The Aeneid

by: Virgil

Book VI

Rhadamanthus’s practice of listening to sinners and then sentencing them is remarkably similar to the Christian conception of judgment after death: souls who fail to repent for their sins on Earth pay more dearly for them in hell. Of course, one major difference is that Virgil does not have a separate equivalent of Christian heaven. All souls migrate to Dis, and the good ones occupy a better place, the Fields of Gladness, within the grand dungeon. However, in a way this scheme still fits with Christian theology, which postulates that before Christ’s death and resurrection, all souls—good or bad—went to purgatory. To a Christian mindset, then, it was theologically accurate for Virgil, who died nineteen years before Christ’s birth, to place even the good souls in Dis. Though this connection may seem tenuous to us, Virgil’s influence among Christian poets and scholars increased because of these affinities.

Aeneas’s trip to the underworld is also Virgil’s opportunity to indulge in an extensive account of Rome’s future glory, particularly in his glorification of the Caesars. Virgil renders Augustus—his own ruler and benefactor—the epitome of the Roman Empire, the promised ruler who presides over the Golden Age. That Augustus was a patron of Virgil should not necessarily cause us to dismiss these passages as pure propaganda, however. Virgil had good reason to think he was living at the high point of history—after all, Rome ruled most of the known world and seemed invincible. In this context, Augustus emerges as the natural counterpart to Aeneas, bringing to perfect fruition the city whose history the Trojan hero initiated.