Like Homer’s epics Iliad and Odyssey, Aeneid is an epic, but whereas Homer’s epics were folk epics which had existed for centuries in the oral tradition before Homer committed them to writing, the Aeneid is an art epic, which means that Virgil has clearly constructed a document which would do what an epic is supposed to do: depict the values of the society it represents, a sort of self image for the Roman empire.
The Roman Empire was vast, and it lasted a long time—around 1000 years. Therefore, it must have been well managed. In fact, it is said, persons managing outposts thousands of miles from the city of Rome may never have visited Rome; yet they knew almost instinctively what they should do. The name that is given to the quality of thought and discipline which allowed the empire to be so large and last so long is Gravitas, which might be defined as “high seriousness of purpose, commitment to the culture (that is, the empire) over self.”
Thus, Aeneid may be read as a series of episodes intended to illustrate the theme established in the epic opening of the poem, but through which examples of and insights into Gravitas become possible.
The portions of the poem included in the Norton Anthology can be broken into four large sections that serve to illustrate Gravitas. At the same time, they include (as did Iliad and Odyssey) lots of other themes and issues. In addition, some insights into the Trojan War may be found:
The opening of the poem clearly illustrates the aspect of the epic opening called “in media res.” As the poem opens, Aeneas and his companions have arrived at Carthage (on the north coast of Africa) after having fled the fall of Troy. (Aeneas and his companions are, in fact, the only Trojans to survive, except those women who were taken as slaves, and later in the poem, Aeneas recounts the events of the fall of Troy.)
At Carthage, Aeneas and his companions come upon the building of Dido’s city,which Aeneas and his companions come upon after they land at Carthage, on the coast of north Africa. Since our encounter with the “Shield of Achilles” in the Iliad, we have been sensitive to the significances of not only the decorations on the hero’s shield but also upon the ways that the concept of “city” conveys the values of a society.
Note on page 942 where Virgil includes a description of the things being built in a city. One might easily imagine that this represents a sort of ideal, a compendium of those things necessary for a civilization: In addition to streets, boundaries, and buildings, the Carthaginians are building a citadel (the base of defense of the city), and they are dredging harbors (in order for shipping to occur and thus for trade and commerce to happen). In addition, they are enacting laws and choosing “magistrates” (judges) to interpret and apply those laws. The “senate” which is being “chosen” is called “sacred” because the ancient notion is that such a body would be made up of the “wise old ones” of the group. (The word on which senate is based means, in Latin, both “old” and “wise.”) Finally, they are building a theatre—not, as we might think at first, for “entertainment,” but in order to fulfill the notion of “delight and instruct” we encountered in the discussion of the Greek Theatre which produced Oedipus the King.
Being received as a guest by Dido, Aeneas is invited to share the story of the fall of Troy, which he does. This section is the second of the four large sections for analyzing the poem, and it is discussed below.
Aeneas’s story is very moving, and his telling of it causes Dido to fall in love with him.
But notice the effect on the building of the city that is created because Dido falls in love with Aeneas:
Towers, half-built, rose No farther, men no longer trained in arms Or toiled to make harbors and battlements Impregnable. Projects were broken off, Laid over, and…