Virgil has described Aeneas’ visit to the underworld in Book VI of The Aeneid. It has been considered as the greatest achievement of Virgil’s imaginative and poetic powers. The episode is the keystone of the whole of The Aeneid and without this episode, the poem would break apart into the two separate incomplete and unconnected short epics. In fact, it is the visit off to the underworld with all it’s elaborate religious and patriotic imagery that gives The Aeneid its spiritual meaning and sightlines of vision.
Aeneas’ visit to the underworld takes place soon after the protagonist deserts Dido at the command of the divinity. The Dido episode reveals that in the beginning Aeneas is still a man with human weaknesses and he is reminded of his mission by Mercury. The protagonist begins to transcend the merely human place and becomes a symbolic abstraction of the Roman people. The Dido episode plays a very significant role for its effects on the development of the personality and state of Aeneas. Just before his visit to the underworld, the funeral games of Anchises, the father of Aeneas are held in a Sicilian port, where they took refuge because of storms. In doing this, Aeneas fulfills his last strict human obligation in order to free himself for his new role as the agent of destiny. The Trojans start their voyages and finally, they arrived in Italy. Aeneas climbs a hill to the temple of Apollo in order to consult Deiphobe, a Sybil. Aeneas offers sacrifices and the Sybil details his future, describing the bloody war and his enemies but finally predicts his ultimate victory. Aeneas desires to be guided to Hades, the underworld, but she tries to refrain him from such a dangerous adventure.
However, she gives an instruction that would ensure his admittance there. Following her instructions, Aeneas visits a sacred grove in the nearby forest and plucks a golden bough from a great tree there. Returning to the temple that night he makes proper sacrifices and before the sunrise vast chasm opens in the earth. Aeneas follows his route to Hades and he is guided by Sybil. The horrible sight terrifies Aeneas, but he maintains his courage and finally they reach the river Acheron, which must be crossed before all dead souls enter the Hades. Charon, the old ferryman refuses to carry living beings across the river but finally, he agrees when the Sybil shows him the golden bough. At first, they arrive at the place reserved for those who died in infancy. Then they visit the place reserved for suicides and Aeneas meets Dido there, sincerely begs to the pardoned but the vindictive queen even refuses to speak with him and quickly avoids his presence. Then Aeneas finds many Trojan heroes who were killed in the Trojan War. The Trojan heroes surrounded him while the Greek heroes get terrified to see him. They also visit the fortress encircled by a river of fire and high walls where the sinners are imprisoned and they have to suffer dreadful punishment in retribution for their misdeeds during life. At last, they visit the beautiful Elysian Fields where the souls of the blessed spend their happy time in Hades.
Aeneas looks for his father eagerly and when they meet they embrace each other with great affection. Anchises shows him a large body of souls lined up at Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. He explains that these souls have been purged of their sins and lasts during their thousand years stay in Hades. After drinking the water they will forget all memories of formal existence and they will be reincarnated for living a second life on earth. Anchises points out many of those who will become great heroes of Rome in their next life. While identifying those figures and explaining their greatness, Anchises give Aeneas a short summary of the history of Rome from legendary times to the beginning of the empire. Among they were Silvious, the would be the son of Aeneas, his descendant, Julias Ceaser, the well-known statesman and general and finally his nephew emperor Augustus Ceaser, the greatest ruler, and leader of Roman history. As Aeneas and Anchises wonder through Elysian, the father foretells the son the future wars and his eventual victory. The knowledge that Aeneas gains about the destiny of Rome and his own contribution to it fires his imagination and intensifies his passion to achieve all that has been fated for him. Overwhelmed with great joy and enthusiasm he bids farewell to his beloved father and returns to the earth accompanied by the Sybil. Aeneas rejoins his companions on the beach and soon starts their voyage.
Aeneas’ visit to the underworld is of great dramatic and spiritual significance. When his visit is complete, Aeneas’ personality has experienced several subtle changes. His miraculous emergence from the land of the dead may be taken as a kind symbolic metempsychosis as regeneration. The protagonist is now cleansed of all earthiness and has assumed moral strength and historical self-consciousness of the nation he is fated to find. It is through his visit to the underworld that “The last of the Trojan is reborn as the first Roman”, there is no denying the fact that Virgil was influenced by Homer in many respects while composing The Aeneid. The episode of Aeneas’ visit to the underworld is based on the Homeric epic Odyssey in which the protagonist Odysseus visits the after-world on his journey back home.
However, the vague Homeric conception of Hades and life after death is made more distinct by Virgil particularly by his introduction of the idea metempsychosis so that the visit serves valuable symbolic and ideological purposes unlike an exotic adventure of Odysseus. However the Homeric hero seems to be motivated in his visit by curiosity and desires for knowledge, but the motivation of the Virgilian hero is entirely different for he obeys the admonition of a higher divine power. Through his visit Aeneas initiated into the history of Rome and become conscious of his historic role is founding a city for his own people. The episode of Aeneas’ visit to the underworld is indeed the most significant episode in The Aeneid as far as its structure and symbolic meaning is concerned.