In Virgil’s great epic poem Aeneid, the adventures of Aeneas are registered to create a powerful human drama that still retains its force two millennia past. Aeneas, the hero of the epic, is born of a divine union between the mortal Anchises and the goddess Venus. Believed to have been written circa 20 BC, this rhapsody illustrates the virtues of piety and duty on part of the hero. The grand scale and difficulty of the adventure of Aeneas provides several moments of examination of his virtuous qualities.
In his mission to find the prophesied place where he is to build a new Troy, he is accompanied by his father, his baby son Iulus and a group of loyal companions.
One could liken the sense of duty of Aeneus to that of Augustus. This is particularly true with respect to the filial piety shown by Aeneas, as illustrated by “his care for and deference towards his aged father Anchises.” (Whitehorne, 2005, p.1) The epitome of Aeneas’ sense of duty is the scene where he leaves the destroyed city of Troy by carrying his father on his back.
After his father’s death, Aeneas will pray to the Gods to invoke divine honors for the deceased soul – an act reminiscent of Octavia appeasing the departed soul of his father Julius Caesar after the completion of the civil war. Aeneas’ sense of duty is also witnesses in his relationship toward his son Julus. For example, during the funeral games for Anchises, Aeneas leads the boys’ equestrian event in the first celebration of the Lusus Troiae, the Game of Troy.
The death of his father is a crucial event in the moral development of Aeneas, whose sense of responsibility and resoluteness in accomplishing his objectives increases after the event. His sense of piety and duty thus undergoes a transformation for the good. For example, during the later half of the poem, we witness how Aeneas is brave and willing “to put duty before his own feelings, however great the cost personally as when he obeys the gods and leaves Dido” (Whitehorne, 2005, p.1).
The view that Aeneid is a political poem is given credence by the details of his life and adventure. For example, Aeneid illustrates Aeneas’ ability as a politician and “a maker of alliances as well as his personal valor (and vengeful ruthlessness) which we see come to the fore in the second half of the Aeneid. There is his foundation of cities and his scrupulous observance of religious rituals.” (Whitehorne, 2005, p1) Since in Ancient Rome, the message and moral content of classic literary works were respected by the ruling elite, the subject was used as a vehicle for politics and propaganda. For example,
“The subject furnished political advantages. The legend unfolded in the Aeneid provided justification for Rome’s complex relationship with the Hellenic world, which involved military and political domination coupled with a certain cultural dependency. Representing Rome as a resurgence of a Troy destroyed by the Greeks gave the Roman conquest of Greece the coloring of legitimate revenge. Virgil did not miss the opportunity to put into the mouth of Jupiter, in a lengthy prophecy addressed to Venus, a proclamation that Rome would destroy the most renowned cities of Greece, which were responsible for the fall of Troy” (Brisson, 1989, p.22)
Moreover, the view that the Aeneid has propagandist elements in it is learnt from how its author, Virgil, panders and praises Augustus, the then emperor of Rome. In his book Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, author Robert Kaplan criticizes Virgil for his assumed role as an Augustan panegyrist. But this characterization of the author and his work is contested as it overlooks centuries of critical comment on Virgil’s works, questioning his “role as a state-sponsored propagandist”. (Harper, 2008, p.117) To narrow down Virgil to a mere propagandist and to equate his work to hyperbole is to be philistine. Such a position undermines an appreciation of the great literary merits of the narrative verse.
In conclusion, there is consensus among scholars that the image of Aeneas leaving Troy’s ruins with his beloved father on his back and young son in hand
“is an emblem of the Roman virtue pietas, or duty. But it is too easy to read Aeneas as a model hero, or to follow Kaplan in critiquing Virgil for pandering to his political masters. While the epic holds lessons on duty and Virgil does praise Augustus, the public voice is balanced by another voice-one perhaps growing louder as it resonates in our present.” (Harper, 2008, p.117)
Brisson, Jean-Paul. “Aeneas, Rome’s Man of Destiny.” UNESCO Courier Sept. 1989: 22+.
Harper, David. “With as Many Voices: The Aeneid of Virgil.” Military Review 88.2 (2008): 116+.
Whitehorne, John. “Reconciling East and West in Virgil’s Aeneid.” AUMLA : Journal of the Australasian Universities Modern Language Association 103 (2005): 1+.