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NA0196 - VIRGIL: Aeneid (The) (Unabridged)

The Aeneid


Major Characters

Jupiter, king of the gods
Juno, queen of the gods
Venus, goddess of love and mother of Aeneas (by Anchises)
Neptune, god of the sea
Aeolus, god of the winds
Cupid, god of desire and son of Venus
Mercury, messenger of the gods
Aurora, goddess of dawn
Allecto, a Fury
Aeneas, leader of the Trojan refugees
Anchises, Aeneas’ father

Creusa, Aeneas’ wife
Iulus (also called Ascanius), Aeneas’ son

Priam, king of Troy
Hecuba, Priam’s wife
Laocoön, priest of Neptune at Troy
Ghost of Hector (son of Priam, Troy’s greatest warrior, killed by Achilles)
Andromache, Hector’s wife
Pyrrhus (also called Neoptolemus), son of Achilles
Achates, Ilioneus, Mnestheus (all Trojan chiefs)

Dido, queen of Carthage
Anna, her sister (Sychaeus, Dido’s first husband, murdered by her brother in Tyre)

The Sibyl, priestess of Apollo (also called Phoebus) at Cumae

Latinus, king of Latium
Amata, his wife
Lavinia, their daughter
(Dardanus, founder of Troy)
Turnus, leader of the Rutulians (an Italian tribe)
Juturna, a river-spirit and sister of Turnus

Evander, king of Pallanteum
Pallas, his son

Note that Hesperia is an alternative name for Italy.

Of Virgil’s life we do not know much for certain. He writes little about himself in his surviving poetry, and contemporary records are scarce. We are told that he was born in 70 BC in Andes, a village near Mantua in what is now Northern Italy—but at the time of Virgil’s birth this area was called Gallia Cisalpina (‘Gaul on this side of the Alps’). He is said to have been educated in Cremona and Mediolanum (Milan); but we have no sure information about his life until the publication of his first collection of poems, the pastoral Eclogues, in (probably) the early 30s BC. Around this time he seems to have entered the circle of Maecenas, the aristocratic literary patron close to Octavian (the future emperor Augustus, who was the adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar and at this point one of the key figures on the Roman political scene).

Of Virgil’s activities in the turbulent period of the 30s, we again know very little—although a vignette survives in the poetry of his contemporary and friend Horace (Satires I.5). He seems to have lived near modern Naples (see Georgics IV.563-4). Some of this time will have been spent on the composition of his next poem, the four-book Georgics: this masterpiece (for Dryden, simply ‘the best poem by the best poet’) is ostensibly a work on agriculture and farming couched in didactic terms, but the poem also offers sustained reflection on contemporary history as well as on timeless themes of love and sex, rural life and the relationship between man and the earth. Dedicated to Maecenas, and finally published in 29 BC, the Georgics established Virgil as the foremost Latin poet of an exceptional generation (his rough contemporaries included Horace, Propertius, Tibullus, Varius Rufus and Gallus).

Exactly when Virgil made the decision to embark upon what was to be his final work, the epic Aeneid, is not known. The beginning of the third book of the Georgics announces his plan to write an epic for Octavian, but the Aeneid as published is very different from the poem there imagined. At any rate, the poem must have taken up much of his time during the 20s; eagerly anticipated during its composition (‘make way, Roman writers, make way, you Greeks!—something greater than the Iliad is coming to birth’, said Propertius), the Aeneid confirmed Virgil’s reputation as Rome’s greatest poet—and is said to have made him a very rich man. The poem seems to have been substantially complete when the poet died in 19 BC, but the presence of incomplete lines clearly indicates that the finishing touches had not yet been applied. Indeed, there is a story that Virgil ordered the poem to be burned, but that this was forbidden by the emperor Augustus—the poem was instead handed over to Virgil’s friends Varius Rufus and Plotius Tucca to be edited for publication.

Virgil lived through one of the most tumultuous periods of Roman and indeed world history: when the Republican system, which had seen the city rise from humble beginnings in central Italy to a position of dominance in the Mediterranean world, finally collapsed amidst a series of brutal civil wars. Hundreds of thousands died as Roman armies fought each other from Spain to Asia, from Greece to Egypt; furthermore, the cherished libertas (freedom) of the old Republic was lost in the process, as firstly Julius Caesar, and later his adopted son and heir Octavian, established positions of dominance in the state. It was the latter (who took the name Augustus in 27 BC) who encouraged Virgil to compose the Aeneid.

