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Between Home and Hell: Virgil’s Politically Prophetic Metempsychosis

Between Home and Hell: Virgil’s Politically Prophetic Metempsychosis

Mike Doane

Aeneid VI is the crossroad of the epic and the foundation on which all else depends. It links the past with the future, and compels Aeneas forward towards his duty. The journey to the underworld is a symbolic decomposition of Aeneas meant to redefine his nature so that he can better achieve his destined goal, founding Rome. It also however yields subtle insights to Vergil’s motives in writing the Aeneid that must be deciphered.To understand this, an examination of the journey through the underworld, especially the transmigration of souls described in VI.724-751, and how these relate to the rest of the Aeneid as well as Vergil’s own lifetime, must be undertaken.

While being led through the underworld in Book VI, Aeneas asks his father, Anchises, about the souls he sees crowded around the river Lethe. Anchises explains that these are the souls of those who have passed away, and that they are preparing to return to earth once more after enduring a long process of regeneration either through punishment or pleasure. He explains the entire process of metempsychosis they will undertake, of birth (VI.724-729), life (VI.730-734), death (VI.735-747), and rebirth (VI.748-751).

What is undeniable is that, as E. L. Harrison identifies, there are a number of sources from which Vergil draws the content of the underworld and the transmigration of souls, most notably Plato’s myth of Er, where souls die and are reborn in a similar manner, and the Orphic-Pythagorean tradition which is stoic in nature and views the body as a prison-house, an impediment, on the soul (194; 195). But it is careless to hastily conclude that Vergil was exploring some metaphysical question through Aeneas’ investigation, especially in a poem of such a nationalistic concern.

As L. A. Mackay points out, within other parts of Aeneid VI are conflicting ideologies that do not adhere to these same principles. The underworld presented by Vergil, unlike its Greek foundations, is rather symbolic and essentially human, depicting several layers of meaning. How strange, considering that this is the “central episode in a poem instinct with divinity,” that “the gods are notably absent” (182). Aeneas of course is told of the divine ruling factions, but he never meets them. And he never presents the golden bough to them “like an ambassador,” a potentially “grandiose and impressive scene” (ibid.). Instead his journey is focused solely on the human elements in this deathly place, the punishment of souls, their inhabitance, and their eventual rebirth.

The first part, here called “birth,” of Vergil’s portrayed metempsychosis begins with a spirit departing from the underworld, infusing itself with the sky, earth, and heavens, and mixing itself with the magno corpore. This is the prima-type soul, one with the macrocosm, omnipresent, and without knowledge of the self. It regards all being as part of a larger body working together in an attempt for harmony in the universe. And this may seem above humanity, perhaps even like the soul is part of a divinity itself, but Vergil, Mackay argues, is attempting to “search for an understanding of the problems of death and life and man’s place in the Universe” (188). This soul is “not the model for the average man, but for the exceptional man” (187), and it is Aeneas’ ultimate goal to return to this state before his death, so that he might carry out his duty in founding a new Troy, Augustus’ Rome. Without a selfless soul, a true nationalistic pride, a disposition that is focused on the well-being of a leader’s subjects, the corporal head concerned with the good functioning of the entirety of the body, the system is sure to fall apart in the end.

From here, the soul enters into the bodies of hominum pecudumque genus. This too may be derived from the Platonic myth, in which Er witnesses the soon to be reincarnated soul choosing a new life based upon how the old one was lived. Orpheus, for example, takes that of a swan because of his power in song; Agamemnon becomes an eagle because of his power in battle; and so on. Vergil’s version is radically different, however, in that the souls do not choose their new body, they simply enter into one of these many things. And there is no distinction in this account between humans and beasts. Vergil does not use aut or et…et, or anything else, to describe a hierarchy between bodies, nor does he use a simple et to distinguish one from the other. Instead he places the words hominum and pecudum side by side, using an enclitic -que­ to connect them, thus providing little separation between the two. These creatures are on an equal plane. A man may act beastly if he is not in tune with the macrocosm, his higher self, and animals at times act virtuously, for they are composed of the same spiritual and physical substance.

The second part of Vergil’s portrayed metempsychosis, “life,” also lends itself to this notion. The souls, he suggests, are divine by nature, but, when any physical body impedes upon this divinity through its emotions and sentiments, they will become blind and imprisoned.  They will lose sight of the truth, their stoic wisdom, their divine omnipresent corporality, that transcends animal knowledge and form once they allow the body to imprison them with emotion. But this is not a fixed disposition, for it can be reversed or avoided, Vergil suggests:

Igneus est ollis vigor et caelestis origo
seminibus, quantum non noxia corpora tardant,
terrenique hebetant artus moribundaque membra. (VI.730-732)

The quantum is the most important word in this passage because it explains that the soul needs not allow the body to impose any sense upon it which will restrain its divine fiery vigor. It is unavoidable that the body itself will decay, but it is not necessary that this too is the same fate for the soul, if the mind is kept apt and allows the rationality of the soul to guide it.

