Why Vergil’s Aeneas is secretly the hero we’re always claiming to want
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed that’s common to tumblr and non-tumblr classicists, it’s hatred for Aeneas, from benign condescension to flat out antagonism. Admittedly, for many years scholarship advertised Aeneas as nothing more than ‘the founder of the Roman race’, which doesn’t really sell these days. Scholars swept under the carpet the qualities that make Aeneas such a gift of a character - his compassion for others, his pain, his humanity - because it’s not fashionable for a manly hero to have those qualities, right?!
take it any longer. I must tell you how we have all been cheated, and why Aeneas is one of the literary figures
I most admire.
Nowadays most people study Latin first, and then Greek, and the Aeneid is one of the first things everyone studies. But Vergil’s Roman readers will have already read the Iliad first. So Vergil’s Aeneas is Vergil’s take on a familiar character, and Vergil takes it for granted that we know all about him. What is Aeneas like in the Iliad?
- Aeneas is honoured by the Trojans as much as Hector is
- Aeneas and Hector are rebuked for letting the allies
fight in their place, and it is Aeneas who is addressed first (5.77).
- Priam does not appear to share his people’s favour for
Aeneas (13.461). While Aeneas is brooding over this, he is sought out by
Deiphobus: ‘Aeneas, counsellor of the Teucrians, you need to help the army’
- Glaucus appeals to Hector and Aeneas to save
the body of Sarpedon, unaware that Zeus has already done this (16.536-47).
- Hector listens
to Aeneas’ advice. Are we going to argue with Hector? Everyone loves Hector, and Hector loves Aeneas. When Apollo rebukes Aeneas because he, Hector and others aren’t fighting
(17.327-32), Aeneas recognises the god and tells Hector that it is shameful to
retreat into Troy (17.335-41). Hector listens to him, although he doesn’t
usually listen to the good advice of Polydamas, but threatens him instead
- Aeneas is a renowned warrior (8.108). But that doesn’t
make him arrogant – Aeneas is sensibly reluctant to try to fight Achilles when
he knows that Achilles is stronger (20.89-99), but he is goaded into it by Apollo,
who protests that Aeneas too is the son of a goddess (20.104-9).
- The gods (20.115-31) and the poet (20.158-60) suggest
that Aeneas is at least nearly equal to Achilles in valour.
- Aeneas’ reply to Achilles’ taunts is measured
- Even though Achilles is the best warrior, it is by no
means easy for him to defeat Aeneas
- Aeneas is rescued from his battle with Achilles by Poseidon, who is a pro-Greek god. Poseidon saves Aeneas on the grounds that: he’s unaware of his fate to survive (20.296), has done nothing wrong (20.297), always gives gifts to the gods (20.299), and most importantly is fated to survive (20.300-8). Poseidon’s only rebuke is that Aeneas shouldn’t have listened to Apollo and fought with Achilles; rather, he should stick to the other warriors, since none of the others will be able to kill him (20.331-9). Achilles muses in bewildered disgust: ‘Well then, Aeneas truly was beloved of the immortal gods’ (20.347-8).
In other words, Aeneas is one of the few characters in the Iliad who is rewarded by the gods for being a good person. He is also not allowed to show valour in the way he wants to, like the other heroes, because the gods have plans for him.
In the Aeneid, we learn that Aeneas does not want these plans, but he has to follow them anyway. He does not regain his agency, but the gods’ protection is removed from him by the anger of Juno. How can anyone hate a character who is introduced like this:
This is a song of war, and of the hero who was the first to come,
by fate a refugee, from the shores of Troy to Italy and Lavinian
shores, and who was furthermore tossed all over land and sea
by the violence of the gods, because of cruel Juno’s unforgiving anger;
he suffered much in war, too, so that he might found a city
and bring his gods to Latium, whence come the Latin race,
the Alban fathers, and the walls of lofty Rome.
Muse, tell me the reasons – what slight to her divinity,
what grief made the queen of the gods drive to endure
so many misfortunes, to encounter so many trials, a man famed
for his goodness? Can there be such anger in the minds of the gods?
Vergil has a lot of feelings about Aeneas. You should, too.
‘But Vergil goes out of his way to make Aeneas a drip!’ NO. Vergil writes a realistic character. Vergil’s Aeneas behaves EXACTLY LIKE anyone should expect a war-torn refugee to behave. He is miserable and scared. But he accepts the responsibility put upon him, and he puts this responsibility before his own fears and his own desires.
Vergil could have written a poem about ‘the founder of the Roman race’ just marching into Italy and lording it over everyone because that was his destiny and that was his right. But Vergil stopped to think, and he thought, ‘Wait, this figure is a refugee. This is a good man who loved his home and his people and would value that quality in others. This is a man who suffered and would not want others to suffer like he did. This is a man who would forget how to want his own happiness.’
I can’t go through the whole Aeneid here, because I could write reams about every scene, but I’ll talk a little about two of the things for which Aeneas is most criticised, which I haven’t already talked about in my previous Aeneid rants (all in my tag here, but especially this one).