Themes in the Aeneid

Themes in the Aeneid - Shmoop

  • Created by: Chloe
  • Created on: 29-05-12 15:37

Fate and Free Will

  • The theme of Fate is hugely important in the Aeneid. When we see the souls of future Roman heroes in the underworld, waiting to be born, or the exciting images of Roman history on Aeneas's shield, these strongly suggest that the Trojans are going to be successful. 
  • You might think that this takes away from the poem's suspense, but that's kind of missing the point. You see, the ancients had a pretty nuanced view of Fate. As the goddess Juno never gets tired of reminding us in theAeneid, destiny may determine that the Trojans will found a city in Italy, but it doesn't stipulate how they end up doing it. 
  • Juno uses that as her angle to give the Trojans an incredible amount of trouble. The flip-side of this is that, even though the ancients believed in Fate, this didn't mean that they disbelieved in Free Will. 
  • Thus, when Aeneas tells Dido, "I sail for Italy not of my own free will," he doesn't mean that the Fates are forcing him to go there. What he means is, he has an obligation to go there, which he is choosing to live up to
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  • Virgil wrote the Aeneid during a period when Roman territory had just experienced significant expansion, first under Julius Caesar, and then, more recently, under Caesar Augustus (a.k.a. Octavian), the first Roman Emperor.
  •  Just as importantly, Augustus had also consolidated political authority in himself, putting an end to the years of brutal civil war that followed the death of Julius Caesar. The spirit of these heady days is reflected in Jupiter and Anchises's predictions that Roman power will expand to the limits of the earth. (This contradicts Jupiter's idea that the Romans will have "empire without end" in space, though it might still be unlimited in time.) 
  • And yet, many years before the birth of Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spiderman, the Aeneid argues that "with great power comes great responsibility." This can be seen in Anchises's instructions to Aeneas that he must not only "battle down the proud" but also "spare the conquered." Among the positive aspects of Roman power, as depicted in the Aeneid, is the lasting peace (eventually known as the Pax Romana) it brought to the various countries under its dominion.
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  • The Aeneid is deeply respectful of love – a respect shading into fear. 
  • That is because it recognizes that love is an extremely powerful, and unpredictable, force. 
  • From the very first moments when Dido becomes infatuated with Aeneas, the poet keeps reminding us that her love will be her destruction. 
  • Part of the problem seems to be that love is a private emotion between two people, and, as such, can stand in the way of broader, more political goals – just as Dido's love affair with Aeneas distracts him from his mission to found a new city. 
  • And yet, this same emotion can also motivate acts of selfless courage, as when the Trojan warrior Nisus sacrifices himself in an unsuccessful attempt to save his friend, Euryalus.
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  • In his transition from the first half of the Aeneid, which is mostly about travel and adventures, to the second half, which is mostly about war, Virgil announces that "A greater history opens before my eyes, / A greater task awaits me." And yet, this is not because he views war as romantic; instead, the Aeneid portrays war in an extremely negative light, as the product of those horrible spirits of vengeance, the Furies. 
  • It is because war is so awful that Virgil respects Aeneas for having to go through it. Overall, Virgil's attitude toward war seems a bit different than Homer, his precursor in the epic genre. 
  • Homer sees war as a permanent facet of human life, whereas Virgil seems to look forward to an era in which the Roman Empire, by extending its control over all nations, will bring an end to war. 
  • That said, how do you think this state of affairs is going to come about? You got it, through war, lots of war.
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  • In the Aeneid, the themes of Duty, Religion, and Family are very closely intertwined. 
  • The nexus of all these ideas comes in the epithet "pius," by which Virgil regularly refers to Aeneas.
  •  Although it's related to our word "pious," this Latin word also includes a strong sense of "devotion to one's family." 
  • So, when Aeneas is on his mission to Italy, he is performing a service for his gods, for his ancestors, for his descendents, and for the other Trojans under his command. 
  • Some of the Aeneid's main drama arises from conflicts between Aeneas's sense of duty and her personal desires – as when he temporarily falls under the spell of Dido. 
  • In the end, though, duty wins out – though Virgil doesn't shy away from depicting how painful this can be.
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  • In Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, the central idea is that the underworld stinks. This crummy future that everyone has to look forward to just makes Homer's characters all the more determined to live it up while they're here – which usually involves killing lots of other guys and winning great glory. 
  • What makes the Aeneid different is its emphasis on the idea of reincarnation. Basically, if you have a chance of being reborn (and Book 6 kind of makes it seem like everyone – except for the worst of the worst – will be, after enough millennia of punishment), then death doesn't have the aura of grim finality as it does in Homer. 
  • Just think of the fact that the descent to the underworld comes in Book 6, smack dab in the middle of the poem. Before it, Aeneas is kind of depressed, but afterward (after seeing how cool the future of Rome will be) he's all excited about his mission. That's kind of what death is like in this poem: a way-station on your way to better things. This view of death makes characters more interested in being good in ways we would recognize, like being pious, and good to your family, instead of simply being the best warrior.
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  • As already noted under the theme of Duty, religion for the Romans was very tied up in ideas of obligations, not only to the gods, but to one's family and nation as well. 
  • Just bear that in mind so you understand that there's much more in the Aeneid that could be classified as religious activity than just what we're talking about here. 
  • But what are we talking about here? Well, on its most basic level, religion in the Aeneid involves making sacrifices and prayers to the gods. The idea was that, if you did that, the gods just might take a liking to you and help you. 
  • The thing is, they might also ignore you and mess up your life for no reason. We can see this happening when, even though he makes sacrifices to her and prays to her, Juno just keeps hating Aeneas and the Trojans. 
  • Another interesting factor theAeneid puts in play is the idea that religion has political purposes. You can see this when Aeneas tells Dares to stop boxing Entellus, because Entellus has a god helping him. The narrator hasn't told us this is the case, so we're left thinking Aeneas that might have just made it up.
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Memory and the Past