Throughout the first half of the Aeneid, Aeneas allows his soul to be stolen by emotion often. The only time he exhibits a true selflessness, an omnipresent virtue, is when he carries his penates and his father while leading his child and people from the city of Troy towards their destiny without looking back, even for his wife. He preserves the past and ensures the future all in this moment, without a thought for himself, without emotion, completely stoic in an action for national and human endurance and security. But afterwards he laments the loss of his wife, and later he is deeply moved by the loss of his father and friends. When he comes to Carthage, he weeps at the sight of the wall that depicts the Trojan War, and he falls in love with Dido. Again, after reminded by the gods, he leaves for his duty, letting go his emotion, but when he reaches Sicily he is plagued with more loss and reminders of the ones passed. In his wanderings, Aeneas strays much from his destiny, he is overtaken by his senses, and his divine nature, his omnipresent soul, slips away and is forgotten time and time again. Only when those bodies higher than he, the ones he calls gods, more attuned to the magno corpore, set him on the right course again does he work towards his duty once more.

This lack of sight for his ultimate goal is parallel with the blindness Vergil associates with the soul overtaken by emotion. Harrison sees the carcere caeco to be yet another reference to the Orphic-Pythagorean doctrine which saw “the body [as] essentially a hostile environment that pollutes the soul, hinders its progress to true knowledge, and, to use the Orphic phrase, serves as its prison-house” (195), and this may be correct, but, again, its purpose for Vergil is beyond metaphysics. Aeneas must seek true knowledge by escaping his prison-house, he must overcome his polluted soul, and purify it so that he can become the father of a nation, the founder of future Rome. His chance to do this is embedded in his journey to the underworld. Here he again sees Palinurus who, though unburied, has the place where he died dedicated in name to him, Dido who has nothing more to say to Aeneas and now has retired with her former husband, Deiphobus who wishes Aeneas well, and Anchises who exhibits great pride in his son, showing him his future race and the glory Rome is to be. He must confront his past, overcome these emotional situations that he looks back towards, that blinded and imprisoned him, he must let go his sentiments, and move forward with a stoic soul, to begin an omnipresent empire, a physical magno corpore.

The soul in Vergil’s next section of metempsychosis, “death,” is to be purged once it arrives in the underworld because,

non tamen omne malum miseris nec funditus omnes
corporeae excedunt pestes, penitusque necesse est
multa diu concreta modis inolescere miris. (VI.736-738)

After this process of punishment the souls are sent to Elysium, where the stains of their past bodies are removed and pure aetheric sense and simple aural fire are left to be imbedded by long days, perfecto temporis orbe. The souls here attain what is needed to become part of the macrocosm again, that fiery vigor and omnipresent rationality. Through a process which demands exhibition of emotion, the soul sheds all sentiments that may have corrupted it. It becomes numb, yet free from the blind prison, it sees the truth once more, and lives on with great stoicism.

This endless cycle, however, seems pointless and counterproductive. What is the purpose of sending souls forth into the macrocosm, then into the physical world, over and over if they are only to be corrupted each time and sent back again for purification, so that the process can begin once more? Anchises, before explaining the transmigration process, tells Aeneas, magis Italia mecum laetere reperta (VI.718), once he understands it. But Aeneas is skeptical, saying it is a shame to think that any souls return to tarda corpora, that they are to be defiled again without reason. Anchises however does not disappoint. When he begins enumerating their descendants and comes to Octavian, he describes him thus:

Hic vir, hic est, tibi quem promitti saepius audis,
Augustus Caesar, Divi genus, aurea condet
saecula qui rursus Latio regnata per arva
Saturno quondam, super et Garamantas et Indos
proferet imperium: iacet extra sidera tellus,
extra anni solisque vias, ubi caelifer Atlas
axem umero torquet stellis ardentibus aptum. (VI.791-797)

The goal of this cycle then, as this passage suggests, is to establish the aurea saecula, a sort of Elysium on earth where all hold the laeta arva (VI.744), which extends the world over, and into the heavens, encompassing the complete macrocosm. It is to bring together all planes of existence, the physical and spiritual, to be in harmony with each other, and exist as the magno corpore, the unified prima-type soul. Though the souls will continue to die and be reborn, they will not notice because the two states of being will be identical.

