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Fate And Prophecy In The Aeneid

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3106 words Published: 4th May 2017

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As I have previously discussed, there are three overriding factors that contribute to the sense of pathos that pervades the Aeneid. Firstly the level of personal detail that Vergil gives to his characters forces the reader to engage more fully with them. With this heightened level of engagement, the audience cares more deeply about the figures in question and consequently, a strong emotional response is evoked in the reader. Secondly, the conflict between the public and the personal adds considerably to the theme of sadness in the poem. Vergil persistently provides examples of when ‘the personal’ is forced to concede to, or is defeated by, ‘the public’. The natural sense of injustice felt at this by the reader ignites feelings of sympathy, allowing Vergil to comment upon the sacrifices made in the course of Rome’s success. Thirdly, the Vergil deploys suspense in his work to great success. The reader is constantly presented with events that may happen. The wealth of possibilities that manifest themselves serve to alarm the audience; there is a recurring motif of anxiety that Aeneas will not fulfil his mission and Rome will not be founded.

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The examples from the text that I have selected for discussion each serve to highlight these three factors. With Dido’s story, the reader receives such a high level of detail surrounding the full development of her love and subsequent demise that the reader is forced into caring. Vergil intentionally provides a complete story so that the audience is totally absorbed by Dido’s pitiful personal tale. The entire progression of the love affair is recounted, from its divine beginnings [1] to its materialisation, [2] then from its destruction [3] to its tragic end. [4] The Marcellus passage evokes a sense of endangerment surrounding Rome’s future by alluding to the dynastical disaster of Augustus’ heir. This instability is not fictional making this episode all the more resonant with Roman readers. Vergil’s view of the future is somewhat pessimistic at this point, resulting in a loss of confidence surrounding Aeneas’ mission and also the real future of Rome. Aeneas’ final act of piety in the poem appears as he towers over Turnus, sword poised. [5] His emotional response to Turnus’ speech means that 15 lines before the end of the poem Vergil presents us with a moment where Aeneas falters before killing his enemy.

ii. Problems Encountered (Or Rather, Disproving My Own Argument)

My argument is by no means without fault. Despite successfully identifying moments of when the future is endangered we are still left wondering the hand that fate plays in all of this. If such scenes are already predestined then surely the feelings of hopelessness and confusion they evoke are also pre-planned. The future is not endangered because fate decides what is to come. The missed chances, destroyed futures, the endless possibilities of what might have been are, in effect, pointless. There is no chance they could transpire as fate has not predetermined that they should come to fruition. Vergil sets up the expectation that fate is the decision maker. We are consistently and constantly reminded of Aeneas’ fated mission, and the promised outcome. So if we already know the ending, why are do we react in such a way to the text and the possibilities it plants in our minds?

iii. Future and Prophecy

The complex narrative of the Aeneid does not simply demonstrate an attempt on Virgil’s part to become a Roman Homer. It is an epic retelling of Roman legend, but it stands in the context of the Roman present and future. The internal plot and characters are driven by fate and the bickering gods, but represent to Virgil a far more important and realistic picture, that of Augustus and the Roman Empire and its morals.

Aeneas is at once a very human character in his own right and one also at the mercy of fate and a servant of the future. For the audience of the Aeneid, Aeneas’ existence enabled its own, and the purpose of the poem is prophetic. As Venus says in Book 1, Aeneas is the man from whom “the Romans would arise.” [6] Kenneth Quinn describes this hero as an “instrument of fate, commanded by prophecy, but uncomprehending.” [7] Clifford Herschel Moore articulates the idea that Aeneas fulfilling his destiny was clearly imperative yet the hero himself would never see the final outcome of his successes, and it is his obedience to duty that makes him a very Roman hero. [8] Consequently, Aeneas not only brings about the founding of Rome but is also a model for Roman behaviour. His story is both heroic and instructive.

