Roman Culture and the Aeneid

753 BC: Traditional date for the founding of Rome (just before Greek colonies).
ca. 500 BC: Expulsion of Kings from Rome.
509-264 BC: Early Roman Republic.
264-134 BC: Middle Republic; wars of conquest; senatorial government.
134-27 BC: Late Republic; breakdown of republican government.
27 BC-AD 235: Early Empire (Principate) [Virgil 70-19 BC].
Roman culture differs from the Greek in many ways: the Romans prided themselves on their practicality and traditional morality, and on their military, organizational, and engineering skills. In what we call "culture", the Romans often seem derivative: their art, philosophy, literature, and in many respects religion all look as if they were borrowed from the Greeks. Yet appearances can be deceiving. Take the matter of religion, for example. Though the Romans borrowed some deities from the Greeks (Apollo) and grafted the personalities of others onto already existing Italic deities (Zeus became Jove, Hera became Juno, Hermes became Mercury, Aphrodite became Venus, etc.), the Romans retained their own particular beliefs, especially those centered around the household gods and the family hearth. Each household had its own, rather vague, protective deities of the hearth, called Lares and Penates. Edith Hamilton writes: Every Roman family had a Lar, who was the spirit of an ancestor, and several Penates, gods of the hearth and guardians of the storehouse. They were the family's own gods, belonging only to it, really the most important part of it, protectors and defenders of the entire household. They were never worshipped in temples, but only in the home, where some of the food of each meal was offered to them. There were also public Lares and Penates, who did for the city what the others did for the family. (64) Notice how Virgil stresses these gods in Book II of the Aeneid: Priam is killed in front of his son and household gods (51-52); and, just as Panthus, priest of Apollo, tries to save the city of Troy's gods (44-45), so does Aeneas carry his father and "hearthgods, our Penatës" (58) out of the burning city.

Notice, too, that is the father, the head of the family (paterfamilias), who has charge of these gods. The Romans believed that a father's authority came from what they called his genius, or guiding spirit and wisdom. This genius was handed down from father to son (women need not apply) and assured that the head of the family would exercise his power wisely and well. In later times, pious Romans often carried masks or busts of fathers and grandfathers at funerals and other religious ceremonies. Thus when Aeneas has a vision of his father on page 151, he is receiving guidance from the family genius. When directly after this vision, he makes a small offering to the "Lar of Troy," we see that Aeneas is responsible not only for his own household, but for all past Trojan households and all future Roman ones as well. Aeneas is on a mission (from the gods) to found the greatest empire in the world: that's why his epithet is pius ("pious") and not polymetis ("resourceful"), like Odysseus. For a Roman, piety means responsibility towards the ancestors, towards one's extended family, and towards generations of unborn descendants. Aeneas is responsible for an entire empire of descendants, so he must stick to his mission and not get sidetracked by North African queens like Dido. (Besides, he needs an Italian wife to marry the genius of Troy to native Italian stock.)

Despite their later reputation for decadence and every sort of sybaritic indulgence, the Romans in general liked to think of themselves as extremely moral people. Not unlike Americans, they thought of their way of life as just, moral, upright, honest, and suitable for others to adopt. The Roman Empire was founded by Augustus (reigned 27 BC-AD 14), the title of a fellow named Octavian. This Octavian was the adopted son of Julius Caesar (murdered 44 BC), and he proved to be quite adept at power politics. Augustus (Octavian) became sole ruler of Rome by defeating Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) in 31 BC at the battle of Actium, off the western coast of Greece. (Aeneas passes through the area on p. 75.) As head of state, Augustus (which means "revered and majestic one") was head of the Roman "family," and genius for the entire Roman people. In other words, he was big daddy dictator. He ordered Virgil to write a poem glorifying himself and the Roman state. Virgil produced the Aeneid, which in some ways fills the bill. At other times (especially at the end of Books 6 and 12), Virgil seems to hint that peace obtained at the price of a despotic, militaristic empire may not be the best peace.

Map of Aeneas' journey

Notes and Questions for the Aeneid, Books 1-2

The Glossary at the back of the book will help you identify the more obscure characters and gods. The notes below cover the most important identifications.

(3) Carthage, in north Africa, near modern Tunis. As Venus later explains, the settlers of Carthage are Phoenicians, from the city of Tyre (still the name of a city in Lebanon).
(4) generations born of Trojan blood = Romans. The Aeneid shows how Trojans who escaped the destruction of Troy ended up as early founders of Rome.
(4) would ... overthrow her Tyrian walls—after more than 100 years of rivalry, the Romans finally did conquer Carthage in 146 BC, some 900 years after this prophecy was supposedly made. (See Fitzgerald's "Postscript" 405-406.)
13) Iulus = Aeneas' son, also called Ascanius. He is called Iulus here to link him with his supposed descendant Julius Caesar.
(33) Ulysses = Latin name for Odysseus.
(37) Pelasgian = Greek
(40) the Palladium stolen—because of a prophecy, Odysseus and Diomedes sneaked into Troy and stole the Palladium, a sacred image of Athena (Roman name, Minerva).
(44) Deiphobus = Helen's Trojan husband after the death of Paris.
(49) Pyrrhus = Neoptolemos, son of Achilles. Compare Odyssey 201-202. Vase painting: The Death of Priam (Perseus).
(51) Penates = household gods.
(53) the daughter of Tyndareus = Helen

1. What sort of hero is Aeneas? (Note how he is described:  see pp. 3, 6, 10, 14, 17, 19.) Compare him with Achilles and Odysseus. Compare and contrast each hero's character, arete (personal excellence), relations with the family (wife, father, son, oikos), their people, and their gods.

