Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid depicts the doomed romance of Aeneas, Trojan refugee and destined father of Rome, and Dido, expatriate Phoenician noble and Queen of Carthage. Called away to Italy by his obligation to the Fates and to his Roman descendants, Aeneas abruptly ends his passionate sexual relationship with Dido. He goes on to defeat the native Latin tribes and founds the civilization that will eventually become the Roman Empire. Dido, however, is destroyed by passion, committing suicide after her lover leaves. Beyond the beautifully tragic love story of these two people, we find in the Aeneid a reflection on the roles of ethics, duty and sexuality in the lives of all human beings. The usefulness of Virgil’s characters to the Christian life can be seen when we consider the philosophy of St. Augustine of Hippo, whose work in large part attempted to diagnose and correct the errors of Roman thought.
If Augustine’s views on free will are taken to be true, then the binding prophecies and supernatural interventions of the Aeneid emerge as fictional devices which serve to channel the characters into archetypal roles. In other words, characters ruled by destiny remain useful as universal examples to readers who believe themselves to have free will. As I do not consider myself to be living under the binding prophecies of the Fates or any “orders of the gods” (I have yet to receive any visits from my goddess-mother), I must regard the story of Aeneas and Dido as an allegory representing some of the choices open to my free will. Either their romance must be wrong, morality therefore demanding an end to it, or there is nothing really wrong with their sexual relations...
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...ningly deficient, for neither Aeneas nor Dido acts in what Augustine would consider a truly spiritual manner. In light of Augustine’s thought on free will, which for the most part I accept, I must conclude that Virgil has given me two clearly negative examples in the Aeneid; in other words, Virgil has communicated to me through Aeneas and Dido two of the possible human reactions to wrong love, reactions which are themselves sinful and must be avoided in my situation if I am to live in accordance with God’s will.
Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo. The City of God. Trans. Marcus Dods. New York: The Modern Library, 2000.
- Confessions. Trans. Albert C. Outler. Christian Classics Ethereal Library <http://ccel.org/a/augustine/confessions/confessions-bod.html>.
Virgil. The Aeneid of Virgil. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
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