It is very important that prophetic events and speeches are there to show Aeneas (and indeed the reader) the way towards this communal destiny, and to maintain his motivation as a leader of an exiled people desperate to settle. Aeneas is, as Quinn says, “uncomprehending”, and the omens and physical manifestations of the will of the gods, are designed to alert him to the importance of his fate and to assure him of his purpose. [9] In Book 2, Aeneas submits to the “heroic impulse” [10] and announces that “it came to me that meeting death was beautiful in arms.” [11] Hector’s words in a dream, [12] the flames around Ascanius’ head, [13] the shooting star across Mount Ida [14] and Creusa’s words after her death, [15] all contribute in persuading Aeneas that he must take up the responsibility of founding a new Troy. Omens are needed to ensure that prophecy is fulfilled, and so each time that Aeneas and his men alight on a foreign shore they are deterred from establishing themselves by a new sign. In Book 3 it is in Thrace that they encounter the particularly horrible bleeding tree and the grave of Polydorus, who met an untimely death and never received a correct burial procedure. Forced to comply with the prophecy they move on, believing that the information they are given by Apollo points them to Crete. They are filled with fresh hope and having “all accepted his command with cries of joy” [16] set sail once more. This illustrates the extent to Aeneas is at the mercy of prophecy; his own desires, and indeed decisions, are undermined by the ensuing omen of deadly plague which he is forced to heed, moving on once again. It is vital for Rome that these omens are obeyed as their future that they are dependent upon. [17] Upon discovering the ‘new Troy’ of Helenus and Andromache in Epirus, Aeneas hears further prophecy of his destined future. The knowledge that much suffering must still be undergone is reinforced. There is a long way left to travel and more perils to overcome, not least of which are the wars predicted in Italy itself.

Omens and internal prophecies are repeated throughout the poem. By internal I mean that they have direct bearing on the immediate plot and act as necessary motivation for the ‘uncomprehending’ characters. Another instance might be the signs received by Latinus to persuade him that Aeneas should be his future son-in-law. These serve to contribute to the unity of the poem and ensure that it reaches the correct conclusion. [18] Herschel Moore stresses the integral importance of Vergil’s use of prophecy by saying that it centres our attention on the two great themes of the poem: “The first of these themes…is provided by the toilsome efforts of the Trojan remnant to establish themselves in Italy, and the legendary material fills the whole compass of the epic; yet the greater theme is imperial Rome, whose history lies wholly outside the poem, but the story of whose course through the centuries is woven into the fabric of the Aeneid – and the method used is prophecy, not narration.” [19] 

Boyle suggests that Book 8 “is the one that most defines Augustan Rome’s self-image, its projected place in history.” [20] The prophecy depicted on Aeneas’ shield is particularly significant to the understanding of the values of imperial Rome as presented by Virgil in the Aeneid. The images featured on the shield all amount to a full survey of Roman history, climaxing in Octavian’s victory at Actium and the triple triumph of 29 B.C. [21] It is evident that the narration on the shield portrays Rome’s values as those of a triumphant moral force, victorious in establishing civilisation through habitual and successful warfare. [22] It is armed with this divinely endorsed and tangible chronicle of Roman history that Aeneas steps into battle. [23] Prophetically, the image is significant as Aeneas uses a physical manifestation of Roman supremacy to defend himself, highlighting the belief that the triumph of Rome is predestined and assured. Symbolically, it is fate itself that protects Aeneas, not only as an individual, but as the foundation of the new Roman world and her history that will ensue.

Herschel Moore feels that Jupiter’s prophecy in Book 12 has been largely overlooked by scholars and deserves further attention. At this point, Juno has to accept the superiority and longevity of the Trojan race, yet requests that they relinquish the name and language of Troy and become Latins. Jupiter agrees and promises Juno that they will be the most devoted and pious race, dedicated to paying her honour. [24] This, argues Herschel Moore is the “great moral of the epic”, [25] that in pietas this ruling race will surpass all other beings.

