The Aeneid

The Aeneid is the story of a historical hero, the founding myth of Rome, and also an epic about nation building itself. C.S. Lewis, among other critics, has interpreted it as a poem of praise on all three of these levels. Considering its subject matter, and the Roman inclination to praise the glories of Rome, it is not impossible to see how they’ve done so. Yet with a modern, more critical view of nation building, it is easy to read the poem as a harsh criticism of its primary hero, history, and theme. The critic Wendell Clausen has argued that it is a poem of “loneliness, suffering, and defeat” (Commager, 84). However the true depth of the Aeneid, and the genius of Virgil, is that it is never wholly a poem of praise without being critical of its subject, nor a harsh criticism that does not also consider the merits of that which it criticizes. In maintaining this duality, Virgil renders Aeneas, the history of Rome, and the quest for nation building itself, in their entirety, revealing the moral complexity of all three.

And he does so most poignantly in the crucial moments when Aeneas himself is conflicted over his journey, which I will examine in this essay. In these moments, it would be easy to impose sympathetic or unsympathetic characteristics on his protagonist, but Virgil masterfully refrains from doing so. Instead, he employs many literary tactics such as allegory, through the gods, parallels, through the action of the poem, foils, through other characters, and irony, through our knowledge of history, all of which I will draw out through this reading of the poem, which force the reader to feel the enormity of the situation and contemplate Aeneas’ internal state for themselves.

In Virgil’s very first physical description of Aeneas, on line 284 of the poem’s first book, he is conflicted. Here Aeneas has just captured three stags for his people and broken out his private reserve of wine to share with them. Like a truly valiant hero, he gives a speech that must have been planned well in advance, to be used at this exact, opportune, uplifting moment, beginning:

“Friends and companions,

Have we not known hard hours before this?

My men, who have endured still greater dangers,

God will grant us an end to these as well.” (1. 270-274)

With this historically charged rhetoric, he seems superhuman, inspired by his call from the gods, as C.S. Lewis would point out. But then Virgil lets us see that not all is calm beneath the surface, giving us one of our rare peeks into his internal state:

Burdened and sick at heart,

He feigned hope in his look, and inwardly

Contained his anguish. (1. 284-286)

While his men are charged by the end of his speech, he maintains an internal anguish, a sickness of his heart. Virgil’s subtle mention of this conflict, in these somewhat ambiguous phrases, inspire us, the readers, to contemplate Aeneas’ burden. If we are to believe his rhetoric, and Lewis’ interpretation, we could read his burden as his desire to found Rome and his anguish as a result of an anxiety to do so, and to please the gods. But considering the painful experience we know he has suffered at Troy and in his wanderings, we could also read his anguish as the result of a lingering, personal woe, thus framing the burden of founding Rome much more ambiguously, as is often the case with charges and gifts from the gods.

As we read on in search of a clarification, Virgil does not give it to us in a simple explication of his hero’s emotions. Instead, he keeps us thinking, by taking us to the world of the gods, where explores the complexities of his topic through allegory.

In heaven, we learn that founding Rome is not only Aeneas’ quest, but also his mother, Venus’. This quickly frames her character as representative of that part of Aeneas that is driven to found Rome. Here, we find her begging her father, Jupiter, to reassure her that Aeneas’ destiny has not changed – that her quest will not fail. This supports the argument that Aeneas’ anguish is rooted in anxiety, if we believe that Venus understands Aeneas’ deepest emotions, which has not yet been proven.

Jupiter does reassure Venus, smiling down on her like she’s an ignorant, little child, and saying:

“No need to be afraid, Cytherea.

Your children’s destiny has not been changed.

