Virgil read the part of Naevius’ story that dealt with Aeneas.

Another, and more influential Latin epic that influenced Virgil was called the Annales, also produced about two centuries before the Aeneid. Some time around 200 BCE, the earlier Roman epic poet Quintus Ennius had written an epic poem, and its subject was nothing less than the entire history of Rome. Like Naevius before him and Virgil after him, Ennius saw Aeneas as Rome’s first founder. Unfortunately, like so much we’ve been discussing at the tail end of this program, the Annales is almost entirely lost. Nonetheless, in the words of scholar Nora Goldschmidt, “Virgil’s [Aeneid] appropriates the position of the Annales in the Roman literary canon as the epic of Rome, [and] the dynamics of that interaction are fundamentally conditioned by the Annales’ long standing place in Roman culture. . .[in which] scholars established a Roman ‘canon’ with Ennius as an equivalent to Homer at the heart of a body of national literature.”25

The fragments of Ennius’ Annales that we possess cover the lineage of Aeneas (16-17). They describe how Venus appeared to the Trojans (21), how the Trojans heard a prophecy of a “Western Land” (24) associated with the fallen titan Saturn (26-8), and later, how Aeneas arrived in Latium (30) made the acquaintance of the King of Alba Longa (31), and later still, how Aeneas’ descendant Ilia gave birth to Romulus and Remus (32-55)26. These episodes are a loose patchwork of events which have parallels to Virgil’s Aeneid, suggesting the extent to which Virgil followed his Roman predecessor Quintus Ennius. Thus, two epic poems that sat at the intersection between Roman literature and history, though their subjects were broader than simply the events in Aeneas’ life after the Trojan War, began their stories with Aeneas. Naevius’ The Punic War and Ennius’ Annales, which have come down to us as puzzle pieces, suggest that a larger interlinked set of Roman epics existed that had already fastened Rome’s story onto the Epic Cycle long before Virgil was even born. The broadness of Virgil’s learning has been one of his most admired qualities for two thousand years. As one scholar puts it, in the Aeneid, Virgil is “not just adapting and reworking the entire Greek epic tradition, he’s doing the same with the entire Latin epic tradition as well. His capacity to absorb, rework, take over, [and] repurpose literary history is matched only by the empire’s capacity to do the same with the cultures it conquered.”27

The specifics of how and what Virgil read and wove into the Aeneid, however, are dishearteningly elusive. When we look for Aeneas and his story in the texts and artifacts left behind by the Roman republic, we have a frustratingly indistinct and scattershot series of references and objects. The most widespread and recognizable of these is an image – an image of Aeneas carrying his father on his back, with his son at his side. These figures appear in simple terracottas from Etruria. They appear on a silver denarii dated to either 46 or 47 BCE and directed by Julius Caesar – Venus is on one side and Aeneas and Anchises are on the other, the mother of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the related founders of Rome.28 In the generations before Virgil the poets Lucius Accius and Lucretius had both called Romans “Children of Aeneas.”29 But on the whole, the literary roots of the Aeneid are largely lost in shadow.

Nonetheless, reviewing these roots, as we’ve done in this program, is important to understanding the Aeneid. Frederick Ahl, whose translation I’ve quoted an number of times in this episode, writes that “However much Virgil conveys the impression that he is simply recounting the traditional ‘Tale of Aeneas,’ there is reason to believe that he created most of the story and its extraordinarily vivid cast of mythic and fictional characters (almost all new to full epic characterization) all by himself out of scattered fragments.”30 Virgil had a number of prefabricated elements to draw from, and he used them, as we saw today – particularly in the second book of the Aeneid that covers the Trojan War. But as he moves forward in the Aeneid, to tell the tale of Aeneas in Carthage, and then Aeneas in Italy, Virgil increasingly seems to create a massive and frequently original story. [music]

