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Forests in the Aeneid by Sophie Park

Updated: Oct 3, 2020

Throughout the Aeneid, trees and forests simultaneously blur and sharpen the differences between opposing ideas. They represent both danger and safety, life and death, as well as nature and culture. Just as Aeneas often feels lost in the woods, the reader may find the uncertainty of Vergil's conflicting arboreal depictions a bit daunting, but embracing ambiguity leads to richer interpretations of the poem.

Danger and Safety

  • Natural landscapes are never just scenery—they’re always imbued with numen (‘divinity’ or ‘divine presence’)

    • The numen of a forest can be a specific guardian deity (e.g. Diana, Silvanus, Hecate) or a more general supernatural presence

    • Sometimes these forces are friendly like the river god Tiber, and sometimes they’re dangerous like the Fury Allecto

  • Vergil usually describes forests with a sense of foreboding—horrentique atrum nemus imminet umbra (‘the dark grove looms with its bristling shade’, Aen. 1.165)—yet he also balances the menace of the wilderness with calming, beautiful natural features like the freshwater streams, which he calls nympharum domus (‘homes of the Nymphs’, 168)

  • Although Aeneas generally has positive interactions with natural divinities, he is also wary of the divine: horror (‘a visceral fear of the wild as a force beyond human control and understanding’) tempers any sense of affection

Life and Death

  • Before he can enter the underworld, Aeneas must retrieve the Golden Bough in the triuiae lucos (6.13), groves sacred to Trivia and connected to Hecate and the Sibyl. It’s a place where ‘the upper and lower worlds overlap, as these groves which grow in the world of the living are intimately connected with the world of the dead, both via their presiding Chthonic goddess and… their visual and emotive similarity to the ghostly groves of the underworld’ (Armstrong, 72)

  • When Aeneas reaches the Bough, ‘the surrounding grove appears as active guardian of the magical branch (tegit, claudunt…umbrae),’ 6.138–9 (Armstrong, 72)

  • In the underworld, Vergil compares the hero’s journey through the forested landscape  to a journey through a midnight wood in the real world (6.270–2). Vergilian similes typically connect contrasting images for clarification, but in this case the similarity between the two parts of the comparison make it difficult to distinguish what’s real and what’s imaginary

  • Over the river Styx and through the myrtle woods of the lugentes campi (‘plains of mourning’, 441), Aeneas finds the Elysian fields, a ‘bright environment... fringed by woodland, amoena uirecta / fortunatorum nemorum (‘the lovely greenery of the groves of the fortunate’, 6.638–9)’ (Armstrong, 77), yet what appears to be a sunny, lively place is actually the haunting ground of ghosts, umbrae

Nature and Culture

  • In the poem, good leaders respect and maintain sacred groves

  • This relationship between figureheads of human civilization and representatives of the natural world highlights the tension between the ‘notion of natural resources there for human benefit and a more cautious outlook where forests are under divine protection’ (Armstrong)

  • Vergil seems to frame acred groves as ‘a potential arrangement of the woods into more ordered and defined entities’ (Armstrong, 85) 

  • Despite the ‘wild, unpredictable numen of the forest,’ a fair share of the favourable omens foretelling the triumphant foundation of Rome ‘are connected with the woods, whether issuing from sacred sylvan precincts or pointing to portents themselves to be found among the trees’ (Armstrong, 85) 

  • When Aeneas lands in Carthage, he successfully subdues the natural landscape and uses it to his benefit. For example, Aeneas shoots some stags, which Vergil describes ‘as tree-like with their cornibus arboreis (‘branching antlers’, 190),’ and he also uses the trees to safely hide his ships (Armstrong, 85-6)

  • However, when Aeneas arrives in Italy, he encounters a number of difficulties in the woods that hinder his progress towards the foundation of Rome


Armstrong, Rebecca & Armstrong, R., 2019. Vergil's Green Thoughts: Plants, Humans, and the Divine, Oxford University Press.

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