How Virgil Integrates Myth and History in The Aeneid
Published: Last Edited:
How does Virgil integrate myth and history in The Aeneid? Discuss with reference to specific passages.
Written as Rome faced a new era, and as its politics and society rapidly evolved, The Aeneid is essentially Virgil’s own reflection on these transformations. The narrative, interwoven with numerous historical and mythological elements, highlights his political and moral concerns regarding the new empire, his blurring of boundaries, between past and present, and myth and reality, bookmarking this exploration. As these worlds collide and blend throughout the narrative, our reading of Aeneas’ journey is expanded; this epic foundation myth can be read as Virgil questioning the new empire, how it would affect the Roman identity and its traditional values, whether Rome was truly free from the violence and corruption of the Civil Wars, and his hope for peace under Augustus’ rule. By analysing the text we may infer the extent to which he integrates myth and history in his political commentary.
This interweaving of reality and fiction for such effect is seen instantly in Jupiter’s prophecy in Book 1 where the very real figure of Augustus is linked to the mythological figure of Aeneas. This link, as mapped out by Jupiter, passes from Aeneas, the first founder of Rome, through the legendary twins Romulus and Remus, central characters in Rome’s foundation legend, and onto ‘a Trojan Caesar’(1.287), Augustus’ own uncle and adopted father, Julius Caesar. Commonly seen in Julian propaganda of the 1st century BC, this association highlights the link between the ‘gens Iulia’ and the ‘eponymous figure of Iulus-Ascanius’, Aeneas’ son, and explicitly places Augustus in the line of ‘noble stock’ ‘the rulers of the world’ (1.282-286) originated from. Decreed to be a direct descendent of these two legendary characters by the father of the gods, Augustus is instantly cemented as the rightful ruler and depicted as the next piece in Rome’s foundation myth; that he too is a legendary figure. Furthermore, these characters themselves embody the blurring between myth and reality. For example each is of both divine and mortal descent: Aeneas is the son of Venus and Anchises, Romulus the son of Mars and Ilia the priestess queen and Augustus too, according to Jupiter’s prophecy, can trace his lineage to both these legendary figures, and a ‘Caesar’, Rome’s first imperial figure. This not only gives Augustus further gravitas and legitimacy as a ruler, but also suggests that he is re-establishing the Rome as it was prophesised, and the Roman identity as it should be. Also it suggests that Rome’s foundations are equally legendary, born from the combination of myth and reality, and equally endorsed by the gods.
While Aeneas’ overall journey in The Aeneid also sees this close relationship between myth and reality, we may also see it as mirroring Rome’s own growth as a nation. For example, Aeneas’ time in Carthage, between Books 1 and 4, represents the Punic Wars, a series of wars fought between Rome and Carthage between 264 BC and 146 BC which saw more than a century of conflict, thousands of deaths, and Rome succeeding Carthage as the most powerful state in the Western Mediterranean. This section is steeped in historical allegory: Dido’s suicide and Carthage seemingly burning with ‘the flames of poor Dido’s pyre’ (5.3-4) represents Carthage’s own defeat at the hands of Rome, and its decline as Rome’s power grew. Following this Aeneas’ progress encapsulates the narrative and in Books 5 to 8 we see him get gradually closer to Italy. This part of his journey however also sees many allusions to the Odysseus myth and is littered with Homeric motifs as Aeneas encounters a number of supernatural creatures, such as journeying to the Underworld, contact with the Harpies and Cyclops, close encounters with the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis and with the lands of the Sirens and Circe. By translating a Homeric and mythological world onto the well-charted, and well-traversed, Mediterranean, Virgil continues to interweave reality and fiction, and, in doing so, blurs what is true and what is false. This also creates tension between the two as contemporary readers, recognising the places Aeneas visits and passes, sees these familiar lands as the homes of legendary creatures. While on one hand this section can be seen as portraying Aeneas as an equal hero to Odysseus, it can also be seen as reflecting Rome’s journey and growth, from Trojan foundations to an identity of its own. Virgil continues this tension in Books 9 to 12 as Aeneas’ battles with the Latins closely reflect the recent Civil Wars, and Aeneas and Turnus’ one-to-one combat represents the Battle of Actium where Augustus defeated his last rival, Mark Antony. While gradually reflecting Rome’s past with Aeneas’ journey, Virgil strives to remind Rome of the destruction it has faced, externally such as in Carthage, and internally such as during the civil wars, and in doing so he attempts to show Romans that they must learn from their past. Like many other historical epics, both Greek and Roman, The Aeneid is used to define a national identity in opposition to an ‘other’, as evidenced by the vast historical skeleton the narrative is built upon.As J. D. Reed suggests, it aims to present Rome as distinct to all other nations: from ‘the Trojans with whom it originated, the Greeks whom the Trojans had fought and [who] the Romans were to conquer’ by distancing Aeneas from the Homeric and Greek world; ‘the Carthaginians who threaten Roman ascendancy’ with the death of Dido; and ‘the Italian peoples among whom Rome arose’ with Aeneas’ war with the Latins.
