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The Aeneid, Book VI: Vergil’s Dream of the Afterlife

Jeff Brodd

California State University, Sacramento

Vergil’s account of the afterlife set forth in Book VI of the Aeneid is among the poem’s most significant and enigmatic religious aspects. Abounding in literary antecedents and elaborate detail, the account quite naturally attracts the attention of anyone interested in understanding Roman perspectives on the fate of the dead.

This paper considers Vergil’s account from two main perspectives: Vergil’s own, with attention to his literary sources; and those of his intended readership, including both members of Augustus’ inner circle and the Roman populace more generally.

Examination of Vergil’s literary sources involves consideration of Homer’s Odyssey, Pindar’s Olympian ode 2, Aristophanes’ Frogs, Plato’s “Myth of Er” and other so-called “myths” of the afterlife, and some of the Orphic hymns. Drawing on various ideas featured in these sources, Vergil fused together the Homeric underworld and, per the Odyssey 4.561-569, Homeric Elysium, while also incorporating an Orphic-Pythagorean doctrine of reincarnation, as embraced and described by Plato. The Blessed Groves (sedes beatae) thus exist alongside the “shining plain” (nitentes campi), their status in the hierarchy of afterlife destinations carefully defined by Vergil, with his Roman sensibilities regarding boundary walls and the proprieties of rank and class.

Concerning Vergil’s intended readership, there is, generally speaking, quite a striking incongruity between the ideas set forth in Book VI and what is likely to have been the perspectives on the afterlife held by the majority of Romans. Overestimations of the historical relevance of Vergil’s account tend to suffer from entrapment in an echo chamber of literary evidence detached from the impact of material and epigraphic evidence, much of which suggests that the average Roman did not anticipate an afterlife as described in the poem, with its complex differentiating of regions and its avowal of reincarnation of souls. This is not to deny the likelihood that some among Vergil’s readership would have found the account reasonable, if perhaps novel in the extent of breadth of mythic motifs and philosophical ideas. Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio,” after all, is similar—as we should expect given the common dependence on Plato’s Republic. Comparison of these two depictions of the afterlife is useful, so long as we do not lose sight of the fact that, for many Romans, relationship to a Platonic text and Platonic ideas of reincarnation had little or nothing to do with the real fate of di Manes and the real concern of pacifying these spirits in order to ensure the welfare of the living. Roman perspectives on the afterlife, like most every other aspect of Roman religion, seem to have focused more closely on the concerns of this world than on hopes for another.

Appraisal of both Vergil’s own perspective and that of his intended readership demands careful consideration of the concluding episode of Book VI, in which Anchises is said to send Aeneas and the Sibyl out of the underworld through the gate of ivory, through which false dreams issue. This incident naturally gives rise to questions over Vergil’s degree of sincerity and his overriding intentions for including this account of the afterlife in the Aeneid.

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Epic Gods Imperial City: Religion and Ritual in Latin Epic from Beginnings to Late Antiquity

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