As promised, you shall see Lavinium’s walls

And take up, then, amid the stars of heaven

Great-souled Aeneas.” (1. 347-351)

He then proceeds to tell the entire future history of Rome. She is contented by this, because all she hears from the story is that Aeneas will indeed found Rome. But there is irony at work here, too, because we, the readers, know the history Jupiter recounts, and know that it is not a wholly glorious one, revealing a narrowness of vision and lack of foresight to Venus’ goal, and thus also to that instinct of Aeneas that she represents. Virgil makes this explicit when Jupiter ends his speech thus:

“Grim with Iron frames, the Gates of War

Will then be shut: inside, unholy Furor,

Squatting on cruel weapons, hands enchained

Behind him by a hundred links of bronze,

Will grind his teeth and howl with bloodied mouth.” (1. 394-398)

This is not only a comment on the destructive base of war that great nations like Rome must have, but an image very close to the one we will get of Aeneas by the end of the poem, as, linked to his goal and filled with furor, he wreaks havoc on the battlefield.

This makes us reconsider the character of Venus. Now we can see that she may not be entirely aware of the cause of Aeneas’ anguish. We could even read her as being blinded to his anguish by her fixation on her own goal. This is supported by what we have seen so far: that nation building comes at a great cost to personal happiness. So far, it has cost Aeneas his wife, his father, his home, many of his men, and 7 year of wandering, all of which is surely contributing to his sickness of heart. And while Venus, here portrayed as the extreme of the nation building impulse, is willing to make those sacrifices, Aeneas is more than a single impulse.

It is in this complex state that Virgil next shows us Aeneas, again conflicted between his passions, as he lays eyes on budding Carthage.

Here, Aeneas, a self-described “exile/Driven from Europe and from Asia” (1. 530-531), finds a picture of high civilization sprung from nature:

Where lately huts had been,

Marvelous buildings, gateways, cobbled ways,

And din of wagons… (1. 576-579)

Virgil does not explain how Aeneas feels about this scene. Obviously, the possible human reaction to this scene from a man in Aeneas’ state are endless. He could be envious, he could see hope in this scene of a parallel city taking root, or he could even feel threatened and competitive with this potential rival city. But Virgil is careful not to pin his protagonist down to any of these simple readings. Instead, all of them remain possible interpretations, as they will throughout his time in Carthage, in the one line Virgil lets him speak for himself: “How fortunate these are/Whose city walls are rising here and now!” (1. 595-596)

In this heightened emotional state (whatever that emotion may be) Aeneas enters the Carthaginian Citadel and finds a depiction of the siege and fall of Troy. Virgil is clear on what this picture offers his hero: “heart to hope/For safety, and to trust his destiny more/Even in affliction” (1. 612-615). But his reason for “heart to hope” can still be seen to support two very different readings of Aeneas. That he gets hope because of “safety…even in affliction” implies that he feels secure because there is such universal empathy for his people – as represented on the citadel wall. But the interjection of “and to trust his destiny more” plants a seed of doubt to this reading. It points at the fact that he is not devastated by this painting, which would be a very natural response, but instead finds solace in it because it proves that he is on his way to his goal, to Venus’s goal, of founding Rome.

But when he begins weeping at this artistic rendition of his sorrow, it is impossible not to be sympathetic with him. However, all that will change when Virgil explores more of the unsympathetic aspects of nation building through Aeneas’ episode in Carthage, beginning with Aeneas still weeping in the corner, and this description of Dido:

At the door

Of the goddesses shrine, under the temple dome,

All hedged about with guards on her high throne,

She took her seat. Then she began to give them

Judgments and rulings, to apportion work

With fairness, or assign some tasks by lot. (1. 689-693)

Dido has clearly taken on a masculine gender role here, and not only any masculine gender role, but the one Aeneas pursues despite so much personal anguish throughout this entire poem. Yet Virgil, with reserve true to his art, describes Aeneas only as “astounded” (1. 698). This could mean humbled by her ability to achieve his goal, or angered and envious for that same reason. Both are possibilities that can explain his later actions, but Virgil does not explore either role, here, nor later. What he does do, is preserve the sympathetic state Aeneas is in, by having Aeneas humble himself to Dido and plead with her to help his people. In doing so, Aeneas continues the gender reversal Dido has begun. But, when he does so, a funny thing happens: it does not further empower her; instead, it does the opposite – it empowers him.

At his pleading, Virgil describes Dido with the same word he just used to describe Aeneas: “astounded” (1. 836), implying either that they are now astounded with eachother, or that Aeneas has taken the power from Dido that she recently had over him. The rest of the scene, and our knowledge of the history, surely implies that the latter is true. But here, as Virgil renders it, Aeneas is offered a choice between the two by Dido herself:

“Would you care

To join us in this realm on equal terms?

