Aeneas in Italy

One of the most interesting parts of Virgil’s Aeneid is the description of the events that happened after Aeneas left the underworld. 

The Dardanians/Trojans set sail again, now closer to their destination in central Italy than ever. They had to overcome the last menace – the land of the legendary sorceress Circe. You may have heard her name – she was featured in Homer’s Odyssey and was well-known for her inclination to turn good people to filthy animals. Odysseus/Ulysses spent quite a long time with her – first trying to explain to her that turning his men to pigs was not a good deed and then enjoying the welcome break in the long and dangerous journey to back his wife and making sweet love to Circe instead.

Aeneas did not have to bother with Circe at all. The gods sent him a favourable wind and he managed to avoid meeting her altogether.

Finally, he and his ships reached their destination and dropped their anchors in the lovely mouth of the river Tiber. This was really their promised land. A lovely river, lovely see, lovely birds singing around – just a joy to be there.

But this land was not just waiting for the Trojans to settle there. It was not empty. It belonged to a king called Latinus. Latinus was an elderly king; wise and patient with a lot of authority. He was of a divine origin too – his great-grandfather was (allegedly) Saturn, the mythical father of some of the mightiest gods (Jupiter, Neptune, Pluto, Juno, Ceres or Vesta) and the ruler during the so-called Golden age of mankind. Family connections like these would probably make him even more respected than this proclaimed son of Venus called Aeneas.

While Latinus was definitely past his physical prime at this point, the question of his inheritance had not been answered yet. He had fathered a son, but that child died long ago and now there was only his daughter Lavinia to preserve his line. As you might expect, women were seldom respected heirs to ancient kingdoms. Therefore, the most likely scenario would involve her marrying one of the kings or princes in the neighbourhood who would then take over Latinus. And that neighbourhood was full of aspiring noblemen. The hottest candidate (most serious and most handsome too) was called Turnus. He already worked hard to get the princess’ hand and managed to secure the support of the queen (Latinus’ wife Amata).

But there was always something preventing the marriage of Lavinia and Turnus. For some reason, the omens just seemed to be really unfavourable. Strange things, including weirdly behaving bees, princess’ hair on fire or the king’s old fortune-telling father, prophesized the arrival of a great hero, an upcoming war and a great future for his people if Latinus just doesn’t marry off his daughter to a local man and chooses the foreigner instead.

(Note – for some unknown reason Virgil really likes to demonstrate gods’ will in form of a flame in someone’s head; it happened to both Iulus in Troy and now Lavinia in Italy)

After the Trojans landed, the first thing they realized was that they haven’t eaten for a while. They were still far from any town, so they used heavy bread as tables and ate all their food from them. On a feast like this, they got so into it that they even ate those loaves of bread. Iulus had a witty remark about this- “We even ate the tables”. That was the moment when they realized a funny thing – it had been foretold. Back in the beginning of their journey the Harpies prophesized that in Italy they will starve so much they would eat the tables. Well, this prophecy was now fulfilled and it didn’t bother them at all.

Aeneas decided it was good manners to send emissaries to the local king. Latinus talked to them in his palace. It was not a secret that the legendary founder of Aeneas’ hometown of Dardanus came exactly from this land in Italy. The guests brought gifts and did not ask for much – just peace and a small piece of land. Latinus gladly agreed. After all, he immediately recognized that the leader of these men must be the promised foreign son-in-law and he was really keen to see him ASAP. He gave the emissaries horses, so they can return quickly and selected some kind of superhorses with flames coming out of their nostrils.  

While Latinus was already planning the details of his daughter’s marriage, his wife did not want to hear a word about it. Queen Amata tried to convince him that marrying off his only child to some random guy is not the brightest idea; that this move would only bring war to them. She even mentioned that if Latinus really insisted on having a foreigner as a son-in-law, Turnus happened to have a Greek great-grandfather and would surely qualify him as a foreigner too. Latinus didn’t listen at all and his mind was made up.

