Is it fair to say that Vergil represents Aeneas as a passive follower of fate in The Aeneid?

The concepts of fate and destiny are fundamental components of Roman mythology and culture. These themes are intrinsic in Vergil’s poem, The Aeneid; the cornerstone of Roman literature. As the son of the Trojan Prince Anchises, and Venus, the goddess of love, Aeneas is the protagonist in Vergil’s Aeneid. Aeneas is destined to survive the siege of Troy and to establish a new state in Italy for the subsequent glory of the Roman Empire. Aeneas subordinates his feelings to the will of the gods and fate in his journey to Italy, and consequently Aeneas’ personal desire to duty define his character and thus earn him the moniker ‘pious Aeneas’ (Casali 2010, p.39).  Although Aeneas is portrayed to be a passive follower of fate, Vergil crafts Aeneas to be a worthy hero of the epic which bears his name.

Fate is the overarching theme that is present in the Aeneid. Before evaluating the intricate relationship between Aeneas’ actions and his preordained fate, it is imperative to understand the purpose of this specific literary device in the Aeneid. Arguably, Roman mythology was derived from the Greeks; the Roman gods merely adopted Romanized names (Roman 2010, p.291). The Romans were keen to reinterpret stories about the Greek deities under the names of their Roman counterparts. Among the key beliefs and traditions, the idea of fate was largely influential. In the Greek tradition, fate was the path which a person’s life was meant to travel; and ultimately the course could not be avoided (Roman 2010, p. 302). For instance, a classic Greek example is the tragic tale of Oedipus (Sophocles, Oedipus Rex). In the Aeneid, similar notions of fate guide Aeneas to his promised land. Aeneas’s actions in relation to fate are distinctive amongst the main characters. Juno, Turnus, and Mezentius act in opposition to the fated order of events and suffer the will of the gods; while Aeneas acts in harmony and cooperates with destiny. Hence Vergil utilises the concept of fate in the Aeneid to express that the origins of Rome were fated and therefore divinely mandated.

Primarily, the Aeneid revolves around Aeneas’s determination to fulfil his destiny by settling in Italy after the Fall of Troy – if not for himself, then for his son, Ascanius, and for the generations of Romans who will succeed him. Aeneas is often faced with difficult decisions that are ultimately at the expense of his own immediate happiness (Kershaw 2010, p.438). In particular Aeneas’s romantic affair with Queen of Carthage, Dido, emphasises the difficult choice between duty and love. After Mercury reminds Aeneas that he must set sail for Italy, Aeneas ultimately succumbs to his fated destiny by deciding to abandon Dido at Carthage. When questioned by Dido, Aeneas responds by informing her that Apollo had ‘commanded’ him to ‘claim the great land of Italy’ (Vergil, Aeneid 4.346). Aeneas’s words reveal that he is not acting at his own discretion. Aeneas’s lack of free will indicates that he is constantly faced with the constraint of necessity, that is, his obligation to act in accordance with fate.  This notion is reinforced when Aeneas states that it is not ‘by [his] own will that [he] searches for Italy’. (Vergil, Aeneid 4.361). To highlight Aeneas’s conflicted nature, Vergil comments that Aeneas is powerless to act on his own behalf despite his emotional impulses. Hence Aeneas piously follows his fated duties even though it is not necessarily by his free will.

But Aeneas was faithful to his duty. Much as he longed to sooth her and console her sorrow, to talk to her and take away her pain, with many a groan and with a heart shaken by his great love, he nevertheless carried out the commands of the gods and went back to his ships.
(Vergil, Aeneid 4.391-5)

Throughout the poem there are many references to the inevitability of Aeneas’s success. A prominent example is Aeneas’s journey through the Underworld where he learns of his future Roman descendants. In the Underworld, Aeneas slowly begins to understand his historical purpose with greater clarity and immediacy after his father Anchises outlines the key individuals and events that will lead to Rome’s pinnacle.

Your task, Roman, and do not forget it, will be to govern the peoples of the world in your empire. These will be your arts – and to impose a settled pattern upon peace, to pardon the defeated and war down the proud.
(Vergil, Aeneid 6.850-3)

Furthermore, the shield that Vulcan builds for Aeneas depicts the founding of Rome and the future of the Roman Empire. Therefore it is reasonable to suggest that Aeneas’ new armour symbolises the way he bears the weight of the destiny of Rome. The armour provided to Aeneas by Vulcan, in addition to Anchises words, help Aeneas to focus his sentiments and actions towards his destined future; despite at times his limited understanding of the journey ahead of him.