Brooks Otis would have a problem with this, for he attempts to tackle this same problem and concludes that, “history – man’s action in time – has no final place in Platonism or Pythagoreanism since their goal is, precisely, time-less and unchangeable being” (172). The evidence presented here however suggests otherwise. It is exactly Aeneas’ duty to father a race that will bring an end to time, to found a city that will be eternal and unchanging. The purpose of the process is to eventually cleanse all emotional stains, to place the souls who are hopeless into Tartarus, and to cycle the rest through the temporis orbe, from Elysium to the golden age on earth that holds domain over all physical temporal space and back.

The prophecy that it will be Caesar Augustus, one of Aeneas’ descendants and “Rome’s ‘second’ founder” (Porter), to achieve this goal is reiterated in the final section of Vergil’s metempsychosis, “rebirth.” Anchises tells Aeneas that one thousand years from this point in time, omnes will be called together in a great crowd to Lethe, and they will drink from it and forget their past states, supera ut convexa revisant, / rursus et incipient in corpora velle reverti (VI.750-751). This, of course, again fits nicely with Harrison’s Orphic-Pythagorean reading, for the souls at this point know that a body will simply impede on their knowledge of the truth. It is necessary therefore that they drink to forget, because without souls reentering the world, no new great populations like the Romans could arise, and humanity would cease to exist. But two things stand out that suggest Vergil is hinting at something more; one thousand years is nearly the mythical time between Aeneas and Augustus, and the fact that all gather at Lethe. This almost goes one step further than presenting a continued cycle of birth and death after Augustus’ golden age is established, and suggests that all souls deemed fit for Elysium will be sent into bodies to live there indefinitely in the eternal and changeless empire of Rome.

Thus Anchises’ speech ends where it began, and yet at the same time hints at a future that will end the cycle of the soul and bring history to a stasis. When Aeneas departs from the underworld, he must awake through the horn of false dreams, something which suggests this experience, like the one the souls who drink from Lethe before they return to the macrocosm undergo, will be forgotten. His old soul, the one wracked with impure emotions, has been purified and he will leave with a new disposition, inspired with a great duty, which will take his people and country, rather than his self, as its primary concern. And, like the ideal soul, before it is corrupted by the passions of the body, it will be one with the macrocosm and of great stoicism. In this way, Aeneas will guide the course of history and lead those souls which are to come into life once more toward a new age which is to end all ages.

The question remains: does Vergil believe this goal to be achievable? If so, the second half of the Aeneid would show Aeneas unequivocally acting as the prima-type soul, and, for the most part, it indeed does. Aeneas makes many political arrangements through diplomacy and marriage, disregarding much emotional attachment, and he wars for the purpose of the future city and people rather than for personal glory or vengeance. But towards the end, the cycle begins to turn again, and Aeneas is compelled by his lower faculties, his emotions, his bodily feelings, to sorrow at the funeral of Pallas. When Evander laments and asks the Trojans to take revenge upon Turnus, Aeneas has no qualms, for he is moved by the father’s furor, a particularly dangerous emotion that even the Olympian gods cannot escape. And Aeneas too exhibits furor in the final scene. As Turnus presents a case of the highest reason, that if Aeneas has any care for the relationship between a father and a son, if he suffered when his father died, or understood the pain Evander himself felt, he would allow Turnus to live, for the sake of his own father. Turnus extends his hand in a motion to give Aeneas victory, to settle the conflict between them, and acknowledge him as ruler of Latium, husband to Lavinia. And Aeneas is moved by this, he sees the truth and an end in it, but when he sees Pallas’ baldric strung across Turnus’ shoulder, he is blinded, furiis accensus et ira / terribilis (XII.946-947). And with furious language, Vergil tells that Aeneas ferrum adverso sub pectore condit / fervidus (XII.950-951).

This is how Latium is conquered, this is how the foundation of Rome is laid forth, not through diplomacy and reason, not even through wars that are fought for the people and country, but through vengeance and rage, pure emotion, beastly actions. What does this say for Romulus’ future founding of Rome, also established only after he acts out of fury upon his brother Remus, or of Augustus’ second founding of Rome, or of his founding of the golden age? The foundation, it seems, wherever it is human or animal, cannot sustain, and is doomed again to fall into a cycle of death and rebirth.


Harrison, E. L. “Metempsychosis in Aeneid Six.” The Classical Journal 73.3 (1978): 193-197. JSTOR. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <>.

Mackay, L. A. “Three Levels of Meaning in Aeneid VI.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 86 (1955): 180-189. JSTOR. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <>.

Otis, Brooks. “Three Problems of Aeneid 6.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 90 (1959): 165-179. JSTOR. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <>.

Porter, John. “Augustus.” University of Saskatchewan. N.p., 30 July 2010. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <404 Redirect, No Longer Found>.