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Man’s Fate In the Aeneid

ISSUE:  Winter 1977

On January 16, in the year 27 before Christ, the Roman Senate conferred upon the great-nephew of Julius Caesar the title of Augustus. This event sealed the end of a long period of violence, disruption, and civil discord. For nearly one hundred years Rome had been in the hands of military adventurers whose successive inter-necine quarrels bled white the Roman ruling class. During the same time, Rome was also plagued by a serious barbarian invasion from the North, by the revolt of her Italian allies, by the slave rebellion of Spartacus and the conspiracy of Catiline. The uncertainty, disorder, and bloodshed in Italy caused by these and countless other minor conflicts deeply shocked and disturbed the civilized sensibilities of Roman society.

The Pax Augusta re-established “normalcy.” Civil strife ceased, social stability once again prevailed. Rome had been founded a second time; the military virtues of Romulus and the religious piety of Numa Pompilius both found example in the character of the new Prince. Augustus proclaimed the dawn of another Golden Age and urged a return to the old Roman virtues of the mos maiorum: austerity, honesty, dedication, obedience, loyalty, courage, and religious devotion.

The Roman selected to celebrate in verse the values of the new regime was Virgil. It was in some ways a very unlikely choice. To be sure, Virgil was (together with his younger contemporary, Horace) the leading poet of the day. In his verses he had assimilated the charm of Theocritus and the sternness of Hesiod to Roman taste. His praise of Augustus had won him favor at the new Ministry of Culture headed by Maecenas. But the delicacy, refinement, and sophistication of his early poetry did not easily lend themselves to the requirements of epic. Virgil may have sensed this:

When I was about to sing of kings and battles, Cynthian Apollo pulled me by the ear ana warned: “A Shepherd, Tityrus, should pasture fat sheep and sing a slim song’ (Bucolics VI, 3—5).

The young poet also manifests a good deal of uneasiness concerning the moral aspects of power. His early poetry is charged with a sense of the ambiguity of the Roman order. This is noticeable from the opening lines of the First Eclogue, where the reality of Rome explodes into the peaceful, pastoral world of shepherds and nymphs, hurling one shepherd from his ancestral land headlong to sickness and death, while arbitrarily making another happy in the continued possession of his holdings. In short, neither Virgil’s patriotism nor his poetics (as evidenced by his early writings) was of the sort to be pressed lightly into the service of imperialist propaganda. The Aeneid, as a consequence, is anomalous in a number of ways.

The poem’s most peculiar feature is the personality of its hero, Melancholy and weary resignation distinguish Aeneas from earlier examples of the heroic type. It is his destiny to found the Roman race; he is driven on by what Virgil calls in another context “Fortuna omnipotens et ineluctable fatum.” But after the loss of his wife and homeland, Aeneas only wants to die. Aeneas is characterized by the intensity of his personal and private concerns, and in his acute sense of a double allegiance to himself and to the larger order, we recognize the dilemma of a modern citizen in a highly organized nation-state.

As Aeneas tells Dido, “Italiam non sponte sequor”: it wasn’t my idea. Aeneas does not especially want to found Rome, but he is honestly overawed by the historical and racial responsibility which has devolved upon him. For all his complaints, delays, and regrets, Aeneas carries out his hated mission. In this, he sets himself apart from the epic protagonists of Homer whose unfettered personal autonomy constitutes the guiding principle of their lives. Achilles, of course, is not congratulated for sulking in his tent while Hector slaughters the Greeks right down to Achilles’s best friend, but he is not for that reason less of a hero—his heroic stature is even heightened by the radical spirit of his individualism. It is precisely this Homeric ideal of autonomous excellence which comes under attack in the Aeneid.In Aeneas the qualities of self-assertion and individual self-will yield to the virtues of the citizen; chief among these is the Augustan ideal of pietas which Aeneas manifests in the highest degree.


Pietas means respectful cultivation of all the various ties that bind an individual to his community: his duty to his family, to the state, and to the gods. It implies a willingness to subordinate one’s own interests and desires to the social order and the common good, to think first of one’s duty to one’s dependents and the public welfare, rather than to concentrate on one’s private activities and ambitions. The journey from Troy to Rome represents the tempering of Greek individualism with the Roman sense of responsibility. It is essential that Trojan and Latin blood mingle in the founding of Rome to combine Greek genius with Italian character and discipline.

