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Who Was the Roman Hero Aeneas? Part 3

Updated on March 28, 2015

What Happens After the Underworld?

Aeneas’ emergence from the Underworld begins his mission in Italy; Vergil constructs a new Iliad in which the defeated Trojans become the victors. To do this Vergil must parallel them with the Greeks. The Sybil explains that the Tiber will supersede the Trojan rivers and a new Achilles will be born (6.86-90).

The Sybil also explains that the causa belli (reason for war) is nearly the same as it was for the Trojan war (6.93-4). Although Lavinia is not another Helen—she is unmarried and offered to Aeneas by her father—Turnus views Aeneas as another Paris. Still, Aeneas is not meant to worry that the Trojan war will have the same outcome for his people; rather, aid will come from a Greek city and Aeneas’ people will be the victors: Tu ne cede malis, sed contra audentior ito,/ qua tua the Fortuna sinet. Via prima salutis,/ quod minime reris, Graia pandetur ab urbe (6.95-7). All the while Turnus sees himself as another Menelaus, with Aeneas as Paris; however, Vergil “carefully absolves the Trojan of blame.” The Italians build their case on the false belief that they enter a new Trojan War, but Vergil’s recreation of Homeric roles would have Aeneas as the new Achilles.

What Did the Underworld Look Like?


Was Aeneas Like Achilles?

If Aeneas is the new Achilles, he is far superior. This has been shown. Aeneas does not reach for immortal glory, nor does he withdraw from fighting for an Achillean reason. Instead, the Aeneas of the second half of the Aeneid is a still-pious, reliable Greek warrior. Just as Aeneas can be compared to the finest of the Greeks, so can Venus be compared with Thetis, the mother of Achilles:

Nunc Iovis imperiis Rutulorum constitit oris:
ergo eadem supplex venio et sanctum mihi numen
arma rogo genetrix nato. The filia Nerei,
the potuit lacrimis Tithonia flectere coniunx (8.381-4).

When Venus asks for the Vulcan-made armor, Vergil emphasizes the shield, recalling Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles. Later, when Aeneas stands on the deck of his ship, his appearance is as terrifying to the Latins as was Achilles’ to the Trojans. Recall that Achilles appeared after his absence gleaming like a star—namely Sirius, the Dog of Orion. Priam sees him, compared to Sirius, brightest of all stars, but a sign of evil which brings fevers to suffering humanity. (Iliad 22.25-32).

Similarly, Aeneas’ helm is a shining flame, compared to Sirius, the dog star. Vergil reuses the simile to show the effect both heroes have on men. As the sight of Achilles was paralyzing to Priam, so is the vision of Aeneas, who stands with an ominous flame surrounding his head. He is compared to Sirius, rising to bring sickness and pestilence to suffering men, saddening the sky with a sinister light (10.270-5).

Battle-Loving Achilles

How Does Aeneas Get Away with Being Bad?

Aeneas rejoins battle and, after the death of Pallas, is again comparable to Achilles. Aeneas takes eight prisoners to sacrifice to avenge the death of Pallas, just as Achilles took twelve Trojans as human sacrifices to the perished Patroclus: δώδεκα δὲ Τρώων μεγαθύμων υἱέας ἐσθλοὺς χαλκῷ δηϊόων· (Iliad 23.75-6). Although Vergil intends for Aeneas to be better than Achilles, Aeneas still falters occasionally. This is exemplified when Aeneas “contemptuously kills suppliants and boasts over their corpses,” with his violence progressing. He takes his captives to be victims to the shades (10.517-20).

Although Aeneas appears to be a savage Achilles by taking captives for sacrifice, he is still better than Turnus. The defeat of the Italians changes the public feeling, and Turnus becomes the scapegoat. Like the Trojans blamed Paris for the war, so do the Italians believe Turnus is responsible for the conflict: dirum exsecrantur bellum Turnique hymenaeos (11.217). So Vergil has adjusted the Homeric characters and united the personalities of Achilles, Agamemnon, and Menelaus in Aeneas to make Aeneas’ motives morally justified. While Turnus compares Aeneas to Paris, Aeneas proves to be more like the victorious Greeks. Vergil reverses the pattern of the Iliad so that Aeneas is the atoned hero of the second Iliad.

