The Aeneid contains three sets of ecphrasis: the description of the shield made by Vulcan in Book 8, the temple doors engraved by Daedalus in Book 6 and the frescoes on Dido’s temple in Book 1. The first ecphrasis on Book 1 demonstrates the incredible abilities of the poet to use frescoes depicting the themes and morals that the poem will go about. The frescoes show six images which are related to the Trojan war, echoed by events occurring in the Italian War described especially in books 9 to 12.

Each picture has a relationship with the motifs of the poem. The death of Rhesus illustrates how Greek ruthlessness prevented the salvation of Troy. The central part of the frescoes shows a series of portents, prophecies and omens associated with the doom of Troy. It portrays the themes of cruelty, treachery and ruthlessness as seen by Aeneas. The story of Troilus, which is the only one fresco which is not Homeric, shows firstly that the death of Troilus was one of the fated dooms of Troy. Secondly, it also depicts the brutality on the behaviour shown by Achilles, who kills an unarmed Trojan, probing the ruthlessness of the Greeks. The images show the brutality of Achilles, which will parallel Aeneas brutality against Turnus. It then follows the divine embodiment of this doom, the hostile Pallas Athena, whose cruelty, coldness and terrifying behaviour is noticed.

From these three pictures, which show the causes, themes and fates, it follows the death of Hector and the fall of Troy, which shows the inevitability of the fall of Troy as a result of the episodes depicted in Dido’s temple.

The depiction of the pictures are not on chronological order. This order is related to its meanings as the first and last pictures are transitional to the conflict with Dido. With the exception of the first picture, all the others are related to furor. The pictures portray the limitations of pietas when confronted with furor.

The frescoes comment on the nature of frenzy and demonstrate the difficulty of performing duties. Pieta is not a simple goal and requires suffering and great sacrifice. In a civilised culture, the pursuit of pietas entails compromise and suffering. The frescoes look backwards and forward as they portray past anguish and foresee future suffering.

The frescoes are interpreted by Aeneas as an expression of pity and not of celebration. Dido does receive the main character with generosity, because her suffering taught her compassion. Virgil uses the same language to describe the anger of the God Juno against the Trojans or the brutality of Aeneas against Turnus, who’s praying for compassion.

The Aeneid Book 1 establishes the epic identity of the poem. It establishes the moral values and introduces the main character to the reader. The poem shows its ambiguity from the beginning as what is the nature that the epic universe portrays, whether is comedy or tragedy. This first book therefore tells the reader that the process will result in a Roman empire, but under which epic model will be achieved or under which morals is yet to be discovered in the poem.

Perhaps the major significance of this ecphrasis is the possibility of misreading art. The frescoes of Dido’s temple are described to Juno through Aeneas eyes. He is portrayed though as an isolated and confused individual who interprets differently the frescoes to what the external audience interprets.

The pictures are interconnected and coloured through Aeneas’ eyes. Virgil differs here with Homer and the use of art that the Greek poet performed. The Odyssey and the Iliad, unlike the Aeneid, see art as a straightforward and positive force in human life. The Aeneid evokes both Homeric poems but does not parallel with any of them. The ecphrasis shows visual art but not telling a human story but as an interpretation by a character and has the detail about the Trojan war that the Odyssey has but using visual art instead.

Virgil’s scene is an interpretation of a painting not the painting itself. Just as the different interpretations of the poem that can be taken by any reader. The ecphrasis deals with Aeneas’ interpretation of the recently founded Carthage. Another of the interpretations is related to violence and its depiction. The description of the queen Dido, who is described in rational control, non-sensual, abstemious. However, the description probes delusive, as Dido is a portrait of furor which is temporarily contained. Aeneas feels sorrow and sadness when looking at Troy’s sufferings at the battles with the Greeks and believes that these were the morals depicted when those frescoes were created. The book deals with how observers interpret and at the same time misinterpret works of art. This is obviously common when reading, listening or watching pieces of art.

The frescoes of Aeneid 1 are described through Aeneid’s eyes and provide an image of the individual’s suffering throughout history. The poem does not give any reference to fame but suggests the hollowness of fame as a value. Art works are aimed at fame according to the writer and fame is ephemeral. From the ecphrasis, Aeneid does not learn the imbalance between fame and its costs as does not learn the teachings of the other two ecphrasis. This shows the scepticism of the epicist, if not the pessimism that the writer has towards the effects of his writings. In a way this ecphrasis shows the transition from the scepticism of the Eclogue, his first piece of writing, to the ambivalence of Georgics, to finally the certainty and pessimism presented at the Aeneid.

The poet takes the fall of Troy as a parallel story to explain the rise of Rome. The author takes us from the fall of Troy to the rise of Rome, from Aeneas to Augustus, from civil strife and surrendered enemies to a golden time of empire established and confirmed. Book 1 also depicts the challenges that the main protagonists encounter: between following his heart or his head, between affection and duty, individual fulfilment and the dictates of destiny. In the same line, we find Dido’s choice of loyalty between her husband or the handsome visitor. It is also this uncontrolled emotion or sexual instinct that turns actions into failure. Those same emotions shown by Dido or Achilles are absent on most of the poem, but will end up sprouting on Aeneas too.

One of Virgil’s best contributions is the development of epic with an ethical dimension to the heroic action, based on the grander of human conduct, whereby the victorious use its strength with moderation to accomplish peace, not ongoing vengeance. It is a more social type of heroism than Homer portrayed. We could define it as a heroism of imperium.

The mirror of Troy draws the way for the Romans. Rome shouldn’t follow the ruthlessness of the Greeks against the Trojans. It is found this thin relationship between pietas and furor. The Aeneid is not just a symbolical, mythological and historical text but also a moral text and the poet uses it to confront the principal moral issue of Rome: the nature and value of the empire.

Empire is not just achieved through clemency or pietas but also through violence, rage, vengeance and furor. The Iliadic Hera, who punishes the Trojans, is paralleled in the Aeneid with the goddess Juno. Romans’ fear her. The storm instigated by Juno and the calm brought by Neptune is a repeated image in the divine, the natural and the political level, in which the values of imperium and pietas (duty, respect, dedications) are opposed by irrational furor. Peace will be brought just when the enemy is defeated and pacification is achieved. Violence is required to conquer the enemy.

The portraying of Aeneas conflict with Dido is a reflection of the furor shown by the main character when confronted with Turnus. However, Turnus is compared with the forces of chaos and Aeneas with the cosmic forces. There is need to placate chaos, bring order and spread harmony on the universe through the empire.

The poet suggests a troubled vision of moral experience, where the universe is driven by irrationality and evil not just of the human but the divine and also at a natural level. Even the main goddess Juno is driven by rage, hatred, destruction and, at the same time, she is portrayed as an anguished victim.

Image taken from:


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