Summary and Analysis: Roman Mythology
Patriotic Legends — Aeneas and Romulus and Remus
When the Greeks entered Troy to devastate it the ghost of Hector told Aeneas to leave. Aided by his mother Venus, Aeneas fought the Greeks and made his way out of the doomed city with his father Anchises and his son Iulus. He joined a group of Trojan comrades and together they built some ships with which they sailed to Thrace, where Aeneas hoped to set up a colony. Warned off by a Trojan ghost who had been murdered by the Thracians, they made for Delos, where an oracle of Apollo told the Trojans to return to the land of their ancestors. Thinking that Apollo meant Crete, they moved to this island, which was uninhabited, only to be dogged by pestilence. At length Aeneas dreamed that his future home lay far to the west in Italy, from which the Trojan Dardanus had come long before. Aeneas now knew where his destiny was taking him.
Having left Crete, the Trojans were caught in a storm that drove them up the western coast of Greece. Driven off by those birdlike monsters, the Harpies, they sailed to Epirus and found Prince Helenus of Troy married to Hector's wife, Andromache. When Troy fell Andromache had been taken captive by Achilles' son Pyrrhus (Neoptolemus in Greek), and when he was killed she married Helenus. The pair entertained Aeneas and his comrades. Helenus foretold that they would have a perilous time getting to Italy, and he warned them against the Strait of Messina, where Scylla and Charybdis waited. Further, they were to sail to Cumae sometime in the future, where Aeneas would consult the Sibyl, a prophetess.
Next the Trojans stopped briefly on the eastern coast of Italy to worship in their new homeland, but the place was inhabited by Greeks and dangerous. Sailing south, Aeneas and his men narrowly escaped Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis. They landed on Sicily near Mount Aetna to find a ragged sailor who had been abandoned by Ulysses (Odysseus). The fellow told them of Cyclopes nearby, and no sooner had they put out to sea than Polyphemus charged into the water after them. At Drepanum on Sicily's western coast they were well received by King Acestes, a man of Trojan origin, and there Aeneas' father Anchises died.
The goddess Juno hated all Trojans because of Paris, but she especially disliked Aeneas and his men, knowing that in the ages to come their descendants would destroy her favorite city of Carthage, which was now being built. She bribed Aeolus to unleash a dire storm on Aeneas and his ships. The typhoon scattered the fleet and sank one ship. Finally Neptune calmed the sea, and Aeneas put into harbor with seven ships on the African coast. The Trojans warmed themselves over fires while Aeneas killed deer for food.
Meanwhile Venus complained to Jupiter of her son Aeneas' many misfortunes, but Jupiter reassured her that Aeneas, after many trials, would found a great nation. This was his destiny, and even Juno would become reconciled to it.
As Aeneas and his comrade Achates scouted this new land they came upon Venus disguised as a huntress, and she told them they were in Libya near Carthage, a city ruled by the beautiful queen Dido. Dido had fled from Tyre with some loyal followers, and here in Libya they were building a new city called Carthage.
Venus departed but left Aeneas and Achates concealed in a mist so that they might enter the city unseen. The pair came to a temple of Juno, which was adorned with murals of the Trojan War. Inside they found Dido performing her queenly duties. They also discovered their own companions who had been lost at sea asking Dido's permission to remain and repair their battered ships, which she granted. They were even welcome to stay in Carthage.
Then Aeneas stepped forward, greeted his lost comrades and requested Dido's hospitality and aid. Dido was full of admiration and pity for the handsome commander, but Venus sent Cupid to turn her admiration into love, thereby insuring Aeneas' safety. As Aeneas recounted the fall of Troy and his own adventures Dido grew enamored of him. The lovesick queen yearned for him, and Juno decided to marry the two with the consent of Venus. As Aeneas and Dido were hunting a storm came upon them, and seeking shelter in a cave they made love. Rumor spread quickly of the affair, and Dido's former suitor Iarbus, king of Libya, was enraged. Then Jupiter sent Mercury to remind Aeneas of his promised homeland in Italy, and the hero reluctantly made plans to depart in secret. But Dido learned of it and pleaded with him to stay. Her words were useless; the will of the gods must be obeyed. As Aeneas and his ships were ready to sail, Dido called upon her descendants to avenge his treachery. She committed suicide upon her own funeral pyre. Out at sea Aeneas saw the flames of her pyre and was filled with remorse.
The Trojans reached Drepanum again, where they celebrated funeral games for Anchises. There Juno caused the Trojan women to burn four of their boats. Leaving the sick and weary to settle at Drepanum, Aeneas took his hardiest Trojans to Italy. To make sure of their safety Venus and Neptune ordained that one man must die — the pilot Palinurus, who slept at the helm, fell into the sea, and was drowned.
