As the son of the Trojan mortal Anchises and Venus, the goddess of beauty and erotic love, Aeneas enjoys a special divine protection. He is chosen to survive the siege of Troy and to lay the foundations in Italy for the glory of the Roman Empire. In the Aeneid, Aeneas’s fate as Rome’s founder drives all the action, and the narrative constantly points out that Aeneas’s heroism owes as much to his legacy as to his own actions. Aeneas serves as the vehicle through which fate carries out its historical design.
As a Trojan leader, Aeneas respects prophecy and attempts to incorporate the idea of his own destiny into his actions, in spite of emotional impulses that conflict with his fated duties. His ability to accept his destined path despite his unhappiness in doing so makes him a graceful hero and a worthy recipient of the honor and favor the gods bestow upon him. His compassion for the sufferings of others, even in conjunction with a single-minded devotion to his duty, is another aspect of his heroism. Sympathetic to the weariness of others on the journey, he delivers speeches to his fleet to keep the men’s spirits high.
Aeneas’s personal investment in the future of Rome increases as the story progresses. The events of Book V, in which the Trojans sail away from Carthage toward Italy, and Book VI, in which Aeneas visits his father in the realm of the dead, depict Aeneas’s growth as a leader. In Book V, he shows his sympathy for the woes of others by allowing the crippled and unwilling to stay behind. He also grows in compassion in the underworld when he observes the lot of the unburied dead. He carries these lessons into the war that follows, taking care to ensure the proper burial of both ally and enemy.
When, in the underworld, Aeneas’s father, Anchises, presents a tableau of the events that will lead to Rome’s pinnacle, Aeneas comes to understand his historical role with greater clarity and immediacy. The scenes depicted later in the epic on the shield made by Vulcan further focus Aeneas’s sentiments and actions toward his destined future. There are moments, of course, when Aeneas seems to lose track of his destiny—particularly during his dalliance with Dido in Carthage. Aeneas is recalled to his duty in this case not by a long historical vision, but by an appeal from Jupiter to his obligation to his son, Ascanius, to whom Aeneas is devoted.
Even prior to Virgil’s treatment of the Trojan War, Aeneas held a place in the classical tradition as a figure of great piety, just as Ulysses was known for his cunning and Achilles for his rage in battle. The value Aeneas places on family is particularly evident in the scene in which he escorts his father and son out of Troy, bearing his elderly father on his back. He behaves no less honorably toward the gods, earnestly seeking to find out their wishes and conform to them as fully as possible. His words to Dido in Books IV and VI express his commitment to obey fate rather than indulge his feelings of genuine romantic love. This subordination of personal desire to duty defines Aeneas’s character and earns him the repeated moniker “pious Aeneas.” His behavior contrasts with Juno’s and Turnus’s in this regard, as those characters both fight fate every step of the way.
Before Aeneas’s arrival, Dido is the confident and competent ruler of Carthage, a city she founded on the coast of North Africa. She is resolute, we learn, in her determination not to marry again and to preserve the memory of her dead husband, Sychaeus, whose murder at the hands of Pygmalion, her brother, caused her to flee her native Tyre. Despite this turmoil, she maintains her focus on her political responsibilities.
Virgil depicts the suddenness of the change that love provokes in the queen with the image of Dido as the victim of Cupid’s arrow, which strikes her almost like madness or a disease. Dido tells her sister that a flame has been reignited within her. While flames and fire are traditional, almost clichéd images associated with love, fire is also a natural force of destruction and uncontrollable chaos. Dido risks everything by falling for Aeneas, and when this love fails, she finds herself unable to reassume her dignified position. By taking Aeneas as a lover, she compromises her previously untainted loyalty to her dead husband’s memory. She loses the support of Carthage’s citizens, who have seen their queen indulge an amorous obsession at the expense of her civic responsibilities. Further, by dallying with another foreigner, Dido alienates the local African chieftains who had approached her as suitors and now pose a military threat. Her irrational obsession drives her to a frenzied suicide, out of the tragedy of her situation and the pain of lost love, but also out of a sense of diminished possibilities for the future.
Dido plays a role in the first four books of the epic similar to that which Turnus plays at the end. She is a figure of passion and volatility, qualities that contrast with Aeneas’s order and control, and traits that Virgil associated with Rome itself in his own day. Dido also represents the sacrifice Aeneas makes to pursue his duty. If fate were to allow him to remain in Carthage, he would rule a city beside a queen he loves without enduring the further hardships of war. Aeneas encounters Dido’s shade in the underworld just before the future legacy of Rome is revealed to him, and again he admits that his abandonment of the queen was not an act of his own will. This encounter with lost love, though poignant, is dwarfed by Anchises’s subsequent revelation of the glory of Rome. Through Dido, Virgil affirms order, duty, and history at the expense of romantic love.
Turnus is a counterpart to Dido, another of Juno’s protégés who must eventually perish in order for Aeneas to fulfill his destiny. Both Turnus and Dido represent forces of irrationality in contrast to Aeneas’s pious sense of order. Dido is undone by her romantic desire, Turnus by his unrelenting rage and pride. He is famous for courage and skill in battle, and justly so: he has all the elements of a hero.
What distinguishes Turnus from Aeneas, besides his unmitigated fury in battle, is his willfulness. He tries to carve out his own understanding of history with his prediction of his own success, based on the events of the Trojan past, as told in Homer’s Iliad. Though Turnus may appear to us a Latin version of Achilles, the raging hero of the Iliad, Turnus’s powers as a warrior are not enough to guarantee him victory. Jupiter has decreed another destiny for Turnus, an outcome Turnus refuses to accept. Turnus’s interpretation of signs and omens is similarly stubborn. He interprets them to his own advantage rather than seeking their true meaning, as Aeneas does.
Turnus’s character changes in the last few battle scenes, when we see him gradually lose confidence as he comes to understand and accept his tragic fate. He is angry earlier when Juno tries to protect him by luring him out of the battle and onto a ship. In this episode she humiliates him, making him look like a coward rather than the hero he so desperately wants to be. By the final scenes, however, his resistance to the aid of Juturna, his sister, is motivated no longer by a fiery determination to fight but by a quiet resolve to meet his fate and die honorably.