WORLD LITERATURE I
Virgil Study Guide
Dr. Diane Thompson, NVCC, ELI
VIRGIL'S LIFE -- (70-19 BC) -- A First Century Roman Citizen
Not much is known about Virgil's life. He was born in 70 BC and
raised in a rural area near Mantua, Italy; he was well educated; his family farm was
seized as a political spoil. From his thirty-first year on, Virgil lived either in Rome or
near Naples, associated with his patron, Maecenas, Octavian's minister of internal
affairs. Virgil was a court poet, whose well-being depended on pleasing powerful members
of the ruling class. He evidently did this quite well, since Maecenas and other wealthy
patrons supported him financially, allowing him to spend his life writing poetry.
A brief example of Virgil's Latin from the opening sentence of the
Aeneid shows how the words are arranged more like a mosaic than in the linear fashion we
are used to nowadays:
Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
ARMS THE MAN AND I SING, OF TROY WHO FIRST FROM COASTS
Italiam fato profugus Laviniaque venit
TO ITALY BY FATE EXILED LAVINIAN AND CAME
Or, in normal English word order:
Arms I sing and the man who first from the coasts of Troy,
exiled by fate, came to Italy and Lavinian shores.
In the Latin original, each word has a meaning that may not become
clear until several more words have been read. This is an elegant, complex, literary
language that does not end itself to translation.
The Main Characters in the Aeneid are grouped below into five
categories: Roman Deities; Greeks; Trojans; Tyrians; and Others
ROMAN DEITIES IN THE AENEID
(and their Greek
parallels, if any)
||a Fury who instills the poison of irrational rage into her
victims, especially Amata and Turnus
||(same name in Greek) sun god; son of Jupiter and Latona; the
god of prophecy; brother of Diana
||(Eros) son of Venus
||(Artemis) goddess of the moon, the hunt and the woods;
daughter of Jupiter and Latona; sister of Apollo
||rainbow goddess; Juno's messenger
||(Hera) wife and sister of Jupiter; daughter of Saturn; god
of marriage; chief goddess of Carthage; hates Trojans because of Judgment of Paris
||(Zeus) chief deity; husband and brother of Juno; son of
||household, hearth-centered, ancestral gods, which Aeneas
brings along with the Penates from Troy to Italy; these, along with the Penates, are small
enough for Anchises to carry while Aeneas carries him
||household gods or gods of the state; Aeneas brings the
Trojan state gods with him from Troy to Italy
||(Ares) god of war; son of Jupiter
||(Athena)-goddess of wisdom, battle and household arts such
||(Poseidon) god of the sea; brother of Jupiter; helped build
the walls of Troy, but King Laomedon, Priam's father, refused to pay him, so he became an
enemy of Troy
||(Chronos) previous chief god; father of Jupiter, who deposed
||(Aphrodite) mother of Aeneas and of Cupid; goddess of love;
she constantly worries about her son Aeneas, despite Jupiter's assurances that he will be
||(Hephaestus) husband of Venus, god of the forge and fire
GREEK CHARACTERS IN THE AENEID: (few and nasty)
||son of Achilles, also named Neoptolemus; during the
destruction of Troy, he killed a son of Priam and Hecuba in front of their eyes, and then
killed Priam at his own altar; he also captured their daughter Andromache, Hector's widow,
as his concubine
||a deceitful Greek who pretended to flee from the Greeks to
the Trojans, told lying tales about the Trojan Horse and how, if it were taken into Troy,
Troy could not be taken; he then released the soldiers from inside the Trojan Horse to
||(Odysseus)- the treacherous fellow who devised the Trojan
Horse that destroyed Troy; a brilliant, cruel, self-seeking manipulator
TROJAN CHARACTERS IN THE
||Trojan prince, son of Venus and Anchises, father of
Ascanius, lover of Dido, ancestor of the Roman people
||Aeneas' father; carried by Aeneas from fallen Troy
||widow of Hector, captured at fall of Troy by Pyrrhus;
eventually married Helenus
||(also Iulus) son of Aeneas and Creusa
||female warrior, ally of Turnus in Latium
||Aeneas' wife who dies during the flight out of Troy
||Trojan warrior; friend of Nisus; killed during a brave
sortie with Nisus after killing many Latin enemies; Nisus and Euryalus became a model of
loyal, brave friendship
||queen of Troy, wife of Priam
||a son of Priam; a prophet; eventually married the widowed
Andromache and became king in Epirus
