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The Aeneid has many themes, which you'll see as you go through The Story section of this guide. There are many different ways to consider the poem's meaning because Virgil's story works on several different levels. For example, the Aeneid tells the history of Rome, but it also tells the personal story of its hero, Aeneas. To help you understand these levels, here is a list of the major themes you should focus on:
1. THE AENEID IS A NATIONAL EPIC ABOUT THE BEGINNING OF ROME
Virgil's poem tells how Rome came to be in historical and symbolic terms. The story blends history and myth to show how and why the Trojans reached Italy, and how Rome began. Virgil also explains the forces that made Rome great: fate and great courage, determination, and selflessness on the part of its first leader, Aeneas. Aeneas symbolizes the virtues that allowed the Romans to build a great empire.
2. THE AENEID IS A TRIBUTE TO AUGUSTUS AND A CELEBRATION OF THE END OF THE CIVIL WARS IN ROME
Aeneas is the model of a great leader. Virgil meant you to see him as a symbol for the Emperor Augustus. The wars between the Latins and the Trojans, which Virgil describes in the Aeneid, can be compared to the civil wars that raged in Rome before Augustus took control. When Aeneas defeats Turnus and ends the disorder that Turnus created, he is similar to Augustus, who ended the conflict between the warring factions in Rome.
3. THE AENEID IS THE STORY OF AENEAS' PERSONAL SEARCH FOR A NEW IDENTITY
Aeneas changes from a lost and lonely exile with no idea of his destination to a determined, self-confident leader. He gives up his past, as represented by Troy, and accepts the future, as represented by Rome. In the process of becoming a great leader he makes many personal sacrifices, including giving up Dido's love. He is completely devoted to his family and country, and never wavers from these duties, but he also understands the terrible price that others, like Turnus, have to pay for Aeneas' success. This ability to understand and to feel sorry for other people is what makes him such a great character. He's not just a simple-minded hero; he has a heart.
4. THE AENEID DESCRIBES THE STRUGGLE BETWEEN THE FORCES OF ORDER AND DISORDER IN THE WORLD
Virgil's world is a harsh one. The forces of disorder are always present. They are symbolized by Juno's uncontrollable rage at the Trojans and by the irrational passions that Dido and Turnus feel. These forces always lead to death and destruction.
Ultimately, though, Virgil seems to be saying that fate is on the side of order. Jupiter, the king of the gods and a force for order, finally tells Juno to stop making trouble. Aeneas, also a force for order because of his tremendous sense of duty and self-sacrifice, brings order to Italy.
5. THE AENEID DESCRIBES THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PEOPLE AND FATE
A person's life depends on his fate, something even the gods cannot change. Fate isn't fair-Dido and Turnus have tragic fates, even though they may not have done anything wrong. But someone's fate may also reflect the kind of person involved. Aeneas' responsibility to his country makes him a great leader, and he is fated to succeed. Dido and Turnus have excessively passionate natures that lead to their downfalls. Virgil seems to be saying that your fate is a combination of luck (which you can't control) and your own personality (which perhaps you can).