Becoming a True Roman
First, let's consider the most explicit and obvious theme of the poem-whether it is the true underlying message of the poem is another question.
Virgil announces the theme of his epic in his opening lines: Arms and a man I sing, who first from the shores of Troy
exiled by fate came to Italy and to the Lavinian
shores-much was he buffeted on the earth and on the sea
by the power of the gods, on account of the unforgetting anger of cruel Juno,
much also he suffered in war, until he could found a city
and carry his gods into Latium-whence the Latin race,
and the Alban fathers and the walls of high Rome.
(Book 1, lines 1-7)
He sums it up again at the end of the introductory section of Book 1, in line 33. "Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem." Roughly, "This is how hard it was to found the Roman people." We could sum up both expressions of the theme in these words: this is how much one man had to go through to found the Roman people. By extension, Virgil seems to be saying, this is what it takes to be a true Roman, to act in a way that helps to realize the divine destiny of Rome, which is to bring about a peaceful world. The imperial mission of Virgil's poem is to remind Romans of this destiny and to call them to live more as true Romans, less as wealth-hungry, power-hungry exploiters of those they had conquered. The more they lived the ideals he taught, the less likely a return of the civil wars that had torn the country apart for so long, until the victory of Augustus. Augustus wanted a renewal of ancient Roman values, and so powerful was Virgil's poem thought to be as a force for such a renewal that as soon as it was published it became a school text.
Looked at in this way, everything Aeneas goes through has meaning for everyone who aspires to be a true Roman. In part, the first five books show the basic strengths such a human being must have, in part they show how much he must give up, how much he must outgrow. (There were women who were true Romans, heroic by the Roman standard, but since the heroes were mostly male, and for the sake of simplicity, the use of "he" seems appropriate here.)
To take the basic requirements first: He must have strong natural pietas, reverencing and obeying the gods, reverencing, loving, and obeying his father and his other ancestors, loving and willingly doing his duty by his wife and children, being easily moved to compassion by the sufferings of all human beings. That last quality, of fellow feeling with all human beings, is humanitas, and without that Roman rule would be harsh and exploitative-as Virgil knew it too often had been.
All these qualities Aeneas has from the beginning, but they are not enough. At first, like an Homeric hero, he wants death in battle and glory; he must give that up. He must become willing to put aside his human need for love. He must accept not only the loss of his homeland, Troy, but the loss of his wife, the loss of Dido, the loss of the comforting presence of his father. At first, Aeneas can only give up what he must give up under the direct influence of the gods or of his father. The comparison of Aeneas to an oak tree rooted deep in the Underworld, with its branches stretching toward heaven has been given as the fourth of the "top ten quotations," and it has been discussed in the section on metaphors. For ease of reference, here is the translation again:
With such words [Dido] prays, with such lamentations
the most wretched sister speaks and speaks again [to Aeneas]. But he is not
with any lamentations, nor does he hear any voices gently;
the fates oppose [it], the god stops the man's kind ears.
And just as when an oak [is] mighty with ancient strength,
[and] the Alpine north winds with their blasts, now from this side, now from that,
strive against each other to uproot it, and high
branches strew the ground from the shaken trunk,
[the tree] itself clings to the crags, and as high as it reaches with its top to the
high in the air, so deep it reaches with its root into the Underworld;
not otherwise the hero is assailed by voices from this place and that,
and in his great breast he feels grief,
[yet] the mind remains unmoved; the tears fall useless.
(Book 4, lines 437-449)
Notice that it is "the god" who "stops the man's kind ears." If Mercury had not given him orders direct from Zeus, how could he have found the strength to leave? And weak as he in so many ways is during the first five books, how can he face the warfare waiting for him in Italy? He must be deeper rooted in the Underworld; he must in fact go down into the Underworld for the contact with a deeper power that can alone transform a hero full of human weakness into a Roman hero.
Wisdom Gained from the Underworld
Here the questions begin. What is it about his experience in the Underworld that transforms Aeneas? Perhaps it is the wisdom Anchises gives him about the true nature of the universe, when he explains that one soul animates the whole universe, and all living things are born of it. Their souls are divine fire, but their bodies keep them in darkness and full of all kinds of emotions, and even when they die, the taints of the body remain, and they must be purified. Growth toward the full realization of such a vision would certainly be easier in a peaceful world, but if that is what Virgil was thinking, he says little that would express it. Far more time is spent on the vision of the heroes of Rome to be, and Virgil tells us that Anchises has kindled in his son's soul the love of coming fame. Then he describes Aeneas's return to the upper world through the gate of false dreams.
Certainly one of the main themes of the last six books of the Aeneid is that love of fame is not only and always a good thing: it can lead to a kind of combat that is far more destructive than it needs to be. It can lead to a love of warfare as a place to win fame. And yet, how are men to be inspired to fight when fighting is necessary without the hope of winning glory? There is also the message that even those who fight only under compulsion and with the best motives will inevitably be taken over at times by rage and lose their humanitas.
Yes, Aeneas is stronger and calmer in the last six books. He has put concern with his own human fulfillment behind him and lives for the fulfillment of his high destiny. He has been told that he will live only three years after his marriage to Lavinia, and there is no hint of any expectation that this marriage will bring him anything but another son, who will play a key role in the process that will lead to the founding of Rome. But so sad is his victory over himself that it seems fitting, when we meet Virgil in Dante's Divine Comedy, that he should be incapable of really understanding the joy of Heaven or the bliss Dante will get from seeing Beatrice again. Those who made the Aeneid a textbook, however, were not troubled by what has troubled later readers. Nor was the twentieth century Italian Fascist dictator Mussolini, who extolled the Aeneid as a means of stirring up Italian patriotism.