The Aeneid: Novel Summary: Book 8
Turnus and those who have joined him send ambassadors to seek help from a city built in Italy by the Greek Diomedes, one of the leaders in the Trojan War, implying that Aeneas is here to take over and will probably attack Diomedes. Father Aeneas also seeks help from a Greek city, inspired to do so by a dream, which comes to him after he finally sleeps, having lain awake for a time, his mind in turmoil over the approaching war. In the dream, Father Tiber, the god of the river on the shores of which Rome was later built, gives him comfort and advice. Following the advice, Aeneas sails with two ships up the Tiber to the kingdom of the Arcadian Evander; it is a small, rustic settlement built where one day Rome will stand. Evander is from Greece, but he and his son Pallas welcome Aeneas. The Arcadians are celebrating the victory of Hercules over the half-human monster Cacus, and Evander tells the story of that victory. He shows Aeneas many sites that will be important in the majestic Rome to come, then invites him to "scorn riches" and enter his simple house to sleep on a bed of leaves.
Meanwhile, Venus coaxes her husband Vulcan into making arms for Aeneas, as he once did for Achilles. The Cyclops who work Vulcan's forge labor all night to make these divine arms.
At early dawn, Aeneas and his hosts, Evander and Pallas, all wake up and hold a council. Evander cannot give much help, but he knows where help is waiting. Mezentius, the despiser of the gods named in the catalogue in the last book, ruled the Tuscans with such cruelty that they have driven him out. Turnus now has taken him in and defends him, but the Tuscans have gathered in arms under King Tarchon to make war on Turnus and bring Mezentius back to face punishment for his cruelty. They have been told by one who speaks for the gods that they need a stranger to lead them, and it seems clear that that stranger is Aeneas. Evander sends Aeneas to treat with them, and with him, to have his first experience of war under the guidance of a hero, he sends his beloved son Pallas. Just then thunder rolls, and they see a gleam of weapons. Aeneas tells them that Venus, as she promised, is bringing him divine weapons. He seems sad to think of how many will now fall before him in war as he wields those weapons-yet they began it.
Evander says farewell to his son weeping. If Evander were younger, he would go with his son into battle, but as it is, he can only pray that the gods will have pity on him as a father and let him see his son again. If not, may he die before he knows that his son has died. They ride off, Pallas as beautiful as the morning star in the midst of his troops.
Before they approach the Tuscans, Aeneas and his men rest, Aeneas by himself beside a stream, and Venus comes to him, openly this time, and he embraces her. But Virgil simply mentions the embrace-the main focus is on the arms she has brought him. Aeneas delights in them, admiring every detail of the divine fire of the armor that makes visible his role as the agent of destiny. Most remarkable is the shield.
The Lord of Fire, Vulcan, who knows the future, has depicted on the shield the story of Italy and the triumphs of Rome. Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf are there; Horatius stands at the bridge, single-handedly holding off the forces of the Etruscans who want to make Rome bow to kings again; right in the center is the Battle of Actium, showing Augustus Caesar in majesty defeating the powers of the East under Mark Antony and Cleopatra. The monster gods of the East are shown battling against Minerva and Venus and Neptune; Apollo draws his bow, and the powers of the East fly in defeat. Augustus Caesar holds a triumph, and the conquered nations march before him.
Aeneas "marvels at such things on the shield of Vulcan, the gift of his mother, and, ignorant of the events, rejoices in the image, lifting up on his shoulders the fame and fate of his descendants" (lines 729-731).
The question is, to what extent has Aeneas in fact been transformed, and what is the nature of that transformation? In Book 7 we saw Aeneas only as he rejoiced to know that he had finally reached the end of his voyaging. He played no part in the outbreak of insanity that brought on war, and we were not shown his reactions. At the beginning of Book 8, he is troubled by the start of the war, but not in despair, and his trouble seems sane by contrast with the insanity of those on the other side. Virgil often refers to him as Father Aeneas now, and his sense of reverent duty, of pietas, is as strong as ever. He joyfully obeys Father Tiber immediately, and when he asks for help from King Evander, he does not attempt to manipulate him with lies. He is much more the calm leader than before, and his stature is far more heroic. At the same time, Virgil always makes us aware that he is great, not as an individualistic hero out for glory, but as an agent of destiny.
The Roman readers of the Aeneid must have had a special pleasure in hearing of the simplicity of the settlement in the place where Rome was to be built, perhaps a bit like our pleasure in reading about the island of Manhattan as it was when the Dutch bought it from the Indians. The description of its simplicity is also a rebuke to those Romans who had become obsessed with wealth and so contributed to the turmoil of the period of civil war from which Rome had just emerged, thanks to Augustus.
The description of the Shield of Aeneas gives Virgil a perfect place to celebrate the most important victory Augustus ever won, at the Battle of Actium. If Cleopatra and Mark Antony had won, so the Romans (and many later historians) believed, they would have established an Eastern despotism, far more onerous than the relatively benign and tolerant rule of Rome, and without any of the freedoms of the ancient Roman Republic, so carefully preserved (at least in form) by Augustus.
To Virgil, that victory may have justified the conquests of Rome and Augustus.
Again there is the characteristic note of Virgilian pathos at the end of Book 8: Aeneas rejoices in the images on the shield, but he does not know what they mean, and now he must bear the destiny of his descendants on his shoulders as before he bore his father, during the escape from Troy. It is not a light burden.