The hero Aeneas was already known to Greco-Roman legend and myth, having been a character in the Iliad; Virgil took the disconnected tales of Aeneas' wanderings, his vague association with the foundation of Rome and a personage of no fixed characteristics other than a scrupulous piety, and fashioned this into a compelling founding myth or nationalist epic that at once tied Rome to the legends of Troy, glorified traditional Roman virtues and legitimized the Julio-Claudian dynasty as descendants of the founders, heroes and gods of Rome and Troy.
Also in the manner of Homer, the story proper begins in medias res, with the Trojan fleet in the eastern Mediterranean, heading in the direction of Italy. The fleet, led by Aeneas, is on a voyage to find a second home. It has been foretold that in Italy, he will give rise to a race both noble and courageous, a race which will become known to all nations. Juno is wrathful, because she had not been chosen in the judgment of Paris against Aeneas's mother Venus, and because her favorite city, Carthage, will be destroyed by Aeneas' descendants. Also, Ganymede, a Trojan prince, was chosen to be the god's cup bearer- replacing Juno's daughter Hebe. Juno proceeds to Aeolus, King of the Winds, and asks that he release the winds to stir up a storm in exchange for a bribe (Deiopea, the loveliest of all the sea nymphs, as a wife). He agrees, and the storm devastates the fleet. Neptune takes notice: although he himself is no friend of the Trojans, he is infuriated by Juno's intrusion into his domain, and stills the winds and calms the waters. The fleet takes shelter on the coast of Africa. There, Aeneas's mother, Venus, in the form of a hunting woman very similar to the goddess Diana, encourages him and tells him the history of the city. Eventually, Aeneas ventures in, and in the temple of Juno, seeks and gains the favor of Dido, Queen of Carthage, the city which has only recently been founded by refugees from Tyre and which will later become Rome's greatest enemy.
At a banquet given in the honour of the Trojans, Aeneas recounts the events which occasioned the Trojans' fortuitous arrival. He begins the tale shortly after the events described in the Iliad. Crafty Ulysses devised a way for Greek warriors to gain entry into Troy by hiding in a large wooden horse. The Greeks pretended to sail away, leaving a man, Sinon, to tell the Trojans that the horse was an offering and that if it were taken into the city, the Trojans would be able to conquer Greece. The Trojan priest Laocoön, who had seen through the Greek plot and urged the horse's destruction, hurled his spear at the wooden horse. Just after, in what would be seen by the Trojans as punishment from the gods, Laocoon was suddenly grabbed and eaten, along with his two sons, by two giant sea snakes. So the Trojans brought the horse inside the fortified walls, and after nightfall the armed Greeks emerged and began to slaughter the city's inhabitants. Aeneas woke up and saw with horror what was happening to his beloved city. At first he tried to fight against the enemy, but soon he lost his comrades and was left alone to fend off tens of Greeks. Venus intervened directly, telling him to flee with his family. Aeneas tells of his escape with his son Ascanius and father Anchises, his wife Creusa having been separated from the others and subsequently killed in the general catastrophe. He tells of how, rallying the other survivors, he built a fleet of ships and made landfall at various locations in the Mediterranean (including Thrace, Crete and Epirus). One of these locations was Buthrotum, a city which tried to replicate Troy. There, he met Andromache, the wife of Hector. She still laments for the loss of her valiant husband and beloved child. There, too, Aeneas saw and met Helenus, one of Priam's sons, who had the gift of prophecy. Through him, Aeneas learned the destiny laid out for him: he was divinely advised to seek out the land of Italy (also known as Ausonia or Hesperia), where his descendants would not only prosper, but in time rule the entire known world. In addition, Helenus also bade him go to the Sibyl in Cumae. Heading out into the open sea, Aeneas left Buthrotum. While in the open sea, Anchises, the father of Aeneas, peacefully died. The fleet reached as far as Sicily and was making for the mainland, until Juno raised up the storm which drove it back across the sea to Carthage.
