Though Aeneas cannot resist the will of the gods or fate, which demands that he leave Carthage, the manner in which he leaves Dido is not beyond contempt. We know from other passages that Aeneas is not a character without compassion, yet if Aeneas feels genuine sympathy for the lover he is about to abandon, he fails to express it well. He speaks formally and tersely to Dido, offers her little comfort, and denies that an official marriage bound them to each other. He refers to Troy and the new home he plans to found in Italy and talks of his son’s future. We can find fault in Aeneas because, while Virgil allows us a view of Aeneas’s emotions of sadness, regret, and reluctance as he leaves Carthage, Aeneas expresses little of these emotions to Dido. If we consider one’s self to reside in one’s will and emotions, Aeneas betrays himself by leaving Dido, and he admits as much, claiming that her words set them “both afire” (IV.498).
Both Aeneas and Dido face a conflict between civic responsibility and individual desire. Aeneas sides with his obligations, while Dido submits to her desires, and so their love is tragically impossible. In terms of his patriotic duty, Aeneas acts impeccably, though he may be faulted for staying with Dido in Carthage as long as he does. His abandonment of Dido is necessary his service to Troy, his allies, his son, his father, and fate. From this point of view, Aeneas acts correctly in subjecting his desires to the benefit of the Trojan people.
Dido fails her city by ignoring her civic duty from the point when she falls in love with Aeneas to her suicide. Virgil suggests that Dido’s suicide mythically anticipates Rome’s defeat of Carthage, hundreds of years later. How negatively we judge Aeneas for his abandonment of Dido depends not on whether we sympathize with or blame Dido, but on whether we believe that Aeneas’s manner of leaving her—and not his departure itself—is what causes her suicide.
2. To what extent is the Aeneid a political poem? Is it propaganda?
The Aeneid’s main purpose is to create a myth of origins that consolidates Rome’s historical and cultural identity. This search for origins of a race or culture is a political endeavor, in that it seeks to justify the Roman Empire’s existence and to glorify the empire through the poem’s greatness. Yet the Aeneid is also an artistic endeavor, and therefore to dismiss the poem as mere propaganda is to ignore its obvious artistic merit.
In many of the passages referring explicitly to the emperor Augustus—in Anchises’s presentation of the future of Rome, for example—Virgil’s language suggests an honest and heartfelt appreciation of Augustus’s greatness. It is worth noting, however, that in addition to being the emperor, Augustus was also Virgil’s patron. It would thus have been impossible for Virgil to criticize him outright in his work. One can argue that Virgil may not have truly believed in Augustus’s greatness and that the impossibility of explicit criticism forced him to resort to subtle irony in order to air any grievances regarding Augustus’s policies or ideology.
3. What is the relationship in the Aeneid between an individual’s merit and the degree to which his or her personality is interesting? How might our estimation differ from Virgil’s?
In some ways, Juno, Dido, and Turnus are more developed, well-defined characters than Aeneas is. They act on their desires and emotions and assert their wills, and Virgil puts much of his best poetry into the words and descriptions of these three. Yet throughout the Aeneid, there is a straightforward appreciation of the order, duty, and piety embodied by Aeneas. He follows the will of the gods and respects the deceased and the unborn at the expense of his own happiness. Again and again, we are told that Aeneas suffers inwardly, despite his outward appearance. These qualities, though admirable, still do not make Aeneas the most vivid or captivating of heroes. They are important because they are the vaunted qualities Aeneas shares with Rome under the peaceful rule of Augustus.
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