Let me tell you the tale of Aeneas, the mythical ancestor of Romans, in a way it was described by Homer and Virgil, the absolute mainstream of the ancient literature. 

BACKGROUND

The mythical story of Rome begins, like many other stories of antiquity, with a philandering king of gods Jupiter (called Zeus by the Greeks). This time the Lord of thunder laid his eyes on the daughter of a mighty Titan Atlas, the guy with a pretty important task to hold the sky on his back. Jupiter was seldom rejected and always found his way to get what he wanted. As a result, a child called Dardanus was born. Dardanus did not achieve such levels of fame as his half-siblings Hercules or Perseus, but he has a strait named after him (Dardanelles) and his descendants allegedly founded the eternal city of Rome.

According to Virgil, Dardanus originally lived in Italy, in the city called Corythus (probably today’s Cortona near Arezzo). He then moved east to Asia Minor, founded a city named Dardanus (what a coincidence!) and established a ruling dynasty there. His great-grandson Ilus moved a couple of miles further and also founded a city – the legendary Troy. The related rulers of Dardanus and Troy lived in an alliance for two more generations.

Then, in the time when Priam was the king of Troy and Anchises ruled Dardanus, a beautiful queen Helen was kidnapped from Sparta and a horrible war started. It was the war made legendary by Homer, the war on a scale of a world war for ancient Greeks. All the Greek kings sailed out to attack Troy. In this dark hour, Priam turned to his ally and relative Anchises for help with the defence.

Let’s have a few words about Anchises. He was old now but must have been good looking in his youth. In fact, he had been so good-looking that he picked up a goddess. And not just any goddess, it was Venus – the goddess of love herself! He became her lover and fathered a boy named Aeneas. Filled with pride about his mistress and his son, Anchises happened to be a very stubborn man from time to time. When Priam asked him for help, he respectfully declined at first.

But if Anchises thought that a massive Greek army on the shore will not have any impact on the peaceful life in Dardanus, he was soon proved wrong. The Greeks attacked his allies and Anchises was forced to react. He finally joined forces with Priam, moved to Troy and made his son Aeneas one of the most heroic commanders of the Trojan army.

Aeneas made a name for himself for several reasons. He was quite good at killing Greeks, he had divine horses and for some reason, he was so favoured by the gods that no Greek hero could kill him.

CYPRIA (THE EPIC CYCLE)

According to the epic poem Cypria (part of the so-called Epic Cycle), Aeneas, encouraged by his divine mother, accompanied Paris on his journey to Sparta – the journey that ended by the abduction of the Spartan queen Helen and provided the casus belli for the Trojan war. He also has a small part in the later stages, when the Greek army finally arrives at the shores of Troad. Achilles, being the brave and invincible hero, he always was, stole Aeneas’ cattle.

THE ILLIAD

In Homer’s Illiad we see much more of him.

Book II – he is introduced among the Trojan leaders (after the famous Catalogue of ships describing the Greek ones). From this point on we know that he was the leader of the Dardanians and a son of a goddess Aphrodite.

Book V – this book describes the killing spree of Diomedes, son of Tydeus. Diomedes was one of the Greek leaders in the war; peer to Achilles in bravery and to Odysseus in strategic thinking and creativity. After he slew Aeneas’ fellow-soldier, he focused his rage on Aeneas, who foolishly entered the dangerous area trying to help the doomed friend. That was not a good day for the son of Anchises as Diomedes’ murderous form obviously reached its peak. He wounded Aeneas badly by throwing a huge rock at him, stole his precious immortal horses and would have killed him on a spot, had his divine mother not helped him. Aphrodite appeared out of nowhere and carried her son away from the battle. But she underestimated Diomedes. The Greek hero wasn’t afraid at all and even injured the goddess with his spear. Nevertheless, the life of her son was saved after another god, Apollo intervened and carried the injured hero to safety.

Aeneas got healed very quickly and returned to the battlefield seeking revenge on the Greeks. He encountered some success and killed a couple of enemies. He even faced Menelaus, the abandoned husband of the beautiful Helene, but wisely retreated from the battle once he realized that Menelaus would not face him alone.

