When I was studying Latin at school, I was first introduced to Virgil’s glorious poem, the Aeneid. I doubt whether my teacher might imagine the effect it would have, especially given the tendency for giggling, but it has remained probably my favourite story ever since. When recently visiting the Neapolitan hinterland, I was disappointed to find acres of reinforced concrete covering the Phlegreian Fields of Turner’s paintings and my imaginings. A search for Lake Averna, held by Aeneas to be the entrance to the underworld, was abandoned (to my relief, its surrounds suggested nothing but disappointment) in favour of a ferry to meet friends on a small boat off Ischia.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the city of Troy fell to the Achaeans of Greece in 1250 BC. Writing his Aeneid twelve centuries later, the Roman poet Virgil told of Aeneas, hero of Troy and son of Venus, who had fled the flames of the city, accompanied by his father Anchises, and his young son Ascanius. Virgil wrote as the poet of Augustus, first of the Emperors, shortly before the birth of Christ.

His is a spectacular exercise in literary propaganda; Augustus, nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, claimed direct descent, via a rather dubious family tree, from Aeneas himself and Virgil was commissioned to write the “back story” of Roman history, giving the city (and its ruler) illustrious origins far more ancient than the eighth century BC legends of Romulus.

Virgil tells that Aeneas’ meandering journey across the Mediterranean took him towards Italy where Helenus, the prophetic son of Priam, king of Troy, had told him that his descendants would prosper, and in time rule the whole world. On his way he travelled to Crete; to Sicily, where Anchises died; and to Carthage, where he broke Dido’s heart and stirred the wrath of Juno.

At Cumae (south of Naples), guided by the Sybil, he descended into the underworld where he had a vision of his father prophesying the destiny of Rome. Anchises spoke of Romulus

under [whose] command glorious Rome will match earth’s power and heaven’s will, and encircle seven hills with a single wall (Bk VI, 777-807).

In a clear allusion to Augustus (“the new Romulus”) he states that

others… will hammer out bronze that breathes with more delicacy than us, draw out living features from the marble: plead their causes better, trace with instruments the movement of the skies, and tell the rising of the constellations: remember, Roman, it is for you to rule the nations with your power, … to crown peace with law, to spare the conquered, and subdue the proud.

Emerging from the underworld, Aeneas led the Trojans north along the coast to Latium. Here Tiberinus, the divine personification of the Tiber, appeared to Aeneas in a dream. He told him that the place where Aeneas should found his city would be indicated by a huge white sow with a litter of thirty piglets beneath an oak tree. Further up the coast Aeneas found the sow, and sacrificed it and the piglets to appease Juno. Then, as advised by Tiberinus, he sought King Evander of Arcadia, who Tiberinus had promised would offer an alliance against the fearsome Latins. The Arcadians lived inland on a hill, named Pallantium for their divine ancestress Pallas, which was to become the Palatine Hill. Aeneas and his men rowed up river, aided by Tiberinus. After a night and a day of rowing, the settlement of Pallantium hoved into view. When they arrived, Evander was making an offering to Hercules in a grove between the settlement on the hill and the river (roughly where today one finds the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, in the area of the Velabrum). The sacrifice was offered in thanks for Hercules’ slaying of Cacus, the monstrous giant who had lived in a deep cave beneath the hill and had repeatedly and brutally attacked the Arcadians and their cattle.

Evander then led Aeneas

to a vast grove, which brave Romulus would restore as a sanctuary … He leads him from here to the Tarpeian Rock and the Capitol now all gold, once bristling with wild thorns.

Thus, recounting a tale which purports to have taken place some five hundred years before Romulus and Remus would wash up in the Lupercal, Virgil is emphasizing the Velabrum as the most ancient point of the foundation of the city. As I mentioned in my previous post, it was indeed here that Rome’s pragmatic birth indeed did take place; a trading point of the salt from Ostia. The legendary roots of the city are inextricably linked to its practical origins. Legend is a way of distilling fact into something more memorable.

Rome’s obsession with its own history, with the genius loci – the spirit of place – can be seen in every corner of the city. We should seek to overcome the need to separate “historical fact” from “legend”; the legend is fact, and it belief in these legends has borne results which we still see today. In the twenty-first century, if one braves the traffic of via Luigi Petroselli and the buses which hurtle where once, Virgil would have us believe, Evander made his sacrifice to Hercules, one sees a small round temple of the first century BC, dedicated to Hercules, Victor of Cacus. These stones which we can touch in 2012 are, tradition says, the umpteenth rebuilding of a place of worship said to have stood there since the fall of Troy.

Aeneas and the Sybil at Lake Avernus. Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1798. Tate Britain, London.