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The very first lines of the epic describe Aeneas as a fated wanderer, a man excellent in goodness. From the point at which the epic first shows Aeneas in action, when his ships are caught in the storm raised by Aeolus for Juno, another aspect of his character is revealed-humility and helplessness in the face of natural disasters makes him turn to the higher powers. His faith is absolute and although he is first revealed in a state of despair there is also the desire for a glorious death in war. A true god-fearing warrior then is established even before his great beauty and his heroic deeds are revealed in full. His submission to the will of the gods enables him to put his personal needs and even familiar duties in the second place. At the sacking of Troy he is anxious to avenge himself on the Greeks and until ordered to protect his home, takes part in the last ditch battle spreading slaughter. At that time Aeneas sees himself as a warrior who must never succumb to the temptation of withdrawing from battle as Achilles had done and as Hector would feel ashamed to do in Homer’s Iliad.
But the will of the gods changes Aeneas from an intrepid aggressor looking for personal glory to the responsible protector of his Trojan race. So there is a change in him. Prophesy after prophecy makes him the Prince, descendant of Dardanus, who must lead his people and the household gods and sacred things out of Troy to find a haven in Italy, to establish a city and mix his race with the Italians. Consequently he has to stoically bear the death of his first wife Creusa (Priam’s daughter). Then at Carthage, he has to forsake his more mature love for Dido, the gorgeous and enterprising Queen, through whose hospitality he has been able to repair his fleet when shipwrecked. Here he is not even allowed to project an image of a gentle humane person, because the gods order him not to yield at all to Dido’s pleas. This makes it possible for romantic readers to see him as a heartless, calculating, selfish lover. But Virgil’s portrait is very balanced. The grief Aeneas experiences have to be suppressed. Any weakness would lead to the waylaying of his destined purpose to reach Italy and establish his remnant race. He is not a free agent allowed to indulge his passions. He has the highest duty assigned to man: the preservation of his life and his gods. The “gods” symbolize culture, civilized traditions values and ethnic identity. All these would be submerged at Carthage.
Aeneas is able to be the symbolized protector of his race (he carries Anchises on his back) because he excels in filial affection and obedience. He is also very conscientious in observing religious rituals. Inspite of being half-divine he always looks to his father for guidance. There is no word of reproach when Anchises’ misreading of the oracle’s words takes them to Crete and disaster. All this was described by the Romans as “piety” or “pieties” in which Aeneas is the ideal of the Romans. He has set an example of “pietas” to his son Iülus as well which is seen in the rich gifts Iülus gives and promises Nisus and Euryalus because they are doing the utmost service for him in warning his father about the Latin attack.
From a good son to a good leader is how Aeneas grows. For the reader who will not see him as an administrator and a magistrate in his established city, instances are provided in Book Fifth where the games of the fleet reveal his sense of appreciation of good persons and his sense of fairness in rewarding good effort, so that those who come last (Segestus) or who are disqualified by accident (Nisus and Saluis) are fittingly rewarded. He is also shown as dividing the city of Acesta in Sicily and giving homesteads, building shrines and other works for the settling of his people. These indicate what a perfectly well rounded picture Virgil has drawn. Aeneas stands for the golden mean in conduct, achieved through a deep sense of duty to himself, to his people and to the gods even obeying Helenus and the river god Tiber in paying homage to his greatest antagonist, Juno.
The last five books reveal him as a statesman representing his cause to Evander and the Tuscans. His diplomatic establishment of the common ancestry between himself and the Greek Arcadian Evander is a subtle masterstroke of Eastern diplomacy (Troy is in Asia). Then his treaty with Latinus, his promise of tolerance and friendly relations between the Latins and the Trojan also shows a keen insight into his ability not to humiliate the defeated. But once the treaty is broken he is ruthless in punishing the treacherous Latins even threatening to demolish their city. This is the quality of a man and a warrior of true honor who will not tolerate the violation of an agreement, a man of his word, which the Romans considered so sacred, a virtue of a true Roman. The final impression is that of an intelligent farsighted dutiful, capable and responsible man who suffers the blows of fate till he is exhausted, but accepts his sufferings with tears and pain as the will of the gods. It is not a restless heroic response or a consistent stoic response to suffering, that is what make Aeneas a very human hero.