The city I build is yours; haul up your ships;

Trojan and Tyrian will be all one to me.” (1. 776-779)

Because we know Aeneas will not join this realm on equal terms, but ruin this living woman in pursuit of his future history glory, this marks the beginning of an episode in the book in which Virgil explores a more devastating, negative aspect of the nation building impulse.

It begins, rightfully so, with Aeneas’ retelling his tale of the siege and fall of Troy. Throughout his monologue, he frames the Trojans as valiant warriors deceived by the vile Greeks. But as we know, war is two-sided, and thus far more morally ambiguous than this, as we see when Aeneas and his men, in their siege of Latium, assume so many of the same roles the Greeks do in this story, in their siege of Troy. But because Aeneas saw the depiction of the war in the citadel, he knows his audience is sympathetic with him, and thus this entire retelling of the story can be read as him playing on the heart strings of Dido, represented by the return of Venus to the action of the story.

Acting more like the goddess of love this time, Venus makes Dido wholly enraptured with Aeneas. But knowing how Venus plans to use Dido’s love for Aeneas against her, and how Aeneas, ultimately Aeneas, does use it against her, makes this play to her empathy morally dubious at best.

But again, Virgil employs the elements of his art to prevent us from reading his protagonist so simply. He quickly whisks us up to Heaven, and the world of the gods, where Juno offers Venus this compromise:

“Why do we not

Arrange eternal peace and formal marriage?

You have your heart’s desire: Dido in love,

Dido consumed with passion to her core.

Why not, then, rule this people side by side

With equal authority? And let the queen

Wait on her Phyrgian lord, let her consign

Into your hand her Turians as a dowry.” (4. 141-148)

More than anything in the poem, this offers the resolution of a sympathetic man choosing not to destroy the woman that loves him instead of pursuing his own glory. But the compromise comes from Juno, who just one book ago was Aeneas’ primary antagonist, so it is instantly suspect. Despite any yearnings for Aeneas to settle with Dido, in Carthage, no reader can wholly blame Venus for refusing this offer.

And then, even with the offer adamantly refused by Venus, Aeneas does remain a while in Carthage. There, he is offered a sort of repose. He remains in an ambiguous gender role, as his clothes indicate, but, to his credit, he does not leave without a message from the gods. And while his departure from Dido is an emotionally straining scene for any reader, none can judge him too harshly, since his message to leave comes from Mercury, through Jupiter, the god of gods. While Aeneas receives this call to resume his masculine, nation-building role with a swiftness that would imply insensitivity, he is clearly broken up by the reality of telling Dido.

This is the climax of this conflict of Aeneas’ passions, and here, we see him act with an odd amalgamation of emotions. His rhetoric is sympathetic, but also too grand for the moment:

“As for myself, be sure

I never shall deny all you can say,

Your majesty, of what you meant to me.

Never shall the memory of Elissa

Stale for me, while I can still remember

My own life.” (4. 459-464)

And while Dido pleads with him on a very intimate, human level, saying that she has given him all that she can, and invoking the family they could have had together, he tries to invoke the gods, and ends up coming off devastatingly insensitive: “I sail to Italy not of my own free will” (4. 499)

While he could be suppressing his true feelings, as we know he does from the very first physical description of him in the book, nothing physical is making him leave her. All it took to inspire his flight was some nasty gossip and a firm talking to, both sent by ethereal forces. This has lead many modern critics to read his action, and most of his other actions, as emotional weakness, and insensitivity, in which he chauvinistically walks away from a living woman for a shadowy idea of future history’s glory.

