Virgil’s Aeneid and the Gates of Sleep: A False Dream of Empire

There is a tradition in classical epic of two Gates of Sleep, one of horn and one of ivory. Through the ivory gate come deceptive dreams, and through the horn gate come true dreams that will be fulfilled. These gates are first mentioned in the Odyssey, where Penelope describes a dream she has had in which she saw an eagle kill 20 geese (the implication being that Odysseus is the eagle and the geese are the suitors who are occupying his home). However she then wonders if her dream can be relied upon:


“My friend, dreams are things hard to interpret, hopeless to puzzle
 out, and people find that not all of them end in anything.
 There are two gates through which the insubstantial dreams issue.
 One pair of gates is made of horn, and one of ivory.
 Those of the dreams which issue through the gates of sawn ivory,
 these are deceptive dreams, their message is never accomplished.
 But those that come into the open through the gates of the polished
 horn accomplish the truth for any mortal who sees them.”

In the scholia for this passage (that is, the ancient commentaries) it is explained that horn is a reference to the eyes, because the ‘outer membrane of the eye is hornlike in appearance’, whereas ivory refers to the mouth, because teeth are ivory coloured. Therefore the implication is that things seen are more reliable than things that are said.

However, by far the most interesting reference to the Gates of Sleep comes in Virgil’s epic about the founding of Rome: the Aeneid. In Book Six the hero Aeneas journeys down to the underworld with a prophetess called the Sibyl, where the soul of his father Anchises tells him his destiny as the founder of the Roman Empire. In many ways this book is extremely celebratory, praising the glory of Rome. This is how it has long been understood, with generations of schoolboys being taught to read Virgil as the great champion of the Roman nation.

It has since been posited that Virgil’s message is far more complex. Scholars have detected in the Aeneid a profound sensitivity to the human suffering that is the result of Aeneas’ mission. Book 6 is particularly responsive to such readings. In the underworld Aeneas is shown a pageant of the future heroes of Rome and told about their great deeds, firing him up with a patriotic ‘love for the glory that was to come’ (6.889). But the book then has an unexpected ending. In order to leave the underworld, Aeneas must pass through the Gates of Sleep:


“There are two gates of sleep: one is called the Gate of Horn and it is an easy exit for true shades; the other is made all in gleaming white ivory, but through it the powers of the underworld send false dreams up to the heavens. Here on the night did Anchises walk with his son and with the Sibyl and spoke such words to them as he sent them on their journey through the Gate of Ivory.”

Aeneas leaves through the Gate of Ivory, the gate of false dreams.

Aenead and the Sibyl, artist unknown (circa 1800)

Aeneas and the Sibyl, artist unknown (circa 1800)

There have been many attempts to explain this, ranging from the idea that it signifies that Aeneas dreamt his journey to the underworld, to the slightly more philosophical reading that the Gate of Ivory is a comment on the imperfection of corporal man’s perceptions. However, another, more prevalent interpretation is that Virgil is commenting on the falseness of Roman imperial glory.

In Book 6 Anchises defines to his son what it is to be Roman:


Aeneas in the Underworld by Rubens

Aeneas in the Underworld by Rubens (1577-1640)

“Your task, Roman, and do not forget it, will be to govern the peoples of the world in your empire. These will be your arts – and to impose a settled pattern upon peace, to pardon the defeated and war down the proud.”

This passage is recalled in the very last lines of the epic, in Book Ten. Once he reaches Italy Aeneas finds himself fighting a bitter war with the Rutili, led by the proud Turnus. At the end of Book Ten Aeneas defeats Turnus, so that the Rutilian lies wounded at his feet. At first it looks as though Aeneas is going to spare him, but he then catches sight of his enemy’s baldric: it once belonged to his dear friend Pallas, killed by Turnus in battle. Suddenly Aeneas’ pity is replaced by a terrible anger:


Blazing with rage, he plunged the steel full into his enemy’s breast. The limbs of Turnus were dissolved in cold and his life left him with a groan, fleeing in anger down to the shades.”

I have said above that in the Aeneid there is an acute portrayal of the human suffering that is the cost of Aeneas fulfilling his mission. It is nowhere more pronounced than in these haunting and bitter closing lines. The epic ends not with a comment on the glory to come, but with the anger and bloodshed of battle. This is all the more striking when we remember Anchises’ exhortation in Book Six that, as a Roman, Aeneas should spare the defeated.

Aeneas defeats Turnus by Luca Giordano. Notice how the gods faces are turned away from the deed.

Aeneas defeats Turnus by Luca Giordano (1634-1705). Notice how the goddesses turn their faces away from the deed.

Is the glory of the Roman Empire then nothing more than a false illusion? Has Aeneas, supposedly the archetypal Roman, failed in his mission? Scholars are undecided as to how far they are willing to take this argument. Virgil wrote the Aeneid at the instruction of the Emperor Augustus, would he really dare to write something that so utterly undermines the Roman achievement? And it is perhaps important to note that Augustus, who was by no means stupid, was a huge fan of the Aeneid and made it an instant classic.

Most scholars do not read in the Aeneid a direct criticism of Augustus himself. Augustus had brought peace and order, and it is far from inconceivable that Virgil was grateful to him for this. But before his reign Virgil had fought in a bitter civil conflict, and would have seen enough bloodshed to dispel any idealistic visions about the glory of war. Whether or not Virgil is implicating a similar attitude with the Gates of Sleep, it is hard to argue that his epic’s praise for Roman achievement goes completely unchallenged.


Translation by David West (1990).

Segal, C.P. (1965) “Aeternum per Seacula Nomen, the Golden Bough and the Tragedy of History: Part 1”, Arion, Vol. 4, No. 4.


2 thoughts on “Virgil’s Aeneid and the Gates of Sleep: A False Dream of Empire

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