Aeneid 7-12, Part I

Thomas Fleming | January 6, 2011 | 7 Comments

The second half of the Aeneid has rarely delighted readers to the same extent as the first half, but the poet tells us explicitly that in bringing Aeneas to Italy he has embarked upon a greater theme.  It would be a mistake, then, to underrate books 7-12, though it is probably a good idea to read it through rapidly the first time.

Let us begin the discussion with a very brief sketch of events.  After celebrating funeral games (5) and learning his destiny from a trip to the Underworld (6), Aeneas lands in Italy and gets engaged to Lavinia the daughter of King Latinus (7), who has heard a prophecy that his daughter will marry an alien.  Nonetheless, he is challenged by a local suitor, Turnus, to whom Lavinia had been promised.  Lavinia’s mother Amata (the beloved) is more than a little sweet on Turnus and it does not need too much divine inspiration to set her off into a frenzy.  Amata stirs up the Latins, and Aeneas has to fight a second Trojan War to claim his bride and his new homeland.

Aeneas and the Trojans do not have to fight alone, however.  They have allies:  King Evander and the Arcadian Greeks who have founded a rustic village at the future site of Rome, and the Etruscans who have rejected the atheist tyrant Mezentius, who is now an ally of Turnus.  In the tragic end, Turnus viciously kills young Pallas, the son of King Evander, and in the last lines of the poem Aeneas kills Turnus and sends his soul twittering off to Hades.


One aspect of these later books is the aura of Italian patriotism that extends even to loving descriptions of the countryside.  Before writing the Aeneid, Vergil was known almost exclusively as the poet who celebrated the landscape and life of rural Italy.  There is a tradition, preserved in some mss., that the Aeneid did not originally begin with the line, “Arms and the man I sing,” but with a four-line preface linking the epic with Vergil’s earlier work:  “I am he that once tuned my song on a slender oaten straw and coming out of the woods compelled the neighboring fields to obey the greedy farmer, a work to please the yeomen, now.”  Most scholars and critics reject Suetonius’ story that Vergil’s editors removed the lines, but they represent either his first thought or else the thought of people close to him who wished to connect the Aeneid with his rustic poems.

What is certainly true is that the celebration of the Italian landscape and culture is an important part of the second half of the Aeneid.   Book VIII, in particular, is a richly textured tapestry of Latin and Italian traditions.  Father Tiber—the river that dominates the Roman imagination—appears in a dream to tell Aeneas of Ascanius’ future as founder of Alba Longa and the river god tells Aeneas that he must seek allies from Arcadians who have settled a bit upstream.  His progress upriver is beautifully described—as if he is rowing through the forests mirrored on the river’s surface.

When he arrives at the Arcadian settlement of Pallanteum, King Evander is on the banks of the Tiber making a sacrifice to Hercules.  We are obviously at the base of the Palatine Hill, in the Forum Boarium, somewhere near S Maria in Cosmedin, where the Ara Maxima of Hercules was located.  Pallanteum (hence Palatine) is, of course, ancient Rome.  Evander points up to the ruins of Cacus’ Cave on the Palatine Hill—the future site of Romulus’ settlement. Cacus was the legendary giant/monster who had stolen Hercules’ cattle and the hero in his rage destroyed the giant and his lair.

Romans knew that Herakles was a Greek  hero, and, patriotic as they were, they had to find some means of justifying his rites as native.  Livy say Romulus introduced the worship of Hercules, because he was pleased with the idea of a divinity earned through virtue, while Vergil traces the story of Hercules back even farther into Roman history.  Both are concerned to show this is not some vain superstition brought in by foreigners.  Romans were sensitive about what they owed to filthy foreigners, and while they identified their gods with Greek equivalents and imported gods from Egypt and Syria, their deeper religious affections belonged, at least in the days of the republic and early empire, to the little gods and rituals of Italy.

Returning to the story, Aeneas goes to the future site of Rome to recruit allies in his war to win the hand of Lavinia and the right to settle in Italy and rule the Latin kingdom.  His mother Venus, who is worried about his chances, plays her trump card: sex.  She actually seduces her own husband Vulcan and makes him promise to create marvelous armor for her son.  When Aeneas receives the gift, he admires it all but especially the shield on which is depicted:

The wars in order, and the race divine
Of warriors issuing from the Julian line.

