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Greek Mythology: Aeneas and Dido

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    Taking control of one’s life and making one’s own way in the world are two Roman ideals that Aeneas, the epic hero of Virgil’s Aeneid, lacks in every way. Aeneas’ brief interactions with his lover Dido, queen of Carthage, do not differ. Once again, Aeneas proves that he is ruled by his passivity and at the whim of the gods, instead of his own. Lust and the gods are two factors that take Aeneas and control him, either diverting him or carrying him in the right direction after some misguided actions.

    Shot by the arrow of Cupid, Dido finds herself maddeningly in love with Aeneas. While Virgil describes Dido as “wounded long since by intense love,” (line 1) Aeneas does not reciprocate this resolute love for Dido, yet he indulges himself in sins of the flesh. When the two find themselves in a cave together, Virgil describes their encounter: “Dido’s no longer troubled by appearances or reputation/she no longer thinks of a secret affair: she calls it marriage:/and with that name disguises her sin” (lines 170-172).

    Despite his lack of intense and undying love for Dido, feelings which she harbors conspicuously, Aeneas submits to lust just because he knows that he can get pleasure from Dido easily. He may be an epic hero, but he is still a man. Becoming a slave to his lust, Aeneas reveals the passive nature of his character by entering into an affair with Dido, a woman who is deeply affected by a powerful love for him, despite the fact that he knows it is not his lot in life. After his brief affair with Dido, Aeneas moves to leave Carthage for Italy.

    However, this sudden decision to move is not a decision he came to of his own accord. As usual, Aeneas relies on intervention from the gods and their explicit directions to make a decision in his life. It is not until Mercury is sent by Jupiter to Aeneas, when he cries, “Alas, forgetful of your kingdom and fate!…. What do you plan? With what hopes/do you waste idle hours in Libya’s lands? ” (lines 267-272), that Aeneas remembers his fate: to found a great city in Italy. It is only Mercury’s intervention that causes Aeneas to leave.

    If Mercury had not come to guide Aeneas, he would have stayed in Carthage and continued to build “the foundations of high Carthage” (line 266). Interestingly, Aeneas recognizes and addresses his own passivity in Book Four. Aeneas pities poor Dido as he sees how gravely his departure affects her. In an effort to ease his parting, Aeneas admits his passive response to the gods, saying, “I do not take course for Italy of my own free will” (line 361). This is Aeneas’ most blatant display of passivity.

    What is more shocking is the fact that it takes more intervention on the gods’ part in order to get Aeneas to actually leave the city of Carthage. After discovering that Aeneas is taking his own time in leaving, Mercury visits him once more and goads Aeneas further. It is only after this second visit that “Aeneas, terrified indeed by the sudden apparition/roused his body from sleep, and called to his friends…” (lines 570-571). It takes two visits from Mercury to get Aeneas to leave and continue his destiny. Aeneas proves time and time again that he is a passive hero.

    His failure to make decisions for himself without help from the gods further underscores his submissiveness and inability to make the proper decisions. Mercury took time out of his godly duties twice to point the frustratingly misguided Aeneas in the right direction. The gods’ jobs would be much easier if Aeneas could make a decision for himself. His submission to lust and his fleeting emotions also demonstrates Aeneas’ passive character. Seriously, this guy could learn a thing or two from his Greek contemporary, Odysseus. Aeneas needs some lessons in being an epic hero. This passivity is frustrating for everyone.

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