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The Aenid is the finest epic of ancient Rome and one of the great poems of world literature. It was composed in Latin by Virgil in 30-19 B.C. and left without the final revision. Virgil before his death wished the work destroyed, but it was published by his friends Lucius Varius Rufus and Plotius Tucca at the request of Emperor Augustus.
The Aeneid is filled with mythology, history, and archaeology; it is rich in patriotism, religious feeling, and pathos; it contains adventure and romance. It is not only a national epic but an epic of human Me with the universal significance characteristic of the greatest works of literary art, and in this respect Virgil's masterpiece ranks with those of Homer, Dante, and John Milton. His superb poetic power, as seen in his imagery, his sound effects, and the melody and rhythm of his verse, adds immeasurably to the splendor of the epic.
The Aeneid contains 12 books. The first six describe the wanderings of Aeneas and the band of Trojans who, after the capture of Troy by the Greeks, journey westward to Sicily; to Africa, where they are welcomed by Dido, queen of Carthage; and finally to Italy, where, at Cumae, Aeneas descends to the underworld and receives from his father Anchises a prophetic vision of Roman history and the new era of peace brought to the Roman world by Augustus. The second six books relate the adventures of the Trojans upon their arrival in Latium; their unwilling conflict with the native Latins and Rutulians; their alliance with the Greeks of Pallanteum (a settlement on the Palatine Hill) and the Etruscans of Caere; the tragic deaths of heroes on each side; and Aeneas' ultimate victory over Turnus, king of the Rutulians, his chief opponent and his rival for the hand of the princess Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus.
The sources of the Aeneid are many and varied; they include much of the best of earlier Greek and Roman poetry. Virgil's indebtedness to the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer is very great, but it is wrong to look upon the Aeneid as an "Odyssey" of wanderings followed by an "Iliad" of battles; such a view does little justice to the richness and the unity of the poem.
It is equally wrong to view Virgil as an inspired imitator lacking in originality; the Homeric material is absorbed and utilized to create something new- a poem that celebrates the greatness, under divine sanction, of Roman achievement and Roman purpose. Among other sources may be cited the Cyclic epics, the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, Greek tragedy, Quintus Ennius' Annales, and the De rerum natura of Lucretius. Perhaps the most important after Homer were the tragedies of Euripides, from whom Virgil derived many specific details (for example, the tragic episode of Nisus and Euryalus in the Aeneid, book 9, is indebted to the Rhesus as well as to the Iliad, book 10) and also much of his tragic conception of character.
Structure and content in the Aeneid are inextricably interwoven, with three discernible structural patterns:
1) The even-numbered books are the more significant and tragic ones (book 2, the fall of Troy; book 4, the death of Dido; book 6, trip to the underworld; book 8, visit to the site of Rome; book 10, the great battle; book 12, the victory over Turnus). The odd-numbered books are of a lighter nature, serving to relieve the tension.
2) The corresponding books in each half are linked by numerous parallels and contrasts. For example, in book 1, Juno causes the storm at sea, and the arrival and welcome in Carthage are described; in book 7, the arrival and welcome in Latium are related, and Juno causes the war on land. In book 2, the fall of Troy is described, and at the end Aeneas carries on his shoulder from the burning city his aged father, a symbol of the past; in book 8, the picture of early Rome is drawn, and at the end Aeneas lifts to his shoulder the shield with historic scenes culminating in the victories and triumphs of Augustus. In book 4, the tragedy of love is delineated (death of Dido); in book 10, the tragedy of war (deaths of Pallas, Lausus, and Mezentius).
3) the poem may be viewed as a trilogy composed of three sections of four books each, with the central portion (books 5-8) containing the most historical, patriotic, and Augustan passages; here long Homeric episodes (games from the Iliad, book 23; underworld scene from the Odyssey, book 11; catalog from the Iliad, book 2; shield from the Iliad, book 18) are reworked for the portrayal of ancient Italy, the glorification of Rome and its history, and the praise of Augustus. This central portion is framed in book 1, in which the main theme is the tragedy of Dido, and by books 9-12, which deal primarily with the tragedy of Turnus. In this manner also Virgil avoids too sharp a break into an "Odyssey" of wanderings and an "Iliad" of battles.
The Aeneid is not merely the story of Aeneas and the Trojans, but the story of Rome and Augustus as well. Jupiter's speech in book 1, the revelations of Anchises in book 6, and the scenes on the shield in book 8 give by means of prophecy and foreshadowing much of the history of Rome from its founding to Virgil's own day. The epic is rich in symbolism- historical, political, and religious. As the death of Dido in book 4 symbolizes the later fall of Carthage, so the union of Latins and Trojans at the end of the epic depicts the formation of the Roman people. The earlier alliance of the Trojans with both Greeks and Etruscans is Virgil's way of accounting for the presence of so many Greek and Etruscan elements in Roman life and culture. The virtues of Aeneas- dementia, justitia, and above all, pietas (the sense of duty toward his gods, his people, and his family) - are likewise the virtues attributed to Augustus; and as Augustus, in Virgil's day, had erected a great temple to Apollo, so Aeneas in book 6 promises to build such a temple. The simplicity of Evander's life on the Palatine Hill foreshadows the unpretentious home where Augustus himself lived.
Divine machinery was a necessary part of a mythological epic such as the Aeneid, but Virgil's interest in human emotions and the psychology of his characters made it impossible for him to explain human action entirely by the working of fate or divine intervention. What the god or goddess usually does is merely to accentuate or inflame a state of mind already eager to do what the deity wishes.
There are many tragic deaths - Dido, Nisus and Euryalus, Pallas, Lausus, Mezentius, Turnus - and Virgil stresses the effect of the death on the one who is near and dear. The laments of Anna, of Euryalus' mother, of Mezentius, of Aeneas, and of Evander are among the most emotional and the most magnificent scenes in the poem. These deaths are tragic, however, in another sense; they result from the action or wrongdoing of the character himself. The characters have freedom of will; they make their own decisions and suffer the consequences. Dido, for instance, sins by being unfaithful to the memory of her husband Sychaeus; Nisus and Euryalus are misled by wrong motives and bring disaster upon themselves; and Turnus, the most complex character of all, had a basic weakness, an inability to live up to his own ideals and a reluctance to face Aeneas. Many characters, both divine and human, fail in part because they stand for the irrational forces of darkness and disorder as opposed to world order and justice represented by Jupiter, the supreme deity, and symbolized by Aeneas on the human level.
The character of Aeneas himself has been misunderstood and criticized. He is not a weak person or a puppet in the hands of fate, but a worthy hero of the epic that bears his name. There is no lack of strong emotion in Aeneas, but he gradually subordinates his feelings to fate and the will of Jupiter. As an instrument of a divine plan he is victorious, but at the cost of personal happiness. His tragedy is on a higher plane than the tragedies of the other characters and arises from his sorrow and pity at the unnecessary suffering and death caused by the war that he is forced to wage. From this and from Virgil's own hatred of war comes the sense of "melancholy" that has been considered a characteristic feature of the poem.