||Trojan priest; tried to warn the Trojans about the Trojan
horse by thrusting a spear against it; killed by serpents
||Trojan warrior; friend of Euryalus; killed during a brave
sortie with Euryalus after killing many Latin enemies
||king of Troy; killed by Pyrrhus
||Trojan who was treacherously killed by the king of Thrace;
buried under a bush which bled when Aeneas tried to tear off a branch; his ghost warns
Aeneas to flee from Thrace
TYRIAN CHARACTERS IN THE
||Dido's sister; encouraged Dido in her affair with Aeneas
||queen and founder of Carthage, widow of Sychaeus; falls in
love with Aeneas; kills herself when he leaves; also called Elissa
||Dido's dead first husband; they are reunited in the
OTHER CHARACTERS IN THE AENEID
( in Italy):
||queen of Latium; wife of Latinus; mother of Lavinia; wanted
Turnus to marry Lavinia
||a good Greek; Aeneas' ally; founder of Pallanteum; father of
||king of Latium, husband of Amata, father of Lavinia
||daughter of Amata and Latinus; loved by Turnus; destined to
be Aeneas' wife to join the two warring peoples (Trojans and Latins) in peace
||young warrior, son of Evander, ally of Aeneas, killed by
||Apollo's priestess; guides Aeneas into the Underworld where
he meets his dead father and learns the future of the Roman race
||king of the Rutulians; heads opposition to Aeneas in Italy;
wants to marry Lavinia; kills Pallas; killed by Aeneas
Virgil deliberately patterned the Aeneid on the
Odyssey and the Iliad. The first half of the Aeneid (books 1-6) adapts the plot of the
Odyssey: the fall
of Troy, hostile gods, lengthy wandering, woman troubles, the underworld, seeking home.
The second half (books 7-12) mirrors the wrath and warfare of the Iliad.
- Book 1: Aeneas, a prince of Troy is struggling to find his ancestral
homeland, but Juno opposes him. She hates the Trojans because of the Judgment of Paris,
which insulted her beauty, the theft of Helen, which violated Juno's position as the
goddess of marriage, and the future fall of Carthage, her favorite city. After seven years
of confused wandering, Aeneas has gotten near his goal of Italy, but Juno interferes. She
arranges for a storm to drive him toward North Africa and Carthage. Dido, founder and
queen of Carthage welcomes Aeneas and his companions. Although Jupiter assures Venus that
her son Aeneas will prevail and found the Latin race in Italy, Venus is a worrier, so she
sends Cupid to poison Dido with love for Aeneas, so she will not harm him.
- Book 2: Dido is gracious to Aeneas and his companions and interested
in the story of the fall of Troy. Aeneas tells her how the Greeks created the deception of
the Trojan Horse and how the gods confused the Trojans when a priest, Laocoon, struck the
Trojan Horse with his staff and was promptly devoured by serpents. A treacherous Greek,
Sinon, released the Greeks from the Horse, now inside the city of Troy, and the slaughter
began. Aeneas relates the final battle, and his furious fighting until his mother Venus
revealed to him that the gods themselves were destroying Troy and instructed him to leave
Troy with his father (Anchises), son (Ascanius) and the household gods of his family and
of Troy. While fleeing Troy, Creusa, Aeneas' wife was parted from them and killed.
- Book 3: Aeneas tells Dido how his band of Trojans searched for a new
Troy. First they went to Thrace where they encountered the Trojan Polydorus in the form of
a bleeding bush that warns them of treachery. They perform funeral rites for Polydorus and
quickly leave Thrace. Next they travel to an island where a prophetic voice advises them
to "seek out your ancient mother." However, they don't know for sure where that
is. Anchises thinks it's Crete, where they try to found a city, but soon they start dying
The household gods appear to Aeneas to tell him that Italy is their
true ancient mother. Then they encounter the horrid Harpies in the Strophades. Caelano, a
Harpy prophetess of sorts, warns them that when they get to Italy, they'll be so hungry
they'll eat their plates. Next they land at Actium in N.W. Greece, where they hold Trojan
Games. After this, they sail to Buthrotrum, where the Trojan Helenus, Apollo's priest,
directs them to Italy, but first Aeneas must go to the Cumaean Sybil and the Underworld.
They safely pass through the Sicilian Ulyssesland: Cyclop's island, Skylla and Charybdis.
