The Role Of The Gods And Fate

In Virgil’s Aeneid Essay, Research Paper


Are the deeds of mortal characters in the Aeneid controlled by the gods or by fate? Aeneas must fulfill the will of the gods, while enduring the wrath of other gods, all the while being a worthy predecessor of Augustus and founder of the Roman people. Of course, the Trojan is successful because he gives himself up to these other obligations, while those who resist the will of the gods, Dido and Turnus, die sad deaths.

Juno, the queen of gods, attempts to destroy Aeneas and his men in Book I of the Aeneid. The city of Carthage is Juno’s favorite, and it has been prophesized that the race of the Trojans will one day destroy that city. This is too much for Juno to bear as another Trojan, Paris, has already scorned her. And so she calls on King Aeolus, the god of the winds, telling him to bring a great storm down upon Aeneas’ fleet. Aeolus obeys and unleashes a fierce hurricane upon the battle-wearied Trojans. However, Neptune, the god of the sea, feels the storm over his dominion; he criticizes Aeolus for overstepping his bounds, and calms the waters just as Aeneas’ fleet seems doomed. Seven ships are left, and they head for the nearest land in sight, the coast of Libya. Aeneas’s mother, Venus sees the Trojans’ poor state and pleads to Jupiter to end their suffering. Jupiter assures her that Aeneas will eventually find his promised home in Italy, and that two of his descendants, Romulus and Remus, will found the mightiest empire in the world. Then Jupiter sends a god down to the Phoenicians, the people of Carthage, to make sure they are welcoming to the Trojans. Juno hears that the Trojans are destined to found a city that will destroy her Carthage. That city is Rome, and Virgil here is alluding to the Punic Wars in which Rome battled, and eventually conquered, Carthage. Enraged that the Trojans who slighted her could defeat her again, Juno attempts to break this chain of events by destroying Aeneas’ fleet. Thanks to Neptune, though, they are only thrown off course, and Venus assures that they will not be harmed in Carthage. At times in the Aeneid, it seems as if the story is less about the deeds of the mortal characters than about the bickering of the gods, who continuously disrupt or manipulate events on Earth. The one common theme, though, is that fate always comes true. Aeneas is destined to settle in Italy, and nothing can prevent this. Jupiter sees to it that his overall plan will come to pass by helping out Venus.

The fall of Troy was brought about because the god Minerva helped to fool the Trojans into accepting the wooden horse. Sinon tells the Greeks, “if your hands should harm Minerva’s gift, / then vast destruction…would fall on Priam’s kingdom and the Phrygians; / but if it climbed by your hands into Troy, then Asia would repel the Greeks” (II.268-273). Minerva sends a strange sign to confirm this story: two giant serpents rise up from the sea, devour a priest and his two sons, and then slither up to the shrine of Minerva. The Trojans took this as a sign that they must appease the goddess, and so they wheeled the horse into the city of Troy. Throughout the book Aeneas is convinced that the gods are out to get him: “Had the outcome not / been fated by the gods…Troy, you would be standing yet” (II.75-79); “But oh, it is not right for anyone / to trust reluctant gods!” (II.540-541). Later on, Venus reaffirms this to him: she says, “it is the gods’ relentlessness, the gods’, / that overturns these riches, tumbles Troy / from its high pinnacle” (II.815-817). Thus, while Aeneas and the Trojans did lose a battle they could have won, in the end they had no choice but to follow the will of the gods anyway. On the other hand, if it were not for the help of the gods no one would have escaped from Troy; again, behind all the infighting on Olympus, fate is always fulfilled. The sufferings of Aeneas in Troy will be made up, eventually, by his glory in Italy. The soul of his wife comforts him with this message, and from here forward Aeneas will always have at least one eye on his foretold destiny in Italy.

Apollo spoke to Aeneas, instructing him to go to the land of his ancestors. Anchises took this to mean the island of Crete, where one of the great Trojan ancestors had long ago ruled. Aeneas and his group sailed there and began to build a new city, but a terrible plague soon came over them. The gods of Troy appeared to Aeneas in a dream and explained that his father had been mistaken; Italy, not Crete, is the true land of their ancestors, and thence must they sail. At the beginning of Book III, Aeneas’ destiny has already been established: he will found the race that will become the Romans. By the end of Book III, though, Virgil has made the role of Fate more complex, so that his hero’s success does not seem a foregone conclusion. The dangers that Aeneas and his crew face are real, even if we know that he will survive them. This paradox is prevalent throughout the Aeneid, in many forms. The gods, for example, know what the fates hold for Aeneas, and yet some of them try to alter his path as if it were possible to cheat the future. In the end, though, Virgil’s message is that fate must be obeyed; in fact, the more one tries to delay or avoid fate, the more one suffers. The fleeing Trojans keep looking for the nearest place to settle and make a new life. This is probably what caused Anchises’ misinterpretation of Apollo’s message, thinking that they were supposed to go to Crete instead of Italy. At every wrong turn that the group makes, they endure another hardship that puts them back on the path to Italy.

Juno, seeing an opportunity to keep Aeneas from going to Italy, suggests to Venus that they find a way to get Dido and Aeneas alone together. If they marry, Juno suggests, the Trojans and the Tyreans would be at peace and she and Venus would not have to bicker. One day when Dido, Aeneas and her court are out hunting, Juno brings a storm down upon them, sending them scattering for shelter, and arranges for Aeneas and Dido to end up in the same cave by themselves. Dido, having been inflamed with love by Cupid’s arrow, makes love to Aeneas. When they return, rumors fly everywhere that the two have given themselves over to lust; such words even reach the ears of Jupiter himself. He sends Mercury down to Carthage to remind Aeneas that his destiny lies elsewhere, and that he must leave for Italy. Aeneas reveals to Dido that he has no choice but to follow the will of the gods: “It is not / my own free will that leads to Italy” (IV.491-492). The infighting between the gods seems to be the real cause of Dido’s pain. Juno threw Aeneas off course towards Carthage; Venus made Dido fall in love so that the Trojans would not be harmed; Juno arranges for the consummation of the queen’s love so that Aeneas would be held in Carthage for good. In the end, of course, fate must win out and Aeneas must leave.

Juno’s anger at the Trojans still rages and once again she attempts to keep Aeneas from his destiny. She sends Iris, her messenger, down to the Trojan women, who are a ways down the beach from where the men enjoy their sport. Iris incites them, playing on their fear of further journey and more battles. She gives them flaming torches, telling them to burn the Trojan ships so that the men will be forced to build their new city in Sicily. The women are convinced and in an angry mob set fire to the fleet. The Trojan men see the smoke, rush up the beach and throw water on the ships, but the burning does not stop. Finally, Aeneas prays to Jupiter to save the fleet, and immediately a rainstorm comes, putting out the flames. The goddesses Juno and Venus continue their quarrel by further intervention in the journey of the Trojans. At this point it almost seems to be overdone: the gods are driving the plot, not the hero. Aeneas has been reduced to a reactionary role as the different factions on Olympus duke it out over his fate, and send either aid or abuse down to the Trojans. Incapable to stop the burning of his fleet, he pitifully begs Jupiter to either help or kill him, so disheartened is he at his arbitrary maltreatment by the gods.