“Aeneas and the Roots of Rome” by Michał Kuźmiński

This post has been prepared by Michał Kuźmiński, a student of Cultural Studies – Mediterranean Civilization at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales”, University of Warsaw, within the Our Mythical Childhood Seminar. Michał spent the Summer term 2020/21 in Rome, at his Erasmus Plus stay, and, as much as the situation permitted, he was preparing these reports on the traces of some ancient gods, goddesses, and heroes in Urbs aeterna. At present he works on his PhD thesis at the UW’s Faculty of Archaeology. 

Of all the ancient heroes, Aeneas seems to be the most Roman one. Though he originated from the Greek mythology, in the Roman culture he enjoyed a special status of a superstar. His story was a central one among the founding myths of Rome, telling about its origins and glorious destiny. Thus, Aeneas became a symbol of early victories and a bright future.

He was mentioned already in homeric Hymn to Aphrodite and the Iliad. Of royal and divine origins, he could boast about a truly noble blood in his veins. The father of Aeneas, Anchises was a member of Trojan royal family as a son of the king of Dardania. Aeneas, in turn, was born as a result of love affair of Anchises and Aphrodite. Being so proud of his intimate relations with the goddess of love, Anchises did not listen to her warning and revealed the secret to some bystanders. For that he was punished by Zeus, who struck him with a thunderbolt and Anchises became lame for the rest of his life.

Aeneas is mentioned in the Iliad several times but he does not play there a crucial role. He is just one of the noble warriors fighting on the Trojan side, without any spectacular achievements, however with a substantial help from the gods. Aeneas became a central character only in Roman culture, being present almost always in the works describing the origins and history of Rome, such as Origines by Cato the Elder, Ab Urbe condita by Livy, or Antiquitates Romanae by Dionysius of Halicarnassus. But the most important in promoting Aeneas as the national hero was the epic poem written in Latin by Virgil – Aeneid. It was composed at the time of Augustus, the first Roman emperor. Through the family relations he claimed to be the descendant of Julus, Aeneas’s son, therefore being also the descendant of Venus. In his reign Augustus wanted to set peace in the state and restore the social order among the Romans based on the traditions. The poem of Virgil served several objectives: it reinforced the position of Augustus, set for Romans clear examples to aspire to and promoted their noble origins.

Aeneid describes what happened after the Trojan war. When the city fell, a few people managed to flee, among them Aeneas and his father Anchises. Then began their exile, which was not, however, senseless. As Aeneas found out on several occasions, his destiny was to reach Italy and found there a city which would conquer the whole world some day. In the course of the journey, he had to struggle with many adversities, had a passionate love affair with the queen of Carthage, Dido, but eventually he fulfilled his destiny and reached Italy. Many times Virgil calls Aeneas as “pious”, underlining his devotion to gods and respect for the traditional rituals. This very specific feature of character is also exposed on the other monument from that time, though not the literary but material one – Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace). When Augustus finally seized full power in the empire, he proclaimed the beginning of Pax Romana (Roman Peace) – the state of calm prosperity without disastrous wars which kept disturbing lives of Romans for many decades before. To celebrate the return of Augustus to Rome after settling matters in the West, Senate decreed the construction of a special monument – the Altar of Augustan Peace. It was completed in 9 BC and stood in the Field of Mars, facing Via Flaminia. The structure consisted of a proper altar surrounded by a high enclosure made of marble and decorated with the reliefs that served above all one purpose: the glorification of Augustus and his golden age. The altar did not survive untouched, its scattered fragments had been recovered from the ground throughout the centuries and reassembled in the modern period. In the time of Mussolini, the archaeologists reconstructed the altar using the available remains. The special building was constructed, exclusively for display of this monument. It was rebuilt in the beginning of the 21st century and the altar, though not in the original ancient location, can be still admired today.

Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) in Rome, completed in 9 BC, reconstructed in 20th century — photo by Michał Kuźmiński.

