Most heroes of Greek and Roman epics are defined by a single, prominent trait of theirs. The Iliad’s Achilles was courageous, The Odyssey’s Odysseus was cunning, and The Aeneid’s Aeneas was dutiful.
But maybe this defining trait was assigned unjustly. Aeneas shirks his duties to the city of Carthage and its queen, Dido, massively, devastatingly, by leaving the city to falter and fail instead of helping it to rise. He may have fulfilled his destiny, according to the gods, but ultimately, he failed in his duty to his people, and to Dido.
Aeneas Flees to Carthage
In the second book of the Aeneid, we witness a flashback to the fall of Troy, through the eyes of our hero. We learn about the tragedy he and his men faced, the pure destruction of the city, the death of the king, and, most chillingly, we witness the ghost of Creusa, Aeneas’ wife, killed in the fires of the Greeks.
There end your toils; and there your fates provide
A quiet kingdom, and a royal bride:
There fortune shall the Trojan line restore,
And you for lost Creusa weep no more. — The Aeneid, Book 2
She appears to him as a shade, telling him that there is something better waiting for him if he leaves Troy now. This gives us Aeneas’ motive for fleeing Troy instead of dying in battle amid his comrades in arms, an honorable death by Greek and Trojan standards. When he arrived in Carthage, Aeneas believed that this was the city meant for him, beautiful and shining, with Queen Dido practically throwing herself at his feet.
Had Aeneas not left the city behind, his people could have risen again, strong in their intermixing with the Carthaginians. They could have settled into the city that was happy to welcome them, refugees from a burned home. And with everything provided to him, home, wealth, people, prospects, why would he leave it all behind?
The Gods’ Influence
He was led by Mercury, the messenger of the gods. Mercury appears to Aeneas, bearing Zeus’ message that he is “blind to his own realm, oblivious to [his] fate,” and to the duty he owes his son, the birthright he would pass down in his own kingdom, a line of kings and success in this new place called Rome. Unsurprisingly, this divine reproach spurs Aeneas to action, causing him to make the tragic decision to leave Carthage for further shores.
It is here that the mistakes begin, as Aeneas is apparently blind to the fact that, as king of Carthage, he brings his son into the royal line there. Why not pass to him a legacy built on cooperation and success already founded?
His son could not only have succeeded, but prospered in Carthage, being educated and reared by Aeneas and Dido, two powerful rulers themselves, and taken the best of both methods of governance and combined them into a better rule than before.
But no, Aeneas must have his own kingdom, he must carry on the Trojan way alone.
The Fall of Dido
Let’s take a moment now to think of Dido.
Here is the queen promised to Aeneas, or so he believes until corrected by Mercury, for very good reason. Even in her first scenes, we see Dido portrayed, through Aeneas’ own eyes, as a powerful, involved, and practical leader. He sees her first building a temple to Juno, overseeing all the “city’s splendor…the vast scale of their labors.” Carthage is successful, expanding, and beautiful, and all of it is thanks to their queen.
And that queen is just as impressed with Aeneas as he is with her, telling her sister, “How noble his face, his courage, and what a soldier!” Struck as she is by Cupid’s arrow, she can appreciate that Aeneas has shouldered the burden of leading the last of his people, keeping them safe and offering them new hope in the face of disaster.
They are a good match, in position, in duty and values, and in personality, both being steadfast, intelligent, and devoted rulers. Fates and godly influence aside, they could have been an impressive and intimidating power in the ancient world.
This makes Aeneas’ leaving all the more tragic, as it causes Dido, mad with Aphrodite’s love spells, to kill herself, thus robbing Carthage of the queen they needed and loved. It was a tragedy, not only to Aeneas, but to the people of Carthage, as their city ground to a halt.
Godly Influence or Tragic Decision?
It could be argued that the decision to leave Carthage was in fact not Aeneas’ own, but that of the gods, or, going to a higher order. It was widely believed by the Greeks at the time that their destinies were set in the strings of the Fates, the three sisters who controlled the strings of human and godly life, unchangeable and inevitable. And if the decree of the gods was to follow the path to the prosperity of your own people, away from this other race, who are you to argue?
But who’s to say that the people of Carthage weren’t Aeneas’ people as well? This “destiny” from the gods was the ruin of Carthage, and it was Aeneas that carried out the plan, albeit reluctantly. His decision or not, by marrying their queen, Aeneas took on the role of their king and took on the responsibility of carrying them into successes beyond what Dido could achieve alone.
The people of Carthage were Aeneas’ adopted people. He fails them, and this city that he claimed to love and abandoned.
If any lesson is to be taken from Aeneas’ story, it is that destiny, or whatever is planned or forced upon you by outside sources, is not always the right option, and that sometimes, when an opportunity presents itself to you that could be even more beneficial than the “destined” path, it is better to explore it than to destroy what has been given to you on a silver platter and slough it off in favor of some vague sense of heroism.
Aeneas is a hero in the classic, literary sense of the word: he is the main figure of an epic, our quester, who sets out on a journey given by the gods, facing trials and tribulations along the path to a fabulous prize at the end of the road. But in this modern day and age, the tricky concept of heroism is an entirely different beast.
The Aeneid is a tragedy, and in that light, I like to think that the real “hero” of our story is Dido. Abandoned after being forced to love Aeneas by gods she is unaware are influencing her, Dido is a real victim of the Fates and the cruelty of humans brought down by the gods. And Aeneas, failing his wife, his family, and his people, following blindly in the footsteps of destiny, becomes the villain.
O Muse! the causes and the crimes relate;
What goddess was provok’d, and whence her hate;
For what offense the Queen of Heav’n began
To persecute so brave, so just a man;
Involv’d his anxious life in endless cares,
Expos’d to wants, and hurried into wars! — The Aeneid, Book 1