Part 1: From Troy to Italy. This story comes from Virgil’s Aeneid. It was written during the Pax Augusta, a hopeful and celebratory time for the Roman Empire. Because the story is Latin, Hamilton uses the Latin names of heroes and gods. The Aeneid focuses on Aeneas, the only Trojan hero to escape the Greeks, and the mythological founder of Rome.
This is the only story in the book to focus on a distinctly Roman (and not Greek) myth, and so it shows the differences and similarities between the Greek and Roman ideas about heroism, and the different values their cultures emphasized in their myths.
Many Trojans come with Aeneas when he escapes Troy, and they look for a new place to settle. Eventually Aeneas is told in a dream that he should settle in Italy, which was then called Hesperia, the Western Country. On the way, the Trojans encounter the same Harpies that the Argonauts had fought, but the Harpies defeat the Trojans and drive them away.
As with the gods, the epic style generally transferred easily from Greece to Rome, as Aeneas’s tale is structured as a “hero’s quest” similar to that of Jason or Odysseus. With Aeneas, however, his heroism mostly hinges on his destiny to found the Roman people, rather than his own great deeds.
At the next place they land Aeneas is surprised to see Andromache, Hector’s wife. She had been given as a slave to Achilles’ son after the war, but he left her and died soon after. Since then she had married the Trojan prophet Helenus. The two now rule the country and welcome Aeneas and his men.
Like the Odyssey, the Aeneid also returns to some of the characters of the Trojan War. Fate plays a much larger role in this epic than most, as the driving force is Aeneas’s dream to go to Italy and his fate to found Rome.
Helenus gives Aeneas directions for his journey and tells him how to avoid Scylla and Charybdis. He is seemingly unaware of the other dangers of the route, however. The Trojans sail confidently on to Sicily, which is now occupied by Cyclopes. Luckily for them, they are warned of their danger by a starving sailor, who is one of Ulysses’ (Odysseus) men, left behind in Polyphemus’s cave. The Trojans escape just as Polyphemus rushes towards their ship.
Aeneas faces many of the traditional challenges of the Greek heroes. The Romans clearly shared many of the Greek ideas about heroism, as they found the same obstacle just as terrifying and entertaining, and enjoyed pitting their hero against monsters on his journey.
Juno (Hera) still hates the Trojans because of Paris choosing Venus over her, but she especially hates Aeneas, as his descendants (the Romans) are destined to destroy Carthage, Juno’s favorite city. Despite the decrees of the Fates, Juno tries to drown Aeneas with a huge storm. Neptune intervenes, calming the sea enough that the Trojans can land, though they have been blown all the way to northern Africa.
Juno’s jealousy for not being chosen as most beautiful never seems to die. This is another example of the mysterious Fates being proven stronger even than the gods. Juno tries her best to kill Aeneas and save Carthage, but nothing can stop the fulfillment of Aeneas’s destiny.
The Trojans come ashore near the city of Carthage, which is ruled by the beautiful widow Dido. Juno conspires that Dido and Aeneas should fall in love, hoping that this will divert Aeneas from going to Italy. Venus, however, goes to Jupiter and complains of the many hardships her son Aeneas is facing. Jupiter reiterates the promise of the Fates, that Aeneas will found the race that will one day rule the world.
The emphasis on fate in the Aeneid reflects something about Roman culture as well – the epic was written during a period of great patriotism and celebration, and the Romans clearly enjoyed feeling that they were destined to rule the world, and they had a mythical forefather whom not even a goddess could stand against.
Venus is comforted by this, but she still decides to foil Juno’s plan. She sends Cupid to make sure that Dido falls in love with Aeneas, but also that Aeneas does not love her in return. Still, Dido is so hospitable to Aeneas and his men that he lingers there for a long time. Dido gives him as much power as if he were her king, and loves him and provides for him ceaselessly.