On reaching Cumae, a town in western Italy, Aeneas went to the temple of Apollo, which had been designed by Daedalus. There he found the Sibyl, who prophesied that he must wage war to gain a bride and establish a city. Aeneas persuaded the Sibyl to direct him through the underworld, where he wanted to see his father Anchises. He must obtain the Golden Bough of Proserpina to enter. Then the Sibyl led him into the earth beside Lake Avernus. Descending into the realm of the dead, they saw specters, Charon the ferryman, all sorts of departed spirits, including the pouting Dido. They finally came to the Elysian Fields, which was reserved for the blessed dead. There they met Anchises, who described the operations of the cosmos, the way men are purified to enter Elysium, and the long line of Aeneas' descendants who would rule Rome and make it great, right down to Augustus Caesar. Then Aeneas and his guide made their way back to the world of the living, where Aeneas joined his comrades. They sailed north along the coast and up the Tiber River.
At last Aeneas has arrived at his destined home. The place was Latium, ruled by a King Latinus who had a beautiful daughter named Lavinia. It was foretold that Lavinia would marry a foreigner. When Aeneas arrived Latinus gave him a warm welcome, but Queen Amata wanted Lavinia to marry the Rutulian, Turnus. Turnus became furiously jealous of Aeneas, for he loved Lavinia and wished to marry her. The people of Latium resented these upstart Trojans. So when Juno caused Iulus, the son of Aeneas, to kill a pet deer, war broke out between the Trojans and all the neighboring peoples, who assembled under Turnus, a strong and fearless warrior. The Volscians joined the massing forces and were led by Camilla, the beautiful virgin warrior.
Knowing that a huge army was gathering against him and his men, Aeneas ordered a camp built. One night the river god Tiber appeared to him, telling him to travel upriver to Pallanteum and seek aid. In Pallanteum Aeneas was given two hundred men by Evander, who disliked Latinus and his people. Evander's own son Pallas also joined Aeneas. And Evander advised the hero to get further help from the Etruscans of the north, who hated Mezentius, their renegade king who had sided with Turnus. Venus brought Aeneas armor made by Vulcan. On the shield were several scenes depicting the future history of Rome.
Turnus and his army attacked the Trojan camp while Aeneas was seeking the aid of the Etruscans. He burned the Trojan ships, which Neptune changed into sea nymphs at the bidding of Cybele. Aeneas had warned his men to stay inside the ramparts during his absence. However, two men crept out by night to tell Aeneas what had happened. As they made their way through the hostile, sleeping Rutulians they killed many, but they in turn were caught and slain. These bold youths were Euryalus and Nisus. The next day their heads were paraded before the Trojan camp.
Iulus slew the boy Numanus as he taunted the Trojans. Apollo then warned Iulus, who was a youth as well, to stay out of the fighting until he was older. That day the enemy burned a Trojan tower, and in the confusion the Trojans opened a gate. Before they could close it Turnus had made his way inside and began slaughtering men like sheep. But the Trojans regrouped under two able captains and forced Turnus to retreat to the Tiber, which he had to swim to reach safety.
Aeneas returned that night with a huge Etruscan army in thirty ships. The beleaguered Trojans rejoined. At dawn the ships made for the beach, and Aeneas leapt into the water to attack the foe. His furious slaughter made the Latins quail. Evander's son Pallas led his cavalry against Mezentius' son Lausus. But Turnus came to Lausus' aid and killed Pallas, roughly stripping the lad of his belt. When Aeneas heard of Pallas' death he charged with new fury into the Latin army and wounded Mezentius. Lausus sought to hold off Aeneas to allow his father to escape, and Aeneas tried to persuade the young man to retreat. Lausus refused and bravely died in combat with Aeneas, who respected the youth's corpse. Encountering Mezentius Aeneas killed him but took no pleasure in it, even though the man was evil.
A twelve-day truce was called in which both sides burned their dead on pyres and mourned. In Latium Queen Amata and Turnus prepared for further war. The Amazonian Camilla plotted with Turnus to ambush Aeneas and his troops as they rode through a narrow pass. In the fighting that followed, Camilla and her Volscians did great damage to the Etruscan army, but Camilla was slain and the disheartened Turnus called off the ambush.
Another truce followed in which King Latinus and Queen Amata tried to persuade Turnus to withdraw and allow Aeneas to wed Lavinia. Instead, Turnus challenged Aeneas to single combat before both armies. The next morning Aeneas and Iulus rode out to meet Turnus and Latinus. Before the assembled throng Aeneas promised that if he lost, his son would leave the territory forever, but if he won he would treat the Latins generously and build a city in honor of his bride Lavinia.
