Saddened by the loss of Palinurus, Aeneas leads his fleet to Cumae, where Deiphobë, the sibyl of Cumae, is led by Achatës to Aeneas while he is visiting a temple built to honor Apollo. She tells Aeneas to sacrifice seven young bulls and seven ewes to Apollo, after which she leads the Trojan prince into a cavern with a hundred mouths that amplify her voice when she delivers Apollo's prophecies. Aeneas prays to Apollo for help in his endeavors to find a new homeland for his people.
Following Aeneas's petition to Apollo, Deiphobë, possessed now by Apollo, predicts much hardship ahead for the Trojans in Italy: They will fight a bloody war, and Juno will continue to oppose them. Aeneas tells the sibyl that he is accustomed to trouble and has already foreseen that many more difficulties lie ahead. Wanting to descend to the underworld in order to visit the spirit of his father, he begs her for help in going there.
The sibyl tells Aeneas that he must find and pluck a golden bough from a tree in an adjacent forest. The bough will allow him to enter the underworld. First, however, he must find and bury the body of a dead comrade. Returning to the beach, Aeneas discovers that the dead man whom the sibyl mentioned is the trumpeter Misenus, who was drowned by the sea god Triton for daring to challenge him in a trumpeting contest.
While hacking pine trees to construct a proper funeral pyre for Misenus, Aeneas sees twin doves, which he instinctively knows were sent by his mother, Venus. The doves lead him to the golden bough, and Aeneas seizes it and takes it to the sibyl's cave. Afterward, he and his companions give their fallen comrade the due rites of cremation and burial.
With these tasks completed, Deiphobë leads Aeneas to the underworld's entrance, a deep cavern at whose threshold sacrifices are made to the gods of darkness. Aeneas and Deiphobë descend through a gloomy region haunted by dreadful spirits and monsters and eventually reach Acheron, one of the underworld's rivers. Here, Aeneas beholds Charon, the ancient boatman who ferries spirits of the dead across the river, and he observes that the bank on which he stands is suddenly crowded with other spirits, all anxious to cross the river. The sibyl informs him that some of these spirits must wait a hundred years for passage over the river, or until their bodies on earth are buried. Among these, Aeneas encounters Palinurus, who begs to be allowed to cross over with him. Deiphobë chides Palinurus for wanting to break a divine decree, but she also consoles him: In time, a tomb will be built for him, and a cape of land will be named in his honor.
Charon is at first reluctant to ferry Aeneas, a living man, across the river Acheron, but he changes his mind when Deiphobë, commending Aeneas, shows the boatman the golden bough. Disembarking on the other shore, Aeneas and the sibyl find themselves among the wailing souls of dead infants; then, as they proceed, among the spirits of those who were executed for crimes they did not commit; and then among the suicides. They come at last to the Fields of Mourning, the home of those who died of love. Here, Aeneas meets the ghost of Dido. Knowing now that Dido killed herself because he abandoned her, he tries to justify himself to her, saying that he left her unwillingly. Unforgiving, Dido's ghost withdraws from Aeneas and seeks the comforting presence of the spirit of her husband, Sychaeus, with whom she has been reunited.
Aeneas and Deiphobë now come to the fields inhabited by the spirits of men famous in battle, Trojans and Greeks among them. Men who were Aeneas's former companions warmly greet him, but his former enemies fearfully shun him. Among the Trojans he meets is the spirit of Priam's son Deïphobus, who married Helen after the death of Paris, but who was betrayed by her and her first husband, Menelaus, who, with Ulysses, inflicted upon him hideous and fatal wounds that he still bears.
Warned by Deiphobë that time is passing, Aeneas prepares to take his leave of Deïphobus, who describes the two possible paths available to Aeneas and the sibyl. To the left lies the region of Tartarus, a place of eternal punishment for the wicked; to the right lies Elysium, Aeneas's destination. Looking back, Aeneas glimpses Tartarus, the prison of the Titans, whom the gods defeated, and of those who tried to rival Jupiter. Also punished in Tartarus's realm are mortals who have sinned abhorrently, including adulterers, traitors, and incestuous perverts.
At last Aeneas and Deiphobë reach Elysium, which they enter after Aeneas places the golden bough on its threshold as an offering. They now find themselves in the Blessed Groves, a region of beautiful meadows inhabited by blessed spirits, among them Anchises's. Escorted by the soul of the poet Musaeus, they find Anchises deep in a lush green valley, surveying the spirits of his future Roman descendants. After an exchange of emotional greetings with his father, Aeneas asks about a river that he sees in the distance and about the souls that hover "as bees" over it. Anchises tells him that the river is named Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, and that the spirits filling the air formerly lived on earth in human bodies; having lost all memory of their former existence after drinking the water of Lethe, these souls are awaiting their turn to be born again in new bodies, with new identities that have already been assigned to them.
