The Aeneid: Essay Q&A
1. Virgil uses "divine machinery" in the unfolding of his story, as had been traditional since the time of Homer; in other words, he depicts the gods as actively involved in influencing and even at times determining the course of events. What effect does the divine machinery have on the impact of the story?
The ancient Roman religion seems to have been more a matter of sensing divinity in the universe than of imagining the gods in human form, but they took over the myths of the activities of the gods as they found them in Greek literature. Whatever the level of belief in those gods of earlier Romans and of uneducated Romans in Virgil's day, it seems clear that by the first century B.C., educated Romans had little or no belief in the truth of those myths. Virgil uses the gods to give a cosmic dimension to the story, to reflect the sense that something divine was involved in Rome's rise to empire. It was fated to happen. Yet at the same time, forces were at work that opposed that rise-counterfate, some have called it. Jupiter speaks for fate, and Juno is the embodiment of all the irrationality that seems to be at work in counterfate.
For a modern reader, Virgil's use of the gods can be a serious stumbling block: if the gods determine the course of events, aren't the human beings merely puppets? And who can really care about the actions of puppets? Why couldn't Virgil have shown Dido falling in love naturally, just because she was young and alone, and Aeneas was a great hero? One answer is that he did show that. Cupid's role in the process simply reminds us that greater forces are at work, influencing our actions-Cupid is a way of talking about the kind of love that seems to take one over in spite of oneself. And the gods add pathos. The struggle against irresistible forces is more pathetic when those forces are imagined in human form.
Thus Turnus knows at the end that Jupiter is his enemy, that he falls because Jupiter wills it, not simply because Aeneas is stronger. "Fate is against me," a character in modern fiction might say. Virgil can show us Jupiter calmly persuading his wife to stop protecting Turnus, and Juno and Turnus's divine sister abandoning Turnus to the Fury Jupiter sends to terrify him. Everything in the universe has turned against the young man, and his courage in the face of despair is all the more admirable. The modern reader simply has to accept this way of giving a cosmic dimension to the story, and then it is possible to enjoy it.
2. For many readers, Book 4 is the most powerful book of the Aeneid, and Dido is the most powerful character. Indeed, many have lost all sympathy for Aeneas because of the way he treats Dido. What gives the story of Dido so much power?
When we are first introduced to Dido, in the story the disguised Venus tells Aeneas soon after his arrival on the shores of northern Africa, we learn of how much she has already suffered. She has lost the husband she passionately loved, learning from his image coming to her in a dream that her own brother, the despotic ruler of Tyre, has killed him. We also learn how she rose to the challenge of the situation, leading a band of those who also wanted to escape the rule of the tyrant to Libya and tricking the ruler of the area into giving her enough land to build a city. When we first see her, she is joyfully encouraging the building of the city and making the needed laws-clearly a wise ruler. Her first words are compassionate and generous. She is an admirable, strong, beautiful, and kind woman, destroyed by the strength of a very natural passion, only because Aeneas's destiny will not allow him to stay with her.
Virgil makes clear just how natural it is that she should fall deeply in love with Aeneas. The story Aeneas tells her, of his experience of the fall of Troy and his wanderings, reveals his nobility and his sufferings. The arguments her sister uses to persuade her to allow herself to love Aeneas and to take him as her husband increase our understanding of why she falls in love-she is young, she should not have to live out her life alone, her kingdom is surrounded by enemies and he can help her to protect it. The cosmic dimension of the story only enhances our feeling that she is being carried along by forces no woman could have resisted: Venus, Cupid, and Juno have no concern for her.
Finally, Virgil describes her suffering when she learns that Aeneas is going to leave her so vividly that we feel her anguish. Aeneas does not even look at her, when he tells her that he has never committed himself as her husband, that if he could have had his choice he would have stayed near his home and rebuilt Troy there. She has given him all her love, and he has given her nothing. No wonder she refuses to forgive him when they meet again in the Underworld. Even Juno pities her, knowing how little she deserves such a miserable death, and sends Iris to set her struggling spirit free from the death throes of her body. St. Augustine tells us in his Confessions that he wept for Dido, and so do we.
3. What kind of transformation happens to Aeneas in the Underworld, and how does it happen?
The main way Virgil wants to show Aeneas as transformed is that the future glory of Rome, as Anchises shows it to him, brings him for the first time into full alignment with his destiny.
Before he meets Anchises, Aeneas must let go of two of the main obstacles to alignment with destiny. He must accept not only that he has lost Dido but that he has caused her to take her own life and that she can never forgive him. On a deeper level, he has accepted the absence of love between a man and a woman from his life. Then he meets a Trojan warrior named Deiphobus, a son of Priam and so his cousin. In every way, Virgil seems to be suggesting that Deiphobus embodies the fate of Troy. He still bears the disfiguring wounds he received because he married Helen (after the death of Paris). When the Sibyl calls Aeneas away, Deiphobus bids him go on to better fates. Thus Aeneas bids farewell to Troy, and by implication to his own longing to build a city that will imitate Troy rather than a city that will bring something new into the world.