But before they can reach their goal of Italy, Anchises dies and then the storm, concocted
by Juno, drives them to Africa. So here they are in Carthage.
- Book 4: The Dido Affair. Dido had been married to a Tyrian, Sychaeus,
who was treacherously killed by her brother. Dido fled Tyre with a band of followers and
came to North Africa, where she acquired land to found the city of Carthage. Poisoned by
Cupid, Dido fell madly in love with Aeneas, which conflicted with her vow to her dead
husband Sychaeus to remain faithful to him. Juno and Venus cooperate, each thinking to
further her own cause. Juno wants to keep Aeneas from founding Rome, which will eventually
conquer Carthage; Venus wants to keep her son safe from Dido's potential treachery. So,
Juno and Venus set up the "marriage." Dido and Aeneas are out hunting, there is
a storm, they seek refuge in a cave. Here they mate, while Juno sets off lightning and
nymphs cry out. Dido calls it marriage; Aeneas does not.
The lovers are negligent of their duties; Dido ceases working on her
city; Aeneas forgets his destiny. Finally, Jupiter sends Mercury to chide Aeneas about his
neglected duty to his son and their future descendants in Italy. Immediately dutiful to
the will of the gods and Destiny, Aeneas secretly arranges his departure. When Dido
discovers that he is leaving, she begs him to stay. He cannot, will not, so she raves and
rages, curses the Trojans and kills herself on a pyre heaped with Aeneas' belongings and
items of witchcraft. Meanwhile, Aeneas and the other Trojans are in their boats sailing
- Book 5: This book is the prelude to the world of the dead. First,
Aeneas goes back to Sicily where he arranges Memorial Games for Anchises, who has been
dead for a year. Here, Aeneas displays his skills as a leader, carrying out rituals,
presiding at the games, encouraging his men, restraining anger, preventing injuries.
Meanwhile, Juno has been biding her time. She sends her messenger, Iris, to inflame the
Trojan women with fury, encouraging them to burn the Trojan ships so they will not have to
travel any further. A torrential rain saves all but four of the ships. Aeneas leaves the
reluctant behind; the remaining Trojans continue on toward Italy and the underworld
- Book 6: The Cumaean Sibyl gives prophecies about Aeneas' future in
Italy and leads Aeneas into the underworld. Unlike Homer's dim and wretched Hades,
Virgil's Hades is a place of remediation and rebirth, where the lifetime deeds of the dead
are examined and judged. They are chastised, as need be, punished and purged until they
are purified. Then these cleansed souls can wander happily in Elysium, the groves of
blessedness, until after a thousand years it is time to be reborn. Aeneas meets the shade
of his father Anchises in Elysium, where Anchises tells him about the World Soul and
rebirth, and shows Aeneas a procession of his descendants over twelve centuries,
culminating in Augustus. Aeneas now knows his Destiny--to found the Roman people.
The second half of the Aeneid, Books 7-12, tells the story of the
escalating wrath inspired by Juno that forces Aeneas to go to war in Italy.
- Book 7: Aeneas finally arrives in Latium, where he is welcomed by
King Latinus, whose only child is Lavinia. A powerful neighbor, Turnus, King of the
Rutulians, wants to marry Lavinia, but omens and oracles have foretold that a stranger
would become her husband, so Latinus is willing to marry his daughter Lavinia to Aeneas.
Juno is not ready to give up her struggle against Destiny, although she knows she cannot
win. She fetches the Fury Allecto from the underworld and urges her to stir the Latins
into frenzy. Allecto instills poisonous rage into Amata, Lavinia's mother and into Turnus,
Lavinia's suitor. Then she sets up Ascanius (Iulus) to shoot a pet deer belonging to
Sylvia, a local peasant girl; Allecto blows her hellish horn, stimulating the local
farmers to attack the Trojans. Latinus tries to avoid the conflict, but Juno opens gates
of war. Lines of alliance are drawn and the troops start to gather.
- Book 8: Aeneas travels to the king of the Arcadians, Evander, seeking
alliance. Evander welcomes him, introduces him to the ancient rural piety of the region,
and offers Aeneas troops led by his own son Pallas. Meanwhile, Venus persuades her husband
Vulcan to make new armor for Aeneas. The shield portrays critical moments when Rome was
saved. At the center of the shield is the Battle of Actium. As in the underworld, where
the procession of descendants leads from Aeneas to Octavian, the shield connects the
beginning of Roman history in Aeneas to its culmination in Octavian's decisive battle at
Actium that finalized the Augustan peace.