This fusion is achieved only at the cost of a reduction in the scope of human expression, Virgil implies that the spirit of unrestricted personal autonomy which produced the glories of Greek civilization cannot be separated from an irresponsible, self-serving abuse of power and freedom. His purpose is not to repudiate Greek culture; one can read admiration for it, after all, in every line of his poetry. Rather Virgil’s point is that the ideal of individual self-determination bequeathed to Rome in the legacy of Greek (and particularly Athenian) civilization has been overworked and is now outmoded. The Greek ideal, once productive, creates nothing but violence and discord, the expense of spirit in a waste of shame. Everything is to be gained, therefore, by the practice of enlightened coercion, by the careful pruning back of undesirable excess and the husbanding of one’s energies.

Is it really more cruel to restrict personal autonomy than to countenance random violence? Virgil was a sensitive and peace-loving man. He may well have had no love for Augustus and his self-styled return to the Golden Age. But Virgil had also survived an era of devastation brought about precisely by people who followed the “Greek” model in putting individual concerns ahead of their allegiance to the social order. After Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Catiline, Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, and Antony, Rome had paid a high price indeed for the cultivation of glittering personalities. All that was now over. What the Principate required was a new sort of man, primarily citizen and subject, and a new sort of ideal—a civic ideal, These are represented by Aeneas and his pietas.Aeneas exemplifies the new man in all his virtues and failings. If, as a consequence, his character lacks the charisma of Odysseus or Achilles, one can say in Aeneas’s defence that he does not risk the lives of his men to gratify his own curiosity or egoism. This is not an ideal we can afford to despise. Anchises sets the tone for the new age in his concluding remarks to Aeneas in the Underworld:

Others, no doubt, will fashion bronze statues finer, so that they appear to breathe, and will draw forth living faces from the marble. They will plead cases with greater eloquence, will better chart the wanderings of the heavens and tell of new constellations. You, Roman, remember to rule the nations by your power—for these will be your arts—to compound peace with moral rectitude, to spare the conquered and quash the arrogant.

But the gradual restriction of personal autonomy and expression is itself a violent, agonizing process which contains the seeds of its own degeneration. Virgil acknowledges this at the outset of the poem in a rare programmatic utterance: Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem! What a tremendous struggle it was to found the Roman nation! It is Virgil’s way of saying “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” For every step Aeneas takes forward, there is something he has to leave behind. And Virgil highlights not only the glory of Rome, but the enormous personal cost it conceals. The price is to be sought first and foremost in the progressive brutalization of Aeneas’s character. Purged of all emotional attachments, Aeneas grows more colorless, passive, and sterile as the poem nears its climax; drained of his personality while increasingly invested with the trappings of imperial auctoritas, Aeneas becomes a sort of clothes-horse on a treadmill, set lurching by the gods on the road to final victory.

The four most obvious losses that Aeneas sustains along the way are the abandonment of Creusa, the death of Anchises, the enforced desertion of Dido, and the death of Pallas. But the fact of their loss, in itself sufficiently painful, is less significant than Virgil’s treatment of such episodes. The poet dwells on these incidents with a gloomy fascination which would be strange in someone whose chief intent was to glorify the founding of Rome. Yet Virgil mourns at least as much as he rejoices. He goes out of his way to invent a wife for Aeneas, only in order to be able to describe at length how Aeneas was unable to save her from destruction in the fall of Troy. We leave Aeneas trying in vain to embrace Creusa’s ghost, and Virgil repeats the very same lines when Aeneas attempts to embrace the shade of his dead father Anchises in the Underworld. Before our eyes, Virgil strips Aeneas of nearly all his family ties. And if this were not enough, Virgil reserves for his hero the fate of enduring the loss of a lover—not once, but twice: first Dido, then Pallas. These are the sorts of incidents Virgil chooses to fasten on—the accent is always placed on the cost, on the price of glory.

