Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Virgil's Aeneid's Road of Hatred

In the final chapter of Virgil's Aeneid, our hero faces a conflict between passion and duty that is quite different from the one in faced in chapter 4.   As the battle rages on between the Romans and the native peoples of Italy, Aeneas, "ferocious in armor," confronts Turnus, who has killed Aeneas's best friend on the battlefield.

After long battle, Turnus realizes that he has been vanquished by the more-powerful Aeneas.  He lowers his eyes in defeat and begs Aeneas to save his life, or at least send his dead body to his family.  Says Turnus, "I stretch my hands to you, so the men of Latium have seen me in defeat.  Lavinia is your bride."  That is, the land of Italy is now Rome.  And then he continues: "Go no further down the road of hatred."

Luca Giordano, Enea vince Turno

Aeneas pauses for a moment, swayed by his natural desire to be compassionate.  But at that moment, he looks down at Turnus's body and sees his dead friend's sword-belt.  He calls it a "keepsake of his own savage grief."  All of Aeneas's sense of reason and duty fly out of him as passionate anger takes over.  Aeneas, "flaring up in fury, terrible in his rage," plunges his sword into the body of Turnis below him.  "Turnus' limbs went limp in the chill of death.  His life breath fled with a groan of outrage down to the shades below."

So ends the Aeneid.

(All quotes in today's post are from the the Fagles translation.)

In my last post, Aeneas leaves Dido in Carthage, despite his love for her and her pleas for him to stay with her.  It is only by abandoning his passions in the name of duty and self-control.  But here at the end of the epic, in its very final sentences, Aeneas gives in to his passionate rage and kills Turnus.

Instead of some wrapped-up Disney movie ending, we get the kind that sends us to the cafe for long conversations about what it all means.

In general, Virgil's epic glorifies the war, despite his acknowledgment that war always requires sacrifice.  Although it is possible that a cool-headed Aeneas might have decided that the risk of letting Turnus remain alive might have been too great a threat to Rome.  But Aeneas is not at all cool headed in this moment of slaughter.  And at least if we are to believe him, Turnus accepts that he has lost and is ready to accept his defeat completely in his desire to create peace.  Aeneas cannot accept this move.  Losing the people he loves--certainly Turnus and perhaps Dido as well--causes such deep sorrow for Aeneas that he can no longer respond with compassion and humanity.

When he rejects the voice of passionate love, Aeneas causes the death of his beloved Dido.

When he listens to the voice of passionate anger, Aeneas causes the death of not only Turnus but he cuts off all chance of true peace.

Out of Aeneas's uncontrolled rage comes Empire.  Is Empire ever created in any other way?


  1. I enjoyed your post (as I did your others on the Aeneid) but I'm not sure I agree with you about empires being created out of rage. Greed and arrogance I suspect are the most common reasons but I would have thought that rage is more commonly an impetus for the overthrow of empire. Mind you, I may just be missing something here, of course!

  2. Slow Plot-Driven ReaderNovember 26, 2011

    Falaise -- I think TLR may have been commenting that only when we are able to turn people into the 'other', into those we look down upon, scorn, and detest, and trick ourselves or our soldiers into believing they are dangerous or have wronged us, are we able to go to war and build our empires.

    LTR -- Virgil's conscious echo of Homer, leads me to try to compare Aeneas and Achilles, both of whom slay the man who killed their BFF in rage. Do you think Virgil felt he did not need to show us how Aeneas matures past his grief because his audience knew the storyline laid down by Homer?

    Thanks for sharing -- SPDR

  3. Two questions I have, not knowing a whole lot about the rise and fall of the Roman empire.

    1.) What was the Roman empire like at the beginning compared to its fall? On what pillars was it founded?

    2.) Because I don't remember the end of the Aeneid, does Virgil glorify the killing of Turnus or is he juxtaposing the notion of the hero as capable (and culpable) of the same base slaughter as the villain?

  4. ...an interesting thought on your question:

    "In my ideal literary kitchen there lives a warrior, whom some voices (disembodied voices, voices that cast no shadow) call a writer. This warrior is always fighting. He knows that in the end, no matter what he does, he'll be defeated. But he still roams the literary kitchen, which is built of cement, and faces his opponent without begging for mercy or granting it."

    -Roberto BolaƱo from “The Private Life of a Novelist” (trans. by Natasha Wimmer)


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