The Aeneid


The Aeneid, written by Virgil a classical Roman poet who lived just before the birth of Christ, tells the legend of the adventures of Aeneas, a Trojan who is fleeing from Troy after it was destroyed by the Greeks in the Trojan War. In order to find a new home Aeneas and the remaining Trojan citizens set sail for Italy, where Aeneas has been told that he is destined to found a new and glorious city Ö this city will eventually become Rome.


As they near their destination, a fierce storm throws them off course and lands them in Carthage. Dido, Carthageís founder and queen, welcomes them. Aeneas relates to Dido the long and painful story of his groupís travels thus far.


Impressed by Aeneasís exploits and sympathetic to his suffering, Dido, a Phoenician princess who fled her home and founded Carthage after her brother murdered her husband, falls in love with Aeneas. They live together as lovers for a period, until the gods remind Aeneas of his duty to found a new city. He determines to set sail once again. Dido is devastated by his departure, and kills herself by ordering a huge pyre to be built with Aeneasís castaway possessions, climbing upon it, and stabbing herself with the sword Aeneas leaves behind.


After leaving Carthage the Trojans land in Sicily where Aeneas dreams about his father who tells him that he must visit the Sibyl of Cumae (a prophet) to ask for guidance. As such the Trojans head for Cumae (near modern day Naples) and Aeneas asks the Sibyl if he can go to visit his father in the Underworld to ask for further advice. The Sibyl informs him that to enter the Underworld with any hope of returning, he must find a golden branch in the nearby forest. She instructs him that if the bough breaks off the tree easily, he will be able to enter underworld but if not, he canít go. Aeneas goes to the forest, which is huge, but after praying he is guided to the golden bough by two doves sent by the gods. When he returns with the golden bough, the Sibyl agrees to be his guide down into the Underworld


When he meets his father, Aeneas is shown a vision of the future history and heroes of Rome, which helps him to understand the importance of his mission. Aeneas returns from the underworld, and the Trojans continue up the coast to the region of Latium. After a long and bloody battle the Trojans eventually defeat King Latinus and his people and establish themselves as the rulers of Italy.


This is of particular relevance to the Wasteland because firstly the idea of the fall of Troy, a great city of wealth, learning and nobility represents the decay from a more cultured and civilised society into the modern Wasteland. Secondly, Aeneas epic journey to find a homeland represents that troubles that must be overcome and the difficulty of the process of rebirth while the eventual founding of Rome suggests the coming of a second greatness. Finally, the role of the Sibyl as guide and visionary echoes Eliotís vision of himself as a prophet who can see the state of the world more clearly than ordinary people and is thus in a position to guide us towards deliverance.


Important Themes:

The Sufferings of Wanderers

The first half of the Aeneid tells the story of the Trojansí wanderings as they make their way from Troy to Italy. Ancient culture was oriented toward familial loyalty and geographic origin, and stressed the idea that a homeland is oneís source of identity. Because homelessness implies instability of both situation and identity, it is a form of suffering in and of itself. But Virgil adds to the sufferings of the wandering Trojans by putting them at the mercy of forces larger than themselves. On the sea, their fleet buffeted by frequent storms, the Trojans must repeatedly decide on a course of action in an uncertain world. The Trojans also feel disoriented each time they land on an unknown shore or learn where they are without knowing whether it is the place where they belong. As an experience that is uncertain in every way, the long wanderings at sea serve as a metaphor for the kind of wandering that is characteristic of life in general and this is perhaps why Eliot saw it as such a powerful metaphor encapsulating how he felt when considering the Ďwastelandí of modern culture and society. We and Virgilís Roman audience know what fate has in store for the Trojans, but the wandering characters themselves do not. Because these individual human beings are not always privy to the larger picture of destiny, they are still vulnerable to fears, surprises, desires, and unforeseen triumphs.


The Glory of Rome

Virgil wrote the Aeneid during what is known as the Golden Age of the Roman Empire, under the auspices of Romeís first emperor, Caesar Augustus, an era which Eliot at points clearly harks back to. The Aeneid paints a picture of Rome as a social, moral and cultural pinnacle where order and good government have triumphed over the Italian people, whose world prior to the Trojansí arrival is characterized as a primitive existence of war, chaos, and emotional irrationality. The city stands for civilization and order itself, a remedy for the uncertainty, irrationality, and confusion that abounds in the wasteland.



The Golden Bough

According to the Sibyl, the priestess of Apollo, the golden bough is the symbol Aeneas must carry in order to gain access to the underworld. It is unusual for mortals to be allowed to visit the realm of the dead and then return to life. The golden bough is therefore the sign of Aeneasís special privilege.