So here we have all of Latin and Roman history from the founding of Alba Longa by Iulus Ascanius, son of Aeneas and ancestor of the Caesars, Romulus’ founding of Rome, the defense of the city against the Tarquins and their Etruscan allies, down to the battle of Actium.  It is a confirmation of the prophecies made in Book VI, but gets down to very specific detail.  At the battle of Actium, when the future Augustus supposedly spent much of his time seasick in his bunk, he is portrayed as a god of war:

Young Caesar, on the stern, in armor bright,
Here leads the Romans and their gods to fight:
His beamy temples shoot their flames afar,
And o’er his head is hung the Julian star.
Agrippa seconds him, with prosp’rous gales,
And, with propitious gods, his foes assails:
A naval crown, that binds his manly brows,
The happy fortune of the fight foreshows.
Rang’d on the line oppos’d, Antonius brings
Barbarian aids, and troops of Eastern kings;
Th’ Arabians near, and Bactrians from afar,
Of tongues discordant, and a mingled war:
And, rich in gaudy robes, amidst the strife,
His ill fate follows him—th’ Egyptian wife.
Moving they fight; with oars and forky prows
The froth is gather’d, and the water glows.
It seems, as if the Cyclades again
Were rooted up, and justled in the main;
Or floating mountains floating mountains meet;
Such is the fierce encounter of the fleet.
Fireballs are thrown, and pointed jav’lins fly;
The fields of Neptune take a purple dye.
The queen herself, amidst the loud alarms,
With cymbals toss’d her fainting soldiers warms—
Fool as she was! who had not yet divin’d
Her cruel fate, nor saw the snakes behind.


Great Caesar sits sublime upon his throne,
Before Apollo’s porch of Parian stone;
Accepts the presents vow’d for victory,
And hangs the monumental crowns on high.
Vast crowds of vanquish’d nations march along,
Various in arms, in habit, and in tongue.

Aeneas does not know who any of these people are or what events are depicted, but he rejoices as he raises on his shoulder the shield the carries the future fame and fortunes of his children’s children.

More to come….

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About Thomas Fleming: Thomas Fleming is the president of The Rockford Institute and the editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He has worked at the Institute since 1984. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors’ Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005, and Socialism. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and three grandchild. View author profile.

Comments (7)

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  1. robert says:

    Dr. Fleming,
    Did the Roman historians include both Romulus and Remus as well as Aneas in the founding of Rome or was the city of Rome a different founding. You touch upon this in your comment ,”Evander points up to the ruins of Cacus’ Cave on the Palatine Hill—the future site of Romulus’ settlement,” but I guess I have never had the history quite correct. Perhaps you could offer a cure to some of my ignorance on this?

  2. tjf says:

    Aeneas is the ancestor of the Latins and Romans, while Romulus and Remus are his descendants through the kings of Alba Longa. Different versions are given, for example, of which of Aeneas’s sons is the ancestor of Romulus, but the story was well known. We not only have versions in Vergil, Livy, and other historians, but there are fairly early depictions in Latin towns of various kings of Alba Longa, etc. So, yes, there are two founding myths. And, Robert, if you can break away some winter, you can learn all this in situ. I always take people to the old Forum Boarium area, where there are several republican temples, including a temple of Hercules Invictus, the beautiful (somewhat Greek style) S. Maria in Cosmedin, and a bit past, a dedcation to Septimius Severus then S. Giorgio in Velabro, which the Mafia blew up in revenge for what they saw as their betrayal by Christian Democratic politicians–S Giovanni Laterano. their initial objective was too heavily guarded–then up to the Theatre of Marcellus (past several ancient churches built on ruins) and the Portico commissioned by Augustus’ sister Octavia, through the Ghetto and up to the Palazzo Cenci, home of the infamous Beatrice immortalized by Shelley, toward S. Maria sopra Minerva and the Pantheon.

  3. robert says:

    And, Robert, if you can break away some winter, you can learn all this in situ. I always take people to the old Forum Boarium area, ….

    Traveling with you fellows solo is too delightful for me, so I must mask the joy under the obligation of teaching my children. Maybe next year we can introduce James to the Eternal City. I can’t think of a better teacher and guide. Merry Christmas to the Eastern and Greek Catholic in all of us and safe travel to all Chronicle readers who will share the pleasures of a winter trip to Rome.

  4. MAR says:

    TJF: “Romans were sensitive about what they owed to filthy foreigners, and while they identified their gods with Greek equivalents and imported gods from Egypt and Syria, their deeper religious affections belonged, at least in the days of the republic and early empire, to the little gods and rituals of Italy.”

    Very interesting point. While the Romans might have esteemed Greeks above others, they still kept them at a distance. (Cato the Elder learned Greek at an advanced age but at the same time didn’t want a bunch of Greek intellectuals coming to Italy.) I’ve always taken Aneas’ alliance with Evander to signify the Trojan reconciliation with the Greeks, their previous arch-enemies. Latinus also might have quasi-Greek origins, as the son of Faunus who had ties to Arcadia, but who, nonetheless, was one of Italy’s oldest deities. As Juno is lured into the fold, so must be the Greeks.

