Episode 56: I Shall Release Hell

Virgil’s Aeneid, Books 7-9. Aeneas’ arrival in Italy begins auspiciously enough, but soon things take a turn for the worse.

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Virgil’s Aeneid, Books 7-9

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 56: I Shall Release Hell. This is the third of four programs on Virgil’s Aeneid, a Roman epic put into circulation just after the author’s death in 19 BCE. If you’re just jumping in and want to hear the story from the beginning, it starts at Episode 54 and continues in Episode 55.

In those previous two shows, we heard the beginning of Aeneas’ story. A minor figure in the Trojan War, Aeneas managed to escape the city with his father and son as the Greeks burned it to the ground. He wandered far and wide for seven years, landing finally in the North African kingdom of Carthage. There, Aeneas became involved with a powerful queen called Dido, although the gods demanded that he leave her and continue onward to Italy. After a stay over in Sicily to hold funeral games for his father, Aeneas and an inner core of Trojan refugees pressed northward to the city of Cumae. In Cumae Aeneas convened with a female prophet called the Cumaean Sibyl, and journeyed with her into the underworld in order to meet with the ghost of his father. Where we last left off, Aeneas and the Trojans are about to take the final hundred or so mile journey north up the Italian mainland – from Cumae, to a place called Latium, where Aeneas has been fated to establish his new kingdom.

So let’s jump back into the Aeneid. I’ll be quoting from several different editions in this program, but unless otherwise noted, I’m quoting from the Frederick Ahl translation, published by Oxford University Press in 2007. [music]

The Aeneid, Book 7

Aeneas’ Arrival at the Mouth of the Tiber

When Aeneas came up from the underworld, the Trojans made their way back to their ships, and continued their voyage north. It was a calm night, with only the gentlest breezes. The moon glimmered on the water and the ocean looked silver. The Trojans went by the land of the witch Circe, and although ominous noises were faintly audible over the sound of the ocean, a northbound wind swelled their sails up until the early hours of the morning. At dawn, the sea caught the glow of the rising sun first, and all around the Trojans the dark water reflected hues of pale yellow and pink. Strange eddies filled the sea as the night breezes gave out, and as the Trojans made their way to the ship’s benches to begin rowing, they saw it.

Remains tiber roman port aeneid later setting

The remains of an old Roman port on the Tiber. This river and its green, wooded banks figure centrally into Book 8 of the Aeneid, as Aeneas uses the waterway to journey up into Rome.

The ocean under the early morning sun looked turbid – like marble. On the shore, the voyagers saw a dense forest, out of which a river poured whirls of water and yellow sand. Above the mouth of the river, birds flew in droves. It was the mouth of the Tiber. The Trojans, finally, were home. Aeneas, with a sense of joy and gratitude, directed his men to steer their fleet into the river. And just as the Trojans found their way into shade from the rising sun, Virgil writes, they were soon to learn that Italy was by no means an empty, inert place waiting to be colonized.

In that part of Italy, Virgil explains, there lived a king called Latinus. Latinus was a powerful king, and his reign was peaceful and prosperous. But King Latinus had no male heirs. His only son had died young. But he did have a daughter of marriageable age, a daughter desired by many native Italian suitors. One of these suitors, a handsome man with a noble background, was called Turnus. King Latinus’ wife loved Turnus, and she wanted Turnus to marry their daughter. But ill omens in the court told King Latinus not to allow the wedding to take place. A mass of bees clouded in a sacred bay tree in one of the palace’s central courtyards, and a seer predicted the coming of an army. King Latinus and his daughter Princess Lavinia were in the process of lighting ritual fires when the bees appeared, and soon another ominous occurrence took place. Supernatural fire licked up into Lavinia’s hair, burning off her headdress and igniting her royal crown. Lavinia was miraculously undamaged by the blaze, but nonetheless the palace augurs drew grim conclusions about what they had witnessed. War was coming, they said. And Lavinia was going to be at its center.

Old King Latinus was understandably troubled. He went to a sacred grove and convened with the spirit of his father, who told him not to marry his daughter to any native Italians. “Sons-in-law,” said King Latinus’ father, “will arrive from a foreign world and, with their blood, / Raise our name to the stars” (7.97-8).1 The words were unexpected and frightening, and at that moment, King Latinus had a sense that something momentous was unfolding in his homeland.

Meanwhile, Aeneas sat with his son Iulus beneath some trees along the Tiber. They were finishing off the last of their rations, picking at the dregs of breads and berries, and little Iulus joked that they were so hard up for food that they’d have to eat their tables. The hunger, however, brought unexpected cheer to Aeneas. Because Aeneas had heard a prophecy that the Trojans would indeed be hungry when they arrived in Latium.2 This prophecy, Aeneas had learned, would tell the Trojans when it was time to move inland, build houses and settle. And so, realizing that his nearly eight years of wandering were finally over, Aeneas told his men that the next morning, they would venture forth into Latium, and get to know the land and the people who lived there. With these words, Aeneas garlanded his hair with leaves and voiced grateful prayers. Far above, the sky rumbled with thunder, and blades of sunlight pierced the dark clouds. [music]

The Trojan Emissaries Visit Latinus

The next morning the Trojans lit out into the territories of Latium. They found it unexpectedly teeming with inhabitants – a place where King Latinus’ subjects prospered in towns and villages, along frontiers and coastlines and in the populous capital itself. Aeneas gathered together a hundred of his crewmen who spoke different languages to go and meet with King Latinus. But also, interestingly, before extending diplomatic overtures to this native Italian king, Aeneas cut trenches around the area where the Trojans first landed, making an area, in Virgil’s words, “Just like an army encampment, with crenellate walls and a rampart” (7.159).

Ferdinant Bol aeneas

Aeneas at the Court of Latnius (1661-3), by Ferdinand Bol. The scene looks more like what we see in Maffeo Vegio’s popular 13th book of the Aeneid than anything in Virgil’s poem.

So the Trojans went to speak with King Latinus, going past young men practicing horsemanship and tossing javelins. When a messenger sent word to the king that foreigners had arrived, Latinus invited the Trojans into the palace. The Trojans, entering the capital of Latium, found it unexpectedly large. A hundred columns held the palace roof aloft, and it was a place where Italian rulers were declared sovereign. The central hall held ancient cedar statues of those who had first come to Italy – Italus, after whom Italy was named, and Sabinus, the first ruler of the Sabines, and numerous other ancient heroes. Statues of Jupiter and Janus stood there, too, along with ancient weapons and chariots from the great battles of the Italian peninsula. The Trojan emissaries saw a statue of King Latinus’ father, and then King Latinus himself, sitting on his throne.

The king told the Trojans he knew who they were. He asked them why, exactly, they’d come so far – through so many treacherous currents – to get to Latium. Whether or not he knew that the Trojans had already dug fortifications around the Tiber, Latinus was certainly polite. He said his people were a lawful people who respected guests. He knew that the Aeneas’ ancient ancestor Dardanus was originally from Italy, and he said they were welcome there.

The Trojan ambassador Ilioneus was frank. He said they had deliberately set out for the environs of King Latinus’ territory. His territory had been their destination all along. The ambassador Ilioneus said they were from the bloodline of Jupiter, and that Aeneas had told them to come there. The ambassador Ilioneus spoke briefly of the Trojan War, and gave a memorable overture about the Trojans’ intentions. Essentially, while stating that the Trojans had come to Italy to settle, and only required a small area of turf for their operations, Ilioneus also emphasized their great martial power and notoriety in the Mediterranean world. He beseeched King Latinus for a place to live, but simultaneously threatened the king with news that not giving the Trojans a place to live would be a poor strategic decision. They had been directed there, said the Trojan ambassador, in no uncertain terms, by Apollo himself.

Following his speech, the Trojan ambassador Ilioneus offered King Latinus a golden goblet that had once belonged to Aeneas’ father, and a great robe that had once been King Priam’s. King Latinus did not immediately react to the overture. He had just heard his dead father’s news about foreigners arriving, and his own daughter Lavinia marrying a man from a strange land. Perhaps he was leery about the fact that the Trojans had already dug into the coastline before coming to visit him. But in the end, King Latinus remembered his father’s words about Princess Lavinia. He told the Trojan emissaries that they were welcome in his kingdom. Only, could they send Aeneas to him, so that he could greet the Trojan leader himself? Because, said King Latinus, and this is the Robert Fitzgerald translation, published by Vintage:
I have a daughter, whom the oracles Of [my] Father’s shrine and warning signs from heaven Keep me from pledging to a native here. Sons from abroad will come, the prophets say – For this is Latium’s destiny – new blood To immortalize our name. Your king’s the man Called for by fate, so I conclude, and so I wish, if there is truth in what I presage. (7.363-70)3

King Latinus then gave the Trojan ambassadors excellent and finely outfitted horses, and a chariot for Aeneas himself. The meeting, by any standards, had gone well. At its conclusion Aeneas’ ambassadors, riding their new horses, headed back to the Trojan camp to report its results. [music]

Juno and Allecto Sow Discord

As you can imagine, this is not the end of the story. The Trojans had successfully reached their new homeland. They had literally carved a place out for themselves in the turf of their new home. And rather than hostility, they had been welcomed by King Latinus, who was eager to marry his daughter to Aeneas himself. But Book 7 begins with a second invocation to the muse, requesting help with a maius opus, or “greater labor” than what Virgil accomplished in the first half of the Aeneid. This greater labor is the story of the wars that are about to be fought by Aeneas and his people in Italy. A common observation about the Aeneid is that its first half is its Odyssey half, detailing the wanderings of an adventurer after the Trojan War, and that the second half of the Aeneid is the Iliad half, dealing with another war – this time, over King Latinus’ daughter Lavinia. This war began because of the goddess Juno.

