Guide to the Classics: Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’

“Virgil reading his ‘Aeneid’ to Octavia and Augustus,” 1788, by Angelica Kauffmann. A legend in ancient Roman history tells of Octavia, the sister of the Emperor Augustus, who faints when hearing Virgil’s verses, which remind her of the early death of her son. (Public Domain)

The “Aeneid” by the Roman poet Virgil is an epic poem in 12 books that tells the story of the foundation of Rome from the ashes of Troy. It was probably written down in Rome from 30 B.C. to 19 B.C. during the period of the Emperor Augustus.

The poem is named after the Trojan hero Aeneas, the son of Venus (Aphrodite in Greek mythology) and Anchises, a Trojan aristocrat. Aeneas leads the survivors from the sack of Troy through the Mediterranean, and ultimately to the site of (future) Rome. The “Aeneid” is, therefore, a classic foundation narrative.

As with other ancient epics, our hero has to remain resolute in the face of significant divine hostility. Juno, queen of heaven and goddess of marriage, despises the Trojans because she lost a divine beauty contest known as the Judgment of Paris. Venus wins the Judgment by giving a bribe to Paris, a Trojan prince who acts as judge. The bribe is in the form of Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris prefers this bribe to the bribes of the other two contestants, Juno and Minerva.