'The Aeneid' by Virgil (Pt. 2)

by Annie Kapur 5 months ago in literature

Part 2: Ancient Roman Mythology

'The Aeneid' by Virgil (Pt. 2)

Now what we're going to look at is the mythology regarding The Aeneid and where we think it came from. These include the Roman Gods and Goddesses and the Roman foundation myth of Romulus and Remus. Of course, Virgil didn't really establish these myths, but he brought them into the mainstream of ancient Roman literary culture. Let's begin with Romulus and Remus since that is the foundation myth of ancient Rome.

Here's a summary of the Romulus and Remus foundation myth.

Both were brothers raised by a she-wolf after being left on the Tiber. They had many conflicts along the way and, in the end came to want to discover the city of Rome. When it came to see where the city would lay, Romulus and Remus disagreed and relied on the sighting of birds in the sky. To this, Remus lost and Romulus slaughtered his brother. Romulus ended up building Rome on the side of a hill. Possibly the most famous example of fratricide in history—Romulus and Remus were a classic case of extreme sibling rivalry.

Nobody really knows where the myth came from and well, we're still trying to figure out who created it in the first place. But, the main thing to note is that it began way before Virgil penned it into his story the Aeneid in the late 1st century BC. There are written accounts of the myth dating back to the third century BC and due to the prolific oral culture that spread across the region from the Ancient Greek Cultures after they collapsed, it's hard to make a note of exactly where it all began. One thing we do know is that it was definitely a Hellenic influence that made its impact on to the Romulus and Remus story—this too, came from Greek Culture.

Exactly where the twins come into the myth has been up for debate seeing as nobody exactly knows if the myth itself changed over time. The sources we have from the culture of Ancient Rome have indeed, not offered much in terms of an answer and have been known to be contradictory. These include the various histories of Plutarch, Livy, Dionysus and Tacitus. The histories of Virgil and Ovid come in much later than these.

When it comes to popularity amongst these histories, possibly Plutarch has been the most popular with his "Lives of Romans" book and chapter entitled "Life of Romulus" the surviving brother, he has made a good case to be cited—but again, contradicts the other histories. Most of Plutarch's account is based within conflict, which definitely not the only thing that Romulus did, according to the well-known myth. Over half of the text on Romulus is taken up by this, which almost discredits it from the standing—but since it is one of the only histories we have, we are left with little choice but to keep it.

Livy makes a better argument for the life of Romulus, going through the text tactically and then turning towards the note of fratricide. Livy goes through the myth by giving a background, then giving the parents and the youth of the children, beginning the conflicts and then moving towards the myth that we are so familiar with today.

In his own text, Dionysus mentions the myth within a larger context of Rome, but doesn't mention the myth until halfway through—discussing various things about their childhood, growth and conflicts. In Dionysus' text, there are many accounts of the discovery of Rome, each having its own credibility.

Perhaps the most believable account but the furthest away from the city of Rome was St. Augustine's account in The City of God Against the Pagans in which Remus survives and lives on in Rome until his death in the "Roman Asylum." Apart from this, there are many sources that are fragments and that have been entirely lost. Unfortunately, we will probably never find out what the original myth was, but it gained more popularity—we know—by Virgil's Aeneid and Ovid's Fasti.

Let's just have a look at a quotation on how the conflict between Romulus and Remus is portrayed in the Aeneid in comparison to these sources:

"Young RomulusWill take the leadership, build walls of Mars,And call by his own name his people Romans.For these I set no limits, world or time,But make the gift of empire without end."

This is as if Jupiter, the Roman God equal of the Greek Zeus, is giving a sort of approval to the discovery of Rome. This again perpetuates the famous conflict between the brothers. This myth was most likely included for the fact that Romans of Virgil's time would've already been familiar with this myth and therefore, would want to find out how this connected and impacted the Emperor of their own day (of course, there is the famous few lines in which the genealogy is mentioned). This is a political move which we will have a look at in a moment.

The Aeneid does not spend a long time on the Romulus and Remus story in comparison to many other sub-plots in the epic. But, it is still of prime importance because this is what makes the link between Rome, its primary kings and the Emperors of Virgil's own time. Again, we need to remember that this is a form of political propaganda and, Virgil wanted to get into the good books with Emperor Augustus. What we have here is a forced linking between the discovery of Rome and the Ancient Roman period at which Virgil is composing the work. Not only would this inspire many average people into believing in their Emperor as he is descended from the kings who first stepped into Rome. But, this also, as we have said before, legitimizes the lineage.

We are now going to have a look at the Gods and Goddesses in the Aeneid. We're going to concentrate on how the Gods are portrayed in similarity or difference than the famous and vengeful Gods and Goddesses of Homer's works. This is because we rely on Homer's works to tell us about the Aeneid, since they are both based on the same story telling two different tales and both contain interventions by the Gods. Our aim is to compare how they work and, how he did this. This is because Virgil stated himself that he wanted to make the Aeneid better than the Iliad and the Odyssey. We're going to explore how he made it "better" in his own words.

Let's have a look at a few quotations in comparison to what we already know about the Iliad and the Odyssey and the intervening Gods and Goddesses of those works.

"When gods are contrary

They stand by no one."

In this fairly small quotation, we can see that Virgil definitely sets out to make his Gods and Goddesses of Rome pretty much like the ones we see in the works of Homer. What we have here is a group of Gods and Goddesses that are in some sort of disagreement, and if they are, then they apparently do not support any being on the land. This is important to remember as, many times in the Aeneid, the Gods are actually in favour of Aeneas and they're not even trying to hide it. This could either be an inconsistency with the Gods, or an inconsistency with the writing.