When he meets Anchises, Aeneas must give up the longing for the physical comfort of a human being he can embrace-three times he tries to embrace him, three times the shade of his father escapes his embrace. Then he learns from his father that one soul animates the whole universe. The soul of each human being is a fiery seed from that source, but dulled by the body; in order to return to its source, the soul must be purified. Some undergo purification only in the life after death, others must be reborn-and the souls of the Romans to come that Anchises shows Aeneas are all souls waiting to be reborn. Thus their destiny as Romans has a larger meaning as part of the purification of souls, and Aeneas's own sufferings can be seen as purification of his soul. Virgil does not say these things explicitly, but the sense of a larger divine play going on is there, and gives depth to the vision of Rome to be, as well as making Aeneas's transformation more meaningful.
4. How effective did you find Virgil's presentation of Turnus?
Virgil definitely wants his readers to sympathize with Turnus, at least to some extent. When we first see him, he has heard that Aeneas and the Trojans have arrived, but still seems calm-until the Fury Allecto plants her firebrand in his breast, and anger and insane desire for war take him over. The Fury is the perfect embodiment of the rage for warfare has taken over so many young men throughout the centuries, presented in a way that keeps us from self-righteously judging this young man.
Nevertheless, natural as his love for Lavinia may be and his anger that she is going to be taken from him, our sympathy for him is inevitably lessened when we see how consistently ruthless he is. To take just one striking example, he feels no pity for Pallas, alive or dead. Inevitably we compare him to Aeneas, whose humanitas returns when he sees Lausus dead. We also see him avoiding single combat with Aeneas, even though such a combat would end the killing of others. That aspect of his behavior perhaps resulted in part from Virgil's need to fill out six books of warfare to match the six books of wandering-to allow Turnus and Aeneas to meet too soon would have ended the story. But Virgil was too good a writer not to make Turnus's behavior quite plausible-others give him excuses for not meeting Aeneas, he is much younger and less experienced, he knows at some level that he cannot win-naturally he avoids the combat.
When Turnus really takes on full heroic stature is at the moment when he accepts his fate. He realizes that Aeneas is attacking the city of Laurentum, and he refuses to let his sister, disguised as his charioteer, keep him away from death any longer. When he hears that even the queen who favored him has committed suicide, that the city may soon fall, shame and grief and frenzy and love and courage all rise up together in his heart, and he goes to die. Now it is Aeneas who is ruthless, protected by divine armor and destiny, and Turnus who is young and human and utterly alone. He even recognizes that he deserves death. And the last line of the Aeneid belongs to him: his soul flees with a groan, indignant, to the shades.
5. Discuss some of the interesting differences between the way ancient Romans might have reacted to the Aeneid and the way modern readers tend to react.
Perhaps most strikingly, the Romans who read the epic first knew that their city had, in few centuries, risen from being one small Italian town among many to rule over all the area around the Mediterranean in a way that Romans and non-Romans alike saw as almost miraculous. The Republic of Rome had lost its sense of its own meaning to some extent in the process, and it had been racked by civil war, but with the peace that Augustus had brought, Romans were ready to listen again to the story of their own divine destiny and to be re-inspired. When they wanted to say "forever," they said, "as long as Rome stands." Roma aeterna-eternal Rome. A reality worth any sacrifice. They would have been much less likely than modern readers to question whether Aeneas was noble to give up Dido, for example.
The modern tendency to glorify passionate love also affects our attitudes towards the story of Dido and Aeneas; it did not affect theirs. Passion was clearly a negative force in the Roman worldview, dethroning the reason that ought to rule the human soul and causing endless suffering. To the extent that Dido and Turnus were taken over by passion, they might be pitiable, but they were not admirable. Greek philosophy had had its effect in Rome, undermining the traditional beliefs, but the most popular philosophy among the educated was Stoicism, and the image of the hero resisting the pleas of Dido like an oak tree resisting a storm would have been a completely positive one.
Educated Romans were critical of the misbehavior of the gods in the myths they had inherited from Greece; some Romans were even drawn to Judaism because it seemed to give a much more appropriate vision of the nature of the force that ruled the universe. On the other hand, they were not apt to have been as shocked as we are by the embodiment of the forces of irrationality in a goddess (Juno). Their ancient religion saw divine forces at work everywhere, in the negative aspects of life as much as in the positive, and they did not have the concept of all the evil in the universe coming from a force like Satan, leaving God responsible only for the good. Thus that aspect of the divine machinery would not have troubled them.
Finally, they felt enormous pride: Rome had produced a poem to equal the Homeric epics. It was not long before its dead author was seen as worthy of divine honors.