Tag Archives: Aeneas

Well, I am reading the Aeneid again (Ruden, this time). I was struck, as I read the fourth book, by a similarity that at first struck me as interesting though likely incidental, but that, as I read, came to seem more and more deliberate on Virgil’s part. In brief, I think Aeneas is, for Dido, a sort of Trojan horse.

Virgil gives the story of the Trojan horse in the second book. The Greeks build a massive wooden horse, with Greek soldiers hidden inside, then pretend to leave (in fact they hide on a nearby island). The Trojans, thinking the Greeks gone, come out to examine the horse, rightly suspecting some sort of ploy. Laocoön even throws a spear into the horse, eliciting a strange groaning sound. But a Greek youth is captured and brought before Priam. Pleading that he has escaped the Greeks, who wished to offer him as a sacrifice, he tells a fantastic tale that convinces the Trojans that the last thing the Greeks want is for the Trojans to take the horse to their citadel. Indeed, the Greeks made the horse so big precisely to prevent it from fitting through the entrances to Troy. This story is apparently confirmed when two snakes emerge from the sea and eat Laocoön and his sons, apparently a divine punishment for striking the horse with the spear. So the Trojans “cut the walls” (2.234) and bring the horse inside. At nightfall, of course, Troy goes up in flames, finished forever.

Abstractly put, the Trojans trust an apparent exile. On the basis of this trust, they weaken their defenses, taking into their city the very cause of their downfall.

What happens to Dido in book four? Just the same, more or less. Aeneas arrives at her city, and Jove softens Dido’s heart so that she accepts him. He tells, for two whole books, the sad story of his exile. The effect is to make Dido fall in love with him. Here we must back up, and revisit events from book one. There, we learned that Dido’s former husband was murdered, and that she has sworn never to love again, a vow she has until this point kept. Behind the scenes, however, Venus has swapped out Ascanius (Aeneas’ son) for Cupid, who breaches Dido’s defenses and makes her come to love Aeneas. Returning now to book four, Dido, against her better judgment, allows Aeneas into her hurt. But Fate impels him onward, and when he leaves, it drives her to suicide.

Abstractly put, Dido trusts an exile. On the basis of this trust, she weakens her defenses, taking into her heart the very cause of her downfall.

Are these mere loose parallels? At a high enough level of abstraction, anything can be made to seem similar to anything. What reason is there to think that Virgil intended these similarities? Or, if one distrusts intentionalism in interpretation, what reason is there to think that these similarities are salient to understanding Virgil’s poem?

For one thing, the similarities are not merely abstract. Dido’s struggle between the choices of loving Aeneas or squelching that love mirrors the discussion among the Trojans over what to do with the horse. In both cases, better judgment appears to have the upper hand. Dido emphatically rejects her passion:

But let the earth first gape to its foundation,
Or the all-powerful father’s lightning drive me
To the pale shades of Erebus and deep night,
Before I shamefully break Honor’s laws.
The man who first was part of me has taken
My love. He ought to keep it where he’s buried. (4.24-29)

But this resolve is weakened when her sister, Anna, points out to her the advantages of having Aeneas and the Trojans as allies. Carthage is in a precarious position, and could use the strength. This doesn’t convince Dido (she doesn’t love Aeneas for his soldiers, as it were), but it does make “the spark of passion blaze” (4.53).

Even still, this might not be enough. Dido does not “marry” (she and Aeneas rather disagree over the appropriateness of this word) Aeneas until their encounter in the cave, to which they were driven by “the all-powerful father’s lightning.” Just as in the case of Sinon, mere words from mere mortals do not suffice. Divine intervention is needed.

Moreover, the very terms in which Virgil describes Dido’s succumbing to her passion—Anna’s words “made the spark of passion blaze”—foreshadow her downfall. For when she kills herself, and when Rumor spreads the news throughout the city, Virgil makes this comparison:

Long-drawn-out shrieks of grief and women’s keening
Brimmed from the buildings. Anguish filled the sky,
As if invading troops brought Carthage down—
Or ancient Tyre were sacked—and flames were scaling
The rooftops of the houses and the temples. (4.667-71)

After this passage, there can be no doubt that we are to read the fall of Dido as akin to the fall of Troy.

Of course, there are differences. Sinon is a liar, an extension of Ulysses’ trademark Greek cunning. He is in on the trick. In the case of Dido, however, Aeneas is unaware of Venus’ plot, and unaware that Dido loves him against her will. He is, in this sense, innocent. (In other senses, he is manifestly not.) We may sympathize with Aeneas in a way we perhaps don’t with Sinon, though, in my view, this scene should make us at least somewhat more understanding of Sinon: we should not dismiss him simply because his interests do not match up with the interests of the Trojans.

Regardless of how book four reflects on our assessment of Sinon, however, it certainly forces us to recognize an inherent terribleness in Fate, and even more so an inherent injustice in the way the gods set about ensuring that Fate. And that recognition is essential to Virgil’s method throughout the Aeneid. As much as he makes Aeneas admirable, he never makes him unambiguously so, and he certainly never makes Aeneas’ fate unambiguously good. It is merely Fate: good for Aeneas because he is the immediate beneficiary, good for the Romans because they are the long-term beneficiaries, terrible, and unjustly so, for nearly everyone else.


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:

………………………………………….“My Queen,
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.

It is, unsurprisingly, easier to get away with a deus ex machina plot device when you have literal gods at your disposal, but book two of Virgil’s Aeneid might appear to stretch even those more permissive limits. Two moments especially stand out: the sob story Sinon tells to get the horse into Troy, and the disappearance of Creüsa. I will focus on the former, but the latter will prove relevant.

At the start of book two, the Greeks appear to have retreated and the Trojans, overjoyed, leave their city and admire the massive horse the Greeks have left behind. They debate what to do about it, whether to bring it into their city or somehow to destroy it. Counseled wisely by Laocoön, they appear to be settling on the prudent course of destroying it when Sinon, a Greek prisoner, is left before them. They do not realize that he has deliberately let himself be captured in order to convince them to take the horse into Troy, even though Laocoön has just warned them to “fear the Greeks, even when they bring gifts” (2.61). And even though Laocoön has thrown his spear into the horse, causing it to emit a “cavernous moan” (2.65). To be duped by Sinon after this – well, it makes it hard to feel much sympathy for the fate of Troy.

And, to be fair, it is not simply Sinon who convinces them: there is also some literal divine intervention to reckon with. Nonetheless, they are taken in by Sinon’s tale. Why? I see two primary reasons. First, the story he tells is one that is readily believable to them, for he makes himself the victim of wily Ulysses:

‘But when through the malice of cunning Ulysses
(Everyone knows this) he passed from this world,
I was a ruined man and dragged on my life
In darkness and grief, eating my heart out
Over the fate of my innocent friend.’ (2.106-10)

It is a clever move, but not enough, I think. What fully converts them to his side is this:

‘And so I pray, by whatever powers above
Still witness Truth, and by any Faith we men
Still have uncorrupted, show mercy
To a suffering soul, guiltless and wronged.’

We spared him for his tears and pitied him
Of our own accord. (2.167-72)

It is those last three words of his speech that save him: he is guiltless, and yet wronged. But why should this sway them? In all honesty, it shouldn’t. Again, Laocoön has already revealed, more or less definitively, that the horse is a clever scheme and ought to be destroyed. What does this change, that they should suddenly desire to know Sinon’s account of the purpose of the horse and, further, should trust his story over the evidence of their own ears?

To understand it, we have to look outside the logic of the particular scene and consider instead the more general logic of the Aeneid as a whole. Most of the major characters in the story fall either into the category of exiles or of the “guiltless and wronged” (and, in many cases, both). Indeed, this combination is presented as central to the book right at the start:

Muse, tell me why the Queen of Heaven
Was so aggrieved, her godhead so offended,
That she forced a man of faultless devotion
To endure so much hardship. Can there be
Anger so great in the hearts of gods on high. (1.12-16)

Aeneas himself is the prototypical guiltless exile. And he is not alone. Dido, Aeneas’ second wife, is building a new city because she was exiled from her home by her treacherous brother. Creüsa, later in book two, disappears undeservedly, simply because the gods need her to be out of the way so that Aeneas can take a new wife in Italy. Palinurus, through no fault of his own (Virgil is quite explicit about this), is tossed from his ship because the gods (for no apparent reason) decided that someone had to die to ensure Aeneas’ smooth sailing. Even Turnus, Aeneas’ great opponent in the second half of the book, is hardly in the wrong for opposing the intruder who enters his land and steals his promised wife (this must be a thing with the Trojans), taking with her his future status as king. To be in exile, to be guiltless and yet inscrutably wronged, is the basic state of human beings in the Aeneid. Sinon, who pretends to be a guiltless exile, taps into a reservoir of sympathy appropriate in such a world.

So, yes, it is true that, considered purely locally, it is more than a little unbelievable that Sinon’s ploy should have worked. Nonetheless, it illustrates the larger logic of the work, the overflowing sympathy that it evinces for the exile and the guiltless. And it is fitting that the great quest of the guiltless exile should begin because a cunning Greek pretended to be… a guiltless exile.

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.