The external side of the enclosure is richly decorated with reliefs: the procession of political elite members from the Augustan period, floral motifs, and mythological figures. On the right side of one of the entrances (very exposed today, since it is in front of the museum entrance) we can spot a bearded man making an offering at the small altar beside him. The figure was identified as Aeneas soon after reaching Italy. He is sacrificing to the Penates, the household gods, whose statues can be seen in the small temple on the hill in the background of the whole scene. Aeneas brought Penates with him from the falling Troy, saving them from destruction and ensuring welfare of the new settlement which he was destined to found. In this relief Aeneas is depicted as the pious pater familias (head of the family), setting a good example for his son Julus who is standing next to him. This figure expresses also the respect for tradition, patriotic care for home and focus on a proper way of worshipping gods – Aeneas does not try to spare money, he is about to sacrifice a very fat and undoubtedly expensive sow. All these features fit perfectly the ideology of Augustus so it is unsurprising that we find Aeneas on one of the most prominent monuments of emperor’s propaganda.

Marble reliefs on Ara Pacis Augustae. The top panel depicts Aeneas and his son Julus sacrificing a sow — photo by Michał Kuźmiński.

However, Aeneas was not a flawless hero. Among the most iconic episodes of his journey from Troy to Italy was his love affair with Dido, queen of Carthage. Their relation was full of passion, yet very short. Mercury was sent by gods to remind Aeneas of his destiny and make him leave Carthage, what the hero did stealthily. When Dido found out what happened, she was outraged and very resentful. She cursed Aeneas and his people and eventually committed suicide. This subject, although not presenting Aeneas in a completely positive manner, was quite popular in art. We can find it in the same area of Rome as the Altar of Augustan Peace – the Field of Mars. There are a lot of old palaces which hide the true masterpieces of art inside. One of such places is Palazzo Spada, a magnificent residence built in the 16th century. Almost a century later the palace was bought by cardinal Spada to whom it owes its present name. He had the residence rebuilt with help of a famous Baroque architect, Francesco Borromini, and placed his very rich collection of art inside the palace. In the 20th century Palazzo Spada was bought by Italian State and part of it was adapted as a public gallery in order to display the paintings and other objects from collection of cardinal Spada. The gallery gives a very good impression of how it looked like in the 17th century. The paintings do not hang in the order typical for modern galleries but rather that of private art spaces from the past – the works of art cover almost the whole surface of the walls, with the smaller ones hanging higher, above the large ones. In those splendid rooms some paintings attract special attention, among them Death of Dido by Guercino.

Guercino (1591–1666), Death of Dido, 1631, oil painting on canvas in Palazzo Spada, Rome — photo by Michał Kuźmiński.

The work was commissioned by cardinal Spada for Marie de’ Medici, queen of France. However, after her banishment and loss of fortune, Bernardino Spada decided to buy the painting for himself and include it in his collection. Guercino’s work shows the climax moment of the story of Dido and Aeneas. In the foreground there is a group of elegant court members who surround queen of Carthage in the middle. Dido, wearing beautiful and sumptuous robes is depicted in the most dramatic moment as she is lying on the pile of wood with her chest pierced right through with a long sword which she gave to Aeneas as a gift. And the wooden beams which Dido is lying on are not just an ordinary pile, since it is a funeral pyre. Dido had told her sister before that she wanted to burn all the belongings of Aeneas to free herself from him. And now Anna is standing next to her sister looking at this horrifying scene with her arms spread in disbelief.

Aeneas is not present on the painting, we can only think of him looking at the ships far in the distance. The hero is clearly preparing for departure, unaware of the horror taking place in Carthage. Surely, Aeneas had to leave because of the gods’ decision, but while looking at the painting of Guercino we can’t help but think of him as a coward. Dido, in turn, is a beautiful, full of dignity woman. It is hard not to sympathize with the betrayed queen, upon whom the fortune and love (in person of a putto painted above) turned their backs.

