The Underworld and Morality in Vergil's Aeneid Essay

The Underworld and Morality in Vergil's Aeneid Essay

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The Underworld and Morality in Vergil's Aeneid

Book IV of the Aeneid can stand alone as Vergil's highest literary achievement, but centered in the epic, it provides a base for the entire work. The book describes Aeneas's trip through the underworld, where after passing through the depths of hell, he reaches his father Anchises in the land of Elysium. Elysium is where the "Soul[s] to which Fate owes Another flesh" lie (115). Here Anchises delivers the prophecy of Rome to Aeneis. He is shown the great souls that will one day occupy the bodies of Rome's leaders. Before the prophecy of Rome is delivered, Aeneis's journey through the underworld provides a definite ranking of souls according to their past lives on Earth. The Aeneid does not encompass a heaven, but the Underworld provides a punishment place where souls are purged of their evils and after one thousand years, regenerated to Earth. The ranking of souls in the Underworld warns of punishment for sin, and provides a moral framework for Roman life.

Aeneis's first contact with a soul in the purgatory of the Underworld is Palinurus, who died after falling from one of Aeneis's ships. Aeneis is at the mouth of the river that flows through hell with his guide the goddess Diephobe and Charon the ferryman. Palinurus is waiting to be ferried to his place in the Underworld, so he can begin his thousand-year purge. He pleads with Aeneis's party to take him along, but Deiphobe scolds him: "Shalt thou, unburied, see the Stygian flood, / The Furies stream, or reach the bank unbid?" (107). In Vergil's Underworld one must have had a proper burial to gain a position. This serves as a warning to Romans to give their deceased a proper funeral, less they remain in hell longer.

After Pa...

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...ere he meets his father and receives the destiny of Rome. Elysium houses those souls "to which fate owes another flesh" (115). These are the great heroes of the Ancient World that will be reincarnated as Roman leaders: They have no human acts to be punished for. The story shifts here from that of moral lesson, to historical prophecy, but underlying the history there is a subtle command of respect for Roman leaders.

The Underworld is more then just a creation to make Aeneis's voyage to his father more poetic. Through it, Vergil creates a moral code for his people, emphasizing grayer acts that can be easily justified such as deciding not to raise a child and giving up on love. Vergil saw how these acts hurt humanity, and created the Underworld to curve them.


Vergil. Aeneid. Dover Thrift Edition. Trans. Charles J. Billson. New York: Dover, 1995.

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