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The Aeneid | Study Guide


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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the themes in Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid.

The Aeneid | Themes


The most obvious purpose of The Aeneid is to glorify the history of Rome and its new leader, Caesar Augustus. This effort was most likely encouraged by Augustus's close adviser Maecenas. Virgil also laid out his own purposes: making a case for peace by highlighting the dangers and costs of war and demonstrating the traits of an ideal Roman.

Inevitability of Fate

A person's destiny is determined by the Fates, three goddesses who spin the thread of life, measure it, and cut it, thus determining the quality and length of a person's life. Once set, even the gods cannot change Fate. Aeneas's inevitable fate is to found a new city in Italy that builds the groundwork for the city of Rome and the Roman Empire. This theme primarily glorifies Rome, but Virgil obviously also hopes for the inevitable fate of the Roman Empire to be a long and peaceful future.

Some characters try to alter the course of Aeneas's fate. The goddess Juno is set against him from the very beginning, and she repeatedly uses her divine powers to cause trouble for him. However, she only manages to lengthen and twist Aeneas's path to his fate, not block it. Turnus is Juno's primary agent for interfering with Aeneas's fate in Italy, imposing a costly war on him just when it looks like he will fulfill his fate in Italy by the peaceful means of marriage.

Other characters support Aeneas's fate, most notably his mother, the goddess Venus who, naturally, as the goddess of love, believes his protection lies in that attribute, even though his fate is made more difficult by his attachment to Dido. Other gods also keep Aeneas's fate on track, clarifying his destiny and countering Juno's mischief. The sea god Neptune rescues the Trojan ships in Book 1, and Apollo repeatedly sends Aeneas prophecies telling him where he should be heading. Jupiter, king of the gods, is responsible for executing the Fates' decree. Although he tempers that responsibility with sympathy for Juno, who is also his wife, he does finally rein her in and allow Fate to take its course. Of course, Aeneas's fate is supported by his family and fellow Trojans. His father, Anchises, in particular plays a large role in exploring and explaining the specifics of his fate.

Destiny of Rome

Aeneas's fate is inextricably linked with the destiny of Rome. By placing the legendary hero Aeneas into a historical framework, Virgil uses his heroic qualities to explain the historical rise of Rome up to his time and to predict the continued greatness of the Roman Empire into the future. Although the poem is set generations before the founding of Rome, many details reference events from Roman history through Virgil's time. The images on Aeneas's shield and the parade of Romans waiting in the Underworld to be reborn are the most obvious examples, but there are also many less explicit references that would have resonated with Roman readers.

Aeneas's character illustrates the qualities Virgil believed were needed for Rome to achieve a peaceful destiny. When not consumed by battle fury, he is just and merciful and never starts a fight. The contrast between Aeneas's actions in and out of battle is a subtle condemnation of the endless quest for glory through battle, which not only had become a defining characteristic of Rome and its leaders, but also led to civil war.

Honor and Respect

Aeneas is repeatedly called pious (pius Aeneas appears numerous times in the Latin text), a concept that encompassed much more than paying respect to the gods in Roman culture. Piety (pietas) also includes honoring and being mindful of one's duties to family and country. Aeneas is a nearly ideal example of pietas. He takes great care to preserve his family, especially his father and son. In the destruction of Troy, he carries his disabled father on his back and holds his son's hand. His father, Anchises, is his most respected adviser. Aeneas also preserves the household gods of Troy, carrying the spirits of his old home to his fated new home in Italy. And of course Aeneas honors the gods with offerings and sacrifices. With the exception of Juno, whom he is unable to appease, the gods reward his reverence by answering his prayers.

However, Aeneas's great piety can be overcome, at least temporarily, by passion and anger. His love for Dido threatens to disrupt his fate until Jupiter reminds him of his duty to family. At the end of the poem, his rage over Pallas's death prompts him to kill Turnus rather than show him mercy, ignoring his father's directive to spare the defeated. Virgil seems to be warning readers about the dangers of war and acting in anger and vengeance, a lesson for both Rome, which has been ravaged by civil war, and for all those who would make war. With these human flaws, Aeneas represents an ideal test of the heroic man's resolve to remain true to his own destiny.

Will of the Gods

Most of the conflict in The Aeneid is caused by the changing will of the gods. Far from being infallible, the gods of Rome (like their Greek counterparts) act more like squabbling children than higher beings. In this frame Virgil seems to invite the reader to question whether or not the gods merit the respect they demand of human beings, a consideration that would not have been alien to philosophical considerations of Romans at the time. Unfortunately, the gods also have a lot of power, so they cause great trouble. They are just as biased as mortal characters in the epic and give little thought to the people who are caught in the crossfire. Juno, queen of the gods, is Aeneas's main antagonist, always trying to prevent the fulfillment of his fate, whereas Aeneas's goddess mother, Venus, is his main supporter. Both intervene to influence Dido, and their meddling ultimately causes her suicide. Juno starts the war in Italy by enraging Turnus and Queen Amata, forcing Aeneas into a fight he does not want.

As powerful as the gods are, they cannot change Fate. Juno succeeds in making Aeneas's path to his new home in Italy more difficult, but in the end, even she must let Fate take its course. Other gods and mythical figures support each side of the conflict, serving to balance the divine influences and ensure Aeneas's fate. Jupiter, king of the gods, mediates between the arguing goddesses and has the final responsibility to fulfill the Fates' decree. As the gods cannot change Aeneas's fate, they also cannot change Rome's great fate.

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