- Book 9: Here, the battle goes on at Trojan Camp; Aeneas has not yet
returned from seeking alliances. Two best friends, Nisus and Euryalus, foray into the
sleeping enemy camp and slaughter many before being killed themselves. Ascanius gets his
first real taste of battle and kills his first man, Numanus. Turnus gets into the Trojan
stockade and rages furiously, slaughtering men. Finally the Trojans rally and Turnus,
exhausted, jumps into the river and escapes.
- Book 10: Jupiter wants peace, but Juno and Venus are still bickering,
so he lets the battle continue, since "the Fates will find their way." Finally
Aeneas returns with numerous allies. Turnus and Aeneas both rage in battle. Pallas fights
bravely, but is finally killed by Turnus, who strips off Pallas' heavy decorated belt as a
trophy. Juno recognizes by now that it's about over, but begs Jupiter to let her spare
Turnus' life for a little while. He agrees and Juno fashions a phantom resembling Aeneas
which lures Turnus out of the battle onto a ship which then drifts away carrying the
bewildered Turnus to safety while the battle continues without him.
- Book 11: Aeneas learns that Pallas has died, and he prepares to send
him back to his father for his funeral. Both sides bury their dead. The Latins hold a
quarrelsome council over whether or not to sue for peace. King Latinus wants to make peace
and share his land and rule with the Trojans. Turnus is in favor of continuing the war,
which resumes. Camilla, a woman warrior ally of Turnus, enters the fray, fights bravely,
and is killed.
- Book 12: Turnus challenges Aeneas to a duel that will settle the war.
Meanwhile, Juno tells the nymph Juturna, Turnus' sister, to help him if she can, because
Turnus is no match for Aeneas in single combat. Juturna provokes the Latins into general
battle. Aeneas seeks Turnus, but Juturna, disguised as Turnus' charioteer, races around,
not letting Turnus stop and fight. Aeneas is now furious. He starts to burn down King
Latinus' city, to root out the resistance once and for all. Queen Amata hangs herself.
Turnus tells his sister to stop interfering, because fate has won, and he wants to fight
Aeneas honorably before he dies.
Turnus and Aeneas begin to duel, and Jupiter holds up his scales to
confirm their fates. Turnus' sword breaks; he panics and runs away, Aeneas pursuing.
However, gods are still interfering. Juturna hands the fleeing Turnus a sword, while Venus
pulls Aeneas' spear free from a tree it had lodged in. Jupiter is fed up by now and
confronts Juno, who finally gives up, asking only that the ensuing people be called Latins
and the Trojans lose their identity. Jupiter agrees to create a single Latin race from the
two warring peoples. Jupiter sends two Furies to chase Juturna away from Turnus, and
Aeneas throws his spear, wounding Turnus. Turnus begs for his life, but Aeneas sees the
belt of dead Pallas on Turnus and, enraged, kills Turnus. End of story.
AENEAS--A NEW KIND OF HERO
Aeneas' dominant trait is piety. Piety for Aeneas did not mean faith
so much as obedience and careful attention to the will of the gods, especially Jupiter, so
that he could do the right thing in the right way. This piety expressed itself in right
relations to the gods, to ones family, and to the state, as well as in carrying out
rituals in a correct, thoughtful manner. Aeneas is:
||Aeneas carries his household gods from Troy to Italy; he holds
Memorial Games for Anchises; he immediately obeys Mercury's message to leave Dido.
|| He feels Dido's grief, but is unmoved in his actions.
||He stops the boxing match when Entellus is
overwhelming Dares; he grieves for his dead soldiers.
||He awards the prizes fairly during the memorial games.
|| He fights bravely at Troy, only stopping because Venus tells
him to leave; he is equally brave combating Turnus in Latium.
|Willing to cooperate with Destiny
||He learns the future in the
Underworld and acts willingly to bring it about.
||It is Aeneas' fatherly duty to Ascanius to leave Dido and
found a new nation for his descendants.
|| Aeneas soothes his weary followers after the storm,
"our god will give an end to this as well"; he is concerned with feeding and
comforting them; in Italy he forms alliances and leads the fighting.
||When Dido asks him to tell about the fall of Troy, he
tells her "O Queen--too terrible for tongues the pain/you ask me to renew"(II
4-5); he is exquisitely aware of the "tears of things," the pain of human life.
|| Aeneas narrates the fall of Troy with great feeling, such
as, "the first time savage horror took me" (II 751).
