Study Guide

The Aeneid Mortality

By Virgil

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Book 4

At Dido's head she came to rest.
"This token
Sacred to Dis I bear away as bidden
And free you from your body."
Saying this,
She cut a lock of hair. Along with it
Her body's warmth fell into dissolution,
And out into the winds her life withdrew. (4.971-978)

These lines depict the death of Dido. The Romans believed that Proserpina, the goddess of the underworld, came to cut a lock of hair from a person about to die. Here, because Dido has died before her time, Proserpina hasn't come, so Juno sent down Iris to do the job instead. Aside from these cultural details, these lines are striking for their emphasis on death as a physical process.

Book 6

(The Sibyl:)
"The way downward is easy from Avernus.
Black Dis' door stands open night and day.
But to retrace your steps to heaven's air,
There is the trouble, there is the toil." (6.187-190)

Avernus is a lake near Naples; it was thought to be near the entrance to the underworld, also known as "Dis." It is possible to read the Sibyl's instructions completely literally – but they take on a whole added depth when you realize that she is talking metaphorically. If you don't see the metaphor at first, just think about how many people die, versus how many people die and come back. The way downward is easier, right? (For a highly original twentieth century reimagining of the descent to the underworld, check out the poem "Bavarian Gentians" by D. H. Lawrence.)

(The Sibyl):
"Cocytus is the deep pool that you see,
The swamp of Styx beyond, infernal power
By which the gods take oath and fear to break it.
All in the nearby crowd you notice here
Are pauper souls, the souls of the unburied.
Charon's the boatman. Those the water bears
Are souls of buried men. He may not take them
Shore to dread shore on the hoarse currents there
Until their bones rest in the grave, or till
They flutter and roam this side a hundred years;
They may have passage then, and may return
To cross the deeps they long for." (6.436-447)

As the Sibyl gives Aeneas her tour, we see more of the greatest hits of the ancient view of the underworld. We say "greatest hits" because most scholars now believe that the underworld as depicted in Book 6 of the Aeneid is a composite of various belief systems, and probably does not, in its entirety, reflect the true religious beliefs of Virgil of his Roman contemporaries. What literary reasons might have influenced Virgil to include this grim spectacle of the unburied, homeless dead?


"Must we imagine,
Father, there are souls that go from here
Aloft to upper heaven, and once more
Return to bodies' dead weight? The poor souls,
How can they crave our daylight so?" (6.965-969)

In The Birth of Tragedy, the German philosopher (and former classics professor) Friedrich Nietzsche refers to the ancient "wisdom of Silenus" (a legendary half man, half beast), according to which the best thing for mortals was never to be born – and that second best was to die soon. Aeneas's view in this line isn't quite that extreme, but it's close – something like, "Once you've lived and died, why would you bother going through all that trouble again?" (For a great twentieth century poem that asks the same question – and that gives the final voice to the desire to go do it again, check out W. B. Yeats's "A Dialogue of Self and Soul".) Aeneas's words pose a more immediate problem, however, since they could be applied to his own situation: he is currently in the underworld; shouldn't he be a bit more excited about going back to the living? In the end, Anchises's explanation of future Roman history is enough to fire Aeneas up with excitement to finish his mission.

Book 8

"If only Jupiter would give me back
The past years and the man I was, when I
Cut down the front rank by Praeneste wall
And won the fight and burned the piles of shields!" (8.760-764)

By wishing for his youth back, Evander implicitly complains about mortality. Unfortunately, things are going to get even worse for Evander once he loses his son Pallas, thus also cutting off his legacy.

Book 9

"What swerving, mother, do you ask of fate?
What privilege for these, your ships? Shall hulls
That mortal hands have made enjoy a right
That only immortals have?" (9.132-135)

If you have read Shakespeare's King Lear, these lines might remind you of the exchange at Act 4, Scene 6, lines 128-129, when the blind Gloucester says to Lear, "O, let me kiss that hand!" This prompts Lear's reply, "Let me wipe it first, it smells of mortality." As Jupiter's lines here suggest, he, too, views mortality as a form of contamination, something that has been passed on to ships built by humans. That said, he ends up giving in to his mother's demands – by allowing the ships to be transformed into sea-nymphs. Weird.

Book 10

"Every man's last day is fixed.
Lifetimes are brief, and not to be regained,
For all mankind. But by their deeds to make
Their fame last: that is labor for the brave.
Below the walls of Troy so many sons
Of gods went down, among them, yes, my child,
Sarpedon. Turnus, too, is called by fate.
He stands at the given limit of his years." (10.650-657)

These words by Jupiter present not so much a paradox as a contrast: between the brief lifespan allotted to mortals, and the lasting fame that some are able to achieve. These lines are especially indebted to the mindset of Homer's Iliad, in which fame (or, in Greek, kleos) is all-important. That said, in Homer, the afterlife was awful, whereas in Virgil, there is at least the potential that you might end up in Elysium, if you were a really good guy – plus you're going to get reincarnated. Look at the fifth quotation for the theme of Duty, where it lists the people who end up with sweet digs in the afterlife. These guys certainly aren't all warriors. How does this fact change your perception of Jupiter's speech here? Do you think that Virgil really subscribes to the Homeric value system, or is he promoting something different?

Book 11

Even while speaking she let slip the reins
And slid fainting to earth. Little by little,
Growing cold, the girl detached herself
From her whole body and put down her head,
Death's captive now, upon her strengthless neck,
And let her weapons fall.
Then, with a groan for that indignity,
Her spirit fled into the gloom below. (11.1125-1132)

These lines describe the death of the warrior-queen Camilla. Like the first poem in this section, they place the emphasis squarely on the physical process of dying. Notice anything else weird about this passage? That's right, the final two lines here are exactly the same as the two last lines of the poem. (Note: in the original, these are a single line: "uitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras.") In the final scene of the poem, it is easy to see what Virgil means by "that indignity" – Turnus has just been stabbed by Aeneas while he is begging for mercy. Here, though it's a little less clear. OK, so Camilla did die because she got hit with an arrow in her exposed breast, something that would certainly seem to qualify as an indignity. The immediate context of these lines almost makes you think that death itself is the indignity. What do you think? Could it be both? Why do you think Virgil used the same phrasing here and at the end of the poem anyway?

Dawn at that hour
Brought on her kindly light for ill mankind,
Arousing men to labor and distress. (11.251-253)

Even though he doesn't go as far as his hero, Virgil's narrator here expresses sentiments similar to those of Aeneas, in the fourth quotation from this section. That's because when Aeneas says he can't imagine why the souls of the dead would want to be reborn, he imagines the human condition as fundamentally burdensome. The narrator's position is more nuanced than the hero's however, because of the paradox that the light which brings "labor and distress" (in this case warfare) is also "kindly." After all, even though people are terrified of warfare, they are still glad for every new day that comes.


"When the long file had gone
A distance on its way, Aeneas halted,
Sighed from the heart, and spoke a final word:
"More of the same drear destiny of battle
Calls me back to further tears. Forever
Hail to you, my noble friend, my Pallas,
Hail and farewell forever." (11.127-133)

Of course, the greatest pain caused by death may be felt by the survivors. As Walt Whitman puts it in his famous poem for Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," "I saw the debris and debris of all the dead soldiers of the war; / But I saw they were not as was thought; / They themselves were fully at rest—they suffer'd not; / The living remain'd and suffer'd." In this case, the words Aeneas speaks to the dead Pallas are a common way of saying a last goodbye. For a precursor to these lines in Latin literature, check out this poem by the Roman poet Catullus.

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