The relationship of the poem to contemporary history and to the Augustan régime is not straightforward. As we have seen, Georgics III offers an ‘advance notice’ of an epic praising Octavian’s military exploits—but Virgil seems to have reconsidered this idea (if it was ever seriously entertained). His eventual choice of a distant mythical past as the setting for his poem solved a number of problems: firstly, it enabled him to avoid sustained direct engagement with recent history (the dangers of which were very real, being compared by Horace to walking upon ashes beneath which the fire was still smouldering); and secondly, it offered considerably greater prospects for Virgil’s literary ambitions. For although epic poems on historical events or figures were not unknown in the ancient world (indeed, some were very popular), they had not gained the prestige which mythological epics held. By setting his epic for Augustus in the mythical past, Virgil was able to invite comparison with the great early Greek epics, the Iliad and Odyssey attributed to Homer. These two poems formed the cornerstone of Greek and Roman literary culture. Although any attempt to rival them was therefore fraught with danger—the danger of seeming derivative, or merely a Homeric pastiche—it also represented the height of literary ambition, the greatest achievement possible for a poet. And Virgil announces his rivalry in the opening words of the Aeneid: ‘arma virumque cano’—‘I tell about war and the hero’ (Dryden’s famous ‘Arms and the man I sing’). ‘Arms’ looks back to the martial epic exemplified in the Iliad; ‘the man’ alludes to the first word of the Odyssey (‘andra’ in Greek, meaning ‘man’). Virgil attempts to bring the two epics together in his Aeneid, the first half of which is dominated by an Odyssean-style wandering, the second half by an ‘Iliadic’ concentration on the war in Italy. And his success in this creative imitation is perhaps his most important contribution to European literature—as one of the first and quite possibly the greatest of all sustained creative responses to earlier literary traditions, the Aeneid inspired poets centuries later, from Dante to Milton to Eliot.

The story of the Aeneid centres on the fortunes of Aeneas, a refugee from the city of Troy, which was sacked by the Greeks after the famous ten-year siege. Having escaped from Troy, Aeneas and the Trojans who have followed him wander the Mediterranean in search of a new home. A series of warnings and prophecies tell Aeneas to head for Italy in the West, where he is destined to found a mighty empire. But his attempts to reach Italy are continually frustrated, not least by the goddess Juno, who engineers a particularly lengthy delay in the city of Carthage on the North African coast. When Aeneas finally reaches Italy, he is forced to fight against fierce native resistance in order to establish a settlement—and only after a prolonged struggle, concluded by his killing of the Italian leader Turnus, is he able to fulfil his destiny.

These are the bare bones of the plot (a more detailed book-by-book account follows this introduction) around which Virgil builds his epic. To the Homeric themes of wandering and fighting are added elements inspired by later poetry—for example Aeneas’ extended love affair with Dido, the queen of Carthage, the presentation of which draws on the tragic heroines of Greek theatre and of Apollonius’ Hellenistic epic on the Argonauts. Elsewhere, Virgil expands the range of epic even further, above all in the magnificent account of Aeneas’ journey to the underworld in Aeneid VI; this finds a superficial model in Odyssey XI where Odysseus consults the shade of the seer Teiresias at the entrance of Hades, but Virgil develops this idea far beyond the Homeric conception, creating an atmosphere profoundly different from anything in surviving Greek heroic epic—a creation which was to inspire Dante’s The Divine Comedy and many lesser imitations.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the Aeneid is its juxtaposition of mythical material with celebration of the achievements of Augustus. For Virgil takes the claim of Julius Caesar’s family—the Iulii—that they were descended from Iulus, the son of Aeneas, and is thus able to establish a direct link between the mythical founder of the Roman state and its current head Augustus. This facilitates the inclusion of much encomiastic material—particularly in Jupiter’s reply to Venus after Aeneas’ shipwreck in Book I, and later in the parade of Roman heroes in the underworld in Aeneid VI. But the Aeneid is not only about Augustus: it is about Rome, and Roman history. Aeneas is not only the ancestor of Augustus: as a refugee, and then an imperialist conqueror, he is a prototype of the Roman people themselves. In the most famous lines of the poem, Aeneas is told by the shade of his father Anchises:

But, Romans, never forget that government is your medium!

Be this your art: to practise men in the habit of peace, Generosity to the conquered, and firmness against aggressors.

The Roman imperial destiny, with all its glory and all its difficulties and dilemmas, looms into view in these lines—and is subjected to a searching analysis as we follow Aeneas’ own (sometimes imperfect) attempts to follow his father’s advice throughout the second half of the poem. In such ways as this, Virgil’s great epic moves beyond its immediate historical context to consider great human themes—and takes its place in the pantheon of the world’s great classics.