On the other hand, C.S. Lewis argues for a much different interpretation of this section in his essay, “Virgil and the Subject of Secondary Epic.” Lewis says that Aeneas shows weakness here by even considering not leaving, because he thinks the scene should be read literally, that is, we should believe that gods gave Aeneas a mission, and Aeneas is doing their will by leaving Dido. He says:

An increased respect for woman and for the sexual relation have made the hero appear inhuman at the very moment when Virgil intends to exhibit (and for the historically minded reader does exhibit) his human weakness. (Commager, 66)

I feel that both of these interpretations simplify the metaphor of the gods. The further critics overlook the fact that the primary god representing Aeneas’ nation building impulse, and thus making him leave, is female, and that Virgil never lets Aeneas, his historical character, say all that he feels. And Lewis’s interpretation seems to work under the assumption that there is one, singular will of the gods. Here, there are many visible gods, as diverse as the impulses within Aeneas, all with different opinions on what Aeneas should do, not only complicating anything critics can say about ‘the will of the gods,’ but also further complicating any argument Aeneas can make about performing the will of the gods.

Virgil does not offer us a simple reading of Aeneas in these scenes. Instead he asks us to keep in mind the complex metaphor of the gods, which are a burden for Aeneas, and the incredible sickness of heart he lives with because of it – an interpretation I feel is supported by the fact that this is not Aeneas’ last interaction with Dido, and that her image will be invoked until the very end of the poem. Virgil uses her throughout the poem to show us many things about Aeneas – that his nation building impulse can ruin loved ones lives, that his empathy can cause him to hesitate from his goal, and much more – but he never uses it to offer a conclusive verdict on the quality of Aeneas’ character.

When it is clear that Aeneas is going to leave Dido despite her pleadings, she points out the moral ambiguities of his situation, cutting down his noble precedent and saying that he was not actually the son of Venus (1. 503). This question is crucial to understanding the character of Aeneas and the entire book – how can he be so sure? – and one that the reader probably thinks they know the answer to – of course, he is Aeneas – yet in this very book that defines him, that seals his glory, that simple fact is not always clear. Instead, it is further blurred in the next critical moment in the book, during Aeneas’ trip to the underworld.

There, Aeneas encounters three shadowy figures before finding his father, each of which represent a passion he has had to give up for his fate. One of them literally asks that Aeneas bury him before continuing his journey, but all of them figuratively demand the same thing. These are all difficult moments for the hero, but he battles through each of them with an increased reliance on the founding of Rome for redemption for his swelling sorrows. Yet when, upon finding his father, he gets a vision that city he will found, what he sees is anything but a clear cut picture of eternal joy.

First, the man who literally asks Aeneas to bury him, is Palinurus. His presence in the underworld shocks Aeneas, who was told by Apollo that Palinurus would not “be harmed at sea.” Palinurus explains the prophecy was true, just misinterpreted by Aeneas:

Phoebus’s caldron

Told you no lie, my captain, and no god

Drowned me at sea. The helm that I hung on to,

Duty bound to keep our ship on course,

By some great shock chanced to be torn away,

And I went with it overboard. (6. 470-476)

Palinurus, this duty bound foil for Aeneas, was not harmed at sea, but died outside of the realms of this prophecy of the gods. Again, we imagine that this shakes Aeneas, after all, it can easily be read as a lesson for him that no decree from the gods can save a stubborn, duty bound man, of which Aeneas is the archetype; but Virgil does not let us know what Aeneas contemplates. Instead, he first lets the Sibyl speak, who says that Palinurus’ body will be buried, and that a cape will “be forever named Palinurus” (6. 512). After this, Virgil tells us that,

The Sibyl’s words relieved (Aeneas), and the pain

Was for a while dispelled from his sad heart,

Pleased at the place-name. (6. 513-515)

This first shade was Aeneas’s mate during his passionate time of wandering, the first passion he must bury to proceed on his journey. He is presumably disquieted by this, but Virgil does not allow this to pass his own lips. We only hear that he is appeased by the prize of a place-name, further stressing that very same goal of Aeneas’, as Aeneas encounters his second shade, another he did not expect to find in the underworld: Dido.

Curiously, when he sees her here, he vocalizes a flood of emotions he had previously either held back, or not felt. Before he is even sure that the person he sees is her – when he simply makes out her form in the dark – he begins to “weep and speak tenderly to her” (6. 611), something he never did when leaving her.  But this time it is Dido who is sparse with her words. She says nothing, and returns to the shadows in the arms of her husband, Sychaeus, who still loves her; and Aeneas, “still gazed after her in tears,/Shaken by her ill fate and pitying her” (6. 638-639). Again, Virgil does not dive into Aeneas’ emotions, and it allows much room for interpretation to this passage.