Juno, if you recall from previous programs, did not want Aeneas to settle in Italy, because she had heard that Aeneas’ descendants, the Romans, would one day sack and burn her beloved city of Carthage. Juno glowered over the sight of the Trojan fleet – the site of Aeneas and his men now building homes, having left their ships, as far as they were concerned, for good. She was livid, and stricken with pain that all the other deities had worked against her. And she gave this speech. This is the Penguin W.F. Jackson Knight translation, first published in 1956 and incidentally the first one I ever read. Again, Juno’s words as she watches the Trojans setting up shop.
Ah, hated, hated breed of Troy, with your. . .destiny opposing my own! Was there any hope that they might fall in death on [the Trojan] plains? Could they stay in the trap when it closed? Could even Troy in flames burn up the Trojans? No; they found a way straight through the battle, straight through the fires. Must I, then, conclude that my divine power is at last exhausted and prostrate, or that I have had my fill of hating, and found my rest? Why, when the Trojans were flung from their homes, I even condescended to pursue them with my fury over the waves, and I was always there to meet them, mere exiles, at every turn in their wanderings about the ocean. All the strength of sky and sea has been spent against the Trojans. But what use to me were the [the sands of Libya] or Scylla or cavernous Charybdis? They now have their desire, and are finding refuge [here,] in Tiber’s channel, beyond all fear of the ocean and all thought of me. Yet Mars had the power to destroy [a great race]. The Father of the Gods himself gave over ancient Calydon to Diana’s spite. And had any sin of [these peoples] deserved such a heavy fate? But meanwhile, I, Jupiter’s high queen, after forcing myself in my failure to shrink from no humiliation, after leaving no means untried, I am vanquished, and by Aeneas. Well, if my own divine strength is too slight, then I am not one to refrain from asking aid from any power, anywhere. If I cannot change the will of Heaven, I shall release Hell.4

Juno admitted that the fates had already decreed that Aeneas would marry Lavinia, and thus that Rome would rise and Carthage would fall. However, Juno said, the union would cost everyone involved dearly. Their marriage would come at a cost paid by Trojan and Italian lives, and Lavinia’s dowry would be paid in gouts of blood.

Gustave Doré’s 19th-century illustration of Dante’s Inferno (9:46) features Megaera, Tisipone, and Alecto. Dante would have learned of the latter two from Virgil’s Aeneid.

Juno descended down into the earth and brought up a fury from hell. This creature was called Allecto, whom Juno calls “the bringer of grief, whose delight is in dismal / War and in anger, betrayal, and damaging criminal charges” (7.325-6). Even in hell, Juno said, Allecto was hated – hated for her monstrous duplicity. Addressing Allecto as the daughter of the night, Juno told her minion to do what she did best. Allecto, she said, hurt people. She had a thousand names and knew how to make people hate one another – to homes burn, make brothers fight, to make people lust for the feel of weapons in their hands. Juno told Allecto to make all of Latium bleed.

Allecto, soaked in gorgons’ venom, went straight to the heart of King Latinus’ palace. But she didn’t go to the king himself. She went to the queen. Allecto knew that Amata, queen of Latium, was already angry. Amata, once again, had wanted her daughter to marry a native Italian man named Turnus. Having heard that Lavinia was to be married to a Trojan, Amata was in the midst of fuming with anger when Allecto arrived. Allecto reached into her hair, drew forth a serpent, and eased it down into Queen Amata’s dress, and the snake wound around her and brought forth her most cunning instincts.

Queen Amata went to her husband and asked him if he really wanted to marry their daughter to a foreigner. Wouldn’t Aeneas just take poor Lavinia away to some strange land? Queen Amata asked. And just as importantly, hadn’t King Latinus already engaged Lavinia with the well-respected young Turnus? Turnus was a good match, said Queen Amata – he was even a foreigner, in some ways – his roots were Greek, and so in joining Lavinia to him in marriage, King Latinus wouldn’t be violating any prophetic omens. But Queen Amata’s careful urgings were unsuccessful. And so she became angrier – so violently, venomously furious that Virgil compares her to a child’s top careening around before gawking observers.

Queen Amata was so frenetic that she went off into the forest, where she invoked the spirit of Dionysus and his maenads, or wild female celebrants. Queen Amata told Dionysus only he was good enough for her daughter, and demanded that other Italian mothers tear their hair out in protest of the unjust wedding. And the monster Allecto, seeing the chaos unfolding, spread her dark wings and flew to the nearby city of Ardea (this location, by the way, is about 25 miles south of Rome). In Ardea, Allecto found Turnus asleep.

Allecto disguised herself as an old woman, and awakened Turnus gently, launching into a persuasive speech immediately. Turnus, said Allecto, should be king. But at that very moment, she informed him, King Latinus was planning to give Turnus’ birthright to a pack of wandering easterners. It was time for Turnus to go out on the warpath. Get a sword and armor, said the disguised Allecto, and find the Trojans. Torch their navy and make them scared. It was time, Allecto said, for the wayward King Latinus to understand the implications of betraying brave young Turnus.

Turnus, hearing all of this from the strange old woman who appeared at his bedside, said he knew about the Trojans’ presence there in Italy. Assuming the disguised fury Allecto to be nothing more than an old woman, he told her not to worry about him – just tend to the temples and statues – and besides, Juno had always supported him. Being dismissed as an old woman did not sit well with Allecto. She caused Turnus’ to freeze up entirely and met his gaze with her own unmoving eyes, the serpents always around her hissing. She was no old woman, Allecto said. She was from hell, and she started wars and killed as she wished. Allecto pointed at young Turnus’ chest and a smoky light burst through to his heart. Poor Turnus shuddered and broke out into sweat – he screamed and fumbled for weapons, and soon, anger overtook everything else. Turnus became like a boiling cauldron, and he told his lieutenants to go to King Latinus. They would fight, said Turnus – they would fight the Trojans and if necessary the Latins, with the gods as his witness. [music]

Allecto Stirs Up the First Skirmish

Having made Queen Amata and Turnus mad with fury, the monster Allecto still had tasks to accomplish. This time, Allecto flew to the Trojans. Of all the men there, the evil deity’s eyes fell on those of Aeneas’ son Iulus. Iulus was hunting. And Allecto made his dogs smell the scent of a beautiful stag. The stag wasn’t just any stag – he was a favorite of the aristocrats of Latium, who would hang garlands on the stag’s antlers and bathe him in riverside springs. While he wandered in the woods around Latium, every night he returned to the parks of the city.

Allecto, knowing all of this, sent young Iulus’ hounds out after Latium’s beloved stag. Iulus, seeing the great animal and seeking the approval of his Trojan peers, shot an arrow that missed its mark slightly and lodged itself into the animal’s stomach. The stag cried out and stumbled away, running home. His caretakers saw the arrow lodged in him. The park warden of Latium that saw his beloved stag dying. And Allecto continued to work her diabolical magic, filling the stag’s caretakers with indignation. To whip the kingdom of Latium into further fear and fury, Allecto went up to the roof of a nearby structure and sounded a war horn.

All around, hearing the grim noise, farmers grabbed their weapons and hurried to the source of the sound. And the Trojans, too, went to investigate, fully armed, a mass of war hardened veterans, in contrast with the motley plowmen and herdsmen who were there to oppose them. Both sides, driven to bloodlust by Allecto, fell on one another. In a particularly magnificent passage in the Ahl translation, Virgil writes,
It’s no longer a rivals’ brawl among peasants
Fought with fury of hardwood clubs or fire-toughened fence-poles.
[The Trojans] are fighting with double-edged steel, to the death; the black harvest
Bristling the broad fields is unsheathed swords. Now the sun-dazzled bronzework
Flashes and tosses the sunlight’s bolts back up to the sky’s clouds.
Motion grows, as a wave grows white when the wind begins rising.
Little by little, the sea swells up and pushes its rollers
Higher, and finally reaches the skies from the floor of the ocean. (7.523-30)

The game warden’s son died, an arrow in his throat. An old cowherd, trying to make peace, was killed. As the butchery unfolded, Allecto spread her wings and went to consult with Juno. Her central mission, the fury said, was already accomplished. If Aeneas and Lavinia were to be married at fate’s decree, this marriage would be paid for with death and screams. But, said the monster Allecto, she could do far more, if instructed. There were many cities around – she could create an apocalypse, and the farm fields would be planted with dead bodies and torn armor. But Juno told her minion to simmer down. And so with a viperous hiss, Allecto took wing again, and flew back into the netherworld through a volcano.

Meanwhile, the native Italian populations of the future site off Rome were in a frenzy, a central theme of Book 7.5 Families of the slain from the recent battle demanded justice. Turnus appeared and told everyone the Trojans were trying to take over. Citizens of King Latinus’ kingdom, seeing that their wives had gone to the woods with Queen Amata, became enraged. Something sinister was happening, they thought, and it had everything to do with the new arrivals. King Latinus, however, did not want a war. He had heard that the Trojans were to settle there and join with his people, and so a brewing war seemed a ghastly mistake. But King Latinus also intuited that there would be no pacifying either side. They would all pay, he said, with their lives, and he wanted no part of the awful affair. Latinus went into the palace and closed himself away. And Juno, seeing her plot coming to fruition, came down from the abode of the gods and opened the gates of war.

Juno and King Aeolus at the Cave of winds by Antonio Randa aeneid setting

Antonio Randa’s Juno and King Aeolus at the Cave of Winds. Juno petitions Aeolus to help her blow Aeneas off course in the opening scene of the Aeneid. By Book 7 of the poem, she is sufficiently enraged at the Trojans’ continued survival that she is resorting to far more indiscriminate cruelties.

Side note, here. This is one of the nastiest moments in Greco-Roman epics – this moment just before the war breaks out in full. If you know the Homeric epics, you know that the Greek pantheon as it appears in the Iliad and Odyssey are a capricious, bloodthirsty bunch who treat humanity like fighting dogs when not raping or seducing men and women for leisure. Book 7 of the Aeneid presents an especially ugly moment – Juno knows that her gory massacre will accomplish nothing, and yet, out of spite for her bruised ego, she is about to put Trojans and Italians alike through a meat grinder of battle. Book 7 opens with a promise of peace and amity – the Trojans and Latins have enjoyed successful diplomatic communications and, though the arrival of the immigrant population is certainly discommoding for both groups, humanity generally seems disposed to partnership and peacemaking rather than clannish violence. Juno, however, aggressively incites factionalism, and thus in the impending slaughter that spans the Aeneid’s entire second half, human agency is crippled by Juno’s general desire to create agony, death, and loss in Italy for her own selfish gratification. Book 7, then, paints an especially – even within Greco-Roman epic – an especially vile portrait of the gods. Judaism and Christianity, as we saw back in Episode 20 on the Book of Job, have often grappled with the question of the problem of evil. Virgil had no concerns with the problem of evil – in the Aeneid, at least, evil comes directly from the gods, full stop.6 We’ll talk more about issues of fate and Virgilian gods at the close of this show – for now let’s move forward and talk about to the war that begins in Book 7.

