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Have you ever had an experience that changed you, changed the kind of person you were? Sometimes, something very sad or shocking can do that to you. Sometimes, it can be something beautiful and simple like the first really warm day in spring. Whatever does it, one day you wake up and have a whole new outlook on life. You understand something about yourself or about what you want out of life that you never realized before.
That's what happens to Aeneas in Book VI. Almost every great religion or culture-from Christianity to Buddhism-has a story about death and rebirth. Virgil uses the same theme in Book VI to show how the old uncertain Aeneas, the Aeneas whose heart is stuck in ruined Troy, dies and comes back a new, determined Aeneas, committed to Italy and its future.
How does Virgil do this? He has Aeneas journey to the underworld, the place in Greek and Roman mythology where dead souls or "shades" live. Aeneas doesn't actually die. His trip allows him to see what it would be like to be dead without really dying. In the process, he meets many people who lived both good and bad lives and from this he learns what really counts. This new insight makes his old, regretful self "die." What's more, in the underworld his father shows him the future in a parade of great Romans who will be born. Aeneas is inspired. For the first time, he has hope in the future. He decides that his fate is worth pursuing, instead of avoiding. He starts to do things because he wants to, not just because he has to.
As you can see, Book VI is important because it describes a major turning point for Aeneas. Aeneas' travels so far can be interpreted as a symbolic journey of a person in search of a new identity. In Book VI, Aeneas finally finds out who he is-the person who will make the Roman Empire possible. Let's see how that happens.
As Book VI opens, the Trojans have just landed at Cumae on the west coast of Italy near present-day Naples. The men are ecstatic, but Aeneas, who always does his duty first, goes looking for the Sibyl. (Remember that in Book III Helenus told him to go see the Sibyl as soon as he got to Italy.) The Sibyl, a priestess of Apollo, can foresee the future. When Aeneas asks his fortune, the Sibyl reels and spins and all the doors of Apollo's temple fly open. She goes into a trance and Apollo speaks through her.
War, I see, Terrible war, and the river Tiber foaming With streams of blood. There will be another Xanthus, Another Simois, and Greek encampment, Even another Achilles, born in Latium, Himself a goddess' son.