When we see him crying and shaken, we imagine that it is because of regret, but in these lines, he seems to put the blame off of himself, onto her, and her fate itself, as though if her fate had been different, Aeneas would be less torn. Of course, this can be true either because he deeply cares about her, or because he puts so much stake in place-naming fate, or both. The fact that his primary concern with both of these characters he has found in the underworld is their fates, implies the latter, especially as he is pressing on to find his father, who gives him an image of his own fate – an interpretation supported by the fact that Aeneas quickly presses-on in search of his fate, having buried another of his passions in pursuit of Rome, “into the farthest lands/where men famous in war gather apart” (6. 642-643), where he encounters his third and final shade, Deiphobus.

Deiphobus was his comrade in arms. Aeneas is again surprised to find this spirit in the underworld. In fact, he does not even recognize his friend for the brutal state he is in, having been utterly mutilated by his murderers. When he does recognize Deiphobus, he is immediately concerned that he did not give the man’s corpse proper burial rights. Deiphobus quickly assuages this fear, saying “You left undone/Nothing” (6. 684-685), before telling him of his own route to the underworld. Here, we learn that his wife, Helen, to “blot old infamy out,” moved his sword away from him and let the Greeks storm his bedchamber while he slept. The disgust Deiphobus feels with this domestic betrayal must not be lost on Aeneas, considering he has directly left his altercation with Dido. Aeneas could either be feeling relieved that he left his gender reversed situation so that he was not figuratively castrated as Deiphobus was quite literally mutilated; or be could be feeling deep sorrow because in his situation, he was the agent who caused his lover’s gruesome death. Yet neither parallel is mentioned by him, nor Deiphobus, nor Virgil, and we are left to draw our own conclusions.

What is spoken of causation, is spoken by Deiphobus, in questioning terms, when he asks,

“What in the world has brought you here alive:

Hove you come from your sea wandering, and did heaven

How could harrying fortune send you

To these sad sunless homes, disordered places?” (6. 713-716)

At this, the Sibyl flies in and inspires Aeneas to leave. And so, before he gets a chance to answer his friend’s only question, he must depart. But it is also possible to read this quick departure as an easy escape from a difficult question. And it is not hard to see why this question would be so difficult for Aeneas to answer: because he could also be starting to question the forces that have sent him on such an emotionally difficult mission – to found Rome, in general, and in particular, to traverse the underworld. And so Aeneas scurries in search of his father, having buried his last passion – that for Troy – in his pursuit of his destiny. This masterfully builds the importance of those images his father will give him, both for him, and us, intensifying the disquietude we end up feeling about them because of our knowledge of history, but also intensifying the disquietude Aeneas feels about them, as the final image is one of clear ambiguity.

With their placement in book 6, where Aeneas’ primary goal is burying the dead, these three shades are very suggestive characters. As Wendell Clausen puts it, “through them, Aeneas must say farewell to wandering, to love, and to Troy” (Commager, 88). We could see these physical and metaphorical burials as a putting to rest of all past ambiguities for the quest of a heroic future, but only if that were the final image we were given in Book 6. And it is not. Instead, the final image comes when Anchises shows Aeneas his fate. Here, we get a disquieting picture of his grand lineage ending with suffering and loss: Anchises shows Aeneas many of the great figures of Rome’s future history, yet all readers of this work since its first appearance, would know, unlike Aeneas, that none of these figures are unambiguous. And, at the end of the odd pageant, Aeneas focuses on Marcellus, Augustus’ nephew and destined predecessor, who has excited high hopes but died by the time the lines describing him were written.

And, not to be overlooked, Aeneas leaves the underworld not by the gate of the horn, which supplies ready exit for true spirits, but through the gate of dazzling ivory, through which the powers below send false dreams to the world above. Coming from this chapter in which Aeneas finds solace from the pains of giving up his three greatest passions in an assurance in his destiny, it is not difficult to imagine what false dreams Aeneas takes to the world above – a false dream that founding Rome will now be easy.