Juno had fomented a great bloodlust in the native Italians, who cleaned off their weaponry, and sharpened their axes and spears. Five cities in all joined the Italian side, forging new armor, saddling horses, and buckling on the gear of war. Virgil then begins a catalog of all of the peoples and kings involved in the upcoming battles. If you’re read the Iliad, you’ll remember a long portion of Book 2 – over 250 lines – in which Homer details all of the Greeks who came to fight the Trojans. Virgil’s catalog of Italian kings and people who also came to fight the Trojans is comparable, though about a hundred lines shorter, and it’s an example of the way he takes a poetic element from Homer and Romanizes it, using a wide swath of ancient Italian history.7

Virgil essentially sets nearly every ancient civilization of Italy against the Trojans. The Trojans have some Magna Graecian allies and others from Etruria, but Book 7’s long closing catalog makes clear that Juno stirred up a truly massive opposition force on the peninsula. The opposition included a son of Hercules and a descendant of Theseus, a pair of powerful twins from the city of Tibur, a ruler from the foothills of the Apennines, and other Fescennine leaders, Sabines, Volscians, Oscans, pirates, bandits, and their respective leaders. A former veteran of Agamemnon’s army showed up who continued to hate the Trojans, and even a priest and healer who could cure snakebites. The roster of heroes that closes Book 7 includes various hat tips to Virgil’s contemporaries in Rome, just like the athletics competition that takes up most of Book 5. It is an expansive catalog, and its most important figure is definitely Turnus, a head taller than anyone else in the Italian armies, who is Aeneas’ main opponent in the closing books of the epic. Also worth noting up front, though, are a pair of Etruscans called Mezentius, and his son Lausus, Mezentius being a blasphemous and sadistic ruler and Lausus his handsome and comparatively good natured son. Mezentius, who is a real psychopath, ends up figuring more extensively into the Aeneid than many of the other figures.

When you read the catalog of heroes that closes Book 7, it is, like the genealogy list in the Book of Genesis and the Catalog of Ships in the Iliad, a bewildering index of ancient proper nouns and place names, spangled with careful footnotes. I think maybe the most important thing for the modern reader to remember about the closing of Book 7 is that Virgil’s inventory of Italian warriors is extremely localized – in many cases he’s talking about ancient peoples who lived or had lived within ten or twenty miles of Rome. To offer a silly analogy, if we were writing a comparable epic about the founding of downtown Los Angeles, and wanted a similar smattering of geographical locations for ancient heroes, we might include warriors from Beverly Hills, archers from Santa Monica, spearmen from Torrance, cavalry from Pasadena, pirates from Long Beach, bandits from Anaheim, commanders from far off Riverside, and perhaps a powerful seer from the distant territory of Barstow. The places that Virgil mentions – these distant satellites of first century BCE Rome – are largely unfamiliar to the modern reader, but to Virgil’s contemporaries, the close of Book 7 would include many very familiar and local places and regional identities. The process of giving citizenship to various Italian groups had unfolded slowly over the course of the first century BCE, and Virgil’s long list of them may have been an attempt to include recently integrated populations into the national epic of Rome. [music]

The Aeneid, Book 8

Aeneas Travels to Meet King Evander

At the head of the amassed Italian armies, the Italian champion Turnus raised the signal to begin the war. Trumpets rang out and the Italian hero hammered his spear onto his shield. The fighters, boiling with rage due to the manipulations of Juno and her agent, the fury Allecto, were almost frantic for violence. There was even talk of recruiting Diomedes, the warrior who had crushed Aeneas during the Trojan War.

Aeneas learned of the armies suddenly massing against him. His plight, upon arriving at the mouth of the Tiber, had seemed to be improving. But the sheer strength of the forces arrayed against him sent him into panicked speculations, his thoughts like water reflecting wildly on the walls and ceiling of a room. That night, the heartsick Aeneas fell into an exhausted sleep. A local river god – the god of the Tiber – came to him in his dreams. The river god told Aeneas to stay strong. His old household gods from Troy were still with him. And when Aeneas woke up, said the river god, Aeneas would see a sign. In the mean time, the river god gave Aeneas some military advice.

There was, said the river god, another alien people in Italy. They lived on the Palatine Hill, and they were ringed on all sides by hostile foes. The next day, the river god recommended, Aeneas needed to row up the Tiber and try to forge an alliance with this people.

The next morning, Aeneas awoke and prayed. And he found, just as the river god had said he would, a sign – a sow with thirty piglets. He had heard of this sign from the Trojan seer Helenus back in Book 3, and seeing them, Aeneas knew even more that he’d found his new homeland. And – though no one had told him to do this – Aeneas immediately butchered the sow and all of her little piglets in an offering to Juno. A sad fate for such a pig of prophecy, but as I said in the previous program, being a quadruped in a Greco-Roman epic is quite a perilous affair.

So, following the river god’s advice, Aeneas sailed up the Tiber, which had become peculiarly still, reflecting green woods over its still surface. After many bends and turns, Aeneas and a small force of Trojans arrived at the city of a warrior called Evander, this particular city situated exactly where Rome would be a thousand years later. Evander and his people were in the midst of holding rituals to honor Hercules, and they sprang up in alarm upon seeing the Trojans. Evander confronted Aeneas about his presence there, but Aeneas said they came in peace. They were looking, said Aeneas, for allies. Just as the Italian natives had turned their swords on Evander and his people, Aeneas and the Trojans were also threatened by forces who outnumbered them.

Seven Hills of Rome aeneid setting

The seven hills of Rome. Evander walks Aeneas around and shows him the topography of Virgil’s city long before the empire or republic. Graphic by Renata3.

Coming onshore, Aeneas said he knew Evander’s people had ties to Greeks, but he sought friendship. They were each descended from gods, said Aeneas, and they had much in common. Curiously, Aeneas told Evander that the Italians sought a consortium that would put the whole peninsula under their yoke, which is something we haven’t heard yet. But at any rate, Aeneas said they needed each other. Evander nodded. Evander had actually known Aeneas’ father – he’d met Anchises when he was a boy and had found Aeneas’ dad a great man indeed. Yes, said Evander, let’s make an alliance. Evander invited Aeneas to join in the day’s feast.

Side note, by the way. People don’t eat in epics. They feast. It’s never, “the warriors had a light repast of cucumber sandwiches and hot tea, and then continued on with their day.” It’s always, “they slaughtered eighteen oxen, gave each other lavish gifts, drank barrels of wine,” etc. etc. They seem to have followed Oscar Wilde’s advice and taken their moderation with moderation.

Anyway Aeneas and Evander feasted together with their respective retinues, Evander walked Aeneas around the future site of Rome. They looked at the Aventine Hill, where a fierce monster had once dwelt that Hercules had killed. The celebration that day, said Evander, was held in honor of this monster’s vanquishing. And speaking of celebration, it was time to feast some more. Those assembled at the future site of Rome heaped their plates with food, sang hymns and danced. The sun went down, and the stars came out, and Evander’s people sang songs about Hercules and his great deeds. When the celebration was over, Evander and his son walked Aeneas around the future site of Rome some more, showing him woods, and an altar, and telling him of the site’s earliest history. Aeneas was shown the Lupercal cave at the base of the Palatine, where one day Romulus and Remus would be suckled by a wolf. He saw the Tarpeian rock, a legendary place where traitors were executed far in Roman history. Aeneas saw cattle grazing along the Esquiline Hill, which would one day be a ritzy section of Augustan Rome. Virgil’s descriptions of Evander’s Rome contain a mishmash of references to things that existed in metropolis the 20s BCE, telescoping the past far into the future, but of course Aeneas didn’t make any of the connections that Virgil’s generation would have. And, as it was quite late, Aeneas spent the night at Evander’s rather small house, on a bed of simple leaves and pig hides. [music]

Venus and Vulcan Create Aeneas’ Armaments

The humble sight of Aeneas sleeping in the ragtag quarters of a second rate king was a sad one, and it was not lost on Aeneas’ mother Venus. Venus went to her husband Vulcan, the Roman version of Hephaestus, the Greek god of the forge. Venus told Vulcan that over the long course of the Trojan War she’d never asked him to make anything. But now – now that her son was threatened on all sides and had to seek allies in the hardscrabble hinterlands of the Italian peninsula – Venus wanted to help him.

Vulcan wasn’t particularly moved by his wife’s entreaties. Aeneas, after all, wasn’t his son – Aeneas was Venus’s son with a mortal. Venus needed to convince Vulcan that it was in his best interest to forge Aeneas some armaments. And you’ll never guess how Venus persuaded him. Yes. Sex.8 Here’s the only euphemism I know of in literature that equates blacksmithing, weather, and sexual intercourse – this is the Frederick Ahl translation.
The goddess’s hands began moving,
Fondling him this way and that in her pliant embrace. In an instant,
[Vulcan] felt the same old flame flare up, the familiar hotness
Surged through his bones’ very marrow and raced through his loosened
Joints, just as sometimes a dazzling fracture of fire spurts brightness
Clear through a cloud when it bursts from a brilliant explosion of thunder. (8.387-92)

Following a bit of divine coitus, Vulcan went ahead and got to work. His forge was just off the coast of Sicily, fittingly, in a volcano. He summoned his whole crew of assistants. And within Vulcan’s inferno bellows, gold and bronze and steel began to flow, and hammer blows fell onto anvils so heavily that the stone of the volcano floor began to groan.

The Story of Etruria and Mezentius

Meanwhile, in the future site of Troy, old King Evander awoke and dressed himself in his humble dwelling place. Evander, accompanied by his favorite hunting dogs, went to talk to Aeneas. The two men still had much to discuss in regards to the coming war. Evander opened the conversation by saying that after he’d slept on it, he was still strongly in favor of an alliance with the great Aeneas. He didn’t have a whole lot to offer, said Evander, but they had to work together. One of the reasons they had to work together was a city in Etruria to the northwest of modern day Rome. On the subject of this city, King Evander told Aeneas a story.

This city was called Agylla. Agylla had once thrived under the leadership of its founders. But it had been conquered by a king called Mezentius. Here’s the beginning of King Evander’s speech on Mezentius, in the Penguin W.F. Jackson Knight translation.
Agylla flourished [, said King Evander,] for many years until one of its kings, Mezentius, oppressed it under a tyrannical rule based on a ferocious use of armed force. I need not relate this despot’s insane and wicked acts of bloodshed. May the gods hold such sufferings as he inflicted in store for his own self and for his kin! Why, he would even bind together the living and the dead with hands tied to rotting hands and faces to rotting faces, a torture indeed; and so he destroyed many victims by protracted death in this harrowing embrace, all drenched in decomposing filth. So at last his subjects, wearied with his unutterable lust for blood, gathered in arms around his home, cut down his retainers, and hurled flaming torches onto his roof. But during the massacre Mezentius had escaped into [the] country [to the south] and gained protection from the arms of Turnus who was his guest-friend. So now all Etruria has risen into a violent but just impulse of vengeance, and under threat of immediate war, they are insisting on the surrender of their king [Mezentius] for execution.9

It was a gruesome story, but it was also an opportunity. Aeneas could help lead the angry Etruscan men and women who had been subjected to Mezentius’ cruelties. Because, conveniently, the Etruscans had recently been told by an oracle that a foreign commander would come to lead them.10 King Evander himself had been a potential option. But, Evander said, he was a bit old. And he could use his son, Pallas, who is soon to be an important character in the Aeneid. But his son’s mom was a Sabine – in other words a native Italian. Aeneas, however, was a full on foreigner, a hardened veteran, and a survivor. Aeneas could lead the Etruscans against their former oppressor Mezentius. And old King Evander asked if Aeneas could take his son Pallas into the fray, so that Pallas could learn the ways of war. Pallas, by the way, is a confusing name – many of us know the name Pallas Athena, but Pallas in the Aeneid is the son of king Evander and doesn’t have anything to do with the Greek goddess.

