An epic poem composed by the Roman poet Virgil between the years of 29 and 19 BCE, the Aeneid represents one of the most important and influential works in Western literature. It centers on the story of Aeneas, a refugee from the Trojan War who was fated to found the Roman nation in Italy. This guide refers to the Oxford World Classic’s edition of the Aeneid, translated by Frederick Ahl. All study guide citations refer to lines.
Publius Virgilius Maro—or Virgil, for short—composed the Aeneid at a time of seismic change for Roman society. Born in the year 70 BCE, Virgil witnessed decades of tumultuous civil wars. Nearly a century of violent infighting had come at great cost to the Roman people, both politically and personally. The foundations of the Roman Republic had already been weakened by a civil war between the Senate-aligned Pompey the Great and an upstart general, Julius Caesar, who made a grab for absolute power in 49 BCE and succeeded. Following Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, his adopted son and heir Octavian (later the first emperor of Rome, Augustus) began a second civil war with another Roman statesman, Marc Antony, and his ally, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Virgil began composing the Aeneid soon after the climatic defeat of Marc Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium (31 BCE), the moment that finalized Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire. Augustus’s emphasis on law, order, and moral virtue secured over 200 years of stability for the Romans, a period referred to as the Pax Romana (or Roman Peace).
Get access to this full Study Guide and much more!
This chaotic historical background is crucial to understanding the subtext of Virgil’s poem. While Augustus came out on top and ushered in a new era of peace, he did so through incredible violence. Beyond the battles themselves, his political power was secured through acts of merciless brutality (like land appropriations and proscriptions and state-sanctioned murders of political opponents). Many of the Aeneid’s most important questions spring directly from this paradox: that Augustus’s reign of unprecedented peace was brought about by a period of unprecedented bloodshed. Virgil is grateful for this new Golden Age, but he wonders: What does it mean to be a good leader? What price are we willing to pay for stability? Most importantly, what does it mean to be a Roman? What defines Rome as a nation? Does it live up to these ideals?
To address these issues, Virgil set out to write a uniquely Roman epic telling a uniquely Roman foundation story. He believed that to understand and define the present, he must look to the past. In creating the story of the Aeneid, Virgil referenced a rich literary tradition of foundation stories and myths but was especially attuned to previous works of epic poetry.
The SuperSummary difference
While invention is considered to be a writer’s most important skill in the modern day, in antiquity it was a sign of great respect (and talent) to rework the material of one’s predecessors. The epic is an especially reflective genre, and Virgil models his poem heavily on ancient literature’s most important epics, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The Iliad covers the final portion of the legendary Trojan War, in which the Greeks sieged the city of Troy for 10 years to retrieve Helen, who had been stolen by the Trojan prince Paris. It concentrates especially on the conflict between its two major heroes: the wrathful Greek warrior Achilles and his foil, the noble Trojan defender Hector. Homer’s Odyssey takes place after the Trojan War has ended. It details the long struggle of its resourceful hero, Odysseus, to return home to his kingdom of Ithaca.
Virgil wanted to show reverence to Homer’s epics, but also, in typical Roman fashion, he intended to appropriate and surpass them. His Aeneid aimed to synthesize the Iliad and the Odyssey into one new text. Books 1-6 of the Aeneid are modeled, roughly, on the themes and events of the Odyssey, and Books 7-12 on the Iliad. The story of Virgil’s hero Aeneas is briefly mentioned in Homer’s Iliad—he is Hector’s cousin and takes part in some of the battles—but Virgil elevates him to a new significance in his epic. By codifying his identity as a Trojan and a founder of Rome, Virgil legitimizes the Roman nation by tracing a through line back to the mythical past.
While Virgil’s poem is rooted in these specific influences and issues of its age, it has become a classic for the timeless relatability of its themes. One can read the poem as a pro-Augustan work of propaganda, as a subversive and introspective work of anti-imperialism, or as something in between. Readers throughout history have found something of themselves in its sympathetic portrayal of the plight of immigrants and refugees, its exploration of national gain versus private loss, and its sobering reflections on the costs of war. The influence of the Aeneid on Western culture cannot be overstated.
Virgil opens his epic with an image of his hero, Aeneas, in crisis. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas was tasked with leading what remained of the Trojan people to found a new city, Rome, in Italy, but at every turn he has been thwarted. Juno, the queen of the gods, hates the Trojans and will stop at nothing to delay the founding of Rome as long as possible.
Due to Juno’s meddling, Aeneas and his band of refugees are shipwrecked on the shores of Carthage. There they meet the city’s founder, the generous queen Dido, who takes them in and asks to hear their story (Book 1). Aeneas relates the fall of Troy to the Greeks at the end of the Trojan War (Book 2) and how he and the Trojans wandered for years looking for the correct spot to found their new city, evoking Odysseus’s wanderings in Homer’s Odyssey (Book 3). The queen is infatuated with Aeneas, and they have a love affair, but Jupiter, the king of the gods, has bigger plans: Aeneas is fated to found the city of Rome, so he must move on from Carthage. Devastated at Aeneas’s departure, Dido commits suicide (Book 4).
In Book 5, Aeneas celebrates funeral games for his deceased father, Anchises, in a light-hearted episode that is sobered by the frustrations of the Trojan women, who try to burn down the fleet to end the years of wandering. Aeneas leaves behind those who wish to settle down and finally arrives on the shores of Italy, where he descends into the Underworld to learn of Rome’s destiny. There he meets the ghost of Anchises, who describes a glorious Roman future and defines what a Roman should be (Book 6).
The second half of the poem is modeled more heavily on Homer’s Iliad. In Book 7 Aeneas meets the king of the indigenous Latins, Latinus. At first it seems that things will go smoothly—Latinus is happy to marry Aeneas to his daughter, Lavinia, therefore uniting their peoples. Juno, however, has not given up on making things hard for the Trojans. She raises a Fury from the Underworld, Allecto, who foments civil war among the Italians. Among these rebels is Turnus, the leader of the Rutulians, who was set to marry Lavinia before Aeneas showed up (Book 7). In Book 8, Aeneas and a small contingent of Trojans travel to another Italian kingdom, Arcadia, to secure allies. There, the kindly king Evander agrees to lend his support and entrusts Aeneas with the mentorship of his beloved son, Pallas. He gives Aeneas a tour of his city: the future site of Rome. Aeneas’s mother, Venus, arrives with a set of divine armor for Aeneas, preparing him for the climactic battle ahead.
Back in the Trojan camp, a siege by Turnus and his men has resulted in significant Trojan casualties. Two heroic Trojan youths, Nisus and Euryalus, go on an ill-fated campaign to get word to Aeneas but fail (Book 9). In heaven, Jupiter convinces Juno to relent from her anger and allow the Trojans to settle in Italy. Aeneas returns to his besieged camp with his new Arcadian allies. Many are killed in the ensuing battle, most notably Pallas, the son Evander had entrusted to Aeneas for guidance and protection (Book 10). Book 11 covers the funeral of Pallas and the death of Camilla, an Italian warrior girl favored by the hunter goddess Diana. Finally, Book 12 features the climactic battle between Turnus and Aeneas. Though Juno and Turnus’s sister, Juturna, do their best to delay the inevitable, Turnus is defeated. On his knees, he begs Aeneas to treat him honorably. Though Aeneas is tempted to spare him, he is reminded that Turnus killed his young ward, Pallas. The poem ends with the image of Aeneas killing Turnus in a fit of rage.