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Definition: Aeneas, in Greek mythology from The Columbia Encyclopedia

(ĭnē'Әs), in Greek mythology, a Trojan, son of Anchises and Aphrodite. After the fall of Troy he escaped, bearing his aged father on his back. He stayed at Carthage with Queen Dido, then went to Italy, where his descendants founded Rome. The deeds of Aeneas are the substance of the great Roman epic, the Aeneid of Vergil


Summary Article: AENEAS from Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology

Aeneas was a hero of ancient Greek and Roman mythology. A Trojan prince, he was the son of a mortal, Anchises, and the Greek goddess Aphrodite (the Roman Venus). Aeneas was the legendary ancestor of the Roman race.

Although Troy was in Asia Minor (part of modern Turkey), it was thoroughly Hellenized, or influenced by Greek culture, through extensive trade with Greek colonies in the area. Thus, although the mythical Trojans were thought of as non-Greek, they intermarried with Greeks, practiced Greek customs, spoke Greek, and worshiped Greek gods, even tracing their royal line to the chief Greek deity, Zeus. The Trojan Aeneas was reckoned to be the offspring of the Greek goddess Aphrodite. The main source of stories about Aeneas is now the Aeneid, by Roman poet Virgil (70–19 BCE), but there were numerous legends about the hero long before in the Greek world.

Aphrodite did not take Anchises as a lover by choice. The match was forced on her by Zeus (the Roman Jupiter) as a punishment: he blamed her for using her power as the goddess of love to make him mate with mortal women. Aphrodite was ashamed of her liaison. She forbade Anchises to speak of it, but she vowed that their son would be a great hero. After Aeneas was born, he was cared for by some nymphs, who raised him until he was old enough to become a warrior.

Aeneas came of age on the eve of the Trojan War. Ancient Greeks and Romans believed that this conflict took place in the distant past, and that the cultural and political map of their own world was a consequence of the clash between the Greek "west" and the Trojan "east." According to this view, Aeneas, and other heroes, including Achilles and Odysseus, are transitional figures who stand at the brink of a monumental shift in human affairs. After the Trojan War, no longer would semidivine heroes such as Aeneas and Achilles decide the fate of nations, nor would the world be populated by the monsters and witches encountered by Aeneas and Odysseus.

The Trojan War was generally represented as Greek retaliation for Trojan aggression. With the help of the goddess Aphrodite, Paris, son of the Trojan king Priam, sailed to Greece, abducted Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaus, and brought her back to Troy to be his own bride. Aeneas accompanied Paris on this voyage, although he seems not to have been told in advance that their mission was to steal another man's wife. Menelaus was outraged, and with his brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, raised an army to invade Troy and rescue Helen. The Greeks sailed to Troy and besieged the city, which Aeneas helped defend as leader of a group of Trojan allies known as the Dardanians. He was one of Troy's most valiant defenders, although he was forced to flee from the Greek warrior Achilles and escaped death in battle on more than one occasion only through the intervention of the gods.

Although Aeneas and Priam were on the same side, there was friction between them. Their mutual dislike was attributed variously to Priam's disregard for Aeneas's contribution to the war effort, Aeneas's recommendation that the Trojans make a truce with the Greeks, and the historic rivalry between their two branches of the Trojan royal family. In any case, when the Greeks at last captured Troy, Aeneas, unlike most Trojan warriors, either escaped or was allowed to leave. The hero, with his aged father Anchises on his shoulders and his young son Ascanius (also called Julus) at his side, led a band of survivors from the ruined city; amid the confusion, however, he lost his Trojan wife, Creusa.

Mediterranean wanderings

The fugitive Trojans then wandered for years in search of a new home. As during the war, they were aided by Aphrodite and opposed by Hera (the Roman Juno), the wife of Zeus, who bore a grudge against Troy both because of her attachment to the Greeks and because of wrongs supposedly done to her by members of the Trojan royal family. During these wanderings the Trojans suffered—and some even died as a result of—storms and sickness, failed in a number of attempts to found a new city, and encountered other survivors of the Trojan War, all of whom were seemingly unable to escape from its aftermath.

Local shrines and myths commemorating various supposed stopping points in the Trojans' wanderings are found throughout the Mediterranean region. According to the stories, the Trojans first tried to found a new city, called Aenea, in Thrace, but were warned off by dreadful portents. Setting sail again, they put in at the island of Delos; there they were told by the oracle of Apollo that they should proceed to their "first mother." Anchises concluded that this must mean the island of Crete, original home of one branch of the Trojan royal family. Proceeding there, the Trojans attempted to found a city called Pergamea, one of the names for old Troy. However, when the Trojans were afflicted by a plague, they realized that "first mother" must refer to a different branch of the royal family that had originated in Italy.