Virgil continues to merge the past and present in Book 8 and, in Aeneas’ visit to Pallanteum, images of Virgil’s contemporary Rome bleed into the descriptions of Evander’s archaic settlement. For example, as Evander guides Aeneas, we see ‘cattle… lowing in the Roman forum’, and the ‘Capitol, now all gold’ now ‘bristling with rough scrub’ (8.349-362). Also, throughout the description, many landmarks recognisable to Virgil’s contemporary readers, such the ‘Alter of Carmentis and the Carmental Gate’ (8.338) are seen. These images appear to transcend time itself, and by warping the familiar with the historical, Virgil’s narrative continues to run on underlying tension. However these images are also accompanied by those of a bucolic paradise: the site is described as the ‘haunt of native fauns and nymphs ’and Saturn’s first ‘Golden Age’ (8.315-325). Hence, with this blurring of past and present, and by translating images of contemporary Rome onto those of pastoral peace, Virgil is linking Aeneas’ coming, and therefore Augustus’, with Saturn’s; he hopes that Augustus is bringing the second Golden Age of ‘peace and serenity’ (8.326). However, Evander’s account is also greatly pessimistic, detailing a ‘worser age of base material’ as the time of peace disintegrated and the ‘madness of war’ and ‘the lust for possessions’ (8.327-328) consumed all. While this is clearly representing the recent civil wars that tore apart Rome, it also reveals Virgil’s own hopelessness for the future of Rome; like Evander he views the Golden Age, and the empire, as ‘only an intermission from continuous fighting and invasions’. This hopelessness for the future appears to stem from Virgil’s own cynical view of human nature, as can be seen in the myth of Hercules and Cacus. In essence a tale of a hero and a monster, and of archetypal good and bad, Virgil’s description casts an unnerving similarity between the two as both are described as incredibly violent and rabid with furor. This, therefore, causes us to question whether Virgil truly endorses Aeneas, who is also seen as incredibly violent in battle, and the new emperor he represents. Supporting this is the description of Aeneas and Mezentius’ battle in Book 10 where the tale of Hercules and Cacus is literally mirrored as ‘Mezentius rode around [Aeneas] three times’ (10.886), recalling Hercules’ three trips around Mount Aventine in anger (8.231-232). This similarity disturbingly places Aeneas, our supposed hero, in the place of the monster Cacus and contradicts the many positive descriptions of Aeneas, causing us to believe that Virgil had mixed opinions about Augustus and the new empire: this use of myth shows he had hopes for the peace one ruler could bring, yet was cynical of the destruction human nature could cause.
Book 8 also sees the pinnacle of Virgil’s use of myth and history in the description of Aeneas’ resplendent shield. Crafted by the fire god Vulcan it is a clear echo of Achilles’ own shield from The Iliad and another allusion to Homer. However, on one hand, while Homer chooses to depict the entire world, including the earth, oceans, heavens, stars, and human life; Hephaestus engraves Achilles’ shield with the pleasures of peace as Homer strives to remind his hero of what he is fighting for. Virgil, on the other hand, chooses to engrave Aeneas’ shield with a memorialization of Rome’s military victory, and her success in conflict as well as peace, as he prophesises Rome’s history. This is due to the context of The Aeneid. Written soon after the Battle of Actium where Augustus put an end to the strife of civil war in Rome, becoming the first emperor, The Aeneid reflects this recent shift in power; the description of Aeneas’ shield in particular. Primarily, Virgil’s language choice, namely in characterisation, is important in establishing this Homeric relation and political undercurrent. For example, his description of Augustus sees the new emperor’s association with the divine increasingly emphasised; the gods themselves are listed in the description of his followers, indicating that he has the divine right to rule, and his recent success at Actium as determined by the gods. Also, Augustus is physically elevated in this image, and is therefore physically closer to Olympus. Similarly he is described as wearing a ‘double flame’ and ‘his father’s star’ (8.682). On one hand this associates him with Ascanius who, in Book 2, is blessed by the gods with a halo of holy fire, this portent followed by a second: a star sent by the gods. This similarity, while supporting Jupiter’s prophecy in Book 1 that Ascanius will establish the seeds of a power that, eventually, will become Rome, further emphasises Augustus’ right to rule. Also, the inclusion of ‘his father’s star’ alludes to his adoption of Julius Caesar’s name, and emphasises his legitimacy. Essentially, the description of Augustus is steeped in social and political context with the intention of establishing his sovereignty, suggesting that there was possible unrest in his early years of power. This description, notably Augustus’ relationship to the gods, sees Virgil’s focussing on highlighting Augustus’ power, and the legitimacy of that power.
