The Sorrows of Aeneas

This is a brief thought that floated through my mind whilst reading W F Jackson Knight’s translation of Aeneid V this evening, for there we see Aeneas encounter his father, Anchises’, ghost. As Anchises fades from sight, having given his pius son advice, Aeneas cries:

Where do you go in this haste, so soon? Where dart away? Whom are you hurrying to escape? And who denies you to my embrace?

The above is not the first time we meet Aeneas in a situation such as this. In Book I, we see him encounter his mother, Venus, who has taken on the form of a young maiden out hunting (sort of a sexy Artemis). As she departs, her son realises who it is with whom he’s been talking. Aeneas laments her swift departure as well as the fact that she’d fooled him — again.

This seems to be habitual behaviour on the part of Venus, ‘Aeneadum genetrix, hominum divumque voluptas’ (Lucretius 1.1)

As we learn over the course of the next two books, where Virgil’s narratology employs the methods of Homer’s Odyssey through a first-person narration of the past as told by a character in the book, Aeneas has had a terrible time of it. His wife, Creusa, died in the sack of Troy. When her ghost appeared to him, he attempted to embrace her three times, and three times he failed. Then his dad died. Then, after a lot of wandering, we get to the storm with which Virgil opens his epic.

So he meets his mother in the woods, and she doesn’t even have the decency to reveal herself to him and be a mother (Mehercule!). By this stage, Aeneas is probably feeling sort of like, “Really? Again?”

Then there’s the whole Dido thing (see Acts 3-5 of Berlioz’s masterpiece Les Troyens or Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas for this one), following which we have the “funeral” (one-year anniversary of death?) games for Anchises, in the midst of which four ships get burnt by women driven mad by Juno (Juno likes to choose women as her tools in this epic, and she also likes to provoke madness).

Book VI involves more death and sorrow for pius Aeneas — Aeneas comes face to face with his own failures at pietas as he beholds Dido in the Underworld. And then he lands in Latium, where he gets to spend the second half of the epic fighting a war over a girl betrothed to him in a perfectly normal, binding, arranged marriage. At the last, Pallas is slain and Aeneas turns into Achilles (cf. Iliad 21) against the people he is destined to rule.

When you look over the 12 books of the Aeneid, Aeneas gets very few breaks. After losing his entire culture and city along with his wife due to the devious scheming of polytropos Odysseus and his big horse, he tries settling down but never has the opportunity to rest. His dad dies along the way. He meets a nice girl, but that ends badly. So he follows destiny, fulfilling his obligations as a good, pius Roman, only to face a war in which the gods themselves are against him.

Perhaps these sorrows and the fact that he keeps fighting both for his people — that remnant of Troy that was — and for the will of the gods (save for in that whole Dido thing) are what make Aeneas not only pius but also Virgil’s other favoured adjective for this hero, egregius — outstanding.

Piusthat acts according to duty, dutiful; esp. that performs what is due to the gods and religion in general, to parrents, kindred, teachers, country; pious, devout, conscientious, affectionate, tender, kind, good, grateful, respectful, loyal, patriotic, etc. (of persons and things) (from Lewis & Short)

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