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)

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Aeneid Book 6.305-314: The Souls of the Dead

In Book 6 of the Aeneid, Aeneas travels down to the Underworld with the mythical prophetess called the Sibyl. In the Underworld he sees dead souls trapped on the wrong side of the river Styx, desperately reaching out and trying to make the crossing into the land of the dead. It is one of the poet’s most moving moments. He compares the dead to the leaves that fall in autumn and migratory birds fleeing the cold. The imagery is beautiful and haunting.

Here all the crowd streams, hurrying to the shores,
women and men, the lifeless bodies of noble heroes,
boys and unmarried girls, sons laid on the pyre
in front of their father’s eyes: as many as the leaves that fall
in the woods at the first frost of autumn, as many as the birds
that flock to land from ocean deeps, when the cold of the year
drives them abroad and despatches them to sunnier countries.
They stood there, pleading to be first to make the crossing,
stretching out their hands in longing for the far shore.

Crossing the Styx by G. Doré 1861.

Crossing the Styx by G. Doré 1861.

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Virgil’s Aeneid Book 4: Dido’s Story.

Dido is Roman epic’s most tragic female character. She first appears in the Aeneid, Virgil’s epic about the founding of Rome by the Trojan hero Aeneas. Dido is the founder and first Queen of Carthage, having fled from her homeland after her husband’s death. She is driven mad by love for Aeneas when he washes up on her shore, and in a frenzied passion commits suicide when the hero continues his journey to Italy. Her portrayal has been much debated, but whether she is the mad and dangerous foreigner, or the wretched and pitiable woman, there is no denying the beauty and tragedy of Virgil’s poetry.

The Death of DIdo by Sacchi Andrea via Wikimedia Commons

The Death of Dido by Sacchi Andrea via Wikimedia Commons

We first see Dido in Book 1. Here she is the dignified queen, beautiful and wealthy, presiding over the building of her great city. This city is Carthage, which will one day be Rome’s great enemy. By Virgil’s time Rome has fought three wars against Carthage, the most famous culminating in 218 BC when Hannibal led an army of elephants through the Alps to surprise the Romans. In 146 BC the Romans won a decisive victory and burned Carthage to the ground, ending the conflict once and for all.

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