Moving on to Books 4-6

I’d like to thank Professor Curtis Dozier of Vassar College for reviewing the transcriptions of my episodes on the Aeneid prior to my recording them. The Aeneid is a mountainous work, which has produced thousands of years of commentaries and scholarship, and I didn’t want to go into it without help from a professional Latinist. In addition to teaching Greek and Latin literature at Vassar, Professor Dozier also hosts a podcast which I strongly, strongly recommend. His podcast is called Mirror of Antiquity. Mirror of Antiquity is a program in which professional classicists talk about their work as scholars, translators, and teachers, and I think it’s a perfect companion to Literature and History. One of the most memorable things that Mirror of Antiquity does is relating the work of writers like Thucydides, Euripides, and others to events in recent world history. The show’s slogan is “Mirror of Antiquity: Where we see ourselves in the study of the ancient world,” and in each episode, you get to hear scholars talking about why ancient literature and history matters to them, and how it changed their lives, touched their hearts, and taught them how to live and hope for the future. I generally try to give you an overall summary of a literary work in each episode, along with some historical context. Mirror of Antiquity, however, will offer you really poignant stories about why ancient texts continue to be profoundly relevant to contemporary and recent history. It’s a really well-produced and edited program, and you can find it at mirrorofantiquity.com. Professor Dozier, on behalf of Literature and History’s many listeners, thanks not only for helping us learn about the Aeneid, but also for be one of the few professional academics to have started a free educational podcast for the general public. Mirror of Antiquity is actually only one of Professor Dozier’s free educational resources – I’ll tell you about the next one in the subsequent episode, which he has also reviewed. And also, thanks to my friend Lantern Jack from the Ancient Greece Declassified podcast for reading that Latin at the beginning of the show.

Well, now we’ve covered the first three books of the Aeneid and the known literary analogs behind them. We learned about how Aeneas met Dido, the end of the Trojan War, and Aeneas’ long and perilous journey to Carthage. Books 1-3 are wonderful, and they help us toward a much more complete understanding of the Trojan War than if we just read the Iliad. But the best is yet to come. In the next episode, we’re going to cover books four through six, which include the most celebrated parts of the Aeneid – the exquisitely wrought romance between Dido and Aeneas, the continuing interventions of the gods, and finally Aeneas’ journey to the underworld – a journey whose most important influence was Dante’s Inferno. Pound for pound, in the Middle Ages and Renaissance and beyond, except for a few books in the Bible, few texts enjoyed more circulation, reading, and imitation than Books 4-6 of Virgil’s Aeneid. Thanks for listening to Literature and History. Try a quiz on this episode at literatureandhistory.com, and make sure you remember all your Virgilian characters. If you want to hear a song and a bit of special bonus material, it’s coming up soon. And if not, I’ll see you next time.

Still listening? So I got to thinking. Got to thinking about that eight book long epic cycle, of which we only possess two books. That must have been a whopper of narrative, from the apple of Eris in the Cypria all the way to Circe’s inbred island in the Telegony, and everything in between. I got to thinking about that cycle and decided I’d try and put the entire thing into a song, a song which tells the entire story of the epic cycle. This one’s called “Epic Cycle Waltz.” Hope it’s a good review of what we talked about toward the end of the show, and thanks again for checking out the Aeneid with me.

[Trojan War: The Podcast Plug]


1.^ Quoted in Virgil. Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid I-VI. Translated by H. Rushton Fairclough and Revised by G.P. Goold. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, pp. 262-3.

2.^ Most notably, as we’ll talk about later, the Annales of Quintus Ennius set Aeneas’ story as an important event at the outset of Roman history.

3.^ Knight, W. F. Jackson. “Introduction.” In Virgil. The Aeneid. London and New York: Penguin Books, 1958, p. 23.

4.^ Homer. Iliad. Translated by Stanley Lombardo. Hackett Publishing Company, 1997, p. 492.

5.^ In some manuscripts of the Iliad, the closing is “And that was the funeral of Hector. And then an Amazon came.” The two lines allude to Achilles’ war with Penthesileia in the subsequent portion of the epic cycle. Thanks to Curtis Dozier for pointing out this delicious little tidbit!

