Ancient & Modern: Aeneas’ Choices

Ancient & Modern: Aeneas’ Choices

Dixerat, atque illam media inter talia ferro
conlapsam aspiciunt comites, ensemque cruore
spumantem sparsasque manus.

Dido had spoken.  Meanwhile she fell on the blade
as her companions watched, the sword pumping
blood and spraying her hands.
Vergil  Aeneid 4.663-665

There are many ways to approach the Aeneid, which has many themes available for discussion: the relationship of son to father and father to son, the costs of empire to individual and community, the rôle of human and divine authority in affairs, interactions among men and women, the nature of duty, the grip of the past on person and state.  However one proceeds, it becomes immediately apparent in the first of the twelve books of this epic poem of some 10,000 lines that it is a thoroughly, definingly Roman poem, and I elect here to air some thoughts about the encounter between Phoenician Dido, now founding Carthage, and Trojan Aeneas, eponymous hero of the Aeneid, who wanders in exile from the collapsed civilization of Troy.

Aeneas is a remarkable young man, especially when compared to any of the Greek prototypes which formally underpin his literary persona.  He is a man with a mission to found Rome, a mission both promoted and prevented, as Vergil reiterates often, by the gods, but legitimized by the fates as a kind of manifest destiny that Jupiter has earlier articulated in terms of power without limit (1.279: imperium sine fine dedi  “I’ve granted you power and sway without end”) and Roman mastery of the world (1:282: Romanos rerum dominos “the Romans to be lords of the universe”).  As if to underscore the enormous burden of empire that Aeneas has had thrust upon him, in Book Six his father, Anchises, takes him on a tour of the underworld and unfolds for him the glorious future of Rome’s world dominion – which will, of course, not take place if Aeneas stumbles along the trajectory set for him.

Given this onerous responsibility, the young man understandably has developed impulse control to an almost inhuman degree, a model Roman unlike all those messy Greek exemplars who so often seem inclined to lash out and act first and only then think about what they’ve done.  Dido and Aeneas meet in the first book and in the fourth their affair comes to sad fruition.  Some readers have thought him a prig, others, a cad, and still others, a cynical opportunist in matters of love as well as politics and war.  He seems to use Dido shamelessly for personal as well as larger nationalistic ends when he is down and out, and then, when she no longer serves his immediate purpose, sneaks off in the dawn’s early light, justifying it all on the hazy grounds of obedience to some deity or other (4.576-577:  sequimur te sancte deorum quisquis es “most holy of gods, whoever you are, we follow you”) and, once more, the commanding exigencies of empire (4.577: imperioque iterum paremus ovantes “again we joyfully obey your command”).

Fed as we have been for close to two centuries (beginning, really, with Goethe’s young Werther) on an obsessive vision of romantic love that brooks little interference from reality’s intrusions on the reckless impetuosity of the heart, we may well recoil at the stony heartlessness of Aeneas.  In our own year of 2012, too with its amplified perspicacity regarding the problematics of (military!) amatory relationships between men and women, we may well think Aeneas peculiarly inept and insensitive towards Dido.

Are we to imagine then that Vergil meant to portray his hero in this fashion?  I think not.  And I think, too, that we must recognize, if not accept or even appreciate, that models of love different from those that may seem normative or even axiomatic to us are not necessarily so in all places and at all times of human civilizations.  Certainly one of the reasons we continue to read and ponder the conceptual worlds of other civilizations, whether older European or contemporary non-Western ones, is to get a take on ourselves, internalize that there are lots of other ways of doing lots of things – some surely better than what we do in modern America, some beyond doubt worse.

It is not my purpose here to condemn or condone what Aeneas did, nor, I believe, does Vergil’s own position betray a crystalline clarity on the matter.  The poet seems to be suggesting that Aeneas did what he did because he would not permit himself to act on private desires at the expense of public obligations.  This has costs, as would the opposite course of action.  Among other things, Vergil’s epic is a great paradigm of the Bildungsroman, and ancient Greek and Latin literature seem to underscore relentlessly the unhappy fact of human existence that adulthood, sometimes submerging personal yearnings, must sometimes make wrenching, even impossible choices.

Before we judge Aeneas too harshly, we might ask what the onus of our own personal past is that constricts an utter freedom to indulge momentary impulse at the possible expense of long-term goals, to go “my own way” at the expense of real or imagined family obligations and expectations, to ignore society’s legitimate demands of us in favor of selfish agendas.

In our small ways, in many ways we are all Aeneas.

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