by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
He is a towering figure of ancient myth.
He fought at Troy and appears in the Iliad. Yet he is remembered for something much greater. He was seen by the Romans as a paragon of virtue, and one of the founders of their city. One of the world’s most enduring and influential pieces of literature, the Aeneid, was written about him. But who was Aeneas?
The origins of Aeneas
The Greek version of Aeneas is related in two sources: the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite and the Iliad. According to legends, he was the son of Anchises, a Trojan royal prince. His mother was the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite (Venus in Roman mythology). Aphrodite had made Zeus fall in love with a human woman; in retaliation, he made her fall in love with a human too, namely Anchises. Aeneas was then born on Mount Ida, and was at first raised by nymphs before being taken to his father in Troy.
In ancient Greek, he was known as Αἰνείας (Aineías). Aeneas is a Latin form of the Greek. It has been speculated that the Greek name Αἰνείας meant originally ‘terrible’ or agony. This could refer to his martial prowess, or relate to the fact that his mother predicted his life of struggle when he was born.
In the Iliad, Aeneas is a fairly minor figure, but he is still portrayed as a noble warrior who is notably pious. At first in the epic, he holds back from the fighting, because he is angry that he has not received recognition from Priam. Later, he leads a mission to retrieve the body of his brother-in-law Alcathous. He is shown as a commander of a group of Trojan allies. During his time in Troy, Aeneas is rescued twice by the gods because he is destined to have a great future…
Aeneas, the founder of Rome
The legend of Aeneas was later adopted by several Roman writers. The Trojan hero was popular with Romans because he embodied qualities that they valued such as ‘pietas’ or commitment to native land, family and duty. The best-known version of the myth of Aeneas is told in Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid, one of the greatest works in all of Classical literature.
In Roman mythology, the focus is on Aeneas and his adventures after the destruction of Troy. During the fall of the city, Aeneas leads his family and a small group to safety. He then leads them on a mission to find a new home for the surviving Trojans. They attempted to find a new city several times, but each time they failed. Eventually, Aeneas’ father Anchises died in Sicily. Later, Juno sends a storm that drives the Trojans to the shores of Carthage.
There, Aeneas has a six-year affair with the Phoenician Queen Dido. Committed to his duty, he eventually leaves Dido to find a new home for his people. In despair, Dido commits suicide. After arranging funeral games in Sicily, Aeneas lands on the western shores of Italy with his small band. At this time, Aeneas journeys to the Underworld and meets Dido and his father, who predicts that he would establish a great city (Rome).
Aeneas and the Foundation of Rome
Returning from the Underworld, Aeneas continued his journeys. The King of the Latins welcomed the Trojans and allowed them to settle in his territory. Aeneas became engaged to the Latin King’s daughter, Lavinia. This leads to a war with Turnus, the Rutulian King and his allies. In this bloody war, Aeneas emerges victorious. The story makes clear that Aeneas won because his cause was right. At this point in the Aeneid, the story of Aeneas ends abruptly, possibly because of the death of Virgil. The story of Aeneas was completed by writers such as Livy and Ovid. After his victory over Turnus, Aeneas founds the city of Lavinium, named after his wife Lavinia. The hero had many descendants. One of them became King of Alba Longa, and was the progenitor of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. After his death, Venus had Jupiter make him immortal and he ascended into the heavens to live like a god.
Aeneas and Roman Culture
The myth of Aeneas was of great cultural significance in Roman civilization. In ancient societies, myths were used to tell the history of peoples and to explain their origin. The story of Aeneas and his adventures was used to explain the foundation of Rome and justify its imperialism. Similarly, the tragic love affair between Dido and Aeneas was used to explain the enmity between Carthage and Rome. Aeneas was seen as the embodiment of Roman virtues, especially his pietas. The story of the Trojan prince was used to promote social and cultural ideas that had come to be considered essential for Roman greatness. They were also instrumental in teaching and reinforcing Roman ideas on morality and also justifying its empire as something moral and noble.
The stories of Aeneas demonstrate the power of myths and how they can be adapted. The Trojan was a minor figure in the Trojan War. Yet, when the Romans adopted him, he became something of a ‘national hero.’ Aeneas and his adventures were a common subject in Roman literature and art, and the legends of the Trojan were used to explain the history of Rome.
Elliot, A., 2013. Aeneas. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 20(3), pp.1-8.
Stahl, H.P., 1981. Aeneas—An’Unheroic’Hero? Arethusa, 14(1), pp.157-177.