The Translation

The translation recorded here is that of Cecil Day-Lewis, which was made with spoken performance in mind (it was commissioned for broadcast on BBC Radio); it was first published in 1952. Born in 1904 in Ireland, Day-Lewis moved to England with his family shortly afterwards; he was educated at Sherborne and Wadham College, Oxford, where he became associated with a group of young left-wing poets led by W.H. Auden. His first collection of verse, Beechen Virgil, was published in 1925. Day-Lewis enjoyed success in a variety of genres throughout his literary career—including detective fiction, which he wrote under the pseudonym of Nicholas Blake—but it was as a poet that his reputation was highest, his achievements being recognised by his appointments firstly as professor of poetry at Oxford from 1951–56, and later as Poet Laureate from 1968 until his death in 1972. His Aeneid was preceded by a version of the Georgics in 1940; he later completed his Virgil with a translation of the Eclogues published in 1963.

Further Reading

A complete text of Cecil Day-Lewis’s translation of the Aeneid is available, published by Oxford World’s Classics (with an introduction and notes by Jasper Griffin). Day-Lewis’s translations of Virgil’s other poems the Eclogues and Georgics are printed together in one volume, again in Oxford World’s Classics (with an introduction and notes by R.O.A.M. Lyne). There is a helpful Companion to Day-Lewis’s translation of the Aeneid by R.D. Williams, published by Bristol Classical Press. The standard Latin text of Virgil is that edited by R.A.B. Mynors, in the Oxford Classical Texts series; those who wish to have Latin and English side-by-side might consult the edition of Virgil in two volumes in the Loeb Classical Library (translated by H.R. Fairclough, revised by G.P. Goold).

The most important aid to understanding the Aeneid is a familiarity with the epics of Homer: both the Iliad and Odyssey are available on Naxos AudioBooks, translated by Ian Johnston. The age in which Virgil lived forms the subject of Ronald Syme’s classic The Roman Revolution (Oxford, 1939); some of the atmosphere of the 40s and 30s BC is evoked in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. A sensitive introduction to Virgil’s achievement may be found in Jasper Griffin’s short book Virgil (Oxford, 1986); an excellent guide to further reading is available in Philip Hardie’s Virgil volume in the Greece and Rome ‘New Surveys in the Classics’ series (Oxford, 1998).

Plot Summary

Book I

Introduction. Aeneas, at the head of a group of Trojan refugees, had set sail from Sicily for Italy; the angry goddess Juno bribed the wind-god Aeolus to rouse a storm to drive them off course. The storm was calmed by Neptune, but not before it had driven the Trojans onto the North African coast, where they spent the night. Aeneas’ mother, the goddess Venus, asked Jupiter why he was allowing this to happen, contrary to his promises; he told her not to worry, and gave a resounding prophecy of the future achievements of Aeneas and his descendants. The following day Aeneas set out to reconnoitre the surrounding territory; after encountering his mother (in disguise) in the woods, he came to the new city of Carthage. While he marvelled at its appearance, the queen Dido came to Juno’s temple—followed shortly afterwards by Aeneas’ missing companions. Aeneas himself was welcomed by the queen, who invited the Trojans to a banquet at the royal palace. Venus hatched a plot with Cupid to make Dido fall in love with Aeneas; this was put into action at the banquet. Dido asked Aeneas to tell his story.

Book II

Aeneas began by telling of the fall of Troy. ‘We thought the Greeks had gone, when we saw the wooden horse on the shore. If we had followed Laocoön’s advice, we would have been safe—but Sinon’s lies, and Laocoön’s grisly death, convinced us to take the horse within our walls. Then, when we were asleep, the Greeks hidden within the horse burst forth, killing the sentries and opening the city’s gates. Hector appeared to me in a dream, telling me to take Troy’s holy things and to escape. But instead a group of us headed for the fight which was now going on—we would not leave our city to the Greeks—and made our way to Priam’s palace. From the roof, I saw Priam murdered at the altar. Then my mother appeared to me, and revealed that Troy was doomed; she reminded me of my duty to my family. I rushed home to save my father and my wife and son; as we tried to escape, Creusa my wife was lost—in all the city’s ruin, what bitterer thing did I see? I headed back to find her, only to meet her ghost, who told me that my destiny lay in Italy. So I rejoined the others, and we departed.