As we know, even after Aeneas has reached Italy, the founding of Rome is anything but easy. Troy, Creusa, Dido, Anchises – these were the sorrows of Aeneas before he reached Italy, but his experience there is no happier. He finds that his promised land is already inhabited by a race of men with a rich visible history of their own, who view the Trojans as “tall men in strange costume,” (7. 224), and whose king, queen, daughter, and suitor, are in a very fragile political situation. When Aeneas walks into it, to the warm welcome of the king, Latinus, who sees him as, “the man…foretold as coming from abroad to be my son-in-law,” (7. 342-344) he disrupts the tenuous state of the kingdom and brings forth the wrath of Juno, a god obsessed with the past and determined to poison the future, who inspires the Latins, propelled by their queen and their princesses’ suitor, who are both unhappy with Latinus’ decision, to wage war on the Trojans.

Forced into a war for which he has no stomach and witness to the pitiful slaughter of his own people, Aeneas solicits help from the aged Arcadian prince Evander, whose only son Pallas follows Aeneas to the war. (Commager, 85)

This is an important event in the poem not only for the narrative role Pallas plays as the plot progresses. It also shows us the possibility for the warring factions to make peace without war: Evander invites Aeneas in as Latinus did; like Latinus, Evander is impressed by the tales of Aeneas’ exploits, which proceed him everywhere he goes, and the two find common ground in the myths and gods that they share with eachother, and also with the Latins. Most importantly, to the entire poem, and this scene and its characters, they bond over the concept of filial piety, noting that “both their lines are branches of one blood” (8. 191).

Yet as they celebrate this, Venus descends and talks of the serious deeds of war – another moment when she can be read as Aeneas’ nation-building impulse. She is bent on them embarking on this quest soon, and to speed the process, she gives them an inspiring sign that neither anticipates: an armory of Vulcan’s weaponry, emblazoned with pictures of the future of Rome:

Knowing nothing of the events themselves,

(Aeneas) felt joy in their pictures, taking up

Upon his shoulder all the destined acts

And fame of his descendants. (8. 989-993)

In a book heavily concerned with filial piety (both the epic poem itself, and particularly its eighth section) this is a very loaded passage. Like a child, Aeneas is awe-struck by the pretty pictures on his new toy. He then takes them on his shoulder like no child would, bearing it as a precious burden, like he did with his father when escaping Troy, already augmenting the idea of filial piety for war. Yet he does not understand the pictures on his shield in the slightest.

They are the portrayals of his descendents, but he knows not what they will mean, nor how they will represent him. And as with the underworld pageantry, we know all the characters are mightily, morally ambiguous. All Aeneas knows is that the only way to make the pictures a reality is to use the weapons. This marks another turning point in the poem: for the first time, Aeneas takes up arms against other characters to pursue his fate, casting him in a new role, especially in regards to the theme of piety, which becomes increasingly important as the war progresses. From this point on, we see Aeneas losing control to the rage instilled by the passions he has repressed in pursuit of the will of Venus. He becomes like the forces that sacked his city, killing his kin. Of course, this parallel was never far off in the poem, as he is constantly walking in the footsteps of Odysseus, who he constantly refers to in vile terms for the way in which he seized Troy.

Yet before this transformation begins, we get one of the more beautiful digressions of the book, which I will digress here to discuss. In a calm before the maelstrom of war – in what is titled, “A Night Sortie,” before, “A Day Assault,” we get a tender picture of two soldiers, walking together and discussing the merits of war. One is an older, more learned man: Nisus. The other is younger, and more handsome: Euryalus. Their scenes are rendered more softly and slowly than any of the war scenes around them, and even more so than the other domestic scenes in the book. In their first scene, in the night sortie, Nisus asks Euryalus:

“This urge to action, do the gods instill it,

Or is each man’s desire a god to him,

Euryalus? For all these hours I’ve longed

To engage in battle, or to try some great

Adventure.” (9. 253-256)

Their story, like this quotation, directly calls into question the spirit behind a drive to arms. And in their last scene, when Nisus falls on Euryalus’ slain body, Virgil interjects authorially to comment on the moment, in what may be the closest thing to an answer he gives us to the question of the nation-building spirit and how it can crush all other human spirit, including that of love between an older and younger man:

If in the least my songs

Avail, no future day will ever take you

Out of record of remembering Time,

While children of Aeneas make their home

Around the Capitol’s unshaken rock,

And still the Roman Father governs all. (9. 630-639)

His words about them, as part of the tale of their nation’s greatness, will be a reminder to all of Rome of what was lost in its founding.

