Fate and Tragedy in The Aeneid

A colorful antique tapestry depicting Aeneas’ flight from Troy.
A colorful antique tapestry depicting Aeneas’ flight from Troy.
Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, CC BY-SA 4.0. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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.

The Fall of Dido

Let’s take a moment now to think of Dido.

An oil painting of a distraught woman holding a daggar.
An oil painting of a distraught woman holding a daggar.
Dido should never have had to choose between her people and her happiness. Dido on the Pyre by Johann Heinrich Tishbein (1775). Via Wikimedia Commons

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?

Aeneas’ Lesson

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.

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

Hello! I’m Cat, author and amateur fandom historian based out of Georgia. I write about literature, theater, gaming, and fandom. Personal work: catwebling.com.

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