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'The Aeneid' by Virgil

Part 1: Context, Summary, and Main Themes

The Aeneid was written during the reign of Emperor Augustus, and penned between the years of 29 and 19 BC. It is normally split into two sections–the first deals with Aeneas' journey, and the next deals with a full-scale war. Virgil, according to scholars, wrote The Aeneid to rival Homer's works, but this is not confirmed. What is confirmed though, is the fact that the people of Ancient Rome treated The Aeneid as historical fact, and therefore, it solidified the Julio-Claudian dynasty as the descendants of the heroes of Rome and Troy.

Obviously, The Aeneid was written with political purpose, it was written to exemplify the greatness of the Roman People, and to fill them with nationalism and patriotism. It was also used to legitimise Augustus as being the true Roman Emperor, as the Empire itself was growing, and becoming more involved with the rest of the world, especially the Greek islands. The time of Augustus' power was a turbulent one, with the office of "Emperor of the Roman Empire" finally having an official office to it, only made more concrete in its history by Virgil's Aeneid acting as a genealogy.

Let's now have a look at the text itself, focusing on the themes and philosophies that are borrowed from other places, and then, get carried forth into other walks of Western literature both during, and after, the Roman Empire's collapse.

Fate

The first theme we are going to look at in The Aeneid is the theme of fate. Fate is a powerful theme, guiding the decisions of the protagonist. The theme of fate is mostly spoken by characters of a higher power, or by the gods themselves to do with the protagonist, and what they must do. Fate also always has some sort of hold on the protagonist, which comes in the form of a "calling." In The Aeneid it is not hidden, but quite explicit in the way that fate intervenes with the storyline, and the continuity of the journey. Let's have a look at a quotation regarding this:

"So lift your eyes and search, and once you find it
Pull away the bough. It will come willingly,
Easily, if you are called by fate.
If not, with all your strength you cannot conquer it,
Cannot lop it off with a sword's edge."

Sybil says this to Aeneas, instructing him on how to get to the underworld. Sybil is essentially mapping out what fate and free will mean in stating that, if the golden bough is not fated to be taken, then it will not go. The golden bough is required for Aeneas to get to the underworld. This serves to be one of the most important quotations regarding the theme in the entire text.

It is also very similar to the language used with Fate and Free Will in Homer's Odyssey. With a somewhat similar storyline, with both protagonists trying to get home (Odysseus trying to get back, and Aeneas finding a new one), the theme regarding fate and decision of direction is portrayed in very similar ways between the two texts. Let's have a look at a quotation from The Odyssey that also talks of fate:

"For his sake Poseidon, shaker of the earth, although he does not kill Odysseus, yet drives him back from the land of his fathers. But come, let all of us who are here work out his homecoming and see to it that he returns. Poseidon shall put away his anger; for all alone and against the will of the other immortal gods united he can accomplish nothing.”

This quotation states that the gods can control the fate of Odysseus by pushing him in a certain direction, and influencing his decisions. This is much like the words of Sybil influencing the actions of Aeneas in The Aeneid's quotation.

The theme of fate is taken from Ancient Greek Culture by including Gods and Goddesses intervening with the ideas and decisions of the protagonist, directing them for the sake of the story.

The way in which The Aeneid influenced further works of Western Literature is by taking the Ancient Greek ideas relating to fate, and making them have a direct impact on not only the journey process (as if you were to map out where Aeneas goes, he goes back on himself several times), but also it has a direct impact on the way in which other characters and gods react to Aeneas. For example: Hera isn't very impressed when Dido commits suicide over Aeneas' departure from Carthage. This is fate as Aeneas must get to the new land and defeat whoever is there, whereas Hera wanted his fate to be him staying in Carthage.

War

Another one of the themes seen in The Aeneid that is especially important for viewing the influence of Ancient Greek Culture on to the Ancient Roman one, is war. War is a huge theme in The Aeneid, with the entirety of the second half of the book (Books 6-12) being dedicated to the war on the Latin People and the conquering of what would become, Rome. Since there is a clear social context for having war as a major theme in the text–the Punic Wars being the most recent in the history before the writing of The Aeneid–we may be able to see a similarity, not only between the two cultures, but also between reality and fiction.

Let's take a look at the quotation on war then:

"You can arm for combat brothers of one soul between them, twist homes with hatred, bring your whips inside or firebrands of death. A thousand names belong to you, a thousand ways of wounding. Shake out the folded stratagems within you, break up this peace-pact, scatter acts of war, all in a flash let men desire, demands, and take up arms."

