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Virgil’s Aeneid is one of the seminal works of the antiquity which offers us a lens into the life and art of ancient Romans in the era of 1 BC – the year the epic was written. A reading of the epic shows that Virgil’s attitude towards fact and fiction is one of complexity. He does not see the two as binary and opposite, but looks at them as tied up in a dialectical relationship. I will show that this is noticeably manifest. The way in which the two are meshed together presents most clearly in Virgil’s treatment of dreams and reality, earthly existence and the afterlife as well as history and fable, which each hold the same binary connotation of fact and fiction. Through a discussion of the dreams and their role in the epic, I will explore how the influence each has on the other supports this assertion. This will be shown by further considering the way Virgil depicts the dead and their interaction with the living, which is deeply entwined with dreams and reality. I will then turn to a discussion of the historical basis of the epic and the way it is in conversation with fable, in the form of myth. The entirety of this will serve to exhibit the way Virgil has kneaded together fact and fiction.
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Virgil obfuscates the boundary between dreams and reality by showing the occurrences in dreams to be intricately linked to the occurrences in reality. There are three main instances of this in the epic. In Book II, Hector comes to Aeneas in a dream and tells him of the sack of Troy, warning him against fighting. When Aeneas awakes, he runs to fight against the Greeks as they pillage his city. The information he received in the dream was factual – the Greeks are pillaging Troy – and the assumption that dreams are of the world of fiction does not hold. Aeneas uses the information from the dream to inform his waking action. In Book IV, Aeneas is drawn away from his duty to establish the Roman people by his affair with Dido. Mercury, sent by Jupiter, appears to Aeneas in a dream to remind him of this duty. Awakening from this, Aeneas soon abandons Dido to return to his duty. It is what takes place in Aeneas’ dream that compels him to neglect Dido and continue with his charge. In Book VI Aeneas descends into the underworld of Dis to meet his father in Elysium. Many interpretations of Virgil’s Aeneid hold that this is a dream (McNeely, 1997). The ethereal nature of the entities Aeneas encounters as well as the process by which Aeneas makes his way into Dis both indicate that the journey is a dream. As soon as Aeneas leaves Elysium, he makes haste to continue on his journey to establish Rome. Once again, the information Aeneas receives via dream directly influences his behaviour in reality. We see that in all three cases, dreams have an immediate effect on Aeneas’ actions. There is no clear distinction separating the incidences of dreams from the events of reality as dreams are often seen to impact on waking life – the world of fact. Virgil is indicating that there is a murkier relationship between the two where dreams inform the real world and Aeneas’ actions in it.
Similarly, Virgil indicates that dreams are dependent on reality. At the time Virgil was writing the Aeneid, there was a typology of dreams that classified them into one of five categories; the enigmatic, the prophetic, the oracular, the nightmare or the anxiety-dream and the apparition or wish-fulfilment dream (Calcidius, 1992). McNeely (1997) also considers the incubation dream. This is similar to the prophetic dream but emphasises that the dreamer follows certain practices so as to be given some sort of prophecy. McNeely claims that Virgil’s dream of the underworld is primarily an incubation dream with aspects of the anxiety-dream and oracular dream (McNeely, 1997). He argues that with the Sibyl, Aeneas goes through several processes so as to communicate with his father through the dream. He attempts to incubate a certain dream. However, I believe that the dream is in fact anxiety driven. As McNeely discusses, Aeneas confronts Palinurus, who dies after going overboard on Aeneas’ ship, without a proper burial and suffers in Dis because of this. Aeneas also meets Dido, who he abandoned in Carthage – as he was told to do in the Mercury dream. He feels guilt for leaving her in his attempt to fulfil the will of the gods. He also sees all the men that died in the Sack of Troy. Aeneas is clearly confronting sentiments of guilt that are manifesting in a nightmare or anxiety-dream. Aeneas’ reality has intimately affected his dream. It is clear that dreams also affect reality. The dream also has oracular aspects as Anchises tells Aeneas about the lineage of Rome which inspires him to act with more resolve when he wakes (McNeely, 1997). It seems that there is a dialectical relationship between the two as the Mercury dream impacts Aeneas’ actions which lead to guilt, subsequently shaping his dreams.
