“I am called the good Aeneas, known to fame Above the ether, who our household gods Snatched from our enemies, and in my fleet Convey. Italia, my ancestral land, And the race sprung from Jove supreme, I seek, With twice ten ships upon the Phrygian Sea, I, following my destinies, embarked, My divine mother showing me the way.”
Aeneas meets his mother Venus, who is disguised, and who reveals that he understands his own importance. He has connections to the gods through his parentage, and he is a key figure in founding the future Roman Empire. Ironically, he doesn’t understand the role the gods have played in bringing him to this moment. Truly, Aeneas will fulfill his destiny with continued divine intervention.
Fire raged in my heart And through me ran an impulse to avenge My falling country, and inflict on her The penalty deserved.
As Aeneas returns to find his family after the sack of Troy, he spies Helen, whose kidnapping led to the Trojan War. Aeneas’s first impulse is to kill her and avenge his people, which he sees as his duty. In reality, his inclination stems from displaced, impotent anger. Helen did not bring about the Trojan War—it was the gods’ meddling in mortal affairs.
“My sire Anchises’ troubled ghost affrights My dreams, and warns me. And then too my boy Ascanius and the injury I’ve done To his dear head, defrauding him of that Hesperian kingdom and those destined lands. Now too the messenger of the gods, sent down By Jove himself (I swear it by your life And mine), has brought his mandate through the air.”
Aeneas explains to Dido that he has tarried too long and must leave her and Carthage behind. That he needs so many reminders—Anchises’s ghost, his duty to Ascanius, and even divine intervention—implies that he cared for Dido enough to put off his more serious purpose. Aeneas is stuck between the dual pull of fate and duty.
Aeneas, by this grave disaster shocked, Turned over and over his heavy cares, in doubt Whether on these Sicilian fields to stay, Forgetful of the fates, or try once more To reach the Italian shores.
After the Trojan women burn the boats, Aeneas questions whether his party will continue onward to Italy. His internal conflict is surprising. He has just shown strong leadership in handling some cheating at the games that honor his father, and his indecision implies uncertainty. More importantly, Aeneas knows he must continue since his fate lies in Italy. Aeneas’s internal debate reveals an attempt to convince himself that he has free will.
“O father, many a time Your shade, your sad-eyed shade, has met my gaze, And urged me to this place to bend my steps. Within the Tyrrhene sea my fleet is moored. Grasp now my hand, my father, grasp my hand In yours; withdraw not from your son’s embrace!”
Aeneas finally finds his father Anchises in the underworld, but when he tries to embrace him, Anchises draws away. Although Anchises is similarly moved at the reunion with Aeneas, he has a greater purpose in bringing Aeneas to the underworld than just personal fulfillment. Anchises must make Aeneas understand how important his role is in the founding of the Roman Empire. Nothing must deter Aeneas anymore. As we see time and again in the story, fulfilling one’s duty trumps following personal feelings or desires.
“From foreign shores a son-in-law should come (This fate, they say, for Latium is in store), Who, mingling race with ours, shall lift our name To starry heights. That this is he the fates Require, I must believe; and if my mind Foreshadows any truth, him I desire.”
King Latinus learns that Aeneas is coming and thinks that Aeneas is the man fated to marry his daughter. For once it seems that Aeneas will have an easy time fulfilling his destiny. Aeneas’s reputation precedes him, and the oracle supports a union between the families. Latinus is open to having Aeneas as a son-in-law until Juno intervenes and sows discord. Once again, we see that humans are merely puppets to the gods, manipulated to suit divine whim.
With his sword He mows his way amid the nearest ranks, His angry blade forcing a passage wide, Seeking for Turnus, who with pride exults In his new victory.
This passage describes Aeneas’s reaction to learning of Pallas’s death. Spurred on by the knowledge that he failed in his duty to Pallas’s father, Aeneas jumps into battle, so eager for vengeance that he turns into a remorseless killer. Although he seeks Turnus, Aeneas loses control of himself and takes out his fury on the Rutulians, even killing men begging for mercy and insults the corpses of his victims. War degrades even the noblest of men.
“Not this the parting promise that I gave Your sire, for you, when with his last embrace He sent me forth against a mighty realm, And, fearful, gave me warning I should meet Fierce foes, and battles with a hardy race.”
As Aeneas prepares to send Pallas’ body back to his father, he is again filled with remorse that he was unable to uphold his vow to bring Pallas home safely. His inability to fulfill his promise goes against Aeneas’s strong sense of duty. The strength of his duty and his strong feelings at his failure also set the final confrontation that takes place between him and Turnus.
“From me, my son, learn valor and the might Of stern endurance; what your lot may be, let others teach. In battle my right hand Shall save you, lead you on to great rewards. Bear this in mind, when riper years quite soon Shall come; and to your soul recalling often The examples of your race, let then your sire, And Hector, too, your uncle spur you on.”
About to plunge into battle again, Aeneas takes on the role of his son Ascanius’s teacher and mentor. Aware that Ascanius has an important role in the founding of Rome, Aeneas needs Ascanius to be as strong and capable as possible, both at the present moment and in the future. Ascanius is yet another character steered more by duty than free will.
Stern in his arms Aeneas stood, and rolled his eyes around, And his right hand repressed; and more and more Those words began to bend his wavering will:— When, on the lofty shoulder of his foe The unlucky belt appeared,—young Pallas’ belt Shone gleaming with its studs he knew so well; Pallas, whom Turnus overpowered and slew, And now wore on his shoulders the hostile badge.
Aeneas wavers between sparing Turnus’s life and killing him. A sense of mercy toward Turnus and his sense of duty toward Pallas vie within Aeneas but the sight of Pallas’s belt engenders such fury that he acts upon his desire for vengeance. In doing so, Aeneas explicitly ignores Anchises’s command to “spare the vanquished,” a key value for which the new city he will found is supposed to stand.