Queen Amata was not the only one who didn’t like his decision – there was Turnus himself too. He was enraged by the impudence of Latinus’ new plans. He swiftly gathered his tribe, the Rutuli, and declared war on both Latinus and Aeneas.

As if this weren’t enough trouble for the Trojans, they managed to enrage the subjects of king Latinus. Aeneas’ son Iulus happened to hunt down a majestically looking stag. What he did not know was, that this particular stag was a favourite pet of the king’s shepherd Tyrrhus.  Tyrrhus’ family and friends reacted in a predictable way – attacked the Trojans immediately. What they didn’t know was the full extent of the martial abilities of the Trojans. I guess one learns to fight quite well when engaged in a 10-year long siege. Out of a sudden, the struggle brought its first causalities. The shepherds, enraged even more, turned to their king and demanded a quick declaration of war on Aeneas. King Latinus didn’t deliver.  Steady in his opinion to treat the Trojans as friends he was overwhelmed by the opposition. Just about everyone but he was keen to start this war. He still refused to submit. He was pushed by the public opinion, but refused to command his army to this war and retreated to his chambers.

His tribe was not convinced by this. They wanted the war and went for it despite the opinion of their king. When Latinus refused to lead them, they turned to Turnus. Turnus managed to assemble quite an army at this point. Among his soldiers and generals, you could find:

  • A son of Hercules
  • A nearly immortal son of Neptune (could not be killed by fire or sword)
  • A veteran of the Trojan war (having fought on the Greek’s side, of course)
  • A beautiful warrior maiden Camilla from the tribe of Volsci who could outmatch men in combat and outrun the wind
  • An overthrown Etruscan tyrant Mezentius accompanied by his son. Mezentius had infamously treated his subjects in a rather unorthodox way. Tying the corpses of the murdered Etruscans to the living ones, was just one of his specialities.
  • Many brave and strong warriors that were proud descendants of famous heroes or ancestors of the future respected Roman families

Aeneas had every right to be nervous from the threat of such a great force. But, as several times before, gods came to his aid. This time it was Tiberinus, the god of the river Tiber, who appeared in his dream and shared the usual prophecies and useful advice. Aeneas learned that he was destined to found a city on the location where a white pig with 30 piglets was going to be discovered. This was hardly news for Aeneas, it has already been foretold by Helenus long before they reached Italy, you must be polite when listening to gods and cannot just go “Skip this, I already know it”. Tiberinus mentioned also other handy tips. There was supposed to be a tribe of Arcadians, coming from Greece, but living in Italy, hostile to the Latins, led by a king called Euandrus (Evander) and this tribe would make excellent allies to the Trojans. Moreover, just to show how great a friend a river god can be, Tiberinus promised, that if Aeneas had ever desired to tame the stream of the river, there would be absolutely no problem with that.

 Then, just as Aeneas was making preparations to visit this Evander, the long-awaited omen was observed. The white pig and 30 little piglets were discovered.  So, what was the first thing Aeneas did? Did he build the promised new town on that spot? Oh no! He killed the sow and the piglets. Technically, he made a sacrifice to the goddess Juno (the one who really didn’t like him), but still…

Right after that, he set sail to visit the Arcadians. They were just celebrating festivities dedicated to Hercules when the Trojans arrived. The negotiations were smooth. Aeneas pointed out that they were, in fact, close relatives (their great-grandfather from about nine generations before was the same sky-carrying giant Atlas). Evander then gladly signed the treaty and confirmed this alliance against Turnus.

While Evander was keen to cooperate, he was painfully aware that it wouldn’t be enough. He was quite old and his tribe was a small one. He was wise enough to suggest other and more numerous allies – the Etruscans. The had overthrown a cruel tyrant Mezentius, but failed to catch him after he fled. They were led by a man called Tarchon but were eager to find a now and proper king (preferable a foreign one to avoid internal struggles). Aeneas seemed like a great answer to their needs.


Virgil – Aeneid

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