Thus the grandiose vision of Roman history at the end of Book VI is carefully undercut by Virgilian pathos. Anchises’s description of Rome’s future greatness builds up to Augustus but does not end there, as one might expect; rather, the passage culminates in a lament for Augustus’s nephew Marcellus, a talented young man who died in the full bloom of youth. Once again Virgil concentrates not on the end of the road but on the unfortunate individual who falls by the wayside. The triumphal pageant of Roman history leads to Marcellus, whose beauty and genius were snatched away by the gods lest Rome become too mighty. The vision of the future ends not on a note of triumph but on one of ineffable sadness.


Passages similar to this abound in the Aeneid, and Virgil deliberately strains our capacity for pity to the point of exhaustion. A good example is his portrayal of the two lovers, Nisus and Euryalus, who get themselves killed in Book IX because they care more for glory than for their own safety. Such people frankly have no place in the new order; they have to go. But Virgil draws out the description of their deaths in his most lachrymose manner, and (for good measure) he brings in the mother of Euryalus, insane with grief, to deliver a frenzied lament for her dead son. Using a similar technique, Virgil assures himself of the impact which the death of Pallas will have on the audience. We are treated to the spectacle of Pallas’s father, King Evander, collapsing with sorrow and dread when he sees his son go off to war and then, once Pallas is killed, Evander is brought back to give a passionate, despairing speech over the body of his child.

Many other examples illustrate Virgil’s intent. He continually musters all the pathetic detail at his disposal, When Aeneas mutilates King Mezentius, the King’s son, Lausus, sick with anger and shame at seeing his father so treated, attacks Aeneas, although he is no match for the Trojan hero. Aeneas plunges his sword deep into Lausus’s breast and the blood, gushing out, soaks the tunic which, as Virgil is careful to tell us, the mother of Lausus lovingly wove for her son with golden thread.

The point is endlessly repeated, and it is hard to miss: sunt lacrimae rerum— there are tears in the very nature of things.

Nothing is achieved without cost, and the cost is almost always figured in human lives. The most famous example is the death of Palinurus, Aeneas’s helmsman and close friend. Virgil carefully prepares for this episode by making sure that we know and like Palinurus—he is mentioned four times by name before this culminating scene at the end of Book V. Venus asks Neptune to grant a safe passage to Aeneas and his fleet. Neptune consents, but he stipulates for no discernible reason that the Trojans will have to lose one man at sea who “will give his life for many.” Venus does not object; in fact, she never mentions it—Virgil only tells us she is joyful that her request has been granted, The indifference of the gods contrasts sharply with the intense concern of the poet. In one of the most hauntingly lovely passages in the epic, Virgil describes how Palinurus tries to stay awake at the helm but is bewitched by the gods and swept off the ship into the sea; he is eventually murdered by savages amid the barren rocks of an alien shore, as we learn when Virgil brings Palinurus back in Book VI to remind Aeneas and us of his unhappy fate. The death of Palinurus is striking because it is so utterly gratuitous—on the face of it, there is neither religious nor poetic necessity for the incident. Most of these passages are not essential to the main plot; they are inserted by Virgil to emphasize the human cost of founding Rome. An unfolding drama of personal loss, the Aeneid’s prevailing tone is not exultation, as one might expect it to be, but melancholy.

It has been suggested that Virgil did not admire Augustus in the least, that he wrote the Aeneid under compulsion and with great hesitancy. Aeneas’s reluctance to found Rome mirrors Virgil’s own reluctance to recount it. Virgil produced a work full of patriotic rhetoric to placate Augustus, but he was really making fun of him on the sly, and the Aeneid is composed in such a way that it will communicate to the perceptive reader a pacifist message.

This is, certainly, a possible hypothesis. If it is sound, then we must admit without further ado that the Aeneid is fundamentally deficient as a work of art, morally dishonest, and unworthy of our respect. A few minutes’ consideration, however, is sufficient to reject this view. The founding of Rome is an occasion both for joy and lamentation. All these fruitful contradictions are distilled in Virgil’s account of the killing of Turnus, with which the Aeneid concludes.

