Fate is perhaps the overriding theme that governs the Aeneid. The action centers around Aeneas's determination to fulfill his destiny - if not for himself, then for his son, Ascanius, and for the generations of heroes who will succeed him. Although there are many who attempt to sway Aeneas from his destined path - most notably Juno, the goddess whose anger leads her to set countless obstacles to disturb the Trojans on their journey - and some of them are successful in delaying the course of events, there is nothing that can be done to prevent Aeneas from building the city that will one day become the great Roman Empire.
Even Jupiter, at the outset of Book X, chides the gods for attempting to meddle in the affairs of mortals. Although they may alter the manner in which the events transpire, they can do nothing to change what Jupiter has decreed will be. Throughout the Aeneid there are many references to the inevitability of Aeneas's success. Two notable instances are when Anchises takes Aeneas on a journey through the Underworld and shows him his great descendants, and when Vulcan builds Aeneas a shield that depicts the founding of Rome and the future of the Roman Empire.
The gods in the Aeneid are, quite often, even more interesting than the mortals with whom they appear so fascinated, having highly distinctive personalities and taking extraordinary measures to see their wishes achieved. The gods' alliances drive the action of the story. Modern readers may be more comfortable with the idea of gods who are above the petty grievances of individual mortals, but Virgil creates supreme beings who appear to have little more to do than discuss the intricacies of the lives of those below them. Jupiter even calls a council on Mount Olympus to mediate between Venus and Juno and to discuss the fates of Aeneas and Turnus. Interestingly, although the gods do have the power to manipulate the manner in which events transpire, they cannot change the ultimate outcome; destiny is supreme (see Fate, above).
Virgil quite clearly intended the Aeneid to appeal to the patriotic spirit of the Romans, documenting the origins of the great Roman Empire. Virgil's contemporaries, who relished their belief that they were direct descendants of the mighty Trojans, undoubtedly would have enjoyed a story portraying their race as one destined for greatness. The epic often refers to the destiny of Aeneas's descendants; most importantly, Aeneas's victory is inevitable because it is his fate, as well as the fate of his son Ascanius, to lay the groundwork for Rome's shining future.
Virgil's patron, Caesar Augustus, is even directly mentioned twice in the epic. He appears in the Underworld, when Anchises points out the shade that will become Augustus, and again when Aeneas sees the image of Augustus leading the Italians into battle as depicted on Vulcan's extraordinary shield. These references to Augustus would have been particularly appealing to Virgil's contemporaries, portraying their leader as a heroic man directly descended from the gods.
One of the most important values of Virgil's day was piety, or reverence for the gods. Throughout the epic, the virtuous characters send prayers to the gods asking for assistance, whether in the form of sacrifices (such as Aeneas's sacrifice of the white cow and sucklings to Juno), celebrations (such as Evander's ceremony for Hercules), or mere requests (such as Ascanius's prayer to Jupiter for aid in killing Remulus). Time and again, Virgil reveals that prayer works: the characters who ask for the gods' help frequently receive it, while those who disrespect the gods or claim not to need their aid are punished. During the battle between Aeneas and Mezentius, for example, Aeneas calls on Apollo for aid and is victorious; Mezentius, however, cries out that he does "not fear death or care for any god" (1208), and he dies within moments.
Religious Rituals and Omens
Throughout the Aeneid, many of the characters make offerings to the gods in order to secure their favor or assistance. Indeed, Aeneas appears to spend much of the book making sacrifices to one god or another (even sacrificing a white sow and thirty white sucklings to Juno, the source of his trials). Respect for the gods was viewed as a great virtue during Virgil's era, and Virgil frequently depicts characters engaged in ceremonies for the gods in order to indicate the characters' essential goodness. For example, the epic first presents King Evander engaged in celebrations honoring Hercules, thereby indicating that Evander is a morally upstanding individual.
The gods themselves frequently respond to mortal requests with omens, signs that they are taking an interest in and might intervene in particular human affairs. For example, Venus sends Aeneas a thunderstorm to indicate that he should indeed join forces with the Etruscans. Omens were a part of life among Virgil's contemporaries, and Virgil may have included so many of them in his epic in order to appeal to his audience, who may have been heartened by the idea that the gods listened to the needs of mortals and sent them signs intended as guidance.
Respect for Ancestors
The most intimate relationships found in the Aeneid are those between fathers and sons: Anchises and Aeneas, Aeneas and Ascanius, King Evander and Pallas, and even Mezentius and Lausus. Indeed, it is more out of concern for Ascanius's welfare than out of a true desire to achieve renown himself that Aeneas is determined to fulfill his destiny and journey to Latium.
Virgil's contemporaries placed great importance on these familial relationships, feeling that respect for one's ancestors was one of the most important virtues. This perspective can be seen in the deep and abiding respect that Aeneas has for Anchises - a respect that continues even after Anchises's death. A particularly interesting expression of this bond is found between Mezentius and Lausus: even though Mezentius is truly evil, Virgil arouses the audience's sympathies for this character by revealing his deep sorrow over the death of his son. Likewise, Aeneas feels pity and regret when he is forced to slay Lausus, because thoughts of his own father run through his mind.
One of Virgil's most extraordinary skills was his ability to craft truly complex characters. Even though the line between "good" and "evil" in the Aeneid is rather clear (e.g., Aeneas is "good" and Turnus is "bad"), even the most admirable character displays flaws, and even the most heinous villain has moments where he seems somewhat redeemed. Although Turnus is clearly the antagonist of the story, he displays a courage that rivals Aeneas's own. Even Aeneas, who frequently appears almost too perfect, reveals that he, too, has human shortcomings when he is swayed off course by his passion for Dido, as well as in his panicked flight from Troy, when he loses his wife, Creusa. Virgil was not interested in creating hollow shells into which he could pile his values; he was interested in crafting real, multilayered humans to whom his audience could relate.
The Aeneid Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Aeneid is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.