This is said by Juno, and she's talking about how to go correctly into warfare. The point is that in the times of Virgil, and the times directly after his death, the Ancient Roman population would've understood the references to war, some of them being in the army themselves. Juno recites the way in which a soldier should go to war by, "breaking up this peace pact," and "scatter acts of war"–telling Allecto that there is no point making peace with those who do not want peace to be made. Juno is essentially stating that there can be no peace without a war. She is also stating that the soldier should not complain about war, but relish in it. For example, she says, "All in a flash, let men desire, demand, and take up arms." Her point is that desire, and going to war are in the same category, and that thus, there should be no complaint about going to war, because it is just like a man having his desires, or making his demands with someone else fulfilling them. In reality, war was actually incredibly painful, and the chance of death increased ten-fold at the least.

Stoicism

One of the philosophies that the ideas of Roman warfare influenced was the great Stoic philosophy. Stoicism is basically the requirement to live in difficult and suffering circumstances, without giving up or complaining. Stoicism had a main philosopher, which was Seneca. Within the eras of Ancient Roman warfare, Seneca wrote about morals and mercy, which applied to the sufferance of soldiers, and the politics of professionals, essentially touching every piece of Roman Life. In turn, this went on to influence the just war philosophies of the Early Christians such as St. Augustine.

The elements of stoicism in The Aeneid may be few when it comes to warfare and sufferance, but they are still there, and may have influenced an entire culture. Yet, again the influence came from the Ancient Greek Philosophy Schools. Zeno of Citium is often cited as the father of stoic philosophy, and therefore can be seen in various multitudes of texts after his own day. Clearly, Zeno's Hellenistic philosophy influenced part of the philosophical virtues seen in The Aeneid, and that one of Aeneas' own virtues is his courage in the face of suffering and hardship.

Religion

Let's have a look at another theme that has been a commonality of Ancient Epic Texts. The theme is religion. Now, this theme started far before the Ancient Greek Culture, which is what we are going to explore to find where The Aeneid got its influence from. But, if we go too far back, who knows where we will end up. Instead, we are going to look at the direct influence that the theme of religion in the Ancient Greek period had on the theme of religion in The Aeneid.

The Ancient Romans obviously borrowed a lot of their polytheist mythology from the Ancient Greeks, even keeping the name of Apollo the same in the process. The main point of this is that the first place where we see a war between a type of Ancient Greek, and a type of Ancient Roman people, is in The Iliad, which means, when it comes to studying The Aeneid we already have this backdrop to work with–book two mentions the fall of Troy, and then, we have this overhaul of religious images. Especially regarding the underworld. Let's take a look at these similarities between Virgil's text and Homer's texts.

This is the quotation from Virgil's text in Book 5:

"So he called out, then turned to poke the embers,
The drowsing fire on his hearth, and paid
His humble duty to the Lar of Troy
And Vesta's shrine—the goddess of the hearth—
With ground meal, as in ritual sacrifice,
And a full incense casket."

This tells of the religious imagery regarding prayer, shrines, and things that we're used to seeing at the beginning of The Iliad or mid-way through The Odyssey, because of the turmoil suffered by the main character. Here, in The Aeneid, we have "Vesta" who is the goddess that is most respected within this extract. Whereas, in The Iliad we have the goddess Athena who is highly respected as she too, has a shrine, and offerings made to her by the sides fighting the Trojan War. Then, we have the quotation from The Odyssey, which pretty much gives us the same vibe when it comes to worship, and the way in which gods are viewed in terms of shrines and temples. Let's note the similarities and differences:

"May Zeus and all the other immortals beside forfend that you, in my domain, should go on back to your fast ship as from some man altogether poor and without clothing, who has not any abundance of blankets and rugs in his household for his guests, or for himself to sleep in soft comfort."

Here we have the similarity of two extremes. In The Aeneid, we have the destruction, and the sheer extent of what has happened to Troy, being remembered especially is an "incense casket". Whereas, in the Odyssey we have the extreme of poverty and how it comes about through dishonoring a tradition, something that Zeus and the other gods will be displeased with.

Be that as it may, we also have a big difference in terms of reference. In The Aeneid, there is only one goddess referred to–Vesta. Vesta is the goddess of "the fire" and "the hearth." She is the goddess of something that is continuously burning, and continuously enflamed. Whereas, in The Odyssey we have the gods and goddesses all mentioned as "the immortals," which shows the difference in worship–that there is not one, but many who are responsible for what is happening at that time. Though, in The Aeneid, only one is responsible, and active at that moment.

That is a constant theme difference in terms of religion between The Aeneid and Homer's texts. In Homer's texts, there is more than one god/goddess present a lot of the time, whereas in The Aeneid there is normally only one god or goddess mentioned, or active at any one particular time. In theory, this would be to establish that god or goddesses' place in the genealogy, as opposed to having them all active at once. The Aeneid is, after all, considered the seminal text of Ancient Roman Literature. 

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