Italiam non sponte sequor: this is the secret of the tale. We who, after eight centuries of sentimental literature, judge Virgil and his hero in its terms, attach far more significance to romantic love, and to extramarital relations, than did either Greece or Rome. Marriage was to the ancients a union of families rather than of bodies or souls; and the demands of religion or fatherland were placed above the rights or whim of the individual. Virgil treats Dido sympathetically, and rises to one of his finest passages in telling how she flings herself upon a funeral pyre and is burned alive; then he follows Aeneas to Italy.
Landing at Cumae, the Trojans march into Latium and are welcomed by its king, Latinus. His daughter Lavinia is betrothed to Turnus, the handsome chief of the neighboring Rutuli. Aeneas alienates her affection and her father; Turnus declares war upon him and Latium, and mighty battles ensue. To refresh and encourage Aeneas the Cumaean Sibyl takes him through the grotto of Lake Avernus into Tartarus. As Virgil writes an Odyssey of Aeneas’ wanderings and a short Iliad of his wars, so now he takes a lead from Odysseus’ tour of Hades, and becomes in turn an exemplar and guide for Dante. Facilis descensus Averni – “easy is the descent to Hell”- says Virgil; but his hero finds the way tortuous, and the lower world confusingly complex. There he meets Dido, who scorns his protestations of love; there he sees the varied torments with which earthly sin is punished and the prison house where suffer, Lucifer-like, rebellious demigods. Then the Sibyl takes him through mystic passages to the Blissful Groves where those who led good lives bask in green valleys and endless joys. His father Anchises, who has died en route, expounds to him here the Orphic doctrine of heaven, purgatory, and hell, and reveals to him in panoramic vision the future glory and heroes of Rome. In a later vision Venus shows him the battle of Actium and the triumphs of Augustus. His spirits revived, Aeneas returns to the living world, kills Turnus, and scatters death about him with epic hand. He marries the shadowy Lavinia, and when her father dies he inherits the throne of Latium. Soon afterward he falls in battle and is transported to the Elysian Fields. His son Ascanius or Iulus builds Alba Longa as the new capital of the Latin tribes, and thence his descendants Romulus and Remus go forth to establish Rome. It seems unmannerly to criticize so gentle a soul as Virgil for all these grateful flatteries to his country and his Emperor, or to find flaws in a work that perhaps he had never wished to write and never lived to complete. Of course it imitates Greek models; so does practically all Roman literature except the satire and the essay. The battle scenes are weak echoes of the Iliad’s clanging frays, and Aurora rises as often as Homer’s rosy-fingered Dawn. Naevius, Ennius, and Lucretius lend the poet episodes and phrases, sometimes whole lines; and Apollonius of Rhodes, through his Argonautica, provides a model for Dido’s tragic love. Such borrowings were judged legitimate in Virgil’s as in Shakespeare’s days; all Mediterranean literature was viewed as the heritage and storehouse of every Mediterranean mind. The mythological background tires us, now that we are making our own; but these divine allusions and interpositions were familiar and pleasant even to skeptical readers of Roman poetry. We miss in the smooth epic of the ailing Virgil the torrential narrative of Homer, the life-and-blood reality that moves the giants of the Iliad or the homely folk of Ithaca. Virgil’s story often lags, and his characters are almost all anemic except those whom Aeneas abandons or destroys. Dido is a living woman, gracious, subtle, passionate; Turnus is a simple and honest warrior, betrayed by Latinus, and doomed to an unmerited death by ridiculous gods. After ten cantos of cant we resent the “piety” of Aeneas, which leaves him no will of his own, excuses his treachery, and brings him success only by supernatural intervention. We do not enjoy the windy speeches with which he kills good men, adding a rhetorical boredom to that competitive perforation which is humanity’s final test of truth. To understand and appreciate the Aeneid we must at every turn remind ourselves that Virgil was writing not a romance, but a sacred scripture for Rome. Not that he offers any clear theology. The gods who pull the strings of his drama are as vicious as Homer’s and not as humorously human; indeed, all the mischief and suffering in the story are caused not by men and women but by deities. Probably Virgil conceived these divinities as poetical machinery, symbols of tyrannous circumstance and disruptive chance; in general he oscillates between Jove and an impersonal Fate as the ruler of all things. He likes the gods of the village and the field better than those of Olympus; he loses no opportunity to commemorate them and describe their rites; and he wishes that his fellow men could recapture the pietas- the reverence toward parents, fatherland, and gods- which was nourished by that primeval rural creed. Heu pietas! heu prisca fides! he mourns- “alas for the old piety and faith!” But he rejects the traditional conception of a Hades in which all the dead beat alike a gloomy fate; he plays with Orphic and Pythagorean ideas of reincarnation and a future life, and makes as vivid as he can the notion of a rewarding heaven, a cleansing purgatory, and a punishing hell.
The real religion of the Aeneid is patriotism, and its greatest god is Rome. The destiny of Rome moves the plot, and all the tribulations of the tale find meaning in “the heavy task of establishing the Roman race”- tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem. The poet is so proud of the Empire that he looks with no envy upon the superior culture of the Greeks. Let other peoples transform into living figures marble and bronze, and chart the courses of the stars: