I imagine Virgil, as he wrote the Aeneid, found this challenge most vexing: how could he make interesting a story that is inexorably driven to a fated end that is known from the start? By this I do not mean the challenge of how to keep a story interesting when the ending is “spoiled” (as we call it nowadays), for that challenge is simply that of making good art in the first place (since good art is worth experiencing more than once). Rather, fate provides a more specific challenge. What fate threatens is the moral ambiguity that is at the heart of a good story. When a certain outcome is fated, approved by the gods, it becomes easy to judge all that approaches that outcome as good, all that obstructs it as bad.
Abstractly, the solution is that fate leaves a lot of leeway for how, exactly the outcome is reached. Certainly it can be complicated, and the hindrances are real. Moreover, fate is cruel and indifferent: those outside its path get thrown away with reckless abandon. Together, these create space for the needed ambiguity. The first allows for an indirect course, as others fight, with more or less success, against the dictates of fate. The second allows that they should be innocent in doing so.
That is the theoretical resolution to the problem, though of course it takes a great artist to achieve it in practice. Virgil is a great artist, and his handling of the story of Dido in Aeneid book 4 is an especially potent illustration. At the end of the book, Virgil puts it bluntly: “Her death was neither fated nor deserved” (4.812). Not fated, not an essential part of Aeneas’ course for Italy, and not deserved, for she was fundamentally innocent. In an epic full of large and small tragedies of the innocent, the death of Dido is probably the largest.
But let us begin with the gods, returning to Dido only after an interlude. In the first book of the Aeneid, Juno established herself as a breaker of contracts, unleashing the winds that drove Aeneas to Carthage. As a result, afraid that the fierce Carthaginians would be inhospitable to Aeneas and his crew, Venus sent Cupid to make Dido infatuated with Aeneas. This is really a terrible act. Yes, it protects Aeneas. But it also causes Dido, through no fault of her own, to break her scrupulously kept vow never to remarry, in honor of Sychaeus, her murdered husband. Venus callously strips her of her honor and, in the end, her life.
The struggle between Juno and Venus continues, with Juno proposing to have Dido and Aeneas marry. Her aim is twofold, to strengthen Carthage and protect Dido (Dido is a favorite of hers) and to keep Aeneas out of Italy. In making this proposal, she confronts Venus with a bitter charge:
“An outstanding victory! What a memorable display
Of divine power by you and your little boy,
Two devious deities laying low a single woman!” (4.109-11)
What any fairminded person reading this passage must recognize is that Juno is entirely justified in this accusation. In making his reader recognize this, Virgil captures genuine moral ambiguity: even the person (or god) furthering fate can be in the wrong, can be cruel and worthy of being despised.
Despite the insult, Venus assents to Juno’s proposal, but secretly she schemes. While we don’t know quite what happened in the cave with Dido and Aeneas, it is clear that Dido emerged convinced that they had married, while Aeneas was content to consider it merely a torrid affair. I suspect Venus was behind this trickery.
Eventually, fate comes calling, and Aeneas must leave Dido behind. Recall that, in her love for Aeneas (thrust upon her against her will), she has broken the vow that was the backbone of her strength (if not happiness). There is thus a real sense in which he is all she has left. Naturally, she is upset that he is leaving. The speech in which he attempts to pacify her is a masterpiece. I give it in full:
I will never deny that you have earned my gratitude,
In more ways than can be said; nor will I ever regret
Having known Elissa, as long as memory endures
And the spirit still rules these limbs of mine.
I do have a few things to say on my own behalf.
I never hoped to steal away from your land
In secret, and you should never imagine I did.
Nor have I ever proposed marriage to you
Or entered into any nuptial agreement.
If the Fates would allow me to lead my own life
And to order my priorities as I see fit,
The welfare of Troy would be my first concern,
And the remnants of my own beloved people.
Priam’s palace would still be standing
And Pergamum rising from the ashes of defeat.
But now the oracles of Gryneian Apollo,
Of Lycian Apollo, have commanded with one voice
That the great land of Italy is my journey’s end.
There is my love, my country. If the walls
Of Carthage, vistas of a Libyan city,
Have a hold on you, a Phoenician woman,
Why do you begrudge the Trojans
A settlement in Ausonia? We too have the right
To seek a kingdom abroad.
………………………………….The troubled ghost
Of my father, Anchises, admonishes me
Every night in my dreams, when darkness
Covers the earth, and the fiery stars rise.
And my dear son, Ascanius—am I to wrong him
By cheating him of his inheritance,
A kingdom in Hesperia, his destined land?
And now the gods’ herald, sent by Jove himself,
(I swear by your head and mine) has come down
Through the rushing winds, ordering me to leave.
I saw the god myself, in broad daylight,
Entering the walls, and heard his very words.
So stop wounding both of us with your pleas.
It is not my own will—this quest for Italy.” (4.378-415)
This speech is a mire of ambiguity. Aeneas just doesn’t know what he wants to say. He starts by attempting to tell her how much their relationship means to him, though he doesn’t seem to realize that the fact that he is leaving undermines this. This carries him for a few lines, but then he cannot help but try to explain himself, to make his course seem justified. In doing so, however, he ends up disowning, twice, his own destiny: “If the Fates would allow me to lead my own life” and “It is not my own will—this quest for Italy.” How much more must it wound Dido to find that it is not even a competing passion that sunders them, but simply a grudgingly accepted duty? Aeneas also attempts one more sympathetic justification (should he cheat his son of his inheritance), but this, too, likely wounds more than it helps, for Aeneas has not even given Dido a son of her own.
Aeneas’ thought process here is eminently understandable, on two levels. It is understandable, first, because the experience of bungling an explanation of oneself to those one has wronged is common. Second, Aeneas is trying to translate the commands of the gods into reasoning understandable to humans. And he just can’t do it. He tries to connect it to normal human motivations. If Dido, a Phoenician, can have her Carthage, why can’t Aeneas have a settlement in Ausonia? And doesn’t his son deserve the best Aeneas can give him? But even as he makes these arguments, he undermines them, forced to admit that “It is not my own will.” Aeneas’ fate makes him something inhuman, and in following it he takes on its callous indifference. Yet within him still beats a human heart, and his passion persists. His fate thus divides him in two: not only Dido, but also Aeneas is a victim of the gods. And that, perhaps, is the epic’s deepest and most painful moral ambiguity.