Just as Aeneas and Evander began hammering out the details of their alliance, lightning crashed down from the sky and thunder rumbled, and a divine suit of armor appeared and began to descend. Aeneas understood what was happening immediately. He told King Evander that the armor had come from his mother, Venus, and that it was a sign that their foes in the coming war would be defeated. To sanctify the occasion, more animals were slaughtered, and Aeneas sent some of his men home to inform the other Trojans of what had happened.

The rest of the Trojans were to accompany Aeneas up to Etruria, along with King Evander’s son Pallas. Pallas bid his father goodbye, and Evander was in tears. Evander said that if he had the strength he’d once possessed, Mezentius would never have ruled up in Etruria. Old Evander prayed to Jupiter to spare his son in the coming war. After the father and son parted company, the gates of Evander’s city creaked open, and a cavalry left with Aeneas, his friend Achates, and his new acquaintance Pallas at the forefront. Soon, Aeneas and the other horsemen were galloping northward across a shrubby flatland, dust billowing beneath the hooves of their mounts.

Aeneas’ Shield

Aeneas and the others came to a river flanked by tall woods, and they rested their horses there. It was at this point that Venus brought Aeneas’ arms and armor the rest of the way down from the sky. I guess that there was a suit of armor hovering above Aeneas and company during Pallas’ goodbye to his father and the Trojans’ ride northward – a tad strange picture, but anyway, Venus now delivered her son his shiny new armor.

Anthony van Dyck - Venus Asks Vulcan to Cast Arms for her Son Aeneas - WGA07447

The scene of Venus at Vulcan’s forge has been a popular one for artists to depict from the Aeneid. This version, Anthony van Dyck’s Venus Asks Vulcan to Cast Arms for Her Son Aeneas (1630-2) hangs in the Louvre.

Aeneas examined his formidable new helmet. He hefted his sword. He looked at his corslet, which was a deep red color, like a cloud over the ocean filled with the light of the setting sun. He had new greaves, and a new spear, and most memorably, a new shield. Now, in the Iliad, Achilles gets a new shield, and this shield receives almost an entire book worth of description, and so Aeneas’ shield gets a similarly lengthy one. The main difference between these two shields is this. Achilles’ shield has a variety of generic scenes common to the Late Bronze Age – reapers working, a vineyard, a dance, farms and plowmen, livestock, and so on. Aeneas’ shield, however, is embossed with scenes related to Italian and later Roman history – Aeneas’ shield is a sort of compressed future history of Rome, from its earliest days, down to Actium and the Emperor Augustus, that he carries, throughout the rest of the Aeneid, on his back. It is a heavy burden to carry, but additionally, Aeneas’ destiny of founding Rome, like a shield, protects him from being a random casualty of the wars to come. The shield may also be an emblem of Virgil’s work as a poet – he has taken the great bronze work of Achilles’ shield, and moreover the Homeric epics, and Romanized it.

So, for the sake of thoroughness, let’s talk about Aeneas’ shield, and what was on it. There was a depiction of Aeneas’ descendants. The Lupercal cave was on the shield, and the female wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. The shield featured scenes from Rome’s legendary early history – the kidnapping of the Sabine women and war that happened afterward, depictions of Rome’s tyrannical early kings, Gauls who had once sacked the republic, and far, far later in the republic’s history, the traitorous Catiline dangling over a chasm and the staunch lawman Cato the Younger. At the shield’s center was a depiction of the Battle of Actium, with heroic Augustus and his right hand man Agrippa on one side, and Antony and Cleopatra on the other, the latter wreathed with carvings of strange gods as she steered her ships into battle. Finally, the shield had an image of Augustus in the midst of his triumph, being received in Rome with ecstasy, with a multitude of conquered nations there to honor him. And Book 8 closes with the words, “Such is the tale upon Vulcan’s shield, on the gift of his parent. / Ignorant as to [the shield’s] substance, yet awed by the artwork, Aeneas / Shoulders with joy fame’s rumours and fate’s vows for his descendants” (8.729-31). This is a famous line that’s occasioned a lot of discussion, namely in that it depicts Aeneas, at this moment at least, as a hapless actor in an overall drama that is vastly larger than him and out of his control.11

The Aeneid, Book 9

War Brews at the Trojan Siege Camp

As Aeneas hefted his new shield and tried on his new helmet, Juno sent a messenger goddess to talk to Turnus. Turnus, said the messenger goddess, had an opportunity. This opportunity was that Aeneas was away from his army, up in Etruria trying to amass forces. Now, said the messenger goddess, was the time to strike at Aeneas’ camp. Turnus didn’t have to be told twice. The warrior gathered his army and made straight for where the Trojans had dug in.

aeneid setting - Tevere al porticciolo di Otricoli

The woodsy banks of the Tiber, a ways upriver from Rome. This is the scenery Virgil would have imagined when writing the siege battle scene in Book 9 of the Aeneid. Photo by Claudio Domiziani.

Meanwhile, in the Trojan camp, Aeneas’ men saw a cloud of dust on the horizon, and quickly carried their weapons to the camp’s ramparts, keeping their fortifications sealed shut against the coming enemy. Aeneas had ordered them to stay behind the walls, rather than facing the enemy out in the open, and at this point I imagine many of these veterans of the Trojan War were thinking, “Oh, [censored] really, another siege? Okay, even if they offer us a giant wooden sheep, or goose, or marmot, or anything like that, don’t let them in!”

Turnus, after issuing a series of war cries and javelin thrusts down below the Trojan walls, was puzzled. No one was coming out to fight them. Even more frustratingly, the Trojan defenses seemed impregnable. There was one exception, though. The Trojan fleet lay, mostly unguarded, nearby. When Turnus and his men went to burn the ships, however, a deity protected them – they had once been cut from sacred trees. The ships dove beneath the water to the bed of the river, and when they emerged, they had taken on the forms of women, swimming out into the ocean.

Many of Turnus’ men were a bit disconcerted by the ships submerging themselves and then transforming. I imagine that if you see something like that and aren’t concerned by it, then there’s something a little bit wrong with you. But Turnus wasn’t put off a bit. He said the ships were abandoning the Trojans, and now they were stuck. The Trojan leader had stolen his fiancé Lavinia, just as Paris had once stolen Helen. Turnus said the walls of Troy had fallen, and that the makeshift fortifications of the Trojan camp would certainly do the same. They wouldn’t need a thousand ships, said Turnus. They wouldn’t need a horse. Turnus added that the Trojans could even buddy up with the Etruscans. The Italian champion’s bellicosity and bravado in this scene remind the reader of the Cumaean Sibyl’s prophecy back at the beginning of Book 6 (6.83-96) – namely, that a new Achilles would rise in Italy, and oppose the Trojans with all the fury of the Greek Achilles.

And so a siege began. Bonfires were lit around the Trojan fort. The site of the Trojans sunk down there was pitiful, and the Italian forces that surrounded it began making themselves comfortable for the night. Trojans on the rampart walls watched as Italians out in the fields began enjoying wine and dice for the evening. A pair of young Trojan warriors, Nisus and Euryalus, looked out into the dark field and the enemy soldiers. After some discussion, they decided that Aeneas needed to be sent for, and they concluded that they would both depart in secret to summon him. Nisus and Euryalus went to talk to the other Trojans. They had seen, they said, a break in the enemy watch fires. They said they could sneak through, and that they knew just where Aeneas was. The Trojans all recognized the opportunity, and in the end, Aeneas’ son Iulus told the two young warriors to go ahead and find his father. The two warriors, Iulus promised, would be given goblets, heaps of gold, an ancient chalice – and if the Trojans won against the Italians, the young warriors would be given the stallion of Turnus, and his armor, his shield, a dozen female slaves, male prisoners, and the best land of King Latinus. It’s a rather hyperbolic offer, particularly as Aeneas would theoretically be the one doling out the gifts, and Aeneas probably wouldn’t be sacking the land of his future father-in-law and giving it to a couple of young guys in his army.

The two young warriors were understandably impressed by the offer. One of them, Euryalus, said the gifts sounded nice, but his main worry was his mother – she was there at the Trojan camp, and Euryalus asked the others to please take care of her while he was off on his mission. Young Iulus and older Trojans alike were brought to tears by the young man’s filial devotion. Iulus that said he would take care of Euryalus’ mother as though she were his own. The young men were thereafter given fine armaments, and then, after farewells, they departed from the Trojan camp. [music]

Nisus and Euryalus’ Reconnaissance Mission

The young Trojan warriors Nisus and Euryalus began their journey through the enemy camp. They jumped the Trojan trenches and were soon skulking through tent poles and the unconscious forms of enemy soldiers. Their Italian adversaries were sleeping off a night of heavy drinking, and Nisus began killing men in their sleep as Euryalus kept a lookout. After Nisus slaughtered a handful of snoring soldiers, Euryalus joined in. Once the two young warriors had killed a small population of enemies, Nisus finally said that dawn wasn’t far off, and that they were overdoing it. The point, after all, was to get to Aeneas, not to incite a general nighttime massacre. The two young men took some finery and armaments from their victims, and began their journey in earnest.
Nisos Euryalos Louvre aeneid tragic heroes LL450 n1

Jean-Baptiste Roman’s Nisus and Euryalus. The tragic pair differ from Achilles and Patroclus, and Aeneas and Pallas, in that both die. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Meanwhile, three hundred cavalry troops were speeding from King Latinus’ citadel to meet with Turnus. These troops, heading into the Italian siege camp, saw the Trojan youths hurrying to the north. And soon Nisus and Euryalus were running for their lives. The enemy horsemen chased the two young men into a thick wood. Creepers and brambles wove through the oak forest, making it impenetrable to cavalry, and the horsemen surrounded the wood so that none could escape. The first young Trojan warrior, Nisus, managed to sneak out of the forest, but his companion Euryalus did not. Nisus didn’t hesitate. He hurried back into the woods to find his friend. And in a clearing, he saw poor Euryalus, captured by a knot of Italian soldiers. Seeing the sheer quantity of foes there, Nisus faltered. His mission was to find Aeneas, after all, not to throw his life away in a mad effort to save his friend. But after a prayer, Nisus made his decision. He hurled a javelin through an enemy warrior’s torso. Another of his javelins went straight through an adversary’s head. Nisus was going to rescue Euryalus.