Defeated by Aeneas in single combat, Turnus formally acknowledges this fact before the assembled armies and without further contest relinquishes the throne of Latium to Aeneas together with the hand of Lavinia. He begs for mercy in the name of Anchises who had told Aeneas, as we recall, that the Roman’s duty is to spare the vanquished and overthrow the arrogant. Here is the end of the Aeneid in John Dryden’s masterly translation:

In deep suspense the Trojan seemed to stand,
And, just prepared to strike, repressed his hand,
He rolled his eyes, and every moment felt
His manly soul with more compassion melt.
When casting down a casual glance he spied
The golden belt that glitterea on his side,
The fatal spoils which haughty Turnus tore
From dying Pallas and in triumph wore.
Then roused anew to wrath he loudly cries
(Flames while he spoke came flashing from his eyes):
“Traitor, dost thou, dost thou to grace pretend,
Clad as thou art in trophies of my friend?
To his sad soul a grateful offering go;
‘Tis Pallas, Pallas gives this deadly blow.”
He raised his arm aloft, and at the word
Deep in his bosom drove the shining sword:
The streaming blood distained his arms around,
And the disdainful soul came rushing through the wound.

Turnus represents in part the Homeric ideal of heroic individualism which, as we know, is inappropriate to the new order, But Turnus is also associated with the subjective, “anti-so-cial” tendencies Aeneas has had to overcome in his own character. Just as Aeneas, in the course of his rampage through Books X-XII of the Aeneid, recalls the Achilles of Iliad XVIII-XXII, so does Turnus, by his impetuosity and desire for glory, evoke the Achilles of Iliad I-XVI and (by implication) Aeneas’s younger self. The murder of Turnus is thus the final sacrifice whereby Aeneas dedicates his personal life to the life of the state; it is a profoundly pious, civic act that verges on a sort of self-immolation. For in Turnus, Aeneas destroys not only a harmful standard of conduct but also the last vestiges of his own anarchic individualism, and so frees the future of the Roman race from the taint of unbridled self-expression.

Objectively, we ought to rejoice in the death of Turnus. Yet, the end of the Aeneid is so savage and brutal that it strikes us more with horror than with any other feeling. Instead of showing the clemency Anchises had recommended, Aeneas slays his helpless adversary for the most private of motives. His sudden burst of fury seems more characteristic of Achilles than of the model citizen he is supposed to be. The reader is left stunned and amazed by the poem’s harsh, abrupt, and violent conclusion. If Rome is to be founded in the blood of Turnus, needlessly spilled in a wanton and wrathful act of revenge, what did Aeneas gain by leaving Carthage?

It cannot be denied that the accumulation of bloodshed in the Aeneid finally exceeds the point of toleration. When we consider what Aeneas has had to forfeit in order to found Rome and what kind of man he has become in the process, we find it hardly surprising that Virgil has Aeneas leave the Underworld to accomplish his mission through the Gate of False Dreams, that the maius opus at the beginning of Book VII (introducing the second half of the work and signifying the “arma,” the Iliad of Virgil) should emerge from the miasma of deception and false prophecy with which the Sixth Book concludes.


This paradox can be understood and appreciated, if not resolved, by an examination of Virgil’s outlook on the historical process—as revealed in the following incident. In order to go down to the Underworld, Aeneas needs the Golden Bough. The Sybil tells him that if he is the one for whom it is truly destined, it will break off easily (facilisque sequetur) and of its own accord (ipse uolens) in his hands. But the Golden Bough does not break off easily. It is described as “resisting,” which most translators do not render, probably because they do not understand why it is there. In fact, the Golden Bough does not offer itself to Aeneas; he has to wrench it from the tree by brute force. One can only blame the Sybil for her naïveté in thinking otherwise: how could it be an easy task to break the Golden Bough? The Sybil’s prophecy represents an attitude common among myth-makers and propagandists who, ignorant or careless of life’s complexity, believe that what is destined to take place must for that reason effortlessly come to pass. The historical analogue is not hard to discern: no historical situation is tailor-made for any one individual, even when he is divinely ordained to succeed. History is a blank page inscribed with effort—one has to wrench order out of the chaos of history by a violent act of will. Similarly, the farmer (according to Virgil’s Georgics) has to struggle ceaselessly in order to wrest a subsistence from the soil; only continual labor can prevent his lands from returning to their natural state— chaotic, unprofitable fecundity, exuberant but aimless. If a farmer relaxes his attention for a moment, says Virgil, then like a man trying to row upstream against the current, he is swept to his destruction without reprieve (Georgics I, 197-203).