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Yet in this glorious race, I believe Virgil sees evil too. There is no doubt that he is aware of the massive costs of empire. The moving scenes recounted from the night Troy fell in Book 2, Dido’s suicide, the numerous horrible deaths in the Latin wars are pitiable and heart-rending moments. These suggest that Virgil did not condone all the means employed in empire building. In prophecy he does not gloss over death and warfare and the tragic figure of the ignored prophetess Cassandra is an antitype for the positive figures of prophets. She makes the same prophecies in essence, but her predictions underline the tragedy to come, not the glory. Virgil also uses Marcellus’ death to highlight “the fragility of the mortal emperor’s best-laid plans.” [26] I believe that the pathos in the telling of this fulfilment of destiny and the prophecies to the present day is demonstrative of Virgil’s hope for a less violent future. The larger, external prophecies end with the idea of peace (and Augustus as the bearer of that peace) as Aeneas finally brings the civil war to an end.

Herschel Moore identifies another function of prophecy, that of “arousing and maintaining suspense.” [27] It is the destiny of Troy to fall, Aeneas to reach Italy, to fight and to kill Turnus, and for his descendants to establish an empire. I would add to this that Vergil’s use of fate and prophecy creates a huge sense of dramatic irony as often the reader knows what Virgil’s characters do not. Aeneas, until Book 6, does not really have a vision of what he is aiming for. This is neatly expressed by Lyne that “Aeneas toils in the service of gods and nation without the sort of knowledge of the function of that toil which would make it more easily supportable.” [28] His followers, too, are ‘uncomprehending’, and our sympathy must be aroused by their weariness and desperation to stop travelling. In Book 4, we know that Dido cannot keep Aeneas with her as he has an important destiny to fulfil, and it does not lie in Carthage. There is a sense of foreboding from the very beginning of Book 4, when Juno and Venus, on opposing sides, plan together to bring about the love affair of Dido and Aeneas. The future dictates that it is doomed from the start. The suspense builds, because the reader is aware that a tragic parting will have to take place.

Ostensibly a poem set to rival Homer’s and to assert the glory and predestination of the Roman Empire, the Aeneid has many responsibilities. Vergil treats the past with pride and a sense of nostalgia. The future, however, is not presented in such positive light. Through this medium, Vergil both praises Rome’s greatness but also expresses a concern for the future. This allows the poet to dodge accusations of being unpatriotic but also permits him to assert his doubts about Augustus’ new regime and Rome’s uncertain prospects. However, in addition to this, Virgil manages to express his own hope for the future by making an example of the past. It is, after all, important to note that history, memory and return are as much a part of the Aeneid as is the future. It is Virgil’s wish that there will not be another Troy to write about, no more wars, domestic or foreign. By means of prophecy within the context of the poem, he looks forward to a better future outside it for the Roman Empire.

iv. Conclusion: From Endangerment Stems Pathos

Having just demonstrated the integral function that fate and prophecy plays in the Aeneid, it is justifiable to wonder if my argument still stands. The reader knows the end result; it is secure in the knowledge that Rome will be founded, that Turnus will be defeated. I would respond by saying that this knowledge does not restrain the emotional response of the reader. Consequently, my explanation for this is that the answer lies in Vergil’s art. His unique and humanistic approach to epic creates empathy for characters and we become deeply involved with the story. Vergil subverts our attention away from the bigger picture at key moments of extreme pathos allowing us to engage freely with the emotions presented in the text. For example, when Aeneas kills Turnus we are treated to great detail of Aeneas’ internal torment as he realises what he must do. His feelings and emotions are the focus here and we sympathise with both characters. Turnus’ pitiful and evocative speech creates empathy for a character fulfilling the traditional role of the enemy. This is both confusing and a masterful accomplishment on Vergil’s part. This is not a detached retelling of a glorious defeat but rather the final act of a long battle that draws the killing to a close.

I return then to my introduction, and the assertion that epic is the highest of genres. In my opinion critics begin to go wrong when an attempt is made to define the Aeneid. By this I mean efforts to re-brand the poem as a tragedy or a tragic-epic, or to narrow the purpose of the Aeneid down to one singular motive such as Augustan propaganda.

There is a chain of emotional response that is responsible for the superseding feeling of pathos in the Aeneid. Fate settles the course of events; individual destinies are caught up in the grander scheme. Characters within the text react in an emotional way to the inevitable line of action, whether it is through despair, anger, pity or melancholy. Subsequently, the reader responds to the show of emotions that are acted out within the poem.


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