Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Primacy of Fate
The direction and destination of Aeneas’s course are preordained, and his various sufferings and glories in battle and at sea over the course of the epic merely postpone this unchangeable destiny. The power of fate stands above the power of the gods in the hierarchy of supernatural forces. Often it is associated with the will of Jupiter, the most powerful of the Olympians. Because Jupiter’s will trumps the wills of all others, the interference in Aeneas’s life by the lesser gods, who strive to advance their personal interests as much as they can within the contours of the larger destiny, do not really affect the overall outcome of events.
The development of individual characters in the epic is apparent in the readiness and resistance with which they meet the directives of fate. Juno and Turnus both fight destiny every step of the way, and so the epic’s final resolution involves a transformation in each of them, as a result of which they resign themselves to fate and allow the story, at last, to arrive at its destined end. Dido desires Aeneas, whom fate denies her, and her desire consumes her. Aeneas preserves his sanity, as well as his own life and those of his men, by subordinating his own anxieties and desires to the demands of fate and the rules of piety. Fate, to Virgil’s Roman audience, is a divine, religious principle that determines the course of history and has culminated in the Roman Empire.
The Sufferings of 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.
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.