After this, all is war. In the following book, The Death of Princes, first, in Aeneas’ absence, Pallas is killed by Turnus. The reader feels that this moment is ominous, dark, and will inspire many, much worse actions, and when Turnus removes Pallas’ belt and keeps it as a prize of war, we cringe. But even here, his character is not wholly bad and deserving of a brutal death. He actually gives some rights Pallas and his family, who he feels has betrayed his people, eloquently speaking over the fallen body with Aeneas-like historical rhetoric:

“Arcadians, not well

And take back to Evander what I say:

In that state which his father merited

I send back Pallas. And I grant in full

What honor tombs confer, what consolation

Comes of burial. No small price he’ll pay

For welcoming Aeneas.” (10. 685-691)

This is a very complicated speech. With a modern perspective on war, the implicit rhetorical questions feel almost Falstaffian: What honor does a tomb confer? What consolation is burial? Is the pride of seeing your son with shield and sword worth his death? Is welcoming the hero Aeneas worth losing your own son? All of these beg the question of what is honor? And imply little more than breath. Yet, as we saw in book 6, burying the dead was quite important to people of this time. So Turnus is giving Evander a lot, but also calling into question a highly thought-of action; and so the crux of his questioning really stands on his last statement: what distinction does Aeneas carry. Turnus is clearly implying none, and bolstering himself.

But of course Aeneas, and his mission, carry a lot of distinction – he is founding Rome. But here, in Book 10, when Aeneas hears of Pallas’ dead body, his reaction to the deed that inspires this question may imply otherwise: his vision narrows, all he sees is red, and he takes on the traits he attributes to the wicked Greeks that laid siege to his city. He goes on a tirade of murder, more vividly described than any others in the book:

And with this he took

The man’s helm in his left hand, bent the neck

Backward, still begging, and drove home the sword

Up to the hilt. (10. 751- 754)

He continues in this vein, until a confrontation with the fact that he is about to slay someone’s son makes him pause. The way in which he kills this son, and the way in which he assesses the glory of the deed, are clear foils to Turnus killing Pallas. He says:

“O poor young soldier,

How will Aeneas reward your splendid fight?

How honor you, in keeping with your nature?

Keep the arms you loved to use, for I

Return you to your forebears, ash and shades,

If this concerns you now. Unlucky boy,

One consolation for sad death is this:

You die by the sword-thrust of great Aeneas.” (10. 1154-1161)

Again, the question of what dying in battle is worth arises. Aeneas, like Turnus, will return the boy he has slain to his forbearers, but again, even the worth of this is called into question. And again, the justification for the death seems to somehow depend on the greatness of Aeneas, and implicitly, his goal – the founding of Rome. So in assessing these characters, we must look not only at what Virgil is saying about them, but the founding of Rome, and the act of nation building.

Virgil brings this into focus in the following book when Aeneas actually sees Pallas’ body, and expresses a sense of failure and impotence, as if he had somehow betrayed his promise to Evander:

“Not such was the parting pledge I gave on your behalf to

Your sire, Evander, when, clasping me to his heart, he sent

Me on my way to mighty empire.” (11. 45-47)

At this poignant moment in the poem, Virgil reminds the reader of Dido, in the old days, happy in her love for Aeneas, and we are reminded that Aeneas could have remained there, happy and at peace. But he gave that up, like every other human connection he has had throughout the poem – in abandoning Troy, he lost his wife; in Sicily, his father; in Africa, Dido; in the underworld, many previous losses are lived over again – and all for his final goal.