6.^ Virgil. Aeneid. Translated by Frederick Ahl and with an Introduction by Elaine Fantham. Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 3.

7.^ The full version of the story was recorded in a lost epic poem called the Cypria.

8.^ Zeus slept with the sea nymph Elektra (not to be confused with Agamemnon’s daughter), producing Dardanus. Then came Erichthonius, Tros, Assaracus, Capys, Anchises, and Aeneas. The genealogy was available in Homer, and also Accius 1-4. See Warmington, E.H. Remains of Old Latin 2: Livius Andronicus, Naevius, Pacuvius and Accius. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936, p. 565.

9.^ Ganymede was the brother of Aeneas’ grandfather Assaracus.

10.^ Aeneas faces Charybdis, rather than Scylla, and all of Aeneas’ men survive. Similarly Odysseus loses many men to the Cyclops – Aeneas gets away scot free.

11.^ Venus is called Jupiter’s daughter in Aen 1.256, although in the Theogony (188-95) Aphrodite is born from the severed genitals of Ouranos after Zeus’ father Kronos severs them.

12.^ Virgil. Aeneid. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by David West. New York and London: Penguin Books, p. 19.

13.^ This post-Punic-War stereotype was of Virgil’s vintage, not Aeneas’.

14.^ Celaeno’s curse is particularly strange, in that it is later mitigated when the Trojans end it by eating.

15.^ See Reconstructing the Lost Prequel to Homer’s Iliad: The Cypria. Edited and with an Introduction by D.M. Smith. D.M. Smith, 2017. Kindle Edition, Location 142.

16.^ Ovid’s Metamorphoses (XIII.1-381 ) prominently features the debate between Ajax and Ulysses as to who would possess Achilles’ armor, suggesting that the Iliou persis featured a similar contest between the two heroes.

17.^ The story also included the detail of Sinon signaling the Greeks to come and invade – see The Little Iliad, Fragment 11, in Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and Homerica. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920, p. 517.

18.^ See Proclus, Chrestomathia 1.2. “But at this very time two serpents appeared and destroyed Laocoön and one of his two sons, a portent which so alarmed the followers of Aeneas that they withdrew to Ida.” Printed in Evelyn-White, (1920), p. 521.

19.^ The summary of this can be found in Evelyn-White (1920), pp. 531-3.

20.^ See Smith (2017), p. 144.

21.^ Throughout the Aeneid Aeneas takes on qualities of vengeful Achilles, long-suffering Odysseus, and team-minded Jason, and so the fact that he takes on the characteristics of other ubiquitous and well-known heroes, like Orpheus, may have been a positive aspect of the poem to Virgil’s more erudite contemporaries.

22.^ Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite. Printed in Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and Homerica. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920, p. 411. Further references noted parenthetically.

23.^ See The Punic War (2-10). Warmington, E.H. Remains of Old Latin 2: Livius Andronicus, Naevius, Pacuvius and Accius. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936, p. 49.

24.^ Warmington suggests Latinus; Elaine Fantham, looking at the adverbs blande and docte, (calmly and shrewdly) suggests the crafty Phoenician Dido. See Fantham, Elaine. In Virgil. Aeneid. Oxford World’s Classics, 2008, p. 468 n.

25.^ Goldschmidt, Nora. Shaggy Crowns: Ennius’ Annales and Virgil’s Aeneid. Oxford: OUP, 2014, pp. 18, 19.

26.^ See Annales. In Remains of Old Latin I: Ennius and Caecilius. Ed. T.E. Page et. al. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935, pp. 9-19.

27.^ Dozier, Curtis. Editorial comment in the present transcription, 05/22/2018.

28.^ See Fantham, Elaine. “Introduction.” In Virgil. Aeneid. Oxford World’s Classics, 2008, p. xi.

29.^ Ibid, p. xi.

30.^ Ahl, Frederick. “Translator’s Note.” In Virgil. Aeneid. Oxford World’s Classics, 2008, p. li.