– Summary Essay, Research Paper
The Aeneid – Summary
The Aeneid begins and ends with parallels to the Iliad, inviting us to consider Virgil’s poetry in light of Homer’s. The Aeneid is both a tribute to the Homeric style–by imitating it–and an attempt to better it. And perhaps, Virgil is not quite being fair to himself when he invites that comparison; Virgil does not have the Iliad’s tragic irony, and Aeneas is not as powerful a main character as Achilles. But then, the Aeneid is not truly a tragedy. It is the story of a man who is destined to succeed, and its strength lies more in its secondary characters than in the person of Aeneas. From the very beginning of the poem, when Aeneas flees Troy, we sense that he has left part of himself behind there. It may be that he will go on to eventually find a new home in Italy, but he is not so much moving from one place to another as he is being stretched across the poem and across the seas. He does not have the vitality of Odysseus because he is more or less been reluctantly dragged along towards his destiny, rather than single-mindedly pursuing it. This is why he is so willing to find diversions or temporary homes along the way, in Crete, Carthage and Sicily–that is, until the gods force him to continue on.
As Aeneas is stretched further, his character becomes less consistent and prone to fits of anger, cruelty, sadness and kindness, but not in a particularly coherent fashion–that is, these powerful expressions of emotion, however well Virgil puts them into words, do not really define a personality. This is where the personalities of more powerful characters take over: Juno, Dido, and Turnus. They all have their homes in the play, and their characters are well-defined, powerful, and consistent — with the exception of the turnabout in Book XII, which prevents Juno and Turnus from taking over the poem entirely. They are personalities in their own right, all strong-willed. Aeneas, on the other hand, is obligated everywhere he turns. He always has one foot back in Troy, but he must fulfill the will of the gods, while enduring the wrath of other gods, all the while being a worthy predecessor of Augustus and founder of the Roman people.
All of these necessities pull at Aeneas’ character and prevent Virgil from creating him for his own sake. Of course, the Trojan is successful because he gives himself up to these other obligations, while those who resist the will of the gods–Dido, Turnus– die sad deaths. However, in their failure they are in fact the most interesting and attractive characters in the poem. This is not to say that the character of Aeneas is dull; in fact, one of Virgil’s greatest innovations is the way he uses the stronger secondary characters to slowly develop his hero. Generally, secondary characters serve as foils to the protagonist; in the Aeneid, the protagonist is himself the foil, but he does not fail to gain from the passionate love and hatred of Dido, or the violent anger of Turnus. This means of developing the main character was greatly improved by Dante and Shakespeare; and yet their debt is to Virgil. This is why the Roman poet was at the center of a classical Western education for over a millennium, and today is still considered the greatest writer in Latin.