Book III

Having built a fleet, we attempted to settle first in Thrace, then on Crete, misunderstanding the prophecies of our future. On Crete, the Trojan home-gods appeared to me in a dream, instructing me to head for Italy—but as we sailed we were overtaken by a storm, and forced to put in at the island of the Harpies. Having escaped this, we headed west, briefly stopping at Actium on the Greek coast; we heard that Helenus and Andromache, our old Trojan friends, had by a strange twist of fate become rulers of Buthrotum. We enjoyed an emotional reunion—and the prophet Helenus explained what we must do to reach Italy, and that arriving at Cumae we should consult the Sibyl. We set off with spirits restored. Sighting Italy, we avoided the threats of Scylla and Charybdis by sailing the long way around the south coast of Sicily. We put in briefly near Etna, where we picked up a member of Odysseus’ crew who had been left behind among the Cyclops people. Skirting Sicily, we stopped at Drepanum, where—alas—I lost my beloved father Anchises, who had survived such dangers only to die before reaching our goal. Here Aeneas concluded his tale.

Book IV

Dido now was sick with passion, and confided in her sister Anna. Emboldened by Anna’s advice, her passion grew stronger still. Juno and Venus decided to bring about a union between Aeneas and the queen. During a royal hunt, a storm blew up, forcing the hunters to seek refuge. Dido and the Trojan leader came to the same cave, and the elements seemed to celebrate their union as a wedding. But their happy days were curtailed by Jupiter, who sent Mercury to remind Aeneas of his destiny in Italy. Aeneas’ subsequent attempt to explain himself to Dido was met firstly with tears, and later with rage. But in spite of all her pleas, Aeneas determined to leave. Now Dido sought to die; pretending to resort to magic, she had a pyre built. A final night of pain left the queen uncertain, but she woke to see the Trojan fleet departing. Having uttered a solemn curse on Aeneas and his descendants, Dido climbed the pyre and stabbed herself. Anna ran to help—but was too late. Her sister died in her arms.

Book V

Meanwhile, the Trojans headed out to sea. Anticipating a storm, they decided against heading directly for Italy, and put in at the kingdom of the Trojan Acestes on the west coast of Sicily. Here lay the tomb of Aeneas’ father Anchises, and the Trojans held games to honour the dead man. While these were taking place, the Trojan women—inspired by Iris, who had been sent by Juno—set fire to the ships in an attempt to force an end to the long years of wandering. Catastrophe was averted by a sudden thunderstorm in response to Aeneas’ prayers, but the Trojan leader was forced to acknowledge the grievances of some of his followers. He therefore decided to leave behind those who had lost heart, establishing a settlement called Acesta. Then, having repaired the ships, the Trojans sailed for Italy.

Book VI

They first came to Cumae on the Italian coast; Aeneas visited the Sibyl, who prophesied that the Trojans would come to power in Lavinium, but that there would be dreadful wars. The Sibyl agreed to guide Aeneas into the underworld to see his dead father—but firstly Aeneas had to find the golden bough. When this was accomplished, they descended into the underworld together. Terrifying monsters appeared, then they came to the river Styx; Charon ferried them across when he saw the golden bough. Passing Cerberus and the place of judgement, they came to the vale of mourning—the place of tormented lovers. Here Aeneas encountered the ghost of Dido, who refused to speak to him. He passed on to the region where those famous in war dwelt. Then the Sibyl explained that nearby lay Tartarus, where the great sinners were punished. Now they headed on, depositing the golden bough in order to gain entry to the land of the blessed spirits. Here they saw crowds of the virtuous, exercising, singing and feasting; Aeneas sought out his father. Anchises was deep in a green valley, surveying the spirits yet to go up to the world above; after an emotional reunion with his son, he explained about these spirits—and pointed out to Aeneas the souls of his descendants, the greatest of the Romans. Aeneas’ heart was fired at these sights. His father escorted him and the Sibyl to the ivory gate leading from the underworld; and Aeneas returned to his ships.

Book VII

The Trojan fleet sailed up the coast, and entered the mouth of the river Tiber. Introduction to the second half of the poem. Latinus was king of this region; his daughter, Lavinia, was sought by many suitors—Turnus was the finest, and had the support of the queen, Amata. But strange prophecies were disturbing the king. Meanwhile, a portent convinced the Trojans that at last they had come to the Promised Land. Ambassadors were sent to the king, who after some thought welcomed them, and offered Aeneas not only friendship but the hand of his daughter in marriage. At this point Juno intervened, furious that the Trojans had reached safety. She called up Allecto, a Fury from the underworld, and bid her disrupt the new arrangements and sow the seeds of war. Allecto began with Amata—driven into a frenzy, the queen snatched her daughter and headed for the forest, taking the womenfolk with her. Allecto then worked upon Turnus, sending him mad with bloodlust; the young man roused his people, the Rutuli, against the Trojans. Finally, Allecto turned to the Trojans themselves, who were hunting near the shore. Aeneas’ son Ascanius shot a stag—unbeknownst to him, the pet of local folk; Allecto roused the countrymen to revenge. The Trojans rallied round Ascanius, and fighting broke out—as the first casualties fell, Allecto departed for the underworld, her plan accomplished. Now the Italians came to Latinus, demanding war; Turnus was at their head. Latinus refused, shutting himself away. Juno threw open the gates of war, and the men of Latium rose up in support of Turnus.