Virgil further emphasises the muddying of the boundaries between the two when he tells us that Aeneas leaves Elysium through the gate of Ivory. The gate of Ivory is said to be the gate of false dreams or deceit in contrast to the gate of Horn which represents truth. McNeely looks at several purported reasons for this, concluding that the most convincing argument states that it is because ‘no-clear images of his dream reality will remain in his memory’ (McNeely, 1997, p. 122). The claim is that by having Anchises take Aeneas out of the gate of Ivory, Virgil is suggesting a sense of uncertainty; that Aeneas will awake with a resolve that originates from the dream without recalling the dream itself. I approach it with a slightly different take which is based in the same uncertainty. Aeneas in fact wakens able to remember what has taken place in the dream, but is unsure of whether or not it is real – dubious about its factual basis and how reliable the information is in waking life; in reality. The fact that it is Anchises who leads Aeneas out the gate rather than him leaving of his volition does not detract from this. As mentioned above, the dream is in a sense partly a product of Aeneas’ psychological state. As such, Anchises is a reflection of Aeneas’ psyche and emotional state. Hence, it is still plausible that the Gate of Ivory symbolises Aeneas’ uncertainty with the dream and his duty to establish Rome (the uncertainty can also be read in Aeneas’ wavering commitment to his duty when in Carthage. Unsure of his duties, he turns to pleasure with Dido). The reader is aware of the tangibility of the dream of Dis, but for Aeneas it is far more unclear, and Virgil is trying to convey this uncertainty. It may have merely been a device by which Virgil emphasised Aeneas’ piety – another central aspect of the epic – by showing Aeneas’ conforming to the will of the gods despite his uncertainty. Many argue that Virgil’s agenda in composing the Aeneid was to affirm the genealogy of Rome (O’Meara, 1988). The issue of the Ivory gate challenged this as it suggested that the dream was false thereby undermining Virgil’s project. However, it is shown above that in fact the use of the Ivory gate does not do so as the reader is still led to believe in the immutable truth of Anchises’ exposition of Roman lineage. Once again, Virgil shows that the boundaries between dream and reality are indeterminate – this time by showing how Aeneas himself struggles with this distinction.
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Correspondingly, Virgil treats the ideas of earthly existence and the afterlife and in so doing intertwines these two concepts. Despite death, characters in the Aeneid continue to play fundamental roles in the epic. Hector, who has died, comes to Aeneas to warn him of the sack of Troy. Anchises, Aeneas’ father has died, but is crucial to inciting Aeneas to continue on his duty to found Rome with fervour. Aeneas comes across both Dido and Palinurus when in Dis, causing him great emotional discomfort. Aeneas is also confronted by his dead wife, Creusa, who ‘mitigates [his] distress’ after her death by telling him it is of no use to ‘indulge in such mad grief’ and that he is still to find ‘kingship and a royal wife’ (Virgil, Bk II, 76-77, 83). Virgil is clearly indicating that the divide between earthly existence – Aeneas’ existence – and the afterlife – Hector, Anchises and Dido’s existence – are not so divided. In fact, those that have died, and now inhabit the afterlife have major effects on the living world. Yet, the dead are still somehow separate from the living. ‘In the Aeneid there exists more than one [cosmos]: it is clear that the souls in the seses beatae of Aeneid 6 inhabit their own cosmos, with its own celestial bodies outside of time’ (Mittal, 2011). The dead are part of a different realm but are still able to significantly interact with the living. They are not grounded by corporeal issues of time and space, but still interest themselves in the issues of the living. Death in the Aeneid is not terminal – it signifies a transition to the afterlife which is merely a different realm. Virgil makes it impossible to claim that the afterlife and earthly existence are entirely separate. The impact that the one has on the other, the way the one flows into the other, exhibits the blended view Virgil held of the concepts.
The afterlife and earthly existence are deeply related to dreams and as such reflect that same disorientation between the two. It is in a dream that the dead Hector comes to Aeneas. Aeneas is also in a dream when he meets his father, Anchises, in the underworld, as is true of his encounter with Palinurus and Dido. As the line between what is dream and what is reality is blurred, one can no longer distinguish clearly between those that are dead and those that are alive. Instead of such discrete categories, the dead take on a life of their own in the epic. Virgil has subtly blended earthly existence, reality, dreams and the afterlife in such a way that it is not possible to observe them as isolated from one another.