Book VI – here Aeneas, alongside Hector, is asked by Priam’s son Helenus to organize the city’s defense.

Book XI – in this book Aeneas is mentioned again alongside other Trojan warriors who participated in the battle that day. It is a short and simple mention but deserves attention for the attached description “Aeneas honoured by the people like a god…“– although such words are also used for others, this surely indicates respect.

Book XII – Aeneas mentioned very quickly as one of the Trojans attacking the walls of the Greek camp.

Book XIII – with Achilles on strike, the Trojan continue their progress towards the Greek ships. The Greeks, however, fight back fiercely. Idomeneus, a Greek hero from Crete, kills Aeneas’ brother-in-law. Aeneas is asked to help his relative. He is not present in the first lines at the moment. Homer provides an interesting reason for this, “Aeneas was angered at great Priam, because he showed him little honour, though he was among the finest warriors”. Homer never really went into much more detail about this conflict, so we are left to guess what was behind it. Was Priam ashamed that Aeneas displayed more bravery than his own sons (with the notable exception of Hector)? Did he have some other reasons? We can only speculate.

Nevertheless, Aeneas listened and agreed to meet Idomeneus in a duel. Idomeneus, usually brave enough, quickly analysed the situation and asked several other Greeks for help against his younger foe. Aeneas responded in a similar way and gathered a party of four to make the forces equal. Despite some bloodshed on both sides, both heroes survived the encounter.

Book XIV – in this book Hector himself is wounded by the great Ajax (the Greek hero with a huge shield) and Aeneas is among the Trojans who rush to his rescue and carry him away from the battle lines.

Book XV – the fight continues, and Aeneas kills a couple of enemies, but that’s pretty much it.

Book XVI – the Greek counterattack led by Patroclus (in Achilles’ armour). Aeneas throws a spear at a guy called Meriones, but the man is lucky and dodges the spear. Aeneas shouts angrily in response but is quickly reminded by Meriones, that even he cannot kill everyone.

Book XVII – immediately after the death of Patroclus the fight carries on. The intensity is even higher as both sides try to seize the corpse. When Ajax firmly stands next to the body, giving ground to no one and forcing even Hector to retreat, the god Apollo himself encourages Aeneas to attack. Aeneas listens and the battle bursts out again.  

Later in this book, Aeneas joins forces with Hector, but they decide to keep it calm once they face not one, but two Aiantes at once (the big Telamonian Ajax with the huge shield and Ajax the Lesser, one of the most skilled spearmen among the Greeks).

Book XX – at this stage of the story Achilles is eager to revenge the death of Patroclus and to kill all the Trojans he could see. Apollo encourages Aeneas to face Achilles, but our hero knows better. He was routed by Achilles once before (see above the episode from Cypria) and is now aware of his limits. Achilles is without a doubt a better fighter and to meet him in a duel would be equal to suicide. But Apollo uses a convincing argument – while Aeneas is a son of Venus, Achilles is only a son of a lesser goddess and therefore the gods would certainly favour him in this duel. Aeneas finds courage in his words and agrees.

Achilles is surprised to see Aeneas attacking him. He too remembers very well their last encounter, when Aeneas could call himself lucky for merely surviving. He even suggests that if this is some sort of an attempt to gain glory for Aeneas in order to increase his chances to rule Troy one day, it is pointless, as Priam still has plenty of sons that would surely come before Aeneas (interesting suggestion, let us not forget that some sort of conflict between Aeneas and Priam was mentioned earlier).

In his reply Aeneas doesn’t really react to the accusation, instead, he recites his whole family tree back to Dardanus, son of Zeus.

When the fight finally starts, Aeneas is the first to throw his spear. He aims well, but with little effect. Aeneas’ armour, made by od Hephaestus, couldn’t be pierced by an ordinary spear. Achilles doesn’t just stand there. He casts his spear. The weapon literally takes Aeneas’ shield away from him. At this point, Aeneas realizes that he might have made a huge mistake listening to Apollo.

Achilles, without any hesitation, rushes to Aeneas with a sword. Aeneas tries to react by lifting a heavy rock. It wouldn’t be enough to save his life, but the gods intervene and take him to safety far far away from Achilles.