The cost of order is violence. Only a violent effort can bring order out of chaos. And the more order you want, the more violence you must commit to achieve it; it is a self-correcting, self-defeating dialectic. Certain accomplishments do result, but these can be maintained only by continued destruction— witness the deaths of Palinurus and Marcellus. Mankind has paid and continues to pay.

The ancients were very much aware of the extent to which man had infringed on nature. Farming, seafaring, hunting, the gift of speech, the taming of animals, the building of cities—all these human activities were thought in some sense to depend on nature’s grudging toleration. In the Aeneid,Virgil takes this notion a step further: order is violence.By its very nature, Virgil says, order is violence perpetrated against the pre-existing chaos of things. If this statement seems paradoxical to us, it is because order carries with it a positive connotation and violence a negative one. But Virgil, by using this paradox, is trying to erase the plus sign before order and the negative sign before violence in our minds. They are essentially the same thing, and thus the poet persuades us to see order and violence in a new light.

For violence is not committed only by the conqueror. Violence, as we have seen, is what the farmer does when he works to constrain nature in such a way as to procure an abundant yield of grain—hence his “ruthless toil.” The farmer imposes on nature a man-made order, for only in this way can he meet all his needs. Similarly, violence is done by the scientist when he organizes the data gleaned from observation of the natural world into a concise and elegant mathematical formula. But most important, violence is done by the poet when he orders and makes sense out of life; when he organizes the seemingly random data of human experience into an ordered whole which can be understood and assimilated by countless human beings; when, in other words, he universalizes individual experience.

Virgil deals with the same concerns at the end of the Georgics when Aristaeus discovers how to restore order to the community of the hive. The tiny, marvellous commonwealth of bees is constantly likened to a human kingdom of farmers, soldiers, and statesmen; Virgil’s description throughout is consistently anthropomorphic. In their capacity as laborers, the bees are also compared to the Cyclops, the metal forgers of Vulcan:

illi inter sese magna ui bracchia tollunt in numerum, uersantque tenaci forcipe ferrum

(With tremendous force they raise and lower their arms together in measured cadence and turn the iron with the gripping tongs.) The figure of the Cyclops is made into a symbol of the poet who, by means of power or violence (magna ui), hammers out his verses in numerum: “ in measured cadence”—that is, into regular metrical units. These very lines are repeated in Aeneid VIII with a deepened and more ominous significance as the Cyclops forge the armor Aeneas will take with him into battle. So once again in his description of the bees, Virgil establishes a link between farming, statesmanship, and poetry in terms of order and violence.

Furthermore, if any pestilence attacks the hive or if the bees suddenly perish, they can be restored by a simple act of violence: “Often bees will spring from the putrid gore of slaughtered cattle.” That is easily accomplished—Virgil goes on to describe the technique for gagging the bull and beating it to death with clubs. But the discovery of this method derives from a more complicated and questionable series of events. In this passage, Virgil is exploring the problem of how one learns to create order for the first time: what is the process of discovery? The same issue confronts Aeneas, who must invent a way of restoring his own community—the remains of the Trojan commonwealth—and transplanting it onto Italian soil. Once this is achieved, the process of maintenance is crude but simple, if violent. The difficulty lies in finding one’s way the first time.

The invention of Aristaeus springs most directly from his capture, bondage, and coercion of Proteus. His mother instructs him in this unseemly business as follows:

hie, tibi, nate, prius uinculis capiendus, ut omnem expediat morbi causam euentusque secundet.nam sine ui non ulla dabit praecepta, neque ilium orando flectes; uim duram et uincula capto tende!

(First, you must hold him with bonds, my son, in order that he may lay before you the whole reason for the plague and may bless the outcome of your efforts. For without compulsion he will give no advice, nor can you influence him by pleading. Treat him roughly, with force; bind him with chains!) The discovery of order, in this case contingent upon binding the slippery Proteus, is accomplished only by violence (sine ui non, uim duram); this is emphasized by the poet’s repetition of key terms. Order in this context is represented by the imposition of fetters (uinclis, uincula) on the anarchic spirit of the seer, and it is achieved in the teeth of resistance.