When Aeneas asks his father to explain reincarnation to him, Anchises describes a pageant of historical personalities who would have been already familiar to Virgil's Roman readers, but who are described from the vantage point of Aeneas and Anchises in Elysium as belonging to the future of a city yet to be founded. Among the spirits that Anchises points out are Silvius, Aeneas's son by Lavinia and the founder of a race of kings; Romulus, founder of Rome; and the descendants of Aeneas's son, Ascanius, the Julian family, whose glory will reach its peak with Augustus, "son of the deified." This "deified" god, Julius Caesar, is also present. The pageant ends on a note of mourning: Last to be identified is young Marcellus, Augustus's nephew and heir, who died at the age of nineteen.
The pageant completed, Anchises leads Aeneas and Deiphobë to the two gates of sleep, one of which is made of horn, the other of ivory. Passing through the second gate, Aeneas and the sibyl return to the world of the living.
In both theme and placement, Book VI, which many consider to be Virgil's greatest literary accomplishment, is of central importance to the development and the ultimate meaning of the Aeneid. Here, just after the Trojans land permanently in Italy, Aeneas descends to the underworld for his long-anticipated rendezvous with Anchises's ghost, who reveals Rome's future to his son.
Virgil's imagination and intellect create an otherworldly vision that invites readers to accept it as a symbolic statement concerning the nature of life after death. The possibility of reincarnation, which provides a philosophical basis for the pageant of souls about to be reborn as personages in Roman history, fuses Virgil's speculations on the afterlife with the national theme that lies at the heart of the epic and is its whole reason for being.
The essential philosophical message of Book VI is that the soul, contaminated by its association with the body during mortal life, undergoes purgation after death. Passing on to Elysium, it remains there for a thousand years and is then reborn into the world. The cycles of death, purgation, and rebirth continue until, purified at last, the worthy soul ascends to a state of "fiery energy from a heavenly source." A few exceptionally virtuous souls — like that of Anchises — are free from having to submit to this cyclical process, and they remain in Elysium. Although Virgil does not say so explicitly, presumably they too will ascend eventually to the nebulous Roman spiritual realm.
This cycle of death, purgation, and rebirth is the general interpretation that many commentators have given to the speech Anchises delivers to his son concerning the souls in Elysium. However, because Virgil is dealing with spiritual concepts that by their very nature do not permit a precise, literal expression, no common agreement exists as to these concepts's exact meanings. They can be stated only in terms of symbols and metaphors that stand for a reality that lies beyond ordinary experience. Within this scheme of redemption, the souls of the very wicked, which have gone to Tartarus — hell's equivalent — have no place, being beyond redemption. Of the souls Aeneas encounters elsewhere in the underworld, such as those in the Fields of Mourning, where he meets Dido, nothing is said.
Although Virgil's underworld has an insubstantial, dreamlike quality, it is recognizably a place that is divided into various districts, whose inhabitants are classified according to either the natures of the deaths they suffered or the kinds of lives they lived. Its two most important realms lie in explicitly opposite directions: Tartarus to the left, Elysium to the right. This layout reflects Virgil's concern with abstract concepts and principles, the best illustration of which is the setting of Aeneas's meeting with his father, where almost every detail lends itself to a philosophical or historical interpretation. For example, Aeneas finds his father "deep in the lush green of a valley," an image that emphasizes Anchises's noble and peaceful character while he was alive: In Elysium, he is associated with wisdom and tranquility because while he lived, he exemplified these traits. Considered as a whole, Virgil's underworld appears to be essentially his own invention, although it contains many traditional details, such as Charon and his ferry; the five rivers — Acheron, Styx, Phlegethon, Cocytus, and Lethe; and the three-headed dog, Cerberus.
The underworld is not only clearly defined; it is also located in an actual region in Italy, in an area to the northwest of Naples where volcanic activity supposedly created an entrance into the underworld. Nearby was the town of Cumae (now Cuma), settled in 750 B.C. — later than the date of Aeneas's purely legendary visit — by Greek colonists from Chalcis, in Euboea. Cumae was the center of a hereditary line of real sibyls — as opposed to the mythical Deiphobë — famous in the ancient world but almost extinct by Virgil's time. As a resident of Naples, Virgil drew upon firsthand impressions of the actual temple of Apollo and the sibyls's cave. These structures, of which only ruins survive, along with the natural surroundings, including Lake Avernus and the woods where Aeneas finds the talismanic golden bough, serve as the basis for Virgil's fictional descriptions of them in Book VI, where everything appears transformed by the light of legend.