Aeneas, tossed on a sea of worries, was told in a dream to seek help from the Arcadian king Evander, who had settled at Pallanteum—the future site of Rome. The Trojan leader therefore left the camp in charge of his son and companions, and headed up river with an embassy to Evander. The Greek king welcomed him, offering support and reinforcements headed by his own son Pallas. As Aeneas left, he was met by his mother Venus, who brought him new armour made by her husband Vulcan; on the shield were wrought scenes from future Roman history.

Book IX

Meanwhile, Turnus seized the opportunity afforded by Aeneas’ absence to attack the Trojan camp. A night-time sally by the Trojans Nisus and Euryalus enjoyed initial success but ended in disaster with their deaths. The following day saw renewed attacks by the Latins; the fierce fighting was dominated by Turnus, who alone managed to force his way into the Trojan camp, but was finally forced back by pressure of numbers.

Book X

A council of the gods held the next morning ended without a decision in favour of either Trojans or Italians. Aeneas had managed to gain further native support from the large Etruscan force under Tarchon, and now sailed back by sea to the Trojan camp. As they landed on the beach, Turnus threw his forces into battle. In the fighting, Evander’s son Pallas distinguished himself until Turnus met and killed him in single combat; the Latin hero tore off Pallas’ belt as his victory spoils. This disaster roused Aeneas to a murderous anger against the Italians; Juno kept Turnus safe, but in his absence Aeneas made for the cruel Italian general Mezentius. Mezentius’ young son Lausus attempted to help his father, but was killed by Aeneas, who then followed up to kill Mezentius. Night fell, bringing the battle to a close.

Book XI

The following day, a truce was called for the burial of the dead. The Trojans held a magnificent funeral for Pallas, and then burned the remaining dead on pyres along the shore. Meanwhile, the Italians also buried their dead amid general mourning. An appeal for help to the Greek Diomedes had failed, and unease was growing among the Italian peoples. King Latinus was dejected, and Turnus was forced to respond to a stinging attack on his leadership by Drances, who reported Aeneas’ proposal to settle the war in a single combat. Turnus rejected this for the present, but promised to do so should the situation worsen. The Trojans then went on the offensive, marching against Latium. The Italians organised their defence, with Turnus laying an ambush for Aeneas while the warrior-girl Camilla led the main force. The ensuing fighting went now this way, now that; Camilla fought tremendously, but was killed by Arruns’ spear. The Italians panicked, and fled back to the city. Turnus was forced to abandon the ambush, thus allowing Aeneas free passage. Further fighting was prevented by the onset of night; the forces camped opposite each other outside the city.

Book XII

Turnus now made good his promise, and offered to fight Aeneas in a single combat. Preparations were made, and both armies lined up to watch. As preliminary sacrifices were made and treaties ratified, Juno addressed Juturna (a water-spirit and Turnus’ sister) and urged her to help her brother. So Juturna went among the Italian ranks in disguise, and roused pity for Turnus; the augur Tolumnius hurled his spear at the Trojan allies—and war broke out again. Aeneas, in dismay, was immediately wounded by an arrow and forced to retire from the field; Turnus threw himself into an orgy of killing. Aeneas’ wound was cured with help from his mother Venus, and he returned to the battle. Turnus evaded his attacks, his chariot now being driven by his sister Juturna. With some reluctance Aeneas therefore turned on the Italian ranks. The slaughter continued, until Aeneas turned the Trojans’ assault against the city itself. Amata, believing Turnus to have been lost, killed herself. Turnus, hearing the din from afar, raced back to help the defence of the city; warning his troops to stand back, he made for Aeneas. The armies withdrew as the two champions fought hand-to-hand. Turnus’ sword broke, and he ran. When both men had recovered their weapons, Jupiter turned to his wife Juno and ordered her to cease from the struggle; she did so, but won a place for the Italians in the Trojan-Roman destiny. Juturna was forced to yield, and now Turnus was all alone. Aeneas’ spear ripped through his thigh, and he lay at the Trojan’s mercy; Aeneas thought to spare his enemy—but then he saw the belt Turnus had torn from Pallas when he killed him. Enraged, he plunged his sword into Turnus’ breast.

Notes by James Burbidge

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