Like Odysseus, Aeneas is tempted to linger by a woman who loves and dotes on him. But Aeneas has no obligation to a wife and son – his only obligation is to fulfil his destiny. This myth is also complex in that Aeneas’s obstacles are not all monsters – some are struggles within himself.
Eventually Jupiter grows weary of this interlude, and he sends Mercury to Aeneas to remind him of his great destiny. Aeneas is heartened and ready to go, but afraid of breaking Dido’s heart. Nevertheless, he leaves with his men while Dido sobs and hides. As he sails away, Aeneas sees smoke rising from Carthage, but he does not know that it is Dido’s funeral pyre, as she has killed herself.
This is a crucial turning point for Aeneas and shows a difference in the Roman idea of heroism. Aeneas chooses his duty over love when he abandons Dido. The Romans prized straightforward military courage and strength over the tragic flaws of the Greek heroes.
Part 2: The Descent into the Lower World. Aeneas’s journey from Carthage to Italy is relatively easily. Helenus had also him to find the cave of the Sybil of Cumae (a prophetic woman) when he reached Italy, as she would advise him on what to do next. Aeneas finds the Sybil, but she says she must take him to Hades to talk with his father, Anchises, who had died on the journey before Carthage.
Like Odysseus, Hercules, and others, Aeneas must journey into the underworld. A common part of the hero’s journey seems to be seeking out information on what to do next.
To enter Hades, Aeneas must first find a mystical golden bough growing in the forest. Venus sends two doves to lead Aeneas and his friend Achates to the bough. They pluck it, bring it to the Sybil, and then she and Aeneas begin their journey. Virgil’s underworld is much more terrifying than the one faced by earlier heroes – even to enter Hades, the Sybil must slaughter four black cows to Hecate.
The underworld, like the heroes, evolves throughout the myths and across cultures. Virgil emphasizes its terrifying aspect, and associates its entrance with darkness and sacrifice. The golden bough is another beautiful object for the hero to obtain.
The hero and the seer pass by the horrible forms of Disease, Hunger, War, and Discord, and innumerable lost souls on the banks of the Cocytus and Acheron. Charon, the boatman, at first refuses passage to Aeneas, but when he sees the golden bough he agrees to carry them across. Cerberus is there on the other side of the river, but like Psyche, the Sybil appeases him with some cake.
Many of the aspects of the underworld remain from the Greek myths, like Charon and Cerberus (and his love of cake), but Virgil includes all sorts of other evil personifications of suffering among the dead.
They walk past the fields of mourning lovers, and Aeneas sees Dido there. He tries to apologize to her, but she refuses to even acknowledge him, and Aeneas weeps at the encounter. At last they find Anchises in the Elysian fields, the blissful home of the righteous dead.
Though Aeneas is the ultimate Roman hero, choosing duty of over love, he still weeps over how tragically fate has treated Dido. Her death was his fault, but more to blame were the gods whose design he was fulfilling.
Father and son greet each other, and Anchises shows Aeneas the Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness that dead souls drink of before they are born again. He then shows Aeneas the many great Romans who will be his descendants, and instructs him how to establish his home in Italy. Aeneas returns to the earth’s surface and sails up the coast of Italy with the other Trojans.
This is important for Aeneas to see the import of his destiny, and the greatness that awaits him. It is also an example for Virgil to praise many Roman heroes. Virgil’s concept of the Lethe and dead souls is very interesting, and similar to Eastern ideas of reincarnation.
Part 3: The War in Italy. Juno causes new troubles for Aeneas in Italy. Things go well at first – Latinus, king of the Latins, receives Aeneas hospitably and hopes that he will marry his daughter, Lavinia, who is fated to marry a foreigner. Juno ruins this plan, however, by going to Alecto, one of the Furies, and sending her to cause trouble. Alecto causes Latinus’s wife Amata to violently oppose the marriage.
Juno surely knows that she cannot change fate, yet she tries her best to ruin things for Aeneas. The irony of this is that the many hardships she places in his way only make him a greater hero. The hero’s quest becomes muddier at this point, and mostly becomes a war to rule Italy.
