In this episode of Literary Tales we unpack Virgil’s famous epic, the Aeneid, especially his use of history, historical consciousness, and historical imagery, in driving the epic onward to its conclusion. We learn, in this deconstruction, that the Aeneid is much more than a mytho-poetic epic; it relies on the very memory and experience of Roman history and is an enduring reminder of historical consciousness.

Francesco Solimena, “Dido Receiving Aeneas and Cupid Disguised as Ascanius,” 1720. The relationship between Aeneas and Dido, which dominates the first half of Virgil’s Aeneid, is a poetic justification and retelling of the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. Virgil relies on memories and imagery of the Punic War to drive this section of the epic forward.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, “The Death of Dido,” 1781. The death of Dido in a flaming pyre evokes the imagery of the burning of Carthage in the Third Punic War – thereby foreshadowing Carthage’s fate with the very fate of Queen Dido.
Lorenzo Castro, “The Battle of Actium.” 1672. The Battle of Actium became the significant engagement in Augustan historiography. In actuality, the battle was less significant than later historians made it out to be. Nonetheless, the “bronze ships at Actium” feature prominently on the “Shield of Aeneas” as he marches into battle to face Turnus. The symbolism of real history in the Aeneid helps communicate the message of Virgil’s epic. The Roman march of progress and civilization cannot be stopped.
Luca Giordano, “Aeneas Defeats Turnus,” 1688. The duel between Aeneas and Turnus symbolizes the eventual Roman defeat of Greece: Aeneas is the founder of Rome (also a Trojan) and Turnus has “Greek blood” and is conceived of as the “New Achilles” or “Achilles of the West.” Aeneas’ defeat of Turnus foreshadows Rome’s eventual subjugation of Italy (the allies of Turnus) and Greece (Turnus himself).
Thomas Cole, “The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire,” 1836. Civilization and Empire are two themes that are intimately intertwined in classical philosophy and the epic of the Aeneid. Aeneas represents all that is good in Roman civilization: piety (duty), masculine virtue (heroism and leadership), and soldier (defender of his people).

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