    We also learn earlier in the Aeneid (book III) that Aeneas and his kin are not completely foreign; they are already (somewhat) Italian as Dardanus, the father of their race, was Italian:

    …There is a place
    The Greeks call Hesperia, an ancient land,
    Strong in arms and rich in soil. Oenotrians
    Once lived there. Their descendants now
    Have named it after their leader — Italy.
    This is our true home. Here Dardanus was born,
    The father of our race, and his brother Iasius.

    The Aeneid reinforces the view that the (at least republican) Romans have an outstanding pedigree: old noble Italian blood brought to Troy, sons and daughters of gods and nymphs (Latinus & Marica) , and, of course, direct descendants of Venus and Mars.

  5. JD Salyer says:

    I’m very glad this series has kept going, even if I haven’t found time to contribute as much to the discussion as I’d have liked to. (Happily one of the reasons I’ve been short on time is a wonderful grassroots Latin study group that started up here in town a couple months ago.)

    Anyhow, what I see as particularly striking in this section are all the echoes of The Iliad when Aeneas “has to fight a second Trojan War”, much as the plot and action of previous portion of the poem echoes The Odyssey. The similarities, it seems to me, serve primarily to highlight the profound differences.

    That is, it’s not so much that this stuff “echoes” the Homeric plot (obviously I can’t say anything about the language or poetry itself) as it — maybe “transmutes” is the word I’m trying for.

    Once again this is a war for a woman, and once again it’s the love-goddess’ favorite who is out to get her… but of course in this instance her favorite is a much different and far more impressive character than Paris was, and this time the right and wrong of the situation is much more subtle.

    Turnus is not trying to cuckold Aeneas, nor is Aeneas trying to cuckold Turnus. Maybe through all this turmoil Vergil is expressing the Romans’ extremely rich and sophisticated conception of justice? Or maybe the fact that she’s promised to Turnus makes her his de facto wife already?

    As I know little about either the Romans or what they really might have thought about justice, I’m just throwing that out there… but the rights and wrongs of The Iliad seem more straightforward, is what I’m saying. It’s not clear to me at least that Turnus or Queen Amata are to blame, for getting irate when the Trojans show up. The latter are intruders from the Latin point of view, right?

    Lausus and Mezentius, their relationship, Aeneas’ pity for the boy after he slays him — it’s wonderful and utterly unexpected. Would anybody have any additional thoughts in regards to Mezentius? I must say I found myself particularly impressed by the multidimensional portrait of him … the impression I get is of somebody who exhibits manly virtues and wickedness intertwined. On the one hand Mezentius is indeed clearly a scorner of the gods and an evildoer. But his grief for his son humanizes him, particularly when he laments that his crimes are what doomed Lausus. Additionally the relationship of Mezentius and his warhorse — Mezentius’ little address to Rhaebus before they face Aeneas, and the shared death of horse and master — create a very vivid sense of personality.

    I’m thinking that Evander — in addition to being an interesting figure in and of himself, of course — hints at the integration/reconciliation of Greek culture into/with the Roman order?

    Though I’m hardly obsessed with the “human biodiversity” stuff, this is a fascinating scenario of the interaction between different tribal groups & interests. In addition, since I like parts suggesting that not everything is nailed down in advance by Fate, I found particularly intriguing the bit where Juno extracts the promise from Jupiter to preserve the Latins as a race. So what is the poem suggesting about the relationship of Roman identity with respect to the Trojans? That the latter are like a leaven, or a catalyst, being applied to another people?

    The reason I say this is that for some reason I’ve always previously had the impression that, per The Aeneid, Roman = Trojan, in a simple 1:1 correlation. Of course I may be sloppily reading a bad translation, but the impression I now get is that that’s an oversimplification. Could it be that in the long run the Latins, not the Trojans, are the real victors?

    After all,the former receive an injection of fresh blood and can assume the glorious heritage of a vanished civilization for their own, yet still get to retain their distinct identity as a people. Not exactly a horrible proposition — especially when compared to our own predicament today.

    Naturally I realize this isn’t meant to be literal history, but would there be any profit in reflecting on Vergils depiction of Trojans v. Latins = Romans in light of real-world absorptions of conquerors by the conquered — say, Normans v. Anglo-Saxons — as an analogy?

  6. Etienne Gervaise says:

    Antonius brings
    Barbarian aids, and troops of Eastern kings;
    Th’ Arabians near, and Bactrians from afar …

    Indeed. Any mention of Berlusconi repeating that error?

  7. Brandon E Taylor says:

    For thus Anchises prophesied of old,
    And this our fatal place of rest foretold:
    ‘When, on a foreign shore, instead of meat,
    By famine forc’d, your trenchers you shall eat,
    Then ease your weary Trojans will attend,
    And the long labors of your voyage end
    Remember on that happy coast to build,
    And with a trench inclose the fruitful field’

    Why does Aeneas attribute this prophecy to Anchises and not to Celaeno the harpy?