Aeneas and Turnus by Luca Giordano 17th century

History Versus Legend: In Search of Aeneas, the Trojan Refugee

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Roman mythology designates Aeneas as the founder of the great nation of Rome and ancestor to its peoples. In fact, his story begins long before Rome came into existence. While the Romans lay claim to what should be considered a purely mythological patriarch, is there any historical basis to the man and the epic in his name?

The Aeneid: Wanderings of Aeneas

Born on October 15th, 70 BC, Publius Virgilius Maro or Virgil, would be regarded as one of Rome’s greatest poets. Commissioned under Augustus, his incomplete and finest work, the Aeneid, would be published and well received, posthumously. On his deathbed, Virgil gave clear instructions to destroy all copies of the epic. Obviously, this did not happen. Virgil died on September 21, 19 BC.

Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia.

Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia. ( Public Domain )

What made the Aeneid so special? The Aeneid records the wanderings of Aeneas, alongside his fellow Trojan refugees, from Troy to eventually colonizing Italy and uniting all of Latium. Aeneas would become the legendary forefather of Romulus and Remus and in turn, the Romans. His tale would be heralded as a national epic.

The Iliad alludes to Aeneas and his survival of the Trojan War, when the Trojan warrior was pitted in face to face combat with the vengeful Achilles following the loss of his dear and close friend, Patroclus, to Hector. Book 20.300-308 of the Iliad reads:

“But come, let us lead him out from death, lest the son of Cronos be angry in some way if Achilles slays him; for it is fated for him to escape so that the race of Dardanus may not perish without seed and be seen no more - Dardanus whom the son of Cronos loved above all the children born to him from mortal women. For now has the son of Cronos come to hate the race of Priam; and now surely will the mighty Aeneas be king among the Trojans, and his sons’ sons who will be born in the days to come.”

Traditions of Aeneas and his migration from the Dardanelles spread throughout the Roman world. The first connection between Aeneas, his travels, and the founding of the Roman civilization can be dated to as early as the writings of third century Latin poet, Naevius. It is generally believed that the works of Naevius greatly inspired Virgil.

Aeneas' Flight from Troy.

Aeneas' Flight from Troy. ( Public Domain )

We also have the Tabula Iliaca , a Roman monument dating to the Augustan era and originally erected at Bovillae, 12 miles Southeast of Rome, illustrating scenes from the fall of Troy.

Tabula Iliaca: relief with illustrations drawn from the Homeric poems and the Epic Cycle, first century BC

Tabula Iliaca: relief with illustrations drawn from the Homeric poems and the Epic Cycle, first century BC. ( Public Domain )

Under the scene depicting Aeneas and his father Anchises, who is carrying the “sacred objects”, and departing for Hesperia, an inscription reads “Sack of Troy according to Stesichorus.” Now, modern scholars remain skeptical with this citation. Part of the Trojan Cycle, the Iliupersis (or Sack of Ilium) is a lost ancient Greek epic and survives only in fragments. Was it originally composed by the sixth century BC poet Stesichorus? Its original author remains a mystery and whether or not there is poetic text alluding to Aeneas remains to be validated.

Traditions such as these among the others circulating at the time would have produced assorted legends in which Virgil wove together into a single and comprehensive narrative; of course, with artistic liberties.

Dido and Aeneas

Dido and Aeneas ( Public Domain )

It goes without saying that the Aeneid was also greatly inspired by Homer and his Iliad and Odyssey. For instance, Aeneas' love affair with Dido shows many parallels to that of Odysseus and Calypso in the Odyssey. The funeral games of Patroclus in Book 23 of the Iliad mirror the competitions held by Aeneas on the anniversary of his father’s death. Aeneas’ descent into the Underworld shows many similarities to that of Odysseus and his voyage to the realm of Hades.

Historically, the literary evidence does not stretch as far back in time as we would like. This leaves us with the archaeology of the Mediterranean during what has been considered a very volatile period in our human history.

The Mysterious Collapse of the Bronze Age

At around 1200 BC, the world of the Eastern Mediterranean would bring about a change like no other. The great civilizations of the Bronze Age collapsed and in some cases disappeared completely from the historical record. The Iron Age marked a new beginning. The Hittite empire immediately dissolved to give rise to the Neo-Hittite city-states. The Canaanite cities faced inner turmoil as its inhabitants resettled into the highlands and more isolated communities. The Phoenicians, Israelites, Moabites, among others rose from the ashes of old. Egypt barely survived but never retained its former glory.

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