Equally, Virgil conflates the concepts of history and fable by making use of both to achieve the same end – legitimating Roman genealogy. ‘Augustus wanted Virgil to tell a story that grandly mythologized the founding of Rome’ (Vandiver, 2008, p. 65). Merely telling the history of Rome would not have achieved this – it would have been a simple recounting of history and not a story. In order to ‘mythologize’ Rome and do so ‘grandly’, Virgil needed to add elements of fable. Not only does this give new meaning to history but it also draws the audience in and allows further engagement with the history which has been intertwined with fable. Virgil used ‘myth as a vehicle for expression’ (Mittal, 2011, p. 1). I argue that the use of myth represents, in the Aeneid, what we term fable. There is no shortage of mythological instances in the Aeneid. When Laco?n throws a spear at the Greek horse in Book II, we see a mythical event:
‘See, a pair of serpents with huge coils, snaking over the sea from Tenedos through the tranquil deep (I shudder to tell it), and heading for the shore side by side: their fronts lift high over the tide, their blood-red crests top the waves, the rest of their body slides through the ocean behind and their huge backs arch in voluminous folds.’ (Aeneid, Bk II, 203-208)
The serpents are daunting beasts sent by the gods to punish Lacoon for his actions. Rather than merely expressing the story of the Trojan horse, Virgil glorifies the history with images of godly intervention and magical beasts. By including gods and myth in his recounting of Roman history, Virgil gives greater import to the story. In a sense, it serves as divine sanction that heightens the epic’s worth in the eyes of the pious. This is just one of many instances of mythical events in the epic. The prevalence of these events adds to the marvel that Virgil imparts on Roman history. He does this by clouding the distinction between history and fable by making them cooperate to achieve his aims.
Likewise, the presence of historical fact serves to ensure the epic is seen as valid. There is myriad archaeological evidence which supports the events in the epic. There are ruins attesting to the Sack of Troy in 1180 BC which Virgil explores in Book II. This is an important aspect to consider. Without this historical accuracy, the Aeneid may have been dismissed as no more than fable. It would not have been able to serve its function. It is also noteworthy that Virgil based a large part of the Aeneid on Homer’s Iliad. Homer’s work acted as the historical source upon which Virgil built his grandiose vision of Rome by infusing it with aspects of fable and Roman myth. Virgil has incorporated history and closely followed Homer’s epic which legitimises both Roman and Greek myths as well as the history of Rome itself. Once again, the synthesis of history and fable into one are employed by Virgil, indicating that he saw them not as distinct but as intertwined.
Conflation of fact and fiction is an eminent feature of Virgil’s Aeneid. Dreams impact reality and reality impacts on dreams in such a way that it is impossible to differentiate the two into distinct categories – Aeneas’ action is continually driven by his dreams and his waking life has a major impact on the dream worlds he inhabits. It is often the dead that cause him to act through these dreams and it is evident that the afterlife is merely a different realm which overlaps with the earthy existence of Virgil’s characters. It is similarly exposed that Virgil’s approach to history and fable as interdependent and equally important for his agenda reflects his attitude towards fact and fiction. I have conclusively shown that Virgil views fact and fiction not as antagonistic binaries but rather as overlapping and interdependent aspects of life.
Calcidius. (1992). Commentary on the Timaeus: Dreaming in the Middle Ages. In S. Kruger (Ed.). Cambridge University Press.
McNeely, S. (1997, September). Vergil’s Dreams: A Study of the Types and Purpose of Dreams in Vergil’s Aeneid. Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
Mittal, R. P. (2011). Time and History in Virgil’s Aeneid.
O’Meara. (1988). Virgil and Augustine: The “Aeneid” in the “Confessions”. Maynooth Review, 13, 30-43.
Vandiver, T. (2008). Revelations fo Rome in Virgil’s Aeneid. Hohonu: A Journal of Academic Writing, 6, 65-69.
Virgil. (n.d.). Aeneid.
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