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Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Part 4, Chapter 4 : The Adventures of Aeneas | Summary

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Summary

Part One: From Troy to Italy

Aeneas is Venus's (Aphrodite's) son and second only to Hector in the Trojan Army. He escapes with his father and son when the Greeks conquer Troy, taking a ship of Trojan refugees on a journey to settle in Italy, as a dream has told Aeneas he is destined to do. During the journey, the crew encounter Hector's wife Andromache, taken from Troy by Neoptolemus, who abandons her to marry Helen's daughter Hermione. Andromache marries the Trojan prophet Helenus, and they advise Aeneas to settle on the west coast of Italy to avoid the Greeks.

Aeneas also encounters many hazards familiar to seafaring heroes during his journey, including the Harpies, the whirlpool, and the strait between Scylla and Charybdis. The ship lands in a Cyclopes-inhabited area in Sicily, and the crew encounter a survivor of Ulysses's (Odysseus's) crew, accidentally left behind in Polyphemus's cave and living in the woods since his escape. He warns them of the Cyclopes, and Aeneas makes a hasty retreat. Then Juno (Hera), still bearing a grudge against Trojans, sends a storm that sweeps Aeneas to Carthage on the northern coast of Africa.

Carthage's founder and queen, Dido, welcomes Aeneas, and Venus inspires her to love him so she will aid him on his way to Italy. Aeneas becomes so comfortable in Carthage with Dido he becomes less motivated to go to Italy. Jupiter (Zeus) sends Mercury (Hermes) with a message reminding Aeneas of his destiny. Dido is angry and hurt when Aeneas announces his intention to leave, and on the night the Trojans set sail, Aeneas sees a fire illuminating the city walls. He does not know the fire is Dido's funeral pyre and that she has killed herself.

Part Two: The Descent into the Lower World

After Aeneas leaves Carthage, he visits the prophetess Sibyl of Cumae, who directs him to visit the underworld and consult with his father, Anchises, who died before the storm took their ship to Carthage. She instructs Aeneas to take a golden tree branch to ensure safe passage, and Venus helps Aeneas find such a branch. The Sibyl acts as a guide to Hades, making sacrifices to Hecate, the goddess of night, and guiding Aeneas past the figures of Disease, Care, Hunger, War, and Discord. The golden bough convinces Charon, the ferryman of the dead, to transport them across the river into Hades. The Sibyl gives a bit of cake to the guard dog, Cerberus.

Aeneas encounters Dido in the Fields of Mourning. She does not respond to him at all, but Aeneas becomes emotional at the meeting. Aeneas finds Anchises in the Elysian Fields, the paradise reserved for mortals of great honor. Anchises shows Aeneas the souls drinking from the River Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, so they can return to life in the world above. These souls, he says, will become the great inhabitants of Rome. Then he advises Aeneas how to best settle in Italy and endure the challenges ahead. Aeneas and the Sibyl return to the surface, and Aeneas sets sail along the Italian coast "looking for their promised home."

Part Three: The War in Italy

The Trojans' settlement in Italy is not assured, as Juno continues working against them. She inspires the tribes of Italy—the Latins and the Rutulians—to oppose the Trojans. Although Latinus, the King of Latium, believes Aeneas is destined to marry his daughter Lavinia, Juno sends the Fury Alecto to inspire Latinus's wife, Amata, to oppose the marriage. Alecto then moves Turnus, the king of the Rutulians, to move against the Trojans because Turnus wants to marry Lavinia himself. Finally, Alecto leads Aeneas's son Ascanius to kill the pet stag of a Latin farmer to inspire more outrage against the Trojans.

The Latins and Rutulians unite against the Trojans, and the god of the River Tiber comes to Aeneas to advise him to travel upstream to the home of Evander, the king of a poor town on the site of the future city of Rome. Evander and his son welcome Aeneas's party and send them to seek help from the Etruscans on the far side of the river. The fugitive Etruscan King Mezentius—hated by his people for his immense cruelty—is allied with Turnus, so an alliance between Aeneas and the Etruscans seems natural.

While Aeneas goes to meet the Etruscans, Turnus and his men attack the Trojan camp. Two soldiers, Nisus and Euryalus, try to get word to Aeneas. Although they kill many enemy soldiers, they are captured and killed. Aeneas returns with a large Etruscan army, leading to a series of battles that culminate in a final confrontation between Aeneas and Turnus. Aeneas is now almost godlike in his strength and prowess, so Turnus doesn't stand a chance. After the war, Aeneas marries Lavinia and founds the Roman race.

Analysis

Part One: From Troy to Italy

Aeneas's story comes come the Aeneid, a 2,000-year-old epic by the Latin poet Virgil. Edith Hamilton points out that Virgil composed the epic during the reign of Caesar Augustus, a time when the Roman Empire was re-establishing its footing after Julius Caesar's assassination. The Aeneid is infused with patriotism and reverence for Aeneas as "a great national hero." The Latin source material refers to the gods and goddesses, as well as the Greek heroes, by their Roman names.

As the son of the goddess Venus, Aeneas is destined for heroism like so many of his heroic predecessors. His strength and fighting prowess distinguish him on the battlefield during the Trojan War, and his mother assists his escape so he can sail west and create a new home for the war's survivors in Italy. Aeneas and the Trojans traveling with him are essentially refugees now that the war is over, and they find themselves wandering through a hostile world toward an uncertain destination.