Nisus, however, stayed hidden. A brawny captain quickly intuited the situation, and he ran his sword through the captive Euryalus. The young man drooped and died instantly. Seeing his dear friend’s murder, Nisus exploded into sudden action. Greco-Roman heroes have a tendency to go ballistic when their friends are murdered, and what happened next was no exception. Nisus cut through the cavalry soldiers who held his friend captive and murdered the captain who’d killed his friend. In the process, however, Nisus was mortally wounded, and after killing the contingent of enemy soldiers in the woods, Nisus dropped dead atop the body of his friend.

Quick note, here. The Nisus and Euryalus sequence is a strange one, taking up almost four hundred lines of Book Nine. They are not really central characters, and their mission almost immediately fails due to their long, murderous excursion on the way out of the Trojan camp. After so many promises from Iulus, and such a long departing scene, we expect Nisus and Euryalus to be heroes central to getting Aeneas back to the Trojan camp, but they’re not – they’re simply an overzealously violent pair who die in combat before accomplishing anything. As with many puzzling aspects of the Aeneid, the Nisus and Euryalus sequence may be a reworking of an episode Homer – specifically, in Book 10, when a spy named Dolon is sent by the Trojans to scout out the Greek fortifications but is executed by Odysseus and Diomedes, who steal the spy’s gear and weasel hat.

Anyway, following the nocturnal rampage and subsequent deaths of Nisus and Euryalus, the Trojans awakened behind their fort wall to the awful sight of the two young men’s heads impaled on the points of spears down in the enemy camp. Euryalus’ mother, whom he’d been so careful to try and protect from the consequences of his dangerous mission, saw her son’s head, and screamed her lamentats to both camps alike. The Italian army, hearing the mother of a man they’d killed voicing her tragedy, felt a momentary flicker of compunction, but the Trojans carried her back down into the main part of their camp.

The First Full-Scale Battle Unfolds

However sad the sight of Euryalus’ mother had been, the Italian forces now began their morning assault. A group of Volscian soldiers locked their shields into what Romans called a testudo, or overhead turtle shell, and began trying to fit ladders to the Trojan walls. While the Volscians and other Italians were trying their hand at siege warfare for the first time, Virgil makes clear that the Trojans had quite an advantage during this initial skirmish. The Trojans had spent ten years during the most famous war in history behind siege walls, and were thus quite accustomed to prying ladders away from parapets, throwing heavy stuff down at people, and all the other sorts of things that you get good at during an ancient siege. The assault on the walls ended when the Trojans rolled a giant boulder down on the knot of Volscians trying to break through.

This wasn’t, however, the end of the day’s fighting. In another spot, an enemy commander called Messapus had broken through the Trojan Walls. And the evil Mezentius, along with the others, began trying to light the Trojan fortifications on fire. A Trojan tower was the first to catch flame. A burning spear, ignited by Turnus himself, thunked into its wall and began consuming the side of the Trojan tower.

The structure didn’t last long. It keeled over, and Trojan fighters were impaled on their own weapons and on burning planks as the tower fell. Those who survived the collapse were quickly set upon by enemy soldiers. Turnus, going after a vulnerable Trojan, also tore a section of the rampart wall down. As the Italians thickened at the Trojan wall, the bloodbath began in earnest. A catalog of which soldier killed which other soldier begins, much like what we see in the Iliad, with a thicket of proper names, some with ties to regions of Italy or Romans of Virgil’s own time. Foremost among the enemy killers were the giant Turnus and his ruthless companion Mezentius, who mowed down their Trojan adversaries and terrorized the besieged foreigners.

It was at this juncture that Aeneas’ son, young Iulus, entered the fray. A brave Italian commander, called Numanus, engaged to one of Turnus’ sisters, was down at the base of the wall screaming up at the besieged Trojans. The Trojans should be ashamed, said Numanus. They ought to be ashamed that they were hiding behind their walls again. They weren’t tough, like the Italians. Italians, said Numanus, took their newborns immediately to rivers to douse them in cold water and toughen them up. Italians spent their youths doing manly things like hunting and breaking horses. There was no room for weakness in Italy, sand Numanus. The Trojans pirouetted behind their walls and wore fine clothing and mantles and ribbons, but the Italians were hard men through and through – the same metal spears they used to drive their oxen were the ones they were now carrying into battle. Numanus concluded his speech with the words, “Stop playing with steel. Leave arms to the real men” (9.619-20). Young Iulus, son of Aeneas, hearing this scathing assessment of Troy’s effeminate weakness, shot Numanus in the head and killed him. Actually the way this goes down is kind of amusing, because Iulus hears Numanus’ lengthy insult, and then draws his bow, and before firing, says,
Almighty Jupiter, favour the boldness of my undertaking!
I will myself bring you yearly gifts in a rite at your temple,
Personally set at your altars a bullock with gold on his forehead,
White and unblemished, who carries his head just as high as his mother’s,
Ready to butt with his horns and scatter the sand in arenas. (9.625-29)

And then he shoots the arrow. And Jupiter, like all ancient Mediterranean gods, from Inanna, to Kumarbi, to Hathor, Marduk, Baal, Yahweh and Zeus, just loved those unblemished bulls, and caused young Iulus’ arrow to fly well and hit its target.

Apollo saw the shot, and he was impressed. He came down from the clouds and congratulated Iulus on the young man’s shot, promising great things in store for Iulus and his descendants. But, said Apollo, go easy on the warfare for now, because you have a greater destiny than getting massacred in a preliminary skirmish. And so thereafter Iulus was taken to a more protected spot, and the Trojans, having had a visitation by Apollo, were suddenly heartened. A pair of Trojans opened the fort’s gates, and Italians tried to spill into the camp while the Trojans tried to charge out and fight them.

The giant Turnus, hearing that the Trojan gates had been opened, hurried over to the nexus of the fighting. Great Trojan warriors fell under his assault. As the fighting at the gate intensified, a Trojan warrior managed to get the gates shut again, leaving some Trojans outside and some Italians inside. One of these Italians, unfortunately for the Trojans, was the champion Turnus himself. The giant warrior seemed to be coursing with lightning. And a Trojan captain squared off to face him. The Trojan warned Turnus that he wasn’t in one of his family’s castles. Turnus, the Trojan said, was in an enemy camp. The Trojan captain hurled a javelin at Turnus, but Juno deflected it. When it was Turnus’ turn to strike, he chopped the Trojan’s head in half from top to bottom.

At that moment the other Trojans within the fort were suddenly terrified. Turnus, it seemed, was terribly strong. But fortunately for the Trojans, Turnus wasn’t quite so wily as Odysseus, nor such a team player as Jason. Because rather than opening the Trojan gate to let his fellow Italians through, Turnus threw himself into combat with other Trojans in the fortress. Turnus cut the tendons of two men trying away from him. He killed several others with javelins. He decapitated a man near the wall, and executed several others.

Finally, a knot of Trojan fighters formed, intent on getting Turnus out of their fort. The giant Italian warrior was pushed back further and further, never turning tail, although his strength was slowly failing. A shower of stones and arrows was raining down on him, crumpling his armor and denting his helmet. Shielding himself from the volley, and covered with a lather of thick sweat and filth, Turnus retreated and retreated, until finally he found himself on the banks of the Tiber. The enemy leader then dove in, riding the river’s soft currents back to his own camp. And, having won the day by the skin of their teeth, the Trojans wondered where their leader Aeneas had been during the fight. [music]

The Diverse Directives Behind the Aeneid

Well that was the story of Books 7-9 of the Aeneid – which tell us of the initial rapport between King Latinus and the Trojans, the wrath of Juno and how she stoked the war in central Italy, how Aeneas met King Evander at the future site of Rome and then went to round up some Etrurians, and as we just read, how the actual fighting at the Trojan fortifications began to unfold. It is an expansive narrative, introducing a whole new cast of native Italian characters, foremost among them the champion Turnus, and, as in the previous show, there are many topics we could discuss. We could talk about Virgil’s portrayal of the demographics of Late Bronze Age Italy, or look at the catalogs of warriors in these three books, or the detailed portrayal of Aeneas’ shield, or Virgil’s description of the future site of Rome – even these less famous books of the Aeneid are packed with interesting stuff that’s thoroughly related to the Augustan Age. If this were a classroom session, this is the point where I’d ask where everyone would like to go from here. But being a podcast, I have to pick, and to me, an important issue that we have to cover before we put the Aeneid down is Virgil’s own philosophical and religious persuasions, and connectedly, how he depicts the gods and fate in the Aeneid.

There is a lot of scholarship on this subject, and I want to start with a quote from classicist Karl Galinsky, a general assessment of the heterogeneous background of the Aeneid and its surprisingly diverse aims. Galinsky writes,
The Aeneid. . .required the creation of a new kind of epic. Homeric framework and manner must accommodate very different styles and material. Nothing was to be left out, and an epic on the grandest scale must satisfy the most refined modern poetic taste. Rome’s manifest destiny and old-style Olympian power politics; Punic Wars and Platonic philosophy; Lucretius and Apollonius; the tribes and cults of Italy; Ennius and Euripides and Euphorion: all were to play a part in the poem. It should reconcile nostalgia for the Republic with enthusiasm for the Principate. It should endorse imperial claims at their fullest, and yet sympathise with the pathos of defeat and loss. The radiance of its verbal magic should allure the recalcitrant and dazzle the conservative. It should glorify Augustus, without being obviously about him. It should grieve for Dido and yet support the [Augustan] moral revolution.12

That is a really diverse set of directives. What complicates the matter further is that many of the strands that Virgil weaves together in the Aeneid are at loggerheads with one another. Looking at these strands, it has been a temptation for many scholars to try and pin Virgil down as a member of this or that philosophical school. Virgil, for instance, spent much of his writing career in Naples with the Epicurean philosophers Philodemus and Siro, and passages of the Aeneid sound a lot like the Epicurean poet Lucretius, and so there has been a strong impetus to investigate the Epicurean elements of the Aeneid.13 Additionally, however, Virgil knew the Stoic philosopher Areius Didymus, a longtime friend of Augustus, and doctrines of Stoicism show up in the very same books that Epicurean philosophy does. Virgil also inherited the Homeric pantheon – that band of hedonistic, self-obsessed, violent sociopaths who drive the events of the Iliad and Odyssey. These deities also unmistakably move the story of the Aeneid along, and the poem’s clunky polytheism is often at odds with the story’s other philosophical and theological elements. And finally, the Aeneid’s ultimate goal is an endorsement of Augustus – scholar Susanna Braund concludes a long assessment of Virgil’s ideology with the statement that “Virgil’s prime allegiance is to Italy and to Rome.”14 This is difficult to disagree with, but at the same time, the providence and manifest destiny at the heart of the Aeneid is sometimes undermined by the poem’s archaic polytheism. In other words, if all history has collaborated to produce the Augustan regime of the 20s BCE, then why are the historical events of the Aeneid driven by a fistful of squabbling gods, and not something more elegant, like the stoic doctrine of mens, or divine mind? Five hundred years before Virgil, the Greek philosopher Xenophanes had assessed the Homeric pantheon as a ludicrous and undignified, and yet Virgil repurposes them in the Aeneid to tell the sacrosanct story of Augustus’ ascension.

