In the Aeneid, fate (or destiny) is an all-powerful force—what fate decrees will happen, must happen. It is Aeneas's fate to found a city in Italy, and so that he will do. Characters can, and do, have the free will to resist fate. But ultimately, such resistance is futile. Juno can delay Aeneas reaching Latium for a while, but not forever. Dido can get Aeneas to stay in Carthage for a while, but not forever. Turnus can fight Aeneas off temporarily, but not forever. And while, for the gods, resistance to fate seldom seems to have consequences, for mortals such as Dido and Turnus, efforts to resist fate end disastrously, suggesting that resistance to fate is seen in a negative light. Though the predestined fates may seem to kill the suspense of the storyline, there's a different kind of drama at work in the Aeneid—whether and how the characters accept their fates, and in the particulars of their journeys to fulfilling their fates.
The theme of fate also helps to link the story of Aeneas with the real-life time of Augustus Caesar, who ruled the Roman Empire when the Aeneid was written. Aeneas's destiny is to begin the civilization that will become Rome, and to begin the line of kings that will result in Augustus. Therefore, the poem endows Augustus's government with invulnerable, divinely sanctioned power: Augustus was fated to rule, in a destiny that stretches all the way back to his great ancestor! Anchises makes this point clear in the Underworld, when he shows Rome's future leaders to Aeneas. Fate justifies not only the poem's plot, but also Augustus's government.
Gods and Divine Intervention
The gods actively intervene in the lives of the mortals, often using the characters like chess pieces to carry out their own power struggles. Juno hates the Trojans and does her best to stop Aeneas from fulfilling his destiny, even setting up the war that fills the second half of the poem. Venus tries to protect and help her son. Neptune just gets annoyed that some other god thinks he can mess with the ocean. Yet it's a matter of continued controversy whether the gods are meant to be fully-fledged characters, like superpowered humans with their own motivations, or whether they have a more symbolic role and act as a way for Virgil to enter into the humans' emotions and decisions. In many cases, it's difficult to tease apart where godly influence ends and human free will begins. Maybe Dido was too heedless in her passion—or maybe it was Venus's enchantment that made Dido too reckless in love.
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Maybe Turnus never would have wanted a war at all, without Juno's involvement. Or maybe there's no need to decide what comes from the god and what comes from the human, because even those acts of the gods are really just a way of poetically examining the irrationality of the human spirit.
In any case, within the world of the poem, the characters do believe in the gods. Faced with the constant, and sometimes invisible, intervention from the gods, all that mortals can do is pray for divine signs to guide them, try to get on the gods' good sides in times of difficulty, and appeal to seers and oracles to get a better view of the gods' desires.
Pietas is a Latin word that can be translated as piety or devotion, and refers to someone's dutiful acceptance of the obligations placed on them by fate, by the will of the gods, and by the bonds of family and community. From the first lines of the poem, Virgil describes Aeneas as being remarkable for his piety, and "pious" is the most-used adjective to describe Aeneas throughout the poem. Aeneas always places these obligations above his own feelings or desires. When the winds blast his ships and he wishes he had died defending Troy, he nonetheless pursues his fate. When Juno torments him, he is sad but not defiant. When Dido's love tempts him to stay in Carthage, he deserts her because he feels he must. To be pious doesnot mean to lack free will. In contrast, to be pious all the time is a choice, a difficult choice, and one that other characters do not make.
Dido tries to thwart fate in order to preserve her love.Turnus refuses to accept that fate demands that Aeneas will marry the woman Turnus wants. For both characters, things end disastrously. In the Aeneid, it's only by being pious, by freely choosing to sacrifice ones own desires to the larger forces of fate, the gods, and family, that one can be heroic.
Yet it is worth noting that some scholars suggest that Virgil did not in fact view Aeneas as a perfect hero. What about his sneaky, unsympathetic departure from Dido? Why does he exit the Underworld through the gate of false dreams, instead of the gate of the true and pure? And why does the Aeneid end not with an image of Aeneas's leadership in his destined land, but with his frenzied murder of a defenseless man who begs him for mercy? Whether such arguments are the product of our modern society, which does not value the same things that Virgil's did, or whether Virgil himself saw a dark side to total piety, is a matter of continued debate.
Rome stands at the center of the poem. The city's founding, and the empire that will grow from it, is the endpoint of Aeneas's fate. Once Aeneas learns of Rome explicitly in Anchises's descriptions of it in the Underworld, the city comes to symbolize for him the pinnacle of his eventual achievement, spurring him on through all of his subsequent trials and tribulations. For Aeneas and his people, Rome also stands as an embodiment of a new home to replace the one they lost in Troy, a place where he and his people can build a community, can worship their gods, can play out their fate. In short, a home is the source of identity, the place where they can build all the things that are worth being pious to.
At the same time, the Aeneid holds up Aeneas as a justification of Rome's greatness. Virgil wrote the poem during the "Golden Age" of Rome, and the poem stands as a founding myth that both connects Rome to the ancient Greek tradition of the Odyssey and the Iliad, and, by showing how Roman is founded on the values of piety and just leadership exemplified by Aeneas, explains how Rome surpasses that tradition. In the Underworld, Anchises goes so far as to explain Rome's superiority to the Greeks and all other nations. He explains that Rome has the unique capacity to spare the conquered and overcome the arrogant. In other words, Rome's greatest virtue is the ability not just to conquer new territories, but also to make them a part of the peaceful whole. And Anchises is right! Rome really was exceptional for that very reason. Rome managed to conquer much of the known world, including all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, and sustained two hundred years of peace, a feat that no other civilization since has ever matched.
War and Peace
War is everywhere in the Aeneid. The Trojan War begins Aeneas's journey by forcing him from Troy, and war concludes his journey on the fields of Italy. The characters constantly contend with the possibility of violence, giving gifts and forming alliances to try to avert it, or proving their bravery by rushing into it. And these wars are never purely tactical, fought just to gain land or power or wealth. Instead, the wars are often the results of personal, petty things, like insults or grudges. The Trojan War begins because of three goddesses' squabble about who's the most beautiful. The war in Italy begins because Turnus gets mad that a stranger is marrying the girl he likes, with Juno fanning the flames for a whole host imagined slights. These frivolous-seeming beginnings lead to warfare that offers the chance for glory, but which Virgil also regularly depicts as brutal and senseless, separating mothers from sons and sons from fathers.
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Yet in Anchises comment in the Underworld that Rome will have the unique ability to spare the conquered (in extreme contrast to what the Greeks did to the defeated Trojans), theAeneid suggests that the Romans, through Aeneas, will bring something new to war—that they will wage war in order to create peace.