Few of the hazards Aeneas and the Trojans encounter are unfamiliar or novel to those familiar with the other heroic epics of the classical tradition. When Aeneas encounters the same monsters that have troubled his predecessors—from Jason to Odysseus (or, in this chapter, Ulysses)—the effect is twofold. First, the use of these monsters in multiple stories contributes to a sense that they are real. Some of these obstacles are based on real hazards. For example, the legend of Scylla and Charybdis is based on the whirling currents and rocks found in the Strait of Messina that separate Sicily from mainland Italy. The second effect of referencing the same creatures other heroes have faced is to establish Aeneas—by enduring the same hazards—as an equal to the great heroes of Greece. As the founder of Rome, and the great hero of the Roman mythological tradition, Aeneas will exceed the achievements of his Greek predecessors in later sections, but facing and defeating these monsters give him a strong foundation to do so.

In at least one instance, Aeneas appears prone to some of the same weaknesses displayed by his Greek predecessors as well. His time with Dido echoes both Ulysses's time with Circe and Calypso (Part 4, Chapter 3) and Jason's relationship with Medea (Part 2, Chapter 3). Aeneas is comfortable with Dido in Carthage, as Ulysses is comfortable with Circe and, later, Calypso. However, during his sojourns with these women, Ulysses never forgets his core desire and purpose: to return home to his family. Aeneas, on the other hand, comes dangerously close to neglecting his destiny in Italy because he is comfortable and happy enough in Carthage. Ulysses requires assistance from the gods to get him on his way again; Aeneas requires prodding from the gods to move his quest forward. Like Jason's dalliance with Medea, Aeneas's relationship with Dido ends in tragedy. She has provided assistance that makes it possible for him to continue his quest, but he leaves her behind with little sentimentality or expression of regret, having gotten what he wants from her. Humiliated and heartbroken, she kills herself.

Part Two: The Descent into the Lower World

If the purpose of the Aeneid is to create a Roman hero whose feats exceed those of the Greeks, Aeneas's journey into the underworld seems designed to serve this purpose. The descriptions provided in his journey give a richly detailed account of the dangers Aeneas must face to complete this part of his quest. Even before he reaches the realm of the dead, "the Roman hero found horrors piled upon horrors." Aeneas and the Sybil face the gods and personifications of the worst aspects of existence, and on the shore where the great rivers of Cocytus and Acheron meet, they face crowds of the dead clamoring for the ferryman to take them across. The other sights Aeneas and the Sibyl witness are equally horrifying, with terrible creatures and confusing directions, scored with the background sounds of "groans and savage blows and the clanking of chains."

Possibly the worst experience for Aeneas in the underworld is the moment he is forced to confront his own guilt at his betrayal of Dido. She kills herself in Carthage after his ships have departed, so he has no way of knowing she is dead before he meets her in the Fields of Mourning, a place designated for "unhappy lovers ... who had been driven by their misery to kill themselves." Her location tells him he is responsible for her eternal fate, and his response to her now sharply contrasts with his impassive departure from her on earth. When he leaves Carthage, he tells her to "Cease these complaints ... which only trouble us both." His tone is completely different in the underworld where he says, "I swear I left you against my will." Jupiter did urge Aeneas to continue toward his destiny, but his claim seems disingenuous in the context of his coldness toward Dido at the time. Now she is the impassive one, and Aeneas must mourn for her death and his hand in it, which shows how even a hero can expect to pay an emotional price for his actions in life.

Part Three: The War in Italy

Aeneas is a warrior, so it stands to reason he must fight one last war before he can fulfill his destiny and establish a home for his people. To highlight Aeneas's bravery and worthiness as a hero, he must face two armies, spurred against Aeneas by the angry Juno who has yet to let go of her grudge against the Trojans. The narrative of the Trojan War in Part 4, Chapters 1 and 2 highlights how vindictive the gods can be, but Juno's ongoing resentment toward Aeneas and his ships of refugees paints her as excessively petty. Aeneas's eventual success against the Latin and Rutulian armies also shows how even a goddess cannot thwart destiny.

In a sense, the Latins and Rutulians have reason to feel suspicious about a stranger coming into their midst with the intention of establishing a new kingdom, but both Latinus and Turnus are deeply flawed as leaders. Latinus knows that Aeneas is destined to marry his daughter, for example, but he lacks courage to back Aeneas when his people oppose Aeneas. Turnus's actions are driven by self-interest. It is important for Aeneas's legitimacy as a leader in this new land that he forms alliances with other local leaders who see the value his leadership can bring to their land. His alliance with the poor King Evander portrays Aeneas as an ally for the downtrodden. His alliance with the Etruscans, desperate to bring their fugitive King Mezentius to justice, portrays Aeneas as a champion of right. The Etruscans are the strongest army in the region, so their support gives Aeneas a practical advantage along with a moral claim to the land he conquers, as does the support of the god of the River Tiber.

The language used to describe Aeneas in his final confrontation with Turnus solidifies Aeneas's place as the great hero of Rome, comparing him to the Apennine Mountains and to the sea-god Aegaeon, who brews storms in the Aegean Sea. Aeneas is such an unstoppable force in this battle that Edith Hamilton describes it as anticlimactic because it is so one-sided. Such a pitched battle is necessary for Virgil's original purpose, though, because it ends Aeneas's struggles in a decisive way and shows he has come into his own, transcending his human weaknesses with destiny on his side.

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