  • One way of thinking about the structure of the Aeneid as a whole is as divided between the first half, in which Aeneas is oriented toward the past, and the second half, in which he is oriented toward the future. 
  • The division occurs in Book 6, when, after going to visit his father, Anchises, in the underworld, Aeneas is granted a vision of Rome's future, which fires him up with enthusiasm for the new tasks lying ahead of him.
  •  You can also take this same idea and apply it on the meta level. Think about it: Virgil's whole poem is about events long before his time, but it's also supposed to provide direction to the political situation of the day in which he lived.
  •  In this way, the poem itself uses the past to shed light on the future.
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  • As we've pointed out under the themes of Duty and Religion, for the Romans, family formed part of a deeply interrelated set of concepts far beyond what we experience today.
  •  For example, the Romans saw being kind to your father as a form of piety. The father-son relationship is very important for the Aeneid, more than any other family relation, and probably more than any other human relation. 
  • The story abounds in father-son pairs: Anchises-Aeneas, Aeneas-Ascanius, Mezentius-Lausus, Evander-Pallas; you could even say that Aeneas-Pallas functions as a form of surrogate father-son relationship. 
  • This is largely connected with the Aeneid's focus on the political world of a very conservative, male-dominated society. 
  • By being dutiful to your father, you are preserving the past and honoring the source of your own existence; by setting a good example for your son, you are allowing the past to continue into the future.
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  • Images of primitiveness in the Aeneid help to situate the action in the distant past, from the perspective of Virgil's day. 
  • You can see this most clearly in the scene where Aeneas and his men sail up the Tiber, through a countryside inhabited by nymphs and other woodland creatures who have never seen a ship before. 
  • And yet, as King Evander explains, even the rustic kingdom of the Arcadians is not truly a pristine holdover from the Golden Age, but a pale reflection of it after the Age of Iron, when men have to work for their food. 
  • Virgil's depiction of the primitive ways of life serves as a reminder of what must be left behind for civilization and empire to take their course.
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The Sufferings of the Wanderers

The first half of the Aeneid tells the story of the Trojans’ wanderings as they make their way from Troy to Italy. Ancient culture was oriented toward familial loyalty and geographic origin, and stressed the idea that a homeland is one’s source of identity. Because homelessness implies instability of both situation and identity, it is a form of suffering in and of itself. But Virgil adds to the sufferings of the wandering Trojans by putting them at the mercy of forces larger than themselves. On the sea, their fleet buffeted by frequent storms, the Trojans must repeatedly decide on a course of action in an uncertain world. The Trojans also feel disoriented each time they land on an unknown shore or learn where they are without knowing whether it is the place where they belong. As an experience that, from the point of view of the Trojans, is uncertain in every way, the long wanderings at sea serve as a metaphor for the kind of wandering that is characteristic of life in general. We and Virgil’s Roman audience know what fate has in store for the Trojans, but the wandering characters themselves do not. Because these individual human beings are not always privy to the larger picture of destiny, they are still vulnerable to fears, surprises, desires, and unforeseen triumphs.

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The Glory of Rome

Virgil wrote the Aeneid during what is known as the Golden Age of the Roman Empire, under the auspices of Rome’s first emperor, Caesar Augustus. Virgil’s purpose was to write a myth of Rome’s origins that would emphasize the grandeur and legitimize the success of an empire that had conquered most of the known world. The Aeneid steadily points toward this already realized cultural pinnacle; Aeneas even justifies his settlement in Latium in the same manner that the empire justified its settlement in numerous other foreign territories. Virgil works backward, connecting the political and social situation of his own day with the inherited tradition of the Greek gods and heroes, to show the former as historically derived from the latter. Order and good government triumph emphatically over the Italian peoples, whose world prior to the Trojans’ arrival is characterized as a primitive existence of war, chaos, and emotional irrationality. By contrast, the empire under Augustus was generally a world of peace, order, and emotional stability

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Avenging a wrong, especially the death of a loved one, is an important element of heroic culture and a pervasive motif in theAeneid. The most prominent instance of vengeance comes in the final lines of the poem. Aeneas, having decided to spare Turnus, changes his mind when reminded of the slain Pallas, whose belt Turnus wears as a trophy. It would be considered dishonorable and disloyal to allow Pallas’s death go unpunished. Vengeance comes in other, perhaps less noble, forms as well. Dido’s suicide is at least partly an act of revenge on Aeneas, and she curses him as one of her last acts. The Harpies act out of vengefulness when they curse Aeneas for having killed their livestock. Similarly, the struggles of the gods against one another are likewise motivated by spite and revenge: the history of bruised vanity, left over from Paris’s judgment of Venus as the fairest goddess, largely motivates Juno’s aggressive behavior against the Trojans and Venus, their divine protector.

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Founding a new city

The mission to build a new city is an obsession for Aeneas and the Trojans. In Book II, Aeneas relates the story of Troy’s destruction to Dido, who is herself recently displaced and in the process of founding a new city of her own. In Book III, Virgil relates several attempts undertaken by the Trojans to lay the foundations for a city, all of which were thwarted by ill omens or plague. Aeneas also frequently uses the image of the realized city to inspire his people when their spirits flag. The walls, foundation, or towers of a city stand for civilization and order itself, a remedy for the uncertainty, irrationality, and confusion that result from wandering without a home.

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