I am sorry to have neglected Aeneid readers lately. Â July was entirely taken up with Summer School preparations, then the School itself, and then two weeks in Greece, mostly to see the master of Bushido. Â Back to business.
Aeneid IV is deservedly the most famous part of the poem. Â Structurally, it is placed in a strategic position, because now, at last, the narrative is ready to move forward, and the story is propelled by erotic passion. Â Dido is a beautiful and passionate woman, whose love for her late husband is so deep that she has sworn never to love another man or to remarry. Â She has turned her energies–Freudians would say she has sublimated them–to building a new city for her people. Â Now she is face to face with a man who is almost divinely handsome, intelligent, brave, and honorable, but also with a quality even more attractive to a good woman: he has suffered. How he has been tossed by the fates, she exclaims to her sister Anna, and what wars he has endured!
If these physical, moral, and emotional temptations were not sufficient, her sister is there to remind her that with Aeneas and the Trojans at her side she cannot fail to defend her people from the savage and hostile tribes by which they are surrounded.
All these considerations tell against any simple explanation of her love as an infatuation infatuation inflicted by the gods. In this modern rationalist world–I say this despite all the irrationalist postmodernists that would make us children, if they succeeded–we have to say that a decision is either in or not in our own power. Â We find it difficult to understand Greek tragedy, where so much is attributed to the “fates” or to divine influences that we might the characters are mere puppets. Â That is never the case. Â When, for example, Hippolytus antagonizes Aphrodite in Euripides’ play, it is his own prudish one-sided character that lies at the center of the action. Â Another woman–a Lesbian, say, or a woman impervious to male influence, or one really in control of herself–would either not have been open to the divine manipulation or resisted it. Â But the very strong passions we already know Dido is capable of–her almost obsessive devotion to Sychaeus–have prepared the ground for Venus’s ministrations. Â To overstate the case vastly, one might even say that Venus here is merely the objectification of Dido’s erotic nature. Â That is, as I said, too strong, but it helps to correct the misapprehension that the gods do with us what they will.
Dido’s dilemma is worth examining. Â She has made a religious vow to be true to her late husband, and, as the ruler of a struggling colony, she bears Â responsibility for her people and their security. Â Her sister Anna–a curious figure whom Ovid identified with the Roman goddess Anna Perenna–offers the counter-arguments: 1) You are passing up the chance to find happiness as a wife and mother; 2) We are surrounded by enemies from whom the Trojans could defend us, so, 3) Ask pardon from the gods for breaking your vows and finds some means of delaying the handsome stranger.
We cannot tell, at this point, if the gods will find her argument valid but we see the practical consequences immediately: all work on the town’s defenses cease, all military training is abandoned as Dido sinks into her dreams of erotic bliss.
To go back to the question of culpability, note that while Dido has been stimulated by Venus, she appears to be free to make up her mind, and when she is persuaded by Anna, she then gives way entirely, letting all her duties slide. Â The final push, note, is delivered not by Venus but by Juno, who thinks she is tricking Venus into playing her game for her–using the hated Trojans (remember Paris!) to strengthen Carthage. Â Venus smiles at her deception (an echo both of Homer and of the frequent sculptural depictions of Aphrodite as smiling). Â Symbolically, Juno’s action has two results: Â First, it is the patroness of Carthage and not of the Trojans who arranges the fatal tryst, and second, Juno as patron of marriage gives the union a kind of legitimacy that mere passion would not.
We come now to the most famous scene in Latin literature, the consummation of Â the growing passion of the Tyrian queen and the Trojan leader. Â Aware of the significance of this part of his work, Vergil works with particular care. Â His description of the hunt and its preparations is as beautiful as a Botticelli painting. Â Dido, arrayed in gold–the word is used four times–and embroidered crimson–lives up the comparison he had made earlier with Artemis. Â Now, as a parallel, Aeneas is compared at length with Artemis’ brother Apollo. Â (Is it significant, as I think it may be, that Apollo’s cosmopolitan cult is stressed, one that brings together people from all over the world?)
It is a wonderfully fresh scene, and innocent. Â The youthful and somewhat naive enthusiasm of Iulus is depicted at some length, perhaps to remind us of Aeneas’s real world and real responsibilities. Â Like all good boys, Iulus longs for danger and disdains the wild goats and deer scared up by the beaters. Â The storm, arranged by we know whom–remember the storm in Book I?–brings the pair together in a cave.