Many of the roles previously associated with Aeneas are present in Book VI. Chief among these models of behavior are his exemplary leadership abilities and his deep feelings of humanity. Told by Deiphobë that a Trojan warrior needs burial before Aeneas will be allowed to enter the underworld, the Trojan hero leads his men in offering the proper funeral rites for Misenus. Rather than merely instructing his men on what to do, Aeneas, deeply moved by his Trojan comrade's death, performs the rituals himself: "All who were there / Clamored around the body in lament, / Aeneas, the good captain, most of all." When he meets Dido, who now walks eternally in the Fields of Mourning, Aeneas poignantly weeps. Whether or not he was the primary cause of her demise consumes him: "Was I, was I the cause? / I swear by heaven's stars, by the high gods, / By any certainty below the earth, / I left your land against my will, my queen. / . . . / And I could not believe that I would hurt you / So terribly by going." Tears again come to his eyes when she ignores him and joins the spirit of her first husband. Ironically, although her passion has left her, Virgil characterizes her as a "burning soul," which recalls the many images of fire associated with her in Book IV.
Throughout Book VI, Virgil leaves little doubt that Aeneas's future glory remains fated, no matter how often the Trojan hero questions the outcome of his wandering. For the third time in the poem, he is referred to as "duty bound," and Deiphobë informs him that his troops will reach Lavinian country, named for his wife-to-be. Unfortunately, Lavinia will be one cause of the fighting between Aeneas and Turnus, just as Helen was a cause of the Trojan War. The sibyl also tells Aeneas that he cannot enter the underworld to see his father unless he is able to pluck the golden bough from its tree, which he can do "easily, if you are called by fate." Not surprisingly, Aeneas eagerly breaks the bough effortlessly.
Virgil's infusing the Trojans with virtuous qualities that he considered uniquely Roman is evident even in Aeneas's visit to the underworld. When Aeneas meets his former helmsman, Palinurus, the dead pilot attests to his own honorable performance when he describes himself as "duty bound" while trying to steer Aeneas's ship: "I swear / By the rough sea, I feared less for myself / Than for your ship." Clearly, Virgil's Roman readers would have viewed Palinurus's noble attitude as a model attribute of their own civilization. Also, the pietas Aeneas has for Anchises while he was alive continues even now that he is dead. Aeneas is most anxious to see his father, and Anchises reciprocates Aeneas's love and respect when he asks his son, "Have you at last come, has that loyalty / Your father counted on conquered the journey?" This notion of pietas is best expressed when Virgil, speaking through Anchises's character, says to his fellow citizens, and especially to Augustus, "Roman, remember by your strength to rule / Earth's people — for your arts are to be these: / To pacify, to impose the rule of law, / To spare the conquered, battle down the proud." This statement is one of the few times in the Aeneid that Virgil's voice overpowers those of his characters, and his message is clear and concise.
An even more direct address to Augustus is when Virgil, again speaking through Anchises, lauds the ruler's reign. He foretells of the peace and glory this emperor will bring to Rome: "This is the man, this one, / Of whom so often you have heard the promise, / Caesar Augustus, son of the deified, / Who shall bring once again an Age of Gold / To Latium, to the land where Saturn reigned / In early times." Speaking as Aeneas's father to Brutus's two sons, who plotted war against Rome, Virgil warns of the destructive consequences should civil war again break out: "Sons, refrain! You must not blind your hearts / To that enormity of civil war, / Turning against your country's very heart / Her own vigor of manhood." His political agenda is to decry war and glorify his patron's peaceful reign.
Stylistically, Book VI offers some of the most graphic descriptions in all of the Aeneid. For example, Deiphobë recounts to Aeneas how Tityos, because of his evil deeds, is unmercifully punished in the underworld by a vulture that "forages forever in his liver, / His vitals rife with agonies. The bird, / Lodged in the chest cavity, tears at his feast, / And tissues growing again get no relief." However, Virgil's intent is not merely to glorify violence. For example, when he writes that Deïphobus's hands are "cruelly torn" and that his nose, "to the noseholes," is "lopped by a shameful stroke," he heightens the great injustice that Deïphobus caused Troy when he was duped by Helen into inaction the night the city fell. The degree of wrong a person does while alive is directly related to the degree of punishment that person's soul receives in the underworld.