But Aristaeus’s invention, like that of Aeneas, proceeds from even stranger circumstances. It grows out of the consequences of rape and what we would call involuntary manslaughter—the shepherd’s attempted violation of Eurydice and her subsequent fatal accident; it is compounded by Orpheus’s breach of Proserpine’s famous injunction not to look back. Once again the theme of “Arcadian violence,” recurrent throughout the Bucolics, is made to stand at the center of the discovery of order. Violation is a component of the creative act, and by using this weird aetiology to explain the invention of Aristaeus, Virgil also gives voice to his own sense of the ambivalence inherent in poetic composition. Endowed as it is with such an inheritance, poetry turns nature topsyturvy, just as Orpheus throws the normal conditions of the Underworld into confusion with his song and thus achieves a glorious but unnatural feat: the resuscitation of a dead human being.”Arcadian violence,” latent throughout the Bucolics and Georgics in the twofold creative act of social and poetic order, grows to heroic proportions in the Aeneid when Virgil abandons his “slim song”—the deductum carmen of the Sixth Eclogue—for the mains opus of Roman epic. There the creative, ordering act is vastly magnified (the founding of Rome has historical, even cosmic dimensions), and since far more is at stake, the violence inherent in this new “discovery” is immeasurably greater. As for the violation of nature by the poet, who must collapse centuries of human achievement and human suffering into the unified vision of a single poem, it is absolutely unspeakable.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

The “idea of order” takes on a more sinister aspect in Virgil than in this excerpt of a poem by Wallace Stevens. But both poets agree in seeing order as the fundamental principle of the human mind. And indeed if one reflects on what it means to “make” something, on the elements of human thought common to original discovery in the humanities, the sciences, and the vocations, one finds a search for order at the basis of all such endeavor. The creative activity of the human mind, then, in its two complementary manifestations—the quest for orderliness in the natural world and the attempt to impose a man-made order on the world which it observes—is, according to Virgil, a kind of violence. Every craftsman and intellectual, every scientist and artist engages in violence: it is an inseparable concomitant of human creativity.

But the ubiquity of violence is only an indication of a more significant phenomenon with which Virgil is concerned: the profound moral ambiguity of man in his role as creator.Violence is a symptom telling us that no creative act of man is free from moral ambiguity. Virgil, if you will, was an ecologist before ecology. The Aeneid vividly portrays the tragedy whereby man can only create by destroying. The present environmental crisis has taught us that man is not the ultimate arbiter of the world in which he lives; he changes one thing at the risk of upsetting something else, He protects forests from periodic fires only to have the trees attacked by a new kind of parasite. Man is not by nature a creator—he is part of the order of creation. Every creative act of man is in defiance of this natural law; it is of a dubious moral quality because it represents nature interfering with itself. One symptom of this is the violence that accompanies man’s attempts to create.

The founding of Rome by Aeneas merely serves as an archetype, as the supreme example of the human creative drive. The establishment of the Roman Empire is the greatest achievement of man-made order one can conceive, the most grandiose, artificial, and unnatural of all man’s creative feats. At the same time, the universal peace of Rome enforced throughout the Mediterranean world under Augustus is also an accomplishment of paramount human value. There is reason both to mourn and to rejoice. We are never to forget the price; the Aeneid depicts the reason why the approach to the Pax Augusta is strewn with human corpses and bespattered with innocent blood. The story of Rome’s founding provides Virgil with the occasion to dramatize the inevitable moral ambiguity of all human striving to bring order out of chaos. The Aeneid is a magnificent study in the human condition: it isolates the fundamental tragedy of man in history.

Order and violence, joy and lamentation, creation and destruction are not opposites, but polar aspects of a single phenomenon. This explains the peculiar way in which Virgil chooses to glorify the founding of Rome. Virgil’s melancholy, his simultaneous sense of triumph and sorrow, betokens not an inner ideological conflict but rather the essential unity of his artistic vision.


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