So, these varying ingredients – a dash of Epicureanism, a sprinkle of Stoicism, a bowl of providential nationalism and a cup of outworn Mediterranean polytheism are the main ingredients that form the Aeneid’s ideology, a quartet that doesn’t always fit together particularly well. To complicate the matter further, Virgil has also been identified as having what the early Christian writer Tertullian called an anima naturaliter Christiana – or a “soul naturally Christian,” a belief shared by a huge body of interpreters, chief among them Dante.15 In the remainder of this program, I want to talk about these elements and how they show up in the Aeneid. I’m definitely not going to try and convince you that Virgil is an Epicurean, or a Christian, or a Roman nationalist pure and simple. Instead, I want to take a look at a couple of moments at which different, and contrasting ideologies from the first century BCE come together – moments that have historically been of great interest to people studying this poem. [music]

Anchises’ Underworld Speech and the Theological Framework of the Aeneid

Near the end of Book 6 of the Aeneid, Aeneas has gone through the underworld, and he’s conversing with his father Anchises. And Aeneas asks Anchises about the underworld – how it works, and what happens to the souls trapped there. And old Anchises’ response is one of the more carefully studied portions of the Aeneid – let’s hear a long section of it – this is the Robert Fitzgerald translation, published by Vintage Classics in 1981. Anchises says that in the upper world,
First, then, the sky and lands and sheets of water,
The bright moon’s globe, the Titan sun and stars,
Are fed within by Spirit, and a Mind
Infused through all the members of the world
Makes one great living body of the mass.
From Spirit come the races of man and beast,
The life of birds, odd creatures the deep sea
Contains beneath her sparkling surfaces,
And fiery energy from a heavenly source
Belongs to the generative seeds of these,
So far as they are not poisoned or clogged
By mortal bodies, their free essence dimmed
By earthiness and deathliness of flesh.
This [fiery energy] makes them fear and crave, rejoice and grieve.
Imprisoned in the darkness of the body
They cannot clearly see heaven’s air; in fact
Even when life departs on the last day
Not all the scourges of the body pass
From the poor souls, not all distress of life.
Inevitably, many malformations,
Growing together in mysterious ways,
Become inveterate. Therefore they undergo
The discipline of punishments and pay
In penance for old sins: some hang full length
To the empty winds; for some the stain of wrong
Is washed by floods or burned away with fire.
We suffer each his own shade. We are sent
Through wide Elysium, where a few abide
In happy lands, till the long day, the round
Of Time fulfilled, has worn our stains away,
Leaving the soul’s heaven-sent perception clear,
The fire from heaven pure. These other souls,
When they have turned Time’s wheel a thousand years
The god calls in a crowd to Lethe stream,
That there unmemoried they may see again
The heavens and wish re-entry into bodies. (6.973-1008)16

Let’s summarize what Anchises says here. A great mind, or spirit, unites the entire world into an interconnected mass. This spirit animates all living things. Living things are benighted by their mortality. When they get to Elysium, they are purified through punishment. After a thousand years’ tenure in Elysium, Anchises explains, souls are washed clean of their memories in Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. And they are thereafter reincarnated.

Peter Paul Rubens - Aeneas in the Underworld

Peter Paul Rubens’ Aeneas in the Underworld shows a hero who perhaps has more questions than answers after he journeys through the netherworld and then meets with his father in Elysium.

The ideas in this important and complex passage are a mash up of a number of ancient Mediterranean philosophies. One of them is Stoicism. We haven’t talked about Stoicism much, but one of its governing principles – which was very influential in early Christianity and Catholicism – was that a governing force – spiritus or mens, or spirit or mind – animated the entire world and propelled its events to a predetermined conclusion. While idea of the ineluctable sisters of the Fate is as old as Greek polytheism, and the notion of the universe being one interconnected divine thing dates at least back to the fifth century Magna Graecian philosopher Parmenides, Stoicism squished these two things together in the late 300s BCE, and thereafter a singular universe governed by a divine mind became a widespread and philosophically respectable ideal. Oddly, though, Anchises’ language in this passage is modeled on that of the Epicurean poet Lucretius, who did not believe in divine providence, nor in the universe being a single interconnected thing, nor any afterlife, at all.17 And Anchises’ description has further complexities. Reincarnation was a doctrine most commonly associated with the Pythagoreans, a cult that began to spread in Magna Graecia in the 500s BCE.

Stoicism and Epicureanism were the most important philosophical schools on the ground in Virgil’s Rome, and as I said, he had exposure to both. But the passage we just looked at is situated within a much longer sequence of Aeneas descending into the underworld, an underworld that is largely constructed with poetically and theologically prefabricated elements. As Aeneas heads toward Elysium, we see furies, centaurs, the chimera, gorgons, harpies, and the monster Geryon, the river Acheron and the ferryman Charon, the three headed dog Cerberus, and the numerous named figures from Greek mythology imprisoned behind the walls of Tartarus, and these colorful beings are neither the product of Epicureanism’s staunch atomic materialism, nor Stoicism’s providential monism. The comic strip of underworld beings we see in Book 6 come, of course, from Greek mythology, a multifarious and ever-evolving belief system that dates back to the Bronze Age. So – bottom line – there is a contrast in Virgil’s underworld – on one hand two philosophical doctrines only a couple of centuries old that were both thriving during the Augustan Age, and on the other hand, a gaudy parade of creatures and locations that dated back to Homer and long before.

Even if you’re rusty on your Hellenistic philosophy, from what you’ve heard so far it’s easy to understand a simple point. The Aeneid is more often than not ideologically miscellaneous. From the beginning, Roman culture was a sponge, sopping up ideas and cultural practices from all over the Mediterranean basin and beyond. It only makes sense that Rome’s most famous epic is an ideological mishmash, and that Rome’s most famous poet co-opted literary, philosophical, and theological elements from a variety of places and time periods. Understanding this at a high level is simple enough.

But nonetheless, the fact that the Aeneid is a variety show of the various ideas available to Virgil in his place and time shouldn’t silence the questions that we have about it. And – to me – the most important question to ask about the Aeneid is, “What is driving the events of the story?” What has compelled Aeneas to cross oceans, drag his crews through cyclopes and whirlpools, abandon Dido to her death, and wade through blood and corpses at the tail end of the epic? Is it the spiritus or mens that stoics believed animated the universe? Is it the bungling and often inattentive Jupiter, the patron god of Rome, or the happenstance slugfest between Juno and her whole incestuous clan? Is it the Moirai, the sisters who weave the web of fate in Greek mythology? Is it the accidental collisions of Epicurean atoms? Is it all a domino effect from Eris bringing the Apple of Discord to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis before the Trojan War? Because all of these elements are available to us, and most of them are irreconcilable with one another.

So now that we’ve looked at just one intersection in the Aeneid – that being Anchises’ speech in Book 6, where a number of different ideologies are evident – I want to talk about fate in the Aeneid – what seems to be driving events from scene to scene, and where human agency lies in Rome’s most famous story. [music]

The Aeneid and the Doctrine of Fate

Most of the way through Book 7, once Juno has decided she wants to hurt and kill as many Italians and Trojans as possible in retribution for her wounded pride, mild-mannered King Latinus looks around in despair. He sees men of his kingdom and neighboring civilizations arming, eager to kill Trojans, in preparation for an unanticipated and unnecessary war. And Latinus says, “We are being shattered by fate. . .swept off by a tempest! / Poor fools, you’ll pay the price for all of this with your own sacrilegious / Blood” (7.594-6). You can read this passage, and others like it, with your eyes half glazed over if you’ve read some Greek and Roman literature, as we have together in this podcast. The inevitability of fate, and the essential vulnerability of human beings to greater forces is the single idea at the heart of a great deal of classical literature – the Iliad, the Oresteian trilogy, Oedipus the King, the Bacchae, and others – mortals who try to hop off the railways of predetermined events in these stories find themselves rammed back on course in spite of their best efforts, and the locomotive of destiny chugs on and on and on, and we’re all locked into various sorts of storage cars.

Júpiter y Tetis, por Dominique Ingres

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ Jupiter and Thetis (1811). The deity is occasionally central to the Aeneid, but his long absences from the plot leave entire books of the poem spinning out of control.

What fate is, exactly, is a little blurry even in the Homeric epics. Sometimes it’s Zeus. Sometimes it’s the Moirai, or the sisters of fate. Sometimes it is not associated with an anthropomorphic deity, but is instead an impersonal force nudging everything along. Sometimes in Homer fate seems to be the machinery of the epics themselves – characters in the stories might gripe and soliloquize and try to wriggle out of what’s going to happen, but we the audience know how things end – that Hector tragically dies and Troy falls; that Odysseus returns to Ithaca and takes back the palace – and that anyone who says differently has a screw loose.

But by Virgil’s time – by the 20s BCE – the new doctrines out there made predestination a little bit more difficult to deploy into a story. When Latinus says, “We are being shattered by fate,” then, I think that perhaps some of Virgil’s readers would have wondered what exactly this fate was. One answer, maybe the best answer available, is that fate in the Aeneid is the will of Jupiter. Scholar Agathe Thorton says that Jupiter in the Aeneid is “both the all-comprehending cosmic divinity and the highest divinity ruling over an, at times, unruly group of gods, spirits, and men.”18 Jupiter is a slightly more shadowy presence in the Aeneid than Zeus is in the Homeric epics – I mean we never see Jupiter drugged and seduced in the Aeneid as Zeus is in Book 14 of the Iliad. And with the exception of Juno, Jupiter’s pantheon operates with a tad more subtlety and dignity than Homer’s pantheon, creating a storm surge here and guiding an arrow there, stoking a romance here and forging a nifty shield there – but not being quite so involved in mortal affairs as their Greek predecessors. Virgil had access to new philosophical and theological doctrines, as we’ve already discussed, and these doctrines show up throughout his poems. But still, the most consistent propellant of events, particularly in the closing three books of the Aeneid that we haven’t read yet, is Jupiter.