Meanwhile, Venus had her own plans. She went to her son, Aeneas' half-brother Cupid, and told him to imitate Ascanius. Disguised as such, he goes to Dido, and offers the gifts expected from a guest. With her motherly love revived in the sight of the small boy, her heart was pierced and she fell in love with the boy and his father. During the banquet, Dido realizes that she has fallen madly in love with Aeneas, although she had previously sworn fidelity to the soul of her late husband, Sychaeus, who was murdered by her cupidinous brother Pygmalion. Juno seizes upon this opportunity to make a deal with Venus, Aeneas' mother, with the intention of distracting him from his destiny of founding a city in Italy. Aeneas is inclined to return Dido's love, and during a hunting expedition, a storm drives them into a cave in which Aeneas and Dido presumably have sex, an event that Dido takes to indicate a marriage between them. But when Jupiter sends Mercury to remind Aeneas of his duty, he has no choice but to part. Her heart broken, Dido commits suicide by stabbing herself upon a pyre with Aeneas' sword. Before dying, she predicts eternal strife between Aeneas's people and hers; "rise up from my bones, avenging spirit" (4.625, trans. Fitzgerald) is an obvious invocation to Hannibal. Looking back from the deck of his ship, Aeneas sees Dido's funeral pyre's smoke and knows its meaning only too clearly. However, destiny calls and the Trojan fleet sails on to Italy.
Aeneas's father Anchises having been hastily interred on Sicily during the fleet's previous landfall there, the Trojans returned to the island to hold funeral games in his honour. Eventually, the fleet lands on the mainland of Italy and further adventures ensue. Aeneas, with the guidance of the Cumaean Sibyl, descends to the underworld through an opening at Cumae, where he speaks with the spirit of his father and has a prophetic vision of the destiny of Rome. Upon returning to the land of the living, Aeneas leads the Trojans to settle in the land of Latium, where he courts Lavinia, the daughter of king Latinus.
Seeing the masses of Italians that Turnus has brought against him, Aeneas seeks help from the Tuscans, enemies of Turnus. He meets King Evander, whose son, Pallas, agrees to lead troops against the other Italians. Meanwhile, the Trojan camp is being attacked, and a midnight raid leads to the tragic deaths of Nisus and his love Euryalus, in one of the most emotional passages in the book. The gates, however, are defended until Aeneas returns.
In the battling that follows, many heroes are killed, notably Pallas, who is killed by Turnus, and Mezentius, Turnus' close associate who inadvertently allowed his son to be killed while he himself fled; he reproached himself and faced Aeneas in single combat, an honourable but essentially futile pursuit. Another notable hero, Camilla, a sort of Amazon character, fights bravely but is eventually killed. Camilla had been a virgin devoted to Diana and to her nation; the man who killed her was struck dead by Diana's sentinel Opis after doing so, even though he tried to escape.
After this, single combat is proposed between Aeneas and Turnus, but Aeneas was so obviously superior that the Italians, urged on by Turnus' divine sister, Juturna, break the truce. Aeneas is injured, but returns to the battle shortly afterwards. Turnus and Aeneas dominate the battle on opposite wings, but when Aeneas makes a daring attack at the city of Latium itself, (causing the queen of Latium to hang herself in despair), he forces Turnus into single combat once more. In a dramatic scene, Turnus' strength deserts him as he tries to hurl a rock, and he is struck by Aeneas' spear in the leg. As Turnus is begging on his knees for his life, the poem ends with Aeneas killing him in rage when he sees that he is wearing the belt of his friend Pallas.
This is where the Aeneid ends, although we know that it is incomplete. Virgil died before finishing his work, and many people have felt that the poem is not complete without an account of Aeneas' marriage to Lavinia and his founding of the Roman race. To fill this perceived deficiency, the fifteenth-century Italian poet Maffeo Vegio (also known as Mapheus Vegius) composed a "supplement to the Aeneid", which was widely printed in Renaissance editions of the work. Others, however, see the violent ending to the Aeneid as a typically Virgilian comment on the darker, vengeful side of humanity.
The work was written at a time of major change in Rome, both political and social. The Republic had fallen, civil war had ripped apart society, and many Romans' faith in the "Greatness of Rome" was severely faltering. However, the new emperor Augustus was beginning to institute a new era of prosperity and peace after a generation of chaos that had badly eroded traditional social roles and cultural norms. Specifically, Augustus was trying to re-introduce traditional Roman moral values, and the Aeneid is thought to reflect that aim. Aeneas was depicted as a man devoted and loyal to his country and its prominence, rather than personal gains. He went off on a journey for the betterment of Rome. In addition, the Aeneid attempts to legitimize the rule of Julius Caesar (and by extension, of his adopted son Augustus and his heirs). Aeneas' son Ascanius, called Ilus from Ilium, meaning Troy, is renamed Iulus and offered by Virgil as an ancestor of the gens Julia, the family of Julius Caesar. When making his way through the underworld, Aeneas is given a prophecy of the greatness of his imperial descendants. Furthermore, Aeneas receives weapons and armour from Vulcan, including a shield which illustrates the future of Rome and lays stress once again upon the emperors, including Augustus.
