An Analysis of The Aeneid


Ancient literature plays a significant role in bridging cultures and perpetuating integral ideas. Recorded art has always been an account on how a particular society thinks and lives generally. For instance, an author would create a fable about a god that supports agriculture during a famine perhaps. That is, the artist could potentially draw inspiration from the trials of their time in the ancient world, which in turn bolster their community. The Aeneid written by Publius Vergilius Maro, who is modernly known as Virgil, is such a piece.

The author of The Aeneid, Virgil, died during the construction of the piece so he never finished writing it. W.F. Jackson Knight claims that “The Aeneid of Virgil is a gateway between the pagan and the Christian centuries. Virgil, who was born in 70 B. C. and died in 19 B.C., left the poem unfinished at his death. That was eight years after the republican government of old Rome gave place to the rule of emperors, and only a few years before the Christian Era started. Virgil is the Poet of the Gate (Knight). Virgil had a very simple birth, being born to parents who were farmers. His parents made it possible for him to go to school in Rome where he had much success, “The young Virgil was given a very good education and went to Rome to perfect it. He seems to have been interested in all subjects, including science” (Knight).

During his studies in Rome, Virgil met many influential people that surely added to his potential to be successful as a writer in his time. Knight notes that “Though he early made friends with many important Romans, among them probably the young Octavius who was afterwards to become Augustus, the first emperor, Virgil preferred a quiet life, away from Rome” (Knight). This says a great deal to Virgil’s character, which is like gold because of the little information available about him. “The Emperor Augustus had captured Virgil's imagination when they were both young. Virgil could apparently foresee that he would give the Roman World peace and order, as indeed he did. Augustus sometimes used cruel methods, which Virgil could not condone, and indeed subtly criticized here and there in his late poetry” (Knight). Virgil is a symbol of peace apparently in his time because of the image of Augustus being so tyrannical.  It is said that Virgil’s critical comments on Augustus’ behavior had a simmering affect on him and played a role in him become less tyrannical in his older age. Virgil’s character is obviously based on a more compassionate foundation in contrast to one of neutrality or inconsiderate nature. However his masterpiece The Aeneid, Virgil legitimizes Augustus’ rule (which is interesting enough to be discussed but would be a digression from the point of this essay).

The Aeneid is an epic poem about the benefits and wanes of a great civilization. It is an account that initiates and replicates many new and old ideas of ancient Roman culture. The protagonist Aeneas in the first book of the 12 book uncompleted work is fleeing his home of troy to Italy while trying to please the gods. Sarah Ruden condenses the ultimate meaning of the poem: 

The Aeneid is a poem about the price, and a few of the rewards, of a great civilization. It depicts a divine set-up that makes the hero abandon his beloved wife in the midst of a massacre and later leave his very desirable girlfriend to kill herself: Either woman would get in the way of the bland princess he is supposed to marry to secure his dynasty. He must drag his dear, feeble father through a rough and perilous sea voyage, so that the old man dies on route. He must kill natives of Italy, who until he came along were minding their own business in an advanced culture quite similar to his own. He must send his only son to battle (Ruden).

Because the epic is such a lengthy piece we will focus primarily on the content of Book one. The opening of the piece sets the tone and subject matter immediately. It is a time of war and fear, the gods bicker and Anaeas, a Trojan champion in the fight for Troy, hopes to find a new home in Italy. There are a few symbols that simply stand out in this epic, in particular the invocative nature of the opening lines. “Tell me the causes now, O Muse, how galled in her divine pride, and how sore at heart,” this is an invocation that alludes to the influence of other ancient literature that opens with invocations of the gods. This pulls the readers, particularly the first readers into the religious aspects of this piece; and of course the ancient people had a much more significant purpose for religion than people do modernly because of the knowledge accumulated via science.

The fact that the gods favor cities over others is a symbol that transverses the pages and it self to the favorable city’s of the reader. In The Aeneid, the goddess Juno, Queen of the gods, absolutely hates the Trojans and Troy. O’brian say’s:

Presiding over human action and choices are the gods. Divine providence is as ambiguous and dark as human nature in the Aeneid. Critics and readers focus on Juno's rage. More disconcerting is the chilling picture of the gods destroying Troy on the night of the city's fall. There is something cold and deeply frightening in that scene, like something out of a monster movie, for a modern reader in the vision of these vast beings pulling up the walls of Troy, while antlike humans fight and flee. There is a legendary streak of perfidy and disrespect for the gods in the history of Troy, but Virgil does not make this clear. Troy is not innocent, but on that night it hardly seems to matter. Only Jupiter rises above this divine terror. His is the vision, his is the disposition of all things towards a plan, but it is only late in the poem that he masters the other divine powers in the poem's universe. The new world order is being mapped out not merely on earth, but in heaven (O’Brian).

The Aeneid has had in incredibly expansive influence on literature throughout history and the western world. Virgil captures concepts that foster the way westerners think. In the words of Helen Conrad O’Brian, “It is impossible to imagine western literature without Virgil's Aeneid. Outside of the Bible, perhaps no other book has had more direct effect on our writing and thinking. For four hundred years the Aeneid had the place in Latin education that could be compared to the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare in English” (O’Brien) For The Aeneid to have such a lasting influence and be on a near level of influence as the King James Bible attest to its adherence to ancient standards and it’s creation of lasting concepts. In fact The Aeneid  can serve as a pagan bible. It instructs its readers through the story on how to act in particular situations. It reveals the beauty and malignity of the gods and how to interact with them. This probably the main reason the piece has the influence and longevity that it has- the religious elements.

In her essay, “That most awful poem, the Aeneid: a translator's tragic alliance,” Sarah Ruden discusses how as a doctoral degree candidate at Harvard University she was required to translate The Aeneid from Latin to English and how much she dreaded it in the beginning. Unknowingly, through her having to translate the piece to English herself she discovered many of the beauties on The Aeneid she did not appreciate before that point in time. “I learned the joys of devotion, which I had failed to when I first experienced the Aeneid in Latin. It was on my doctoral reading list at Harvard, but at the time I was an Ovid fiend. Now, of course, I had to go through Virgil's epic much more attentively, and I got more than the usual benefits from prying into a classic” (Ruden)

The Aeneid is a piece that I did not know had such a pervasive influence on western thought and even my own thought. It is a piece that will continue to survive as long as literature is valued. It may have a dissension with modern people because of its ancient themes. But the truth is, much like the Bible, The Aeneid has valuable lessons for even the modern person.

















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