The second half of the Aeneid has rarely delighted readers to the same extent as the first half, but the poet tells us explicitly that in bringing Aeneas to Italy he has embarked upon a greater theme. It would be a mistake, then, to underrate books 7-12, though it is probably a good idea to read it through rapidly the first time.
Let us begin the discussion with a very brief sketch of events. After celebrating funeral games (5) and learning his destiny from a trip to the Underworld (6), Aeneas lands in Italy and gets engaged to Lavinia the daughter of King Latinus (7), who has heard a prophecy that his daughter will marry an alien. Nonetheless, he is challenged by a local suitor, Turnus, to whom Lavinia had been promised. Lavinia’s mother Amata (the beloved) is more than a little sweet on Turnus and it does not need too much divine inspiration to set her off into a frenzy. Amata stirs up the Latins, and Aeneas has to fight a second Trojan War to claim his bride and his new homeland.
Aeneas and the Trojans do not have to fight alone, however. They have allies: King Evander and the Arcadian Greeks who have founded a rustic village at the future site of Rome, and the Etruscans who have rejected the atheist tyrant Mezentius, who is now an ally of Turnus. In the tragic end, Turnus viciously kills young Pallas, the son of King Evander, and in the last lines of the poem Aeneas kills Turnus and sends his soul twittering off to Hades.
One aspect of these later books is the aura of Italian patriotism that extends even to loving descriptions of the countryside. Before writing the Aeneid, Vergil was known almost exclusively as the poet who celebrated the landscape and life of rural Italy. There is a tradition, preserved in some mss., that the Aeneid did not originally begin with the line, “Arms and the man I sing,” but with a four-line preface linking the epic with Vergil’s earlier work: “I am he that once tuned my song on a slender oaten straw and coming out of the woods compelled the neighboring fields to obey the greedy farmer, a work to please the yeomen, now..” Most scholars and critics reject Suetonius’ story that Vergil’s editors removed the lines, but they represent either his first thought or else the thought of people close to him who wished to connect the Aeneid with his rustic poems.
What is certainly true is that the celebration of the Italian landscape and culture is an important part of the second half of the Aeneid. Book VIII, in particular, is a richly textured tapestry of Latin and Italian traditions. Father Tiber—the river that dominates the Roman imagination—appears in a dream to tell Aeneas of Ascanius’ future as founder of Alba Longa and the river god tells Aeneas that he must seek allies from Arcadians who have settled a bit upstream. His progress upriver is beautifully described—as if he is rowing through the forests mirrored on the river’s surface.
When he arrives at the Arcadian settlement of Pallanteum, King Evander is on the banks of the Tiber making a sacrifice to Hercules. We are obviously at the base of the Palatine Hill, in the Forum Boarium, somewhere near S Maria in Cosmedin, where the Ara Maxima of Hercules was located. Pallanteum (hence Palatine) is, of course, ancient Rome. Evander points up to the ruins of Cacus’ Cave on the Palatine Hill—the future site of Romulus’ settlement. Cacus was the legendary giant/monster who had stolen Hercules’ cattle and the hero in his rage destroyed the giant and his lair.
Romans knew that Herakles was a Greek hero, and, patriotic as they were, they had to find some means of justifying his rites as native. Livy say Romulus introduced the worship of Hercules, because he was pleased with the idea of a divinity earned through virtue, while Vergil traces the story of Hercules back even farther into Roman history. Both are concerned to show this is not some vain superstition brought in by foreigners. Romans were sensitive about what they owed to filthy foreigners, and while they identified their gods with Greek equivalents and imported gods from Egypt and Syria, their deeper religious affections belonged, at least in the days of the republic and early empire, to the little gods and rituals of Italy.
Returning to the story, Aeneas goes to the future site of Rome to recruit allies in his war to win the hand of Lavinia and the right to settle in Italy and rule the Latin kingdom. His mother Venus, who is worried about his chances, plays her trump card: sex. She actually seduces her own husband Vulcan and makes him promise to create marvelous armor for her son. When Aeneas receives the gift, he admires it all but especially the shield on which is depicted:
The wars in order, and the race divine
Of warriors issuing from the Julian line.
So here we have all of Latin and Roman history from the founding of Alba Longa by Iulus Ascanius, son of Aeneas and ancestor of the Caesars, Romulus’ founding of Rome, the defense of the city against the Tarquins and their Etruscan allies, down to the battle of Actium. It is a confirmation of the prophecies made in Book VI, but gets down to very specific detail. At the battle of Actium, when the future Augustus supposedly spent much of his time seasick in his bunk, he is portrayed as a god of war:
Young Caesar, on the stern, in armor bright,
Here leads the Romans and their gods to fight:
His beamy temples shoot their flames afar,
And o’er his head is hung the Julian star.
Agrippa seconds him, with prosp’rous gales,
And, with propitious gods, his foes assails:
A naval crown, that binds his manly brows,
The happy fortune of the fight foreshows.
Rang’d on the line oppos’d, Antonius brings
Barbarian aids, and troops of Eastern kings;
Th’ Arabians near, and Bactrians from afar,
Of tongues discordant, and a mingled war:
And, rich in gaudy robes, amidst the strife,
His ill fate follows him—th’ Egyptian wife.
Moving they fight; with oars and forky prows
The froth is gather’d, and the water glows.
It seems, as if the Cyclades again
Were rooted up, and justled in the main;
Or floating mountains floating mountains meet;
Such is the fierce encounter of the fleet.
Fireballs are thrown, and pointed jav’lins fly;
The fields of Neptune take a purple dye.
The queen herself, amidst the loud alarms,
With cymbals toss’d her fainting soldiers warms-
Fool as she was! who had not yet divin’d
Her cruel fate, nor saw the snakes behind.
Great Caesar sits sublime upon his throne,
Before Apollo’s porch of Parian stone;
Accepts the presents vow’d for victory,
And hangs the monumental crowns on high.
Vast crowds of vanquish’d nations march along,
Various in arms, in habit, and in tongue.
Aeneas does not know who any of these people are or what events are depicted, but he rejoices as he raises on his shoulder the shield the carries the future fame and fortunes of his children’s children.
More to come….
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