Juno sent Turnus' immortal sister, the numph Juturna, to spread confusion. Some Rutulian shot an arrow at Aeneas, hitting him. A general melee broke out as Aeneas withdrew, and Turnus waded into the dismayed Trojans, killing them freely. Venus quickly helped to heal her son's wound, so Aeneas returned to the fray, hunting for Turnus, who managed to elude him in a chariot drawn by Juturna. After hours of pursuit Aeneas decided to attack Latium. While the Trojans assaulted the city gates with battering rams, Queen Amata assumed that Turnus was dead and hanged herself. The Trojans felled a tower of the city, which prompted Turnus to quit fleeing and meet Aeneas head on. For a long time their duel was in doubt. Both men inflicted wounds and suffered them. But then Turnus' weapon shattered, so he turned to flee, and Aeneas chased him on limping legs. Juno saw the contest was already settled, but she exacted a promise from Jupiter that the Trojans and Latins would unite as a single people. Aeneas caught up with Turnus, crippling him. Turnus begged the Trojan to let him return to his father. Aeneas was on the verge of granting the request, but then he saw the belt Turnus had stripped from the dead Pallas. With a yell of victory Aeneas struck Turnus the death blow.
Needless to say, Aeneas married the Latin princess Lavinia and built the city of Lavinium. Through his Trojan son Iulus (also called Ascanius) he founded the line of Alban kings, which would result in the founding of Rome. By his strength, courage, piety, and steadfastness he exemplified the finest qualities his successors would possess.
King Numitor of Alba Longa had an only child, Rhea Silvia. When Numitor was deposed and exiled by his younger brother Amulius the new king made Rhea Silvia a Vestal Virgin in order that she would not produce heirs to the throne. However, the god Mars ravished her and she gave birth to the twins Romulus and Remus. Amulius then imprisoned Rhea Silvia and gave orders that her infants be drowned. A she-wolf found the twins by the banks of the Tiber and suckled them. The king's herdsman discovered them, a man named Faustulus who took Romulus and Remus home and raised them. They grew into hardy, brave young men who robbed bandits and shared the spoils with the shepherds. During the festival of the Lupercal, Remus was captured by brigands and eventually delivered to Numitor for judgment. It was revealed that the two brothers were Numitor's grandsons. To avenge Numitor, Romulus and Remus then killed Amulius and reestablished Numitor as king of Alba Longa.
That city had a surplus of males who wished to emigrate, and Romulus and Remus decided to start a new settlement. The two brothers were jealous of each other, both being ambitious. In a dispute Romulus slew Remus and named the settlement after himself — Rome. He established a sanctuary for fugitives, gave the Romans laws, laid down the proper forms of worship, and created the hundred patricians. Yet the lack of women troubled him, so he invited the neighboring people to Rome to celebrate the Consualia in honor of Consus, a forerunner of Neptune. The Sabines brought their families. So the Roman males abducted the young women. The outraged Sabines went home and prepared for war. Meanwhile, Romulus reassured the Sabine women that they would enjoy the same rights as Roman women and be treated honorably. The men also managed to soothe their feelings with words of affection.
The Sabines and Latins combined against the Romans, and while the Latins retreated the Sabines took control of a Roman citadel by bribing a girl to let them enter and then killing her. The Sabines continued to march on the Romans but the two armies were saved from annihilating each other when the abducted women intervened and made them settle peacefully. From that time the two nations were united.
The story of Aeneas was principally the creation of Vergil, although it had antecedents in the Iliad and in Roman legend. Vergil consciously modeled his tale on the two Homeric epics. The first half of The Aeneid is like The Odyssey, an account of a hero's wanderings, while the second half is like the Iliad, an account of war. But Vergil was uniquely original in portraying a hero who fights for a future civilization, not for his own honor or for any existing nation. Aeneas knows he bears a special destiny and he sacrifices much to fulfill it, abandoning site after site, leaving his newfound happiness with Dido, undertaking a terrible war, and finally killing the brave Turnus. Yet he is not ruthless, having a generous and compassionate heart. The difference between the way he kills Lausus and the way Turnus kills Pallas is the difference between a man with a great soul and a man who fights merely to win. It is precisely Aeneas' sense of mission that makes him morally superior, because he feels himself responsible for unborn generations of men. That sense of mission makes The Aeneid an original and outstanding work of Western culture. The Iliad by contrast is deeply pessimistic. Vergil affirms the life founded on hope and action while acknowledging life's sadness and the brutality of war.
The tale of Romulus and Remus, adapted here from Livy, is a mixture of folklore, mythical tradition, and invention. Romulus and Remus have a god for a father and a virgin for a mother; they are rescued miraculously; they grow up in humble circumstances; they battle with evildoers; and the secret of their parentage is revealed. Once Romulus gains his kingdom after killing Remus he rules wisely and capably, as effective in war as in peace. As a hero he is sufficient, but he lacks the transcendent stature of Aeneas.
Patriotic heroes were characteristic of Rome, for the Romans had a community spirit that elevated the idea of making personal sacrifices for the state. The Greeks lacked a sense of the common welfare and created individualistic heroes out for fame. In this respect the Romans represented an advance over Greek culture.