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What did the Romans Think about the Aeneid?
Aeneas: A Journey Toward Becoming Roman
Virgil's epic, The Aeneid is a journey toward Roman ideals. When one reads The Aeneid one can only wonder at how the Romans of that time reacted to the story. The Aeneid traces the development of Roman character through its hero Aeneas. Without a doubt, the Romans saw the overall story as a triumph of Roman culture. Even if one looks at specific events they will soon see that the epic is the epitome of Roman culture. The best example of this would be Aeneas' relationship with Dido, the queen of Carthage. Everything that followed from that relationship is the perfect example of Roman ideals.
While traveling to many places, Aeneas finds himself facing many challenges. Aeneas, on his way to Northern Africa, is tossed about the sea by the power of the gods, but soon arrives safely at Carthage. After some godly intervention he finds himself in the court of Dido reunited with his shipmates. This may have presented a problem for Aeneas, but Cupid puts a spell on Dido, causing her to fall in love with Aeneas. The depth of this love is evident in the beginning of book IV where Dido is described as:
"… [Aching] with longing that her hearts of blood fed, the wound
Or inward fire eating her away.
The manhood of the man, his pride of birth,
Came home to her time to again; his looks,
His words remained with her to haunt her mind,
And desire for him gave her no rest."(Book IV, 1-7)
The attraction between Aeneas and Dido is intensified when Cupid puts a spell on Dido. Although Dido has taken an oath of fidelity, her obsession is evident as her feelings for Aeneas are so strong that Dido cannot even sleep. Consequently, the work of her great city slows down because of the new distraction in her life.
To show his love for her, Aeneas gives Dido a robe and scepter, both of which are symbolically significant. The robe belonged to Helen of Troy, and with Dido's acceptance of it she, in a sense, becomes "Helen." Just as Helen helped bring the destruction of Troy, Dido has the potential to destroy a civilization that has yet to be built: Rome. If Aeneas decides to remain with her, the foundation of Rome would not have been laid. The second gift, the scepter, belonged to the last Trojan ruler, and represents the Trojan laws. As both gifts are from the fallen Troy, they can be interpreted as Aeneas parting with his Trojan past.
While Aeneas is in Carthage supervising the building of the great Carthaginian walls, his and Dido's love for each other grows. During his stay there, the lovers consummated their love in a cave. Juno, a goddess and protector of Carthage, uses this love making as way to unite the couple in marriage. As Book IV states, "…and Nuptial Juno/ Opened the ritual, torches of lightning blazed,/ High Heaven became witness to the marriage,/ And nymphs cried out wild hymns from a mountain top" (Book IV, 229-232). Dido then lives as the wife to Aeneas, but the wedding is false. It is the role of the marriage that will inevitably be the cause of Dido's sorrow.
Once Jupiter learns of the union, he orders Mercury to deliver a message to Aeneas. Mercury says, "No son like this did his enchanting mother/ Promise to us, nor did she deliver/ Twice from peril at the hands of Greeks./ He was to be the ruler of Italy/…And bring the whole world under laws domain" (Book IV, 309-315) Mercury tells him that he has to continue on with his destiny, for his destiny is bigger than himself.
Realizing that he must fulfill his role as the founder of Rome, Aeneas leaves Dido and heads for Italy. Aeneas is a man with weakness in the beginning, and has to be reminded constantly of his destiny. He must shed the remainder of his Trojan ways, to include the last of his Trojan possessions, before he can become strong. By doing this, he becomes a symbolic figure for the Romans, and transcends the human plane. Once he is back on his true path, Aeneas can only do the will of heaven. He leaves for Italy as the gods have willed, and Dido, heart broken by this, kills herself. She is unable to die however, until the gods cut her hair, releasing her. Although this is a tragic end for Dido, it is necessary, for the fate of a single woman, however sad, cannot interfere with the course of human history.
A Roman audience would not feel much sympathy for Dido, as it was necessary for Aeneas to leave her. Romans put the state above all other things, including the family and self. However, while he was in Carthage, Aeneas only thinks of himself. He knew his destiny did not include Dido, yet he still lingered with her postponing the inevitable. By staying with Dido, Aeneas was acting in his own self-interest and grasping at the remains of his Trojan past. The Romans would also be glad he left because while at Carthage Aeneas was building the city walls which Rome, years later, would destroy. Romans thought Aeneas made the right choice because in their view Aeneas was living in sin. For in Roman eyes Aeneas was not really married. The final and most obvious reason the Romans thought Aeneas made the right choice was because if he had not left Carthage, Rome would not have existed.
If Aeneas had decided to stay in Carthage there would never have been a great Roman history. It was the Trojan blood mixed with that of Italy's that would create the greatest empire known to man. Had Aeneas been selfish and stayed, all the gods, including his mother, would have turned their backs on him. Thankfully, Aeneas' destiny kept him, however reluctantly, on the true path to glory. The glorious journey of Aeneas created the mighty empire of the Romans. Aeneas will always be seen as a hero to the Romans due to the fact that he pursued his purpose and shed his Trojan character. It is the very pietas of Aeneas that is an example to all Romans. Aeneas' journey is a journey that leads to Rome and the Roman character.