The Flight from Troy by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) depicts Aeneas leaving the ruined city with his father, Anchises, on his shoulders.

Proceeding west, the Trojans stopped at the islands of the Harpies, where they encountered the same hideous flying creatures that had plagued Jason and the Argonauts. Sailing on, they put in at Actium on the west coast of Greece, where they held games in honor of Apollo. The next leg of their journey took them to Buthrotum in northwest Greece, where they met the seer Helenus, Priam's sole surviving son. Helenus provided Aeneas with information about the remainder of his journey. Sailing on to Sicily, the Trojans outwitted the Cyclopes and avoided the monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis that had caused problems for Odysseus. They next stopped at Drepanum, where Anchises died, apparently of old age. As they sailed on to mainland Italy, the goddess Juno sent a storm that wrecked many Trojan ships and drove the rest across the Mediterranean to Carthage on the coast of modern Tunisia.

In North Africa the Trojans were invited to join a colony of Phoenicians ruled by queen Dido. Aeneas fell in love with Dido, but the gods told him that the destiny of his people was to merge not with the Phoenicians but with Italians. So Aeneas reluctantly sailed away. He snuck away in the dead of night; when Dido found out that he had gone, she angrily swore that there would be unending conflict between the Carthaginians and the future Romans, and then killed herself.

The Trojans sailed back to Italy. Returning first to Sicily, they held funeral games for Anchises. According to another tradition, Anchises was buried on Mount Anchisia in Arcadia near a sanctuary of Aphrodite. After the games the Trojan women, tired of wandering, set fire to the ships, but Aeneas prayed to Zeus, who sent rain so that only four of the vessels were destroyed. Proceeding to Cumae (near modern Naples) on the Italian mainland, Aeneas consulted the Sibyl, a prophetess who conducted him to the underworld, having first instructed him to fetch a golden bough from a sacred forest. In the underworld Aeneas encountered the ghosts of his former allies and enemies, as well as the shade of his father, who instructed him about the future and showed him famous Romans to come. Guided by Anchises' instructions and by divine portents, the Trojans pressed on until they found the mouth of the Tiber River.

Approaching journey's end

Although they had reached their promised land, the Trojans' ordeals were not over. Aeneas attempted to form a pact with the inhabitants of the Tiber region, the Latins, whose king Latinus was himself of Greek descent. Latinus at first agreed to the alliance, and promised his daughter Lavinia to Aeneas. However, she was already pledged to Turnus, prince of the Rutulians, and he, goaded by Juno, threatened war. Aeneas then found an ally in Evander, king of another Italian colony of Greeks —Arcadians who had settled near the future site of Rome.

This oil painting by Italian artist Pietro da Cortona (1596–1669) is entitled Aeneas with King Evander and Pallas.

War broke out. On one side Turnus led a coalition of Latins, Rutulians, and Etruscans under the tyrant Mezentius. Against them were Aeneas's Trojans and their allies, including Evander's Arcadians, and another group of Etruscans under King Tarchon. Many on both sides died, including Evander's son Pallas and the brave young Trojans Nisus and Euryalus, as well as Mezentius and Camilla, a female warrior who fought for the Latins. In the course of the battle, Turnus tried to set fire to the Greek ships. However, Juno, upset because the ships were made of wood from her forests, appealed to Jupiter, who decreed that the ships be transformed into sea nymphs.

The death of a hero

Incensed by the death of Pallas, Aeneas killed Turnus in battle. With their champion dead, the Latin coalition sued for peace. Juno at last accepted the Trojans' presence along the Tiber, her only remaining condition being that they should no longer bear the name of the city she despised. Aeneas married Lavinia, who had been betrothed to Turnus. In some accounts she was the mother of Julus; she was perhaps also the mother of Aeneas's daughter Ilia. Aeneas proceeded to rule a Trojan-Italian people from a new city named Lavinium, near the future site of Rome (which was established later by Aeneas's descendants Romulus and Remus).

Aeneas died only three years after arriving in Italy. In some accounts, he died in battle; in others, he simply vanished after his victory. After his death, Aphrodite appealed successfully to the other gods to make her son immortal like other heroes, such as Heracles.

See also: ACHILLES; AGAMEMNON; APHRODITE; CYCLOPES; HELEN; HERA; HERACLES; JASON; JUNO; JUPITER; MENELAUS; ODYSSEUS; PARIS; PRIAM; ROMULUS AND REMUS; VENUS; ZEUS.

Further reading
  • Homer, and Robert Fagles, trans. The Odyssey. New York: Penguin, 2009.
  • Virgil, and Robert Fagles, trans. The Aeneid. New York: Penguin, 2009.
JIM MARKS
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