Aeneas and his fleet finally arrive in Italy, landing at Cumae, home of the Sibyl (a priestess of Apollo and Diana who sees the future). He makes the required sacrifices and promises to build a new temple for Sibyl when he founds his fated city in Latium. The god Apollo speaks through her, prophesying that Aeneas will achieve his fate, but not before a terrible war. For Aeneas to visit the Underworld, he must find and pluck a golden bough precious to Proserpina, queen of the dead, from a tree deep in the forest. Aeneas appeals to his mother, and Venus sends doves to guide him. He enthusiastically tears the branch off the tree.
The Sibyl and Aeneas enter the cave leading to the Underworld and approach the river Acheron, which dead souls must cross to enter the Underworld. Aeneas spots a number of men from his fleet who have died, but they cannot cross because their bodies remain unburied. The Sibyl assures Aeneas’s pilot, Palinurus, that strangers will bury his body soon. Charon, ferryman of the dead, challenges them, but the golden bough allows them to pass into the Underworld.
In the Underworld each type of dead soul has its own area. The marshes around the Styx hold the souls of the tragic dead—infants, suicides, and those killed by “cruel love.” Aeneas sees the spirit of Dido and tries to talk to her, but she angrily returns to her husband, Sychaeus. She is Aeneas’s “enemy forever.” Moving on, they encounter dead heroes, both Trojan and Greek, and Aeneas visits Tartarus, where those who don’t repent of their crimes or those who defy the gods are punished. Finally they use the golden bough to enter Elysium.
In the peaceful Elysian Fields, the soul of Anchises shows Aeneas their descendants waiting to be reborn into the world. Among many others, Ascanius points out Romulus, founder of Rome; Julius Caesar, descendant of Iulus (Ascanius); and Caesar Augustus, whom he predicts will “bring back the Age of Gold/to the Latin fields.” He previews centuries of Roman history, including the Punic and civil wars. Speaking to future generations, he charges Romans to “rule with all your power/the people of the earth … / … spare the defeated, break the proud in war.” Aeneas and the Sibyl return to the world of the living through the ivory Gates of Sleep.
The Sibyl’s prophecy again assures Aeneas that he will eventually achieve his fate, but she expands on what others prophecies have said: he will need to fight a long war before building his new city. She describes it as a new Trojan War—”Simois, Xanthus, a Greek camp” (rivers around Troy and the enemy outside the gates)—and his primary foe (Turnus) as “a new Achilles.” Again it will be a war fought over “a stranger bride” (Lavinia), like the Trojan War was fought over Helen.
The golden bough allows Aeneas to access the Underworld, a place from which the living are usually barred (though Aeneas lists a number of legendary figures who have entered it living before him, including Orpheus and Hercules). The bough cannot be picked if it is not fated to be, making it a symbol of the inevitability of Aeneas’s extraordinary fate. The description of Aeneas removing the golden bough is a little confusing, since it is inconsistent with the Sibyl’s claim that it will release “freely, easily,/all by itself it comes away if Fate calls you on.” Instead, when Aeneas grasps it, “the bough holds back—/he tears it off in his zeal.” However, since he is able to pluck it, it seems he is meant to visit the Underworld.
Aeneas’s encounter with his pilot, Palinurus, illustrates an important belief of both the Greeks and Romans—the unburied dead cannot enter the Underworld and thus may return to torment the living. Likewise, the ghost of Achilles’s friend Patroclus in The Iliad and the ghost of one of Odysseus’s (Ulysses) crew in The Odyssey cannot pass on to the land of the dead until they are buried. The Sibyl’s assurance that people would find and bury Palinurus’s body demonstrates the obligation of every person to bury the dead, even those not their own.
The punishments in Tartarus, the pit of the damned, reinforce the importance of pietas: dutifully respecting and honoring the gods, family, and country. Many of those being punished in some way defied the gods, particularly Jupiter. Phlegyas, who is “most in agony” for burning Apollo’s temple at Delphi, cries “Never scorn the gods./You all stand forewarned!” However, the reader might observe that the destruction of a temple is a public, rather than a private, act of defiance. Given the close tie between the Roman pantheon of gods and goddesses with the identity of Rome itself, it can be argued that it is Roman culture even more than spiritual sentiment that has been insulted by such defilement. Others in Tartarus betrayed their families through violence, greed, and adultery, or betrayed their countries through civil war—another of Virgil’s condemnations of the recent Roman civil wars.
In his visit to the Underworld, Aeneas also encounters Dido and attempts to apologize to her for his part in her death. Unforgiving, she turns away from him in anger and moves toward the shade of her first husband instead. However, despite the fact that she is a queen, her betrayal is justified to Romans in that she is “African” (not of Roman lineage), and her destruction would have been interpreted by Roman readers of the time as a foreshadowing of the conquest and complete destruction of Carthage (Rome’s most powerful competitor). The identity of ruler and country is a close tie, so that the destruction of one is the beginning of the end of the other.
As he did with Creusa in Book 2, Aeneas desperately tries three times to hold Anchises’s spirit. This also pays homage to Homer, echoing Achilles’s attempt to hold Patroclus’s ghost in The Iliad and especially Odysseus’s three tries to hold his mother’s spirit on his visit to the land of the dead in The Odyssey. The inability of the living to hold onto the dead emphasizes the separation between the two realms and serves as an analogy for human grief and attempts to hold onto loved ones after their deaths.
Anchises’s perspective in the Elysian Fields, with its souls waiting for reincarnation, allows him to show Aeneas the great leaders who come after him. Virgil’s depiction of the reincarnation of souls appears nowhere in Homer; instead, it borrows from later Greek philosophers such as Plato and the Pythagoreans, but the details seem to be Virgil’s own invention. Anchises describes figures, mostly historical, from the founding of Rome up to Virgil’s current ruler, Caesar Augustus. Through Anchises, Virgil even eulogizes Augustus’s potential heir (his sister Octavia’s son), who died young—the sad young man walking with Marcellus.
Especially during the review of notable Roman figures, Virgil mixes future, present, and past verb tenses to skillfully create a sense of people and events that are still to occur in Aeneas’s time but would be known to Roman readers of The Aeneid as historical. This sense of the past as present and future contributes powerfully to the sense of Rome’s destiny, with a future as glorious as its past.
The ivory Gates of Sleep and Gates of Horn that Virgil depicts at the end of Book 6 are also borrowed from Homer’s Odyssey. Aeneas leaves through the Gates of Sleep, which are generally for “false dreams,” perhaps suggesting he forgets the future events that Anchises has described to him. When he receives a great shield decorated with future scenes of Roman history in Book 8, Virgil tells us “he knows nothing of these events.”