The Aeneid

by: Virgil

Book VIII

The rich description of Aeneas’s shield parallels Homer’s description, in the Iliad, of the shield that Vulcan—known in the Iliad by his Greek name, Hephaestus—makes for Achilles. By emulating Homer, Virgil responds to and attempts to surpass the Greek tradition with the Roman. This desire to surpass was also evident in Augustan Rome, the Golden Age during which Virgil wrote, as the Roman Empire strove to outshine the accomplishments of ancient Greece. Aeneas’s taking up of the new armor also symbolizes the way he symbolically shoulders the whole weight of the destiny of Rome.

Like Anchises’s speech in Book VI, Virgil’s description of the mural on the shield Vulcan forges for Aeneas promotes the Roman legend and stresses Augustus’s position as the culmination of that legend. Repeating some of the scenes that Anchises describes in the underworld, Virgil particularly emphasizes the contrast between Romulus’s humble beginnings and Caesar’s far-reaching glory. As before, Virgil compresses the many centuries that separate Romulus from Augustus into a few lines, which heightens the impact of the contrast.

This rags-to-riches progression is a good tool for Virgil because it parallels the Aeneid’s plot: Aeneas and his followers leave Troy as refugees without a home, but go on to found a new and greater city in Italy. The city that the Trojans eventually establish—to be called Lavinium, after Lavinia—is not the site of Rome. Centuries later, Rome will be built by Romulus and Remus further up the Tiber, near where the Arcadians dwell when Aeneas approaches them to form an alliance. Aeneas’s excursion away from the main scene of action brings him to the land that will become Rome. To Roman audiences, this powerful geographic connection would make more concrete their understanding of Aeneas as the founding father of their civilization.