In the Aeneid,, Jupiter is at the center of a murky theological and philosophical system, part bearded paternal figurehead, part stoic spiritus, part prototypical head of state. The way Jupiter, and fate more generally, is depicted in the Aeneid can seem slovenly. Yet as scholar Denis Feeney writes, in his widely influential book The Gods in Epic, “The ancients’ ability to view a deity as a many-sided prism, at first sight an embarrassment to a poet’s achievement of character, seems to have been turned by [Roman poets] into a positive aid.”19 Thus, just as the ideological background of the Aeneid is dizzyingly diverse, Jupiter himself in the Aeneid is a number of things – good old Homeric Zeus, laying down the law for the other Olympians, but also, with his panoramic grasp of past, present, and future, a sort of god of gods who was, like Augustus, at the end of the day, ultimately in charge of everything.

I hope this is all pretty straightforward so far. The point, after all, remains that Virgil’s philosophical and theological background is quite diverse, the ideology of the Aeneid reflects this diversity, and even in his depiction of the prime mover Jupiter, Virgil builds a manifold deity with legs that look like Bronze Age polytheism, a torso and arms that look like Hellenistic philosophy, and a head, maybe, that looks a lot like Augustus. What has concerned a lot of readers of the Aeneid, though, is where human agency falls in the midst of Virgil’s ubiquitous divine providence. If we are all just passengers rammed into the train cars of fate, then how can anyone ever be proud of anything, or even have any identity? If Aeneas and Dido are compelled to fall in love and marry by Venus and Juno, then what does human love mean?

There is a famous answer, or a famous sort-of answer, to this question in the Georgics. Virgil writes that
The father himself willed the way of husbandry to be severe, first stirred by ingenuity the fields, honing mortal skill with tribulation, and suffered not his realm to laze in lumpish sloth. . . Then came hard iron. . .Toil subdued the earth, relentless toil, and the prick of dearth in hardship. (1.121-4,143,56)20

It’s an old story that sounds like Catholicism’s original sin, told by most Eurasian cultures whose Bronze and Iron Age texts have survived, and we’ve seen it again and again. There was a good period back then. And this is a crappy period now. The story is a sort of catch-all for mankind’s woes. To Latinus’ lamentation, “We are being shattered by fate,” the callus respondent might say, “Sure, we’re always being shattered by fate. Welcome to earth.”

But the age of gold and age of iron explanation, while it provides at least some measure of justification for human suffering, still doesn’t solve a major narrative problem of the Aeneid. And that problem is, if Aeneas is fated to found Rome in Italy, why can’t Jupiter, or whatever fate is, get it together a hell of a lot sooner? What compounds this problem is that Aeneas really is trying to reach Italy, and far from helping him get there, supernatural forces are doing the opposite, making the hero appear more like a leaf floating through river rapids than a strapping forefather of Roman discipline. Some of the Aeneid’s most frustrating moments, to me, occur in Books 4 and 8, and I want to take a look at those with you. [music]

Ante Diem and Stat Sua Cuique Dies

Book 4 is the Aeneas and Dido book. It begins with the story of how Venus made her fall in love with him, builds with the story of their marriage and devotion to one another, and crescendos with the sad tale of Aeneas’ brisk departure and Dido’s awful suicide. Everything that happens in this book is caused by the gods – first Venus, who makes Dido fall in love, then Venus and Juno, who make the couple marry, then Jupiter and Mercury, who tell Aeneas it’s time to head up to Italy. Although Aeneas is nothing more than a pinball in a divine machine in this book, the gods blame Aeneas for dallying in North Africa, rather than raising anchor and sailing to Italy. Jupiter, incredulously watching Aeneas falling in love with his new wife, exclaims, “What does he hope he can build by delay[ing] in this enemy nation?” (4.235). And we think, “Huh?” First of all, it’s not an enemy nation, as its ruler and the ruler of Troy are perhaps at that very moment snuggling on Dido’s bed. And second of all, if Jupiter is indeed an all-seeing deity, he should know well enough that Juno and Venus caused the romance and marriage, and not the poor, hapless human couple. Jupiter’s ill-informed question is echoed shortly thereafter by Mercury, who, in his chastising speech to Aeneas, asks the hero, “What do you hope you can build, you deserter, in Libya’s deserts?” (4.271). In both of these scenes, Aeneas is expected to understand a complex future, whereas Jupiter and his agent are so tangled up in futurity that they can’t even comprehend the present.

Heinrich Friedrich Füger dido in aeneid 006

Heinrich Füger’s Death of Dido (1792). Part of the tragedy of Dido is that neither gods nor mortals in the Aeneid can make sense of her awful demise.

These conversations, and the romance that prompts them, are predicated by a divine bungle near the opening of Book 4. Venus makes Dido fall in love with Aeneas to protect him while he is recuperating in Carthage. It’s a sloppy plan, but not entirely incoherent. Next, Juno decides they must be married, because this could keep Aeneas from reaching Italy. Another sloppy plan, and a little less coherent. What muddies the waters further is that Aeneas’ mother Venus promptly agrees to Juno’s plan to marry the two. Virgil writes that “Venus, who grasped that [Juno’s proposal was] staged to disguise her intention – / Namely, transferral to [Carthaginian] shores of Italian kingship – / [said] ‘One would have to be mad not to honour / Terms such as these” (4.105-9). So Venus and Juno, awkwardly collaborating and with very different motivations, spur the romance on, and the rest is history. What we’ve talked about just about isn’t a particularly outstanding example of divine meddling ruining human lives – this, after all, is taking place from the first to the very last line of the Aeneid. What’s exceptional about what happens to Dido – which commentators have noticed since the late 300s CE, is the way that Virgil discusses her fate, emphasis on the word fate.

In one of the most famous couplets in the Aeneid, Virgil writes as the Carthaginian queen breathed her final breaths, “Dido was dying a death that was neither deserved nor predestined, / But premature: a poor woman, swept up by the quick fire of madness” (4.696-7). This is a juicy pair of lines – the whole Aeneid, after all, assumes destiny and divine providence, and yet Dido’s death was again “neither deserved nor predestined.” Later in the epic, in Book 10, Jupiter says “Stat sua cuique dies” (10.467), or “a day is fixed for everyone.”21 A day is fixed for everyone, but Dido dies before hers is due, in Latin, “ante diem,” or “before her day.”22 Just as interestingly, after Jupiter announces that “a day is fixed for everyone,” he adds, “That’s why a man’s real task is to reach beyond life in achievement, / Pass beyond fate, beyond rumor to fame” (10.468-9).23

What a mess. In Book 10, everyone’s fate is fixed. Except, in Book 4, Dido’s isn’t. In Book 10, Jupiter himself says we should try to transcend fate. Except that in Book 4, Jupiter says that Aeneas should not try to transcend fate by staying in Africa. But in Book 4, Aeneas really isn’t trying to transcend fate – he’s just following the fate that his mother and Juno set out for him. But in Book 10, Jupiter says that transcending fate should be the task of man. Which makes Aeneas, who always bows to fate and duty, and bows to fate at the cost of Dido’s life in Book 4, a failure, and Jupiter, who hurls Aeneas all around the Mediterranean amidst mixed messages and poor communication with the other Olympians, an inefficient and blundering agent of fate, and not at all its originator. The only being in the Aeneid who consistently challenges the mandates of fate is, of course, Juno, and she is not the heroine of the story, but its villain.

When you read the Aeneid you encounter contradictions like these. The main one I pointed out above – that Dido died before her time and that there is a day fixed for everyone, was first observed by a famous very early commentator named Maurus Servius Honoratus, or, to classicists, Servius, working around 400 CE. So the internal inconsistencies in the Aeneid have been scrutinized for a long time, and a common explanation for so many of them is that Virgil died before finishing and fully editing his most famous poem. Perhaps if he’d lived another five years, the argument goes, he’d have had time to fine tune everything. I have no reason to doubt this, but the inherent inconsistency between many of the theological, philosophical, and nationalistic ideologies he was attempting to synthesize in the Aeneid would have made any full-fledged consistency nearly impossible, even with the most scrupulous editing, and these days scholars often wonder whether the poem’s ideological inconsistencies were an intentional mirror that Virgil wanted to hold up to Augustus’ Rome.

So Virgil leaves us with no real sense of whether Dido’s death was inevitable, or whether Aeneas was a hero or just a mindless cog in the engine of fate, or, much more importantly, whether the chain of events that led to Augustan Rome was anything but the unfolding of a bunch of chance occurrences. And to stay with what we covered today just a bit more, throughout Book 8 – the book in which Aeneas is actually at the future site of Rome – there is an obvious and messy problem that many readers of the poem have observed. This problem is that Aeneas never does found Rome. He’s there, on the ground, with King Evander. He gets a tour of the future grounds of the city, and a lengthy story about Hercules fighting a monster there. He observes the geographical features of where the city will be built.

And as the Trojan hero struts around the future site of the city he’s supposed to found, Venus hurries over to Vulcan and asks him to make her son some arms and armor. Vulcan asks her a funny question – he wants to know why Venus didn’t ask him for divine armor earlier, during the Trojan War. This, says Vulcan, would have made Troy last at least a decade longer. And as Venus and Vulcan look back into the past and consider the choices that they made and did not make, all of a sudden the Aeneid doesn’t seem very deterministic. Because even if Troy had stood another decade, as scholar Frederick Ahl observes, old Anchises likely would have died there, and Turnus probably would have married Lavinia, and thus the political situation would have been radically different once Virgil arrived in Italy.24 Dido might have married someone before Aeneas’ arrival in Carthage, and in short, everything that happens in the Aeneid might have taken a radically different direction. This conversation between Venus and Vulcan, in which suddenly free will seems tremendously consequential, is even more memorable because of the moment at which it takes place. Aeneas, after all, is in Rome. His entire purpose is to found Rome, and yet no one in Book 8 seems to put this together. At the end of Book 8, Aeneas receives his shield. The shield is elaborately decorated with scenes from the future city of Rome, where Aeneas has been touring over the course of the day. And yet looking at the shield, Aeneas does not recognize the city’s hills, or any other landforms, which ultimately delays the founding of the city for five hundred years.25 The hero, looking at his shield, as Virgil famously writes, is “Ignorant as to its substance, yet awed by the artwork” (8.730). Vulcan and Venus, who superintend the shield’s construction, don’t bother to tell him either. [music]

Garland Your Hair with Leaves

The Aeneid’s cluster of ideologies, and frustratingly dissonant depictions of free will and determinism, have been a source of interest in the poem for a long time. We expect, perhaps, a consistency in the way that fate works in the poem, and find little. We want Aeneas and other characters to be self-determining and courageous, and find instead that they are confined to run the gauntlet laid before them by divine mandate. We wish for some structure in Virgil’s pantheon – perhaps even some top down hierarchy with Jupiter at the helm, and instead find an unruly school with a part time principal. At some of its worst moments, the Aeneid marches on from scene to scene like an ideological variety show, with fistfuls of Homer here, splashes of Hellenistic philosophy there, seamless divine determinism here, and spotty instances of personal agency there. But I want to close today by emphasizing that even at its more awkward moments, the Aeneid is always eminently beautiful and humanistic poetry. I have used a number of translations for these shows on the Aeneid so that you can get a sort of lump sum average of how resonant Virgil sounds, even in translation. Virgil is nothing if not a superb craftsman, and sometimes the strangest little back corners of his epic can lull you into multiple rereadings due to their sheer loveliness.

