Who was Aeneas? The seed of truth, in this case, could be based on the contact between the Italic cultures of central Italy and the Mycenaean culture of king Agamemnon as early as the 15 century BC. Mycenaean merchants and even pirates frequented the coasts of Italy and possibly reached as far as what was to become Rome in order to purchase the metal ore mined in the region. This trade and contact went on sufficiently long to leave a popular memory of their presence. The popular memory of these contacts may well have formed the basis of the Roman myth of Aeneas.
Given that writing and historical record keeping wasn’t practiced until much later, the myth of Aeneas and of the birth of Rome was limited to word of mouth and story telling. It wasn’t until the first century BC that the story of Aeneas was recorded and then embedded into the epic poetry of Virgil as part of Emperor Augustus‘ personal propaganda.
The myth of Aeneas had widespread effects and its general acceptance led the Romans and Greeks of the many city states in the Aegean to consider one another as distant cousins.
Although the legend of Aeneas as we know it today is extremely ancient it seems certain that its “elaboration” probably followed, rather than preceded the actual founding of Rome. A similar myth and sanctuary was already present a little south of Rome around the time of the founding of the city.
The historian Livy gives us what has remained as the final, official, account of Aeneas and the founding of Rome. According to this final version, Rome’s founding dates back to the time of the Trojan wars as told by Homer. The eventual destruction and sack of Troy (remember Ulisses’ horse!) caused many Trojans to flee their city and country in search for a new life. Two groups of these survivors sailed the seas to Italy. A group settled further to the north and founded Padua whilst a second group, led by Aeneas, went from one place to another before finally settling in central Italy.
Having arrived in Italy the Trojans began to rob and pillage what they required for their livelihood from the nearby population. Battles ensued with the local populations and whether by truce, or victory of one side over the other, Aeneas married the king’s daughter Lavinia. Unfortunately Lavinia had been promised to another neighbouring king who proceeded to team up with the Etruscans of Caere (Cerveteri) and wage war.
Lavinia’s father was killed in battle and Aeneas united his people and Lavinia’s into a single force called the “Latins”. The Latins won the war but in the final battle Aeneas slays the “baddie” and them himself inexplicably disappears.
Aeneas’ and Lavinia’s son Ascanius leaves the over populated Lavinium ruled by his parents to found his own city: Alba Longa in the Alban hills south of Rome. Ascanius is succeeded by many generations of kings before we finally get to the myth of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. Like Aeneas, Romulus and Remus fight a war, kill the “baddie” and leave their city in order to found a new one, called Rome.