The Underworld and Morality in Vergil's Aeneid
Book IV of the Aeneid can stand alone as Vergil's highest literary achievement, but centered in the epic, it provides a base for the entire work. The book describes Aeneas's trip through the underworld, where after passing through the depths of hell, he reaches his father Anchises in the land of Elysium. Elysium is where the "Soul[s] to which Fate owes Another flesh" lie (115). Here Anchises delivers the prophecy of Rome to Aeneis. He is shown the great souls that will one day occupy the bodies of Rome's leaders. Before the prophecy of Rome is delivered, Aeneis's journey through the underworld provides a definite ranking of souls according to their past lives on Earth. The Aeneid does not encompass a heaven, but the Underworld provides a punishment place where souls are purged of their evils and after one thousand years, regenerated to Earth. The ranking of souls in the Underworld warns of punishment for sin, and provides a moral framework for Roman life.
Aeneis's first contact with a soul in the purgatory of the Underworld is Palinurus, who died after falling from one of Aeneis's ships. Aeneis is at the mouth of the river that flows through hell with his guide the goddess Diephobe and Charon the ferryman. Palinurus is waiting to be ferried to his place in the Underworld, so he can begin his thousand-year purge. He pleads with Aeneis's party to take him along, but Deiphobe scolds him: "Shalt thou, unburied, see the Stygian flood, / The Furies stream, or reach the bank unbid?" (107). In Vergil's Underworld one must have had a proper burial to gain a position. This serves as a warning to Romans to give their deceased a proper funeral, less they remain in hell longer.
After Palinurus is scolded, the party begins their float down the river. "Then on their ears a sound of wailing rose, / Where babies's souls were crying [. . . ] / Life's joyless outcasts [. . . ] / Plucked from the breast unripe" (108). This probably refers to aborted and abandoned babies. A Roman mother wanting to rid herself of the burden of parenthood would certainly weigh one thousand years of wailing for her dead child against whatever hardship she foresees in rearing that child. Next are the falsely accused. Minos presides over a silent court, where the accused forever plead their innocence. This is a call for fair justice in Roman courts. The accusers are not only sentencing an end to life on earth, but also adding a much longer punishment of grief to the accused in the afterlife. As with the babies, the punishment falls to the victim, thus encouraging the powerful to use their judgement meticulously.
Further down the river, Aeneis encounters souls that have brought punishment unto themselves. First those who "Dealt death unguilty, and threw away their lives" (109). Suicide has often been called the most selfish of human acts; selfish to the ones who care and love for the victim, and selfish to the God that gave the...