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Barron's Booknotes-The Aeneid by Virgil-Free Book Summary
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(VI. 86-90)

Poor Aeneas! He's come all this way to find out that he's headed for another war, a war that will be a replay of the Trojan War. (Xanthus and Simois were rivers near Troy.) He will even have to face another warrior as fierce as Achilles.


It's important to keep this prediction in mind as you read Books VII- XII of the Aeneid. The war in Italy will parallel the Trojan War in many ways except that, as you already know, the Trojans will win. Why do the Trojans win this time? Is it because of fate or the gods, because their cause is just, or because the Trojans have changed since Troy? You'll have to wait and see. But in the meantime, note how this prediction fits in with the theme of death and rebirth. Troy died, but in a way it's going to live again. The Trojans are going to get a second chance.

If Aeneas is upset he doesn't show it, but he quickly changes the subject to his second reason for coming to the Sibyl. He needs her help to reach the underworld to visit his father, as Anchises told him to do in Book V.

The Sibyl tells Aeneas that in order to come back alive he must first bury one of his men, who has died without his knowing it, and second that he must find a golden bough of a tree. Aeneas finds the man and goes into the forest to cut wood for his funeral pyre. He's wondering how he can possibly find a golden bough, when Venus sends two white doves who show him where it is. (The golden bough is a famous symbol for resurrection. The Golden Bough is the title of a well-known book by James Frazer, which describes many different myths on this theme.)

Now, Aeneas and the Sibyl are ready for their journey. Aeneas follows her into a huge dark cave that the ancient Romans believed was the mouth of the underworld. (There really is a huge cave near Cumae.) Aeneas can hardly see where he's going. Strange shapes flit by him as he descends. He draws his sword, but the Sibyl warns him that they are only phantoms.

They reach the underworld river, Acheron, where a sour old man named Charon ferries across dead souls. He will only take souls who have been buried. Here Aeneas sees his former pilot, Palinurus, who tells him that his body is lying on the coast of Italy-unburied. He begs Aeneas to help him cross the river, but the Sibyl interrupts and hurries Aeneas on. We see the finality of death. Palinurus' fate is sealed and Aeneas can no longer help him, even though Aeneas really wants to.

They cross the Acheron and come to the Fields of Mourning, where souls who were ruined by love stay. Aeneas has a shock when he sees Dido here. He reaches out to her and tries to talk to her and offer some consolation, but Dido turns her back and walks away. Remember, in Book IV, how Aeneas couldn't or wouldn't say anything to make Dido feel any better? This time the tables are turned and it is Dido who can't or won't say anything to make Aeneas feel any better. Here, again, we see how death ends everything. Aeneas would like to try to make things a little better between them. But Dido can't change. She's fixed in her sorrow and anger.

They pass other sad characters and avoid the place where people who led wicked lives are tortured forever. Included here are people who caused civil wars. Remember how much Virgil hated the civil wars in Rome before Augustus put an end to them? He gets his revenge by putting all those people in hell.

Finally they pass through some gates and leave the sad and dark part of the underworld behind. Aeneas sees a beautiful world of green fields, sunlight, and flowers. This is Elysium, the part of the underworld for those who have led good and productive lives. Anchises is here. Aeneas bursts into tears and tries to hug his father, but Anchises is only a shade and he flutters away. Aeneas must be content to talk.

Anchises points into the distance and shows Aeneas a group of shades who are ready to return to life. Aeneas can't believe that anyone would deliberately go back to the upper world with all its hardships. But Anchises explains that souls are purified in the underworld for 1000 years and then they drink the waters of forgetfulness so that they can return to life fresh and pure.


Doesn't this sound a lot like reincarnation? This idea has been around a long time in many different cultures. Virgil gives us his own brand here, combining ideas from Plato, the Stoics, and other Greek philosophers. Note the parallel to what is going to happen to Aeneas. His short journey into the underworld is going to renew him, give him fresh strength, and make him forget his old Trojan life.

Finally Anchises shows Aeneas the parade of great Romans who will be born in the future. First, he points out the long line of early kings of Alba Longa (the city that Aeneas' son, Ascanius, will build after Aeneas dies). Then he points out Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome itself. Next to Romulus is Augustus, the great rebuilder of Rome after the civil wars. (Note that by putting Augustus right next to Romulus, Virgil seems to be suggesting that Augustus is as great as the founder of Rome.) On the other side of the field, Anchises points to the great leaders of the Roman Republic before Augustus and the great generals, including Julius Caesar and Pompey.

Finally Anchises tells Aeneas that the Romans' great gift will be for ruling.

To rule the people under law, to establish The way of peace, to battle down the haughty, To spare the meek. Our fine arts, these, forever.

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