THE DIDO PROBLEM:: Passion and Politics
Dido is not just a nice lady who has hard luck with love. Not only
does Virgil explain that Cupid poisons Dido with love, but he also gives us plenty of
hints about Dido's potential for danger to Aeneas, such as her fury when she is about to
- And could I not have dragged his body off, and scattered him
- piecemeal upon the waters, limb by limb?
- Or butchered all his comrades, even served
- Ascanius himself as banquet dish
- upon his father's table? [IV 826]
This sinister echo of how Atreus fed Thyestes' children to him does
not suggest that poor Dido is merely upset over her disappearing lover. Indeed, Dido's
funeral pyre itself is chock full of elements of witchcraft, not approved practice in
Roman court circles.
However, Virgil also portrays Dido's love for Aeneas with such
sympathy that readers appreciate her love, hate Aeneas for leaving her, and mostly ignore
the negative undertone. Dido is largely modelled on two ancient, very bad women--Cleopatra
and Medea in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius.
Cleopatra was the Egyptian queen who fought alongside Roman Mark
Antony against Octavian at the Battle of Actium. Virgil presents her as the epitome of the
decadent, treacherous Orient (as opposed to the noble Roman West). She and Antony are part
of the center of the shield of Aeneas, with their barbarian troops and barbaric gods,
opposing the true leaders of Rome and the household gods brought to Italy by Aeneas. At
one level, Aeneas' affair with Dido is the crossing point--he has left the Orient (Troy),
and is delayed by one last Oriental experience (decadent passion), before going forth to
become the Latin ancestor of the Roman people.
Medea, in the Argonautica, fell quickly and madly in love with Jason
and betrayed her father to please Jason, helping him through trickery and witchcraft to
acquire the Golden Fleece. Afraid of her father's anger, Medea ran off with Jason; she
also lured her half-brother Apsyrtus to Jason who killed him. This was just part of her
notorious career as a passionate woman and a witch. A Roman reader would have recognized
unpleasant echoes of Medea in Virgil's Dido.
OTHER NEGATIVE PASSIONATE
The other passionate characters in the Aeneid are mostly deplorable.
The list is headed by the raging goddess Juno and the raging warrior Turnus. It includes
the Harpies, Allecto, Amata, the Trojan Women burning their ships, and the Latins in
general when in battle frenzy. Even Aeneas is touched by passionate fury twice: during the
sack of Troy and during the battle in Latium, especially at the final moment when he kills
Turnus. Passion spreads like a virus. Venus uses Cupid to infect Dido with the passion of
love. Juno uses Allecto to infect Amata, Turnus and the Latin masses with the passion for
war. In every case except for, perhaps, Aeneas' final passionate killing of Turnus,
passion opposes the will of Jupiter, Destiny and Fate. This alone shows us how little
Virgil approved of such intense emotion.
GODS, THE WILL OF JUPITER,
Jupiter knows and affirms fate. But there is also Destiny, the
notion that there is a necessary future to strive towards. This is the fate that Jupiter
upholds, a pattern that is not a simple working out of conflicts.
Juno and Venus act in opposition to the necessary path of the fates.
They know perfectly well what must come to pass, because Jupiter tells them, but each has
her own passionate agenda, one the irrational, intense love of a mother for her son, the
other raw frenzied hatred of the Trojans whose descendants will destroy Carthage. They
must both lose, but gracefully, as goddesses lose, finally accepting the will of Jupiter.
Similarly, on a human level, Dido, Amata and Turnus resist the fates, acting counter to
the will of Jupiter. They must be destroyed, just as Octavian destroyed Antony and
Aeneas, who spends his life trying to do what he should, not only
has many painfully confusing experiences as he misinterprets omens and follows wrong
leads, but his final cooperation with fate leads him to relinquish every shred of personal
happiness. He lost his beloved wife, his city, almost everything he cared about at Troy.
He left his comfortable liaison with Dido. He will marry a woman he does not choose, whose
people he has slaughtered; he will create the foundation for the next twelve hundred years
of Roman history, but die still outside the promised land of Rome.
(c) Diane Thompson: