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... In the tracks of Aeneas

Retracing the steps of the long  voyage of the legendary hero across the Mediterranean sea we shall rediscover some coastal localities in Greece, Apulia and Sicily which are full of history, archaeological sites and natural beauty.

Aeneas, son of Venus, is the protagonist of The Aeneid, the epic poem written by Publius Vergilius Maro (70 BC - 19 BC), Latin poet of the Augustan age.

ButrintoIn Virgil's story, the gods make Aeneas, his father Anchises, his son Ascanius and a few other survivors abandon  burning Troy.

After a first stop in Thrace, he sails across the Aegean sea and lands in Delo and in the isle of Crete.

Later he sails towards  Peloponneso. Then, after sailing past the Isle of Itaca and of Leucade, he finally lands at Azio. After this, he reaches the isle of Corfù and, sailing up again along the coast of Epire, he arrives in Butronto (Butrinto), in Albania.

From Butrinto Aeneas and his companions land on the coast of Salento, in Apulia.

The story is told by Aeneas himself  in the third Book of the Aeneid (page 506 and the following),:

"We go ahead over the sea, keeping near to the Ceraunie cliffs, where the route to Italy is shorter and easier, ... and when the stars start fading away and the dawn commences to shed light on the water, we see the dusky hills and the flat shores of Italy. ... The breeze gets stronger and soon we can see a harbour and a temple of Minerva appears on a fortress. My crewmen furl the sails and turn the bow towards the shore.
The harbour is bent like a bow by the flow of Euro; its rocky docks, stretching out into the Mediterranean and watered by the foamy sea, hide it. Steep rocks surround the harbour and seem to hug it  and the temple appears to move away far from the shore and inland".

The episode is described also by Dionysius of Halicarnassus in his "Roman Antiquities" (I, 51). The Augustan historian writes that Aeneas's ships landed in several ports in Italy: "Aeneas and his companions didn't all disembark in the same place, but most ships shored at Capo Iapigio, which at the time  was named Capo Salentino, whereas others landed in the so-called  Athenaion, a headland where Aeneas himself disembarked and which hosts a summer mooring. Aeneas named it Venus's Port”.

The narration of Virgil and Dionysius of Halicarnassus made some scholars place Aeneas's landing in several localities along the Salentine coast.

Such theories offer us the opportunity to create a touristic-cultural itinerary in Salento. Some of the places are being investigated  by many archaelogists and by the SIBA - University of Lecce, and are being studied also by the team of researchers from the Sigismondo Castromediano Museum of Lecce and the Archaelogical-Historical Museum of the University of Salento.

The unusual shape of the bay where Aeneas landed as described by Virgil, and the reference by Diongi to Capo Iapigio made some scholars think that it was the bay at Leuca between the points of  Ristola and  Meliso, where the sanctuary of the Finibusterrae Madonna can now be found.


Venus's Port (Aphrodites' port), mentioned by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, is traditionally situated south of Otranto, in the bay of Porto Badisco. Some scholars think that Virgilio was unlikely to have been referring to this locality. Here, though an important neolithic complex has been found named "The Cave of the Deer", a unique prehistoric place of worship  in Europe, with an extraordinary series of pictograms, which are being studied and three-dimensionally rebuilt by SIBA, in collaboration with the National Research Council Canada.

Roca and the nearby bay of Torre dell'Orso, was the Italian terminal of the shortest route across the Otranto Canal from the Balkans (as stated by Prof. Stefano Pagliara).
Virgil may have been referring to this route when writing that Aeneas embarked in Butrinto and chose the shorter way to the Italian coast.

Roca, which has been studied for over 20 years by the University of Salento, was certainly a harbour characterized by a cave sanctuary (The Cave of Poetry). This settlement dating back to the Bronze Age is represented in a section of the Historical - Archaelogical Museum of the University of Salento. The Messapic period in Roca is well documented by the funerary dowries exhibited at the Sigismondo Castromediano museum.


According to Virgil, when getting near to the coast of Italy, Aeneas saw a temple of Minerva built over a fortress, named "Castrum Minervae" by the Latin historians. The name of the temple is attested as a toponym in the Tabula Peutingeriana, a map of the XIII century which is a copy of a Roman document. Very recent surveys carried out by  Prof. Francesco D'Andria at Castro have reopened the problem of the location of Aeneas’s landing place in this coastal centre. The archaeologist D'Andria, on the basis of some archaelogical findings, believes he has discovered the Temple of Minerva, where Aeneas sacrificed to the Goddess.

Aerial view of Castro
Castro - aereal view

After a brief stop in Salento, Aeneas continued his voyage with his companions, sailing along the coast of Southern Italy. Then, he decides to circumnavigate Sicily, avoiding the Straits of

Messina where Charybdis and Scilla are. Just before reaching the port of Drepano (Trapani) where his father Anchises dies, the "Palmosa Selinunte" appears to the sailors. The archaelogical site of Selinunte with its temples, in particular the C temple, has been researched by the University of Salento and by SIBA which has created a three-dimensional reconstruction and a virtual representation of the metopes and the Selinunte room of the regional Archaeological Museum of Palermo.

When the hero takes to the sea again, a tempest throws him up on the Carthaginian coast where Virgil sets his love story with Dido. But the Gods have quite different intentions. So Aeneas has to continue his voyage to the coast of Latium. This will be the end of his long voyage, but not of his adventures.

Text: Grazia Maria Signore, Museo Storico Archeologico - University of Salento
Images: Archives of SIBA, University of Salento
Direction and coordination: Virgina Valzano, Director of SIBA
© 2008 Coordinamento SIBA Università del Salento

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