Marveling at [the shield], and rejoicing at the things pictured on it without knowing what they were, Aeneas lifted on to his shoulder the fame and the fate of his descendants.
(Vergil, Aeneid 8.729-731)

Although Aeneas is keen to act in accordance with his pre-determined fate, he does falter on a few occasions. Vergil portrays Aeneas as a man who possesses many different emotional extremes. These emotions lead to brief moments where fate and piety do not preside over Aeneas’ actions. During the storm off the coast of Africa in Book I, Aeneas regrets that he had not perished on the plains of Troy. When he is safe on land, Aeneas tells his men that they will travel to Latium, for it is ‘where the Fates show us our place of rest’ (Vergil, Aeneid 1.206). Aeneas continues by stating that ‘it is the will of God that the kingdom of Troy shall rise again’ (Vergil, Aeneid 1.207). It can be argued that in this instance, Aeneas was passively following his fate, since according to Vergil, Aeneas ‘kept his misery deep in his heart’ (Vergil, Aeneid 1.210).  In Book II Aeneas ignores Hector’s orders to escape the doomed Troy and instead rushes frantically into the conflict. While Aeneas’ primary motivations are influenced by fate and piety, the aforementioned scenes are examples of Aeneas’s emotional struggles to strictly adhere to his predetermined destiny.

Aeneas repeatedly relied on oracles and other divine messengers for guidance and direction. When Aeneas introduces himself to his disguised mother, Venus, in the forest of Libya, his assertions reveal to a great extent how his duties and responsibilities form his character.

I am Aeneas, known for my devotion. I carry with me on my ships the gods of my home, the Penates, wrested from my enemies, and my fame has reached beyond the skies. I am searching for my fatherland in Italy. My descent is from highest Jupiter.
(Vergil, Aeneid 1.377-380)

Aeneas accentuates the insignificance of mortal concerns when concerned with divine will. Venus’ persuasion of Aeneas to not kill Helen, for example, is dependent on the inability of mortals to influence their own destinies. Venus advises Aeneas not to hold Paris nor Helen responsible for the downfall of Troy. Instead, Venus tells Aeneas that the ‘harsh [will] of the gods’ (Vergil, Aeneid 1.606) caused Troy’s destruction. Venus’ words illuminate the notion that mortals like Aeneas ultimately have no choice but to submit to the unfavourable will of the gods (Dekel 2011, p. 98). This notion is reiterated in Book IV when Aeneas attempts to reason with Dido for leaving Carthage:

If the fates were leaving me free to live my own life and settle all my cares according to your own wishes, my first concern would be to tend the city of Troy those of my dear people who survive.
(Vergil, Aeneid 4.340-43)

Again, fate must always be fulfilled. Aeneas’ trials and tribulations in Troy and ashore are to be redeemed by his glory in Italy, regardless of whether it is a favourable outcome for Aeneas.
In conclusion Vergil represents Aeneas as a character who persistently adheres to the will of the gods; although at times Aeneas’ emotional state briefly interferes with his destiny. Aeneas’ pious submission to the decrees of fate is represented in various scenes in the poem; particularly his pledge to not indulge in feelings of genuine romantic love with Dido and to instead remain devoted to his duty. Aeneas always kept his foretold destiny in mind, regardless of how distant this destiny may have been. Through the duty-bound Aeneas, Vergil employs the mythological significance of fate in The Aeneid in order to glorify Rome’s initial foundation, thereby underlining Augustan Rome’s aura of divinity.

Primary Texts:

Sophocles 2005, Oedipus Rex, trans. E.H. Plumptre, Oxford, New York.

Vergil 2003, The Aeneid, trans. D.West, Penguin Classics, London.


Secondary Texts:

Casali, S 2010, ‘The Development of the Aeneas Legend’, in A Companion to Vergil’s Aeneid and its Tradition, Wiley-Blackwell.

Dekel, E 2011, Virgil’s Homeric Lens, Routledge, London.

Kershaw, S 2010, A Brief Guide to Classical Civilization, Constable & Robinson, London.

Roman, L 2010, Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman Mythology, Infobase Publishing, New York.

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