2. Both the Aeneid and the Odyssey tell stories of voyages, and in both heroes are tempted by women, but in what ways are they different?

3. Name some differences and similarities between Jove's prophecy in the Aeneid (11-15) and Zeus' announced plans in the Iliad (16-17; 282-283) and the Odyssey (2-4)?

4. In book 2 of the Aeneid, we finally get a description of the fall of Troy. How are the Greeks and Trojans depicted in this book?  What differences and similarities do you see in the way "Ulysses" is depicted in book 2 and the way Odysseus is depicted in the Iliad and the Odyssey?  Who is the reader meant to sympathize with and why? Scenes of the fall of Troy: Andromache defends Astynax, The Death of Astynax, The Death of Priam, and Priam at the altar.

5. The fall of Troy was a kind of symbol in the ancient world. What do you think it symbolizes for Virgil?  (See pp. 20, 40-42.) Vase painting: Aeneas carrying Anchises away from Troy and another view (Perseus).

6. Do you think Aeneas' desire to kill Helen (53-54) is worthy of him?

Notes and Questions for the Aeneid, Books 3-4

(68) a holy island = Delos, sacred to Apollo.
(71) Hesperia = Italy; Oenotrians are southern Italians. Dardanus came from there—Virgil may have invented the legend that the founder of the Trojan royal house, Dardanus, came originally from Italy. If the Trojans did come from Italy, then Aeneas' voyage can be seen as a long-delayed return (nostos) instead of an invasion (Grandsen 30). (See pp. 68-69.)
(76) Helenus . . . heir to Pyrrhus' wife and power. Helenus became a slave to Pyrrhus after the war and foresaw the difficulties the Greeks would have returning home by sea. He advised Pyrrhus to return by land instead. Pyrrhus did, and was so grateful for his safe return that he bequeathed part of his kingdom to Helenus. Virgil seems to have invented the part about Helenus marrying Andromache (Hector's wife—remember?).
(78, 79) the seer . . . the priest = Helenus. He was a seer in the Iliad: see 6.74 and 7.45
(79) Ausonia = Italy. Trinacria = Sicily. Lines 553-590 advise Aeneas to sail the long way around Sicily in order to avoid Scylla and Charybdis in the straits of Messina.
(80) inhabited by evil Greeks—the Greeks began colonizing southern Italy around 750 BC. So many Greeks settled in southern Italy that the Romans called the area Magna Graecia, or "Greater Greece."
(81) Cumae—temple and cave near Naples, where oracles given by a prophetess called the Sibyl were as important to the Romans as Delphi's were to the Greeks.
(121) Dis = Hades.

7. Notice when Aeneas or the Trojans shed tears (20, 35-38, 40, 60,) or are not moved by tears (111-112, 160). What do they weep over and why? How are their tears different from Greek tears? Compare and contrast why Achilles and Odysseus cry in the Iliad (11, 356, 483) and the Odyssey (85, 140-141).

8. In book 3, note how many times Aeneas is given signs or prophecies. What is the message for Aeneas of all these signs? If all these prophecies are true, why do you suppose Virgil describes the Sibyl's prophecies as he does (81)?

9. Why do you think Aeneas leaves Dido? Do you think he feels guilty about it? (See pp. 107-108, 175-176). Do you think Dido is at "fault" (101) for having an affair with Aeneas? Given the description of Dido's madness and death (112-121), how do you think Virgil views this episode?

Notes and Questions for the Aeneid, Books 5-6

Optional reading: the funeral games for Anchises (129-146).
(177) Deiphobus, son of Priam who married Helen after Paris was killed in battle; the Laconian woman = Helen.
(186) What glories follow—in lines 1015-1202 Anchises points out to Aeneas all the future heroes of Roman history, including some flattery of Augustus, first emperor and Virgil's patron. Lines 1170-1202 pay tribute to Marcellus, Augustus' heir, who died young.

10. Compare and contrast the firing of the ships with the burning of Troy.

11. Compare and contrast why Aeneas and Odysseus must go to the underworld. Compare and contrast Virgil's view of the afterlife with Homer's view. Photos: Entrance to the Cave of the Sybil at Cumae, the first few steps inside the cave, and "the innermost chamber." In the same neighborhood are Lake Avernus, and Solfatura, volcanic fields north of Naples thought by the ancients to be gateways to the underworld.

12. Why do you think Palinurus and Misenus die? (See pp. 154, 156, 165-166.) Views of Cape Misenus.

13. From examining passages on art (20, 40-42, 160, 190) what do you think is the view of art presented in this epic? Do you agree with Adam Parry when he says that in "some of the finest passages in the Aeneid . . . what we find, again and again, is not a sense of triumph, but a sense of loss" (111). Empires are built at a price of human suffering, and Parry claims that for Virgil, "the pleasure of art" (122) gives value to the pain of suffering. What do you think?

14. What do you think the golden bough symbolizes? ("splendor and lifelessness"?)

15. Why do you suppose Virgil has Aeneas go out through the ivory gate (191-2) and not the gate of horn? (See p. 81.)

Works Cited

Virgil's home page:, with a Life (Vitae) of Virgil:
Maecenas: Images of Ancient Greece and Rome (mostly Rome):
Die Rom Seite: (Mostly in German, but great links and great maps and photos of Rome)
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