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Both Vergil and Ovid imbedded underlying meanings in their epics The
Aeneid and Metamorphoses. In this paper I will focus on the underlying meaning
in the Underworld scene in Vergil's The Aeneid (lines 356 through 1199). I will
also focus on three scenes in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Both epics contain a larger
message about the importance of the Roman past for its present and future under
The story of Aeneas in the Underworld can be interpreted as a brilliant
rendition of the story of Rome's past, present, and future. When Aeneas
descends into the Underworld, he is escorted by the Sibyl (lines 347 - 349).
This gives the readers a clue that what is to happen in the upcoming text is a
foretelling of Roman future because the Sibyl was a prophetess (Course Packet,
As Aeneas enters the Underworld, he sees numerous horrible sights: Grief,
Disease, Old Age, Fear, Hunger, and several others. (Lines 356 - 379) These
unsettling and dark words bring difficult images to the reader's mind. These
lines foretell that there will be difficulties while Rome is in its infancy
through phrases like "lonely night" and "phantom kingdom". Rome did indeed have
difficulties in its infancy; in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE it was ruled by
Etruscan kings and was only "... a little hill town." (Short Histories, p20)
Lines 390 through 549 in The Aeneid deal with the crossing of the River
Styx. This represents a great transition period in Rome. It symbolizes the
founding of the Republic. The multitude of rushing and swarming people (Line
402) represents those that suffered the "internal turmoil" in the early stages
of the Republic. (Short Histories, p21) When Aeneas mentions, "... and by what
rule must some keep off the bank ..." (Lines 419 - 421) he may symbolically be
referring to the "Struggle of the Orders" that the early Republic experienced.
(Short Histories, p22)
As Aeneas wanders through the Underworld, he notices Dido wandering
about. (Lines 593 - 626) He tries to talk to her, but his words serve no
purpose; she flees from him. He then sees the souls of those who died in battle.
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(Lines 628 - 650) These lines correspond to the Punic Wars that occurred from
264 to 146 BCE (Short Histories, pg. 24 - 26) because Aeneas offended, and
arguably caused the death of, Dido when he left Carthage where he lived with
Dido. (The Aeneid Book IV, line 300)
In lines 738 - 832 Aeneas beholds the fortress Tartarus and its
inhabitants who are being beaten and whipped. This gruesome scene can be
related to Julius Caesar's death. The tormented souls could represent the
enemies of Caesar. "Caesar had spared the lives of many of his most famous
enemies..." (Short Histories, p33) These enemies rose up and slew him for his
kindness. The "Tyrant - Slayers" (Short Histories, p34) were soon embattled in
war for their unpopular attack.
After Aeneas witnesses the horrors of Tartarus, he comes upon the Groves
of Blessedness. This utopian abode is where those that served beneficial lives
by helping their country, being pious, or advancing the qualities of life reside.
(Lines 844 - 889) These lines actually have two hidden meanings. Following th
history of Rome, this is the period where Augustus ruled. Vergil is trying to
impress Augustus by relating his wisdom while ruling to a heavenly place. The
second hidden meaning is that Vergil wanted to portray that those who were "good
Roman citizens" had a much greater future to look forward to that those who were
After witnessing all he did in the Underworld, Aeneas finally meets his
father Anchises. From lines 999 through 1190, Anchises tells Aeneas what is to
come in the near future. Anchises lists the descendants of Aeneas, leaving
special mention on Caesar by placing him directly after Romulus. Augustus is
glorified as the son of a god, and many great deeds are spoken on his behalf.
The epic ends on a sad note: that of Marcellus' death. (Lines 1148 - 1182)
This sad ending foretells that Rome will never achieve its full potential, yet
it will achieve much.
Ovid takes a different approach to his story-telling. Instead of
constructing elaborate events which have double meanings, he simply tells
several stories. Ovid's works are less complex than Vergil's, and there is much
less meaning within his stories.
When Pythagoras is speaking, a recurring idea in his speeches is to not
eat the flesh of another animal. (Ovid, p337 - 338) On a symbolic level, he is
lecturing about taking another person's life. In this sense, Pythagoras may be
speaking against murder, and against war. By stating that "... creatures trying
to kill us may be killed ..." (p 337) he is implying that it may be necessary to
defend one's life against attack, but one should never attack another. In view
of Rome's past, this lecture may have come about as a result of the Punic Wars
when a large deportation of males from Rome as soldiers caused a serious
manpower shortage within the city. (Short Histories, p 25 - 27)
Another important message in Pythagoras' speech is that of change.
Pythagoras gives several examples of how things seem to change, yet they somehow
remain in their original form. (Ovid, p339 - 341) This story can be related to
Rome itself. The city, throughout the centuries, changed much. At times it was
a mighty empire, at times it was on the verge of collapse. Yet throughout the
centuries, Rome has survived in some form, and will continue to do so.
Ovid's last story is that of Julius Caesar, his death, and of Augustus'
reign. In this part of the epic, the gods play a role in the death of Julius
Caesar. Venus tries to let Caesar live, but the other gods intervene and tell
her that it is his fate to die (p 355 - 356). Caesar does indeed die, but he is
turned into a god upon his death. This glorifies is heir Augustus because he
now is the son of a god. Ovid is trying to impress Augustus with flattering
words, and by involving so many gods in his stories he is almost making Augustus
a living god.
Works Cited and Consulted:
Block, Elizabeth. The Effects of Divine Manifestation on the Reader's Perspective in Vergil's Aeneid. Arno Press, New York, 1981.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Maynard Mack. 5th edition. New York: Norton 1987. 549-560.
Poschl, Viktor. The Art of Vergil, Image and Symbol in the Aeneid. Trans. Gerda Seligson, Greenwood Press, Connecticut 1986.
Quinn, Kenneth. Vergil's Aeneid, A Critical Description. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London. 1968.