All this labor and anguish could still be made to seem endurable were it consummated or justified somehow in a final triumph. And it almost seems as if it will be when Aeneas speaks to the Latins during the day of peace, and regains some of his humanity in saying:

“Believe me,

I should have wished to grant (peace) to the living.

Never should I have come here had not Fate

Allotted me this land for settlement,

No do I war upon your people. No,

Your king dropped our alliance, lent himself

Instead to Turnus’ fighting. In all fairness,

Turnus should have faced death on this field.” (11. 154-159)

While his claim to be under the command of Fate has lost some of its potency with repetition, the fact that he did not start this war is undeniably true, and also true is Aeneas’ interpretation of Turnus’ warring despite the will of his king as an act of treason. Yet politicians, who Virgil points out have never been on the battlefield, rise up and argue against him, and as the war breaks out again, the politicians:

Debated the obscure future in this way,

In bitter strife. Meanwhile Aeneas left camp

And took the field. (11. 602-605)

No matter what his stance, it seems the action of the epic will proceed how it must, and Aeneas must play his role therein. At this point, his reality seems very much at the whims of the gods, or some other elusive forces. So we rely on redemption to come from one of those, and it seems that it will in the next scene we get of the gods, with Jupiter and Jove discussing the future of Rome in these democratic terms:

“Merge their laws and treaties,

Never command the land’s own Latin folk

To change their old name, to become new Trojans,

Known as Teucrians; never make them alter

Dialect or dress. Let Latium be…

Let Italian valor be the strength

Of Rome in after times” (12. 1116-1122)

This picture feels idyllic: the Romans and Italians living in peace for eternity, breeding the healthy stock of Romans – a redemptive note to the end of the poem about a man’s self-sacrificial journey to obey the will of god and found a nation. But this agreement only comes so peacefully in heaven, and it is not the final image of the poem. The final image of the poem is that of a deep, human turmoil, which the gods seem to feel is a natural by-product of aligning the world as they see fit that is not even worth mentioning. But Virgil is more sensitive and complex than the gods or history. He does mention it, in the final scene of his historical epic.

This final scene is, of course, Aeneas facing Turnus in a mortal duel, and in this, there is little suggestion of triumph. There are essentially no stakes in their battle – we know who will win – the only question is how Aeneas will react to his victory – if it will be a redemptive moment, or not. For a moment, it seems like it will at least be a compassionate moment, as Aeneas decides to let Turnus live after he has beaten him. But then Aeneas spots Pallas’ belt and goes into a fit of rage, and “Plunged the steel into the breast before him.” This single act of outrage that ends the poem can be read many ways. Surely someone like C.S. Lewis could see it as the right thing to do, because Turnus brought it on himself with his treason, and Wendell Clausen calls it the “completion in a long history of personal grief” (Commager, 86). It could be argued that it is brutal, like all of Aeneas’ actions when he is confronted with an emotional situation. But it is more complicated than that. It comments on the idea of piety that Aeneas has grown increasingly frustrated with throughout the poem: is it redemptive – is this slaying justified by an eye-for-an-eye logic, or does it only lead to more and more violence? Stabbing Turnus obviously gives Aeneas an outlet for the rage instilled by the suppression of his passions throughout the poem, and after going through all those passions with him, no reader can be blamed for feeling a sense of relief in his murder, as well. Yet no one can argue that it is not brutal, very brutal. And in that brutality there is a hint of the murderous tinge of following the nation building impulse. All of this is there, and more, in Virgil’s personal history of Aeneas, founding myth of Rome, and tale of nation building.


Works cited:

Commager, Steele, Virgil, Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.(1966)

Lewis, C.S. “Virgil and the Subject of Second Epic,” (pp 62-67)

Clausen, Wendell, “An Interpretation of the Aeneid,” (pp. 75-88)

Knox, Bernard M.W. “The Serpant and the Flame” (pp. 124-142)

Fitzgerald, Robert, The Aeneid of Virgil, Vintage Classics, New York, New York, (1990)

Works referenced:

Johnson, W.R, Darkness Visible, University of California Press, Berkley and Los

Angeles, California (1976)

Martindale, Charles, The Cambridge Companion to Virgil, University of Cambridge,

Cambridge, U.K (1997)

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