Aeneas: The legendary Trojan hero who founded Rome

Aeneas – founder of Rome

In ancient Greek and Roman mythologies, Aeneas was recognized as a gallant Trojan warrior and founder of Rome, respectively. The son of a mortal and goddess, Aeneas could be described as a demigod. He was most revered in ancient Rome, as he was seen as the original founder of Rome and a symbol of honor. His influence and reputation among the ancient Romans was further cemented in “The Aeneid”, which is undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest classics written about him.

So, who was Aeneas and how did he become the father of Rome?

Below we explore all the various myths surrounding the life and heroic adventures of Aeneas, the Trojan hero who established the city of Rome.

The Legend of Aeneas in Greek Mythology

In Greek mythology, the origin of Aeneas is captured in two main sources: “Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite” and the “Iliad”, written by Homer. In the Greek versions of his story, he was born to Anchises and Aphrodite. Anchises, his father, was a Trojan prince, while Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, sexuality and beauty.

According to the “Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite”, Aphrodite caused Zeus to fall in love with a human woman. Upon realizing the ruse played by Aphrodite, Zeus retaliated and caused the goddess to also fall in love with Anchises. Smitten with the Trojan prince, Aphrodite disguised herself as a Phrygian princess. After revealing herself to him, Anchises was overwhelmed with not just fear but the sheer magnificence of the goddess Aphrodite. The goddess of love warned him never to tell a soul about their coupling and foretold the birth of their son. Aeneas was born on Mount Ida and, until he was five, spent his time under the care of nymphs (of Mount Ida) before joining Anchises in Troy.

Aeneas appears in Homer’s famous epic poem “Iliad” as a minor character; however, he is recognized as a brave and pious warrior. In the early stages of the epic, Aeneas chooses not to fight because he feels he hasn’t been properly acknowledged by his first cousin, King Priam of Troy. He later embarks on a campaign to retrieve the mortal remains of his brother-in-law, Alcathous.

According to the “Iliad”, Aphrodite and the god Apollo, constantly protected Aeneas while he was in battle. They did so to ensure that he fulfilled his life’s mission instead of dying an early death.

READ MORE: Everything that you need to know about the Trojan War

The Legend of Aeneas in Roman Mythology

The legend of Aeneas was later continued by some Roman writers. But the most prominent account of Aeneas can be found in Virgil’s “Aeneid.” His story begins after the city of Troy is sacked by the Greeks. Because of his destiny, he was one of the few surviving Trojans to flee the burning city. Those survivors formed a group called the Aeneads, which included Aeneas’s father, Anchises, and his son, Ascanius. Other Aeneads included Aeneas’s healer Iapyx, trumpeter Misenus,  and his friends Acmon,  Achates, and Sergestus.

The group traveled to Italy, first settling in Sicily, where Anchises died. Later, the Aeneads were swept up in a storm (instigated by the Juno, the Roman goddess and wife of Jupiter) and they wandered the wilderness until arriving in Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia). While there, Aeneas fell in love with the city’s ruler, Queen Dido. The queen was so taken with Aeneas after being struck by Cupid’s arrow and suggested that the remaining Trojans settle in Carthage. The love-struck north African queen even suggested that Aeneas rule by her side.

Aeneas narrating to Dido about the fall of Troy. Painting by French painter Pierre-Narcisse Guérin

In Roman mythology, Aeneas’s mother was Venus (Aphrodite in Greek mythology), who was the Roman goddess of love. Together with Jupiter, she sent the messenger god Mercury (Hermes in Greek mythology) to remind her son of his journey and life’s purpose.

Upon receiving the message from his mother, Aeneas gathered the rest of the Trojans and secretly left Carthage. Queen Dido was outraged when she eventually learned of his departure and cursed the Trojans. This curse would eventually serve as the reason why Rome and Carthage would fight against each other in the Punic Wars. Devastated by her lover’s departure, Queen Dido committed suicide by throwing herself in a funeral pyre and stabbing herself with the sword she had received from her lover when they first met.

Aeneas and his Trojan followers returned to Sicily, where Aeneas hosted games in the memory of his father. They later traveled further into Italy. According to Virgil’s “Aeneid”, Aeneas went to the underworld, where he met Dido. However, Dido rejected him and returned to her first husband. He also met Anchises, who revealed his future and how he would establish Rome.

READ MORE: Roman Gods vs. Greek Gods

The Birth of Rome

When he returned from the Underworld, the Aeneads arrived in Latium. At that time, Latium was under the rulership of Latinus, who was king of the Latins. Despite having his daughter, Lavinia, being betrothed to the Rutulian king called Turnus, Latinus later received a prophecy that Lavinia was destined to marry Aeneas.

Latinus heeded the prophecy and gave his blessings to his daughter’s union with the Trojan prince. But Turnus was upset and decided to wage war against Aeneas. As fate would have it, Aeneas and his army emerged the victors.