The superlatively beautiful Carthagian queen has been through personal suffering which parallels that of Aeneas. She has had to flee her home in Tyre. Her husband has been treacherously murdered by her brother, but she has like Aeneas gathered a group of her fellow countrymen and arrived in Africa. Then purchasing land with the support of the Libyans she has built a city and is extending it accumulating wealth through trade and commerce. Although she appears only in the first third of the epic, with a short appearance in Book Sixth, her character has been very well- developed. It is memorable because it is more a personal tragedy and suffering that is projected. She has a public character too like Aeneas; but she, is contrast to Aeneas, lets her personal feelings eclipse her public duties and responsibilities.
On her first appearance she is seen as the model of a public-spirited ruler, personally supervising the construction work in the town. There are references to military exercises for the defence of what she has built. Then she is seen as properly dedicated to the gods, building beautiful temples to their glory. She encourages her craftsmen to work well and as a leader she is thoroughly involved in making Carthage a great power in Africa.
She has retained her independence as a ruler and a woman by refusing to marry the best African and Asian Kings who have courted her. Her strength of character is seen in her undying love and devotion dedicated to the memory of her first love Sychaeus, her murdered husband.
When the Trojans arrive and approach her for shelter to repair their fleet, her kindness compassion and empathy are clearly evident. She is gracious and hospitable even though Virgil attributes it to Jove’s orders. Her aesthetic sense and appreciation of heroism are first noted by Aeneas in the temple paintings before he approaches her in person. But gradually Virgil magnifies this aesthetic streak in the queen to present her style of living as lusciously luxurious. Her banquet hall has all the opulence associated with the rulers of the Oriental world. She entertains the Trojans on a grand scale and prepares hunting parties from dawn. This sudden change from a public-spirited queen participating in the commercial and artistic life of her people to a monarch indulging in sensuous living is attributed to her maddening passion for Aeneas, caused by Venus.
However, the amorous passion is depicted with such psychological realism that the love-crazed Dido becomes the archetypal woman in love. It is not unrequited love, Aeneas is not immune to her charms, but the description of her restlessness and her efforts to keep Aeneas within her presence, the very wild desperation of her need reveals a perfect insight into feminine passion. Even the maternal instinct aroused by her proximity to Ascanius and her affection to the child as a displacement of the love she dare not declare are instances of Virgils superb understanding and observation. Dido is a case of emotions completely out of control and their consequences. Perhaps Virgil’s only possible model could have been Euripede’s Phoedra. But he never lets the reader feel contempt for Dido, there is disapproval of her neglect of her public duties, but pity is intermingled with it. She is a mere pawn in the rivalry between Juno and Venus and therefore a sacrificial victim.
Dido is the only female character who arouses the reader’s pity. When her strong passion turns to anger at being deceived, it evokes a thrill of terror. As the Greeks believed, those whom the gods wish to destroy they first turn mad and gradually Dido deteriorates from a regal queen to a woman consumed by impotent anger devising destructive ways to feed her passion by detaining Aeneas. When she initially confronts Aeneas about his plan to desert her secretly her pleadings seem quite reasonable. She wants him to stay long enough to conceive an heir for her growing prosperous empire. It is a sign of the great clear sightedness of Aeneas that he sees this as a trap in the long run endangering the rights and claims of Iülus to the new empire he is destined to found in Italy. On a superficial or sentimental reading this far reaching hold that Dido wishes to establish can well be over looked and Aeneas considered selfish and calculating. The Romans however were very alert to such dangers, which menaced the peace and stability of their empire for several decades. From a feminine point of view Dido’s anger, her pleadings are full of pathos. But Virgil keeps warning of what might be behind seemingly harmless requests of waiting till winter is gone. She is ultimately a thwarted woman, frustrated and rejected in love and Virgil shows the destructive possibilities of this situation by her cunning deceit of her sister Anna and her nurse, the two women closest to her. Her instinct for self-destruction makes her a very menacing figure while it does not deprive her of the dignity of a queen. Her cunning deceit can be read as a noble attempt not to involve others in the guilt and misery of her suicide.
From the pagan point of view, Dido’s curse to Aeneas and the omen of seeing her funeral flames as they depart would be the worst she could have done. While her extreme anger makes her wish all types of evil that she could have attempted, that she does not do so salvages her from the reader’s antagonism. She is a sympathetic figure and in the underworld she is redeemed in the reader’s view. Her response to Aeneas’ words of love is a snub. She keeps her eyes averted from him, there is still anger in her. But it is clear she does not want to have anything more to do with him and she finds solace with her first husband. The aberration caused by Venus has left her. Now she is her old self, devoted to Sychaeus.