Note how Vergil, without describing a single primary or secondary sexual characteristic, much less a kiss, much less an embrace, succeeds in conveying an overwhelming passion, simply by describing the climax of the elements. Juno Pronuba attends the wedding, and the ululating chorus of nymphs is heard within the thunder and rain. Â Perhaps most interestingly, Earth and Sky–whose embrace engendered ultimately all Â all the gods–are also present in the coupling, but while this is not a bad omen, it is with the support of the most elemental powers that they are wed, and not by any of the conventions–Juno apart–expected in a Roman marriage.
Now the veil is off, and Dido without any shame begins to speak of her relationship as a marriage, which it is not. Â The most hated of the gods, gossip, goes to work. Â Significantly, she was the last born of mother-earth, who spawned her in revenge against the Olympians who had destroyed her sons the giants. Â Gossip/Rumor flits around Africa telling tales to inflame the imaginations of Dido’s neighbors, King Iarbas in particular, a disappointed suitor. Note that while Gossip puts an ugly spin on their relations, portraying Aeneas as an Asiatic pretty-boy, the substance of her tale is true: Â the two rulers have entered into an erotic dalliance to the detriment of the duties owed to their subjects.
In the next installment, we’ll look at Dido–her mistake and its implications–but let us first look at Aeneas. Â He is a man with a mission, and we are to assume that this mission was assigned to him even before the end of the Trojan War. Â Jupiter says so, that he had been rescued from death at the hands of Diomedes precisely for this reason. Â Now, he is a second Paris, as Iarbas observes, a prettyboy who steals another man’s wife. Â Dido’s husband is dead, of course, but she had pledged never to marry. Â (If she were to marry, it should be Iarbas who has been kind to her.) But infinitely worse than his little fling–no pagan unmarried man could really be faulted for an erotic adventure–is the abandonment of his mission, aggravated by his concentration on building up Carthage instead of Rome.
Some scholars have tried to argue that Aeneas has not actually abandoned his mission but just needs a little divine prodding about the schedule. Â This seriously misreads both Jupiter’s tone and his own sense of guilt. Â It also robs the poem of some of its point. Â If the object is to exemplify the Roman character, then it is important to understand that Romans are not perfect. Â They too make mistakes; they too are subject to temptation; they too–even Aeneas or Augustus–can be distracted from their true mission.
How did this happen? Â The blame falls squarely on mom’s lovely shoulders. Â In order to protect her son, she conspired with Juno to distract him. Â Now, Venus, it is true, never intended Aeneas to be permanently distracted, but Aeneas doesn’t know that. Â Viewed abstractly, Venus is the power of Â love and erotic passion, and while such power can humanize us, it can also get in the way of more serious business, as it does here.
Vergil is a consummate artist, so we can see a little of his intellectual design by looking at his literary design. Â Notice how Aeneas’ revelation and repentance is set up. Â Iarbas, Dido’s spurned suitor, is offended. Â He is the son of Hammon, which is from the Greco-Roman perspective merely a Libyan manifestation of Zeus-Jupiter. Â (He is by the way, unlike Aeneas, Â in the traditional story of Dido.) He has dedicated his kingdom to his father and established 100 vast temples to Jupiter. Â He asks the question Athena poses at the beginning of the Odyssey in an even more pointed way: Â What is the good of paying honor to the gods if they don’t do their job? Â In other words, if Zeus lets Aeneas get away with taking a woman Iarbas should have, then he is not really the god people think he is.
This is no merely Â rhetorical or literary device. Â Roman religion is based on one strong conviction, that it is necessary to find out what the gods want–whether they are pleased or displeased with your actions or intentions–and to show proper thanks when they are kind and to propitiate them if they are hostile. While Vergil scarcely believes in all the mythological tales of the Greco-Roman pantheon, he does believe in a supranatural realm, ruled by fate and/or the will of Jupiter and subject to the caprices of great and little divine powers (gods, numina).
Iarbas is a minor character but he raises the big question, but in raising it he shows his little understanding. Â He apparently thinks that he has bought Jupiter by building temples, the same way ancient Jews and some modern Christians think they can bargain with divinity. Â Jupiter has his plans, and Iarbas’ complaint brings Aeneas into the foreground, but not to do a favor for Iarbas, who is irrelevant. Â It is Aeneas who is the man of destiny.
Note that Jupiter does not assume that Aeneas will necessarily do his duty or Jupiter’s bidding. Â He is clearly disgusted with this mortal’s frailty. Â If he is incapable of thinking of his own great destiny, let him at least think of his son. Â I know this is going to sound obvious, but Jupiter’s appeal is an indication-if we needed one–that Roman fathers could care as much or more for their sons as for themselves. Â If you are a social historian or an idiot–they are usually one and the same–like Aries or Stone–you might think that parental affection was invented in the Renaissance or by the Puritans. Â But Jupiter actually expects Aeneas to leave this beautiful woman, with whom he is in love, and a life of luxury and comfort with useful work to do, simply because his son can take over the mission he seems to have abandoned.
The echoes of the Odyssey are interesting. Â Odysseus, when we first meet him, is the love-slave of a beautiful divine nymph, Calypso, who wants to make him immortal, but all he can think of his wife, by now in her late 30′s at least, and his son Telemachus. Â Vergil goes Homer one better by portraying Dido as not only beautiful but lovable, and in love with Aeneas, who–unlike Odysseus–loves and respects her.
Jupiter gives his curt message Naviget, to Mercury. Â This should remind us of Book I. Â After Jupiter describes at some length the glorious destiny of the Roman race Aeneas is about to found, he sends Mercury to encourage the Trojans to lay aside their native cruelty and welcome the Trojans. Â Ah yes, you are saying, the plot of Venus and Dido is actually unnecessary because the great father of all had already seen to the Trojans’ security. Â The passions they have stirred up were an unnecessary distraction, and a terrible price will have to be paid.
The descent of Mercury is described at some length and considerable beauty? Â Why? Â Just for the fun of it, as a beautiful painter would do it? Â Partly, but it helps to remind us of the god’s earlier visit to Troy and its greater detail draws attention to the greater significance of the scene. Â If Jupiter is severe and disgusted, Mercury is witty and sarcastic. Â What’s all this? Â Building up a nice little town for the wife? Â Forgetting, are we, the kingdom you are supposed to be building? Â Mercury conveys the message and, without waiting for a response, vanishes.
The description of Aeneas, at Mercury’s arrival, is telling: Â a jasper-starred sword, a cloak of interwoven Phoenician crimson and gold–the wealth (significant) that Â Dido had given as gift. Â Not a bad life. Â Aeneas is stunned by the message. Â He is awe-stricken, almost terrified, but more importantly he now burns with desire to escape the sweet lands. Â But what should he say to the regina furens, a word that looks back to the furor of her love and forward to her insane rage.
Book IV really belongs to Dido. Â It is her mad passion for Aeneas, the consummation of their love, and her response to his decision to leave that drive the narrative.
What sort of a woman is Dido? Â We know she is of Phoenician royal blood, very beautiful, and while a mature woman, since she was not married long enough to produce children, she is probably younger than Aeneas by, say 10-15 years. Â She is energetic and athletic–enjoys the hunt. Â The comparison with Artemis suggests she might be imagined as slim rather than voluptuous; it is also an indication of classical rather than oriental beauty. Â In other words, she is not imagined as a real Lebanese with slightly darker skin and Semitic features but as a Greco-Roman type.
Aeneas tells his men to get ready for departure but “Shh, don’t tell the queen!” Â Aeneas is waiting for the favorable moment to break it to her gently. Â This is a bad mistake. Â While I am firmly of the opinion that what women don’t know won’t hurt the men in their lives, one always has to be sure of keeping them in ignorance. Â The likelihood of success in this case approaches zero: first, because we have seen already the effective operation of “fama” in Libya, which is depicted as a vast rumor-mill, and secondly, because Dido is the queen, and her subjects are bound to tell her everything.
Elissa/Dido would have been furious, however and whenever she learned of her lover’s desertion, but the way he has handled it–babying her and hiding the news–increases her rage. Â She refuses to believe his tales of divine mission and supernatural admonitions. Â He’s had his way and like most men is simply bored with what he got too easily.
Aeneas has no case to make for himself except the truth. Â She refers to inceptos hymenaeos (if I am remembering correctly), that is marriage rites begun but not completed, having in mind, perhaps, something like the problem of Claudio and Julietta in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Â They have the contract but they need to work out the details of dowry etc. Â Aeneas says, rather sadly and with dignity, that he never promised marriage to her, adding, that if he had had his way he never would have left Troy but settled down there to rebuild from the ruins. Â He is genuinely grateful to her and on some level deeply loves her–which makes it even worse for the two of them, because she must know that at some point he did love her–but he has work that he must do. Â He is not “Christian” enough–by which I mean someone used to putting a hypocritical gloss on everything he does–to give her the Â famous lie of “I could not love thee half so well loved I not honor more.” Â As much as he can love her, his mission takes precedence. Â Believe me, there have been many a divorce caused by one or the other (or both) spouse’s excessive attention to career.
More to come . . .
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