Alecto then flies to the Rutulians, the other powerful people of the area. Turnus, king of the Rutulians, had been the preferred choice to marry Lavinia before Aeneas came, and Alecto’s news about the marriage enrages Turnus and inspires him to march with an army to Latium.
Turnus is the antagonist of the story now, the violent king whom Aeneas must defeat. But Virgil shares Homer’s complex view of good and evil, and Turnus is justifiably angry at Aeneas.
Alecto’s third act of discord involves a farmer’s pet stag who is very popular with the Latins. Alecto guides the unwitting Ascanius, Aeneas’s young son, to kill the stag. The Latins, along with the Rutulians, now turn against the Trojans. King Latinus gives up trying to help Aeneas and shuts himself away.
The actions of the Furies are useful to explain the seemingly random evil and suffering that occur in the world. Virgil shares the Greek love of tragic coincidences.
Juno herself smites open the gates of Janus’s temple (this symbolizes the start of war), and a large army of Rutulians and Latins joyfully marches against the small group of Trojans. The advancing army is led by Turnus, along with Mezentius, a great warrior who was so cruel that his people, the Etruscans, had rebelled against him, and Camilla, a famous female warrior who scorns marriage.
Mezentius does provide an objective villain because of his cruelty. Aeneas, the Roman hero, is a leader of men at war, not just a quester. The warrior woman motif also returns in this Roman epic with Camilla.
Aeneas gets help from Father Tiber, the god of the now-famous Roman river, who tells Aeneas to go upstream and find Evander, a king of a little town that will one day become Rome itself. Evander and his son Pallas receive Aeneas gladly, but their kingdom is too small and poor to offer much help. Virgil emphasizes the lowly field that will become the Roman Forum, and the overgrown hill that will house the Capitol.
Destiny is on Aeneas’s side, and gods help him. Virgil enjoys the ironic descriptions of the shabby town that will become the great Roman Capitol. This allows him to poeticize the origin of the Empire as well as praise Rome in its current state at the time of his writing.
Evander does advise Aeneas to ask the powerful Etruscans for help, as they are already eager to avenge themselves against the horribly cruel Mezentius, their former ruler. Evander sends the few men he can spare, Pallas among them, to help Aeneas.
Part of this war involves Aeneas making allies and conquering or uniting the peoples of Italy, which will be part of the ideal of the Roman Empire.
Meanwhile the Trojans are beset by Turnus’s army. They are greatly outnumbered and will soon fall unless they can get word to Aeneas. Two Trojan friends, the older, more experienced Nisus and the young, courageous Euryalus, decide to slip through the enemy lines and find Aeneas. They kill many men in silence, but then Euryalus is captured. Nisus does not run away, but instead tries to save his friend, and both of them die fighting.
This small side story emphasizes the tragic fate of two common soldiers, but it still lacks the irony of many of the Greek tales. Nisus and Euryalus die heroically, fighting against great numbers, but their tale is otherwise not especially interesting or unique.
Aeneas returns with an army of Etruscans and the story then turns into a long list of battles, exaggerated violence, and slaughtered men. Camilla, Mezentius, and Pallas all die, and finally Turnus and Aeneas meet in single combat. By this time the character of Aeneas has changed from a normal human hero into something larger and more formidable – he is almost like a god now, and Turnus has no hope against him. The Aeneid ends with Turnus’s death. Aeneas then marries Lavinia and founds the Roman race which, Virgil says, was destined to rule over all the earth and crush all pride and resistance.
The end of the myth diverges greatly from the Greek style. Rather that Aeneas declining tragically, he becomes like a god, the perfect, undefeatable warrior, like Hercules without the tragic flaws and inner struggle. Hamilton gives Virgil’s quote to emphasize how the Romans idealized their own pure military strength and the grandiose destiny of the Roman Empire. At the time they were the largest empire in the world, and they used this myth to justify their wars of conquest – they were destined to rule.