Be Warned and Study Justice:The Shifting Definition of Justice in Virgil’s Aeneid
A twenty-first century reading of the Iliad and the Odyssey will highlight a seeming lack of justice: hundreds of men die because of an adulteress, the most honorable characters are killed, the cowards survive, and everyone eventually goes to hell. Due to the difference in the time period, culture, prominent religions and values, the modern idea of justice is much different than that of Greece around 750 B.C. The idea of justice in Virgil’s the Aeneid is easier for us to recognize. As in our own culture, “justice” in the epic is based on a system of punishment for wrongs and rewards for honorable acts. Time and time again, Virgil provides his readers with examples of justice in the lives of his characters. Interestingly, the meaning of justice in the Aeneid transforms when applied to Fate and the actions of the gods. Unlike our modern (American) idea of blind, immutable Justice, the meanings and effects of justice shift, depending on whether its subject is mortal or immortal.
Before discussing justice in the epic, it is important to establish the meaning of the term. For our present purpose, justice will specifically apply to the social system of moral checks and balances. Acts that are valued in society are rewarded materially or emotionally. Acts that are devalued lead to punishment. Also, recipients of unmerited punishment receive compensation for their injuries.
Often, a person is seen as the embodiment of the value of their action, thus a person can be seen as “good” or “bad,” and the consequences of justice that affect them are based on the general value of their general actions. The value given to actions is based on a soc...
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...are confronted with the question of moral absolutes, we are forced to wonder when and to whom justice truly applies. Hopefully, we will look at our world and our ideas of right, wrong and retribution in different ways, ways that will enlighten and enrich our lives, and the those of the an audience of readers 2,000 years from now.
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Solmsen, Friedrich. “The World of the Dead in Book 6 of the Aeneid.” Oxford Readings in Vergil’s Aeneid. S. J. Harrison, ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1990. 208-223.
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