Aeneas despairing

Aeneas’ first appearance in Virgil’s Aeneid is hardly flattering:

Aeneas’ limbs suddenly went numb with cold.
He groaned and, lifting both palms to heaven, said:

“Three times, four times luckier were those
Who died before their parents’ eyes
Under Troy’s high walls! O Diomedes,
Bravest of the Greeks, if only I had been killed
By your right hand on Ilium’s plain,
Where Hector went down under Achilles’ spear,
Where huge Sarpedon lies, where the Simois rolls
So many shields and helmets caught in its current
And the bodies of so many brave heroes!”

(Aeneid bk. 1, lines 110-20, trans. Lombardo)

Aeneas is weary, miserable, on the verge of giving up, wishing for death—and this is the great hero who, we have just been told, is fated to found a new home in Italy, what will one day give rise to Rome and all its empire.

To be sure, Aeneas is in fairly dire straits when we meet him. He is sailing from Sicily to Italy with twenty ships when Juno persuades Aeolus to unleash the winds. It is because of these winds that “everywhere men saw the presence of death” (1.109). Still, is this Aeneas’ response to misfortune? Does he really despair so readily? We will later learn that this is far from his first misfortune, that it is only the latest in a long string—but, as I said, we only learn this later.

Why should Virgil introduce his hero in such a state? I think there is something quite appropriate about it, but to see why requires a rather large step backwards, to get a view of the Aeneid as a whole.

The Aeneid is sometimes described as half Odyssey (the first half), half Iliad (the second half). This isn’t wrong, but it overlooks the crucial difference between the Aeneid and the Odyssey. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is making a return journey. He is going back to an established home. To be sure, there is uncertainty, for that home is under threat from rapacious suitors, and Odysseus does not know whether Penelope has remained faithful to him during his extended absence. And yet there is not so much uncertainty and urgency that he cannot forget, for an entire year, where he is headed.

The Aeneid tells a very different story. Troy, Aeneas’ home, has been destroyed. No life remains for him there. His only option is to make a new home. And while he at least has the advantage of a divine mother who tells him his fate, still the goal is uncertain, a land he has never seen, full of people he has never met—a land whose only significance lies in its future promise, not in past experience. This story, the quest to make a new home in unknown territory, strikes me as better capturing the generic predicament of human life—or at least the very specific predicament of my life. (I am a Russian Jew whose ties to Russia were effaced before my birth by generations of my family living in the United States, and whose ties to Judaism were effaced by utter unbelief and a lack of stomach for cultural “Judaism.” Might I at least have an American identity? I spent my childhood in a southern state but was raised to be deliberately non-southern. That avenue, then, is also closed. Whatever home I find, it will be one of my own making.)

With such an exhausting, bewildering quest before him, it is only right that Aeneas should be glimpsed first in a moment of weariness, for it is out of precisely this weariness that he must emerge if he is to found his new home.

Miscellaneous notes on Aeneid book 1

[1] Dido’s “living passion”

Aeneas, in his quest to found a new home in Latium, is caught between his memory of his first home and visions of his second. There is a tension between these two: his memory can get in the way of his forward movement. One of the greatest qualities of the Aeneid is the way Virgil captures the way the same themes that characterize Aeneas’ journey play out in the lives of those characters who interact with his destiny without sharing it. One such is Dido. She, too, is an exile. Though her city was not destroyed, her home was: her brother Pygmalion murdered her husband Sychaeus. When Aeneas meets her, she is building her new city in Libya. In this case, her memory of Sychaeus is a strength: it keeps her from the distraction of a new lover, allowing her to focus all her efforts on Carthage. But Aeneas’ mother, Venus, schemes to ensure Aeneas’ safety, and sends Cupid (disguised as Aeneas’ son Iülus) to make Dido fall in love with him:

The boy, when he had hung on Aeneas’ neck
And satisfied the deluded father’s love,
Went to the Queen. And she clung to him
With all her heart, her eyes were riveted on him,
And she cuddled him on her lap. Poor Dido.
She had no idea how great a god had settled there.
Mindful of his Acidalian mother,
Little by little he began to blot out Sychaeus
And tried to captivate with a living passion
Her slumbering soul and her heart long unused. (1.875-84)

I think Virgil means for this passage to be ambiguous about the rightness of Cupid’s action. On the one hand, it is terrible: Dido’s resolve never to remarry, never even to love again, is being wrenched away from her against her will. And, later, we will see that this leads to her destruction, through no fault of her own. And yet Virgil also wants us to see that she has found her strength in a kind of death. Her love of Sychaeus is the love of a memory. It is a dead passion. She has made a new home, but there is something not quite wholly alive in her new “life.”

Ultimately, I think we must see Dido as one of the many more or less blameless victims of Aeneas’ destiny. She keeps company with the likes of Creüsa, Palinurus, and Turnus. And yet, what Virgil suggests about memory, and the tension between memory and forward movement in life, is profound.

[2] Juno the contract-breaker

We first meet Aeneas beset by a weariness he must overcome. We first meet Juno, by contrast, taking the action that will typify her throughout the epic: violating some contract or another to frustrate Aeneas. In this book, the contract she violates is the “chartered agreement” that lets Aeolus, king of the winds, know “when to restrain and when to unleash them” (1.79-80). But later we will see her violate a contract between Aeneas and Latinus in order to start the war between Trojans and Latins, and then again a contract between Aeneas and Turnus, in order to prolong that war. Even if events must proceed onward toward their destined end no matter what, they are hastened there by agreements between men and gods, and Juno is the great violator of such contracts.

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