The fact that the Gods would be in disagreement is a form of indirect reference to the Iliad as, in Homer's text, the Gods are constantly taking sides. The idea that there is one hero in the Aeneid and the Gods are no longer taking sides (except for Juno, who has a vengeance against Aeneas) is a far stretch. This is where the theory that if the Gods are in disagreement they would either be too busy fighting amongst each other or be banned by Jupiter (as they were in the Iliad when the Gods were banned from intervening by Zeus as things were getting out of hand).

This quotation also takes place in book two, which is of massive importance to making the Gods of the Aeneid look like the Gods of the Iliad. This is because book two is the backstory, it is the fall of Troy. Book two goes through how Troy was conquered and then Aeneas and others fled the great city as it burned. The fall of Troy chapter was not actually in the Iliad, instead it was in a book entitled Iliou Persis, but we still have the same basis for the book. This means that Virgil is definitely trying to establish the link between the Gods of the Iliad and the Gods of the Aeneid by making them both almost vengeful and immortals to be feared.

I think the most interesting question regarding the Gods of the Aeneid is the question of Juno. She is very angry at Aeneas and this is because Aeneas was supposed to stay in Carthage according to her, he was supposed to marry Dido and become the king of Carthage. But, instead he left—Dido in grief of his absence committed suicide and Carthage was at its end. The city didn't make it and Juno, it's protector, blamed it all on Aeneas.

There is a very strange quotation that makes reference to this, but not in the way we would expect:

"Now to the self-same caveCame Dido and the captain of the Trojans.Primal Earth herself and Nuptial JunoOpened the ritual, torches of lightning blazed,High Heaven became witness to the marriage,And nymphs cried out the hymns from a mountain top."

Does this state that Dido was fooled by Aeneas? No, it does not. In fact, it states that Dido was fooled by the Gods. These Gods and Goddesses know that it is Aeneas' fate to go to Latium and find Rome, even Juno knows that it is not his duty to be the king of Carthage and live his days with Dido. Yet, what we have here is the Gods and Goddesses preparing and witnessing the marriage and singing hymns. This is not only a deceptive act; this is an act of disguise. Even Dido knows it is Aeneas' duty to go to Rome but she does not think about the consequences of marrying him when the Gods are present.

This again makes the Gods, especially Juno, look almost like they are trying to see how far Aeneas can go off on a tangent in life before he gets back on track. They want to see how far he can flee before they have to remind him of his duty and guide him once more. It is very much like the gods of Homer's works in which they intervene with the war, deceiving and disguising—but then are banned and must retreat until they break free again. This act of breaking free in the Aeneid is when Juno supposedly wants revenge and goes after Aeneas. Whether this is primarily an act of revenge or to stop Aeneas diverting from his tracks again is an entirely different question. The true motives are unknown because of the question of Juno's deception against Dido.

Obviously, it is easy to see that the Roman Gods and Greek Gods are equivalents with different names. The most famous example of this being Hera from the Iliad and Juno from the Aeneid—both of which do not enjoy the company of Aeneas. The real question isn't why Juno did not enjoy the company of Aeneas before the fall of Carthage, but why Juno even bothered going after Aeneas when Jupiter had already put his seal of approval on the discovery of Rome. I believe that the worst part of Juno's deception of Dido through her marriage to Aeneas whilst he was on duty was not just that Juno was the protector of Carthage and that it was her city, but also because Juno was, and still is known as, the Goddess of marriage.

The question is how famous were the Ancient Roman Gods of the Polytheist Religion at this time? The truth is, Virgil was in luck when it came to historical religious context as there was a man named Marcus Terentius Varro who existed around the same sort of time.

Varro was and Ancient Roman Scholar and writer who wrote a fair bit about Roman mythology. He was recognised as an important source because of his writing on the Roman Gods and Goddesses, Roman systems and even the Ancient Roman Calendar. As recorded by St. Augustine in his work The City of God, Varro recorded and separated the lists of Gods and Goddesses into how much they were worshipped and how important they were. His twenty principal Gods of the religion were:

  • Janus
  • Jupiter
  • Saturn
  • Genius
  • Mercury
  • Apollo
  • Mars
  • Vulcan
  • Neptune
  • Sol
  • Orcus
  • Liber
  • Bacchus
  • Tellus
  • Ceres
  • Juno
  • Luna
  • Diana
  • Minerva
  • Venus
  • Vesta

Of course, many of his contemporaries used him as a primary source when it came to writing about everything from the Gods and workings of Rome to writing about some aspects of politics and the courts. Some of the people who source him include: Cicero, Pliny the Elder, Virgil and even St. Augustine who lived long after.

Virgil was of course, quite lucky that the order of the importance of the Gods and Goddesses was already fairly well known by the time the Aeneid had finished the writing process. The next important thing that happened after Virgil's death is that the Aeneid began gaining popularity regardless of Virgil's want to burn every last copy. This means that the mythology of Rome was being spread internationally and not only by the academic works of Varro—but in the fictional and mythological works of Virgil and later, Ovid. This means that literature may have played a part in the persuasion that Rome was the most powerful city on the planet. Yet again, another political move by Virgil.

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Annie Kapur

English and Writing (B.A), Film and Writing (M.A).

Musical Interests: Bob Dylan & the 1890s-1960s 

Favourite Films: I'm Not There & The Conjuring Series

Other interests: Cooking & Baking 

Instagram: @3ftmonster 

See all posts by Annie Kapur