Aeneas, Rome's Man of Destiny

By Brisson, Jean-Paul | UNESCO Courier, September 1989 | Go to article overview
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Aeneas, Rome's Man of Destiny

Brisson, Jean-Paul, UNESCO Courier

Aeneas, Rome's man of destiny

The adventures of Aeneas chronicled in Virgil's great poem the Aeneid make a powerful human drama whose force is undiminished by time.

WRITTEN between 29 BC and 19 BC, the Roman poet Virgil's epic, the Aeneid, recounts the adventures of the Trojan hero Aeneas, fruit of the union of the mortal Anchises with the goddess Venus.

Having miraculously survived the destruction of Troy, Aeneas, accompanied by his father, his infant son Iulus and a handful of faithful companions, sets sail in search of the place, appointed by destiny but as yet unknown to him, where he is to build a new Troy. As his journey unfolds, he comes to realize that the city's mysterious new site is situated in Italy, in the region of Latium.

Warrings and wanderings

Before reaching his goal, however, he is fated to wander the length and breadth of the Mediterranean for seven years. This is partly because the utterances of the oracles, who purport to guide him in his quest, are inevitably far from clear. A false interpretation of one oracular message makes him think for a time that his destination is Crete until, warned of his error by the outbreak of a terrible plague, he is forced to flee the island. But the prime cause of his misfortunes is the unrelenting hatred of the all-powerful Juno, wife of Jupiter, the king of the gods.

This hatred stems from an ancient incident recounted by Homer--the famous judgement of Paris, the Trojan who dared to award the prize for beauty to Venus rather than to Juno. As depicted at the beginning of Virgil's epic, the queen of Olympus neither can nor wishes to forget what she considers to be a personal affront for which, through Paris, she holds all Trojans responsible. She finds it intolerable that a small group of Trojans should have survived her vengeance and have the temerity to want to rebuild a city that is for her accursed. No subterfuge that may prevent Aeneas from achieving his aim and ensure his final downfall is too low for her.

After seven years of wanderings, Aeneas lands in Sicily where his old father dies. By now he knows for certain how and where he will discover the site to which destiny will lead him and it is with confidence and a light heart that he sets out for Italy. Seeing him so near his goal, Juno succumbs to a murderous rage and bribes Aeolus, the keeper of the winds, to unleash a furious tempest. The Trojan fleet is scattered and largely destroyed; the few survivors are thrown up on the African coast not far from Carthage.

Thanks to the intervention of Venus, anxious to ensure the safety of her son, the sovereign of those parts, the Phoenician queen, Dido, welcomes the shipwrecked survivors with generous hospitality. Taking advantage of these events in a further attempt to detain Aeneas far from his Italian goal, Juno, with the complicity of Venus, thrusts the unfortunate Dido into the arms of her Trojan guest.

Surrendering himself to the delights of a mad passion, the Trojan hero forgets his predestined mission for twelve long months. When Jupiter imperiously takes him to task, however, he remembers the duty fate has laid upon him and leaves Carthage and the delights of love, setting sail to the light of the funeral pyre on which the despairing Dido has thrown herself.

A stop at Cumae gives Aeneas, guided by the Sibyl, the opportunity to descend into the nether regions where he encounters his father's shade, who presents to him those who will play leading roles in the accomplishment of Rome's future glory. Aeneas next arrives at the mouth of the Tiber where the fulfilment of a prophecy confirms that his long voyage is over. Recognizing in him the foreigner his diviners have predicted will marry his daughter Lavinia, Latinus, the king of the region, welcomes Aeneas with open arms.

Juno, however, returns to the charge. Arousing the jealousy of Turnus, a suitor of Lavinia who cannot bear to find himself set aside in favour of the newly-arrived stranger, she sets the scene for a desperate struggle.

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