Similarly, Virgil’s description of Antony informs us of the social and political background of The Aeneid. Introduced as ‘in triumph from the shores of the Red Sea’ (8.688-689), Antony is portrayed positively, which, as Augustus’ rival, is peculiar. Also, he describes their conflict as ‘mountains were colliding with mountains’ (8.694), associating both with the seemingly-immortal strength of Homeric heroes, and indicating that they are equals in power. Also, contextually, there was no honour in fighting a fellow Roman, and Virgil avoids this in his glorification of Augustus by undermining Antony’s involvement. Virgil achieves this by using active verbs to describe Cleopatra, and while she is described as ‘summon[ing] her warships’ and ‘calling for winds’ (8.698-708), her role in the battle eclipses Antony’s. This has the effect of giving Rome a common enemy: the woman and the foreigner. This in itself associates Cleopatra with Dido, also a foreign queen, who, throughout her relationship with Aeneas, is portrayed as deterring his progress, and therefore, deterring the progress of Rome. Furthermore, Cleopatra’s description echoes that of Dido. Called ‘his Egyptian wife’ or the ‘queen’ (8.689-698), she is denied a name, and the autonomy of self, just as Dido, who is defined by her relationship with Aeneas so much so as to take her own life when he leaves. By giving the Romans a common enemy, the civil war is instead turned into that with a foreign power, and creates a sense of Roman unity, unity that perhaps was not as assured in reality, and notably, unity brought by Augustus’ success. The gods too are purposely characterised for effect. While on one hand, the Roman gods are named and recognisable, the Egyptian gods are described as ‘monstrous’, Virgil even highlights the dog form of Anubis who ‘barked… at Neptune and Venus’ (8.699-700). This emphasis on the animalistic qualities of the Egyptian gods serves the purpose of establishing a divine hierarchy; the Roman gods, as human in shape, naturally come before the ‘dog god’, an animal typically obedient to man. This hierarchy serves to assert Roman superiority, culturally and spiritually, as well as militarily.
Virgil’s description of the shield in itself is important too; throughout the passage, there is fluidity between narrative and object. This is achieved by the subtle blurring of the mythical world, as depicted on the shield, and the ‘real’: Aeneas’ story. For example, as the passage flows through the narrative, certain words and phrases alluding to the material of the shield, how it’s made and the maker, such as ‘the God of Fire’ who had ‘fashioned the Nile… with every fold of drapery beckoning’ (8.709-714), disrupt the flow and pull the reader sharply to reality. Also, there is a prevalent dichotomy of senses; we are told that Anubis ‘barked’ while the Roman gods ‘swooped’ and ‘strode’ (8.699-703). This sense of motion and sound brings a still image and object alive, and reflects the power of well-crafted art; just as Aeneas’ shield seems to come to life in his hands, the poem does in the reader’s mind.
Ultimately, through his integration of myth and history, Virgil is able to blur truth and fiction, transforming The Aeneid into accepted fact. This not only establishes his account into the foundation myth of the Roman identity, but also establishes Augustus into the pantheon of Rome’s mythological founders. On a deeper level though it also allows him to explore complex issues such as the effect the civil wars had on the Roman identity, his hopes for Augustus’ rule, and his fears that human nature, greed and violence will plague the new empire. Essentially, through the merging of the two worlds, whether this be between the mythological and realistic, classical allusion and historical context, or narrative and material object, he achieves the ultimate contrast; between a piece of literature, and a political message.
Bell, K. K. 2008. ‘“Translatio” and the Constructs of a Roman Nation in Virgil's “Aeneid”’, Rocky Mountain Review 62: 11-24.
J. D. Reed, ‘Vergil’s Roman’, in J. Farrell and M. C. J. Putnam (ed.), A Companion to Vergil’s Aeneid and its Tradition. Oxford 2010: 66-79.
J. E. G. Zetzel, ‘Rome and its Traditions’, in C. Martindale (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Virgil. Cambridge 1997: 188-203.
Johnson, W. R. 2005. ‘Introduction’, in S. Lombardo (Trans.), Aeneid, Indianapolis. lxi-lxxi.
R. D. Williams, ‘The Purpose of The Aeneid’, in S. J. Harrison (ed.), Oxford Readings in Vergil’s Aeneid. Oxford 1990: 21-36.
S. Casali, ‘The Development of the Aeneas Legend’, in J. Farrell and M. C. J. Putnam (ed.), A Companion to Vergil’s Aeneid and its Tradition. Oxford 2010: 37-51.
Virgil, The Aeneid, trans. D. West [Penguin Classics] (London: Penguin Books, 2003)
Williams, R. D. 1965. ‘The Mythology of the “Aeneid”’, Vergilius 11, 11-15.
ID number: 1335307Words: 2,426
Casali 2010: 49.
Zetzel 1997: 189.
Reed 2010: 66 -76.
Zetzel 1997: 191.
Johnson, W. R. 2005. ‘Introduction’, in S. Lombardo (Trans.), Aeneid, Indianapolis. lxi-lxxi.
Cite This Essay
To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below: