Is Aeneas pious, and would the Romans of Augustan Rome have thought him to be pious?

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Becky Lewis                         

Is Aeneas pious, and would the Romans of Augustan Rome have though him to be pious?

For many, Aeneas is the characterisation of piety: he honours his duty to the gods and his destiny, his duty to his family, to his people, community and to his fatherland and he adheres to stoic values. Arguably the most important aspect of piety is the adherence to his duty to the gods and his destiny, which I will discuss first.

In book 1, Venus appears to her son, Aeneas in the guise of ‘a Spartan girl out hunting, wearing the dress of a Spartan girl and carrying her weapons’. Aeneas recognises that the girl is not a mortal, and asks ‘surely you must be a goddess? (…) Tell us and many a victim will fall by my right hand before your alters.’ This realisation demonstrates Aeneas’ obedience to the gods even when he was unsure of whether she was actually a goddess or not, but this showed his willingness to demonstrate reverence just in case she might be a goddess. However, his mother reveals her identity to him at the end of this passage, when she leaves and he notices how ‘her neck shone with a rosy light and her hair breathed the divine odour of ambrosia. (He saw how) her dress flowed free to her feet and as she walked he knew she was truly a goddess’. At this point, he is upset that he is never allowed ‘to speak to (her) as (she) really’ is.

Despite his continuing feelings of hurt at her apparent (to him) lack of care of his needs, he still obeys his mother, who, in book 2, tells him to ‘go and see where (he has) left (his) father, crippled with age, and find whether (his) wife Creusa is still alive, and (his) son Ascanius’, instead of ‘aveng(ing his) country even as it fell’ against the sexual corruption which Helen represents. Sexuality connotes danger throughout the poem, as we see in book 3, in line 556, when Virgil uses sexual language to describe how, near Mount Etna, there is heard a ‘loud moaning of waters and grinding of rocks’, to pre-empt the danger that Aeneas and his men will experience at the cliffs of the Charybdis. Aeneas’ unwavering obedience towards his mother, as he obeys her by rejecting his temptation to avenge his people, explicitly demonstrates his piety.

Later on in book 2, Aeneas is evacuating his family from the burning city of Troy. He intends to take the household gods with him, as they are sacred and so should be brought with them to the new city of Rome, however, he tells us that he is ‘fresh from all the fighting and killing and it is not right for (him) to touch them till (he has) washed in a running stream’. The way he honours the gods here, by not befouling their sacredness with his dirtiness from fighting, demonstrates his piety, as he tells his father to carry him (while he carries his father on his back).

Aeneas makes sacrifices throughout the poem to try and make the gods be favourable towards him, and in book 3, Aeneas tells us how he ‘was worshipping (his) mother Venus, the daughter of Dione, and the gods who preside over new undertakings; and sacrificing a gleaming white bull to the Most High King of the Heavenly gods (…) when (he) saw a strange and horrible sight’. Aeneas also sacrifices a ‘burnt offerings’ ‘to Juno of Argos’ and they ‘prayed to the sacred godhead of Pallas’ to carry them on safely from the land of the Greeks, which they ‘could not trust’.

Aeneas honours his duty to his future, and the future of his people by listening to Mercury’s warning, in book 4, that he should leave his love with Dido behind, and go and found Rome, as his fate dictates. Mercury tells Aeneas that he owes his son, Ascanius Iulus, ‘the land of Rome and the kingdom of Italy’, and that he is being selfish is staying at Carthage with Dido. Aeneas then ‘ordered (Mnesthus, Sergestus and brave Serestus) to fit out the fleet and tell no one’, so he could, theoretically, leave his love, Dido, in Carthage in order to pursue his destiny. However, of course this does not go to plan, as she is female and so nothing gets past her, although Virgil does put it down to no one being able to ‘deceive a lover’.

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During the Funeral Games, which Aeneas holds in book 5 in honour of his deceased father, Anchises, we are told that while the men are all competing, the women are corrupted by Iris, sent by Juno, who disguises herself as Beroe. Beroe was ‘the aged wife of Doryclus of Tmaros (...) who had borne sons and been held in high regard.’ Iris incites the Trojan women, tired of the endless sailing, to burn the ships. However, following this, Aeneas and his men ‘replaced the rowing benches, repaired the charred timbers’ and, after praying to ‘All-powerful Jupiter’, set sail again intent ...

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