Study Guide

The Aeneid Primitiveness

By Virgil


Book 1

There's a spot
Where at the mouth of a long bay an island
Makes a harbor, forming a breakwater
Where every swell divides as it comes in
And runs far into curving recesses.
There are high cliffs on this side and on that,
And twin peaks towering heavenward impend
On reaches of still water. Over these,
Against a forest backdrop shimmering,
A dark and shaggy grove casts a deep shade,
While on the cliffside opposite, below
The overhanging peaks, there is a cave
With fresh water and seats in the living rock,
The home of nymphs. Here never an anchor chain,
Never an anchor's biting fluke need hold
A tired ship. (1.216-233)

These lines describe the natural harbor where the Trojans first come to land on the shore of Libya. Although we don't know it yet when we first read these lines, on returning to them they can be interpreted as a reminder that Carthage is only in its infancy when the story begins. They also look forward to the scenes of primitive Italy, which will appear in the second half of the poem.

Book 8

Conversing of such matters, going toward
Austere Evander's house, they saw his cattle
Lowing everywhere in what is now
Rome's Forum and her fashionable quarter,
Carinae. (8.474-478)

Even more striking is the contrast Virgil here draws between Evander's settlement and the Rome of his day – which occupied the same site. Based on evidence elsewhere in Virgil's poem (or in his other poems, The Eclogues and The Georgics, if you have read them), do you think that Virgil thinks this change was for the better?

"These woodland places
Once were homes of local fauns and nymphs
Together with a race of men that came
From tree trunks, from hard oak: they had no way
Of settled life, no arts of life, no skill
At yoking oxen, gathering provisions,
Practicing husbandry, but got their food
From oaken boughs and wild game hunted down.
In that first time, out of Olympian heaven,
Saturn came here in a flight from Jove in arms,
An exile from a kingdom lost; he brought
These unschooled men together from the hills
Where they were scattered, gave them laws, and chose
The name of Latium, from his latency
Or safe concealment in this countryside.
In his reign were the golden centuries
Men tell of still, so peacefully he ruled,
Till gradually a meaner, tarnished age
Came on with fever of war and lust of gain." (8.415-433)

In this extended passage, Evander describes the primitive state of Latium, before it became the home for settled, human communities. Despite the contrast he draws between past and present, however, it is clear that the Arcadians live in relative harmony with nature.

Their tarry hulls with bubbling wakes behind
Slipped through the water, and the waves were awed,
The virgin woods were awed at this new sight:
The soldiers' shields that flashed in distant air,
The painted ships afloat upon the river. (8.122-128)

In these lines, the Trojans sailing up the Tiber river to visit King Evander appear as representatives of a modern (comparatively) civilization entering the primitive wilderness. It is difficult to read these lines today without being reminded of countless images we have seen of the Europeans' first arrival in North America. Based on Virgil's poem, do you think the consequences of this arrival will be as dire for the local civilizations of Italy as they were for the original inhabitants of North America?

As they came up to the door,
Evander said:
"In victory Hercules
Bent for this lintel, and these royal rooms
Were grand enough for him. Friend, have the courage
To care little for wealth, and shape yourself,
You too, to merit godhead. Do not come
Disdainfully into our needy home." (8.478-485)

Now Evander instructs Aeneas not to look down on his humble life; heck, if Hercules thought it was OK, then anyone should. To gain a sense of the value Virgil's poem places on the simple life, compare Evander's instructions on how "to merit godhead" (i.e., become a god) with Anchises's discussion of how souls are contaminated by worldly desires when he teaches Aeneas about reincarnation in Book 6.

On this he called for dishes and winecups
Already taken off to be brought back,
As he himself gave the guests grassy seats
And led Aeneas to the place of honor—
A maple chair cushioned with lionskin. (8.235-239)

Here we see more evidence of the Arcadians' primitive, rustic way of life.

Book 9

"Tough pioneer's our stock. Our boys are keen
At hunting, and they wear the forests out;
Their pastimes are horse-taming and archery.
Hard labor, too, and a life of poverty
Our young men are inured to: they can crumble
Earth with hoes or shake walled towns in war." (9.841-848)

From Evander's perspective, this wouldn't count as primitiveness. The tough, agricultural life Numanus describes sounds a lot more like the "meaner, tarnished age" he describes in the third quotation from this section as having replaced the original golden age. Still, if you look at what Numanus is saying, here and in the rest of his speech, he is definitely portraying his own peoples' life as more primitive than that of the dandified city dwellers he imagines the Trojans to be. Numanus places a different value on primitiveness than Evander does – not as providing a life of harmony and peace, but as making a nation tough enough for war.

Book 11

Deft hands now made a pliant bed of wicker,
Arbutus shoots and oak twigs interwoven,
Shading the piled-up couch with screens of leaves.
Here on his rustic bed they lay the prince,
Most like a flower a girl's fingers plucked,
Soft-petaled violet or hyacinth
With languid head, as yet not discomposed
Or faded, though its mother earth no longer
Nourishes it and makes it stand in bloom. (11.87-95)

This description of the funeral of Evander's son Pallas reinforces the poem's depiction of the Arcadians as connected with the earth. This is achieved primarily through the simile (that is, a poetic comparison) that likens Pallas to a flower. And yet, if Pallas the Arcadian is like a flower, and a flower can be picked – and thus destroyed by the hand of man – what do these lines suggest about the potential fate of the rest of Arcadian society?

Book 12

But gazing from the height we now call Alban—
Nameless then, it had no fame or glory—
Juno surveyed the plain, the facing lines,
Troy's and Laurentum's and Latinus' town. (12.182-185)

By taking care to indicate that the "height we now call Alban" did not yet have a name at the period when the Aeneid takes place, Virgil emphasizes the primitiveness of his poem's setting.

At this, Turnus grew mad with fear. He said:
"Faunus, have pity, I entreat you! Gracious
Earth, hold fast the steel, if I have honored you
All my life, whereas Aeneas' men
Warred on you and profaned you."
So he prayed
And asked divine assistance, not in vain (12.1049-1055)

In these lines, Turnus draws a sharp contrast between himself (and, by extension, his people), who are from the land they are fighting in, and Aeneas and his men, who are potentially dangerous outsiders. By praying to the guardian spirits of the land, his primitive (in the sense of being their first) status in Italy pays off, when the gods prevent Aeneas from being able to pull his spear out of a tree-stump. Unfortunately, more powerful gods – and the fates – are on the side of the Trojans, and primitive Italy is destined to fall under the sway of a more modern empire.

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