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Free MonkeyNotes Book Notes-The Aeneid by Virgil-Free Online Summary
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THEMES ANALYSIS (continued)

Destiny and History

If not obvious from the very second line of the epic, at least within the first few pages, it is quite clear that destiny plays a major role in the epic. Aeneas in the second line itself is described “by fate a wanderer.” As soon as Venus accosts Jove she reminds him of his word that from Aeneas’ progeny Romans were to arise to rule the world. So Jove offers to “unroll the records of fate” (Book I l262) a divinely revealed history that Virgil sets forth as the revelation originated. Jove is the keeper of destinies. Whatever fate ordains must happen. As Juno’s experience in interfering with what he has ordained clearly shows, she can postpone an event for sometime, she can change the course of the Trojans for sometime but in the end she cannot stop or break off what the Fates have been ordered to spin. As the combat between Aeneas and Turnus draws to a close the three sisters (Fates) are depicted as running through the last threads of Turnus’ life.

History then is seen as predestined in the worldview laid out in Books Sixth and Eighth of the Aeneid. Some divine or malignant powers have the freedom to vary the paths by which the destination will be reached or to delay its accomplishment, but the end is fixed. Such a view explains the effects of being driven madly into doing what is not destined. Dido was not destined to marry Aeneas. With Juno’s connivance this deed is accomplished, so she is driven to kill herself for love, so that Aeneas will be free to remarry Lavinia on reaching Italy. Human beings are the pawns of history not its agents. Dido’s dying curse seems the immediate cause of the battle between the Trojans and the Latins, but before Aeneas meets Dido, Jove has already told Venus that the Trojans would “wage a great war in Italy, and crush warrior nations.” (I ll263-64). Even Dido acknowledges that Aeneas’ course cannot be averted, only impeded. Happiness can be denied to him, but not the glory designed for him as the progenitor of the Roman race which is designed on his shield (Book Eighth)


Aeneas himself embodying the virtue of pietas (submission, obedience and reverence to authority) is a perfect instrument of destiny. He follows all oracular instructions and never acts without consulting a higher wisdom. At no point is there any Promethean defiance or an Achillean sulk on suffering the blows of fate: complain he does, and despairs in words, but no desperate action follows. There is no psychological nihilism, his faith is absolute perhaps because of his own half divine origin. On a shore, he does not take as his divine privileged destiny. He is the first in gratitude to the gods. Similarly success does not elate him, he seems to take it as a gift of the gods-his destiny and offers thanks. The acceptance of the concept of destiny is what makes him submit to the malignant hatred of Juno without protest. On the contrary when asked to prefer Juno above all gods by Hellenus and the River God Tiber, he does not even wonder why such a destructive force should be worshipped. In a world ruled by destiny Aeneas has to help make the history of his race and immorality must be bestowed on the Romans by perfect submission in order to conquer the world. To a pagan this diplomacy of appeasing the hostile god to one’s ends comes most naturally. There is no loss of self-respect, because it is an invincible force, which can disrupt the fulfillment of one’s destiny endlessly.

A.D.Nuttall in his book Openings (p 16) rightly contrasts Homer’s “unmeaning turbulence” in the Iliad to Virgil’s “historicism” which “ascribes to history a determined-perhaps an ordained-shape, to be expounded by theologians or political prophets.” The determinism is artistically laid out at the end of Book Eighth in the history of Rome ordained on Aeneas’ shield. Even before that Anchises in the underworld (Book Sixth) presents history as destiny in prophesy. If the basic subject of the epic is not really the adventures of Aeneas but the glory of Rome, the theme of History as destiny is obvious when it is recalled that Virgil was presenting it to the person in power. By implication Virgil was trying to justify beyond doubt the right of the Romans to expand their empire, as well as, support the hegemony of Augustus Caesar and his worldview.

Death and Rebirth - This may be a variation on the theme of destruction, but according to Charles Rowan Beye in The Iliad, the Odyssey and the Epic Tradition (pp 223ff), it is the spiritual aspect that constitutes the significance of this theme. He argues that the spiritual crisis in Aeneas’ soul “is both developed in the action of the narrative and reflected in the history of Rome that is prospective to the narrative moment but retrospective for the narrator.” Beye has singled out four events in the poem which convey this theme: 1) Aeneas carrying Anchises on his back out of Troy (Book Second) 2) The past and future confronting Aeneas in the Underworld (Book Sixth) 3) Aeneas’ shield being described (Book Eighth) 4) The duel between Aeneas and Turnus. The first event is seen as Aeneas taking on the responsibility of ancestral civilization, culture, religion, attitudes and customs of which Anchises the father-figure is a representation symbol. But Anchises is a symbol of the past, which must be laid to rest before the enterprising future starts. So, Anchises’ death signifies a new beginning for Aeneas. Now he is “born” as a father figure, to give birth to Rome’s destiny. Beye then connects the freedom from responsibility from the past and its burdens being replaced in Book Eighth by the burden of the future in the form of the shield. Aeneas ceases to be an individual and is reborn as a citizen of the state of Roman, which becomes his identity. The transition from death of Aeneas, a free individual to his rebirth is in Beye’s reading symbolized in the journey to the Underworld in Book Sixth. Anchises’ explanation of the reincarnation of the souls besides, the viewing of the future Romans is indicative of “a change in Aeneas’ own soul” (p 226). From his old heroic warrior interests and emotional sexual love entanglement, both laid to rest now, Aeneas is purified and reborn to take the lead in the foundation of Rome. Beye sums up his exposition of his theme pointing out that Aeneas becomes less human by his rebirth into a responsible Roman making the Aeneid an ethical story, “In the winning (against Turnus) there is the losing, a rebirth which evolves from death” (p229).

Ingenious as Beye’s reading is, it seems to refuse to recognize the basic purpose of the Aeneid, which is didactic and propagative of the Roman (Aeneas’) character being worth emulating. It also refuses to acknowledge the pivotal theme of history and destiny. What it achieves by making death and rebirth, the major theme is to establish the artistic unity of the Aenied, to justify the aesthetic significance of book Sixth as integral to the internal logic of this epic rather than a mere acceptance of the Homeric tradition.

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