When the gods saved his life, Poseidon (Neptune), the god of the sea made a flattering and promising prophecy to justify why he was spared: “now verily shall the mighty Aeneas be king among the Trojans, and his sons’ sons that shall be born in days to come.”. Needless to say, this must have been a very popular verse among the Romans who tracked their origins back to this hero.

Book XXIII – Aeneas doesn’t do anything in this book, but his horses do. The horses carrying his chariot were “of that breed, the best of all horses under the risen sun” (Iliad, Book V). Zeus had given divine horses to the former king Tros as a compensation for taking his son Ganymedes to Olympus where he became the cupbearer for the gods. Anchises later had them interbred with the mares of his own. Their offspring was now helping Aeneas to achieve unmatched speed in his chariot. By Book XXIII those horses no longer belong to Aeneas. Diomedes took them in the events described in Book V when he beat Aeneas in a duel and the gods barely saved Aeneas’ life. However, in this book a chariot race is described, part of the funeral games held to honour Patroclus. Guess who won the race! Yes, it was Diomedes with the horses he took form Aeneas.

That was the last mention of Aeneas in the Iliad, but we can still proceed to see the events described by Virgil in the Aeneid (Book II).

THE AENEID

Aeneas was in Troy when the infamous Trojan horse arrived. He was there when the wall was pulled down just to get it inside the city. In the night of Troy’s fall, Hector appeared in his dream and urged him to wake up and run away from the burning city. And run he did.

When he woke up and entered the streets, everything was already in chaos. The Greeks were plundering the city without mercy. Aeneas managed to gather a bunch of his friends and fellow fighters. They even stole some Greek weapons, caused some confusion in the enemy lines and killed some Greeks, but it was not enough. He witnessed the death of the old Priam, the king of Troy, by the hand of Achilles’ son.

He found Helen as she tried to hide before the wrath of both Greeks and Trojans after she had betrayed ones and brought destruction to the others. The poor princess, however, was not a subject of Aeneas’ sympathy. Seeing her there, he wanted to kill her on the spot and satisfy his need for a revenge for everything she had caused. He didn’t do it though. Instead, he hurried to his family to get them to safety.

Aeneas had his whole family in Troy – well, not counting his godly mother of course. His wife Kreusa lived there with their son Iulus (Ascanius), plus there was his old father Anchises. Aeneas rushed to his palace with the intention of gathering all his family members and leaving the burning city as soon as possible. The old Anchises, however, had a different plan. When his son asked him to pack his stuff and leave, the old man’s response was, “No thanks, I am staying!”. Long past his prime, when he charmed goddesses, Anchises decided not to be bothered by such useless activities as saving his life and instead wished to find his peaceful end on a blade of some Greek soldier. Aeneas, being such a good son, decided that he simply cannot leave his father alone and started to armour up again to kill some Greeks before they all die. It took two supernatural omens to change Anchises’ mind. A divine flame appeared on the head of the cute little Iulus, and a shining star showed the right direction to safety. Just after all this, they finally all agreed to leave the doomed city. Aeneas put his old stubborn dad on his back, grabbed little Iulus by the hand, told Kreusa to follow them and followed the light to escape the chaos and death. Aeneas truly deserved some kind of a Best Son Ever Award as he carried his father on his back all the way to a hill outside the city walls.

But if there was an award he did not deserve, it was the one for the best husband. Just on that hill, he noticed that Kreusa was no longer with them. With terror in his eyes, he left his father and son with other refugees and ran back to Troy to find his wife. I would say that he achieved mixed results. Technically, he met his wife there, but it was only her spirit as she had been killed. Nevertheless, they had a little chat. Given the grim situation, Aeneas received some truly amazing news. First of all, Kreusa didn’t blame him at all for her death. Either she was the most forgiving person in all the ancient mythology, or Aeneas just decided to skip this part of the dialogue when telling this story. More importantly, she made a prophecy. She told Aeneas that a new wife and a bright future awaits him in Italy. Aeneas listened to his wife and he, his family and his people now knew it was time for them to leave.

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