One of these, to me, is in that same book we’ve just been talking about – Book 9, where Aeneas is at the future site of Rome. This is a little passage that, when I first read the poem almost fifteen years ago, stuck in my head. It might not sound quite the same to you – after all one person’s favorite moment in any given text is perfectly forgettable to another person, and that’s one of the things that makes literature such a joy. Anyway, Aeneas has come to Rome, and he has no idea it’s Rome and never will, and the gentle King Evander is telling everyone it’s time to settle in for the night. And the lines that stuck in my head, in the W.F. Jackson Knight translation I read for the first time, begin with King Evander speaking.
“Therefore come, young warriors, [ says King Evander,] garland your hair with leaves, and holding forth your cups of wine in your right hands, present them in reverence.” [And then Virgil continues,] Then they all quickly and joyfully poured libations onto their tables and said prayers to the deities. Meanwhile, evening drew near the lower slopes of Olympus. Now came the priests. . .girt according to custom with skins, and carrying torches.26

Parco della Grotta di Posillipo5 (crop)

The humanistic element in Virgil – the poet’s concern with the everyday lives of men and women in the Roman world – is more easily missed if one just reads the Aeneid. Going into Virgil’s epic after reading the Eclogues and Georgics, however, leads us to realize that common people under duress was something he’d been writing about for a decade before began his most famous poem.

I have no idea why, but these lines made me cry when I first read them, and sometimes they still do. Nothing really important is happening – it’s just one of the book’s many scenes of kings and warriors coming together for a meal. Maybe the little scene’s placement in the poem – just as things have started to come apart but before the first main battle has been fought – makes it especially melancholy – a final moment of gentle, twilit amity, warmed by wine and ancient rituals, before the horrors of battle begin to consume the story in earnest. Poor, doomed Aeneas has found a new friend, and the glow of their shared hope is as small and fragile as their torches in the growing dusk.

I think maybe the little scene highlights a consistency that you can find throughout ancient Mediterranean poetry, and certainly throughout Virgil’s little body of works. And that consistency is a sense of the vulnerability of humanity amidst the oceanic forces around us, and the beauty of that very vulnerability. Even in these last centuries of paganism, there were still few doctrines available promising eternal life to immortal souls – if Virgil actually believed the kooky stoicism-meets-reincarnation doctrine Anchises describes in Book 6, then he still understood human existence as cyclical, and human consciousness as finite. Yet throughout most of the Aeneid, and a massive slurry of Greco-Roman literature leading back to Homer, and for that matter the Enuma Elish and Sumerian poetry of Enheduanna of Ur, humanity is a small and vulnerable bunch, huddled together beneath the rumblings of nature and gods alike.

So while we can fault Virgil for his ideological heterogeneity, we may ultimately miss this heterogeneity as we venture into the early Christian period. Christianity has almost always been diverse and intellectually curious, but its central notion of a singular force in control of each human’s immortal fate, and its notion that a divine agency underlies, for the most part, the events on Earth and elsewhere, is a far different belief system than the syncretic world of Rome in the final century BCE. The young warriors who garland their hair with leaves, as evening settles over Book 8 of the Aeneid, just before the real war begins – these warriors have no omnipresent patriarch looking out for them. They are in the dark, and their sundry gods are often violent and destructive, and togetherness, and their shared world of art and ritual, just as was the case for Virgil himself, were their only weapons against obliteration. [music]

A Thank You and Moving on to the Aeneid‘s End

I want to thank Professor Curtis Dozier of Vassar College again, for reading over my entire sequence of episodes on the Aeneid before I recorded them. While the story itself is a sprawling and complicated one, the body of associated scholarship and some of the peripheral subjects that came up in this episode – stoicism, Epicureanism, and so on definitely made me need a professional classicist’s help. I again want to recommend Professor Dozier’s podcast, Mirror of Antiquity, as an outstandingly produced window into the ancient world and issues related to it – more programs have been released since first mentioned this new program. And additionally, last time I told you about his site Pharos: Doing Justice to the Classics. The site calls attention to various hate groups that have dredged up and often distorted creeds and texts from the ancient world to support their ideologies – hate groups whose sketchy scholarship is taken seriously by a surprising number of followers. It’s a great site. It’s darkly fascinating to see how modern racism and xenophobia are justified by various flotsam and jetsam from ancient Greece and Rome, and it’s inspiring to see a group of professional scholars disassembling such justifications, week after week. There are links to Pharos: Doing Justice to the Classics, on my website. Professor Dozier, thanks for helping everyone here, including me, understand Virgil’s Aeneid.

Well in the next program, we’re going to see the Aeneid to its conclusion. Turnus and Mezentius, at this very moment, are still out there, planning their next attack on the Trojan fortifications. Aeneas is somewhere north of present day Rome, looking for allies. The Trojans, including young Iulus, after ten years of siege, and seven of wandering, are once again entrenched behind walls. Will Aeneas survive the coming war? Will King Latinus betray his Italian comrades and join forces with the Trojans? Will Juno, who seems capable of anything, pull one final trick out of her already bloody sleeve? In the next program, Episode 57: The World Grows Dim and Black, we’ll cover books 10-12 of the Aeneid. And while we won’t see justice meted out to all, we will hear how one of history’s most learned and masterful poets ends his last, best story. Thanks for listening to Literature and History. Got a quiz on this program at literatureandhistory.com if you want to review some of these Virgilian names and the events of these complicated three books. And I have a new song coming up if you want to hear it. If not, see you next time.

Still listening? So, I got to thinking about those poor Trojans, crouched behind those siege walls at the beginning of Book 9. Thousands of miles of journeying, so many dangers survived, and so many prophecies and omens followed to find a new homeland, and sure enough, they find themselves smack dab in the middle of another siege. Got to wondering – what if I could send some acoustic guitars and a mandolin through time back to the Late Bronze Age, where those poor Trojan refugees were sitting around a fire behind their walls? Seems like the kind of thing one should be able to do. I thought that if I could do that – maybe get half a dozen of those guys together at the very beginning of the war, that this is the song they would sing. It’s called, “Another Siege.” I hope it’s fun and we’ll bring the entire Aeneid to its conclusion next time.


1.^ Virgil. Aeneid. Translated by Frederick Ahl and with an Introduction by Elaine Fantham. Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 160. Further references to this translation are noted parenthetically in this transcription.

2.^ The prophecy comes from the harpy Celaeno in Book 3 as the Trojans briefly visit the Stophades.

3.^ Virgil. Aeneid. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage Classics, 1981, p. 205.

4.^ Virgil. Aeneid. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by W.F. Jackson Knight. New York and London: Penguin, 1956, p. 184.

5.^ The frenzy, or furor, as it is in Latin, continues to the last lines of the poem, as Aeneas murders the supine Turnus, contrary to his father’s advice back in Book 6.

6.^ They’re not only gods – the perpetrators of the worst violence seem to be female deities – Venus, Juno, and Allecto, whereas Virgil’s male deities have far less time onstage.

7.^ The Catalog of Ships is Iliad 2.494-759 (265 lines) and Virgil’s catalog of Italian kingdoms is Aeneid 7.647-815 (168 lines).

8.^ Venus and Vulcan’s marriage, loveless and fraught with adultery is already the subject of a joke in Odyssey 8, and Achilles’ armor is made due to Thetis’ flirtations with Hephaestus. Reworking both the “arming of the hero” and the smith god being enticed with carnal temptation motifs from Homer, Virgil’s seduction scene enables poor Vulcan to finally enjoy something other than blacksmithing.

9.^ Knight (1956), pp. 215-17.

10.^ Just as the Romans, in Livy, at least, fight Lars Porsenna and the Etruscans, one of Aeneas’ first labors in Italy is a confederation of proto-Romans against proto-Etruscans, a sort of back story for why the Etruscans were eventually subsumed into the phases of Roman civilization. My thanks to Curtis Dozier for pointing this parallel out!

11.^ Readers looking for Virgil’s ambivalence toward the Augustan Age in the Aeneid have often made reference to this scene along with the gate of false dreams at the end of Book 6 and the reluctance of the Golden Bough toward the opening of Book 6.

12.^ Galinsky, Karl. “Augustan Poetry and Augustanism.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus. Ed. Galinsky, Karl. Cambridge University Press, 2005. Kindle Edition, Locations 5753-5759.

13.^ Additionally the sixth Eclogue, in which the singer Silenus lays out a creation story, shows unmistakable traces of De rerum natura. Some scholars see more Lucretius in the Aeneid than others – Stephen Greenblatt calls the Aeneid “a sustained attempt to construct an alternative to On the Nature of Things: pious, where Lucretius was skeptical; militantly patriotic, where Lucretius counseled pacifism; soberly renunciatory, where Lucretius embraced the pursuit of pleasure.” In Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011. Kindle Edition, Location 732.

14.^ Braund, Susanna. “Virgil and the Cosmos: Religious and Philosophical Ideas.” In Martindale, Charles, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Virgil. Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 221.

15.^ The comparison comes from Haecker, Theodor. Virgil, Father of the West. New York: Sheed & Ward, Inc. 1934. Haecker writes that Virgil “above all others before Christ was the anima naturaliter christiana; because he, as none other in the history of paganism, not excluding Plato or Aristotle, was the vessel chosen to foreshadow the coming of Christ” (111).

16.^ Fitzgerald (1981) pp. 185-6.

17.^ See Braund (1997), p. 210.

18.^ Thorton, Agathe. The Living Universe: Gods and Men in Virgil’s Aeneid. 19.^ Feeney, Denis. The Gods in Epic: Poets and Critics of the Classical Tradition. Clarendon Paperbacks, 1993, p. 127.

20.^ Virgil. Virgil’s Georgics: A Poem of the Land. Translated by Kimberly Johnson. London and New York: Penguin, 2009, p. 11, 13.

21.^ The translation of the Book 10 line, and comparison, comes from Wilson-Okamura, David Scott. Virgil in the Renaissance. Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 80.

22.^ Ibid, p. 80.

23.^ Ahl (2007), p. 251. As before, further quotes from the Aeneid are from this translation unless otherwise noted.

24.^ Assuming the traditional date of the Trojan War in the early 1100s BCE and the traditional founding of Rome in 753 BCE. See Ahl (2007), p. 404.

25.^ Ibid, p. 404, 409.

26.^ Virgil. Aeneid. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by W.F. Jackson Knight. New York and London: Penguin, 1956, p. 209.