The Aeneid by Virgil Analysis
The Aeneid, through and through, is an allegory. Each line has a secondary meaning, and no word is placed without purpose. This allows for a significant amount of interpretation, reading through the lines, and deciphering the intended meaning. Many think that this epic is a political allegory, telling of Virgil’s view of the Roman Empire. The view is split, however. Some think that Virgil is showing his support and speaking highly of the Roman Empire. Others think that Virgil is slyly showing his disdain for his leaders and that he is subtly picking apart their leadership and what they stand for. I stand with the latter. Virgil is attacking the Roman regime and what they stand for through the story of Aeneas and all of his battles and hardships.
One of the first, and arguably the most prominent, attacks on the regime is the storyline involving Dido early in the tale. Dido was struck by Cupid’s bow and tricked into falling in love with Aeneas. However, Aeneas sneaks off to fulfill the prophecy set before him by the gods, going to Italy to defeat his opponents. She goes on a moral rampage mad at both herself and Aeneas because she picked him up from nothing, giving him love and a place to stay, all for him to scorn her and ditch her, without so much as a goodbye. This emotion is truly captured on page 118 starting on line 861, “Enjoy his kingdom or the life he longs for, But fall in battle before his time and lie Unburied on the sand!” She is so frustrated and mad at herself for allowing him to walk on her like this that all she wants is death for Aeneas and herself. Aeneas ditched his ethical and emotional responsibility to be there for this woman that he loved, instead choosing to leave for death and destruction. This is a parallel to the Roman empire, that just wants to conquer and rule rather than think with their hearts or stick to their morals. When Dido tragically kills herself, Aeneas has no idea. He is long gone, fulfilling his political duties and “fate,” rather than fulfilling his moral obligations. Aeneas doesn’t find out until his trip through the underworld that she was even dead. Upon this realization, he seems upset and regretful, yet Dido no longer cares. Her heart has been hardened with a “burning soul, savagely glaring back (p 176, l 629),” and she no longer wants anything to do with Aeneas. This is the same as what can happen when a government treats its citizens with little care or concern; their hearts will be hardened, and they will no longer want to cooperate. Dido’s suicide is collateral damage of Aeneas’ desire to go off to war without regard for others. This is a direct parallel to how to the Roman leaders rule with very little regard for others, with a strong focus on power. This leadership style leaves much collateral damage that cannot be undone.
Another example of Virgil’s attack on the empire is the path by which Aeneas leaves the underworld. While in the underworld, he sees Romulus, Julius Caesar, and Caesar Augustus. At the time, it seems we are meeting them to foreshadow that they are born leaders and are destined to do great things. Before leaving, he also gets a preview of years of Roman history. Upon leaving, Aeneas and Anchises have the choice of two gates to exit from, one of horn and one of ivory. The Gate of Horn is said to have “the true shades pass with ease (p 191, l 1212),” whereas the Gate of Ivory is where “false dreams are sent.” Anchises leads Aeneas through the ivory gate upon exiting. This is a one-off mention of these gates that is never revisited, so it seems as though this is directed at the introduction of the Roman leaders while in the underworld. This may be suggesting that all of these victories and triumphs by the Roman Empire shown after meeting the leaders are false dreams. They are not as great as they may seem on the surface. Aeneas and Anchises chose not to exit through the gate of true shades. Rather, they made the choice to leave through the gate of false shades. In my eyes, this undoes all of the praise and honor laid on the Roman leaders in the underworld, as it may not be the full truth. There are underlying issues with these leaders that don’t necessarily deserve praise.
Finally, the ending of the epic further pushes the idea that Virgil is critical of the lengths the Roman Empire will go to remain powerful. After the deaths of many characters, in particular after Turnus’ death in the last book, the epic abruptly stops. There is significant debate on the meaning of this abrupt ending. I believe that this is to attest to the brutality of war. It further emphasizes the grief caused by war when the battle is left hanging in the air without so much as a discussion or celebration by Aeneas. With the death of Turnus going up to the final line of the epic, it gives us no chance to breath. We have no chance to take it in and form our opinions before the end of the book. We are left in shock and horror, as the last words we devour are the brutal murder of Turnus via a spear in the leg. The last couple pages build up and up until this death of one of the main characters, and we are left to bask in it. We feel the despair and grief of the death rather than being proud of the Roman Empire for the defeat. With no celebration afterwards, we are left to think that maybe this death and defeat aren’t such a great thing.
The wording of the last few paragraphs seems pessimistic, even before Turnus is fully dead. In particular, the line “Our tongue is powerless…, (p 401, l 1236)” really stood out to me. In the grand scheme of the Roman Empire, citizens such as Aeneas had no power. These warriors are laying down their life for a government that truly does not care about their opinions or input. This adds to the grief felt after the deaths and murders because it seems as though it was all for nothing. The Roman Empire doesn’t care about one death or one battle, they just want their power, regardless of the moral hurdles they need to maneuver, and Virgil does a great job of subtly portraying this motive.
Ultimately, I understand this epic as subtle digs at the Roman Empire. “The glory of Rome” took a major toll on its citizens by way of grief and strife due to constant war and loss due to the relentless need for dominance and reign. Virgil takes the side of the vanquished, understanding the toll that war takes on the citizens. There are many examples of his view as he leaves significant evidence throughout the tale. The most prominent indication to me is the abrupt ending of the last book. To me, this emphasizes the loss and grief felt by the citizens under the reign of the tyrannical leaders. We are left shocked and horrified with the death of Turnus ending on the last line of the last book, as citizens of the day may have felt.