One might also note the relationship between the Trojans and Greeks in the Aeneid. The Trojans were the ancestors of the Romans according to the Aeneid, and their enemies were the Greek forces who had besieged and sacked Troy; yet at the time the Aeneid was written, the Greeks were part of the Roman Empire and a respected people who were considered cultured and civilised. This situation is resolved by the fact that the Greeks beat the Trojans only through the use of a trick, the wooden horse, not on the open field of battle: thus Roman dignity is saved.
Pietas, possibly the key quality of any 'honourable' Roman, consisted of a series of duties: duty towards the Gods (hence the English word piety); duty towards one's homeland; duty towards one's followers and duty to one's family - especially one's father. Therefore, a further theme of the poem explores the strong relationship between fathers and sons. The bonds between Aeneas and Ascanius, Aeneas and Anchises, Evander and Pallas, Mezentius and Lausus are all worthy of note. This theme reflects Augustan moral reforms and was perhaps intended to set an example for Roman youth.
The major moral of the Aeneid is acceptance of the workings of the Gods as fate through the use of pietas or piety. Virgil, in composing the character of Aeneas alludes to Augustus, suggesting that the gods work their ways through humans; using Aeneas to found Rome, Augustus to lead Rome, and that one must accept one's fate.
Aeneas's exiting of the underworld through the gate of false dreams has been variously interpreted: One suggestion is that the passage simply refers to the time of day at which Aeneas returned to the world of the living; another is that it implies that all of Aeneas's actions in the remainder of the poem are somehow "false." In an extension of the latter interpretation, it has been suggested that Virgil is conveying that the history of the world since the foundation of Rome is but a lie. Other scholars claim that Virgil is establishing that the theological implications of the preceding scene (i.e. an apparent system of reincarnation) are not to be taken as literal.
The second section in question is:
This section has been interpreted to mean that for the entire passage of the poem, Aeneas who symbolizes pietas (reason) in a moment becomes furor (fury), thus destroying what is essentially the primary theme of the poem itself. Many have argued over these two sections. Some claim that Virgil meant to change them before he died, while others find that the location of the two passages, at the very end of the so-called Volume I (Books I-VI, the Odyssey), and Volume II (Books VII-XII, the Iliad), and their short length, which contrasts with the lengthy nature of the poem, are evidence that Virgil placed them purposefully there.
However, another legend states that Virgil, fearing that he would die before he had properly revised the poem, gave instructions to friends (including the current emperor, Augustus) that the Aeneid should be burned upon his death, owing to its unfinished state and because he had come to dislike one of the sequences in Book VIII, in which Venus and Vulcan have sexual intercourse. He supposedly intended to alter this sequence to conform better to Roman moral virtues. The friends did not comply with Virgil's wishes, and Augustus himself ordered that they be disregarded. After minor modifications, the Aeneid was published.
In the 15th century, there were two attempts to produce an addition to the Aeneid. One was made by Pier Candido Decembrio (which was never completed) and one was made by Maffeo Vegio, which was often included in 15th and 16th century printings of the Aeneid as the Supplementum, or a so-called "thirteenth book". The most recent addition, though not strictly a sequel, is Claudio Salvucci's epic poem The Laviniad (1994).
The first full and faithful rendering of the poem in an Anglic language is the Scots translation by Gavin Douglas—his Eneados, completed in 1513, which also included Maffeo Vegio's supplement. Even in the Twentieth century, Ezra Pound considered this still to be the best Aeneid translation, praising the "richness and fervour" of its language and its hallmark fidelity to the original. The English translation by the 17th-century poet John Dryden is another important version that can be said to retain the power and flow of the original, although Dryden took numerous, significant liberties with the text. Most classic translations, including both Douglas and Dryden, employed a rhyme scheme, a very non-Roman convention that is not usually followed in modern versions.
Recent English verse translations include those by C Day Lewis (1963) which strove to render Virgil's original hexameter line, Allen Mandelbaum (honoured by a 1973 National Book Award), Library of Congress Poet Laureate Robert Fitzgerald (1981), Stanley Lombardo (2005), and Robert Fagles (2006).