So while Aeneas appears to be similar to Achilles, he is shown to be superior. He falters when he captures the victims for human sacrifice. Although rejoicing in their deaths, he nevertheless remains sympathetic. He shows mercy, as his father advised (6.852-3) when he allows the Italians a truce to bury their dead (11.108-19). Even more, Aeneas displays his stoic side as he does not allow his sympathy to become compassion, nor is he inflamed with the desire to slaughter the objects of his humane sympathy. Although Aeneas displayed Achillean rage when he slaughtered suppliants, he still showed restraint after the death of Lausus (10.811-32).

Aeneas Killing Turnus


Can Aeneas Control His Anger?

Having modeled the Aeneas of the second half so closely on Achilles, Vergil logically closes his narrative with an Achillean Aeneas. While book twelve begins with Aeneas’ hope for peace (oblato gaudens componi foedere bellum) (12.109), he remains susceptible to emotion. Aeneas’ fury is provoked and he forgets his aim, hoping only to kill Turnus: solum densa in caligine Turnum/ vestigat lustrans, solum in certamina poscit (12.466-7). Vergil compares Aeneas to the Achilles of Iliad 22, when he overpowers his foe. Aeneas can no longer uphold the ideal methods of a Stoic warrior, but he remains heroic. Vergil depicts Aeneas as furious, but it is unclear whether he adheres to the guiding words of his father. Turnus may have been proud, stealing and wearing the baltic of Pallas; however, he is ultimately a suppliant on the ground (12.926-31).

Aeneas avenges Pallas, according to the promise he made to Evander, but nevertheless savagely slaughters Turnus. If the fact that Aeneas’ mind was changed by an “unlucky” belt (12.941) then his rage may be unjustified. Turnus’ stripping of Pallas’ dead body was little or nothing more than what an enemy could be expected to do at the time. Thus Vergil’s hero is not a pure Stoic, for he loses his temper too quickly. Aeneas’ loss of self-control likens him to Achilles, the hero Vergil seemed to rank below Aeneas. When Aeneas “drinks in” the belt Turnus displays, his fury returns: Ille, oculis postquam saevi monimenta doloris/ exuviasque hausit, furiis accensus et ira/ terribilis (12.945-7a) and he stabs his “furious” sword into the chest of his enemy: hoc dicens ferrum adverso sub pectore condit fervidus (12.950-1). These actions can hardly be seen as stoic, although Aeneas still appears superior to the selfish, glory-loving Achilles of most of the Iliad, and the tricky, family-obsessed Odysseus. Vergil completes his epic with a depiction of his hero as flawed; he is not exactly a Stoic, but he still exceeds the Homeric heroes in his morals and piety.

Odysseus the Homeric Hero


How Are The Heroes Alike

Slays his enemy while furious
Uses trickery, not battle skills
Slays his enemy while furious
Sacrifices for lost friend
Returns to family
Sacrifices for lost friend
Desires glory above life while alive
Desires to return home
Desires to return home
Values life above glory after death
Visits the Underworld
Visits the Underworld

Lombardo's Aeneid Translation

The Essential Aeneid
The Essential Aeneid

What Kind of Hero is Aeneas?

Vergil’s Aeneas is ultimately a mix of Homeric hero types. Vergil has mixed the characters of Achilles and Odysseus with Stoic ideas, creating a uniquely Roman hero. Because Aeneas began as a Trojan, but must shed this part of himself, he has to adopt a new kind of heroism. Aeneas did not dream of immortal glory like Achilles, he was more willing to find a new home than Odysseus, and he was much more pious than Lucretius. Still, Aeneas falters many times before accomplishing his fated task.

Vergil almost differentiates Aeneas from Achilles—the Homeric epitome of a warrior striving for everlasting fame. But he still lets Aeneas stray from his plan so much that we are forced to imagine him as another Achilles. Aeneas stumbles and strays from his Roman piety so much that the reader must question whether he was different from the ideal Homeric heroes. Aeneas seems almost to sacrifice Turnus—not a virtuous act, and not so unlike the raging Achilles of Homer’s Iliad.

Aeneas has to stop being Trojan to found his new Empire. Unlike Odysseus, he must abandon any desire to return home. He cannot be the Trojan Aeneas from the Homeric epics. He must grow into a new type of hero who is willing to accept novel piety. Only after his reemergence from the Underworld can he become a uniquely Roman hero who deserves his own epic.

How Well Do You Know Aeneas?

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