[The Roman race was] destined to bring under [its] empire the peoples of earth, to impose the rule of submissive nonresistance, to spare the humbled and to crush the proud.

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Written during the Pax Augusta, a time of great optimism for Rome, Virgil’s Aeneid chronicles the adventures of Aeneas, the Trojan hero and mythical progenitor of the Roman people. Due to the help of his mother, he is the lone Trojan able to escape defeat at the hands of the Greeks, fleeing with his father on his back and his son in his hand. Aeneas eventually winds up in Italy, where his son founds the city Alba Longa, the predecessor of Rome. Between the two cities, however, Aeneas has a long journey and many adventures.

In a dream, Aeneas is told that he is destined to sail to Italy, known then as Hesperia, the Western Country. On the way, he and his crew encounter the same Harpies whom the Argonauts battled. Unable to defeat them, they are forced to escape. They next encounter Hector’s widow, Andromache, enslaved by Achilles’ son after the war. After her captor’s death, she marries the Trojan prophet Helenus. Helenus tells Aeneas that he should land on the western coast of Italy and gives him directions and tells him how to avoid the dire Scylla and Charybdis. He seemingly does not know about other dangers along the route. Luckily, when the Trojans land on the island of the Cyclopes, they meet a sailor whom Ulysses (Odysseus) has left behind. They escape just as Polyphemus charges the ship.

Juno is still angry with the Trojans, however, as she still resents Paris choosing Venus over her and has learned that Aeneas’s descendants are fated to found a city that will one day destroy Carthage, her favorite city. Juno recruits Aeolus, King of the Winds, to send a gigantic storm. Though Neptune’s intervention saves the Trojans, they are blown off course all the way to Africa, near Carthage, of all cities. Juno conspires to have Aeneas fall in love with Carthage’s queen, Dido, figuring that if he does, he will not leave Carthage. Venus makes her own plan, however, and sends Cupid to ensure that Dido falls in love with Aeneas and that Aeneas never reciprocates the feelings. Nonetheless, as Dido lavishes attention on Aeneas and his men, he grows used to the luxury and lingers in Carthage. At last, Jupiter, acting on Venus’s behalf, sends Mercury to Aeneas. Mercury urges Aeneas to go fulfill his destiny, so he soberly takes his leave of a sobbing Dido. Sailing away, he sees smoke rising from Carthage, never knowing that the source is her funeral pyre.

Helenus had also told Aeneas to find the prophetic Sibyl of Cumae upon reaching Italy. They find the Sibyl, who says she must take Aeneas to the underworld to meet his father, Anchises, who has died earlier in the journey. To travel to the underworld, Aeneas and his friend Achates must find a mystical golden bough that gains them admittance. Venus eventually leads them to the bough, which Aeneas bears as he and the Sibyl enter the underworld. They pass by many horrors—lost souls, frightening spirits of Disease and Hunger, even Dido herself, who refuses to acknowledge Aeneas. Charon sees the golden bough and ferries them across his river. They mollify Cerberus with cake and finally find Anchises, who shows Aeneas the souls who will one day rise to be his future descendants. He also tells Aeneas where and how to establish his new home in Italy.

Aeneas returns to the surface and sails up the Italian coast with his crew. Latinus, king of the Latins, warmly receives them. Latinus plans to marry his daughter, Lavinia, to the majestic Aeneas. Juno, however, makes Alecto, one of the Furies, cause trouble. Alecto convinces Latinus’s wife to oppose the marriage, and Alecto tells Turnus, King of the Rutulians and suitor of Lavinia, about Aeneas. Finally, Alecto makes Ascanius, Aeneas’s son, unwittingly kill a certain stag very popular among the Latins. The advancing army of the Rutulians joins with the Latins to oppose the small band of Trojans. The two armies are also aided by Mezentius, a cruel ex-leader of the Etruscans, and Camilla, a renowned female warrior. Aeneas again receives divine help, however. Father Tiber, god of the famous Roman river, tells him to retreat upstream to find Evander, king of the town that will one day become Rome. There, Evander and his son, Pallas, receive Aeneas warmly but can offer no real help. Evander tells Aeneas that he can seek the help of the powerful Etruscans, who are anxious to get revenge against the tyrannical Mezentius. Evander gives the few men, including Pallas, whom he can spare.

While Aeneas seeks these allies, the Trojans face a huge offensive from Turnus. They must get word to Aeneas, but Nisus and Euryalus are the only Trojans brave enough to sneak past enemy lines to send the message. Euryalus is captured and, Nisus, rather than run away, tries to save Euryalus, only to be killed alongside him. Aeneas returns with Etruscan reinforcements. After the deaths of Camilla, Pallas, and others, Turnus and Aeneas meet in single combat. Aeneas kills Turnus, marries Lavinia, and founds the Roman people.


This is the only chapter exclusively devoted to a distinctly Roman—not Greek—myth. The story is taken from Virgil’s Aeneid and displays the similarities and differences between this epic and the other myths. The numerous similarities show the compatibility of the Greek and Roman worldviews. Most of these myths moved easily from one culture to the other. The form of the Aeneid is similar to the epics of Odysseus, Jason, and Perseus—and, to a lesser degree, Hercules and Theseus. A hero sets out in search of glory but, by the will of the gods, travels a long journey full of perilous adventures. At the end of the journey, he encounters a violent king whom he eventually defeats. Though he is challenged throughout by a god who is bent on his destruction, in the end he achieves his destiny.

The role of fate is strong in the Aeneid: Aeneas is destined to found the Roman race, and nothing, not even Juno, can stand in his way. The goddess is helpless before fate, and despite her best intentions, she cannot save Carthage. The idea of myth-as-fable also returns here, as the Aeneid is also a fable of the origins of Rome and a political fable on Rome’s gripping defeat of arch-rival Carthage.

The most interesting similarity between the Aeneid and the Greek myths are their complex view of good and evil. Evil is not concentrated in a single demonic antagonist; Aeneas faces challenges that rise from himself and out of the web of circumstances—many of them beyond his control—in which he finds himself. In this regard, Aeneas’s affair with Dido is interesting: despite the luxury of his stay in Carthage, the gods pluck him out and send him back into the fray so that he may achieve his destiny for the benefit of future generations. It may seem cruel that Dido kills herself strictly because she is caught between the warring desires of gods—Juno, Venus, and Zeus—who all have their own priorities. However, the needless suffering the gods cause is an essential part of the worldview that uses myths to attempt to explain the problem of inexplicable evil.

Though the Aeneid resembles Greek epics in some respects, in other ways it is foreign. We see this in the nature of Aeneas’s heroism. Most of the Greek heroes display intelligence, wit, depth, and greatness of soul, and mortal fallibility that causes introspective struggle and growth. As Hamilton points out, Roman society placed far more emphasis on pure military courage and strength. She quotes from Virgil: “[The Romans] left to other nations such things as art and science, and ever remembered that they were destined to bring under their empire the peoples of earth . . . to spare the humbled and crush the proud.” Aeneas—a brave warrior who sacrifices love for duty—fits this mold. The final episode of the Aeneid, in which Aeneas becomes a figure of godlike power, is non-Greek. Rather, it typifies the militaristic and grandiose outlook of the Romans—rulers of the largest empire in history at the time of Virgil’s writing.