A far more positive and heroic depiction of Aeneas we can find in the celebrated Villa Borghese, a splendid house of masterpieces of art. Among various paintings and sculptures there are a few stunning works of Gianlorenzo Bernini, genius of Baroque art. One of them is a statue of Aeneas escaping from Troy.

Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598–1680), Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius, 1618–1619, marble sculpture in Galleria Borghese, Rome — photo by Michał Kuźmiński.

The muscular, young hero is accompanied by two other figures. Just behind follows him his little son, Julus. But attention is attracted mostly by an old man carried by Aeneas on his shoulder – his father, Anchises. The lame man had to be carried from the fallen city, as we know it from Virgil’s Aeneid.[1] Anchises holds above his son’s head the figures of Penates, the divine household’s protectors. They would be transferred by Aeneas to Italy to serve the people in their new homeland. The sculpture is beautifully carved, with great care of details. The differences between figures of father and son are striking: the young, muscular body versus an old and sinewy one; determination on the face of Anchises and calm concentration on the face of Aeneas. The sculpture of Bernini is a true masterpiece, therefore it is even more impressing that he was only twenty years old when he started the work. Symbolic is also the fact that Bernini worked on this depiction of father and son with his own father, Pietro. This fragment of the story of Aeneas was definitely one of the most popular ones and it still attracts attention of artists today.

In the very heart of Rome stands Palazzo Valentini, a 16th-century building which today houses provincial and prefectural administration of Rome. In front of the building we can find a sculptural group very similar to that of Bernini – Aeneas carrying his father and accompanied by his son.

Sandro Chia (b. 1946), Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius, bronze sculpture placed in 2005 in front of Palazzo Valentini, Rome — photo by Michał Kuźmiński.

The author of the statue is Sandro Chia and as we learn from the plate in front of it, it was placed in 2005 on the “135th anniversary of the establishment of the Province of Rome”.[2] It refers to the events connected with the Risorgimento movement that lead to foundation of the united Italian State. In 1870 Rome which had been a part of Papal States was captured by the forces of the Kingdom of Italy. Then the creation of the Province of Rome followed, the city became the capital of Italy and the whole process was completed. The choice of the subject to be used to commemorate the fight for freedom seems to be very accurate. The story of Aeneas who fled the fallen city to found a new and independent one corresponds very well with the story of Italian fight with external oppressions and willingness to create a new, united state. The sculpture of Chia gives also a good impression of human solidarity in face of serious troubles. It is far less detailed than the work of Bernini, the figures are roughly sculpted, wearing simple clothes, without Penates in the hands of Anchises. Thus, the most eminent aspect of the statue is the tender relation between the figures: their visible closeness, caring and support expressed in physical contact.

Aeneas was a very important hero of ancient Rome and has remained a significant figure for centuries, until today. He is a character full of ambiguities, tender and impulsive, pious and insidious, brave and treacherous. His story was capable of inspiring many generations of artists who used it to promote certain ideals of the state and a citizen. Perhaps, it was this internal inconsistency that made Aeneas such a popular and powerful symbol – a hero, who at the same time remained very humane, similar to the ordinary people.

Sources

Wergiliusz, Eneida, trans. Zygmunt Kubiak, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warszawa 1987.

Claridge, Amanda, Rome. An Oxford Archaeological Guide, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2010, pp. 207–213.

Leeming, David, The Oxford Companion to World Mythology, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2005, pp. 5–6.

Roman, Luke and Monica Roman, Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman Mythology, Facts On File, New York 2010, pp. 13–28.

About Death of Dido by Guercino: http://galleriaspada.beniculturali.it/index.php?it/93/guercino-la-morte-di-didone.

About Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius from Villa Borghese: https://galleriaborghese.beniculturali.it/en/il-museo/la-villa/sala-6-sala-%E2%80%8Bdel-gladiatore/.

See also Michał Kuźmiński’s posts 

References

[1] Wergiliusz, Eneida, trans. Zygmunt Kubiak, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warszawa 1987, pp. 90–94.

[2] Direct quotation of the inscription on the base of the monument.

Placed by Olga Strycharczyk

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