Aeneas defeats Turnus, by Italian painter Luca Giordano, 1634–1705

Virgil’s account of Aeneas ended abruptly shortly after the death of Turnus. However, other sources like the ones from Livy state that his victory over Turnus led to the birth of Lavinium, a city named after his wife. Later on, Dido’s sister, Anna Perenna, traveled to Lavinium but killed herself when she learned that Lavinia was jealous.

After Aeneas’ death, Venus requested that her son be made immortal. Jupiter granted her request, ordering the river god Numicus to wash away all of Aeneas’ mortal elements. Thus Aeneas became a god and he was known as Jupiter Indiges.

Through his marriage to Lavinia, Aeneas started a long line of many notable descendants throughout history, including the warrior brothers Romulus and Remus. The former eventually founded the Roman Kingdom after killing his brother.

Aeneas’ Trojan Family

Aeneas’ family tree

As stated above, Aeneas was the son of Anchises, who was in turn the first cousin of King Priam of Troy. It’s said that both Priam and Anchises were the grandsons of Ilus, the founder of Troy.

What the above means is that Aeneas is second cousins to the children of King Priam of Troy, including Prince Hector, Prince Paris, the twins Helenus and Cassandra, and Laodice. According to Homer, the latter was the most beautiful daughter of Priam.

Aeneas fought alongside many of the sons of Priam in the defense of Troy from Greek attacks during the Trojan War. A good number of the Trojan family members were either slain or taken prisoners during or after the Trojan War. For example, Prince Hector, the commander of the Trojan forces, was slain by the demigod Achilles, while Prince Paris was killed by the Greek archer Philoctetes. While Trojan princesses like Polyxena and Cassandra were taken prisoners by the Greeks after the fall of Troy. The latter was taken as the concubine of King Agamemnon of Mycenae.

Aeneas is said to have married Creusa, one of the daughters of Priam. By Creusa, he fathered a son called Ascanius (also called Iulus).

In one of the account, Creusa fails to make it out of the burning city of Troy. However, in an account by second-century AD geographer Pausanias, Greek goddesses Rhea and Aphrodite rescue Creusa from Troy, and thus preventing her from being imprisoned and enslaved by the Greeks.

With his last wife, Lavinia, Aeneas fathers a son named Silvius. In some accounts, however, Silvius is the son of Ascanius.

Meaning and Epithets

According to the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, the goddess was saddened by the fact that Aeneas was conceived with a mortal man. As a result, she gave her mortal son the epithet “αὶνóν” (ainon), which means “terrible”. In some accounts, however, Aeneas’s name translates to “dweller” or “in-dweller”.

Homer uses epithets like “magnus” and “hero” in describing Aeneas. Similarly, Virgil describes Aeneas as “pater” (‘father’) and “pius” (‘pious’). Virgil gives those epithets to Aeneas to symbolize the hero’s divine mission, which was the founding of Rome.

Other interesting things about Aeneas’ story

After fleeing the burning city of Troy, Aeneas and his followers went on to become the progenitors of the Romans. Image: Aeneas and his family fleeing from Troy. Painting by Pompeo Batoni (c. 1750).

The legend of Aeneas has long since inspired many notable figures in classical and contemporary literature, as well as films and arts. Here are some examples of notable portrayals of the Trojan hero:

  • In William Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida”, Aeneas appears as a character. The prince and his lover Dido also appeared as the main characters in the ballad “The Wandering Prince of Troy.”
  • Aeneas appears in a number of modern literature, including Allen Tate’s poems, “Aeneas at Washington” and “Aeneas at New York.” He is also the main character in the “Troy” series written by David Gemmell.
  • Aeneas has been portrayed in several films, TV series, video games and opera such as “Helen of Troy”, “Eneide”, “Vampire: The Requiem”, and “Warriors: Legends of Troy.” He’s been portrayed by popular modern actors like Alfred Enoch and Ronald Lewis.
  • In 1757, the Gaetana Valmarana commissioned Italian artist, Giovanni Battista Tiepola to decorate some rooms in its family home. Tiepola decorated the home with several depictions of events mentioned in the “Iliad” and “Aeneid.”
  • 13th century AD Icelandic poet and lawmaker viewed Aeneas as the equivalent of the Norse god Vidarr of the Æsir. Vidarr, the Norse god of vengeance, famously slays the fierce wolf Fenrir during Ragnarok (i.e. the demise of the gods and the end of the world).
  • The original Greek name Aeneas is Aineías (Αἰνείας).
  • The reason why Aeneas carries his father, Anchises, on his back out of Troy was because of Anchises’ lame leg. In one account of the story, Anchises was struck in the foot by Zeus because the mortal had revealed his affair with Aphrodite.
  • Aside Virgil, Roman authors like Livy (also known as Titus Livius) and Ovid provide some stories about Aeneas. The character appears in the latter’s work, “Metamorphoses”.

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